By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Dec 5, 2019) US Soccer Players – The 2019 Major League Soccer season has been over for a bit now, with Seattle beating Toronto FC to lift the MLS Cup early last month. With the offseason already in full swing and two new clubs on the horizon, the focus has begun to shift to the start of a new decade and a continuation of the league’s unofficial expansion era. Before moving on, it’s worth a look back at 2019.
1. Seattle Sounders win the 2019 MLS Cup. Seattle joined some rarified air by winning its second-ever MLS Cup trophy. Only five other clubs have won more than one MLS Cup trophy. Only the Galaxy won two in this decade. Seattle will enter 2020 as the favorites to win the championship despite LAFC’s presence in the West. Seattle has the confidence and will look to create a dynasty with another MLS championship.
2. LAFC’s Carlos Vela setting the all-time scoring record. Roy Lassiter and Chris Wondolowski sat on 27 goals for some time before Atlanta’s Josef Martinez erased that goals-scored record in 2018 with 31. Vela made scoring look easy in 2019 with 34 goals to set the new mark. His season-ending hat-trick against Colorado was particularly impressive. For Vela to challenge his record next season seems unlikely, but LAFC will still be a force in 2020.
3. Philadelphia overcoming a 3-1 deficit to New York in the conference playoffs. When the Red Bulls scored in first-half stoppage time to take a 3-1 lead in their playoff match against Philadelphia, the game looked over. The Union battled back, sending the match to extra time and winning it on an amazing goal from Marco Fabian. The match was just a sample of how exciting the new one-off playoff system was. Hopefully, MLS keeps it this way for good.
1. FC Cincinnati. The league’s latest expansion team put together the worst season of this most-recent expansion era. Instead of following the blueprint set by Atlanta and LAFC, FC Cincinnati went off on its own and tried to build a different way. They used the players that helped it succeed in the USL, showing that the two leagues aren’t the same. FC Cincinnati had rabid support in its first MLS season, and the team should work hard to appease its fanbase this offseason.
2. Chicago Fire. Certainly, the Fire disappointed its supporters by not reaching the postseason again. The club’s level of disappointment runs deeper. Chicago abandoned SeatGeek Stadium in favor of a return to Chicago proper. The Fire’s cavernous 2020 home – Soldier Field – dwarfs SeatGeek Stadium. That move risks the Fire playing in front of a smattering of fans in 2020 no matter what the team does in the offseason. The club’s horrid new logo will do the team no favors.
3. Vancouver Whitecaps. The Whitecaps have no plan. That is the impression the team leaves after suffering through yet another terrible campaign. Vancouver finished 3rd in the Western Conference in 2017 only for the bottom has fallen out. The Whitecaps finished 8th in 2018 and 12th out of the 12 in 2019. Now, MLS has fined coach Marc dos Santos for calling MLS a “Mickey Mouse league” for having such a long winter break. That might be a good label to apply to the club.
4. Portland Timbers. Portland had quite a big advantage for itself in 2019. With Providence Park unavailable until June, the club closed out the season with nearly all home games down the stretch. Somehow, Portland could not parlay that into a successful record. They needed a home win on the final day of the season to reach the postseason. Portland had the talent available for more but was unable to do much with it. Worse for the Timbers, rivals Seattle sit atop the league, making it that much more of a disappointing year for the Timbers.
1. New England Revolution. New England’s overall record of 11-11-12 is not overly impressive, nor is the club’s one-and-done playoff appearance. However, the Revs went 9-3-10 after they replaced coach Brad Friedel with Bruce Arena. While it may seem like the Revs caught lightning in a bottle, Arena is less of a magician and more of an architect. This team is set for the long haul now, and New England should compete from the start next season.
2. Real Salt Lake. Expectations weren’t high with an aging core, no real superstar, and a stacked Western Conference. Throw in Mike Petke’s controversial ouster as coach down the stretch, and the club had quite a bit thrown its way. Yet RSL was one of the last four teams left standing out West. RSL promoted interim Freddy Juarez to full-time head coach, and the club should be competitive next season once more.
3. Toronto FC. A team with the resources Toronto FC has should not necessarily be a surprise, but such is life in MLS. Toronto looked like anything but a title contender during an 0-5-3 stretch in May. The team only won consecutive games once after a 3-0-0 start. Then they hit the switch in October and ripped through the Eastern Conference to reach its third MLS Cup in four seasons. This team has shown that it does have a strong foundation. With Greg Vanney in charge, Toronto FC figures to contend for the Eastern crown again in 2020.
Biggest issues moving forward
1. Sporting KC. Perhaps it is time to start over at Sporting KC. The club has shown faith in Vermes time and again and is not wavering from him now. Vermes has been on the job for ten years, but this is the lowest the club has been. The team needs help all over the roster with questions concerning Vermes’s effectiveness. We’ve seen this before in MLS. 2. New York Red Bulls. For much of the last decade, the Red Bulls have featured Bradley Wright-Phillips scoring goals and Luis Robles stopping them. Both of those mainstays are now gone, with the Red Bulls are in a bit of a transition. The club has two Designated Player spots open. They need to fill them with the right players to stay the course and reach the postseason once more. Otherwise, this rebuilding process will keep the team near the bottom of the table.
3. Montreal Impact. Thierry Henry might be the solution for the Impact. Or he might be the latest in a string of coaches. Certainly, Henry is the highest-profile coach the team has had. That said, turning the keys over to an inexperienced coach is risky. Perhaps Henry can bring in some high-profile French players to join Montreal. They’ll need something because the roster is in such flux that it will take patience and a skilled hand to get the team to play together. We already know that Montreal management is not patient.
4. FC Dallas. It’s not that FC Dallas is a bad team, but someone will have to make room for clubs like Colorado, San Jose, and Houston to make the playoffs. FC Dallas has been just an average team for several seasons now. There’s little to indicate that this team will make significant improvements come next season. The days of David Ferreira or Mauro Diaz creating magic in Frisco are long gone.
Clubs on the right track
1. Orlando City. Club Tijuana’s loss is Orlando’s gain. Former FC Dallas and Xolos coach Oscar Pareja landed with Orlando in what will be a major reclamation project. Pareja is the person to lead such a project. Pareja has shown with Colorado and FC Dallas that he can succeed in this league. Orlando is desperate to get back on track after two horrid campaigns. It is unclear yet how much the roster will change from now until March 2020, but Pareja will have the players who step on the field next year playing at a high level.
2. Colorado Rapids. Colorado is a team that perennially has observers wondering if anyone cares there. With the latest coaching hire, that thought has vanished. Robin Fraser came in at the end of August and instantly won games at New York and home against Seattle and the LA Galaxy. Fraser will have to get the most out of his roster, whatever it looks like next year, as the club likely will not spend big money on a high-profile player or three. Fraser was able to come in and post a 5-2-0 record with what he had, so he should be just fine heading into 2020.
3. Houston Dynamo. Houston has gambled on its new coach, and the gamble will pay off. After a decade coaching in the US youth national team ranks mostly with the U-20s, Ramos has stepped into his first professional coaching job. In one of his first moves, Houston picked up Darwin Quintero from Minnesota in a trade. Quintero gives Ramos a dynamic attacking player to showcase. There will be a change for Ramos, though, from coaching American teenagers to coaching professional athletes from all over the world. It should be one transition he handles well.
4. Atlanta United. Yes, the club struggled through the early part of the season. And yes, Atlanta missed out on hosting MLS Cup. That said, Atlanta once again was the class of the Eastern Conference throughout most of 2019. The team was not the offensive juggernaut it was in 2018, but Atlanta still finished in 2nd-place and won two playoff games at home before falling short. Atlanta showed that its strong foundation will help the team succeed in the future.
Biggest holes to fill
1. LA Galaxy. How do you replace an enigmatic high-profile striker who accounted for more than half of your team’s goals? The LA Galaxy will try and answer that ahead of next season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is gonem along with his 30 goals. A much less impactful but equally difficult loss was Uriel Antuna’s as his loan ended and Antuna signed with Chivas Guadalajara. Antuna was the second-leading scorer with six goals. The Galaxy is not shy about spending money. That’s good because the team will need to throw some cash at somebody to help fill the void left by Ibrahimovic.
2. New York City FC. NYCFC did well to adjust to life after David Villa, finishing first atop the Eastern Conference before a disappointing loss to Toronto FC in the playoffs. However, part of what held the team together was Claudio Reyna’s presence. Reyna was the first American to join the NYCFC project. He brought respectability and professionalism to the sporting director post. No matter how much was going on around the club, having Reyna in that position brought stability to the club. Now, he is gone as Reyna left that position to join 2021 expansion side Austin FC. While the team promoted to fill that spot, Reyna’s loss will be massive.
3. DC United. Wayne Rooney came to DC United near the end of his career, but he was still quite a productive player in his two seasons with the club. DC United needed a figure like Rooney at the helm to be relevant, and the club has been the last two seasons despite playoff failures each season. Finding a striker to help score goals might not be as much of an issue as having a strong presence like Rooney on the club and in the locker room.
Best Foundations Laid
1. Minnesota United. After a rough start to its MLS existence, Minnesota finally turned the corner. This season was a coming-of-age for Minnesota, with a much-improved roster and a brand-new stadium to play in. While the early playoff exit was far from ideal, the club set itself up for a successful 2020 season. If the team can find a reliable goalscorer, Minnesota could contend for the Western Conference title.
2. San Jose Earthquakes. The playoffs were within reach for San Jose, but the club faltered on the season’s final day to miss out. That the Quakes were even that close says a great deal about how 2019 went for them. Matias Almeyda arrived and began the transformation process for a club that has been an afterthought for much of the last decade. Almeyda might work his connections to Liga MX and bring in some reinforcements from down south, like Chivas striker Alan Pulido. If Almeyda can work that magic, San Jose will be in the postseason hunt from the start of 2020.
3. Columbus Crew. Yes, Columbus had a terrible season this year. It took more time for Caleb Porter to get settled than expected. Porter did settle in and showed some success before the season was out. Columbus finished the year with a 5-2-6 record, a more than respectable mark that spread out over the course of the season would be enough for a postseason spot. Columbus will be much improved come 2020 as Porter’s worth will show.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer – ISIPhotos.com