Although we still have two rounds and an MLS Cup celebration left in this year's playoffs, it's never too early to take a peek toward next season — especially for the 20 horses already done running for the current calendar year.
In this exercise, we'll try to scope out a cornerstone player for each MLS club to build around as they plot a title run for next year. We've largely avoided tabbing MVP-caliber superstars; that's just too obvious.
Some of the picks below are guys primed for breakouts, some are All-Stars that their teams can get even more out of, some are good building block players that can raise their game up to great with the right reinforcements around them. What they have in common is they can all be keys to club success in 2019.
First up, let’s take a look at the 12 teams from the Eastern Conference:
Well, this one's an obvious pick, and not solely because next season's new kids on the block barely have a roster to speak of at this juncture. The fact of the matter is the Queen City crew traded for Fanendo Adi so he could be the cobra head at the top of their attack. Now they need to acquire a support staff for their target man, and get him back to the form that produced 57 goals across all competitions (plus plenty of helpful hold-up play) over his first four MLS campaigns.
Orlando City SC
When you have a sniper like Dom Dwyer, you need to give him every opportunity to score. That goes double when his backups are goal-shy and you had the joint-weakest offense in your conference. When the US international was scoring by the bushel for Sporting KC, he averaged 3.6 shots per 90 minutes. In a season-and-a-half with the Purple Lions, Dwyer has been set up for a hair under three attempts per 90 minutes. Feed the beast, guys.
During their excellent 2017 season, the Fire teed up Nemanja Nikolic for nearly three-and-a-half shots per game. This past year, the striker fired off less than half that amount (1.7 per game). Of course, they need to solidify a defense that leaked 13 more times in 2018 than they did the year before, but some of that can be chalked up to negative game states. Chicago scored first in all eight of their wins this season, and leaked the first goal in 17 of 18 their losses. They need to get back to playing with leads, and the best way to do that is to keep Nikolic's trigger busy.
The 2017 MLS Cup champs are another team that spent far too much time playing catch-up this year. They actually conceded the first two goals of a game 11 times (!) in 2018. To make matters worse, they also allowed a staggering 40 second-half goals. This all coming off a 2017 season that saw their championship run finish with three shutouts. Obviously, the Reds suffered through an injury crisis that lasted most of the season and affected every line. But if they want to get back toward the top of the league next year, step one is keeping athletic and aggressive center back Chris Mavinga on the field. Twelve of their 18 defeats this season and 46 goals conceded came from the 22 games he missed.
New England Revolution
I'd rather pick someone on defense, but frankly there doesn't seem to a foundation back there, as of yet. So we'll focus on the other end of the field, where Cristian Penilla was quite the loan revelation. There was nothing in his file to indicate he would bust out for a dozen goals to be the Revs' key man. They lost just one of the 10 games in which he tallied, and now Penilla is being brought back on a permanent deal. He won't surprise anybody this time around, but if New England can nab a dangerous bookend winger to give him extra room, look out.
While it would be just too easy to pick a certain Nacho man, I'd argue that Saphir Taider (pictured at the top) is just as vital to this team. He's their midfield conductor, turning defense into offense and picking the right paths forward. As good as Taider was this season, the Impact might be better served if the Algerian international had a genuine No. 10-type to shadow into attack. In addition to reducing the attention paid to him when Montreal is on the ball, he'd also be freed to take up additional defensive responsibilities.
Coming off a fine season, the Union have some things to figure out in the final third before next year. Can they bring Borek Dockal back? Can CJ Sapong bounce back? Is Fafa Picault the guy who averaged a goal every 348 minutes over the first 11 playing months of his Philly tenure or the one who scored every 165 minutes from June of this season on? One thing they should be firm about is the need to build around striker Cory Burke. He scored 11 times in his 16 starts, which saw the team go 10-4-2.
Columbus Crew SC
This is not rocket science. Whoever the coach is next year will have Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Zack Steffen fronted by an excellent back line and a cohesive midfield unit starting its third season together. He'll also have striker Gyasi Zardes fresh off a 19-goal season that earned him MLS Comeback Player of the Year honors. Just imagine the damage he could do if flanked by productive wingers that offered additional service and space granted by their goal threat. Columbus should make it their mission to find out.
The capital crew are all set up for a strong 2019 campaign, but there is a bit of squad patchwork to be done. Perhaps the most important question mark D.C. must turn into an exclamation point is finding a consistent home for Paul Arriola. He had a nice spell playing in central midfield, but the Black-and-Red have a crowded stable there. If they drop him to right back, which is acceptable, they need a winger to run ahead of him, If they want him up the flank, they need a starting-quality right back. It's not a bad problem to have going into the offseason, and it's one with multiple solutions that can work.
New York City FC
Back in late July, when everyone was anointing Josef Martinez as MVP-to-be, I actually had Maxi Moralez as my personal frontrunner. Then, injuries to Yangel Herrera and David Villa started taking a toll, Moralez had too much ground to cover and NYCFC swooned until both the No. 8 and their star striker were back. Now it looks as though both Herrera and Villa could be elsewhere next season, so the Bronx bombers will need to effectively fill those positions to get the most of of their diminutive playmaker.
And while the final four are still chasing this year's MLS Cup crown, let's not leave them out our look toward next season...
There will be plenty of change at the Mercedes-Benz before next season. We already know head coach Tata Martino is leaving, and it seems likely that Miguel Almiron will follow him through the out door. If that happens, Atlanta's eyes will turn to Ezequiel Barco. Naturally, the youngster needed time to adapt to MLS. Still, he probably was never served by being used on left wing, where Almiron often shades, drawing added defenders. Should Miggy depart, Barco can slide to the middle, get more touches and build more confidence.
New York Red Bulls
Considering the fact that Kaku has impressively accounted for six goals (all winners, mind you) and 15 helpers during his debut MLS campaign, it's quite scary to think he could merely be warming up. But ponder this: his setup for the Red Bulls capper in last week's conference final clincher over Columbus snapped a 13-game assist drought and, after a 10-game stretch that saw him account for a total of 11 key passes, he's notched 13 in the last four games. It's quite possible that the wily playmaker needed to get over that initial new-to-MLS travel and physicality hump, and he's now wear-down proof.