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Seattle Sounders FC v Columbus Crew SC: - MLS Cup Final

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Each MLS team in 2021, previewed by the experts who know them best

Previewing the new MLS season by the people who know their teams best.

Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

MLS enters its 26th season still trying to figure out exactly what it is, but probably stronger than it ever has been before in terms of its standing on the world stage. No, it’s not yet a “league of choice” — something Commissioner Don Garber has long promised — but it is financially stable and competitive from top to bottom, something few other leagues anywhere can boast right now.

Once considered a bit of a retirement league, MLS continues to bring in more and more international-quality players either in the primes of their careers or on the upswing. They’ve also got three new stadiums opening this year, one of which will house a brand new team.

We reached out to our team blogs — and a few other subject experts — to explain why their teams are worth watching this year.

Eastern Conference

Atlanta United

For all the completely understandable reasons that Atlanta United fans may have checked out last season, this may be a season in which fans can’t look away. Everything about the team feels reinvigorated, from the coaching staff to the new and returning players. Atlanta United set a low bar after failing to reach the playoffs in a season in which 10 (!) teams from each conference qualified. The season may not be an instant success from day one in terms of results, but it should be a highly entertaining product on the field.

Josef Martinez is poised to make his return, George Bello could have a breakout season under new head coach Gabriel Heinze and Ezequiel Barco will be itching to show teams in Europe his quality. Why shouldn’t you be excited? Even if the team doesn’t win any trophies, Atlanta United’s tactical setup and philosophy should be exciting enough in itself to make this season so much more fun than 2020. Oh yeah, and there’s the whole thing about fans potentially returning to stadiums across the league. - Kyle Soto, Dirty South Soccer

Chicago Fire

Gaston Gimenez and Alvaro Medran gave the Fire one of the best midfield combos in MLS last season. They’re both back, and they both have a year of experience in MLS under their belts. Playing in front of them will likely be Luka Stojanovic, who played all of 60 minutes in 2020 before a season ending knee injury. Stojanovic should provide both a scoring punch, and more creativity in the attack, two things he was signed to add before his injury. Mauricio Pineda, who went from Homegrown signing, to the team’s leader in minutes played, to the Fire’s Defender of the Year, should continue to improve in 2021. Veteran Johan Kappelhof is back after an injury plagued 2020, looks as fit as ever, and may actually see time in defensive midfield. And Robert Beric, who was one of the hottest strikers in MLS at the end of last season, should pick up where he left off in 2021.

Last season was a mess at times, and the team didn’t put together many complete, 90 minute performances. This season will be different for the Fire. As defender Miguel Navarro said recently, “This year, there aren’t any excuses.” - Patrick McCraney, Hot Time in Old Town

FC Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati has got just about everything you need for an entertaining season. They’ve got some of the biggest crowds in the league, passionate and loud fans willing their team on. They’ve got a brand new home with the team opening up their very own stadium in the historic West End neighborhood in the center of the city. The club’s got some of the flashiest and most expensive attacking talent in the league in the likes of Brenner and Lucho Acosta. And, finally FC Cincy has that bit of dysfunction that you need to keep everybody on their toes.

Look, the team’s got the talent potential to legitimately be a good team in MLS. But that’s only come with the team’s own self-inflicted hardships. That means that, while it’s hard to make predictions, it’s definitely safe to say that the club is going to have its ups and downs. Success will come down to whether the team can make that dance on that precarious line between success and catastrophe. Fans will certainly be hoping the team lands on the right side of that line. But however it ends, it’s going to be quite the trip. - Adnan Ilyas

Columbus Crew

The easy answer for why to watch the Crew is that the team is the defending MLS Cup champions. What makes the Black & Gold even more exciting is that they managed to improve over the offseason. The Crew’s offense was already fun to watch with MLS Cup MVP Lucas Zelarayan, U.S. international Gyasi Zardes and Portuguese winger Pedro Santos, but Columbus added one of the top scorers in MLS history in Bradley Wright-Phillips and winger Kevin Molino.

The team also became deeper with acquisitions of Perry Kitchen in the midfield to go along with Darlington Nagbe and Artur and Marlon Hairston to back up Harrison Afful at right back. It’s hard to win an MLS Cup and get better but it very much looks like the Crew did just that this offseason. - Patrick Murphy, Massive Report

D.C. United

Around 20% of new head coach Hernan Losada’s games have seen the two teams involved combine for 5+ goals. Last year with Beerschot, there was a 10-game stretch where they and their opponents produced a total of 60 goals. You like goals, right?

That’s a good enough sales pitch by itself, but there are other reasons to believe United is going to be fun this year. They may not have a current MLS superstar, but the attack is deep enough that an established, reliable MLS starter like Yamil Asad might not be first-choice. Last year’s struggles also made room for teenagers Nyeman, Paredes, and Griffin Yow to prove that they can be impact players in this league already, and Losada has repeatedly said he’s willing to give United’s Homegrown contingent minutes if they bring it in training. - Jason Anderson, Black and Red United

Inter Miami

You should keep an eye out for Inter Miami this year because of settled expectations. After years of controversy around rushed stadium plans, an overhyped transfer mindset, and a rushed roster; Miami are ready to settle in.

Miami’s shine wore off quickly last season. The David Beckham owned and marketed squad never seemed comfortable under Diego Alonso. The Uruguayan coach was quickly sacked after the team’s tenth place finish.

In comes Phil Neville, to no one’s surprise, and now Beckham has his man and no excuses. The ex-Juventus duo of Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi should be more motivated than ever after uncharacteristically poor seasons. A long offseason can only do two well-seasoned… - Josh Sutter

CF Montreal

Sporting Director, Olivier Renard has been successful previously in Belgium with player recruitment. With each of KV Mechelen and more especially Standard Liege, he generated significant profits from recruiting, shrewdly, players that each club was able to develop and sell-on at significant profit.

The Belgian is optimistic about the new season and feels confident CF Montreal will make progress. Although fans and media may still express doubt over the quality of the new workforce, one thing that everyone agrees on is that Renard’s prudence has ensured more than adequate cover for every position. He’s also recruited players for similar positions with differing attributes, providing greater flexibility of systems for the coach. - Paul Vance, Mount Royal Soccer

Nashville SC

After a successful inaugural season that saw the Boys in Gold reach the MLS Cup Eastern Conference Semifinals, Nashville SC is back looking to build on its success and establish themselves as a contender for the foreseeable future.

SC had a phenomenal year defensively allowing .96 goals a game, the best mark by an expansion team in MLS history. Nashville was also third in goals allowed with 22, and SC has one of the better backlines in MLS led by centerbacks Dave Romney, Walker Zimmerman, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, and keeper Joe Willis who at age 33 had the best season of his career.

With a strong backline allowing for more chances on the offensive end, expect Nashville SC to challenge for a top-five regular season finish in the Eastern Conference. - Zachary Junda

New England Revolution

The New England Revolution are coming off a disappointing loss in the Eastern Conference Finals. The only way they can be pleased with their performance in 2021 is by making the MLS Cup.

New England actually improved their squad with the acquisitions of Arnor Traustason, Christian Mafla, and Wilfrid Kaptoum. The Revs also have key players like Matt Turner, Henry Kessler, and Tajon Buchanan along with DP’s Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou returning to the squad.

In 2020 Revs fans saw just how much Gil means to the club. Once he returned from injury the club looked completely different. They had their heart and soul back on the pitch.

This season New England should compete for an MLS Cup. With how deep the squad is there should be plenty of goals scored and some exciting soccer being played throughout the 2021 season. - Sam Minton, The Bent Musket

New York City FC

What NYCFC lack in star power, they more than make up for in fundamentally sound role players and younger guys who are beginning to show exactly how high their ceilings really are. Maxi Moralez is one of the more fun playmakers in the league to watch. James Sands is a stud Homegrown defensive midfielder and will probably be moving to Europe sooner rather than later. And Anton Tinnerholm is by far the best right back in the league.

Another fun tidbit is that as of right now, New York City has two free Designated Player slots. This means there is the potential of some eye-opening additions once the summer window opens. Even if they aren’t the best in the league — or even their conference — right out of the gate, there are few MLS clubs with higher upside than NYCFC. - Christian Smith, Hudson River Blue

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls have never been more committed to the energy drink soccer philosophy than they will be this season. Former Salzburg academy and reserves manager Gerhard Struber was recruited from Barnsley by Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz personally, and former Wolverhampton Wanderers sporting director Kevin Thelwell has brought in a diverse array of young signings for him to pursue an extreme high-press scheme with.

The Red Bulls will continue to disappoint fans seeking Hollywood signings, but the specific attributes and profiles sought out by the club’s new technical leadership promise to give the team a coherent and dynamic tactical approach. It’s an approach that could potentially run other MLS teams off the field, the way New York did in the Supporters Shield-winning campaigns of not too long ago. - Ben Cork, Once a Metro

Orlando City

Simply put, Orlando City are fun. They play an exciting brand of possession-based soccer, typically building out of the back but perfectly willing to have Robin Jansson or Oriol Rosell send a long ball out wide to catch the opposition napping and create a quick transition opportunity.

Up and down the roster, there are exciting players at almost every position. That starts with Nani, the one-time Portugal international. Daryl Dike was a revelation at forward last season. Chris Mueller is a hard-working and creative player with a motor that only runs at full power. Pereyra is a sorcerer with the ball because, as Falcon says, a sorcerer is a wizard without a hat. And let’s not forget Ruan’s (and Benji Michel’s) blazing speed, Junior Urso’s passion, Pedro Gallese’s highlight saves, or Moutinho’s magical crosses. - Michael Citro, The Mane Land

Philadelphia Union

2020 was the best season in Philadelphia Union history, as the team won the Supporters’ Shield, and capped the season off with the record sale of two highly sought-after homegrown academy products. It has often been the case that teams must decide between competing regularly for trophies (ex. Atlanta/Seattle etc.) and investing heavily in the academy and youth development (ex. FC Dallas). However, the Union broke that mold last year, demonstrating to the league that it is possible to both compete seriously, while also relying heavily on young players.

What is not yet determined, is how the Union will fare replacing these players with new academy products. While these academy players (especially Brenden Aaronson’s younger brother Paxten) are extremely promising, they are extremely inexperienced. If all goes well, the Union could be on the verge of altering the way the entire league operates. If it goes poorly, then the Union will be just another example of a one-hit wonder in this league. Regardless, the Union will be exciting to watch and will certainly produce some incredibly entertaining games all year long. - Justin Fisher, Brotherly Game

Toronto FC

On paper, Toronto FC are still projected to be one of the best teams in MLS, led of course by the reigning MVP: Alejandro Pozuelo. Michael Bradley is expected to contribute more offensively than in years past, while Jozy Altidore appears to have bought in to new head coach Chris Armas’ vision, as he’s apparently working hard and pushing others in training in hopes of bouncing back after a disappointing 2021 campaign.

The club is also extremely high on some of their young Canadian talent, like Ayo Akinola — the league-leader in goals per 90 last season — Jayden Nelson, Ralph Priso, and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, as TFC arguably boast the best prospect cupboard in all of MLS. The youngsters are expected to earn quite a few minutes under Armas, which should be intriguing to fans who have been waiting to see what some of their local talent could do. - Michael Singh, Waking the Red

Western Conference

Austin FC

If preseason is any indicator of how this team will approach the offensive side of the game, and goals on goals on goals is your kind of thing, then Austin FC may just be worth it. Austin has shown they’re willing to attack, throw numbers forward and certainly not lacking in any creative ideas at the moment.

Austin hasn’t lacked in finding goals during the first two pre-season games against Houston and Dallas (total of 5 goals scored) and are finding their offensive joy from everyone across the attacking line. Plus, you just never know when Matthew McConaughey is going to make some kind of cameo. - Jason Poon

Colorado Rapids

Last season, MLS adjusted the playoff qualifications more or less for the Rapids since they would be playing significantly fewer games due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the club. Despite playing just 18 games in 2020 (every other team in the conference played 21-23), Colorado still made the playoffs the old-fashioned way: overall points. Sure, they didn’t look great and got bounced in the first round by Minnesota United, but they finished the season on a three-game winning streak AND won the Rocky Mountain Cup for the first time since 2015.

The front office may not have signed a DP in the offseason like fans wanted, but without losing any key players and only bringing in more talent, spirits should be high in what will hopefully be Robin Fraser’s first full regular season as head coach. If things go how they’ve been trending over the past season and a half, the Rapids will do well and make it to post-season again. - Abbie Mood, Burgundy Wave

FC Dallas

Normally it would be the Homegrown players and which ones will be next up. But after transfers for Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds last season, it appears that while the pipeline of academy talent is still there for FC Dallas it may be their young South American talent that is more intriguing this season to keep an eye out on. Jadar Obrian was the leading scoring in the Colombian top flight last year, while Freddy Vargas appears to be a dead-ball specialist on the wing that the club has lacked since the departure of veteran defender Reto Ziegler.

If they can tie it all together with the Homegrowns like Jesus Ferreira, Tanner Tessmann, Ricardo Pepi and a returning Paxton Pomykal, this club could make some serious noise in MLS. - Drew Epperley, Big D Soccer

Houston Dynamo

You will want to tune in to Dynamo games because there really is no telling what is going to happen. Houston can look like an unbeatable juggernaut at times when they are playing at home and other times when on the road, they will look like a group of guys who just learned how to play the sport. You’ll also want to watch Dynamo games to see that maturation of Tab Ramos as a coach and how his tactics and system begin to become ingrained in this team.

They may not be the best team, heck, they might not even be that good, but Ramos is going to have them playing his way and playing hard. The Dynamo are on the path to becoming a relevant team again and at times it may not be pretty, but you’re going to see a team learning, growing, and becoming the embodiment of their manager out on the field. - Dustyn Richardson, Dynamo Theory

LAFC

This is the most exciting team to watch in MLS, period. If you’re a neutral, you’ll love the goalfests that LAFC frequently are involved in. They not only score a ton themselves, but two of the last three seasons have also conceded bucketloads. You know how every coach who has an introductory press conference says, “We want to play exciting, attacking, front-foot soccer”? That’s what this team does. It can be nervy for fans, but it’s also fun to root for a team that can seems capable of scoring four goals against any opponent.

Beyond the goals and the high-octane style, LAFC have a growing group of young and young-ish talent from around the world that is showing just how successful the club’s scouting network has been thus far. Yes, they’ve struggled to get the 3rd Designated Player right, and their current one, Brian Rodriguez, may or may not return from his current loan to the Spanish second flight, but when the first choice XI is available they are a ton of fun to watch and they are rightly considered title contenders in 2021. - Alicia Rodriguez, Angels on Parade

LA Galaxy

There’s been holes in the roster in the past, to be sure, but again, this squad has been better than their performances have shown. If they can be back to their best — if Chicharito can finally find traction in MLS and become a consistent scorer, if Sebastian Lletget can play as well for club as he does for country, if the defense can stop shipping goals, if Jonathan dos Santos can play at Best XI standard again, if Victor Vazquez can stay healthy, if newcomer Samuel Grandsir can have an immediate impact, if a Homegrown player or two emerge to be regular contributors — then they can be near the top of the standings in relatively short order.

It won’t all be fixed overnight, but the combination of Vanney’s arrival and the roster re-tooling, plus hopes of bounce back seasons for several players means there is considerable optimism that the Galaxy have finally turned a page and will be elite again soon. - Alicia Rodriguez, LAG Confidential

Minnesota United

Minnesota United comes into 2021 off what is by far the club’s best season since entering MLS in 2017 and best since overall their 2012 NASL runner-up season. A Western Conference final appearance, and ultimately late loss, capped off a weird year.

While MNUFC might be lacking a major striker and scoring threat up top, they definitely aren’t lacking in other areas. The Loons’ midfield from front to back is filled with great players and depth. Adrian Heath’s typical 4-2-3-1 and alternate 4-4-2 formations gives Minnesota plenty of options with midfielders Osvaldo Alonso, Jann Gregus, Emanuel Reynoso, Ethan Finlay, Robin Lod, and Hassani Dotson leading the way. Behind them is a stout set of defenders, albeit one that may once again be lacking Ike Opara. However this defense showed in 2020 how capable they can be even without the Ace of the back line on the pitch. And clearing out the look is the 1-2 combination of goalkeepers in Dayne St. Clair and Tyler Miller. That 1-2 punch is surely the deepest set of goalkeepers in the league.

Provided the defense holds its 2020 form and Heath’s squad can create some scoring the Loons could be a threat near the top of the Western Conference and an overall fantastic team to watch in 2021. - Ashle Norling, E Pluribus Loonum

Portland Timbers

There are plenty of reasons for this, but let’s start with arguably the most important: Sebastian Blanco is back, or at least will be back soon. The best player on the Timbers was absent for the majority of the 2020 regular season, and Portland were still good enough to finish in the top three of the Western Conference. They had one of the best offenses in MLS last regular season without Seba. With Seba, they earned a Concacaf Champions League Tournament appearance thanks to Portland’s victory in the MLS is Back Tournament last August. The prospect of a Timbers squad with Blanco back is exciting in and of itself.

And there are other storylines, too. What’s going on at the No. 9 spot? Jeremy Ebobisse is a talented young player, but are the Timbers going to wind up starting Felip Mora instead? Will Father Time catch up to Diego Valeri and Diego Chara or will they continue to be two of the best in MLS history at their respective positions? Will the defense continue to give up goals in the final 15 minutes? All these questions need answering, and the best way to do so is to watch the Timbers. - Kyle Garcia, Stumptown Footy

Real Salt Lake

There’s a huge amount of untapped potential here. Albert Rusnak could be a 10-goal, 10-assist player, even if he wasn’t last year; Pablo Ruiz has been a revelation in the midfield; Rubio Rubin might prove a hugely underrated signing; and Bobby Wood could find form again.

The narratives around so many players could prove a level of excitement we haven’t felt in years, and there’s a real chance the team feels untethered from ownership. This could be the year things start to look up again. - Matt Montgomery, RSL Soapbox

San Jose Earthquakes

In the Matias Almeyda era, games have largely been goal-fests. Beyond that, the Quakes have a self-belief that can sometimes look misguided, but a decade-long track record of coming back in games, plus Almeyda’s ace man management, have combined to make this team believe they are in pretty much any game. Beyond that, Almeyda’s playing style is unique in MLS. A disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, the Earthquakes use a man-marking system and utilizew an incredibly vertical style of play.

They are far more accustomed to chaos than most teams, and while it does fall apart, spectacularly, on occasion, their frantic approach usually unsettles opponents and leads to stretches of beautiful play among the blunt force. If you are a student of tactics then Quakes games are a treat, as you watch the chess match between Almeyda and his opposite number on the other bench. - Alicia Rodriguez, Center Line Soccer

Seattle Sounders

No MLS team has enjoyed the level of sustained success as the Sounders. They’ve qualified for the playoffs in all 12 of their season, have been to 4 of the past 5 MLS Cup finals and won two league titles since Schmetzer took over midway through 2016. While every season has seen at least some turnover among the starters, this year feels different.

There’s reason for concern, but also reason to be excited. The Sounders have a host of young players who could contend for significant minutes this year and a new primary formation for the first time during their current era. If the Sounders are to continue this run of excellence, it will need to be through evolution. That should make them worth watching. - Jeremiah Oshan, Sounder at Heart

Sporting KC

It would be easy to list Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell in the attack as one reason for excitement but it might be the number of homegrowns on the roster that is the most interesting. With 10 of 27 players coming from SKC’s Academy, there will be a lot of youth. Academy products Gianluca Busio and Jaylin Lindsay are looking like regular starters and Daniel Salloi, Felipe Hernandez and Cameron Duke seem slated to get regular time so the team will be young.

But it may be Wilson Harris who scored 4 goals in the first three preseason games and scored consistently for SKC II that could be the surprise and have a breakout year. Add in Tyler Freeman, Grayson Barber and Ozzie Cisneros and there could be a youthful revolution in Kansas City for the next couple seasons. And Puldio and Russell in the attack will still be a great reason to watch as well... - Thad Bell, The Blue Testament

Vancouver Whitecaps

In the absence of an Attacking Midfield talisman, the hope is that Vancouver gets creative with how they create (I know, stick with me). Adding Bruno Gaspar gives the Whitecaps balance at fullback, something they’ve desperately needed. Meanwhile, Deiber Caicedo will complete an all-Colombian winger pairing that Marc Dos Santos has been craving since he first took the job. With these moves, all signs point to a team that is going to spend a lot of time getting busy in wide areas, and that could make for some pretty exciting football. Lurking in the box will be Canadian stallworth Lucas Cavallini. Although last year was tough for the target man, he still scored six goals in a short season, and if the service is even slightly better than last year, there’s no reason he can’t flirt with the 15-goal mark.

Finally, if the defenders and goalkeepers stay healthy, the Whitecaps could have exciting position battles at both spots. Olympic Qualifying standout Derek Cornelius is battling Serbian International Ranko Veselinovic for a place at centerback, while two young Canadians in Max Crepeau and Thomas Hasal will vie for a spot between the sticks. - Sam Rowan, 86 Forever

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