Gaston Gimenez - Chicago Fire FC - in challenge

Preseason games start this weekend. I repeat, preseason games start this weekend.

It’s not the real thing, but it’s not nothing. Step by step, we’ll get to April 16. Here are four teams I’ll be watching closely this preseason for very different reasons.

Team that I’m rooting for … Chicago Fire FC

There was a whole lot of Wile E. Coyote about the Fire in 2020. Raphael Wicky’s team often looked like they were within arm’s reach of their goals, only to fall short in the most painful, self-inflicted way.

Case in point, the goal below eliminated the Fire from playoff contention on Decision Day presented by AT&T. Talk about dropping an anvil on your own foot.

GOAL: Valentín Castellanos, NYCFC - 77th minute

On Wednesday, just after MLS dropped the schedule for all 27 home openers, I jumped on Twitter Spaces with Matt Doyle and talked myself into Top 4 potential for Chicago. I like their spine – Robert Beric, Alvaro Medran, Gaston Gimenez, Mauricio Pineda, etc. – and can admit I was also hyped up/biased thanks to this video of Wicky bilingually leading his team through their paces.

The Fire hit the field on Saturday against NYCFC in Orlando. They’ve bounced around the world signing young, promising players this offseason. They can be a playoff team, or perhaps even more. It starts with a lot more risk-aversion in crucial moments and natural progress elsewhere from Year 1 to Year 2 of the project. 

I’m rooting for them to eliminate the mistakes and give MLS another team worth watching for both aesthetics and results. I’m rooting for Ignacio Aliseda to live up to his Designated Player tag. I’m rooting for Luka Stojanovic to be fully fit following an MCL injury that limited the attacking midfielder to just 60 minutes in 2020. I am rooting for Chicago Fire FC.

Team that needs reinforcements … New York City FC

Don’t take it from me. Take it from Ronny Deila. 

“We have a very young squad, the depth in this squad is not good enough to do something in MLS," Deila said earlier this week. "We need more quality players.”

Boy, Deila didn’t leave much wiggle room there, huh? He did point out that the starting XI is very good, but the implications are clear.

Given the public nature of that statement, you’d think reinforcements are coming and coming soon, but in the meantime, I’m intrigued by the preseason opportunities a thin squad offers. C’mon Ronny, give Justin Haak some run. Tayvon Gray, Andres Jasson and Nicolas Acevedo are right there, man.

I know they’re young – and I can’t wait to see who City Football Group’s scouting apparatus identifies and signs – but this is as good an opportunity as any to see if there are flashes of James Sands or Joe Scally (only this time with first-team appearances!) in any of the other youngsters.

HONORABLE MENTION:Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Left wing, check. Right back, check. No. 8, check. No. 10? We shall see. Only one hole left to fill…

Team that must get firing quickly … Atlanta United

The most interesting man in MLS is…

It's good that Josef Martinez is back to peacocking around because Atlanta United have no time to waste on the whoops-maybe-Frank de Boer-wasn’t-the-best-man-for-the-job tour. There’s no easing into 2021. Not with Alajuelense absolutely rolling, unbeaten in the Costa Rican league with a +21 goal differential in 12 games, and Orlando City SC up first in league play.

What if the Five Stripes get dumped out of CCL in emphatic fashion and then lose in Orlando? What if they look poor doing it? What if Josef isn’t Josef yet? Best not to introduce much doubt. A productive preseason is Gabriel Heinze’s opportunity to get the foundation right in time for the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 and a trip to Central Florida that has rivalry implications.

Tormenta FC's up first on Saturday, followed by matches against Charleston Battery, Chattanooga FC and Birmingham Legion. There are going to be a lot of eyes on those games.

Team that’s just words and ideas … Austin FC

Yes, you’re going to get tired of hearing about Austin FC. They’re the baby of the MLS family. It’s natural to shower them with attention, to celebrate their relatively mediocre milestones. We don’t know what they’ll be, but we know what we want them to be! It’s their fate to be saddled with our collective expectations.

I want them to be a playoff team. I want Tomas Pochettino to be mentioned in the same breath as Diego Valeri a decade from now. I want Austin to look like Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus/US men’s national team sides in green/verde shirts. I want Josh Wolff to put an end to the Berhalter comparisons and make this his own team. I expect he will. The rest of it … no idea.

That’s the fun part. There is no context. No baggage. No past to reckon with, only a future that appears bright.

I had an MLS-adjacent friend text me the other day asking who he should support in 2021. He gave me four options: NYCFC, Sporting Kansas City, New York Red Bulls and Austin FC. I told him to ride for Austin, and my logic was simple. “If you have the choice, why not be a part of something new? Every single game will be a real discovery. You might find your forever team. If so, you’ll have been there from the jump.”

The jump starts March 19 against Oklahoma Energy.