The 22nd season of Major League Soccer kicks off on Friday with all eyes on two new expansion teams as the competition continues its steady growth across the American sporting landscape.
The arrival of Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC is the latest example of the league's increasing maturity and America's ever closer embrace of the world's most popular sport.
After a 2016 season which saw another set of record attendance figures -- MLS is now the sixth-best attended domestic league in the world -- league officials are bullish about the long-term prospects of the sport.
"When this league was founded over 20 years ago, its primary goal was to build a true soccer nation in America and it's clear when I look at where we are today that we've been able to achieve that," Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber told AFP in an interview.
"There has been a long history of soccer in North America and its had its fits and starts at professional level. But Major League Soccer has proven that we're one of the major sports leagues in North America and one of the more important soccer leagues around the world. That's our biggest achievement."
Two more expansion teams are set to join the league in the coming years.
Los Angeles Football Club will enter the Western Conference in 2018, while the David Beckham-backed Miami franchise is expected to become the 24th MLS side.
- Unlimited potential -
Ultimately, Garber expects the MLS to comprise 28 teams, a far cry from the league's inaugural 10-team season in 1996.
"When we started we had no idea that we'd be sitting here today with soon to be 24 teams and soon to be 20 soccer-only stadiums," Garber said.
"I'm happy to say I don't think there's a limit on what Major League Soccer will be in the landscape of North America. But I would be very surprised if it involves more than 28 teams."
Garber was unwilling to disclose a deadline for Beckham's long-gestating Miami project, which has been mired in delays over the site of the team's stadium.
However he hinted that the uncertainty surrounding the franchise would not be allowed to drag indefinitely.
"We've had great patience and worked hard with David and his partners for many years now. We are at the point where it is beginning to impact our expansion plans as we roll out teams 25 to 28," Garber said.
"We remain very focused with them on trying to finalize the right scenario to ensure they will be successful in Miami and we remain hopeful they will be able to achieve that," he added, declining to disclose what, if any, deadline had been set for Miami. "That's between us and them," he said.
Garber was more emphatic about the chances of arguably the most famous club in American soccer -- the New York Cosmos -- ever becoming part of the MLS.
The Cosmos are currently rooted in the troubled North American Soccer League, the de facto second tier of US soccer, with no chance of elevation to the MLS in the absence of promotion and relegation between the leagues.
- Pro/rel no 'Holy Grail' -
With New York already home to two teams -- the Red Bulls and the New York City FC -- there was no room for a third.
"I think it's fair to say that the Cosmos had a chance to come into MLS several years ago and opted not to do that. We respected that decision and don't see a scenario where they come into our league."
Garber indicated there was little chance of promotion and relegation being introduced on his watch, questioning the characterization of the format by its supporters as the "Holy Grail."
"It's not the Holy Grail for clubs that are relegated," Garber said. "I don't see it coming into the MLS any time soon. But someone might ask the MLS commissioner that question in 20 years and get a different answer."
Garber, meanwhile, is an enthusiastic advocate of the United States hosting the 2026 World Cup, believing bringing the tournament back to North America after a 32-year absence would "set an entirely new bar for World Cups."
"We have the facilities, we have the market, we have the support," he said.
"We believe it's the right time and we're hopeful that our federation and the rest of the group that will be leading the effort will be successful in bringing it here."