Considering all the roster upheaval still to take place over the Major League Soccer offseason, one would practically need to be an idiot to make an attempt at identifying the top contenders to take home the 2020 MLS Cup crown.
Right on cue, that's precisely the far-too-early fool's game I'm here to play. Let's skip the ceremony and get straight to the prognostication, with my favorites listed in order of predicted likelihood of MLS Cup contention.
We may as well start with the champs, who should have most of their key cogs back in the machine next season. They will apparently have to replace the final-third ingenuity of MLS Cup MVP Victor Rodriguez, but then that's what offseasons are for.
The Sounders appeared to signal their intention to bring back loan ace Brad Smith by protecting him from the Expansion Draft, late-season improvement from Xavier Arreaga hinted that he'll be ready to step into the lineup next year and they also have a few talented youngsters that could come through the Tacoma Defiance pipeline.
As such, Seattle looks a depth addition here and there from being ready to defend their crown.
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Only one side in MLS history has followed up a Supporters' Shield win/playoff flop by coming back to raise MLS Cup the next season: the 2011 LA Galaxy. I'm certainly not going to be the one to tell you that their city rivals can't become the second group of avengers to match the feat.
Bob Bradley still has Carlos Vela, a killer midfield and arguably the top center back tandem in the league. And even if Diego Rossi takes flight to Europe, the boss would still have another exciting Uruguay wing prospect in Brian Rodriguez and an open Designated Player slot.
General manager John Thorrington has proven he can problem-solve with the best of them, so expect LAFC to be in the thick of the 2020 title race.
As we saw over the past couple of campaigns, hell hath few furies like scorned Five Stripes. They responded to a shock home playoff loss at the end of their expansion year by winning the next MLS Cup and then another pair of trophies in 2019. I have little doubt that November's highly aggravating Eastern Conference Final defeat will have Atlanta out for blood come spring.
Head coach Frank de Boer is expected to have goal monster Josef Martinez back, while Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez should be better equipped to reach game-breaker status. Brad Guzan and Miles Robinson will return to lead the defense, and the locals should trust technical director Carlos Bocanegra to continue filling roster holes in an expert manner.
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New York City FC
Is 2020 the year NYCFC finally shed their playoff woes? Like Seattle and LAFC, the Cityzens should retain most of their essential roster pieces. Most importantly, Maxi Moralez and Alex Ring will again lead the charge from midfield.
In addition, offensive sparks Heber and Alexandru Mitrita (who scored six times in his last eight 2019 games) will be more accustomed to the MLS grind. Wing terror Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and improving youngster James Sands will be fully fit again.
The Bronx bombers will also have plenty of reliable backline soldiers returning, as well as the ability to buy down a DP-slot or two. Whoever takes the NYCFC coaching reins from the departed Dome Torrent will have a lot to work with from day one.
After a big breakthrough in 2019, the Loons are on an excellent franchise trajectory. Led by Ike Opara, they now boast one of the stingiest defenses in the league. Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus run a midfield crew that also made huge strides this past season. Now they have the offseason to meet raised Twin Cities expectations by beefing up the attack to help promising striker Mason Toye.
The departure of Darwin Quintero opens up both a DP spot and minutes for talented youngster Thomas Chacon. What's more, table-setters Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino will be more than a year removed from major knee troubles, which is when many players are able to get back to their best.
Seeing as how the Reds made it all the way to MLS Cup with strike star Jozy Altidore hobbled, it might be rude to say they can only contend if he stays fit next season. That said, having him up top to team with Alejandro Pozuelo obviously makes Toronto FC much scarier.
The midseason addition of Omar Gonzalez solidified the defense and their midfield glue players will likely all be back next season, while young players like Liam Fraser and Erickson Gallardo should be better equipped to contribute. The big question mark centers around what kind of contract will bring back skipper Michael Bradley — will Greg Vanney & Co. have a free DP slot to play with?
This may actually be the shakiest pick of the bunch. There will likely be some big changes in Philly, with another No. 10 search quite possibly at the top of the list (as I don't expect Marco Fabian to be back). It's also fair to note that midfield general Alejandro Bedoya isn't getting any younger, Haris Medunjanin is departing and that keeping loan ace Jamiro Monteiro will be very tricky.
Nevertheless, the Union have plenty going for them. All the youngsters in their backline stable should be even better next season and netminder Andre Blake strikes me as a solid Comeback Player of the Year bet. The parade of talent from Bethlehem Steel should continue. Attack leaders Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos will be one year wiser in the ways of MLS. On top of all that, Jim Curtin seems to have established a positive team identity.
Columbus Crew SC
This is MLS. You had to know there was going to be a surprise side listed here. Leaving out a dark horse would just be silly. And despite a rough 2019 season, Caleb Porter and the Crew have a lot going for them heading into next year.
Gyasi Zardes is a dependable goal-getter up front. Pedro Santos came into his MLS own this season, and now looks like the perfect man to step into Federico Higuain's No. 10 role. Darlington Nagbe has arrived via trade to add even more possession skills to the midfield. Milton Valenzuela should return from injury to restore the overlapping fullback balance that drives Columbus.
There's a lot to like about Crew SC's chances for a big bounce-back.