As often happens, there were some MLS teams that had high expectations last season that fell flat for one reason or another. That was particularly the case given the odd circumstances of the season. It was stop-and-start, with various outbreaks and fewer training time.
2021 should be more normal. With the start of the regular season approaching, let’s take a look at some teams that have a chance to perform better this season.
There’s no doubt that the biggest reason for Atlanta’s struggles last season was the injury to Josef Martinez. He tore an ACL in one of the first two games of the season, sidelining him as Atlanta crumbled without their field-warping goal scorer. They enter this season not only with Martinez back, but also with a more solid team around him and a new manager in Gabriel Heinze.
There’s Marcelino Moreno, who played six games last season as the latest highly-touted Argentine creator. Moreno could help Ezequiel Barco settle into a role as a secondary creator and scorer, rather than a miscast centerpiece. They brought in two midfielders, Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra, who they hope will finally solve their issues in the engine room. Add the expected growth of center back Miles Robinson, who struggled last year, and Atlanta has the pieces to contend again. Martinez on his own should be a guaranteed playoff spot.
LA didn’t have the wider issues with roster construction and management that Atlanta had, but they had the misfortune of losing Carlos Vela, the best player in the league, for pretty much the entire season. Add in the prolonged absence of Eduard Atuesta, and they fell to seventh in the Western Conference. Then, in the MLS Cup playoffs first round against Seattle, they lost a host of players including the dominant Diego Rossi and lost 3-1.
It was an unlucky season. Everyone aside from Brian Rodriguez (on loan to a Uruguayan team) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (left as a free agent) is back and healthy. The midfield trio of Atuesta, Latif Blessing, and Mark-Anthony Kaye is elite. They may add a forward in the summer, possibly in the form of Rodriguez returning from loan. In the meantime, they will look to Danny Musovski and Corey Baird at the number nine spot, which is not as underwhelming as it might sound. They will benefit from a ton of talent around them.
Bob Bradley’s squad might be the best in the league.
It’s hard to see the Galaxy reaching the talent level and dominance of LAFC anytime soon. After all, the Galaxy are still old and overly reliant on Chicharito, who was not good in his first season. They also lost their best attacker in Cristian Pavon, who is at the end of his loan from Boca Juniors and in Argentina facing rape charges. Given the Galaxy’s recent history, there is reason to be pessimistic.
But there is also reason to think that LA can at least put themselves into the playoff race. Chicharito will grow more comfortable and improve. We know that Greg Vanney, LA’s new manager, is a crafty tactician with experience coaxing the best out of his players. They have Jonathan dos Santos, an elite midfielder, back from injury. Irish international Derrick Williams will upgrade the defense, and they moved on from goalkeeper David Bingham.
If certain young players break out — 18-year-old Efrain Alvarez oozes potential — then new attacking midfielder Victor Vazquez, 34, can play a more limited role as a creator for Chicharito. Knowing Vazquez’s history elevating great goal-scorers, LA can be hopeful about that arrangement.