SEASON PREVIEW - 2019 - Most Improved Teams

Every season sees nearly half of MLS clubs left out of the playoff party, and only one club walk away with MLS Cup, which means that roughly 22 returning clubs will be looking to pick up their respective games in 2019. 


Of course, wanting to do something, being able to do it, and actually doing it are three very different things over the course of a marathon season. So who looks like the best bets to erase bad 2018 memories by making a big jump in the table this year? We're glad you asked.


Once again, let's go in alphabetical order…


Chicago Fire

Can the Chicago Fire get back to 2017 form? | 2019 Season Preview

The lone Eastern Conference team on this list hails from the Windy City, where Veljko Paunovic is aiming to get the Fire back into the postseason following last year's injury-ravaged disappointment. Chicago finished next to last in the East, 18 points below the playoff line, as their goal differential took a steep -27 dip from their excellent 2017 campaign.


The roster has seen a lot of exciting offseason turnover. David Ousted has come over from D.C. United to solidify the goalkeeping position, and extremely active center back Marcelo was brought in from Sporting CP to clean up the Fire's penalty area (and keep Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield, no small factor).


Przemyslaw Frankowski adds a pace and excitement to the flank mix, and it seems as though GM Nelson Rodriguez has finally snared the No. 10 he's been chasing for eons with the reported Thursday capture of former Atletico Madrid and Benfica ace Nico Gaitan. To boot, Chicago recently nabbed C.J. Sapong from Philadelphia to bring a new dimension to their forward group.


What it all means: The Fire midfield is dramatically improved with the full-time return of Schweinsteiger and the addition of veteran playmaker Gaitan. With Dax McCarty supporting them, few of the league's units can match their level of central park guile. And with Nemanja Nikolic's supply line repaired, it says here you can look for Chicago in the postseason mix come October.


Colorado Rapids

Can roster turnover propel Colorado to the playoffs? | 2019 Season Preview

Big surprise, right? As far as improvement over 2018 goes, Colorado have quite low hurdles to clear (31 points, -27 GD last year). And instead of fishing overseas for pricey question marks, the latest Rapids offseason haul netted a wealth of proven MLS performers with familiar names. 


General Manager Padraig Smith has gone to great lengths to overhaul what was easily the worst attack in MLS last year. Dependable strikers Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio are now on board, along with promising rookie Andre Shinyashiki. Benny Feilhaber and Nicolas Mezquida add much-needed veteran flair to the playmaking ranks (no returning Rapid had more than defensive midfielder Jack Price's four assists last year).


Sure, the defense didn't get nearly as much makeover attention. However, Keegan Rosenberry has arrived to fix Colorado's long-standing right back issues. The improved attack should lower the margin for error and Feilhaber teaming up with Kellyn Acosta should drastically raise the Rapids' possession numbers (only live-and-die-by-the-counter Vancouver held less of the ball in 2018), further reducing the pressure on the backline.


That it all means: Am I ready to tab the Rapids as a playoff team in what looks to be a much tougher Western Conference? Well, not quite. But after a 2018 season that saw them finish 18 points out of a playoff spot (ouch!), I can surely see them in the race until the back stretch. 


Houston Dynamo

Will Houston be the surprise team this season? | 2019 Season Preview

Coming off a Jekyll-and-Hyde campaign that saw the Dynamo raise their first U.S. Open Cup while missing the MLS Cup Playoffs by 11 points, the key word at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2019 will be consistency. Houston only managed one two-game win streak in league play last season. 


The No. 1 concern should be the defense, which to be frank, probably still needs one more reliable guy in the middle. The backline group did receive a new center back enforcer in Kiki Struna (brother of erstwhile NYCFC defender Andraz), but the best news for the Dynamo defense is the return to health for midfield gatekeeper Juan David Cabezas. This is an entirely different team when he's on the field — just ask heartbroken Open Cup victims Philly.


Cabezas – who is nursing a knock to start the season – also has a new ball-winning deputy in youngster Matias Vera, while Tommy McNamara and Marlon Hairston have joined up to provide some additional cunning and speed to an attack already equipped with a completely frightening starting crew. Oh... and hopefully coach Wilmer Cabrera can make sure that the Dynamo do not suffer a repeat of the constant late concentration problems that effectively tanked their league season last year.


What it all means: As with Colorado, I'm not yet ready to proclaim the Dynamo as a surefire playoff team in the improved West. They are, however, better positioned reach the postseason.


LA Galaxy

Ranking the Top 5 most improved teams in MLS for 2019 - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/styles/image_landscape/s3/images/roma%20gio%20ibra.jpg

Romain Alessandrini, Gio dos Santos and Zlatan Ibrahimovic | USA Today Sports Images


Coming off last season's heart-wrenching Decision Day collapse, it's playoffs or bust for Zlatan & Co. The Galaxy have missed out twice in a row, something that last happened 10 years (and three league crowns) ago. 


The biggest change/reason for optimism is new boss Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who knows the league and is coming from a very successful stint with Boca Juniors. He should have this team playing aggressive soccer on and off the ball, and he will play young talent — something the Galaxy have largely neglected to do in the past. 


Last year, LA had both the third-highest scoring offense in the league and a paltry +2 goal differential. The defense was simply not to be trusted, but a couple of pickups could help change that.


Diego Polenta is an unusually talented center back who can both stop opponents cold and then play the ball forward with some elegance. Former Galaxy defensive midfielder Juninho (who was around for the three titles mentioned above) is also back to help ease the backline's workload. 


Most probably won't worry about the LA attack, even with the departure of Ola Kamara. However, an under-the-radar catch could provide a missing element. Mexico youth international Uriel Antuna is an old-school winger who loves to beat defenders to the end line and ship accurate crosses. If Zlatan does in fact break every MLS record, this kid will have played a notable part in it.


What it all means: In my book, better balance throughout the ranks almost certainly means a return to the playoffs after two years of watching from home. If they can build some quality depth in the fullback slots and keep key guys fit, this team could even challenge for a place in MLS Cup. 


Minnesota United

New stadium, new expectations for Minnesota United | 2019 Season Preview

We may have saved the best for last. The third-year franchise is desperate for improvement as they open their snazzy new Allianz Field, and the front office has responded with a strong offseason.


Let's start at the back, where Minnesota have conceded 70 or more goals in both of their previous seasons. The Loons dealt for hyper-athletic vet Ike Opara, who gives the club its first-ever proper backline marshal. They also brought in right back Romain Metanire, who can both tackle and get forward, and created some competition in goal with the loan addition of Vito Mannone.


Perhaps even more important to lowering that goals-against average and raising the point total is Minnesota's central midfield rebuild. Longtime league star Ozzie Alonso was signed to dissuade attackers from running up the gut, and he'll partner with a smooth, cultured traffic director in new Designated PlayerJan Gregus.


While there haven't been any big changes to the offense, a couple of significant injury returns should almost act as new signings. Wing creator Ethan Finlay is back and fellow playmaker Kevin Molino should resume full training in March. The return of that duo could give star man Darwin Quintero even more room to operate and provide better service to a strike force with plenty to prove. 


What it all means: Through their first two seasons, the Loons have failed to get anywhere near the playoffs or manage to allow fewer than two goals per game. Thanks to their quality-over-quantity changes to the squad, they should accomplish both of these things in 2019. With a little luck (like avoiding the type of major injury crisis suffered last year), they could even sneak into the postseason for the first time.