From the second the first whistle blew on the Major League Soccer regular season up until MLS Cup on Sunday, the American soccer league has enjoyed its best season to date.
In the nine months of play across the United States and Canada, fans have been treated to the fantastic individual talents of international stars such as Sebastian Giovinco, Giovani Dos Santos, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard as well as American stars like Ethan Finlay, Dax McCarty, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and others.
However, the 20th season almost didn't start on time as collective bargaining negotiations lasted until the final week of the offseason.
Reflecting on the historic campaign as a whole, commissioner Don Garber realizes just how close the league and the players' union came to hitting the deadline.
"It seems like the CBA negotiations were a lifetime ago," Garber told Bleacher Report. "They were less than a year ago, and anytime you go through difficult labor negotiations, it’s traumatic and it gets everybody focused on ensuring you get a deal that makes sense for everybody, and I believe we’ve been able to do that.
"Here we are almost a year later, and it has been, without a doubt, the most successive season in the history of our league.
"Our attendance is up. Our new television partnerships with Fox, ESPN and Univision were a great success and gave us great destination schedule programming. The two new teams, Orlando City and New York City FC, averaged over 30,000 and 25,000 fans a game.
"A new stadium opened in San Jose and then [we had] the signing of some of the biggest names our league has put on the field in one season with Gerrard, Lampard, Pirlo, Giovinco, Giovani Dos Santos," he continued. "It’s hard to imagine when we were sitting in those CBA negotiations in Washington D.C. that we’d end up sitting here today with the success we’ve been able to enjoy."
The final match of the 2015 season will take place on Sunday as the Columbus Crew host the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup at Mapfre Stadium, kicking off at 4 p.m. on ESPN. Both clubs carry different back stories into the matchup, but they are special in their own right.
"Portland has such a rabid fan base and has strived so hard to be as successful on the field as they are off the field, and certainly this year they’ve been able to achieve that."
"When the team first launched, I took one of the presidents of the sports networks out there for his first MLS game and he said it was one of the most exciting and special environments he’d ever seen in sports in his lifetime," the commissioner continued. "And this was a guy who was involved in sports for 20-30 years.
“Columbus is a great story for us," Garber said. "Here you have a relatively small market that is one of our original teams playing in our oldest soccer stadium. They just had a new owner take over and got a rebrand that took place last year and hired a terrific, very promising coach in Gregg Berhalter and put together a team that is so exciting to watch."
MLS grew in 2015 with the addition of Orlando City and New York City FC to the list of 20 teams. Atlanta, Los Angeles FC and Minnesota are scheduled to begin play over the next three years as well.
“Our new teams, when they’ve launched, have individually set the bar for the next round both on and off the field," Garber said. "It isn’t easy to come in and be super competitive on the field based on the way our rules are structured and the way they are in other sports leagues in North America. Both teams had good seasons.
"New York City FC so over-delivered on what our expectations would’ve been. The brand was a fabulous launch, and them playing in Yankee Stadium has been really exciting and has attracted great crowds—they’ve broken through the clutter here in New York, which I think was really helpful for growing the Red Bulls fan base as well."
"Orlando has just been a monster," he continued. "They are one of the most popular sports teams in Brazil [because of Brazilian superstar Kaka]. They average over 33,000 fans a game to the point where they’re expanding their soccer stadium plan from 22,000 to 26,000."
The one expansion situation hanging over the heads of Garber and those in the league office is the predicament in Miami, where David Beckham and his group of partners are still looking to secure a stadium site for what should be MLS' 24th team.
"We’re very focused on Miami and trying to get a deal done," Garber said. "We have a lot of faith in David Beckham and his partners and their new leader Tim Leiweke."
Garber expanded on the Miami situation, saying: "We’re the last league in so to speak and there’s been so much commitment to stadium development throughout the US and Canada in the other leagues that it’s difficult to fight for our share of the pie.
"What we’re experiencing in Miami is really no different from what we’ve faced in other markets. Some of them are easier than others, but we’re not concerned about the difficulty. That’s what we signed up for."
As for the actions taking place on the field with the current 20 clubs, Garber is excited about the swell of youth prospects coming through the system. The New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas and LA Galaxy are just three of the teams at the forefront of the development process in MLS.
“I think one of the most important contributions MLS has made to growing the sport in the US and Canada has been the real focus and investment in youth development. We just signed Fred Lipka, who worked at the French Football Federation, on the youth side and he’s now working full time for the league," Garber said.
"Our clubs are so deeply committed to this development, not just because of what it will do for MLS but for what it will do to grow the sport in the US and Canada."
Developing the next generation of superstars is one of the main focuses of the league, which is looking to benefit from the uptick in support of soccer over the last few years.
“We do have a bit of momentum, and that’s driven by the fact that the sport of soccer is more popular than it ever was," Garber said. "We’re riding that wave, and we need to be sure that we’re smart on what decisions we make and how we use all our resources to capitalize on all that growing interest."
One constant criticism about the product on the field that MLS faces is the performance of referees. Garber is aware of the criticism, but he believes the men in charge of each match have done a good job in 2015.
"We know that the key match decisions are improving," Garber said. "We know that the overall quality of officiating continues to get better. Officiating is an imperfect science. We know that from watching games around the world, whether it be the highest level in the World Cup or the Champions League or in league play."
"I don’t think that we in Major League Soccer are much different from the rest of the world," the commissioner continued. "That being said, we’re spending a lot of time and money along with the Canadian Soccer Association and US Soccer to give the Pro Referees Organization [PRO] the resources to improve and that means better training for officials."
With everything developing rapidly in MLS at the moment, it is hard to look past 2016, but Garber does have an idea of what he wants the league to look like for its 25th season in 2020.
“I see us being a 24-team league," Garber said. "We ought to have stadiums completed in Boston, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Washington D.C. I see us continuing to have a great group of world-class international players that are plying their trade here in the US and Canada.
"I see the average age of those players coming down from where those signings were this year. I see us having a core of the US national team getting ready to get through qualifying and play for the US in 2022, and I hope that we are able to have Canada able to qualify for the World Cup and have the core of that team playing in MLS."
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.