As we get set to venture into the 25th MLS season, two things are certain: It's becoming harder by the year to stay competitive, and nobody wants to hear or commiserate about how hard it has become to stay competitive.
Fans want victories and crowns to celebrate. Clubs need to prove they know how to achieve those goals, they need the collective confidence earning glory brings and, naturally, they need to keep butts in the seats. And when they do what it takes to fill all those wants and needs, they need to make sure a team culture of success doesn't slip away. It's all enough to crank up the heat in any given MLS market.
Of course, some clubs are feeling the strain to win more than others. There are those that have gone far too long without winning. Others have extremely high standards to live up to, either based on their own past exploits or because rivals have been outshining them. You will find all of those types and more as we attempt to rank the MLS teams feeling the tightest collar pinches as 2020 begins.
One could surely point to various reasons (comparison to first-year wonders like Atlanta United and LAFC, establishing a presence in their cities, season ticket sale struggles, etc.) for including expansion outfits Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC. However, I've decided to look past those honeymoon phases to focus on established clubs. There's just too many teams out there that really need to pick up their socks to start heaping pressure on the newbies right away.
I know what you're thinking. Something long the lines of "Whoa... what? Why are the top teams from each conference last season on this list?"
There's quite an easy answer for this patented cheat pick, actually. For all the regular season excellence we've come to expect from LAFC and NYCFC, neither has managed to make it to an MLS Cup, let alone win one. There's also no extracurricular silverware (U.S. Open Cup, etc.) in either trophy case, so the fans may soon start getting antsy.
9. Sporting KC
I'm not suggesting one losing season in 10 years has put this club at the edge of a hanging sword. At the same time, a fan base that has become accustomed to painting The Wall has had their hopes lifted following a rough 2019 campaign.
Sporting KC finally showed they will splash cash by bringing in Mexico forward Alan Pulido, and now it's time to show that they can spend wisely. An organization with a rep for keeping their supporters happy in one way or another does not want a reverse trend to get rolling. It's probably not necessary for them to add another title of some sort, but they'll definitely want to return quickly to being competitive.
8. Atlanta United
This is another entry that may surprise, with the Five Stripes taking home a trio of trophies in the first three years of existence. I can think of about 24 current MLS teams that would kill for that kind of franchise start, and that's before we even get to the rollicking, record-smashing fan base that packs the team's snazzy, monstrous stadium.
And yet, Atlanta United find themselves at a crossroads. Several extremely talented and popular players who played big roles in all that silver-collecting have exited over the last year and change. The squad is in transition and the team is (at least for the moment) no longer a frightening top-tier favorite for championship glory as the new season approaches.
7. New York Red Bulls
If the Harrison crew had any MLS Cups in its club ledger, they might not make this list. As they have none (and, for that matter, no Open Cups) to reminisce fondly over, patience for a shiny trinket to boast about is wearing thin.
On top of that, the squad is in a transition phase. Several club legends have departed over the past few offseasons, and the Red Bulls have more often than not chosen the youth development route over spending on established names. Other Eastern teams (including a few that have been in the league nowhere near as long) have benefited from splurging, so it's not just about winning anymore. The club's entire personnel process will be on trial this year.
6. Houston Dynamo
Once upon a time, Houston kicked off the franchise by raising consecutive MLS Cups. They reached four total championship matches in their first seven years of existence. Even with their 2018 Open Cup triumph, that air of success has fully dissipated in Houston. The club has missed five of the last six postseason and Dynamo fans are eager to get back to the "Clutch City" days.
The thing is, unlike some other teams listed here, their star men have not left town in recent years. Not yet, anyway. Mauro Manotas is still around. So is Alberth Elis. In fact, all four team award winners from last season are back. There's no more room for excuses at BBVA Stadium if the Dynamo can't at least reach the playoffs.
5. FC Cincinnati
Yeah, the second-year club is likely still in the honeymoon phase. Still, nobody wants to be wed to a downer. FC Cincinnati will need to raise the amount of love it compels at Nippert if they want to maintain fan fervor before opening their large new West End stadium next year.
Nobody will expect them to sweep to an MLS Cup crown in 2020. But after struggling through one of the worst seasons in league history, the Orange and Blue would be advised to become much more competitive this year.
4. Vancouver Whitecaps
While fierce rivals Portland and Seattle have racked up the trophies and individual awards since coming into the league, the Whitecaps have typically left the locals to stew in envy. With all due respect to their three Cascadia Cup wins, Vancouver has yet to so much as reach a conference final. They've had just two Best XI nods, both by the same player.
Squad make-up has been, and from all appearances remains, unbalanced. Many big signings have floundered. The heat is on respected head coach Marc Dos Santos to author some measurable, faith-inducing progress.
3. LA Galaxy
Signing big names who produce titles and the Galaxy are an iconic MLS pair, but bringing in stars only raises the pressure to perform on the field. After managing just one playoff win during the two-season Zlatan era, the Carson faithful will be hungrier than ever to get back among the league elite.
For a team waging a city rivalry with Carlos Vela and Supporters' Shield winners LAFC, landing Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez was a coup of epic proportions. Now the Galaxy need to back up that local prestige salvo on the field. They haven't reached an MLS Cup in five seasons, or two years more any other drought in franchise history. That just won't do at Dignity Health Sports Park, which should be quite the pressure cooker this year.
2. Chicago Fire FC
The Fire spent the first decade or so of their existence as near constant contenders, winning a slew of shiny trophies along the way.
The last 10 years have been much rougher, with little more than a pair of quick playoff exits to hang the club hat on. Then, a massive chunk of the roster departed this offseason, including one retiring world superstar, a traded team captain, and an attack trio that accounted for 22 goals and 19 helpers last season.
That all would have been more than enough to plant Chicago high on this ranking... and then came a club rebrand and a move from their Bridgeview digs back to the comparatively giant Soldier Field. The last thing the once proud Fire needs in 2020 is another dreary season.
1. Orlando City SC
This is not complicated. It needs no nuanced, long-winded explanation. This city has waited five years for a winning team and its first playoff berth. It certainly doesn't help 2015 "expansion brother" NYCFC is up there finishing second in the Supporters' Shield table (which they've now done twice). The pressure is definitely on in Orlando.