As we begin another Major League Soccer season, all of the usual caveats apply. Between the international aspect of the sport and the shallow nature of many rosters, MLS often sees the most turbulent and difficult to follow off-seasons in the US. And as this season begins, there is a larger than usual influx of what, on paper, appears to be quality international players than usual, adding to the variability.
So please, read these with a pinch of salt. Also, be cautious about early results. If the pattern of previous seasons holds, most teams are much more focused on getting their chemistry and flow going than trying to break down the opponent. That has often led to a larger number of early-season ties, mixed with a few extreme results. Many international players will be getting their first taste of how crazy travel is in a league that covers four time zones.
Many other players will be working their way into game shape rather than being anywhere near peak performance. That will often benefit teams with a more stable roster that, as the season progresses, is shown to maybe not be as good as others that take more time to gel.
You also have two new expansion teams. Both Inter Miami and Nashville SC took a more Atlanta United/LAFC approach than a Minnesota United/FC Cincinnati approach to their inaugural season. The question will be how well did they execute against that plan.
As it is the pre-season rankings, we are going to go with groupings rather than actual rankings.
The bottom line? For a variety of reasons (details below), we think 2020 will be the most competitive season in MLS history, both in terms of the difference between teams, but also in terms of the quality of teams. There will be some good soccer teams that do not make the playoffs in 2020.
Easily the deepest group of top-shelf teams we have seen.
Los Angeles Football Club. Bob Bradley’s side was the cream of the crop in MLS last year, with some saying they might be the best team in league history. And then they weren’t. But make no mistake, Vela is still a major difference-maker and they will be strong again in 2020.
NYCFC. This is a team to watch closely in 2020. They flew under the radar screen for much of last year, but finished at the top of the East and deservedly so. They will begin this campaign with a lot of confidence.
Atlanta United. After a rough start, Frank De Boer got Atlanta back to their winning ways and they finished 2019 well. They should be quality this year as well.
Seattle Sounders. Do not underestimate Garth Lagerwey and the Seattle Sounders. The general manager for Seattle since 2015, Lagerwey always seems to make the right moves for Seatle to be there at the end.
Toronto FC. After a few down seasons, you can say the same thing about Toronto FC. Age going to be a question until they prove that they really are back to being at Seattle’s level, but that run last year should put everyone on notice the talent and ability are still there.
This is where we really think MLS is different in 2020 with many teams that are very good
Minnesota United. Clearly, the Loons transformed themselves last year, and return enough talent that they will probably not slide, but this feels like it could be the most competitive season in MLS history.
Real Salt Lake. Freddy Juarez took a very talented team from Mike Petke and showed how dangerous they could be after his predecessor imploded over an international match. RSL may not be in the top tier, but they will be a difficult challenge for most teams.
Philadelphia Union. A young team really showed its potential last year, but also showed it still had some growing to do. Look for them to try to take their best runs from 2019 and try to replicate that over the course of the season. Take note, it is very possible.
Portland Timbers. Last year saw Portland’s schedule warped by stadium renovations, but they were consistently quality, especially when you consider their opponents and venue. They very easily could get better results with a more consistent fixture list.
FC Dallas. The young team that lost Carlos Gruezo mid-season is back with a little more veteran leadership, more experience and potentially that elusive 9 they have been looking for. They may not even have to wait for Francisco Jara to arrive, either, as it appears Zdenek Ondrasek has continued the hot streak he began against Montreal last year and carried not only into the playoffs but also international play. The real question is whether Paxton Pomykal can handle the rigors of being an every-day midfielder for an MLS side. If so, barring major injuries or a complete failure with an international signing, Dallas will be a dangerous game in and game out.
New England Revolution. Bruce Arena with a full off-season? Watch out. This will not be the milquetoast team that struggled so much in recent years.
LA Galaxy. Christian Pavon was a solid addition late in 2019 for the original MLS team in SoCal, and then they add Chicharito? If they can maintain their balance, they can be a much more consistent team in this campaign. This, along with teams like RSL, Dallas, Portland, and the Revs are why this will likely be one of the most competitive seasons in MLS history.
Columbus Crew. Watch out for the Crew. They were one of the stronger sides late in 2019 after Caleb Porter reworked the roster.
Sporting Kansas City. Peter Vermes is too good of a coach to finish outside the playoffs again in 2020. Only if SKC has truly passed their sell-by date will this team struggle this season.
Even in this group, there is likely some really good soccer to be had.
Inter Miami. This team easily could be in the group above, and probably has the talent to be there, but we have traditionally put teams in the lower of two questionable groups and let them earn their way up.
Nashville SC. Some of the questions may not be the same, but the other expansion team has the same level number of questions.
D.C. United. For a team built around what proved to be one of the best internationals to every play in MLS, in terms of how well he embraced the league and gave his best, it will be interesting to watch how they transition.
New York Red Bulls. This team was so amazingly inconsistent last year, despite having the talent to be much better. Do they stabilize or do they struggle? The potential to be good remains.
San Jose Earthquakes. For the middle of 2019, San Jose was one of the best teams in the league. Unfortunately, it took them about a month to figure out how Almeyda wanted them to play, and then they ran themselves into the ground so that they hit a wall late in the year, as apparently Almeyda’s teams have done from time to time. Can they find a way to avoid that fate this year?
Chicago Fire. They finished strong last year, and have a rebranding and a move back to Soldier Field that could inspire different parts of the organization and fanbase. This is a team that would not surprise us to see start brightly.
Colorado Rapids. In the first part of 2019, this was one of the worst teams in the league, but Conor Casey was installed as the interim and he really turned things around. Near the end of the season, Robin Fraser was installed as the coach and they lost a little of that momentum. The question is whether that was adjusting to a third coach in one season, or Fraser was not as effective as Casey. A full offseason should have given the former LA Galaxy defender ample opportunity to establish what he wants to see.
Lots of Questions
Orlando City SC. There is little question that Oscar Pareja knows how to play and coach in MLS. The recent profe at Xolos in Liga MX, he showed he could coach a deeper and more talented roster. The question now is can he work with the roster he was given in South Florida and turn around an organization that has always had higher goals than they have achieved. Often enough in 2019, they were competitive but could not get the difference-making tally.
Montreal Impact. One of a handful of teams that have new coaches that, based on a variety of factors, could make a real difference in their team’s results this season. Thierry Henry knows a little about football and veteran leadership. That doesn’t always translate to good coaching, but add in Henry’s experience in MLS, and it is quite possible.
Houston Dynamo. Tab Ramos begins his time as the head coach of an MLS side with the Houston Dynamo. Lots of experience with the US Youth National program may or may not prepare him for MLS.
Vancouver Whitecaps. Of all the teams in the league last year, this one was the most painful to watch because it seemed they were trying to win the way MLS was won a decade ago, and it was obvious that the league had passed them by.
FC Cincinnati. One of the most inept teams in league history in 2019, they then added an international coach who had no experience with US players – who has subsequently gotten himself suspended. “I have a very bad feeling about this.”