MLS teams are settled into the blocks and ready for the latest version of a 2020 season that seems poised for plenty of surprises.
While we can take some clues from the recently-completed MLS is Back Tournament, the topsy-turvy nature of this season provides intrigue as we build towards MLS Cup. One could definitely call predicting how each conference table will finish a classic fool's game.
On the other hand, you should never be shocked by my eagerness to play such games. Is this brave or stupid? As always, you decide.
1. Toronto FC
With the breakout of Ayo Akinola, the Reds are no longer lacking up top when Jozy Altidore isn't available. The rest of the league should be concerned by this development, as either power forward will be supported by a cohesive group that knows how to win consistently.
2. Columbus Crew SC
They suffered a harsh MLS is Back exit in the Round of 16, but I fully expect the Crew should get right back to their winning ways. Columbus runs a well-manned system that's hard to stop even when you know what's coming. Few teams can match their midfield, which controls games for breakfast.
3. Philadelphia Union
The Union made it to the MLS is Back semifinals with key contributions from developing youngsters who are trending up. Philly are solid all over the field and possess one of the scariest bench weapons in the league in Ilsinho. Then there’s goalkeeper Andre Blake's return to top form, which gives them a serious playoff wildcard.
Perhaps I'm wrong (it would not be the first time), but it feels like NYCFC are best equipped to play the "phoenix from the ashes" part in this 2020 MLS story. For my money, they have too much in the locker to play blandly for much longer. Don't reinvent the wheel, coach, just get it rolling.
5. Orlando City SC
Some folks may wonder how much magic dust the Lions have left over from MLS is Back. Such thoughts may be missing the point of their sudden emergence. Oscar Pareja's Orlando City have a solid midfield crew, a flank crew that can take over games, one of the transfer catches of the season in goal and enough spirit to reach their first postseason. If they find/rehab/unearth a reliable striker, look out.
6. D.C. United
Of all the teams that faltered at MLS is Back, the Black-and-Red are probably the hardest to figure out. One would think that with all the attacking talent they've added, they’d be humming along nicely. Maybe at some point they will, but for now D.C. needs the defense and goalkeeper Bill Hamid to keep them in games.
7. New York Red Bulls
The current Big Apple bunch are certainly not at the level of 2018’s group that took home the Supporters’ Shield, but they're also not as ineffectual as they looked in Orlando. This RBNY team still has plenty of talent and, honestly, they probably just need a formation change. Sending Kaku out wide and leaving two men to handle central midfield doesn't play to their strengths.
8. Atlanta United
The big question revolves around how much of a band-aid Erick “Cubo” Torres can provide in the season-long loss of Josef Martinez. For a club that's without a permanent head coach and also struggling to rebuild its midfield, the fill-in striker could quite conceivably be both decent and not enough.
9. New England Revolution
Carles Gil may return before the season ends, but his injury absence is like taking the central nervous system out of this team. Gustavo Bou and Matt Turner should keep them in games, but consistent results without Gil's ideas seems a pipe dream. This could be a rough stretch.
10. Montreal Impact
Thierry Henry still seems to be searching for the right formula, and a lengthy search would cost beaucoup points along the way. Honestly, the pieces might fall into place nicely if they finally went out and scored an ace No. 9. Of course, I'll believe that when I see it.
11. Inter Miami CF
Miami have dug themselves a hole by dropping their first five MLS matches. Digging out takes some time, and Inter Miami doesn't have as much time this season as they normally would. The spine additions of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Blaise Matuidi should help them manage games better, but they're overtly incomplete until there's a real goal threat up top.
12. FC Cincinnati
It certainly appears as though the Cincinnati kids figured out how to defend together down in Orlando. If that holds, this placement may actually be too low. The attack is a work in progress, but the Orange and Blue will have cause for hope if guys like Yuya Kubo, Jurgen Locadia and Siem de Jong find chemistry.
13. Chicago Fire FC
It's hard to expect too much out of a team that went through so much turnover in the offseason. Three of the Fire's top five scorers from last season are gone, and they've retooled the roster as head coach Raphael Wicky takes over. This takes time to sort out, and the season delay didn't help. Consider this season one to grow on.
14. Nashville SC
Kudos to the Music City gang for posting the first MLS win in club history this week. It was a reminder that this team will fight tooth and nail for points. There are some excellent pieces here for Nashville, but the attack largely remains a hopeful endeavor until they make a strong addition or two.
They might be more beatable than last year, but Bob Bradley's boys are still the team to beat. Until LAFC get the backline sorted, there will be days when the attack needs to outscore the defense. They'll often manage.
2. Minnesota United FC
They've shown they can win with a full crew on deck. They've proven they can win with key parts in the shop. Now they're set to add depth in both defense and the playmaking staff. Minnesota are, indeed, ready to rumble.
3. Portland Timbers
You've got to hand it to the MLS is Back champs, who showed their hunger to win. The Timbers finally got out of Jeremy Ebobisse's way and he completes a triad of doom alongside Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri. There are ways to beat them, but it's never going to be easy against Portland.
4. Seattle Sounders
The reigning champs didn't look themselves in Orlando, but we all know how these things go. They'll be in the mix when the postseason arrives, as usual. That gives the Sounders 18 games to repair the defense.
5. Sporting Kansas City
Like the fellow habitual contenders directly above, Peter Vermes' side is not without its holes at the moment. They're also still wily and explosive in attack, particularly with Alan Pulido. It won't be as easy to run Sporting off like in 2019.
6. FC Dallas
If not for the looming notion that one or two young standouts may depart for Europe, FC Dallas would land higher. Yes, they looked poor upon returning to play this week. My intuition says this was just a rhythm issue for a side getting multiple players back from injury. They'll be scary when the attack has time to gel.
7. San Jose Earthquakes
The Quakes are another club having issues with keeping the ball out of their net. Their style is hectic and hard to maintain in a condensed schedule. Who knows what's going on with their strike situation? And yet, San Jose are going to swipe plenty of points via sheer gumption.
8. Colorado Rapids
One is never quite sure what you'll get from the Rapids. They can be solid and stifling, or loose and leaky, or come back from the dead when you think they're buried — sometimes all in the same game. If the team takes on head coach Robin Fraser's measured demeanor, they could turn into a routinely tricky out.
9. LA Galaxy
The Galaxy are capable of finishing higher, but they simply must find a better way to play. The results aren’t matching the skills on the roster, and there's too much on hand for them to be embarrassed. I do think things will look up for them. How long that takes is another matter.
10. Real Salt Lake
Many will disagree, but I can't help but feel like RSL are a bit of a mess right now. They still haven't solved a striker problem that’s been going on for years, they still tend to play key guys out of ideal position by policy, and the defense can run hot-and-cold. Plenty here needs some fixing, so I don't feel great about their season.
11. Houston Dynamo
Their play in Orlando proved the Dynamo aren't in as bad shape as some observers might think, but there's no escaping that the pieces aren't fitting right. I sense they may be in for the kind of rebuild turnover that hampers results.
12. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Here's another team that surprised at MLS is Back, and they did it with all but the entire strike force missing. The Whitecaps will score some encouraging wins the rest of the way, but continued troubles at the back mean they'll probably come in a spoiler role.