We know that things can change quickly in MLS. The pool of players from which you can improve your team is massive, so if you scout well and use your money wisely, you can get better fast. The inverse is also true: if you don’t stay on top of things, you can get passed by easily.
Sporting KC found that out the hard way in 2019. With an aging core, they went from Western Conference contenders to 11th-place. They got injured, their style went stale, and players regressed.
It’s hard to predict who this year’s version might be. Every team comes into the season optimistic. Let’s take a look at some possibilities.
There is certainly a scenario where the Union build on their success from last year. They have a good amount of continuity, and their core meshes well together. Jamiro Monteiro is back, signed officially from FC Metz after a year on loan. They are tactically versatile.
But they are replacing Haris Medunjanin in defensive midfield, and while Matej Oravec’s mobility should be an upgrade over Medunjanin’s, turnover in that crucial area of the field can be a fraught proposition. If Oravec doesn’t live up as a distributor or protector of the backline, everything could fall apart.
They also traded third center back Auston Trusty, replacing him with 25-year-old Jakob Glesnes. With an aged Aurelien Collin the other name on the depth chart, Glesnes could have to play big minutes if Mark McKenzie or Jack Elliott misses time.
In order for the Union to stick around in the East’s top three, they’ll need some attackers to take leaps as creators and scorers. Sergio Santos projects as a starter at striker alongside Kacper Przybylko, and Santos was underwhelming in his debut season last year. Young Brenden Aaronson holds plenty of promise as a No. 10-type. There is more responsibility on his shoulders this year.
With Marco Fabian and Fafa Picault gone, and Cory Burke out on loan until June, the Union don’t have quite the attacking depth they had last year. They relied a lot on 34-year-old Ilsinho off the bench in 2019. Others will have to play bigger roles in attack.
Real Salt Lake
Real finished third in the Western Conference last year. That doesn’t feel super repeatable. RSL, even last year, didn’t have anywhere close to the attacking superpower needed to stick around among contenders. They scored only 46 goals all season, fewer than any team in the West outside of Vancouver.
Their defense made up for it for much of last year. It is fair to expect that to continue — RSL brought back all the big contributors from their backline, and the retirement of Nick Rimando shouldn’t hurt too badly, given that goalkeepers tend to be relatively replaceable. Zach MacMath has proven capable in the past and David Ochoa is a highly-touted young keeper.
But the margins are slim for a team like RSL, and we can’t fully trust them to be a juggernaut defensively without an assured Defender of the Year candidate. Justen Glad is good, but he’s not Ike Opara.
The attack might be worse this year. Transferring Jefferson Savarino was the right move, but a front three of Corey Baird, Sam Johnson, and 18-year-old Savarino replacement Jeizon Ramirez isn’t at the level of their playoff competitors. Albert Rusnak will have to be elite as an on-ball creator and scorer. RSL are young, and coach Freddy Juarez has some interesting ideas, but they will have trouble finishing in the top three again.
When I say LAFC might get worse, I’m not saying they aren’t a contender to win multiple trophies. Carlos Vela is the best player in the league and it isn’t particularly close. They return much of their core. Bob Bradley is still the coach.
But there is reason to believe they won’t scorch everyone in the regular season again. 72 points and a plus-48 goal differential is basically impossible to replicate. The team that finished directly behind them, Seattle, had 56 points and a plus-3 goal differential. LA were ridiculous last year. Some natural regression is to be expected.
They have Concacaf Champions League to worry about now, although maybe not for much longer. Their forward situation is a bit problematic, given the injury to Adama Diomande. Without Bradley Wright-Phillips in their CCL loss to Leon, they had to play Vela up top as a false 9, not an ideal alignment.
The Walker Zimmerman trade puts a good amount of pressure on Tristan Blackmon, a 23-year-old former SuperDraft pick. They lack depth on the backline, and Zimmerman was a best XI defender. LA might still be the best team in the Western Conference, but it’s unlikely that they will do what they did last year.