MLS 2021 Season Predictions
It’s always one of the most unpredictable of leagues, this annual exercise is usually futile and can often only end in embarrassment but let’s have a go at guessing how the new MLS season might shape up in 2021.
1. Columbus Crew
Not exactly going against the grain with this one but when the MLS Cup winners only appear to have got stronger over the off-season it’s difficult to look beyond the Crew when it comes to consistency. Lucas Zelarayan showed in MLS Cup the difference he’s made to this team and can do so again over the course of the new campaign - he must surely be a leading MVP candidate. But it’s the strength in depth that should enable Columbus to navigate the MLS schedule better than most – if injuries, international call-ups, or Champions League commitments take their toll on the starting line-up the Crew appear to have a squad deep enough to cope. They’re proven winners under Caleb Porter whilst in Eloy Room, Milton Valenzuela, Jonathan Mensah, Darlington Nagbe and the outstanding Zelarayan they have players all with a case to be considered the best in their position in the league. And it’s a real rarity for the champions to come back stronger – the front office deserve credit for pulling off such a feat where the structure and regulations of this league make that so much more difficult. Not only have they kept together almost all of last years successful squad but they’ve brought in the 6th all-time top scorer in MLS history in Bradley Wright-Phillips as a back-up to Gyasi Zardes, as well as Kevin Molino, who was outstanding for Minnesota in last season’s play-offs. Once he recovers from a hamstring injury he’ll be another excellent option for Porter when the schedule begins to bite over the summer – by when they’ll be moving into a sparkling new stadium. There’s so much to be positive about for the Crew ahead of their title defence.
2. Atlanta United
I probably predicted something similar last year only for the 5 Stripes to crash spectacularly and miss the play-offs in the East despite 10 teams eventually qualifying. That was quite a fall from grace but one I expect to be rectified this time around by the 2018 champions. Perhaps the biggest factor in last years failing was the opening game season ending injury suffered by Josef Martinez from which they never recovered. It may take a bit of time to recover full sharpness but he’s back and if he’s anywhere near his best Atlanta will immediately be propelled back closer to where they believe they belong. Not only that but they have a highly rated new coach in Gabriel Heinze who’s brought in key players to plug important positions. Alan Franco may just prove to be the centre back desperately needed to help Miles Robinson reach the heights he hit in 2019 whilst Franco Ibarra and Santiago Sosa have come in to help provide the balance in midfield and offset the departure of Eric Remedi and retirement of Jeff Larentowicz. Their presence could even go some way towards addressing the chasm caused by Darlington Nagbe’s move to Columbus a year earlier – another major reason for the struggles of 2020. The number of changes means caution is required in case things don’t come together, but the quality at the club suggests they should be capable of working through any teething problems and be back contending when it matters.
3. New England Revolution
I’m expecting big things from the Revs this season. They really got on a roll at the end of the last one to go deep into the play-offs and look well placed to build on that. The return to fitness of Carles Gil was crucial to their upturn in fortunes and if he can stay fit for the whole season they surely won’t be far away and Gil could help bring more out of Gustavo Bou whose ability is not in doubt but who struggled to consistently deliver in his team-mate’s absence last term. The nous of Bruce Arena in the dugout remains one of their greatest assets, he’s a serial winner in this league and with a supporting cast that includes the impressive Matt Turner in goal and the continued development of Tajon Buchanan they could be genuine contenders – maybe even more so when it matters most in the play-offs
4. Orlando City
The Lions made big progress in Oscar Pareja’s first season, reaching the final of MLS is Back and making the play-offs for the first time in franchise history. It will be tough to take similar such leaps this year but I see no reason why that progress shouldn’t at least be sustained and built upon. Such has been Darryl Dike’s impact on loan at Barnsley I wouldn’t expect him to return to return so much might depend if new signing Alexandre Pato can rediscover form and fitness on arrival in Florida. But there’s already enough quality provided by Nani, Mauricio Pereyra and the industrious Chris Mueller to keep them in the higher echelons of the East under the astute leadership and tactical flexibility of Pareja.
5. Toronto FC
Perennial contenders it seems, this could be a tough season for Toronto – which they will start, like the rest of the Canadian clubs, playing the other side of the border. It’s effectively the same squad as last season, something that could be framed either way. Their established stars are approaching veteran status now though, and there’s long been injury concerns over the likes of Jozy Altidore and Chris Mavinga. It’s probably unrealistic to expect Michael Bradley to remain as influential as he has been for so long but they do still have genuine quality, none more so than in last years MVP Alejandro Pozuelo who’s certainly capable of being a difference maker. TFC also have some excellent Academy prospects ready to make a mark and freshen up the squad but finding the right balance could be a difficult task this term and that falls on new coach Chris Armas. He wasn’t entirely convincing in his time in charge of the Red Bulls and this is a major opportunity to enhance his coaching credentials. But expectations are high and following the long serving Greg Vanney is no easy task – if Armas doesn’t deliver, another such chance may not come along again.
6. Philadelphia Union
The Supporters Shield winners last year are unlikely to hit such heights again after the big money sales of Best X1 performers Mark McKenzie and Brendan Aaronson to Europe. But those moves just underline the success of the Union’s model and they should still have enough to at least make the post season again. Once more they’re likely to turn to more home grown talent to fill the void, longer term Brendan’s 17 year old brother Paxten could even be his replacement. That might be a stretch this season but Anthony Fontana looks more than capable of stepping up whilst Andre Blake is amongst the league’s very best goalkeepers and Jose Martinez and Jamiro Monteiro will have a huge influence in midfield. They might not build on last season’s silverware but Jim Curtin will certainly be able to keep this team competitive.
7. New York Red Bulls
Having made the play-offs for the last 11 years in a row I couldn’t quite bring myself to predict them missing out this time – even if that’s based more on a hunch than the prevailing perception of their chances this term. Another club whose playing staff has undergone big changes, I expect the appointment of Gerhard Struber to successfully return this team to its familiar high pressing identity which had been diluted somewhat over the last couple of years. That certainly appears to be the primary reason for Kevin Thelwell bringing in Struber late last season and whilst they might not have the big names he will have plenty of young talent to try and mould. Caden Clark burst on to the scene in spectacular style last year and looks a huge prospect, Frankie Amaya will be a very useful signing if confirmed whilst much might depend on Fabio making the step up from the Brazilian 2nd tier to offer a different option up top and Aaron Long rediscovering his best form at the back, particularly after and in spite of, the departure of regular defensive partner Tim Parker. I can see the Red Bulls confounding the critics and continuing their record of qualification consistency, even if they’ll likely come up well short in their elusive quest for a 1st MLS Cup.
8. Chicago Fire
This one is a bit of a shot in the dark given that Chicago have seemingly stuck with the squad that missed the play-offs last year. But there’s plenty of scope for improvement after a year which came on the back of huge changes at the club. A new coach, a return to Soldier Field, an almost entirely new roster recruited – it was effectively a total reset which was always unlikely to reap instant rewards. Instead that progress may come in year 2 under Raphael Wicky, certainly that’s the expectation which will add to the pressure, but this time they have the stability to build upon. They have a goalscorer in Robert Beric, quality in midfield in Gaston Gimenez and Alvaro Medran, and a player in Ignacio Aliseda who has the potential to improve significantly and help Fire Chicago into the play-offs this time around – I think they’ll be close but might just miss out again.
It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see them finish a few spots higher and make the play-offs again having impressed many during a very solid expansion season. Coach Gary Smith has earned his contract extension and Walker Zimmerman was the defender of the year in 2020 and I expect them to be well drilled and tough to break down again. But scoring goals was the issue for much of last season and I suspect that may be a recurring problem, even with the additions of Rodrigo Pineiro and CJ Sapong who will certainly provide greater options in attack. The opposition now know what to expect from Nashville and how they navigate their 2nd season will be an interesting subplot to the season.
10. Inter Miami
One of the toughest teams to predict this year. So much was expected from their expansion season which fell well short and because of those expectations there’s many changes in Miami. A new coach in Phil Neville, a new sporting director in Chris Henderson, brought in from Seattle, and a number of new arrivals to the roster. Such is the ambition, spearheaded of course by David Beckham, that this team will surely succeed at some stage, it’s just a matter of when. They certainly have the quality in the squad, a World Cup winner in Blaise Matuidi, a proven goalscorer in Gonzalo Higuain and a Mexican international in his prime in Rodolfo Pizarro to name just 3. Of the new signings Kelvin Leerdam provides proven MLS pedigree, Ryan Shawcross and, come the summer, Kieran Gibbs add experience. But at the moment the squad looks more like a collection of talented individuals than a cohesive unit – that’s the challenge for Neville, one predecessor Diego Alonso never quite got to grips with. Get it right and the rewards will be within reach but I think they might have to wait another year.
11. New York City FC
It says much about the possible strength of the Eastern Conference this year that I have NYCFC this low. They might not have won silverware in MLS courtesy of perennial play-off mishaps, but they’re usually there or thereabouts in the regular season. I suspect even that may change this term unless they get busy in the transfer market, currently retaining the flexibility to bring in a big name or 2. But as it stands they’re likely to suffer from the loss of regulars Ronald Mataritta and particularly Alex Ring. Heber’s return to fitness can’t come soon enough but isn’t imminent and they may struggle for someone to put the ball in the net, even if Maxi Moralez can still be relied upon to assume the creative responsibility, which may be a big ask at this advanced stage of his career. On the flip side Anton Tinnerholm is widely regarded as the best right back in the league and emerging talent James Sands could have an even bigger part to play in midfield. There’s still plenty of talent but a few too many unanswered questions right now.
12. FC Cincinnati
Bottom of the lot in their first 2 seasons, things can surely only get better for FC Cincinnati as they move into a new West End Stadium. They certainly can’t be faulted for ambition this year, spending a reported record 13 million dollars on young Brazilian forward Brenner and bringing Luciano Acosta back to MLS to try and create the chances. They’ll surely be much more of a threat going forward, although that’s not saying much, and it’s far from guaranteed the new boys will hit the ground running. Much more will also be needed from Jurgen Locadia who generated similar excitement a year ago only to score once in 17 games and it’s uncertain he’ll hang around beyond the summer. I expect improvement from Jaap Stam’s side but it’s all relative and it’ll probably take more time to transform them into contenders.
13. DC United
New coach Hernan Losada’s arrival means it’s something of a step into the unknown for the Capital club after a decade under the guidance of Ben Olsen. The Argentine is highly rated and promises to make DC a more exciting team to watch. But the squad looks thin and I’m anticipating teething problems. Losada certainly needs to get greater productivity from Julian Gressel who has the potential to provide so much more than last season, as does record signing Edison Flores. They do have some promising youngsters coming through as well and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the likes of Moses Nyeman but injuries are already beginning to mount even before the season has started. If that continues through the tough summer months this squad may struggle to cope.
14. CF Montreal
The sudden departure of Thierry Henry in the off-season and a significant roster rebuild means this could be a difficult campaign for the Canadian club – who also face the added difficulty of starting the season playing their ‘home’ games in Fort Lauderdale. Henry’s replacement Wilfried Nancy knows the club well and is perhaps a deserving choice to lead their rebrand but the squad looks short of genuine attacking quality even if the addition of Djordje Mihailovic from Chicago could go some way towards addressing that. The picture is more promising at the other end, Luis Binks has impressed at centre back and Victor Wanyama in defensive midfield may well be their main man – an issue in itself, maybe, which highlights the lack of a goal threat. They snuck into the expanded play-offs last season but a repeat looks unlikely.
This looks the strongest squad in the West on paper and I’d expect them to be closer to the record breaking 2019 version of themselves than last years. The absence of Carlos Vela for varying reasons for much of 2020 would clearly hurt any team and he showcased his importance late last year with their run to the Champions League final – he’s quite probably still the best player in this league this year. Diego Rossi often stepped up when Vela was sidelined to ensure the goals kept coming last term and so far at least remains at the club so those two in tandem should ensure more than enough firepower. The addition of Corey Baird from RSL also increases the variety of attacking options in depth despite the loan departure of Brian Rodriguez who never quite made the impact hoped for. It’s also no mean feat to go into the season with the much vaunted midfield trio of Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing still intact despite considerable interest from elsewhere in all 3. Whether that proves to be the case for the entire season may be doubtful with Atuesta in particular key to how this team play and in-demand. At the back the addition of Kim Moon-hwan and permanent signing of Jesus Murillo should go some way towards addressing the defensive issues of last season and with the experience of Bob Bradley again at the helm this team could take some stopping.
2. Minnesota United
The Loons made huge progress last season, coming so close to MLS Cup, and there’s every reason to believe they can build on that and be contenders again in the West. Adrian Heath’s side look a progressive outfit and the mid-season arrival of Emanuel Reynoso last year made a major difference. If he can sustain the sort of form seen in that impressive run throughout a first full campaign in MLS then Minnesota will be major players. The addition of Ramon Abila up front for this season could be particularly important given the understanding he forged with Reynoso at Boca Juniors. The lack of a genuine number 9 was an issue for the Loons last year and they may well have addressed that, even if the departure of Kevin Molino will hurt. Some of the other signings also look astute – Wil Trapp will add to an already stacked midfield and Jukka Raitala provides competition and versatility at the back, both arriving with proven MLS pedigree. I’m also looking forward to seeing the continued development of Hassani Dotson and where exactly he will be best utilised – there’s certainly some welcome selection headaches shaping up for Adrian Heath.
3. Portland Timbers
Such is the culture at the club that the Timbers are unlikely to be far away. Winners at MLS is Back last summer, when inspired by Sebastian Blanco, they badly missed the injured Argentine at the end of the campaign. But with his return thought not to be too far away Portland’s prospects immediately improve. The Diego’s Chara and Valeri both face the annual and increasing challenge of defying the effects of advancing years but remain key components of an experienced squad. Depth will be required, particularly with continued Champions League commitments, but the squad should be strong enough to cope. Many familiar faces return with only really the full back areas freshened up with the arrivals of Claudio Bravo and Josecarlos Van Rankin, whilst I’m expecting even more from Yimmi Chara out wide this season.
4. Seattle Sounders
The Sounders have featured in 4 of the last 5 MLS Cups and their ability to always make the play-offs is well renowned. I see no reason why the latter statistic won’t continue this term but this squad doesn’t look quite as strong as last years and the manner of their defeat to Columbus in the 2020 showpiece will have hurt and could still linger. The presence of proven goal scorer Raul Ruidiaz and instrumental captain Nicolas Lodeiro should mean they remain a match for most but a lot of experience has been lost with the departures of Gustav Svensson, Kelvin Leerdam and Joevin Jones. That’s not a commodity Fredy Montero and Kelyn Rowe are lacking but their arrival as reinforcements still looks a little underwhelming whilst Jordan Morris’s latest injury and the manner of it on loan at Swansea could cast a psychological shadow as well as leave Brian Schmetzer a big problem in covering his absence.
5. Colorado Rapids
I’m expecting further progress from the Rapids this season who’ve been quietly building under Robin Fraser and look well equipped for at least another play-off push. They’ve developed their own talent impressively and Cole Bassett seems well placed to build on a very promising 2020 by really pushing on. Most of last season’s squad are back to go again and there’s plenty of MLS experience to supplement the younger talents, bolstered further by the arrival of Michael Barrios from Dallas to offer another useful option. They perhaps lack an out and out goal scorer but there should be more than enough players capable of contributing their fair share to collectively solve that short coming. They were too open at times last term but may well strike a better balance whilst remaining fun to watch.
6. Sporting Kansas City
Another club whose reputation suggests they should be likely contenders having topped the West last year, recovering in solid fashion from an uncharacteristically poor 2019. Peter Vermes appears to be attempting a rebuild at the back as they begin life after Matt Besler, although his role as a guaranteed starter had already finally come under threat last season and pre-empted the club legend’s departure. In attack SKC look to have the quality to at least ensure another play-off position. There should still be more to come from Alan Pulido after a first season which perhaps flattered to deceive at times whilst Jonny Russell remains a regular threat. And with the prodigiously talented Gianluca Busio having taken over the number 10 shirt and seemingly set to operate in that more advanced role this season there’s certainly reason for optimism.
7. FC Dallas
There are plenty of contenders for the final play-off spot out West but I believe Dallas should be strong enough to take it. Much might depend on how quickly they can get Paxton Pomykal fully fit and then if they can keep him so because he could take this team to another level. The productivity of the academy looks as impressive as ever with Bryan Reynolds the latest talent to depart but there are still plenty of prospects for Luchi Gonzalez to work with, in addition to potentially impressive imports like Andres Ricaurte and Franco Jara who only hinted at the possible impacts they could make last year. Some other interesting signings have followed – winger Jader Obrian arrives as the top scorer in the Colombian league and could also make a big difference if he hits the ground running. There’s a few ifs and maybes here but FCD should have enough pieces to be part of the play-off party.
8. Austin FC
I toyed with the idea of predicting a play-off place for Austin in their expansion season having been impressed with the roster put together, and they should be in with a shout. If they do fall just short it will likely be through a lack of options at centre forward where it’s a big ask for Danny Hoesen to score the goals to spearhead this side. But there’s still a lot to like about what they’ve done and although it’s Josh Wolff’s first shot at an MLS head coaches role he’s spent long enough as Gregg Berhalter’s assistant to give us an idea about the tactics he’s likely to try and employ. A lot might depend on the impact made by their first DP signing Celicio Dominguez, neither he nor fellow South American Tomas Pochettino have played in MLS before but they look to have the right profiles to fit right in and will be backed up by some real know how in this league provided by the likes of Alexander Ring, the aforementioned Besler and full-backs Ben Sweat and Nick Lima, both of whom look like good bits of a business. With an excellent stadium, the high-profile support of co-owner Matthew McConaughey and the expertise of Claudio Reyna as technical director there’s plenty to be enthusiastic about – this inaugural season promises to be quite a ride.
9. San Jose Earthquakes
Again it’s unlikely to be dull where the Quakes are concerned in 2021. Their high energy, man for man marking system under Marcelo Bielsa disciple Matias Almeyda is as entertaining as it can be chaotic and has become well established over his first couple of seasons in charge. So far it hasn’t quite brought the success desired but there’s always remained the sense they weren’t far away and it’s an approach worth persevering with. I suspect more of the same this year. They’ll certainly need to address a vulnerability at set pieces and it must be a concern that a 38 year old continues to look their most dangerous centre forward, even if that happens to be MLS record scorer Chris Wondolowski who’s postponed his retirement for another year. They will need Cristian Espinoza to have a stellar season to provide the service and hope that 17 year Cade Cowell can build on his undoubted potential if they’re to push for the play-offs. I suspect finding the consistency required could be a struggle.
10. LA Galaxy
The Galaxy under incoming head coach Greg Vanney might just be the toughest team to predict in the West this year. Historically the most successful club in MLS history, they’ve struggled to get it right for a while now and the return of Vanney to the club he previously played for is the latest attempt to restore the Galaxy to former glories. His success at Toronto came with significant financial backing and although that’s something the 5 times champions haven’t been short of the current squad would appear to need plenty of work. There’s still no shortage of talent and Vanney has to find a way to get much more from Javier Hernandez than the Mexican was able to produce last season, a task made tougher by the fact Cristian Pavon hasn’t returned to Carson. If Sebastian Lleget can produce his national team form and Jonathan Dos Santos stays fit the midfield should be more than a match for anyone but I have real doubts over the defence being good enough to provide the platform required.
11. Vancouver Whitecaps
Marc Dos Santos has yet to guide the Whitecaps into the play-offs during his time in charge and this will be his 3rd attempt to do so. On paper it’s possibly the best squad he’s had but I fear they may again fall short. Last years record signing Lucas Cavallini could be an effective spearhead up front, he certainly hinted at more to come when improving late last year and there’s some exciting young talent surrounding him. The addition of Caio Alexandre in a deep lying midfield role may be important in trying to set the tempo of the team. Maxime Crepeau and Thomas Hasal are 2 excellent young options in goal but either are likely to be kept busy as the season goes on. I think this team will improve and progress but there are still others I fancy more to make the post season.
12. Real Salt Lake
With the ownership of the club still in a state of flux it’s a difficult backdrop for RSL to find the direction required having missed out on the play-offs last year. The signing of Bobby Wood is a notable one upfront but he’s not played a lot of football for a long time and doesn’t arrive until the summer so they might be waiting a while for the required impact. Elsewhere the starting X1 looks competitive but, particularly at the back, the squad is thin and they’d likely be more affected than most should injuries strike. Albert Rusnak has real quality as a playmaker but had a disappointing 2020 by his standards whilst for the 2nd year running they have to readjust after the retirement of an MLS legend – Nick Rimando last year and now Kyle Beckerman. It all adds to the air of uncertainty at the start of the season which offers up more questions than answers in Utah right now.
13. Houston Dynamo
A 2nd season under Tab Ramos is a big one for the Dynamo who struggled so badly after the departure of Albert Elis mid-season. With Mauro Manotas gone as well there’s a big void in attack that it’s hard to see Houston filling effectively. There’s a chance Mateo Bajamich can be the one to do that whilst Fafa Picault’s signing will help but it’s a big ask and although the Dynamo have strengthened at the back with the signing of Tim Parker and added Joe Corona to midfield I still don’t see enough difference makers in this team- whether Darwin Quintero is still capable of fulfilling that function on a consistent basis is a matter of debate. It could be another long season in this part of Texas.