Preseason preparations are in full swing across Major League Soccer, with just over two weeks remaining until the five Concacaf Champions League participants get things started.
All 26 clubs have plenty of storylines worth watching, of course, and questions to answer in the weeks ahead. But these five stand out for me, whether it be for the promise they’ve shown entering 2020, the scale of the challenges in front of them or the personalities onboard.
Chicago Fire FC
Where to begin? The Fire have a new coaching staff, new brand, new NFL-sized stadium and, to a large extent, a new team this year. With just 21 players under contract in early February – including three teenage Homegrowns – the roster still has holes. While they’ll undoubtedly add to it this month, as they did with the arrival of striker Robert Beric on a Designated Player deal, the status quo underlines the workload, and time crunch, facing the all-new technical staff.
Beyond that, Raphael Wicky will be a fascinating figure to follow. The Fire’s head coach was convinced to leave US Soccer and move across town less than a year into his tenure as the US under-17 national team boss. And though that team’s disappointing performance at the 2019 U-17 World Cup dinged his reputation, he largely earned positive reviews for his proactive work with that squad. Wicky's previous stop at FC Basel in his native Switzerland earned high marks, too.
Columbus Crew SC
If the Fire are the definition of a work in progress, their heartland counterparts in Ohio are the inverse. The Crew finished last season on a high note as Caleb Porter & co. found a rhythm down the stretch, and they built on that further with some promising winter moves, highlighted by the arrival of Darlington Nagbe and club-record acquisition Lucas Zelarayan. There was a notable outgoing move, too, with longtime captain Wil Trapp traded to Inter Miami CF.
The Yellow Football Team look to be crafting a fluid, technically-gifted starting lineup with a strong central-midfield core. The challenge is to hit the ground running this spring and prove their bonafides in a crowded Eastern Conference field.
Chicharito. Need I say more?
OK, fine, I’ll say more. Beyond Javier Hernandez’s expected (blockbuster) signing, the Galaxy have reeled in Aleksandar Katai and Sacha Kljestan, extended the loan for Cristian Pavon and re-signed Sebastian Lletget, providing some luxurious attacking options for Guillermo Barros Schelotto as the OGs of El Trafico aim to punch back in the battle of Los Angeles.
Have they fixed that painfully wobbly backline? Ehhh, I’m not so sure about that. LA might just have to win a lot of 3-2 and 4-3 games again this year. But that’s just fine for most of us neutral viewers.
As a rebuilding side who also happen to be one of MLS’s CCL representatives, the Impact face a daunting start to their first season under Thierry Henry, who remains an unproven coach despite his legendary status as a player. And their opening foe, Costa Rican powers Saprissa, will be a very tough out.
That said, Henry’s footballing intellect is unquestionable and IMFC have a proud history of punching above their weight in Champions League. Can they get comfortable again at “The Big O,” their hulking, historic second home for cold-weather matches?
The defending MLS Cup champs have to figure things out quickly given the early start brought on by CCL, and they have the quality and desire to make a real run at the thing.
Problem is, they’ve bid farewell to some key figures this offseason and are paper-thin at the back, particularly in central defense, where the freshly-signed Shane O’Neill and Xavier Arreaga are their sole specialist options at present. One boost arrived late last week, though, with the addition of Brazilian midfielder Joao Paulo on a Designated Player deal, a move that also saw Arreaga's budget charge bought down with Targeted Allocation Money.
Their CCL opener, a potentially dicey visit to Honduras’ Olimpia, is barely a month away. It’s a real job looming in front of coach Brian Schmetzer and his staff as veterans and new faces mesh together.