MLS Offseason Report and Team-by-Team Preview
Written by: Vaughn Pollman
This week Major League Soccer kicks off their 26th season with expansion team, Austin FC, pushing the league to 27 teams entering the competition. Last year saw Portland Timbers lift the MLS Is Back Cup, the Philadelphia Union capture their first bit of silverware with the Supporter’s Shield, and the Columbus Crew hoist MLS Cup for the second time in their storied history. The 25th MLS campaign was unlike any other with team’s facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-strained year. Some may place an asterisk on the 2020 season, the aftereffects of which may be felt throughout the 2021 season and beyond, but there is real excitement that clubs can begin to return to a more normal modus operandi. Canadian clubs will still have to play outside of their home country, attendance will still be widely restricted, and the season calendar is a bit off, but it looks like we’ll get a full 34-game regular season again. The pandemic has greatly affected how team’s have approached spending in the offseason with far fewer marquee signings, but many teams have remained active in improving their rosters. Let’s take a look at each team’s offseason and their outlook for the 2021 MLS Season, which kicks off this Friday, April 16th.
2020 Record: 6W-13L-4D (22 pts) 12th in the East. Missed the Playoffs.
Key Additions: Alan Franco, Franco Ibarra (U-22), Santiago Sosa (U-22), Lisandro Lopez, Ronald Hernandez (loan), Alex de John
Key Losses: Jon Gallagher, Franco Escobar (loan), Eric Remedi, Fernando Meza (loan), Jeff Larentowicz (retired)
New Coach: Gabrielle Heinze
Atlanta United has gone out and splashed the cash again in a big way this offseason after player departures and the injury bug derailed their 2020 season. No other team in MLS has been as aggressive as Atlanta when it comes to utilizing the new U-22 Player Fund, quickly bringing in young South American talent to fill those spots. It may take time for all of the pieces to gel, but look for Atlanta to return to being an MLS powerhouse club this season as the team builds momentum and re-establishes their on field identity. Look for newcomers Alan Franco and Santiago Sosa to become immediate starters and key contributors. With Josef Martinez back from his ACL injury and new coach Gabriel Heinze at the helm, there is hope that Atlanta will once again display the high-octane attack that dominated MLS when Tata Martino had the team’s reigns. The 5-stripes scored only 23 goals last season, a total Martinez topped single-handedly in both 2018 and 2019, so with him healthy goals will come more easily. If everything goes according to plan, Atlanta should be in the mix for multiple trophies throughout the year as their roster stands.
2020 Record: 5W-10L-8D (23 pts) 11th in the East. Missed the Playoffs
Key Additions: Jhon Espinoza, Stanislav Ivanov (meniscus tear surgery out 4 months)
Key Losses: Djordje Mihailovic, CJ Sapong, Brandt Bronico
Chicago narrowly missed the playoffs in 2020, finishing 1 point behind Inter Miami for the last spot in the East. There was clear progress in their first year under Raphael Wicky, and based on their offseason acquisitions, it looks like the majority of the roster will look very similar heading into 2021. Last season, the Fire were their own worst enemy, giving away late goals and throwing away a lot of deserved points. The Chicago Fire were winless on the road in 11 games, going 0-6-5 with the team conceding 7 times in the final 15 minutes on the road. If they remedy their late game habits and find road results, the Fire could be a very good team. That will be determined greatly by the play of Gaston Gimenez in midfield, the league’s leading regista, as well as Robert Beric at striker, who has a real shot at being in the golden boot race. Beric finished last year with 12 goals, tied with Gyasi Zardes and Raul Ruidiaz for 2nd in the Golden Boot race, losing out to LAFC’s Diego Rossi. This could be the year that fortunes change for the Fire and they become a league force again. They have a fairly high ceiling heading into the season, but they still have a very low floor in the top-heavy East. If they end up on the right side of the playoff line, they have the attacking pieces to make some noise in big games.
Columbus Crew SC
2020 Record: 12W-6L-5D (41 pts) 3rd in the East. MLS Cup Champions
Key Additions: Kevin Molino, Bradley Wright Phillips, Alexandru Matan, Perry Kitchen, Marlon Hairston
The reigning MLS Cup Champs look to defend their title in 2021 and seem to have their sights set on more silverware. Looking at the Crew’s depth chart, they are two deep at every position, with their B-team probably good enough to make a playoff run. The addition of Kevin Molino is arguably the best signing of the offseason and is a case of the rich getting richer. If they can hit the ground running, they have a legitimate shot at a CCL Finals run and look strong enough to be in the Supporter’s Shield race as well considering their depth. A dangerous attack paired with a stout defense, and fueled by the momentum brought on by a new stadium could make the Crew nearly unbeatable if they can maintain their health. They were already nearly unbeatable at home in 2020, going 9-1-0, but actually went winless on the road. They were obviously the only MLS Cup champion to accomplish that feat. Lucas Zelarayan should be on everyone’s radar for the MVP shortlist. On defense, Jonathan Mensah has long been an under-the-radar top tier center-back in the league, but no longer as he finished 2nd in the 2020 MLS Defender of the Year race. A repeat performance and he could win the award in 2021. In summation, the sky’s the limit for the Crew as they chase all the hardware.
2020 Record: 5W-12L-6D (21 pts) 13th in the East. Missed the Playoffs.
Key Additions: Brendan Hines-Ike (loan), Jovanny Bolivar (loan), Nigel Robertha, Adrien Perez
Key Losses: Oniel Fisher, Ema Boateng, Ulises Segura
New Coach: Hernan Losada
For the first time in over a decade, DC United will take the field with someone other than Ben Olsen setting the lineup card. Hernan Losada inherits a roster that is strong on paper, but came up well short of expectations during the 2020 campaign. If he can assemble the pieces correctly and get the most out of guys like Edison Flores and Julian Gressel, watch out. Gressel in particular could see a return to form under Losada, with a potential change in formation. DC has been anchored in the back by captain Steve Birnbaum, who will miss the start of the season recovering from ankle surgery. On the offensive side of the ball, new signing Nigel Robertha could be this offseason’s wildcard, with a pretty good scoring rate in the Bulgarian first division. They will need Robertha or Ola Kamara to find the back of the net since Kamara was the team’s leading goalscorer in 2020 with only 4 goals. If they can improve on the front line things could be interesting for DC with a reliable defense. A return to the playoffs would be considered a good year and isn’t out of the question. Luckily for Losada, expectations are low in terms of results, and he should be given ample time to build the team in his image if things don’t go well. The goal in 2021 should be to establish a clear on-field identity that the team can build upon and positive results should follow.
2020 Record: 4W-15L-4D (16 pts) 14th in the East. Missed the Playoffs.
Key Additions: Brenner, Lucho Acosta, Ronald Matarrita, Gustavo Vallecilla, Isaac Atanga
Key Losses: Spencer Richey, Andrew Gutman, Siem de Jong, Frankie Amaya
The back-to-back wooden spoon winners look to improve in year 3 and get out of the MLS cellar. Last year, half of their wins came during the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando and they recorded only 1 win at home and 1 win on the road outside of that tournament. Their intent and ambition is clear with their offseason signings, including the club record transfer of young Brazilian forward, Brenner. If Brenner gets service from midfield and Jurgen Locadia shows up, FC Cincinnati could take a big step in the right direction. Much of their success will depend on if Lucho Acosta can find that spark that saw him dominate MLS for a period of time with Wayne Rooney in DC. As Cincinnati opens their new West End Stadium, they must begin to find ways to create more goal scoring opportunities than they have in their first two seasons, in which they have a mere 43 combined goals in 57 games. Hopefully there can be some organizational stability in 2021 and we can begin talking about Cincinnati in another light, but until those results come the pressure is on to right the ship. A push for a playoff spot would be massive...See what I did there?
2020 Record: 7W-13L-3D (24 pts) 10th in the East. Lost in Playoff Play-In Round.
Key Additions: Gregore, Ryan Shawcross, Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam, Kieran Gibbs (July 1)
Key Losses: Wil Trapp, Andres Reyes, Luis Robles (retired), Ben Sweat, Juan Agudelo, Dylan Nealis
New Coach: Phil Neville
Yes, Inter Miami made the postseason in their inaugural year, but it took an expanded field and a late season run to sneak in, only to be thrashed by Nashville SC in the Play-in Round. It’s safe to say that Miami didn’t play up to their potential and didn’t hit the mark set by their preseason hype. Following the disappointing campaign, they sacked Diego Alonso while Paul McDonough moved on from the club, signaling some major organizational issues and turbulence in the front office. They have in turn brought in Phil Neville as coach and pulled off the coup of the offseason in poaching Chris Henderson from Seattle to be the team’s Chief Soccer Operator and Sporting Director. The impact of the Henderson hire is already evident in the signings of Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam, and Gregore, who was a DP target for Seattle ahead of last season. On paper Inter Miami looks like a club that could actually be really good. Like scary good. They have some bonafide starpower in Rodolfo Pizarro, Gonzalo Higuain, and Blaise Matuidi who are clearly foundational pieces, and they have players like Gregore and Lewis Morgan, who was a revelation in 2020, who could really elevate the team to contender level. They need to resolve their issue of having four DP’s on the roster, which will likely result in the trade of Matias Pellegrini, but that will likely bring assets to further improve the roster. Expectations will once again be high, and I think Miami will improve greatly in year two.
2020 Record: 8W-13L-2D (26 pts) 9th in the East. Lost in Playoff Play-In Round.
Key Additions: Djordje Mihailovic, Kiki Struna, Kamal Miller, Sebastian Breza, Joaquin Torres, Bjørn Johnsen, Ahmed Hamdi, Erik Hurtado
Key Losses: Saphir Taider, Bojan, Jukka Raitala, Orji Okwonkwo
New Coach: Wilfried Nancy
Club de Foot Montreal is a team in total transition. The team formerly known as Montreal Impact will have Wilfried Nancy step in as their 4th head coach since 2019 with the recent departure of Thierry Henry. Henry left the club for family reasons and the timing, just a week ahead of training camp, has left the team in a lurch. You can’t blame him considering the Canadian teams will be forced to play home games in the US for another season due to international travel restrictions. Their home games are currently scheduled to be played in Fort Lauderdale, more than 1600 miles away from Montreal. On the field, the roster also has a number of incoming players, many of whom are coming from within MLS, who will slot in as starters. Victor Wanyama is the team’s only real star and he hasn’t exactly lit the league on fire. Incoming striker Bjorn Johnsen, Romell Quioto, and Mason Toye are all interesting attacking pieces, but they don’t make Montreal something for opponents to fear week in and week out. Expectations should be low for Club de Foot and a repeat playoff appearance would be considered a hugely successful campaign. The team will need to rally behind their shared adversity and redefine their identity to avoid a wooden spoon race.
2020 Record: 8W-7L-8D (32 pts) 7th in the East. Lost in Conference Semifinals
Key Additions: Rodrigo Pineiro, CJ Sapong, Dylan Nealis, Robert Castellanos
Key Losses: David Accam (loan)
Unlike Inter Miami, Nashville SC far exceeded expectations finishing with a winning record in their inaugural season and qualifying for the playoffs. Not only did they make the playoffs, but they made a bit of noise once they got there, pushing eventual champions Columbus Crew to the brink in the Conference Semifinals before losing in extra time. Nashville found success going with a pragmatic, defensive style of play, which was to be expected under head coach Gary Smith. In addition to their defensive strengths, Nashville also led the league with 12 set piece goals. Look for Nashville to try playing a more expansive style in 2021 as they try to find ways to score more from open play. The attack will be led by DP’s Jhonder Cadiz, Hany Muhktar, and Randall Leal, who never started together in 2020. Even if the offense doesn’t take that next step Nashville should still feature one of the league’s best defences still. The defense will once again be anchored by 2020 MLS Defender of the Year, Walker Zimmerman, with the protection of Dax McCarty ahead of the backline. Nashville may not be flashy, but they have already become a tough team to break down with no clear weaknesses for opponents to target. We should see more of the same in 2021 from Nashville, with the team having a very high floor and ceiling. Making it one step further to the Conference Finals is not out of the question, but I don’t see Nashville as a Cup contender unless their defense becomes historically good. As the saying goes, “Defense Wins Championships”.
New England Revolution
2020 Record: 8W-7L-8D (32 pts) 8th in the East. Lost in Conference Finals.
Key Additions: Christian Mafla, Arnor Traustason, Wilfrid Kaptoum, Ema Boateng
Key Losses: Christian Penilla, Diego Fagundez, Michael Mancienne, Andrew Buttner, Kelyn Rowe
Without the expanded playoff field, the Revs actually would have missed the playoffs in 2020. Once there, with a healthy lineup, it was clear that their record and 8th seed were not indicative of their true level. New England made a run all the way to the Eastern Conference Final losing a close matchup vs. the eventual champion Columbus Crew. Another day and we could have been talking about New England as potential champs right now. I still don’t know if we saw the full force of New England in the playoffs even with their complete attack of Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou, and Adam Buksa. They’ve further improved the roster at every area of need this offseason by bringing in Cristain Mafla at left-back, Wilfried Kaptoum to beef up the midfield and Arnor Trausason on the wing to further bolster one of the league’s best attacking units. In addition to that they also have a matchwinner in net with Matt Turner. It feels like the Revs have another gear they could tap into, which the rest of the league should be scared of, if and when that happens. If Bruce Arena can manage their legs and keep the roster healthy, New England has a real shot getting their first ever MLS Cup. New England should be one of the league’s top teams throughout the year and a threat in every competition.
New York City FC
2020 Record: 12W-8L-3D (39 pts) 5th in the East. Lost in Round of 16.
Key Additions: Thiago Andrade, Malte Amundsen, Chris Gloster, Alfredo Morales, Cody Mizell
Key Losses: Alex Ring, Ronald Matarita, Gary Mackay-Steven
No team may be harder to evaluate than NYCFC heading into 2021. The Pigeons had an okay 2020 season, but never really had their first choice 11 healthy at the same time with Maxi Moralez and Heber missing significant time. Heber will still miss the start of this upcoming season as he continues his recovery from a torn ACL. Looking at the state of the roster, the subtractions this offseason feel greater than the additions thus far, but the lineup looks like one that is still a playoff team. I think the Ring-sized hole in midfield will be felt by the backline unless NYC becomes a very high possession team. That is a possibility with the midfield rotation of James Sands, Keaton Parks, and recent addition Alfredo Morales. NYCFC also traded one of the league’s best left-backs in Ronald Mattarita and look to replace his output with two starting-caliber guys in Malte Amundsen and Chris Gloster. NYVFC’s success really boils down to whether or not they are able to create scoring opportunities and build momentum in the attacking third as the season progresses. As it stands, their ceiling is a top 3 finish in the East and their floor is missing the playoffs for the first time in their 6 year existence.
New York Red Bulls
2020 Record: 9W-9L-5D (32 pts) 6th in the East. Lost in the Round of 16.
Key Additions: Fábio Netto (loan), Tom Edwards (loan), Youba Diarra (loan), Andres Reyes, Wikelman Carmona, Cameron Harper, Carlos Coronel, Andrew Gutman, Frankie Amaya
Key Losses: Tim Parker, Kaku
New Coach: Gerhard Struber
Gerhard Struber technically has 1 game under his belt as Red Bulls manager, at the helm for the Red Bulls 2-3 playoff loss to the Crew, but in essence they will start 2021 with a new coach and a new approach. With a bevy of offseason additions and a reported recalibration of philosophy, we can expect a return to the high-flying, high-pressure Red Bull system that took the league by storm in the Jesse Marsch Red Bull’s days. The question is how quickly and how effectively Struber can get that going? As much as the names don’t jump off the page, it’s hard to write off the Red Bulls as they have made the playoffs each of the last 11 seasons and 17 of the last 18. Despite that track record I find myself placing them on the outside, looking in when it comes to the playoff picture. If there’s a year where the wheels could fall off it could be during this mini reset for the franchise. With the melodrama exit of Kaku, they’ll be placing a lot on the shoulders of 18 year-old Caden Clark to direct and create in the midfield. Their biggest offensive addition, Brazilian forward Fábio, is also a big question mark on whether or not he can perform at the MLS level. To me, the Red Bull roster is missing something, or maybe several things, and it will take some time to get things right before we can talk about the Red Bulls as a serious contender again. It's too much of a leap to assume the high press will work again in New York right out of the gate with the pieces they have.
Orlando City SC
2020 Record: 11W-4L-8D (41 pts) 4th in the East. Lost in Conference Semifinals
Key Additions: Alexandre Pato, Silvester van der Water, Brandon Austin
Key Losses: Daryl Dike (loan), Kamal Miller, Dom Dwyer, Alex de John
2020 was a breakthrough year for Orlando City, an organization that had struggled to find much success on or off the field since joining MLS in 2015. Guided by Oscar Pareja, the Lions started last year hot, making it to the MLS is Back Final. They carried that momentum to a solid regular season which saw them finish tied with Philly for fewest losses with only 4. This led the team to qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They struggled to keep their cool in the playoffs, leading to an earlier exit than they had hoped. 2021 will be very telling for the trajectory of the team’s future as they look to build on their new found success. The talk of the MLS town this offseason has been the highly successful loan spell and meteoric stock rise of forward, Daryl Dike, while at Barnsley. Whether Dike returns to Orlando this season or not, they should be set with multiple attacking options including newcomer Alexandre Pato as well as Nani and Chris Mueller. The unsung hero of the team though is Mauricio Pereyra whose skill, leadership, and impact is on par with but overshadowed by the likes of Lucas Zelarayan, Carles Gil, and Bebelo Reynoso across MLS. If the Lions can remain healthy and manage their on field emotions, they can absolutely take that next step as serious title contenders. It would take a total collapse for them to miss the playoffs.
2020 Record: 14W-4L-5D (47 pts) 1st in the East. Won Supporter’s Shield. Lost in Round of 16.
Key Additions: Stuart Findlay, Leon Flach
Key Losses: Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Ray Gaddis (retired)
2020 turned out to be a banner year for the Philadelphia Union. They won the Supporter’s Shield and ended the season with a perfect home record of 9-0-0. Despite that success, Philadelphia is still a really hard team to evaluate heading into 2021 because they lost 3 starters this offseason, two of whom were true linchpins to the style of play that Jim Curtin wants to see from the Union. Others will have to fill the shoes of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. For the midfield, the proverbial keys will be handed to Anthony Fontana to step in at the tip of the midfield in the Union’s 4-4-2 diamond. At center-back, the loss of McKenzie will likely be evident in some softer goals conceded and some different build up from the back. Philly still has a strong center-back pairing in Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes with Stuart Findlay as a solid backup to them. I think most people have Philadelphia pegged for a regression to the mean, but there’s a real chance that they will continue to show year-on-year improvement as they have over the past 5 seasons. So what’s an improvement from an undefeated home slate and a Supporter’s Shield? It’s more trophies, like MLS Cup, and imposing your style of play on opponents week in and week out to great effect. I think Philadelphia can still do that.
2020 Record: 13W-5L-5D (44 pts) 2nd in the East. Lost in Round of 16.
Key Additions: literally none
Key Losses: Pablo Piatti
New Coach: Chris Armas
Pozuelo. Let’s just start there with TFC. The reigning MLS MVP will dictate what Toronto can or can’t accomplish in 2021. Another MVP-level season and TFC will be in the hunt for trophies. Anything less and things could get ugly, quick. Of the Canadian teams, Toronto handled the adversity of having to play an entire season out of country best, but ultimately had nothing to show for it and will head into 2021 with the same nomadic challenges with at least two home games being held in Orlando. This season feels a bit like the last hoorah for this era of TFC as Michael Bradley isn’t getting any younger, Jozy Altidore isn’t getting more durable, and Greg Vanney is gone and replaced by Chris Armas. The coaching move in particular doesn’t excite and is at best a lateral move for the organization. Armas struggled as the boss in New York, moving away from the aforementioned Red Bull system and there are questions aplenty about what he will try to implement with his new roster. On a positive note, they have an open DP slot with the departure of Pablo Piatti, and the team which is otherwise unchanged, was good enough to finish 2nd in the East last year and in the Supporter’s Shield race. Perhaps they can bring in a game-changer midseason and the narrative surrounding the Reds could change from being a good team to a great team. If that doesn’t happen, and TFC takes a step backwards under Armas, wholesale changes could be on the horizon following 2021. You can probably pencil them in as a playoff team, but I think there’s a real chance they end up on the wrong side of the playoff line in what should be a tightly contested Eastern Conference for a team that seems to be teetering between eras.
2020 Record: N/A
Key Additions: DP Cecilio Dominguez, DP Tomás Pochettino, Alex Ring, Nick Lima, Zan Kolmanic (loan), Daniel Pereira, Jhohan Romaña
Key Losses: N/A
New Coach: Josh Wolff
There’s a great deal to like about the foundation that has been built heading into year 1 for Austin FC. Both on and off the field it looks like they are doing a lot right with a gorgeous new soccer-specific stadium, a sellout of season tickets, and a roster that looks better than a wooden spoon contender. The energy around the team is something to be excited and optimistic about. We’ll have to see how the pieces come together and how Josh Wolff can manage in his rookie coaching season, but I think it’s safe to say that expectations are that this team can be competitive and fight for a playoff spot right out of the gates. The roster has a nice blend of MLS vets, international starters, and high-ceiling Designated Players in Cecilio Dominguez and Tomás Pochettino. While Danny Hoesen isn’t the strongest forward in the league, the real question in my eyes is not with the attack but with how the team will fare defensively? Alex Ring will be a rock at defensive midfield, but the center-back pairing of Matt Besler, who fell out of favor in Kansas City, and Jhonan Romaña, an unproven center-back against MLS attackers, is a big question mark. If those two don’t jive, Austin may struggle throughout the season regardless of how Hoesen and the rest of the attack performs. In year 1, Austin should strive to build a clear style and a clear culture and grow from there.
2020 Record: 8W-6L-4D (28 pts) 5th in the West. Lost in Round of 16.
Key Additions: Phillip Mayaka, Michael Barrios, Dantouma “Yaya” Toure, Michael Edwards
Key Losses: Edgar Castillo
No team was hit harder by Covid exposure cancellations in 2020 than the Colorado Rapids. Despite playing a mere 18 regular season games, the fewest of any MLS team, the Rapids showed some real progress in their first full season under Robin Fraser. They had a good bit of momentum heading into the playoffs, playing some really attractive soccer and qualified as the 5th seed based on points per game. Clearly the front office likes the direction the team is headed with few changes to the lineup this offseason. Phillip Mayaka, the consensus best player in this year’s SuperDraft, fell to Colorado with the third overall pick, so it will be interesting to see how they work him into the midfield mix as a piece for the future. The Rapids hope that 19 year-old midfielder Cole Bassett is the next Brendan Aaronson of the league, as his 5 goals and 5 assists in only 14 games indicate real star potential. If young players like Bassett and Sam Vines take that next step in their development, the Rapids could punch above their weight a bit. While Colorardo is not likely to compete for any trophies, another playoff appearance is reasonable to expect as the Rapids look to further build a winning culture with their young core.
2020 Record: 9W-6L-7D (34 pts) 6th in the West. Lost in Conference Semifinals.
Key Additions: Jader Obrian, Jose Antonio Martinez, Freddy Vargas, Szabolcs Schön
Key Losses: Thiago Santos, Bryan Reynolds, Reto Ziegler, Michael Barrios, Santiago Mosquera, Brandon Servania
FC Dallas has become a steady and reliable mid-table club pretty much year in and year out. They are a tough team to beat and a club that will grind out results when they matter the most but suffer from really rough home-road splits as evidenced by their undefeated home record paired with only 1 win on the road in 2020. Their weakness for several seasons has been a fairly punchless attack. Expectations were high for Franco Jara to change that and take the team to the next level, and that really didn’t happen. His 7 goals scored led the team by a large margin, so he needs help. This offseason the club went out and got Jader Obrian and Freddy Vargas to spice up the attack on the wings and they stabilized the backline by bringing in Jose Antonio Martinez to replace the outgoing Reto Ziegler. Time will tell if those moves are lateral or vertical for the club. Dallas will be getting Paxton Pomykal back from injury and it looks like Jesus Ferreira is in form heading into the season, which is a very good thing as those two will be critical to the team’s success if they can take the next step in their development. I expect Dallas to be a fringe playoff team once again in the loaded West and I don’t think they are at the level to compete for hardware, yet.
2020 Record: 4W-10L-9D (21 pts) 12th in the West. Missed the Playoffs.
Key Additions: Tim Parker, Maxi Urruti, Fafa Picault, Joe Corona, Derrick Williams, Tyler Pasher
Key Losses: Kiki Struna, Tomas Martinez
Houston, we have a problem. In 2020, their first season under Tab Ramos, the Dynamo secured a franchise low of only 4 wins, tied with wooden spoon winner’s FC Cincinnati for fewest wins on the year. That led to a last place finish in the West and missing the playoffs for the 5th time in 6 seasons. It’s going to be a real stretch for them to get out of the cellar and qualify this year unless they really overperform projections. Their offseason additions were mainly MLS veterans who will slot in as starters. None of the additions will elevate the team to new heights unless Tim Parker stands on his head in central defense alongside 37 year-old Maynor Figueroa. Winger Mateo Bajamich was signed in October but hasn’t appeared for the club yet, so you can put him in the mix for key additions as well as he is a bit of a wildcard addition. Darwin Quintero is the only other key figure of note for Houston as he looks to build on a pretty good 7 goal, 10 assist season which actually was among the league leaders in terms of midfield production. Keep an eye on when Houston scores in 2021 as the bulk of their goals came in the second half of games in 2020. If they can correct that trend, they may find more results. At the end of the day, Houston doesn’t look like a team that will move the needle in MLS unless there are some really major midseason additions. They are probably good enough to avoid winning the wooden spoon, but not by much.
Los Angeles Galaxy
2020 Record: 6W-12L-4D (22 pts) 10th in the West. Missed the Playoffs.
Key Additions: Kevin Cabral, Derrick Williams, Samuel Grandsir, Jonathan Bond, Victor Vazquez, Jorge Villafana, Jonathan Klinnsman, Oniel Fisher, Carlos Harvey
Key Losses: Cristian Pavon, Rolf Feltscher, Joe Corona, Perry Kitchen, David Bingham, Emiliano Insua, Yony Gonzalez
New Coach: Greg Vanney
The argument could be made that the Galaxy enter the season as the team with the highest ceiling and the lowest floor. They could be legitimate contenders or they could miss the playoffs altogether for the third time in four years. New coach Greg Vanney is being tasked with bringing a winning mentality back to Carson, and he may need time, but GM Dennis te Kloese has done some serious work this offseason filling gaps in the roster. First and foremost, the Galaxy desperately needed to address their defensive deficiencies this offseason, and they have brought in center-back Derrick Williams and goalkeeper Jonathan Bond to hopefully close the gap that saw the team finish with an abysmal -19 goal differential in 2020. The loss of Cristian Pavon is significant and they will need to have hit big on the Samuel Grandsir and Kevin Cabral signings to make up for his offensive contributions. If they can step in and bring creativity and some oomph to the attack while also providing good service to Chicharito, then the Galaxy could take a big step in the right direction. Speaking of Chicharito, he finished 2020 with a pathetic goal total of 2, far below expectations. I think it’s a stretch to see 20 goals from him at this point, but if he can adjust to MLS and fill the star role of occupying center-backs, that will go a long way in setting the Galaxy on a contender course. Anything less and it will be another long season for a team that is now well in the shadow of…..
Los Angeles FC
2020 Record: 9W-8L-5D (32 pts) 7th in the West. Lost in the Round of 16.
Key Additions: Corey Baird, Kim Moon-hwan, Marco Farfan, Cal Jennings, Raheem Edwards
Key Losses: Bradley Wright Phillips, Brian Rodriguez (loan), Adrien Perez
My bold prediction for 2021 is that LAFC will return to their 2019 form and set new records as the best team in MLS history. With a healthy Carlos Vela and a loaded roster behind him, there’s no reason for LAFC to not be competing for all the marbles in every competition. A treble is not out of the question when you consider how close this team came to winning the CONCACAF Champions League with a healthy roster. Diego Rossi won the Golden Boot with 14 goals despite being a streaky scorer, with no Vela on the field to help him. If they are both on the field and healthy together, who knows how many goals and assists they can tally. The black and gold really hit their stride once they added Jesus David Murrillo to play alongside Eddie Segura. The center-back pairing is arguably the best in the league and is capable of shutting down any attack in the league. The only real concerns for LAFC are if Danny Musovski and Corey Baird are up to the task to replace Brian Rodriguez and Bradley Wright Phillips’ offensive output. It may not be necessary for them to if they can provide support to Vela and Rossi. At the end of the day, LAFC should be adding to the trophy cabinet in some way in 2021 if the first choice squad stays together through the year with Rossi, Segura, and Eduard Atuesta all reportedly drawing interest from overseas. If LAFC walks away without any trophies, that would be a disappointment.
Minnesota United FC
2020 Record: 9W-5L-7D (34 pts) 4th in the West. Lost in the Conference Finals.
Key Additions: Ramón “Wanchope” Ábila, Wil Trapp, Jukka Raitala, Juan Agudelo, Niko Hansen, Callum Montgomery, Patrick Weah, Adrian Zendejas
Key Losses: Kevin Molino, Luis Amarilla, Aaron Schoenfeld, Kei Kamara, Wyatt Omsberg, Thomas Chacon
Minnesota United were so close to the 2020 MLS Cup that they could taste it. If not for an epic collapse late against Seattle in the Western Conference Final, we could be talking about Minnesota as MLS Cup champs right now. The midseason addition of Bebelo Reynoso cannot be understated. He and Kevin Molino were on fire down the stretch and in the playoffs, and Reynoso is a not-so-dark-horse candidate for MVP. His 8 assists in one postseason is a new MLS record. Losing Molino to the Columbus Crew in free agency will hurt, but the blow was severely lessened by the signing of striker Ramón Ábila from Boca Juniors. If Minnesota is also successful in signing Argentine winger Franco Fragapane from Talleres, as they are rumored to do, then Minnesota’s attack will be among the league’s best, on par with LAFC, New England, Portland and Atlanta. The Loons may need some reinforcements midseason on the backline, but they have very good coverage in net with Dayne St. Clair who performed at a Goalkeeper of the Year level filling in for the injured Tyler Miller. If there’s one team that can keep pace with LAFC in the West, Minnesota’s the one. Trophies are a real possibility this year for the Loons.
Portland Timbers FC
2020 Record: 11W-6L-6D (39 pts) 3rd in the West. Lost in Round of 16.
Key Additions: Claudio Bravo, Jose Carlos Van Rankin
Key Losses: Jorge Villafana, Michael Farfan, Chris Duvall, Julio Cascante, Tomas Conechny
2020 was not a total loss for the Portland Timbers who came up short with an early playoff exit. They had early season success, winning the MLS is Back Tournament and were firing on all cylinders before Sebastian Blanco, who was having an MVP-caliber season, went down with a torn ACL. The Timbers return most of their squad that, when healthy, boasts one of the league’s deepest and best attacks. How Gio Savarese gets Jeremy Ebobisse, Felipe Mora, and DP Jaroslaw Niezgoda on the field will be a trick, but Portland shouldn’t be short on attacking weapons. The main concern, as it has been for a couple seasons now, will be if father time catches up to Timbers talisman’s Diego Valeri and Diego Chara. In their first Champions League matchup both seemed fit and flying, so no reason to doubt them. Much like the Chicago Fire, the Timbers’ Achilles Heel was conceding late goals as they did against FC Dallas in the 1st round of the playoffs. The hope is that the offseason additions of Claudio Bravo and Jose Carlos Van Rankin at outside back shore up that weakness. If they do, the Timbers are built to contend and are among the league’s best teams heading into 2021. If they don’t then Portland may look to revamp the roster as the era of Dos Diego's draws to a close.
Real Salt Lake
2020 Record: 5W-10L-7D (22 pts) 11th in the West. Missed the Playoffs.
Key Additions: Bobby Wood (Will join team in July), Rubio Rubin, Anderson Julio (loan)
Key Losses: Kyle Beckerman (retired), Corey Baird
RSL is a team in complete transition when it comes to on and off field culture. Without a true owner, it has been expressed that they will not be tapping into discretionary spending, so there are some real restrictions on what they can do to beef up the roster. Offseason signings Bobby Wood, Rubio Rubin, and Anderson Julio will be asked to carry the load, and we really don’t know how successful they will perform in MLS and together. RSL doesn’t really have a line of strength, which is concerning. You look at the roster and are left asking, who will be the team’s leader? Albert Rusnak is about the only guy who comes to mind, and that’s concerning. They will rely heavily on homegrown players to provide depth and bridge the gap until a new ownership group will likely come in and clean house. The vibe around the team is not a good one and if they perform well, it will be a bit of a surprise. I really think RSL will be in the mix for the wooden spoon as I just don’t see them being much of a threat on either side of the ball. They are just one of the few teams that are clearly trending in the wrong direction.
San Jose Earthquakes
2020 Record: 8W-9L-6D (30 pts) 8th in the West. Lost in Round of 16.
Key Additions: Eduardo “La Chofis” Lopez (loan), Eric Remedi, Luciano Abecasis
Key Losses: Nick Lima, Vako, Guram Kashia, Magnus Eriksson
The Earthquakes have probably been the most mercurial team over the last two seasons in MLS under Matias Almeyda. When they are playing their best they have incredible fight and have shown the ability to throw haymakers against the best teams in the league. When things aren’t clicking though, they look downright awful. In September of last year, they hit rock bottom conceding an unfathomable 26 goals in an 8 game stretch. Despite that poor run of form and a -16 goal differential, they were still able to nudge their way into the expanded playoff field, taking Sporting KC to PK’s in the first round with a late comeback in regulation. The marker of an Almeyda coached team is their grit, fight, and determination right to the final whistle. That attitude can be seen in the stats too, where they led the league in 2020 with 12 goals in the final 15 minutes of games. Some of that determination may also be spurred by MLS all-time leading goalscorer, Chris Wondolowski, who is returning for one last season to cap his legendary MLS career. Will his career end in glory? That may actually come down to the addition of La Chofis in San Jose’s midfield. La Chofis thrived under Almeyda at Chivas de Guadalajara, with the pair winning 5 trophies together in Mexico. If San Jose can find more balance and consistency, especially defensively, they can compete with just about anybody, anyday. A Supporter’s Shield feels like a longshot, but a deep playoff run may be in the cards for the Quakes. If they miss the playoffs, Almeyda and many of the players will likely be on their way out.
Seattle Sounders FC
2020 Record: 11W-5L-6D (39 pts) 2nd in the West. Lost MLS Cup.
Key Additions: Fredy Montero, Spencer Richey, Kelyn Rowe
Key Losses: Jordan Morris (Loan/Injury), Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam, Gustav Svensson, Roman Torres
The Seattle Sounders have made it to the MLS Cup Final in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Last year, they entered the game as consensus favorites, but were easily trounced by the Columbus Crew. A win and we would be talking about the Sounder’s dynasty, but instead we’re looking at a team that came up short with no trophies in 2020 and a roster with new holes heading into 2021. Jordan Morris, who blossomed into a Best XI player on the wing was loaned out to Swansea City and suffered a terrible ACL injury which has led to a truly worst case scenario for both player and club. That loss is compounded by the other outgoing starters Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam, and Gustav Svensson. For the first time in a long time, there are real questions about Seattle’s roster and how they can compete for a title. It’s not all doom and gloom for the Sounders as they still have a very strong lineup featuring DP’s Nicolas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, and João Paulo. They’ve qualified for the playoff every year of their existence, a league record 12 seasons in a row, and they still have a competitive roster. There’s no reason to bet against another playoff run as they will likely look to bolster the roster in the summer. Going into the season though, the roster implies there will be a slight regression from the Sounders in 2021, potentially opening the door for another club in the West to make an MLS Cup run.
2020 Record: 12W-6L-3D (39 pts) 1st in the West. Lost in the Conference Semifinals.
Key Additions: Remi Walter, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin
Key Losses: Gerso Fernandez, Felipe Gutierrez, Matt Besler, Erik Hurtado, Winston Reid
Sporting Kansas City had a forgettable end to their 2020 campaign, falling victim to the Minnesota United buzzsaw in the playoffs. The regular season saw KC finish first in the West, a ten position improvement from 2019, but many pundits were unimpressed with SKC’s strength of schedule. Sporting was without two of their DP’s for much of the season in 2020 with Felipe Gutierrez out injured and Alan Pulido unavailable down the stretch and in the playoffs. Pulido was a highly effective player when on the field though and is still the marquee player on the roster heading into 2021, capable of putting the team on his shoulders. He is another dark horse candidate for Golden Boot and MVP, if he stays healthy. To take the next step forward and add to the trophy case in 2021, SKC will need to improve defensively. Peter Vermes has struggled to find a consistent and reliable center-back pairing for SKC since Ike Opara left town. With longtime team captain Matt Besler now gone, the hope is that new addition Nicolas Isimat-Mirin can step in and hold down the backline alongside Roberto Puncec. The midfield rotation of Remi Walter, Ilie Sanchez, Gianluca Busio, Gadi Kinda, and Roger Espinoza will be one of the most versatile in MLS, but the question is who starts and where? The hope is that Busio can live up to his potential and step into the #10 creator role. The potential for this roster is clear as they should be a playoff team and if everything clicks, could be among the league’s elite teams. If not, it could be another long season.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
2020 Record: 9W-14L-0D (27 pts) 9th in the West. Missed the Playoffs.
Key Additions: Deiber Caicedo (U-22), Caio Alexandre (U-22), Bruno Gaspar
Key Losses: David Milinkovic, Fredy Montero
2020 was an odd season with Vancouver never securing a draw. Each game was an all-or-nothing, win or loss. Since they missed the expanded playoff field by 3 points, you could attribute that to their inability to secure points in their 14 losses. Or you could attribute it to a -17 goal differential. The front office has been bold and overhauled the roster over the past two seasons, addressing nearly every position except the #10. They’ve been rumored to fill the spot with a Designated Player, but it looks like that will have to wait until summer at this point. The key additions of Deiber Caicedo, Caio Alexandre, and Bruno Gaspar all should be immediate starters and net positives from the offseason for a Whitecaps side looking to turn the tide on their MLS misfortunes. If they are slow out of the gates, the rope may be reaching its end for Marc Dos Santos who has only been able to get Vancouver to show flashes of positive play over the past two seasons. Part of that is due to the Whitecaps bending their formations and tactics to counter their opponent’s strengths rather imposing their own. The hope in 2021 is that Vancouver can finally establish a clear style of play and have a real breakthrough in results. On paper that style should be a counter attacking team with threats on both outside flanks. I would love to see Vancouver play a style similar to the Portland Timbers. If they are successful, a return to the playoffs could be in the cards for the Caps.