To preview the 2020 Major League Soccer season we take a look at one key question each MLS team must answer as the new campaign kicks off.
Finally, the 2020 Major League Soccer season is upon us after another much-too-long MLS offseason.
In some cases, a lot has changed with signings made and new head coaches hired. In other cases, continuity is the aim, at least for those who enjoyed strong 2019 campaigns — see Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders who have both made three MLS Cup finals in the past four years. This season promises to be another compelling one with Inter Miami and Nashville SC entering the fray for the first time.
In preparation for Saturday’s season kickoff, here’s one crucial question facing each MLS team. Let the games begin.
Atlanta United — Can Frank de Boer quickly mold a winning team after offseason of change?
Michael Parkhurst retired at the end of the 2019 campaign with Darlington Nagbe moving to the Columbus Crew and Julian Gressel now a DC United player. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez left for Tijuana while Hector Villalba returned to Paraguay. In their place have come in Brooks Lennon, Anton Walkes, Jake Mulraney, Matheus Rossetto and Fernando Meza.
Will Frank de Boer be able to mold this into a winning team? The Dutchman might not be given much time and patience to do so in his second season with the Five Stripes.
Chicago Fire — Will franchise rebrand and Soldier Field move translate into on-the-field transformation?
The Chicago Fire open 2020 looking very different than at the end of the 2019 season. Of course, much has been made of the franchise’s rebrand, with the Fire also leaving the suburb of Bridgeview for a return to the Soldier Field. But will this clean slate off the field translate into a transformation on the field?
Gone are Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Nico Gaitan and Dax McCarty, as well as manager Veljko Paunovic. Raphael Wicky comes in as the Fire’s new head coach and Robert Beric, Gaston Gimenez and 19-year-old Ignacio Aliseda enter as Designated Players.
The Fire will look different — for better and worse — but will the results be different for a once-proud club that only made the playoffs twice in the past 10 seasons.
FC Cincinnati — Will FCC be able to put last season and offseason turmoil behind them?
Expectations for expansion sides have been raised in recent years following the astonishing instant success of Atlanta United and LAFC. FC Cincinnati, however, found their first year in MLS tough, winning just six games all season long.
The additions of Siem de Jong, Jurgen Locadia and Yuya Kubo hinted at better times to come, but the turmoil around now ex-manager Ron Jans just weeks before the start of the season is not especially encouraging. Will FCC be able to put all this behind them to take genuine strides in 2020?
Colorado Rapids — Is Robin Fraser the right man to restore the Rapids?
Robin Fraser hadn’t been a head coach in MLS since 2012, when he was in charge of Chivas USA, but he made an immediate impact upon his appointment at the Colorado Rapids last season.
Indeed, five wins from their final seven fixtures offered some encouragement ahead of 2020.
Colorado’s offseason recruitment has been interesting with playmaker Younes Namli and French winger Nicolas Benezet joining the club. Fraser has made a good start, but still has a point to prove. Is he truly the right man to restore the Rapids and continue the upward trajectory he set in motion towards the end of last season?
Columbus Crew — With the Crew now saved can they fulfill their ambitions?
Off the field, 2019 saw the Columbus Crew’s future in Ohio secured, but now the franchise must make good on the ambitious pledges they made. A move to a new downtown stadium is in progress, expected to be completed by the middle of next year, but on the field Caleb Porter still has a lot of work to do. The Crew’s current squad is unbalanced and with Federico Higuain now gone there is a void to be filled. Columbus hope that new $7 million signing Lucas Zelarayan will be the player to replace arguably the most significant player in the club’s history.
FC Dallas — Is this season about waiting for Franco Jara to arrive?
Nobody can accuse FC Dallas of not showing ambition in the transfer market over the offseason. Franco Jara has signed a pre-contract to join the Texas side in the summer. The Argentine striker’s record of 60 goals in 131 appearances for Pachuca suggests that he will be the man FC Dallas have lacked to lead the line of late, but what will they do until Jara’s arrival in July? Will the 2020 season be about biding time for the Texans or can their core of up-and-coming kids successfully bridge the gap until the summer?
DC United — Can Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodriguez be replaced?
Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodriguez are no longer at Audi Field and so DC United have a lot to compensate for in the attacking third heading into the new season. The capital club have done a decent job of replenishing their squad, though, with Edison Flores, Julian Gressel, Yamil Asad and Ola Kamara all capable of stepping up. Ben Olsen still has a depth problem, though. He will be reliant on a contingent of homegrown talents if injuries start to pile up at any point over the season. 2020 could go either way for DC United.
Houston Dynamo — Is Tab Ramos at the right club to build on his reputation?
The Houston Dynamo’s appointment of Tab Ramos as head coach ahead of the 2020 season was an ambitious one. This is a manager who is regarded as one of the brightest in the American game right now after a good tenure with the United States U20s. Ramos inherits a group of players that is largely the same as the one that underachieved last season, although the signing of Darwin Quintero from Minnesota United has given the Dynamo some additional creativity in the final third. Houston should at least be in the mix for a playoff spot.
Inter Miami — Can Diego Alonso do for them what Tata Martino did for Atlanta United?
As is often the case with expansion sides, nobody is quite sure what to expect from Inter Miami in their first year given that their squad has been assembled over just a few months. But in Diego Alonso they have hired arguably the best young coach in CONCACAF. He could feasibly do for Inter Miami what Tata Martino did over the first two seasons of Atlanta United’s MLS existence by instilling values and principles that stretch beyond his tenure. And if Alonso is their Martino then Rodolfo Pizarro, a Liga MX headliner now in South Florida, could be their Miguel Almiron.
Los Angeles FC — Can Bob Bradley’s side take that final step to MLS Cup glory?
No team had entered the playoffs in MLS history so heavily favored to go all the way as Los Angeles FC were last season. Bob Bradley’s side broke regular-season record after regular-season record in 2019, but stumbled in the Western Conference final against Seattle.
LAFC have improved year-on-year since their MLS introduction in 2018, but they now have just one last step to take. For their upward trajectory to be sustained, 2020 must be the year the MLS Cup trophy ends up at Banc of California Stadium.
LA Galaxy — Will Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s exit make them a more rounded team?
With 31 goals from 31 games last season conventional wisdom dictates that the LA Galaxy have a hole to plug in attack following Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s departure. But Guillermo Barros Schelotto might be liberated in no longer having to play to one player’s strength.
We should see a more rounded Galaxy team this season, with the arrival of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and his deeper role sure to help Cristian Pavon reach new heights in his second MLS campaign. Defense might still be an issue in Carson, but the last few years has proved that attack is now king in MLS and the Galaxy should have one of the very best in the division.
Minnesota United — Will a solid defense be enough to continue the Loons’ improvement?
The 2017 and 2018 seasons were a difficult introduction to life in MLS for Minnesota United. Last year, however, was much more encouraging for the Loons as they made the playoffs for the first time. Their strong defense gave them a basis to build upon, but will that be enough to continue last season’s improvement? Darwin Quintero is now a Houston Dynamo player with Angelo Rodriguez also departing Allianz Field over the offseason and so the pressure is on newcomer Luis Amarilla to deliver in attack.
Montreal Impact — Will we finally see what Thierry Henry is made of as a head coach?
The arrival of Thierry Henry at State Saputo over the MLS offseason raised some eyebrows. The former Arsenal and Barcelona striker flopped badly in his first spell as a manager at Monaco, lasting just 20 games at the club, and so the 42-year-old certainly has a point to prove in charge of the Montreal Impact this season.
Many claim Henry wasn’t given sufficient opportunity to prove himself at Monaco so will we finally see what the former World Cup winner is made of as a head coach? He has a lot of work to do at a club that might not have the quality to finish higher than mid-table in the East.
Nashville SC — Can they avoid an FC Cincinnati-esque disaster in their expansion season?
Were it not for a wrangle over the controversial construction of a new stadium, Nashville SC would have prepared for their first ever MLS season without being afforded much attention. Indeed, while Inter Miami have grabbed all the expansion headlines, the Tennessee franchise has done their shopping at a lower level. They have drafted in a number of experienced MLS figures — McCarty, Walker Zimmerman, David Accam and Anibal Godoy to name a few — but will that be enough for Nashville SC to avoid a FC Cincinnati-esque disaster in their expansion year?
New England Revolution — Can Bruce Arena continue what he started in Foxborough?
The appointment of Bruce Arena turned around the New England Revolution’s 2019 season with the Foxborough side earning themselves a playoff place. At 68 years old, Arena remains a giant of the American game and he has a full compliment of Designated Players to utilize with Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou coming off strong debut MLS campaigns and new No. 9 Adam Buksa joining up at Gillette Stadium.
The Revolution are finally a franchise with hope, symbolized in the completion of their new state-of-the-art training facility over the offseason. New England are finally heading in the right direction.
New York City FC — Can Ronny Deila take this talented group further?
In terms of personnel, there’s not much difference between the New York City FC side that lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season and the one that starts this season. In Ronny Deila, though, they have a new man in the dugout, already their fourth manager as they get set for their sixth season.
The former Celtic manager is renowned for his harnessing of youth and at NYCFC he will have a young, talented group of players to work with. Having proven their regular season chops, can Deila now take this team further than its four consecutive conference semifinal losses?
New York Red Bulls — Is the conveyor belt of youth still rolling in Harrison?
The days of big names like Henry and Juan Pablo Angel playing at Red Bull Arena are long gone. That hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing in recent years with the New York Red Bulls’ impressive conveyor belt of young talent sustaining them.
A new group has been promoted from Red Bulls II over the offseason, but this is a club that is reliant on the conveyor belt rolling without interruption. What happens if it stops? Was last season’s sixth-place finish in the East and first-round playoff exit just a hiccup in production or a sign of a flaw in the system? Is this the season that they will discover the answer to that question?
Orlando City — Will this be yet another season to forget for the Lions?
After an encouraging first few years in MLS it’s been a rough spell for Orlando City of late. Last season’s average home attendance of 22,761 was a franchise low and there’s a sense that the club has lost ambition since they signed Kaka to be their face for their expansion season.
However, in Oscar Pareja the Lions have hired a head coach with genuine MLS pedigree. He will need freedom to turn things around for Orlando City and Pareja’s squad still looks light.
Philadelphia Union — Was 2019 a flash in the pan or the start of a gold rush?
2019 was a season to remember for the Philadelphia Union with Jim Curtin’s side finishing third in the Eastern Conference and reaching the conference semifinals for just the second time. So will that prove to be a flash in the pan or will it be the start of a gold rush for the Union?
Kacper Przybylko is back from injury and Brendan Aaronson is one of the brightest young talents in the American game right now. Curtin has the basis of a solid team. Philadelphia should still be somewhere near the top of the Eastern Conference in 2020.
Portland Timbers — Will the Timbers’ new DP moves work out better than last year’s?
The signing of Brian Fernandez last season looked to be the final piece of the puzzle for the Portland Timbers. The Argentine made a good start in MLS, but off-the-field issues resulted in him leaving Providence Park. Now Portland have added Yimmi Chara, brother of Diego Chara, as a Designated Player with Jaroslaw Niezgoda, who was among Polish soccer’s most prolific goalscorers, also making the move to the Pacific Northwest.
The Timbers have the basis of a good team, they have just lacked difference-makers. This is where they need to hope their DP additions make for good business.
Real Salt Lake — How will RSL move on without Nick Rimando as their leader?
Nick Rimando defined an entire era for Real Salt Lake. It’s difficult to imagine an RSL side without the former U.S. international between the posts, but Rimando’s retirement has left Freddy Juarez, in his first full season as head coach, with a key position to fill. His natural leadership will also be missed. MLS veteran Zac MacMath and homegrown U.S. youth international David Ochoa are contenders to be Real Salt Lake’s new number one.
RSL also have to replace their second-leading scorer Jefferson Savarino and having scored fewer goals than any other playoff side last season they must find some genuine firepower for 2020.
San Jose Earthquakes — Will Matias Almeyda deliver on what the Quakes signed up for?
There was some progress noted at Avaya Stadium last season with Matias Almeyda at the helm, but the San Jose Earthquakes still missed out on the playoffs. Center-back Oswaldo Alanis is the Quakes’ biggest offseason signing, but their hopes are still pinned on Almeyda’s system and personality lifting the entire roster. San Jose lost nine of their last 11 games of the 2019 season. A poor start this season could be terminal to the project, but a strong start could see Almeyda finish in Season Two what he started in Season One.
Seattle Sounders — Can Brian Schmetzer solidify what is becoming a Rave Green dynasty?
Momentum carried the Seattle Sounders to a third MLS Cup final in four years, winning their second championship in franchise history. There has been a significant level of squad overhaul since the Sounders got their hands on the trophy, but they have managed to keep hold of their key figures. Joao Paulo has arrived at CenturyLink Field as a Designated Player and should provide additional creativity. Seattle could still do with some more in the way of squad depth, but Brian Schmetzer can continue to build what is becoming a Rave Green dynasty.
Sporting KC — Can Peter Vermes turn things around after a season to forget?
Last season saw Sporting KC record their second-worst regular season in franchise history. Indeed, 2019 was a year to forget and now Peter Vermes is charged with turning things around in 2020.
Sporting KC lacked a true goalscorer to lead the line last season and so they have sought to address that by spending big on Alan Pulido from Chivas. The Mexican striker was Liga MX’s top scorer in 2019 and Sporting KC paid a club-record fee for a player they hope gives Vermes the number nine he has lacked since the exit of Dom Dwyer.
Toronto FC — Can TFC find some regular season consistency to match their post-season knack?
2019 was an inconsistent year for Toronto FC. Indeed, their campaign sagged around the summer, but they rallied to find some late season form, making a run all the way to the MLS Cup final.
TFC have proved over the past few years that they have a knack for the postseason, but can they find some regular season consistency to add to that in 2020? Their attacking line of Joey Altidore, new Designated Player Pablo Piatti and Alejandro Pozuelo means Greg Vanney’s side will once again be expected to challenge. Few are better at getting to where they want to be in spite of everything.
Vancouver Whitecaps — Will the signing of Lucas Cavallini address the Caps’ scoring problem?
Only FC Cincinnati scored fewer goals than the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Western Conference last season and so the Canadian club had one very clear deficiency to address before 2020. The addition of Canadian international stiker Lucas Cavallini should make a difference, though. Vancouver have spent a franchise-record $6 million to lure the former Puebla striker to back to his native land, representing just how badly they need a dependable goalscorer to lead the line for them this season. 2019 was a bad year for the Whitecaps, but 2020 holds plenty of promise.