Eight extreme predictions for the 2021 MLS season | J. Sam Jones

Alejandro Pozuelo and Pablo Piatti react to Toronto penalty

It’s prediction season. 

A season of largely futile gestures in any sport, made entirely more futile by MLS’s unrelenting unpredictability. But you’re here. I’m here. Let’s make prolonged eye contact and see if we can’t imagine a world that’s plausible, insane and somehow still only half as entertaining as the actual season will probably be. 

Here are a few predictions teetering on the edge of ridiculousness in order from “yeah, sure, seems possible” to “I can’t believe someone published this ... but yeah also, I could see it.”

1. We’ll have a new team in the “Big Five”

Since 2015, exactly five teams have made MLS Cup. Seattle four times, Toronto thrice, Portland twice, Columbus twice and Atlanta once. Minnesota came a few minutes away from breaking the mold last year, but Sounders Magic™ took over and the inevitable became the current. Yes, I do realize Atlanta are only in this thing once, but it’s fun to include them in things for SEO and internet comment purposes. 

Anyway, last year it really felt like we were going to see a team break through. Philly seemed primed to do it, Orlando felt like they could, and New England and Minnesota nearly did do it. Which means … New England technically would have been a repeat from 2014, but that’s not what we’re worried about right now. We’re worried about taking 22 (22!) other teams against five. And just one of them has to break through to do it. 

If we’re assuming Seattle might be a little lower than expected this season, it will make it that much easier for a Western Conference team like Minnesota or FC Dallas or Sporting Kansas City or LAFC to get past them and Portland in the playoffs. If we’re assuming Sounders Magic™ still exists outside of the Columbus, Ohio, metropolitan area, this absolutely won’t matter and Seattle will make a fifth MLS Cup in seven seasons. 

And so we look into the rising sun eastward and see … a Columbus team that has added firepower, a probably rejuvenated Atlanta United and a Toronto team with a new manager but still chasing down rumored $15 million dollar DP deals. Uh oh. 

But this is MLS. Anything could happen. So is it really “extremely bold” to pick the field against five teams? 

Clearly yes. Pay attention.

2. The summer will bring the most DPs in history

It’s been an uncomfortably quiet offseason for a lot of teams. Plenty of teams still have needs to fill and we’re fast approaching the April 17 start date. But the pandemic marketplace and general pandemic things appear to have stifled the regular patterns of player movement. The summer circumstances are bound to change that drastically. 

With teams likely welcoming back fans in increasing numbers, plus an open secret that some teams can get away with only being good for like three months out of the year, plus a market reopening on a level we’ve never seen before, will bring DP after DP into MLS for teams in need. Enough that we’ll never see the same or a higher number of summer DPs brought in again. Clubs will have spent the first part of the year truly assessing their needs, looking to capture the attention of a world preparing to (hopefully) reopen every entertainment product possible pretty much all at once, and they’ll have an assurance of steady gate income once again. 

All that, combined with MLS’s revamped U-22 roster rules, will have teams ready to roll. I actually don’t even think this is that outlandish. But “record-breaking in a way that won’t be topped” is always going to be enough to push it into “extremely bold" territory.

If you need any more convincing on this one though, below are the MLS teams who don’t have all three DP spots filled right now with preseason already started. That’s not even considering teams like Atlanta, who theoretically may have the roster space to buy a DP like Marcelino Moreno down with allocation money. 


Austin, Colorado, D.C. United, Dallas, Houston, LA Galaxy, LAFC, Montréal, NYCFC, New York Red Bulls, Orlando City, Philadelphia, RSL, San Jose, SKC, Toronto and Vancouver. That’s 17 out of 27 teams, including a handful of the biggest spenders in MLS. If I did the math right, 23 of the 81 possible DP spots in MLS are open. I don’t think we’ll see all 23 filled, but enough to make this prediction true? Seems possible.

3. Austin will win you over

I’ve been talking to a lot of folks in Austin lately and I have very bad news for anyone who was eager to find a new team to hate. Their fans are likable and are on course to provide the next great atmosphere in MLS. It’s going to be really hard to dislike them, at first anyway, until you get reminded over and over again how likable they are.

Talking to folks in Austin, you can take a deep whiff of everything going on and immediately distinguish hints of Portland and Atlanta. A rapidly-evolving city with a heavy dose of transplants in a city defined by its relationship with its culture, plus an added bonus of being the only top-level professional team in town, means the club is primed to be a league darling based solely on attendance numbers and noise level. They’ve already broken the record for the largest season ticket waitlist and it’s getting bigger all the time. 

Sprinkle in Q2 Stadium, Matthew McConaughey and a team that should be in contention for a playoff spot, and Austin FC games will be a scene. You’ll probably have to begrudgingly admit that at least the culture is pretty cool.

4. Portland win CCL

I don’t need to waste a ton of time here. Portland have the easy side of the bracket, provided they beat Honduran side CD Marathon in the Round of 16. They likely have to beat Club America over two legs (extremely hard but doable), and then beat likely either Philadelphia or Atlanta (less hard, probably) to reach a final where anything can happen. They’re extremely deep. Gio Savarese loves a tournament. And if they’re healthy, they have the firepower to compete with pretty much anyone. 

Then again, this seems hard. Concacaf Champions League is just really hard. This should probably be your indication we’re moving up the Ladder of Boldness. 

5. Atlanta will score at a rate we haven’t seen before (over a full season)

First off, you need to know this:

  • Atlanta in 2020: 1 goal per game (over 23 games)
  • Atlanta in 2019 - 1.7 goals per game
  • Atlanta in 2018 - 2.06 goals per game
  • Atlanta in 2017 - 2.06 goals per game

That’s obviously not a great trend, but every indication is that Atlanta should be on the upswing in 2021. I firmly believe that to be true thanks to Atlanta bringing in the right manager for the job (Gabriel Heinze) and a collection of (seemingly) talented new players. But what if I reminded you that Josef Martinez is coming off an ACL tear and may need a month or three to get fully back into shape? And what if I told you that on top of that, exactly two players besides Josef have ever scored more than four goals at a first-division club in their careers? And what if I added that those two players are 38-year-old back up striker Lisandro Lopez and back-up to the back-up striker Cubo Torres

All that considered, would you feel a bit hesitant about definitively saying Atlanta will score at a rate higher than 1.7 goals per game over 34 games? The extremely bold prediction here is that they won’t. 

In 2019, Josef put up 27 goals in a system that didn’t do the team any favors for much of the year. But he also had Julian Gressel (six goals), Pity Martinez (five goals) and Justin Meram and Ezequiel Barco (four goals) behind him to help a little bit. Barco is still there, but is it really hard to see a world where he gets about the same goalscoring record, Josef fails to put up 27 or more, and Atlanta can’t find anyone to consistently fill the goalscoring void apparent on the field right now? 

I don’t know how much faith I have with this one. It’s up the ladder for a reason. I’m largely optimistic about the team under Heinze despite the previous questions. But I’m just saying. Could be another slow start for a new manager in Atlanta, especially if the attacking talent just isn’t there. 

6. An MLS team will release a delightfully terrible “Team Anthem”

I have no proof for this, which is why it’s so high on the Bold-o-meter. But I feel this one in my bones. You may not think you want it but we’ll all be better for it thanks to how much collective grief we’ll have from it. This is how communities are built. 

It won’t be that team’s fault, though. They’ll be riding the all-encompassing feelings of optimism the world will be feeling as we lurch out of the pandemic and someone, pure of heart, will walk into the office one day and say “this team needs a song.” They’ll call up the guy who played bass for Dave Matthews Band and say “work your magic.” And after an all-night jam session fueled by reruns of Frasier and La Croix, he’ll finally have a breakthrough and return with a song called “Hearts on Fire, Scarves in the Air (Late on Rent)." He’ll put down his boombox in the team office, slide in the demo cassette, smile and hit play knowing the world will never be the same.  

7. Pozuelo will attempt that penalty kick again

Alejandro Pozuelo steps to the spot. Game on the line. If he finds the back of the net, Toronto breaks the draw in the final minutes of the game. But the lights go down. The stadium descends deep into the darkness of the Toronto night. A worried murmur ripples through the crowd. An electric current passing the anxiety of the moment through human conductor after conductor. A single light suddenly shines on the tunnel at midfield. The assistant referee holds up their signboard. The number isn’t listed on the roster. At least not this season. Could ... could it be? 

“Hearts on Fire, Scarves in the Air (Late on Rent)” blasts through the speakers. Crowd pop. Insanity. Out sprints Pablo Piatti as the PA announcer introduces Toronto’s latest signing. The lights return. Pozuelo steps toward the ball. He lays it off. Piatti sprints forward. He’s learned from his past mistakes. He times the run perfectly. There will be no encroachment this time. He gets to the ball first. He banks the shot off the crossbar and watches as the force from his shot and a gust of wind carry the ball across the field and into the opposite net. Toronto lose.

8. No manager gets fired

QUICK! Name a manager on the hot seat going into this season. 

If it seems hard, it’s because pretty much all of the ones who were left in 2020 and the ones who could have been got a pass because, well, 2020. The large majority of managers are relatively new or coming off decent years with reason to be optimistic about 2021. 

You may read that and respond with "Well, what about Marc Dos Santos in Vancouver?" But there are Michael Baldisimo reasons to feel upbeat about Vancouver this season, and their much-discussed No. 10 target could change the club’s outlook pretty quickly considering the likes of Lucas Cavallini and Deiber Caicedo are already in attack.

It’s going to take a quick trigger or a pretty spectacular fall from grace to see a coach get canned this year. These things do happen, though, which is why we’re nearing the top of the ladder with this one. But this could be the year of job security in MLS.