By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Apr 14, 2021) US Soccer Players – Columbus Crew supporters notwithstanding, 2020 is a year that many Major League Soccer onlookers would rather just crumple up and toss into a garbage can. The year was nothing like the league had ever seen before. No fans, months without a game, and a strange but rather entertaining and gripping midseason tournament.
This season, things are starting to look more like normal. The hope here is that the focus will be on what happens on the field. With the league’s 27th team coming into the fray and several loaded teams vying for league supremacy, the season should be an interesting one from the start.
1. Columbus Crew
Not going out on a limb at the top spot, but the defending champions deserve that respect. This team looks as strong as any other entering 2021. Lucas Zelayaran showed how much of a force he can be a year ago while Gyasi Zardes provides a strong complement in the attack. Newcomer Kevin Molino will bolster the attack too, but he will miss up to two months with a hamstring injury. The Concacaf Champions League could be the only thing to slow Columbus down at the start of the season.
2. Seattle Sounders
No team in league history has reached five MLS Cups in a six-year span. If the Sounders make it that far this season, they would be the first. This early in the year, Seattle is the Western Conference frontrunner. Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, and Joao Paulo provide some stellar quality to build off of. Jordan Morris looked on his way out of the club before injury ended his loan in England. Seattle will have to replace his goals and his energy, but this team has enough of a solid base to do that.
Carlos Vela will be around from the start, which is already an upgrade over 2020. Vela and Diego Rossi form the league’s most dangerous pairing up top. LA will have to replace goals as Bradley Wright-Phillips and Brian Rodriguez are both gone. Corey Baird and Danny Musovski should help at the start, with 17-year-old Christian Torres vying for more playing time as the season progresses. LAFC may not be in the top two in these initial rankings, but it’s difficult to imagine this team falling out of the top five.
4. Philadelphia Union
The Supporters’ Shield holders enter 2021 as a favorite alongside Columbus to finish first in the Eastern Conference and challenge for MLS Cup. The team has established a high bar for itself. Whether or not that comes with a winning mentality will be revealed this season. So far, though, so good as the Union went into Costa Rica and beat Saprissa 1-0. The club is hopeful that Kacper Przybylko will bounce back to his 2019 form when he scored 15 goals in his debut season. He dipped to eight a year ago in three fewer games. He scored a tremendous goal in Costa Rica in the Champions League opener, hammering home a header for the game winner. That kind of form in the league will help the Union maintain its perch in the top 5 of these rankings.
5. Minnesota United
Minnesota finally shed its expansion label by making the playoffs for a second consecutive year. United has taken the next several steps beyond that and is a legitimate title contender coming into the season. Emanuel Reynoso for a full season will certainly make a difference. Reynoso had a goal and three assists in the playoffs a year ago, so he has shown his worth in difficult situations. This team’s strength is in the midfield with Reynoso, Ozzie Alonso, and Jan Gregus holding the team down in the middle of the field. This team was strong a year ago. Now, they have the confidence that will make them a contender from the start.
6. Portland Timbers
Sebastian Blanco will not be around at the start of the season due to an ACL injury. While he is a key piece of the Timbers’ puzzle, it has not hurt them so far. Portland made quick work of Marathon in their Concacaf Champions League series, winning 5-0 in the second leg and 7-2 on aggregate. Diego Valeri and Diego Chara are as strong as they have ever been, but the question this season will be if age will catch up to those Portland pillars or not. At the start of the season though, the duo, and as a result the team, looks strong.
7. Orlando City
Daryl Dike has been a revelation for Barnsley, but England’s gain is Orlando City’s loss. Dike with Orlando changes the scope of their season. Instead, Orlando will look to newcomer Alexandre Pato as well as Nani to help guide the attack. Orlando will enter this season with expectations, unlike last year when the team came in with mostly question marks. Coach Oscar Pareja is optimistic that Dike will return during the summer. If that happens, he will be better than any summer acquisition the club could make. For now, how Pato fares will be the decisive factor in whether Orlando will have a solid attack or not.
8. New England Revolution
Bruce Arena enters his third season coaching the Revs. He has the team poised to be a factor in the East. Carles Gil missed time due to injury in 2020 while Adam Buksa underperformed. The hope is both will be key pieces of the Revs’ attack. Veteran AJ De La Garza and Colombian fullback Christian Mafla will help solidify the defense. If the goals can come, this team figures to be quite solid.
9. Atlanta United
Josef Martinez is back after missing nearly all of 2020 with a knee injury. Martinez is one of the league’s top scoring talents, and his return could help fellow attackers Ezequiel Barco and Marcelino Moreno. Incoming coach Gabriel Heinze hopes to take the club back to its high press days under Tata Martino. With Martinez back to score goals, Atlanta regains its spot in the top 10 of these rankings, but how well the team rallies around him and under Heinze is the question.
10. Sporting KC
Expect Sporting KC to be as tough as ever under Peter Vermes. This team though seems to be poised to have its attack lead the way with Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell providing punch up top. Gianluca should continue to blossom, so enjoy him while he’s still part of the league. The key will be how Sporting moves on from the Matt Besler era in the backline. The team will count on third-year man Robert Pucnec and newcomer Niclas Isimat-Mirin in defense.
11. Colorado Rapids
In his second full season as coach, if you can call 2020 a full season, Robin Fraser will continue to guide Colorado forward. They lack a true scorer. Cole Bassett and Jonathan Lewis tied for the team lead in goals with five apiece last season. That means more of a committee approach at forward with players like Lewis, Diego Rubio, Andre Shinyashiki, and newcomer Michael Barrios around for options. Still, that just makes Fraser’s work much more impressive. Fraser gets the most from his players and will continue to do so this season.
12. Toronto FC
Toronto FC showed well in the Concacaf Champions League with a solid 1-1 draw at Liga MX side Leon. Still, there are issues. Jozy Altidore is already nursing an injury while reigning league MVP Alejandro Pozuelo missed the game due to injury. Toronto FC looks poised to remain a contender despite the end of the Greg Vanney era. New coach Chris Armas is a solid game manager and should find success in taking over for Vanney.
A perennial playoff participant, NYCFC might not have enough on its roster to compete from the start. Heber is out with injury until the summer, and Ronald Matarrita is off to FC Cincinnati. Maxi Moralez and Taty Castellanos could form a strong scoring duo for the club. For now, that does not look like enough firepower to compete in the Eastern Conference. NYCFC has built up a winning mentality. The club can rely on that to carry the team through tough times. There’s also the perk of playing in the weaker Eastern Conference.
14. Nashville FC
Can the second-year club sneak into the postseason again? If that is to happen, the club must get more than 24 goals this season. The defense is strong, anchored by MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman, but they need goals in a bad way. With a fresh start this season, Jhonder Cadiz could settle into the goalscorer role. That could go a long way towards competing in 2021.
15. FC Dallas
The league’s greatest recent exporter of talent now has to fill one of the holes left by its most recent departure, Bryan Reynolds. The team has a strong attack to help lead the way. Franco Jara will be here from the start after scoring seven goals in his half-season last year. Andres Ricaurte, also a midseason addition, should help the attack hit the ground running.
16. LA Galaxy
Greg Vanney takes the helm as coach, returning to where he spent time as a player. While he does have some exciting pieces to build around in Javier Hernandez and Jonathan Dos Santos, this team will live or die because of its defense, the club’s Achilles heel over the last five seasons. There are lots of new pieces, Derrick Williams, Jorge Villafana, and goalkeeper Jonathan Boyd, so Vanney’s task will be how quickly the defense can come together.
17. Inter Miami
Phil Neville’s arrival is interesting, but Inter Miami has quite a bit of work to do. The team has some strong players in Gonzalo Higuain and Rodolfo Pizarro, but an overall lack of consistency was a problem area in 2020. Inter hopes to reach the playoffs again but to do so will require a top-seven finish. That’s an ask for an attack-heavy team.
18. San Jose Earthquakes
San Jose seems to have quite a bit of question marks in early April, but one thing that is never in question is how exciting they can make games. With Matias Almeyda in charge, this team hardly ever provides dull moments. Whether or not that translates to wins and points in the standings is another issue, but it won’t be boring.
19. Real Salt Lake
Offense figures to hold RSL back. The team brought in Bobby Wood to help bolster the forward line, but he will not join the club at the start of the season. RSL has not had a forward lead the team in goals since Joao Plata did it in 2016. Albert Rusnak will once again be looked at for goals, but does not have much help alongside him. That could mean a tough start to the season.
20. Houston Dynamo
Darwin Quintero is a dangerous attacking threat and Matias Vera is a stalwart in the midfield. Add to the mix ex-Red Bull Tim Parker, and the team has the makings of a decent side. What’s lacking is depth, especially upfront. That’s going to be difficult to overcome in a loaded Western Conference.
21. Chicago Fire
Raphael Wicky returns as coach. Although it will be his second season in charge, this essentially could be what he expected in a normal 2020. Chicago will play at Soldier Field with supporters in the stands this time around. The team did well considering the circumstances and expectations but fell short of the playoffs by one point. Perhaps with a year under his belt, Wicky can help push the club into contender status.
22. FC Cincinnati
FC Cincinnati had a productive offseason, but it’s attempting to climb out of a deep hole. Luciano Acosta and Brenner joined on high-profile transfers. Both should contribute on the attacking end from the start, particularly Acosta who had a successful spell with DC United. Ronald Matarrita is also on board, but the club’s problems are on the defensive side. Defensive woes killed the club over the last two seasons. If second-year coach Jaap Stam cannot solve the defensive issues, this season could get away from them quickly.
23. NY Red Bulls
This club underwent massive offseason changes, none potentially more impactful than the new-look defense. Aaron Long is suddenly the elder statesman of the group and will have to help the likes of Andres Reyes, Andrew Gutman, and goalkeeper Carlos Coronel. If Long and the new-look backline can be even moderately successful, the Red Bulls will have a chance.
24. CF Montreal
Name change aside, this is still the same team that struggled in the Eastern Conference last season. The club is banking on Norwegian-American Bjorn Johnsen to come in and score goals. Ex-Chicago Fire midfielder Djordje Mihailovic six assists should add some punch in the midfield. That’s the upside for new coach Wilfried Nancy as he tries to guide a perennial also-ran toward the postseason while calling Fort Lauderdale its home base to start the season.
25. Vancouver Whitecaps
Will it be another season of frustration in Vancouver? Lucas Cavallini is an exciting player. Cristian Dajome and newcomer Deiber Caicedo could provide some offensive flair from the flanks, but the defense is frightful. Vancouver could often play from behind and that will not lead to much success. Add in the team’s temporary stadium share with Real Salt Lake, and the Whitecaps will have challenging circumstances off the field as well.
26. DC United
United is looking for a fresh start under new coach Hernan Losada, but he’ll be without Steve Birnbaum and Bill Hamid, both recovering from injury. Paul Arriola returned early from a loan spell at Swansea City. That should help guide a team in flux.
27. Austin FC
Austin made a splash in bringing in Cecilio Domínguez and Tomas Pochettino aboard, but like all expansion teams it will be the defense that makes or breaks the year. The club brought in veteran Matt Besler as well as promising youngster Jhohan Romana, ex of Independiente Medellin and Club Guarani. Alexander Ring also joined the team to give some help in the defensive midfield. Austin’s expansion season may go the way of most MLS clubs. A few bright spots as they figure out the league and build for next season.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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