Five teams set to jump forward in 2021 — and five that might drop back | J. Sam Jones

Chicago Fire celebrate

Well, here’s what you’ve been hoping for. A potent clickbait cocktail of hot takes, cherry-picked stats and gut instinct driven entirely by bias. And also I guess content created because sports are about community and it’s fun to have conversations about a completely undeterminable future with other people who enjoy the sport so that we can make relationships and therefore memories that last a lifetime or whatever. But mostly the cocktail thing.

So, why else am I doing this?

So I can gloat when one of the predictions comes true to any degree? Yes.

So I can end up on one of those images preceding unfortunate events/old takes exposed accounts and increase my brand awareness? Also yes.

Mostly though? Because I love mess.

None of those are meant to represent “predictions.” Just acknowledgments that there aren’t an overwhelming amount of steps between these teams and a leap forward or backward. It’s MLS, so any team can make big leaps forward or backward at any time. These are just teams that, for one reason or another have a relatively simple route toward a very different 2021.

Team that could jump forward: Chicago Fire FC

Ok, I guess, but why though?: They really weren’t all that terrible last year. Seriously.

Chicago didn’t make the playoffs last season in a conference that allowed 10 teams out of 14. That’s not phenomenal. But looking back at their season, they felt like a team just a few breaks away from not only making the playoffs but hosting a play-in game. And then they...just kind of didn’t?

It’s like running a race and watching someone in front of you take off out of sight. You just assume they’re going to finish well ahead of you. Then you get to the finish line, wait 10 minutes and see them slowly amble to the end with a torn shirt and one of their shoes missing.  When you ask them what went wrong all they can say is “These things happen.”

They’ve got a second chance to get it right this year though. It seems that nearly everyone will be back — excluding Djordje Mihailovic, who’s off to the Montreal Impact in exchange for a cool $1 million in GAM — and they have room to add pieces who might be able to help bring about more consistent and explainable results. Mihailovic is certainly a big loss (2g/7a/bunch of created chances) but if they turn his replacement into someone of similar value plus someone who can help keep the defense from losing its mind late, they’re set to compete for a playoff spot.

Even if they don’t find perfect replacements, jumps forward from center back Mauricio Pineda (a baller and a homegrown) and young designated player Ignacio Aliseda (not so much a baller quite yet) could easily fill those voids.

Team that could jump back: Portland Timbers

Ok, I guess, but are you sure?: Nope! Remember this is an exercise in performative imagination. But still...

It’s hard to stay healthy as a professional athlete. It’s even harder to stay healthy as a professional athlete at 34 and 32 years old.  When your three-most crucial players are at that age and one is coming off a torn ACL, it’s not insane to worry about injuries or just a straight-up regression.

Portland didn’t exactly fall off the earth when Sebastian Blanco went out with an injury last year. They still technically finished tied on points with Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders at the top of the conference, just with an extra game here and there. But they never quite reached the same highs as they did with Blanco -- they couldn’t be expected to -- and bowed out to FC Dallas in the playoffs. It didn’t help that DP forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda also picked up a season-ending ACL tear. Oh man, Eryk Williamson was out for that playoff game too. Goodness, Portland.

They still had the talent to perform at a high-level despite those injures and few other roadblocks along the way. They’re still extremely talented. But is it that out of the realm to imagine them plummeting after being plagued by injuries again along with them still not realizing Jeremy Ebobisse is probably a No. 9 plus regression from a still-recovering Blanco or the ageless Diegos? I mean, yeah kind of. But I’m not here to be optimistic. It’s a testament to Portland’s roster-building that worst-case scenario probably still sees them in a playoff spot. That’s still a step back though. And it would definitely be a disappointment for a team fighting to prove its status as a super club.

Oh. And I guess while we're here...

Not sure how much you can really put into it over a shortened and strange season, but no team outperformed their xG like Portland. That's never a great sign. Like I said, just putting it out there.

Team that could jump forward: New England Revolution

Ok...duh?:Yeah, I know. I'm pretty much cheating here.

Oooh, look at the big tough blog boy going out on a limb and putting his reputation on the line that the team who nearly went to MLS Cup might be pretty ok next year. So controversial and so brave.

In my defense, this is a team that finished eighth in the Eastern Conference and had a goal differential of one. But pretty much everyone agrees that had more to do with missing their best outfield player rather them actually being mediocre at soccer. A full year of Carles Gil, Henry Kessler in a second season and Bruce Arena in year three makes New England extremely enticing as a pick to host a playoff game in a conference that should be pretty crowded again.

To go a step further...If former Barcelona midfielder Wilfrid Kaptoum can gel with Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou in midfield, that group could potentially be one of the league’s best. That might mean more than just hosting a playoff game.

Team that could jump back: Columbus Crew

Ok, I guess but...WAIT, WHAT???: Yeah, you didn't know?

Kidding. They’re absurdly good and somehow getting better.  I was going to make a joke about them being too content after winning MLS Cup to care about this season -- which they would have every right to do -- but then I realized it’d be more fun to see who saw the Crew pop up and jumped straight to the comments to complain about it. It’s your duty, as someone who actually read this part, to go make fun of them. Thanks. I salute you.

Team that could jump back: Toronto FC

Ok, but you’re doing another bit right?: Uhh ... I don't think I'm actually kidding this time.

Look, right now, we don’t know who this team’s manager is and it’s the first bit of instability they’ve had since Greg Vanney helped flip the club into an MLS Goliath. And all I think I really need to say about that is, “Hello from Atlanta, where having a manager come in and completely disrupt the culture sure isn’t fun to watch!"

As with any great to excellent team with someone new in charge, the idea should be “evolution not revolution.” On paper this is still easily one of the best rosters in the league. It shouldn’t take a ton of work or a brand new identity to set them up to succeed.

It probably should be noted that along with a new coach, this team feels perpetually depleted by injuries. Those come and go but there’s no doubt that the new person in charge will have to deal with convincing the rapidly aging (for like, the last three years) Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley that they’ll probably have to take a back seat this year. If whoever takes over can’t clear the way for someone like Ayo Akinola to take over on pretty much a full-time basis, it feels like this team could be far from reaching its potential.

There’s a lot of variables in play here that could see Toronto fall short of the lofty standards they’ve earned.

Team that could jump back: Philadelphia Union

Ok, but, I mean...well, like...aww man: I know. I'm bummed too.

I don’t want to dwell on this one too much because it makes me sad that one of the most fun groups in league history never got to play in front of a full stadium and has understandably seen core pieces move on to bigger things. Any team in the league is going to reel from losing players as good and enjoyable as Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. The good news is the Union have created a homegrown factory and there always seems to be the potential that the next group of young players might be even better. But we’ll have to wait and see. That may take a year or two. But it’s far from a guarantee they find replacements for Aaronson, McKenzie and possibly Kai Wagner anytime soon.

No matter what, we’ll always have 2020.

Team that could jump forward: FC Dallas

Ok, but don’t we do this a lot?: Kind of?

It does seem to feel like we do this almost every season. But it also feels like Dallas has an overflowing cup of very talented soccer children every season. Now, not only do they still have plenty of talented soccer children -- with maybe the most talented of all returning from injury -- they’re coming off a year that ended with a playoff win over a not exactly full-strength but still strong Portland and then made things uncomfortably close for Seattle in the next round. That’s reason for optimism. Even if Bryan Reynolds is probably on his way to Europe.

Paxton Pomykal should be back and hopefully healthy, Tanner Tessmann might be a legitimate force in midfield, and there’s plenty of talent on the field. Dallas’s DPs, Bryan Acosta and Franco Jara, haven’t exactly wowed, but there’s a chance they add another over the offseason that could really push this team forward. This is a team that could very conceivably end the season hosting a playoff game.

Team that could jump back: Minnesota United

Ok, I guess, but isn’t this just you crying out for attention: NOTICE ME ADRIAN.

Just trying to get on Minnesota’s bulletin board for the season. I’m desperate to get called out in a post-match interview. But even if my motives are a bit suspect, there is a path here where a team that’s steadily climbed over its first four years of existence falls off in year five.

And that’s ok! Falling off might just mean a step away from nearly making MLS Cup. That’s a stunning outcome for a team that just a few years ago put out the worst defense in league history. Last year saw them put together a steady defense even without Ike Opara. And Emanuel Reynoso came along and just happened to put together what might be the greatest playoff performance of all-time. There are still pieces like Jan Gregus and Dayne St. Clair there. Plus they may have some flexibility with DPs.


Osvaldo Alonso is 35, Michael Boxall is 32, Opara will be 32, and Kevin Molino is gone. There’s a massive hole at center forward right now as they figure out what’s going on with Luis Amarilla’s loan deal and his ankle after season-ending surgery.  And I have a lot of questions about how replicable a fourth-place finish and a trip to the conference final is. That being said, Reynoso may very well drag them to a trophy. It’s still a good team, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see them fall pretty well short of 2020.

Especially if they don’t leave a copy of this in every player’s locker as a motivational tool to get them through the season.

Team that could jump forward: Inter Miami

Ok, I guess but...well, can they really go down?: They might try!

Things are more than a little interesting in South Beach right now. A new manager appears to be on the way along with plenty of questions. But if you’re looking for hope, you don’t have to look much further than Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi and Rodolfo Pizzaro all getting a second year in MLS.

While it might be a little harsh on Pizzaro, none of that trio lived up to their potential last season. And it became very clear that Diego Alonso’s side couldn’t find an identity or tactics that worked for the team. But a little time to adjust and perhaps a lack of identity apathy from a new manager might just do wonders. Higuain still seems like he has at least something left in the tank. He didn’t look disinterested and it’s hard to be interested and that talented and also be unproductive.

It’s an offseason of turnover for a team after year one, which isn’t good, but neither is wallowing after a 10th place finish. But core talent and unknown variables everywhere else always has the potential to mean improvement. Besides, like I said, not a whole lot of room to fall down. Although, I guess it could be worse. They could stay exactly the same. Yikes.

Team(s) that could jump forward: Atlanta United and LA Galaxy

Ok, but, you’re cheating again. And it will be really funny if you’re wrong: Yeah. Fair.

Both clubs picked up exactly the kind of manager everyone said they needed. There’s still plenty of work to do to get the rosters they need, but it’s not like either team is hurting for the cash to do that. Anything less than a jump forward is a major failure for either team. Especially since they also can’t really dig a hole any deeper than 2020.

I hope everyone enjoyed both these teams being down.