Each new Major League Soccer season sees the emergence of a shortlist of favorites to reach MLS Cup, a designation populated this year by the likes of LAFC, New York City FC and Seattle, the current league kings.
But no MLS season is ever quite so predictable. Beneath those consensus picks lie the sleepers that, as the season progresses, will prove themselves capable of making an unexpected run to the title match. And this year boasts a solid stable that looks like dark horses right out of the gate. What follows is our best attempt at identifying them early on.
Coming off a tough season at Mapfre Stadium, the Crew made several big deals intended to vault them back to contender status. Club president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, as well as technical director Pat Onstad, did some solid offseason business to give head coach Caleb Porter plenty of tools to achieve that aim.
Their primary concern was with an attack that barely scored over a goal per game in 2019. The big winter move brought shifty dribbler Lucas Zelarayan from Tigres to replace departed club icon Federico Higuain. That arrival allows Pedro Santos to go back out to the wing, while Luis Diaz looks set for a breakout season as his bookend. If Fanendo Adi (an old Porter favorite) and Derrick Etienne can provide some supplementary impact, top gun Gyasi Zardes will have a lot more help than in recent endeavors.
The midfield corps said goodbye to captain Wil Trapp, but another former Porter soldier came on board in Darlington Nagbe. He's arguably the premier possession player in the league, and should fit like a glove in a Crew SC system that craves the ball. Trapp's departure also means a new and potentially more comfortable role for Artur, who's been one of the league's most eager tacklers the last few seasons.
The backline also looks improved, with Best XI-caliber left back Milton Valenzuela back from a season-ending injury and the addition of ball-playing center back Vito Wormgoor. All told, the Crew look more talented and deeper, resulting in a group that could be legitimate contenders.
Is it crazy to consider a team that waved goodbye to Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta during the offseason, plus lost Paul Arriola to an ACL tear in preseason, a dark horse to reach MLS Cup? Well, maybe not.
Despite those notable departures, the attack looks a great bet to comfortably surpass last year's output of 42 goals. The capital crew have basically added an entire attacking midfield line of game-breaking quality to support prolific striker Ola Kamara. He should become fast friends with Julian Gressel, who I consider to the best crosser in the league. And then there's Peru spark plug Edison Flores, who's been recruited from Liga MX to help drive the offense. If that's not enough for the Audi Field faithful to get fired up, electric winger Yamil Asad is also back in town.
As for the formation's other half, D.C. have pretty much the same group back. Considering the fact that they ended the 2019 regular season with a 504-minute shutout streak, that's certainly not a bad thing. And neither is the long-awaited comeback of right back Oniel Fisher after a long-term injury. Not only was Fisher playing the best soccer of his career before missing the 2019 campaign, but a competent return from the Jamaican would free Gressel to play solely up field.
Beyond that, D.C. still have an open Designated Player slot to use and some promising youngsters intent on making a senior team leap (including Estonian box fox Erik Sorga and impressive teen Homegrown Player Moses Nyeman). Add it all up, and nobody should be shocked if they make an MLS Cup push in 2020.
In almost every league, in almost every season, there are teams whose results don't quite meet their quality of play. Of the few MLS clubs that fit that description last season, none looks better equipped to correct that glitch in 2020 than FC Dallas.
For a list of reasons topped by inconsistent finishing, the Frisco bunch were held back in 2019 by nine draws and seven games that saw them let points slip in the final 33 minutes of play. That doesn't even count the agonizingly-close defeat they suffered to Seattle in the postseason's opening round.
While FC Dallas were far from the busiest MLS club this winter, there are solid reasons to believe that they can go from playoff participant to one capable of navigating the Western Conference bracket. The additions of mobile destroyer Thiago Santos and speedy two-way winger Fafa Picault should have an impact at both ends of the field. They each can boost what was already a stingy run-of-play defense, as well as a counter attack that should be more lethal.
The locals can also maintain hope for improvement from other sources. For instance, there's the potential leap by a young horde of Homegrown talents led by Reggie Cannon, Jesus Ferreira, Paxton Pomykal and Brandon Servania. And, looking ahead, FC Dallas could join the list of teams that took off like a rocket ship thanks to a high-impact, midseason acquisition (think Seattle in 2016 and D.C. in 2018). That's because veteran Pachuca marksman Franco Jara will arrive in July to take his shot at raising the team's ceiling.
After last year, nobody can question the Loons' ability to make a huge season-to-season leap. It's hard to do such things twice in a row, but the northerners could accomplish exactly that. In 2019, Minnesota United reduced their goals-against total from 71 to 43, which keyed their point total rise from 36 to 53. That propelled their first MLS postseason berth and a spot in the U.S. Open Cup final. Continuing that progression could make them a threat to reach MLS Cup for the first time.
How can they manage it? Young, domestic performers such as Hassani Dotson, Chase Gasper and Mason Toye will be one year wiser in the ways of MLS. Fellow youngster Thomas Chacon should be given a chance to show he can be a solid contributor, as well. At the same time, veteran playmakers Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino will be over a full year removed from major knee injuries, a timeframe that often allows players to return to peak form.
There are even offseason pick-ups in important spots that could lift the Loons even higher. Notably, they responded to the loss of Goalkeeper of the Year Vito Mannone by landing Tyler Miller from LAFC. And, not to sound like a broken record, no one should underestimate the potential impact of new striker Luis Amarilla, even if his declared aim of 25 goals seems overly ambitious.
They may not be done with major reinforcements, either. Like D.C., Minnesota have an open DP slot in their back pocket.
Some may wonder if a team that's driven by veteran stars and has made two MLS Cup trips in the last five years should really qualify for dark-horse status. But in a Western Conference that features defending champs Seattle, record-breaking Supporters' Shield holders LAFC and a very dangerous, showy LA Galaxy side, I'd say the Timbers definitely do.
Few league teams were as aggressive in addressing their positional needs over the winter as Portland. Diego Chara's brother, Yimmi, was snared out of Brazil to give Giovanni Savarese a shiny new threat on the wing. General manager Gavin Wilkinson also responded to the exit of DP forward Brian Fernandez by landing two lead strikers. Chile international Felipe Mora and Poland up-and-comer Jaroslaw Niezgoda each have the guns to augment a Timbers offense that seems primed for a boost.
As exciting as those newcomers are, the most important winter transfer may actually be the one that brought center back Dario Zuparic to town. The Croatian covers a ton of ground, plays the ball well and has all the earmarks of an ideal partner for Larrys Mabiala.
Combine that with re-signed maestro Diego Valeri and younger soldiers capable of improvement such as Tomas Conechny, and Portland enters 2020 with a deep, balanced group capable of making noise well into November.