On Friday, SportingKC.com celebrated the new year by listing 21 reasons that Sporting fans should be excited for the 12 months ahead. With a turbulent and challenging 2020 in the rearview mirror, 2021 represents a beacon of hope for society and—hopefully—a gradual return to normalcy on the soccer field.
Taking a glance at the 2021 calendar, this year promises to be a thrilling one for Major League Soccer fanatics and casual soccer followers alike. From the resurrection of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to several marquee international tournaments at the club and international level, here are all of the high-profile competitions to keep an eye on in 2021.
MLS Regular Season
Last season, MLS clubs played anywhere from 18-23 regular season matches in a regional-based schedule designed to limit travel during the pandemic. The MLS slate will likely return to 34 games in 2021, and the obvious hope is that more and more fans will be welcomed back into stadiums in the safest possible manner over the course of the year. MLS will release more schedule-related announcements in the coming weeks.
MLS Cup Playoffs
Thanks to the introduction of a single-game, bracket-style format, the MLS Cup Playoffs have hit new levels of drama and excitement over the last two seasons. That format will almost certainly continue in 2021, although it remains to be seen how many teams will qualify for the postseason. Playoff participants jumped from 12 in 2018 to 14 in 2019 to 18 in 2020.
Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup
After crowning a champion for 106 straight years, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup saw its historic run come to an end in 2020. The heralded competition is back on the calendar in 2021, however, and Sporting will look to become the first MLS club to win the tournament five times.
As the reigning first-place finisher in the Western Conference, Sporting were unlucky not to receive a berth in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League. The good news? They stand a great chance of being admitted to the 2021 Leagues Cup, which will feature eights MLS clubs and eight Liga MX teams in a competition that will probably begin this summer.
Concacaf Champions League
Toronto FC were runners-up in 2018. Sporting reached the semifinals in 2019. LAFC suffered a heartbreaking loss in the 2020 final. Will 2021 finally be the year that an MLS club hoists the Concacaf Champions League title? That’ll be up to Columbus Crew SC, Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers and Atlanta United FC, who are the four American participants in the 2021 tournament. Toronto FC will also join the CCL party if they defeat Forge FC in the Canadian Championship Final in early 2021.
Concacaf Nations League (June)
Alas, high-stakes international soccer is back on the docket. The first edition of the Concacaf Nations League will conclude in June, with the United States Men’s National Team facing Honduras and Mexico battling Costa Rica in the semifinals. The winners will meet a few days later to decide the champion.
Concacaf Gold Cup (July 10 – Aug. 1, 2021)
Like the Nations League, the Concacaf Gold Cup will give a young and promising U.S. squad an opportunity to prove themselves. Excitements and expectations have risen with the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Sergino Dest and Chris Richards all performing at a high level in Europe. Now it’s all about gelling and forming an identity under head coach Gregg Berhalter.
Concacaf Qualifying for Summer Olympics (March 15-28, 2021)
On the men’s side, the field for the Summer Olympics in Japan will be finalized when Concacaf conducts its qualifying tournament from March 15-28. The Olympics will have no age restrictions for the women’s teams, while men’s teams are restricted to U-24 players with a maximum of three overage players allowed.
Summer Olympics (July 21 – Aug. 7, 2021)
The Summer Olympics in Japan are the biggest event of the year for the U.S. Women’s National Team, which has won each of the last two FIFA World Cups in dominant fashion. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s side will be one of 12 contestants in the women’s tournament, with the U.S. women seeking their fourth gold medal in the last five Olympics. The men’s Olympic tournament will feature 12 teams, including defending gold medalist Brazil.
UEFA Euro (June 11 – July 11, 2021)
Europe’s premier international tournament was scheduled to take place last summer before moving to 2021 in reaction to the pandemic. Recent World Cup winners France, Germany, Spain and Italy will join reigning Euro winner Portugal plus Belgium and England as the heavy hitters in a mouthwatering 24-team tournament that will take place in 12 different countries.
Copa America (June 11 – July 10, 2021)
Running concurrently with UEFA Euro, the 2021 Copa America will see 12 South American national teams put their best foot forward in the countries of Argentina and Colombia. This edition of the tournament features a revamped format, with two groups of six teams and five group stage matches for each participant, followed by the eight-team knockout stage.
World Cup Qualifying
The road to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar winds through the heart of 2021, with the U.S. plotting their hopeful return after missing out in 2018. World Cup qualifying will take place across the globe during several FIFA windows, with the fixtures coming especially thick and fast beginning in the fall.
A youthful Sporting Kansas City II side will enter 2021 under fourth-year head coach and former Sporting great Paulo Nagamura. After playing 14 of 16 matches away from home in 2020, expect Sporting KC II to navigate a more equitable schedule in the season ahead as several young players—including a bevy of Sporting KC Academy products—look to make positive impacts on the pitch.
After a six-month hiatus due to the pandemic, the Sporting KC Academy resumed competitive action last fall in MLS Next, a new player development platform spearheaded by Major League Soccer. As the successor to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, MLS Next will give Sporting KC a league for players to shine at the U-12 through U-19 levels.
The 2021 National Women’s Soccer League campaign will feature a Kansas City team for the first time since 2017. The yet-to-be-named Kansas City club is one of 10 teams that will ride the waves of an eventful 2021, with the season-opening NWSL Challenge Cup followed by the 24-match regular season and the expanded six-team playoffs.