Now that MLS Cup 2021 has been handed out and the cannon confetti has all been vacuumed up, there's really only one thing to do as we venture into the offseason: make way-too-early picks for the top 2022 title hunters.
My 2020 attempt at these absurdly premature anointments went swimmingly beyond belief, with both MLS Cup finalists, another conference finalist and only one team that ended up missing the postseason altogether in the bunch! This year's picks were much more like a car crash falling off a cliff into a well, with three clubs sitting out the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, four going one-and out and neither MLS Cup entrant selected.
How will it go this time around? There's only one way to find out. Before we get to my most theoretically magnificent seven, though, let's give some honorable mention nods to the next tier of clubs worth elevating if they find the right answers to key offseason questions: Atlanta United, Orlando City, Portland, Sporting KC and Vancouver.
The newly-crowned MLS kings are not just atop this list out of royal courtesy. A steady defense backstopped by MLS Cup MVP pres. by Audi Sean Johnson should return intact, there's loads of midfield muscle and young talent on the roster, and they also have two open Designated Player spots (for now). Don't forget that they achieved the crown without Anton Tinnerholm, Keaton Parks and, for all intents and purposes, Heber. Now that they've figured out how to playoff, NYCFC should be even tougher to beat.
Sure, there will be some changes at Gillette Stadium, but don't think for a second that the Supporters' Shield upholders are just going to go away with that after their playoff disappointment. In addition to all that they brought to the table in 2021, the Revs will now come complete with a major chip on their shoulder. It would certainly help a great deal if they land a couple of midfielders suited to operate Bruce Arena's game plan in the offseason, but New England should again be among the top contenders in 2022 (and also quite surly, it stands to reason).
Seeing as how just about everything that could go wrong in 2021 did go wrong, one could almost say that the Sounders will be fighting for a title provided they can simply avoid biblical selection woes. They still have highly-skilled gamers all over the field and an identity comfortably lived in for a while now. Keep Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris fit, and Raul Ruidiaz fed, and very good things will happen.
In the prediction bit where I called their early playoff demise, there was mention of a fairly common sports rite of passage for young teams growing powerful. Sometimes teams just need the lesson of a letdown defeat in the postseason before they can eventually find their way to the medal podium. Robin Fraser and the Rapids have gotten that nasty task out of the way, so expect them to be more than a little ornery when the season rolls around. If that's not scary enough for you, remember that Colorado have all three DP slots open.
Of course, there just had to be one team in this list that missed the playoffs entirely. It's not a rule to follow, it's just how it goes. There's always some "obvious contender" that falls victim to a nightmare season, and I'm betting this Crew will come back with a vengeance next term. Like the Sounders, Columbus were hammered by key injuries and absences in 2021. If healthy – and yes, with a few shrewd offseason pick-ups, like everyone else – they are among the most balanced sides in the league, if not the most.
Defense can take you a long way in playoff soccer, but it has not taken Nashville to the promised land of an MLS title bout just yet. The key word is "yet" – the Music City bunch should be back stronger than ever next season. This is an honest, hard-working club that understands its strengths and its weaknesses. Handle those weak spots (one consistently lethal striker, please!) this winter and this team will be back in the heat of another title race.
The Union were about 25 minutes from washing away all of 2020's heartbreak away with their first MLS Cup trip when rude guests NYCFC ripped up the ticket. Like the new champions, Philly will remain loaded for bear along the first three lines while hoping to solidify the front line over the winter. This side plays smart and they play hard, and there's probably only so long the rest of the league can hold them off.