While Major League Soccer's offseason carousel has begun, it's still far too soon to pick out top contenders for 2021 MLS Cup title celebrations.
And yet, that is exactly the trick I'm trying to pull again this year. Perhaps I've drawn too much confidence from last year's "far-too-early fool's game" (three of the four conference finalists were among my seven picks, including new champs Columbus). We shall see in just under a year's time.
Before we get into my early favorites for next season, let's tip a "close but not quite" cap to some honorable mentions that have just a few more question marks than this winter's great eight: FC Dallas, New York City FC and the Portland Timbers.
Full disclosure: I bumped Bob Bradley's boys up to the top spot at the last minute. The fact they hadn’t reached the finish line of a tournament was gnawing at LAFC even before Tuesday's late collapse against Tigres in the Concacaf Champions League final. Mix rising motivation with top-tier talent and you've get a dangerous contender.
As for that talent, LAFC will have as much as anybody in MLS even if Diego Rossi finally jets off to Europe. They'd still have Carlos Vela and a deep, dynamic and versatile midfield. I also expect them to bring back Jesus David Murillo, who helped steady a central defense hampered by Walker Zimmerman's departure via trade.
If Rossi does depart, they could go to market with a Designated Player slot (a snazzy new No. 9 perhaps?). I also presume the club will clear up the trouble spot that was right back. What I'm saying is LAFC will still be scary good next season. That said, some Euro-club swooping in for Eduard Atuesta would likely drop them a couple spots. He's a very particular midfield animal who would be hard to replace quickly.
Speaking of heavy chips on mighty shoulders, don't underestimate the level of revenge that will stir in Sounder hearts after a disappointing MLS Cup loss to Columbus. This Seattle team is typically intent on coming back to correct such mistakes.
And most of the key Sounders will be back. I suppose it's possible some faraway club could lure Jordan Morris, but right now it looks much more likely Seattle's three-headed attack monster will remain intact when the 2021 season kicks off. Brian Schmetzer will have a young defense that came into its own late last season to front championship-caliber netminder Stefan Frei. It's expected they can also retain Joao Paulo to help Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan control games from midfield.
However, they will need to find new starters for the starboard side. Out-of-contract right back Kelvin Leerdam has been speaking to the Dutch press like a guy who wants to go home and the winger job on that flank is wide open. Then again, it's very easy to believe GM Garth Lagerway will properly handle these details.
Columbus Crew SC
I was high on the Crew all year, and winning MLS Cup without two key starters certainly isn't going to make me leave their corner. They'd make a very reasonable top choice here, even though repeating in this league is harder than sculpting ice with a spoon.
In fact, you can consider Columbus as the end to my top tier of early favorites. Like LAFC and Seattle above, they're just a level above the pack at this juncture. The Crew's ace in the hole is their field balance. They have no holes to exploit, and their ability to boot the ball around can become utterly stifling to even the best opponents. Caleb Porter’s team provides a good blend of seasoned vets, aces in their prime and young guns with their best yet to come.
Columbus have a trusted system, the right players to fit every role and a coach who understands timely tweaks. The East should be cutthroat in 2021, but I definitely wouldn't put it past the current champs to earn a return trip to MLS Cup.
Orlando City SC
It took me a long while to decide which club should lead the second-tier class. Collective team spirit, cohesion and upward talent trajectory count for a lot in this exercise, so I'm going with the Lions to build on their 2020 campaign.
Like most teams, Orlando City will need some roster alterations around the edges, but nearly all of the core group that pleasantly surprised in 2020 will return. The midfield is highly functional and among the deepest in the league. The defense is rock solid and the wing stable is downright scary.
On top of all that, Orlando City also have a DP spot to play with and a host of promising youngsters on the rise. With Oscar Pareja pulling the reins, this team will not be a one-trick pony.
It would be very easy to place the Supporters' Shield holders higher on this list. Most of the regulars will be back in 2020 and they're the only club listed here that currently have two open DP slots. I can fully envision a world where the Union come back stronger than ever.
For now, though, there are squad questions to answer. The sale of Homegrown midfielder Brenden Aaronson leaves a void, and it will hurt a good bit if left back Kai Wagner and/or center back Mark McKenzie follows him to Europe. That said, Philly may have ready-made replacements (namely Anthony Fontana, Matthew Real and Jack Elliott) already in house.
Another question mark revolves around lead striker Kacper Przybylko. Is he the marksman that scored 22 goals in his first 38 Union matches or the guy who has bagged but one in his last 12 outings? That answer may hold the truth to Philadelphia's title hopes.
The Reds are another team with numerous key cogs returning that could have easily landed higher on this ranking. Any club with the reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP, two lethal strikers, a strong supporting cast and loads of experience should always be a threat.
Of course, it's very difficult to get a firm handle on a team's outlook when we don't yet know who will be coaching them. For whatever reason, Toronto FC became stale in the final third toward the end of 2020. Whoever takes over will need to address that situation, as this team should not regularly require shutouts to post wins.
General manager Ali Curtis has some important work to do beyond hiring a head coach to replace Greg Vanney. The BMO bunch will need a new left back, a supplementary playmaker to aid/draw attention from Alejandro Pozuelo and some center back depth. If he fills these vacancies well, the Reds will again be among the top MLS Cup favorites.
New England Revolution
Any team that has its entire Eastern Conference Final starting lineup returning and Bruce Arena calling the shots should be of great concern to all comers in 2021. The Revs don't quite have the balance of the clubs above them here, but that's what offseasons are for.
New England need to rebuild much of their depth stable, and could probably use a dedicated destroyer to guard the gate, but such problems are relatively easy to fix. Perhaps newly-acquired midfielder Wilfrid Kaptoum plays a key role.
Instead, we'll focus on a returning gang featuring Carles Gil, a complimentary pair of forwards, a stingy back line, a cruel thief of a netminder and several youngsters who gained a ton of seasoning in 2020. The Revs are back, baby.
Minnesota United FC
The bones of a great team are present, but the Loons wrap up my second tier of MLS Cup contenders because they have the most uncertainty heading into 2021. The questions are both many and vital.
Will Ike Opara return to his prior dominating form, or does Minnesota United need to plan without the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year? Will midfield skipper Ozzie Alonso be back? How about loan striker Luis Amarilla, who got off to a hot start before injuries curtailed his season? Can they find a way to re-sign Kevin Molino even though he has publicly said goodbye to the club and their fans?
Yeesh, that's a lot of shoulder shrugs for a team that I'm pushing as a genuine contender. But it's not all bad news. Minnesota are sturdy at the back even without Opara and Alonso, Emanuel Reynoso is starting to look like a real MVP candidate and the team plays with a ton of heart. I backed the Loons from start to finish in 2020, and will be doing so again next year if they can fill the open jobs in a productive manner.