Voices: Sam Jones

Six most entertaining MLS teams in 2021

As we throw ourselves headlong and unbridled into the optimism of a fresh spring and a new MLS season, you may be reckoning or outright ignoring the fact that your team might actually be kind of bad at soccer. It’s not your fault. These things happen. Keep your optimism for other things like the triumph of the human spirit and your favorite baker’s ability to impress Paul and Prue on The Great British Bake Off. Not for your soccer team. Who is bad.

Or maybe you're one of the lucky ones. Your team is destined for glory or some really painful losses. Which, the losses won’t be fun, but at least your team is producing something slightly more than total apathy. Or maybe you’re even an MLS agnostic, floating in the void without a team, simply observing the chaos from afar and wondering if it all means anything.

It doesn’t. But it’s fun. Which means it means everything.

Either way, you may simply be looking for a team to engage with on some level. Whether it’s your own or just an extra club to check-in on to see what’s happening. I’m here to make sure you get your time’s worth. These are a few of the most entertaining teams in MLS. The People’s teams if you will. And even if you don’t support them, you’re going to at least get something out of following one of these teams. For better or worse.

Philadelphia Union logo
Philadelphia Union

I almost didn’t do it. “Change it up a bit” I thought. But then I remembered those stories about how people didn’t vote for Michael Jordan for MVP or Leo Messi for Ballon d’Or not because they had regressed in quality but simply because they were bored of voting for them. So I resigned myself to once again talking about how fun Philadelphia is.

But I pulled back a bit before I began “writing.” “They’ve lost McKenzie and Aaronson, they can’t be as fun this year,” I said to no one.

And then I turned on their Champions League match with Saprissa only to see that People's All-Star Jose Martinez had dyed his hair blonde, they’d picked up a guy named Leon who introduced himself by making a full-sprint interception of a throw-in and showed they were still very capable of playing exciting and attractive soccer on their way to a 1-0 win while wearing gorgeous, fan designed kits.

Oh, and then they got into a fight. Which they then tweeted through. What else am I supposed to do here?

So, once again, I’m here to say that Philly is once again very fun and highly likable. I’m dreading the day that it goes past the popularity threshold and turns into people being annoyed with how much everyone talks about how great the Union are, but today is not that day. It is only a step towards that day. For now, we can enjoy it. 

Hey, speaking of that threshold...

Atlanta United logo
Atlanta United

Stay with me.

A Josef Martinez redemption arc, a bunch of young and exciting players from all across the hemisphere, and a manager who seems to swing from Ted Lasso to Marcelo Bielsa in his theatrical passion, intensity and tactics? This team is on a collision course with being fun as all hell in 2021. I’m not even sure yet if they’ll necessarily be good (my gut says they will), but they at least seem destined to be entertaining.

In the same way Tata Martino’s first team was just as liable to inexplicably lose three times to D.C. United as they were to beat a team by five, this team looks set to have moments of brilliance and growing pains. It’s going to be a blast. And far more interesting than a ruthless romp through the rest of the league. Like how superheroes are only good characters if you know they actually have a chance to lose the fight. 

And be honest. You missed them. Last year didn’t satisfy your need to be annoyed at every single piece of MLS media involving them. How can we be whole without our counterparts? Secretly you’re heavily invested in the return of the biggest club in MLS, because no matter your prior feelings everyone loves a redemption ar — Hey wait no I said “stay with me” where are you going?

Inter Miami CF logo
Inter Miami CF

Because we’ve all been in our early 20’s.

San Jose Earthquakes logo
San Jose Earthquakes

Late in 2020, MLSsoccer.com’s Ari Liljenwall wrote “It wouldn't be the MLS offseason without rumors regarding San Jose Earthquakes head coach Matias Almeyda being courted by Liga MX clubs…” as reports began to come out that Almeyda had turned down a position with Cruz Azul. It’s such a regular occurrence that even though Almeyda’s contract with San Jose runs through 2022, no one would be too surprised if 2021 happened to be the last time we see Almedya at PayPal Park.

When he does go, everyone around the league will be pained to see such a chaotic neutral style of play leave the league. Almeyda’s man-marking system led to results of 4-3, 5-1, 4-0, 7-1, 5-2, 5-2, 5-0 and 6-1 last year. Those are wins mixed in with losses. You don’t know what you’ll see when you turn on a Quakes game but you do know you’ll see \something. \

What makes this group especially interesting though is that Almeyda apparently spent the offseason completing an Oceans 11 montage of player recruitment. Just out there showing up unexpectedly at former players’ houses or favorite coffee shops until they see him off-camera, recognize what it means, and saying something like “Guess we’re getting the band back together,” “That time again?” and “Never thought I’d see you again after that deal in Buenos Aires, what’s the job?”

San Jose added former and now current Almeyda players Chofis Lopez, Eric Remedi and Luciano Abecasis over the offseason and at the very least they’ll know how to execute in the system. Whether or not they’ll help get meaningful results remains to be seen. 

It might be the last push for one of the most fascinating experiments in MLS. Which means it might be the last year for a while with San Jose as a team of the people. Appreciate them and their ability to represent life’s crushing blows and euphoric highs while you can. And then maybe wish really hard for Wondo to take over as player-manager. The people need Wondo as a player-manager just trust me on this.

Minnesota United FC logo
Minnesota United FC

The most fun I get as a neutral viewer is when a team with absurd upside turns into a team with no downside. All the potential positives come together to create a team that reaches its peak simultaneously and you get season full of perfect moments. It’s even better when you don’t really see it coming.

You could maybe look out at the horizon around the start of the year and see a speck of what Philadelphia was going to turn into. Same with Columbus. And by the end of the year both had the strongest storylines and entertainment value. You can never really guess which team that’s going to be at the beginning of the year, but my heart is telling me to go with Minnesota.

Some of y’all could think I’m cheating by picking a team that came 20 minutes from making MLS Cup last season but I’m not just talking about putting in a decent year, I’m talking about coming out and having The Year.

Bebelo Reynoso is magic, he suddenly has a bonafide striker to pass to in Ramon Abila, and they’re returning enough to make a push toward the top of the Western Confreence. I’m not saying that this team will come together to produce something truly special, I’m just saying it could. And that’s enough to keep me very interested here at the start of the year. I would be interested anyway honestly, have y’all seen Bebelo?? 

The other thing that has me hooked though is this: -21, -22, +9, +10. That’s Minnesota’s goal differential the last four years. They came into the league and gave up a horrifying number of goals, somehow got worse, finally figured it out, and actually improved in a shortened and strange season last year until they ran into a crushing defeat in the Western Conference Final. The natural character arc here is for them to take the last big step forward. 

Seriously, not saying they will. But c’mon. They could right?

Orlando City SC logo
Orlando City SC

I will maintain that one of the biggest dumb sports things that didn’t actually matter but I was still actually upset about being robbed of in 2020 was Orlando’s rise occurring in front of a mostly empty stadium. Those poor, sunbaked people waited for years for a team they didn’t want to throw into Lake Eola and could only celebrate together from their cars.

Now a large majority of that team is back for year two under Oscar Pareja and they’ve thrown Pato of all people into the mix. They’re fascinating and electric by themselves, but toss in a wild and exuberant crowd at Exploria Stadium to cheer them on for really the first time and you’re going to have an atmosphere that’s absolutely special. Or potentially destructive if for some unforeseen reason everything goes wrong this year. But I’m leaning towards the former.

This team will be as fun as they come and will finally have the crowd there to recognize them for it. Eventually anyway. That first 100% capacity game back is going to be a madness from start to finish.

Also, bonus here, I think Atlanta and Orlando both being good my actually break Twitter. Like, ruin the whole website. Not in like a “oh it’s so bad” way. Although….yeah, that. But like produce so much insanity the whole website just deletes itself because like its AI begins to recognize the moral failures of what’s happening here. It’s going to be awesome. Don’t engage just sit back and watch it burn.

Anyway, even if Daryl Dike does indeed move on to Europe--which, feels like a done deal at this point, right?--forever underrated Chris Mueller, Mauricio Pereyra and Nani will provide plenty of firepower to keep this team humming. The Lions finally made the playoffs last year. Now it’s time to see if they can finally win a trophy.