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New York City FC hungers for repeat as MLS season opens

New York (AFP) – Major League Soccer kicks off its 27th season on Saturday with expansion to 28 clubs and New York City hungry to become the first repeat champions in a decade.

The opening weekend’s 14 matches include Charlotte’s debut match at DC United on Saturday, with the league growing to 29 teams next year with St. Louis and in talks with Las Vegas to become the 30th MLS squad.

“We’ve got to pause and get our 30 teams up and going and then we can decide if Major League Soccer is going to expand beyond 30,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “There’s no timetable for any decision beyond 30 teams.”

But MLS hopes to continue its growth when Canada, Mexico and the United States co-host the 2026 World Cup.

“There’s really no limit to where Major League Soccer can go in the years ahead,” Garber said. “By all measures the progress has been remarkable, but the most important period of growth and opportunity is really in the years ahead leading up to the World Cup.”

NYCFC’s bid to defend the crown launches Sunday at the Los Angeles Galaxy and 46-year-old Norwegian coach Ronny Delia likes his team’s approach to the challenge.

“Really impressed,” he said. “The boys have come back fit. They are hungry. They have come back the right way.

“We need to build off how we did last year. It was a fantastic feeling.”

Delia, the former Celtic coach, wants his club to match the back-to-back MLS title feat achieved by DC United (1996-97), Houston Dynamo (2006-2007) and the Galaxy (2011-2012).

“That’s the goal of course, to win again,” Delia said. “But MLS is really competitive. The level is higher. To repeat now is much more harder than many years ago.

“We need to improve. We need to work with the same intensity, the same concentration. What we have in a positive way is that we have consistency in staff, consistency in players, style of play. We have to start up where we left last year. And we have to see how the others are.”

NYCFC only finished fourth in the Eastern Conference in the regular season last year before charging through the playoffs to lift the MLS Cup and that fact helps deflect any notion of complacency.

“I just don’t see any danger in that,” Delia said. “We enjoy every day together so it’s easy for everybody to give everything for the team.”

“We’re a champion. It’s always hard to repeat that. At the same time we were (22) points behind New England last year so there’s a lot to improve.”

– ‘Expectation of winning’ –

MLS Cup Most Valuable Player Sean Johnson returns to spark New York City and the 32-year-old American goalkeeper says the title run will make the club tougher this year.

“Those are experiences you have to go through and navigate to understand,” he said. “We’re now in the position we want, we’re playing more meaningful games and having the chance to repeat.

“As a club we have the expectation of winning. Character is going to carry us a long way. Those experiences will help us focus on what’s valuable as a group and that will see us through.”

Johnson wants to see how well NYCFC comes together for Sunday’s opener.

“The whole league has gotten better,” he said. “The onus has been on us to prepare as well as we can.

“I’m looking forward to how this group meshes. The chemistry is as important as what you see on the field.”

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