For every club but the defending champ, each fresh season comes with one basic overriding ambition: Do better than the year before.
That's obviously easier said than done in a dog-eat-dog league like MLS, especially for teams that made the playoffs. Last year, a dozen clubs improved on their 2018 records. Of the six that boosted their point totals by 10 or more (Chicago, Colorado, LAFC, Minnesota, San Jose and Toronto FC), only the Supporters Shield winners were return invitees to the postseason.
As such, it makes sense that four of our preseason candidates to make appreciable leaps up the table in 2020 were on the outside looking in when the regular season ended last autumn.
Columbus Crew SC
We already detailed the winter personnel moves that have some (including yours truly) believing the Crew can morph from a 38-point also-ran into a dark horse contender. Instead of covering this old macro ground, let's look at a couple of interlocking micro reasons why expected improvement at both ends of the field should put them among the most improved clubs in MLS.
With the league competition level at an all-time high, being the first team to find the net on a given day has become ultra-important. In 2019, few teams felt as much pressure to score first as Columbus. They went 8-1-3 when grabbing the crucial first goal and had a devil of a time rallying when they did not, as evidenced by the fact that they were shut out 12 times.
Thanks to the additions of guys like Darlington Nagbe and Vito Workgoor, Columbus also seem a solid bet to regain the ball-hog identity that was lost for much of last season. One may be surprised to notice that the Crew managed just over 49% of possession in 2019, a disappointment that can directly be traced to a passing percentage (80.4%, which was 17th out of 24 teams) that was easily their worst since 2013.
In the five seasons prior, Columbus never finished lower than fourth in completion rate, and led the league in that category twice. By holding onto the ball better, Caleb Porter's boys can use their increased attack ability to turn possession into goals instead of picking the ball out of their net first. That means spending much more time making good on leads and less chasing results during this go-around.
This pick should be no surprise. The Rapids won five of their last seven in 2019, and banked 40 of their 42 points over the final 23 games of the season. As Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle has noted several times, that's a 60-point pace when prorated over a full season, a sum that would have been good enough for second in the West.
A big part of that turnaround was the stifling play of loan defender Lalas Abubakar, and Colorado have wisely brought him back on a very affordable permanent transfer. Not content with that move, they also got him a mobile young partner by plucking center back Auston Trusty out of Philly. And now that head coach Robin Fraser has a full preseason to work with the backline, the Rapids could be even stingier than they were near the end of last season.
Though the Rapids offense was tied for third in MLS for goals scored last season, they certainly have not stood pat in that department. Management filled a hole by sealing a loan deal for playmaker Younes Namli and boosted the wing corps with the acquisition of erstwhile ex-Toronto FC engine Nicolas Benezet.
In addition to their new recruits, Colorado will cross fingers that their array of young aces (Cole Bassett, Jonathan Lewis, Sam Vines and Rookie of the Year Andre Shinyashiki) will up their game further in 2020. That hope is a reasonable one, as is the ambition of achieving an even better boost in the West standings than they managed last year.
For obvious reasons, no team is in a better position to rank among the most improved than last year's expansion team. The Orange and Blue tallied just 24 points thanks to a record worst -44 goal differential. Even with their coaching situation in an unexpected flux, FC Cincinnati's smart offseason shopping should ensure a dramatic rise in their point haul in 2020.
A large part of the problem at Nippert last season involved an obvious dearth of attacking cogs. Far too many of their lineups were severely unbalanced because they simply didn't have enough productive offensive players around to take heat off the back. FC Cincinnati were shut out 12 times last year, and only managed multiple goals on seven occasions. That sort of toothless play should no longer be an issue.
Designated Player signings Yuya Kubo and Jürgen Locadia are each capable of lighting up the scoreboard from inside the box or coming from a wide position. Adrien Regattin offers another wide threat, Siem de Jong is capable of bringing supplemental offense as a late box runner up the gut and Brandon Vazquez looks like a solid young back-up striker.
Just as importantly, the club have brought in deep-lying playmaker Haris Medunjanin, who will put all these new weapons in dangerous positions with his slick outlet passing. They didn't forget the defense, either, with highly mobile center back Tom Pettersson brought in to partner hard man Kendall Waston. It may take some time for all these new pieces to gel, but FC Cincinnati should no longer represent such a reliably easy three points for foes.
The Revs earned a lot of praise for the strong midseason run engineered by new boss Bruce Arena and later gave Atlanta United all they could handle in an opening-round playoff loss. In between, however, they fell flat down the regular-season stretch, winning just twice in their last 11 games.
Much of their difficulties last season revolved around an inconsistent defense. Though they didn't do a great deal to build up the back, New England's winter alterations should give them a significantly larger margin for error. The biggest splurge landed nimble target striker Adam Buksa, who is expected to provide more value than can be detailed by simply counting stats. Installing him atop their formation should have a great domino effect on their attacking prowess.
His arrival will take deadly hitman Gustavo Bou off the leash, allowing him to roam around the final third at will in search of soft spots in the defense. Not only will the Argentine (who lit the lamp nine times in just 14 games last season) be able to fire his cannon from all angles, but this sort of movement tends to greatly unsettle back lines. Expect playmaker Carles Gil to find even more holes in opposing defenses, and for threats like Teal Bunbury and Cristian Penilla to have an easier time finding space.
Beyond that, the Revs have also cleaned up an oft-troubling left-back spot by snagging top-shelf crosser Alexander Büttner (Buksa, in particular, should love him) and veteran shutdown man Seth Sinovic. New England may not have made the highest volume of offseason moves, but it looks like they made the right ones to easily eclipse last year's total of 45 points.
In mapping the path to bigger point totals for the four teams listed above, most of the talk centered around smart pick-ups with the ability to make a difference. In Sporting KC's case, much of their hope for bouncing back from a trying 38-point campaign should involve improvement from within.
That's not to say Peter Vermes didn't land some potential impact players in the offseason. Even if I'm not as high on the capture of Alan Pulido as some, the Mexico forward should at least help the buildup play and bang home upwards of a dozen goals. Returnee Khiry Shelton is a proven road plow for up front, and Gadi Kinda is just the type of unpredictable creator every possession-based attack requires. For a team still smarting over the departure of Ike Opara, Winston Reid has Best XI quality if he's actually fit (admittedly, a big if) and Roberto Puncec is a solid, proactive defender to have around.
Even with all these reinforcements, what Sporting KC probably need more than anything is a return to form from their core group, and especially the veteran leaders. Prior standouts Matt Besler, Tim Melia, Dániel Sallói and Graham Zusi all experienced major performance dips in 2019, letdowns that go a long way toward explaining the side's shockingly poor game state management.
Sporting KC suffered 10 late point-draining collapses last season, including an astounding seven that occurred in the final five minutes of games. That shouldn't happen, and with a little luck and some help from new cogs, it won't. Fixing that problem alone (or at least scoring a little more to reduce it as an issue) would lift the team back into their usual role as a playoff qualifier.