Soccer teams, and MLS clubs in particular, have a unique ability to turn things around immediately. Impact signings can come from so many places, and new star players are attainable if you scout well and spend money. We’ve seen numerous teams over the past half-decade jump dramatically season-to-season by remaking the roster. Others have tried and failed — call it the Orlando City TheoremTM.
At the beginning of every season, every team seems like it should improve. It is nearly impossible to predict how well new players will fare in MLS, in part because many of us have never actually seen some play before. Preseason hopes will always run high.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable contenders to improve on last season (outside of Orlando).
Two club legends, Wil Trapp and Federico Higuain, departed this winter. As odd as it might be to watch the Crew without those two, Caleb Porter and co. have built a balanced, deep squad. Darlington Nagbe is a longtime Porter favorite, and his midfield partnership with Artur in central midfield looks good on paper. Having Milton Valenzuela return at left back after a season-long injury in 2019 is essentially a DP acquisition.
New No. 10 Lucas Zelarayan was the marquee get of the offseason. There are high hopes for Zelarayan to lead Columbus’s attack. After Pedro Santos improved as a facilitator last year, Zelarayan should have a solid supporting cast. The Crew’s depth — featuring MLS vets like Hector Jimenez and Fanendo Adi and bench gunners like Derrick Etienne Jr. — is also promising. This should be a playoff team at minimum.
An obvious answer, but Peter Vermes’s SKC had a rare off season last year in which they conceded 67 goals and finished 11th in the Western Conference. Three culprits come to mind for last year’s failure: an inability to replace Ike Opara at center back; a lack of finishing at the striker position; and injuries up and down the lineup.
They’ve made some big moves this offseason. 28-year-old Croatian center back Roberto Puncec arrived to start alongside Matt Besler, assuring that Botond Barath and Andreu Fontas can be depth pieces, not starters. Star Mexican striker Alan Pulido will start up top, a major coup for SKC. Attacker Khiry Shelton will return from a stint in Germany to back up Pulido and wingers Gerso Fernandes and Johnny Russell.
If things break right, Sporting could emerge as a West contender again. Puncec has to play at a high level and Besler can’t afford to get old yet. The front three (Gerso-Pulido-Russell) is super fun on paper.
There are reasons to think that Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s departure might not be a terrible thing for the Galaxy. Defensively, Ibrahimovic was a traffic cone. He forces the team to cater to his very specific needs, hurting chemistry and tactics. There was never much of a system in LA beyond “get it to Zlatan and hope he does something.”
The arrival of Chicharito eradicates whatever concerns people might have had about the Galaxy — Chicharito is more in the Josef Martinez mold than the Zlatan mold, which means good things for LA’s ability to play as a cohesive unit.
Adding left back Emiliano Insua and winger Aleksandar Katai were positive moves. Sascha Kljestan as central midfield depth can’t be a bad thing. Concerns remain at center back, where Daniel Steres will carry a heavy load, but the Galaxy look like a more complete team than in years past. Chicharito could be good enough right now to engage Carlos Vela in an MVP race.
It’s been a really nice offseason for D.C. United. Trading for Julian Gressel was a great move that gives them a guy who can fit snugly in numerous positions and tactical set-ups. Yamil Asad is the perfect auxiliary attacker; he was one of the best passing wingers in the league for Atlanta and D.C. in the past. New DP Edison Flores will step into Luciano Acosta’s spot as a No. 10 and hopefully provide more consistent production.
Ben Olsen will need some defensive pieces to take steps forward (notably 21-year-old center back Donovan Pines, who has the tools), but D.C.’s attack already looks like it will play defense better than nearly any in MLS. Defending from the front is important, and with Paul Arriola and Ola Kamara accompanying Gressel and Asad, DCU will suffocate teams.
It would be hard for Cincinnati not to improve. They were atrocious for most of last season, finishing with just 24 points and a goal differential of -44. The next-worst goal differential in the Eastern Conference was -13.
Ron Jans will have time to build the team the way he wants to. They should have more of a stylistic identity, with players who fit into a wider system. Haris Medunjanin, a defensive mid who can distribute at a high level, was a smart addition. Yuya Kubo is a major DP signing for the attack. Some moves around the edges (such as Saad Abdul-Salaam, an overlooked depth full back) look promising.
It would be asking a lot for this team to make the playoffs, but there are signs of competence.