The beginning of every new MLS season brings about an educated guessing game in which observers set expectations for every club, though these prediction tasks aren’t created equal.
Some teams make this game very easy. Most interested parties would agree the 2021 season goal for Columbus Crew SC and LAFC should be a title chase. They likely aren't going to confuse many prognosticators.
Then there's some clubs that will draw a lot of puzzled looks and blank stares. They have good and bad things going for them, and perhaps a roller coaster-esque recent history. It's hard enough to tell which side might show up on a given day, let alone try to clock their entire season before it starts.
These confounding clubs are the ones we're here to focus on, the kind of outfits that could shock everyone with an impressively high table finish in one timeline (hello, 2020 Orlando City SC!) and flop hard in another. Unlike picking their final place, identifying these question-mark teams is fairly simple.
For a couple of seasons now, the Fire have routinely taken the ol' eye test out back to bash it on the rocks. They so often look as though they might beat, or even downright steamroll opponents... and then they just... typically don't. Last season, their expected goal differential was better than the Portland Timbers, Minnesota United FC and Columbus, but they still won just five of 23 games. Heck, in 2019 they had a +8 goal differential and still somehow managed to miss the playoffs.
Bushels of wasted golden chances, late breakdowns at the back and poor goalkeeping have all contributed to their recent struggles. It’s been frustrating for Windy City fans, but not all hope should be lost. There are plenty of strong cogs on hand and some promising youngsters in the wide stables. If Raphael Wicky can get winger Stanislav Ivanov fit in decent time and convince defender Francisco Calvo to match his Ticos excellence, he may be onto something.
Like everyone on this list, the Rapids had a few key guys regress at least a little in 2020. Even so, they were quite decent for a club that had their season rudely hacked by COVID-19. Up until the moment Minnesota ran them right out of the playoffs, that is.
Yes, they still have work to do to become a real contender, but there’s plenty of young talent for blooming. Of course, we know that doesn't always pan out (or take a linear path, for that matter) and this team checked out on occasion in 2020 (five leaks of 3+ goals in 19 games is not a good ratio). Then again, they didn't lose anyone of consequence over the offseason and cohesion can lift a developing club. We could go back and forth like this all day, so there's no firm telling what they'll do this season.
There's no shortage of reasons for the capital crew to appear here. There's a new head coach. Team defense slumped last season. Several key attack cogs slumped last season. Are these blips or trends? Will Paul Arriola be off to Europe again once he's fit? How fast can all the impressive youngsters progress? And when do they pick up more wide back help?
It's questions upon questions at Audi Field, and yet the bones of a solid club are in there somewhere. There wasn't a ton of roster turnover to add help (except at forward), but if new boss man Hernan Losada can get some familiar names back to 2018-19 status, D.C. will surprise some people. If not, things could get dreary.
If including Austin FC would be cheating, then this is the next closest thing. The Orange and Blue have only been around for two seasons, which have mostly been filled with goal-starved futility. Skipper/air marshal Kendall Waston has departed, and young midfielder Frankie Amaya has made it known he wants to follow through the exit door (reportedly to the New York Red Bulls). It would be so easy to assume more suffering is on the way in Cincy.
However, not all the West End indicators are negative. Jaap Stam's team have shown on occasion they can defend more resolutely. With left back Ronald Matarrita on board and youngster Alvaro Barreal now having MLS-dipped toes, Cincinnati should be able to play a wider game. Most importantly, the additions of forward Brenner and creative midfielder Luciano Acosta should mean a lot more goals and better game states (Did you know FC Cincinnati went 4-0 when they scored first last season?) to work with in 2021. I expect improvement here, but the big question is how much.
Like every other club listed, it doesn't take a long look to find the Carson crew's warts. The defense has been among the league's worst for four straight seasons. Their top final-third producer from last season (Cristian Pavon) is gone. They're yet to get the most of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who should be the face of the club. It's all enough to get a good soccer fan down.
However, even Galaxy haters must admit there's enough talent on their roster to improve upon 2020. Chicharito is due for a major bounceback, and midfielder Jonathan dos Santos is due for better fitness luck. Veteran pick-ups Derrick Williams, Jorge Villafana and Oniel Fisher should offer more stability than the backline acquisitions from last year (or the year before that, or the year before that, or... ). And head coach Greg Vanney has arrived to sort it all out properly, which might be the best news of all. Anyone remember how hopelessly troubled Toronto FC was before he took their reins? Exactly.