What to watch for in MLS for 2021

Written By Harrison Hamm on January 2, 2021

As we mercifully end this year, MLS is moving along at a fairly slow pace, building to some transfers that are surely to come.

We’ve recently seen the Philadelphia Union agree to a lucrative deal to send center back Mark McKenzie to Belgian club KRC Genk.

As MLS teams build their rosters, and teams elsewhere look for reinforcements, the market will pick up.

Let’s look at some of the biggest storylines.

Manager hires in Toronto, D.C.

It appears that Greg Vanney, former Toronto FC manager, is the favorite to take over the LA Galaxy job. Most reports have him taking over for Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The Galaxy are smart to get Vanney, a proven MLS coach who has experience managing big talent and making tactical adjustments.

That brings attention to the two remaining openings: Toronto FC and D.C. United. Vanney resigned from TFC after a disappointing playoff exit. It remains to be seen where Toronto will look for their coaching hire, but it could be a marquee job — it’s a consistently successful franchise in a thriving market that employs the reigning league MVP. Thierry Henry is in Montreal, so it’s not like big names won’t go to Canada. Patrick Vieira has been discussed, though few hard rumors have emerged.

D.C. United appears more likely to hire an American-based coach. One coach that has been closely linked is Gonzalo Pineda, the current Sounders assistant and longtime MLS forward. There have been numerous other names bandied about, including the former USWNT manager Jill Ellis, but DCU haven’t made a move yet. It’s a big decision, considering how long Ben Olsen coached the team.

The rebuild in Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati have had a tough existence so far, with multiple different head coaches and some bad decisions on designated players. They’ve rarely hit on the players they’ve spent money to acquire, so they’ve made little progress. Rebuilds happen fast in MLS. It is always interesting to see how a team like Cincy, with little talent or foundational pieces, goes about building a more competent team.

They’ve yet to make the biggest moves of their offseason. So far, they’ve sent $500,000 in General Allocation Money for standout attacking left back Ronald Matarrita, added backup goalkeeper Cody Cropper and 20-year-old workhorse winger Ben Mines in free agency, and picked up an extra international roster spot from Nashville SC. They appear prepped to add a big piece or two.

Their signings of players like Yuya Kubo and Siem de Jong haven’t panned out. They’ll need to have more scouting success if they’re going to grow into a playoff team.

Austin FC’s roster build

MLS’s latest expansion team, Austin FC, has been making moves, and will continue filling out its roster. They’ve signed a nice combination of foreign players, including Paraguayan international DP Rodney Redes, and MLS veterans, most notably midfielder Alexander Ring. Austin is doing what an expansion team should be: fortifying its defense, to ensure some level of competence, and taking chances on players who could be really good.

They will have longtime MLSers Nick Lima, Julio Cascante, and Hector Jimenez on defense, alongside 22-year-old Paraguayan center back Jhohan Romana (Austin has mined Paraguay for a lot of its talent). They also signed attacker Cecilio Dominguez — you’ll never guess where he’s from — as their first DP.

There is plenty more work to do, but Austin fans should like where this is going. Sporting director Claudio Reyna has experience building quality MLS teams. Austin looks like a good bet to not get run over in its first season, and if players like Dominguez and Redes pan out, they could be a whole lot better.

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