By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Mar 1, 2019) US Soccer Players - There’s no debate over the favorites for the MLS Cup title in 2019 as the new season begins. Despite swapping Tata Martino for Frank de Boer and selling Miguel Almiron for an MLS-record fee, Atlanta United is the pick for many to repeat as champions.
The Red Bulls set a record for points in a season in 2018 on their way to a Supporters' Shield and should be among the contenders again. Sporting Kansas City is a model of consistency and nearly made it to the championship game last season. It would be silly to count out the defending Western Conference champions, the Portland Timbers, or their rivals to the north, the Seattle Sounders.
All of those teams have established themselves as possible MLS Cup winners thanks to last year’s results. Backed by smart, savvy coaches and general managers, each one has a plan. Expectations are high for 2019. While the long MLS season can destroy even the best-laid schemes, there’s no reason to doubt them yet.
Still, no League in the world is better at turning last year’s also-rans and bottom feeders into contenders than Major League Soccer. Even if 2018’s failures don’t make it all the way to the final or lift the MLS Cup trophy, one or two are bound to execute the major turnaround. A “leveling up” is in the cards for someone.
The hunt for candidates means finding the best combination of two factors. A 2018 finish that was bad but showed glimmers of hope. A winter adding quality pieces that should help the team build on those glimmers in the new campaign. The best possibilities might also have an extra factor or two working in their favor in the new season. That's something not necessarily related to the roster or coaching staff, but could have a big impact on wins and losses.
One such team is Minnesota United. The Loons enter year three as an MLS franchise eyeing a first-ever playoff berth and a move up from their place among the bottom tier of the league. After spending two seasons playing at a college football venue, United will set up shop in the brand new confines of Allianz Field this season.
For a team that never had much of a home field advantage, the new stadium is a gamechanger. The new stadium was also the prompt for the club to start spending more money on its roster. They signed two Designated Players midway through the 2018 season, Colombian attackers Darwin Quinter and Angelo Rodrigues. Those moves showed that United was ready to step up their spending.
In the winter, the Loons added a third Designated Player to man a spot further back in the formation. They also secured the services of a pair of MLS elite-level players to help the defense. Former Seattle Sounder Osvaldo Alonso joined as a free agent and will help protect the back line as the defensive midfielder. Ike Opara will play in the middle of the back line and if healthy for the full season, dramatically help a team that conceded 70+ goals in each of its first two seasons. Minnesota United even upgraded the last line of defense with the signing of Italian goalkeeper Vito Mannone.
Slovakian Jan Gregus arrives FC Copenhagen to give the midfield a classy passer, the better to control possession and spring the likes of Quintero and Rodriguez. It’s not all about the defense up north.
Head coach Adrian Heath hasn’t yet proven that he can push a team into the MLS postseason, so doubt will linger if United doesn’t start strong. The resources are in place along with that new stadium. 2019 is the year for United to move up. If it doesn’t happen in 2019, United will have to perform a complete reboot likely with a new head coach.
Minnesota might have competition for the biggest movers in the Western Conference. The Colorado Rapids also appeared primed for a jump into the playoff conversation, largely off the strength of an offseason collecting solid MLS talent. The program of signing talent from inside the league is a turn for a team that focused heavily on mid-level foreign names head of the 2018 campaign.
The list of Rapids additions includes midfielder Benny Feilhaber, striker Kei Kamara, striker Diego Rubio, fullback Keegan Rosenberry, and midfielder Nicolas Mezquida. That’s 28 goals and 19 assists added to the attack, with a cadre of young players including homegrown midfielder Cole Bassett and a Kellyn Acosta freshly signed to a new contract ready to contribute as well.
In what will be Tim Howard’s final season, Colorado will need an improvement on the defensive end as well. Rosenberry will help at fullback. There are questions the club didn't address in the middle of the back line. There’s nowhere for the Rapids to go but up. Well, unless the defense stumbles, head coach Anthony Hudson struggles to cover for the problem, and the club remains stuck at the bottom of the conference. On paper, Colorado is better than in 2018 by a significant margin.
There is at least one more team that looks primed to level up in 2019, despite making the playoffs in 2018. The move from non-playoff qualifier to playoff team is significant. However, it’s the push from the bottom end of the playoff qualifying places to become a real threat for an MLS Cup that can be more difficult.
Consider the circumstances under which DC United played in 2018. With Audi Field still under construction, United played on the road for a brutal 10 of its first 12 matches, with its two home dates coming in uncomfortable alternate venues distant from its base of fans.
When the team finally moved into Audi Field, it did so with former Manchester United star Wayne Rooney. Rooney’s exploits with United in the second half of the 2018 season, in combination with a reinvigorated Luciano Acosta, pushed DC up the table and into fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Now with a group capable of playing exciting soccer, Ben Olsen’s team moved away from the pragmatic grind-it-out style that pervaded in the District before Rooney’s arrival. Winning came with scoring and the future had finally come to Washington. Rather than sit and watch the rest of the league pass it by, United looked like a team ready to claim a place among the MLS 3.0 contenders.
Even a heart-breaking knockout round home playoff loss to Columbus didn’t dim the excitement. 2018 was always going to be tough, always going to be a test run. 2019 is when it should all come together.
A side effect of the late season run was the star turn of Acosta. 2019 brought not only excitement DC United’s new season, but attention from abroad for the Argentine who came achingly close to a high profile move to PSG in January. While United can’t be unhappy that Rooney and Acosta will start the season together, there is a question about Acosta’s focus after a whirlwind dalliance with a big European club. Olsen’s task it to keep Acosta’s head on straight and manage Rooney’s minutes. If he can, DC is ready to level up - not into the playoffs, but into championship contenders.
More From Jason Davis:
- The season looms for six MLS coaches
- MLS, Liga MX, and North American club soccer
- Minnesota United builds more than a stadium
- The New England Revolution in transition
Photo by Tony Quinn - ISIPhotos.com