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MLS 2020 team-by-team preview Expect Inter Miami and Nashville to watch the playoffs from home


The 25th season of Major League Soccer kicks off Feb. 29 (stream out-of-market matches all season live on ESPN+). To make it to 25 years is an impressive accomplishment, full stop. Are there issues and problems with the league? Of course. Do we all wish it were further along, closer to commissioner Don Garber’s stated goal of becoming one of the world’s best leagues in (checks calendar) just two years? Sure. Could it be churning out more young talent, bolstering the United States men’s national team in the quest for international glory? Definitely. But it’s a league that’s stable, growing, and, at least by some metrics, thriving.

The addition of Inter Miami and Nashville SC bring the total number of teams to 26 this season with at least four more on the way. Seven players boast a market value of more than $10 million, according to Transfermarkt, with new LA Galaxy superstar Javier Hernandez just off the pace at $9.9 million. There are legit and compelling rivalries across the country and MLS is gaining traction around the world. Vancouver Whitecaps product Alphonso Davies is a Bundesliga star with Tyler Adams potentially on his heels.

Yet MLS 2020 also has some areas for improvement. The level of play from game to game is, at best, inconsistent. Despite attendances being pumped up by nearly 53,000 per game in Atlanta, more than 40,000 per game in Seattle, and 27,336 for newcomer and bottom-dweller FC Cincinnati, figures fell for the second straight year. There’s also a danger that MLS is fracturing into half-a-dozen haves, a dozen competent but not exciting squads and a few borderline failures. The presumed financial flexibility of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement could exacerbate this trend. While new or reinvigorated ownership can turn franchises around, the investment needs to be sincerely made. There are six years until the 2026 World Cup. The runway starts now.

Eastern Conference: Atlanta United | Chicago Fire | Columbus Crew | D.C. United | FC Cincinnati | Inter Miami | Montreal Impact | New England Revolution | New York City FC | New York Red Bulls | Orlando City | Philadelphia Union | Toronto FC

Western Conference: Colorado Rapids | FC Dallas | Houston Dynamo | LA Galaxy | LAFC | Minnesota United | Nashville SC | Portland Timbers | Real Salt Lake | San Jose Earthquakes | Seattle Sounders | Sporting Kansas City | Vancouver Whitecaps

Eastern Conference

Atlanta United
Last season: 2nd in East
Key additions: Brooks Lennon (DF), Jake Mulraney (MF), Matheus Rossetto (MF)
Key departures: Michael Parkhurst (DF), Darlington Nagbe (MF), Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (DF), Julian Gressel (MF)

It feels strange to call Atlanta United’s 2019 season a disappointment. In just its third season, it finished second in the Eastern Conference and third overall, reached the Eastern Conference final, won the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup, and reached the quarterfinal of the CONCACAF Champions League. And yet, Atlanta has built such a juggernaut in such a short time that not reaching MLS Cup meant it fell short of expectations, especially after importing reigning South American Footballer of the Year Gonzalo Martinez and manager Frank de Boer. Martinez never truly got on track and De Boer installed a style that worked for about four of his players and eventually led to a player revolt.

Still, they start 2020 as the betting favorite to win the East, although the team looks quite different. Long-time captain Michael Parkhurst retired. Midfield spark plug Darlington Nagbe moved to the Columbus Crew in exchange for more than $1 million in allocation money and an international roster slot, while Julian Gressel is now with D.C. United for another cool mil. Defensive mainstay Leandro Gonzalez Pirez left for Tijuana while Hector Villalba returned to Paraguay. Replacing these raft of talent are two 22-year-olds (Brooks Lennon and Anton Walkes), two 23-year-olds (Jake Mulraney and Matheus Rossetto), Fernando Meza (who joined in the Gonzalez Pirez deal) and a handful of other flyers.

Putting this all together — along with Martinez, Designated Players Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco, and youngsters like Miles Robinson and George Bello — will require all of De Boer’s coaching ability.

Prediction: Eastern Conference champion contender

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Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez joins the ESPN FC set only to be laughed at for his penalty technique.

Chicago Fire
Last season: 8th in East
Key additions: Alvaro Medran (MF)
Key departures: Bastian Schweinsteiger (DF), Nemanja Nikolic (FW), Dax McCarty (MF), Nicolas Gaitan (MF), Aleksandar Katai (MF)

After making the playoffs just twice in a decade — a feat that’s difficult to accomplish considering how many make it into the postseason — the Fire needed to do something dramatic. That was the story of 2019, with owner Joe Mansueto buying out Andrew Hauptman’s stake, management finding a way to break their lease in Bridgeview and return to Chicago proper, and general manager Nelson Rodriguez planning to start 2020 with as much roster flexibility as possible. (There was also a rebrand, which did not go particularly well.)

The new year begins with a new slate; gone are Designated Players Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic and Aleksandar Katai, along with Nicolas Gaitan and stalwart Dax McCarty. The club signed Slovenian DP Robert Beric and Spanish midfielder Alvaro Medran with Targeted Allocation Money. New head coach Raphael Wicky, last seen guiding the United States U17 team to a disappointing result at the World Cup, will have to mold a roster including six homegrown players, led by occasional U.S. international Djordje Mihailovic, and veterans such as Jonathan Bornstein, C.J. Sapong and Fabian Herbers into a competitive squad while also integrating any additional big-name talent — two DP slots remain unfilled, after all. No one said this would be a one-year project.

Prediction: Planning for a playoff place

Columbus Crew
Last season: 10th in East
Key additions: Darlington Nagbe (MF), Lucas Zelarayan (MF)
Key departures: Federico Higuain (MF), Lalas Abubakar (DF), Wil Trapp (MF)

With #SaveTheCrew complete, the black and gold could focus on the field in 2019. The results were inconsistent, frequent injuries not helping as new head coach Caleb Porter (replacing Gregg Berhalter, gone to take the helm at the U.S. men’s national team) attempted to install his own system. The Crew won five of their first seven, then lost 13 of 15 before recovering mid-summer, only to finish 10th in the Eastern Conference and 20th overall.

This season, Curacao Gold Cup hero Eloy Room returns and Gyasi Zardes is tasked with goal-scoring duties. (Don’t sleep on the sometime U.S. international’s 33 goals in 64 matches.) The biggest offseason move is the reported $7 million the team spent to buy Argentine midfielder Lucas Zelarayan from Tigres in Mexico. He’s 27 and in his prime, but he’ll need to be great in Ohio to replace Federico Higuain. If you’re looking for a key piece, look no further than Darlington Nagbe, the ultra-talented, ultra-deferential midfielder who reunites with college coach Porter.

As it stands, the roster feels like a weird mishmash. With the Crew’s new downtown stadium coming online mid-2021, 2020 presents an opportunity to build some momentum going into what promises to be a banner year for a club that needs one. Or, you know, they could fall out of the gate, flounder around in a strong Eastern Conference and fail to inspire the fans. No pressure, though.

Prediction: Watching the playoffs from home

D.C. United
Last season: 5th in East
Key additions: Yamil Asad (MF), Edison Flores (MF), Julian Gressel (MF)
Key departures: Wayne Rooney (FW), Luciano Acosta (MF)

Last season produced the best D.C. United moment in quite some time. And by that, of course, we mean Wayne Rooney singing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” in a Georgetown karaoke bar.

On the field, Ben Olsen’s squad struggled for consistency in their new Audi Field home, never truly recovering from the disastrous preseason debacle involving Luciano Acosta’s failed move to French giants Paris Saint-Germain. While they made the playoffs, their time was brief. The first-round match against Toronto FC saw United’s Lucas Rodriguez tie the match 1-1 in the third minute of stoppage time, before TFC tallied four times in the first 15 minutes of extra time, eventually winning 5-1.

That hurts.

Soon after, Rooney took his singing voice and his talents to Derby County, where he’s player/coach, and Acosta joined Atlas in Mexico on a free transfer. In marched former Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel, a player on the shortlist of most inspiring recent MLS draft success stories, and Designated Player Peruvian winger Edison Flores, for whom D.C. paid a hefty $5 million to Morelia.

Now firmly ensconced in Audi Field, the team can look solidly to the future for the first time in a decade. There’s hope (and the flexibility provided by an open DP slot). Olsen has been learning on the job since 2010 and handled some tough years when the talent wasn’t there, now, finally, he has quality on the field. While fans will wonder if he’s the right man to take United beyond where it’s been, it’s harsh to say he hasn’t at least earned the right to try.

Prediction: Eastern Conference champion contender

FC Cincinnati
Last season: 12th in East
Key additions: Haris Medunjanin (MF), Yuya Kubo (FW), Jurgen Locadia (FW)
Key departures: Victor Ulloa (MF), Alvas Powell (DF)

In 2019, expansion franchise FC Cincinnati earned seven points in their first four MLS games in history … and then just 17 in their next 30 matches. The squad scored 31 goals in 34 fixtures, conceded a league record 75 and posted an astounding goal differential of minus-44 while finishing 10 points out of second-to-last place. They went through three coaches: Alan Koch, who lasted until early May, interim Yoann Damet (fired Aug. 4) and, ever since, Dutchman Ron Jans.

Not great, Bob.

The good news is that the robust and diehard local support kept showing up to the tune of more than 27,000 fans per game, and that there’s always another season. So: 2020.

Former PSV wunderkind-turned-disappointment Jurgen Locadia joins as a Designated Player, and the 26-year-old forward wants to use MLS to springboard himself back into the international spotlight. He’ll pair with 26-year-old forward DP Gent transfer Yuya Kubo, Bosnian international Haris Medunjanin and (perhaps) a DP to come at the attacking end. Experienced Swede defender Tom Pettersson will need to anchor a rebuilt backline that couldn’t be any worse than it was in 2019.

There’s something building on the shores of the Ohio River, a franchise with an idea of who it wants to be, how it wants to play and how it is going to get there. Before FC Cincinnati’s first-ever game, team president Jeff Berding and other members of the management played down expectations by talking about competing on a three-year time horizon that would coincide with the opening of the team’s West End stadium in spring 2021. That’s all well and good, but 2020 might be a rough year. Again.

Prediction: Watching the playoffs from home

Inter Miami
Last season: N/A
Key additions: Julian Carranza (FW), Matias Pellegrini (MF), Christian Makoun (MF), Luis Robles (GK)
Key departures: N/A

Thirteen years after David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy, earning the option to purchase a team at a later date, and seven years after Mr. Bend-It-Like’s retirement, Club Internacional de Futbol Miami kicks off their inaugural season in Los Angeles against Bob Bradley’s LAFC juggernaut on March 1. The squad’s first home game? Two weeks after that, against (who else?) the Galaxy.

Despite being linked to seemingly every big-name superstar in Europe who might possibly kinda be looking for a new club — Cristiano Ronaldo! Lionel Messi! Luka Modric! Luis Suarez! Antoine Griezmann! Gareth Bale! Edinson Cavani! David Silva! Radamel Falcao! — Inter Miami don’t feature anyone your casual fan’s aunt will recognize. And that’s fine. It’s a roster stacked with quality, serviceable MLS veterans, the type of players who are important cogs but not stars themselves. We’re talking about Ben Sweat, Alvas Powell and Lee Nguyen, who arrived in the Expansion Draft, as well as Luis Robles, A.J. DeLaGarza, Juan Agudelo, Roman Torres and Wil Trapp. Matias Pellegrini, the 19-year-old Argentine who moved from Estudiantes on a transfer fee well into seven figures, is the man head coach Diego Alonso needs to produce from his favored left-wing position. He’ll be joined by compatriot forward and fellow teenager Julian Carranza. (If nothing else, Pellegrini and Carranza will forever be linked as the first two signings for Beckham’s MLS franchise.)

Inter Miami will struggle, although finishing above other debutante Nashville SC should be a baseline for success.

Prediction: Watching the playoffs from home

Montreal Impact
Last season: 9th in East
Key additions: Romell Quioto (FW)
Key departures: Daniel Lovitz (DF), Bacary Sagna (DF), Ignacio Piatti (MF)

The less said about 2019, the better. The Impact missed the playoffs for the third year running, posting a minus-13 goal differential while finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference. Attendance at Stade Saputo plummeted to 16,171 fans per game, down from nearly 21,000 in 2016. The Impact did win the Canadian Championship, earning them a spot in the 2020 CONCACAF Champions League, but also maybe more fixtures are not the best thing for a team stretched for talent already. C’est la vie.

Arriving to fix the mess: Thierry Henry. The former Arsenal/Barcelona/New York Red Bulls star signed on as manager last November and he’ll have to succeed without Ignacio Piatti, the team’s all-time MLS leading goal scorer and assister, who returns to San Lorenzo in Argentina at the age of 35. Algerian Saphir Taider had an excellent 2019 season, the type of player who would get more attention if he played somewhere other than Montreal. Former The Next Messi Bojan Krkic continues his quest to find himself and his form in Quebec while forwards Lassi Lappalainen and Orji Okwonkwo join on loan from Bologna. (Impact owner Joey Saputo also owns the Italian outfit. Football, it’s the world’s game.)

Here’s the question: Will a new coach and whoever replaces Piatti lead to new results? Or are we looking at another year where being middle of the pack is about all Impact fans can hope for?

Prediction: In the cellar

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Thierry Henry is embracing the “difficult challenge” ahead in his first season at the helm of the Montreal Impact.

New England Revolution
Last season: 7th in East
Key additions: Alex Buttnerb (DF), Adam Buksa (FW)
Key departures: Jalil Anibaba (DF), Juan Agudelo (FW)

Two words: Bruce. Arena. The man, the myth, the legend joined the Revolution as head coach and sporting director last May, replacing long-time general manager Michael Burns and overmatched Brad Friedel, who started the season 2-8-2. New England’s finest proceeded to lose just three of the next 20 matches, rocketing up the standings and making the playoffs for the first time since 2015. They lost to Atlanta in the first round but whatever. A franchise without hope finally found some.

This year should be an extension of that upward trajectory, with three solid if not sexy DPs in Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou and new import Adam Buksa. Fan favorite Kelyn Rowe returns after a 2019 season in which he played for two MLS clubs and two USL clubs, while Juan Agudelo is off to Inter Miami.

But the story, as always, is Arena, who’s been empowered to make roster decisions as well as in-game ones in an effort to bring back a once-proud franchise. He’s 68 years old and already the greatest coach in MLS history, but doing the impossible in New England would take away some of the bitter taste of a certain failure at the national team level.

Prediction: Planning for a playoff place

New York City FC
Last season: 1st in East
Key additions: Gedion Zelalem (MF), Gudmundur Thorarinsson (MF)
Key departures: Ben Sweat (DF)

New York City FC watched goal machine David Villa leave only to go out and lead the Eastern Conference in scoring in 2019, notching 63 on their way to a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The attack revolved around a talented quartet: Heber (15 goals, 4 assists), Alexandru Mitrita (12/3), Maxi Moralez (7/20) and Valentin Castellanos (11/7). The foursome had varying pedigrees — Romanian Mitrita transferred in for nearly $10 million, Brazilian Herber for $3 million-plus, Castellanos arriving on a free — but soccer is an language anyone can speak.

The 2020 edition of NYCFC looks remarkably similar except for the man in charge. Head coach Domenec Torrent is out in somewhat acrimonious fashion. Norwegian Ronny Deila steps into the manager rectangle with rather large shoes to fill. The good news for him is that the four-headed goal monster returns and it’s a put-up-or-shut-up year for Paraguayan DP Jesus Medina, the 22-year-old attacking midfielder whose struggles limited him to just 726 minutes last season. Former U.S. national team hope of the future (no pressure, kid) Gedion Zelalem comes to the Bronx following a six-year wander around European football that saw him eventually land at Sporting Kansas City last season, where he started just five games.

NYCFC are a good team on paper, certainly one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference, and, potentially, a great one.

Prediction: Eastern Conference champion contender

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Ale Moreno is concerned that new NYCFC boss Ronny Deila has a short time to get the hang of Major League Soccer.

New York Red Bulls
Last season: 6th in East
Key additions: David Jensen (GK), Mandela Egbo (DF)
Key departures: Luis Robles (GK), Bradley Wright-Phillips (FW), Michael Murillo (DF), Kemar Lawrence (DF)

It would be harsh to say the New York Red Bulls are going in the wrong direction, but it’s not a team or a roster that inspires. It’s a club that’s transformed from one featuring high-priced Designated Players — some, like Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel, who succeeded and some, Rafa Marquez, who fell flat — into a starting XI that relies on products from the vaunted youth academy. While the shift sort of worked, a championship remained elusive, the pipeline is running dry and the DP signings like Kaku in 2018 and Josh Sims for the second half of 2019 and again in 2020 have been middling successes at best. The Red Bulls’ margin for error simply isn’t that high, a tough ask in a league that grows deeper by the year.

Still, the youth continues to come. Forward Mathias Jorgensen, purchased for a reported $2.5 million in 2019, is poised for a breakthrough year. Chris Lema and Jared Stroud earned promotions from Red Bulls II while John Tolkin signed a contract straight out of the academy. Daniel Royer, 29, continues to be one of the most underrated players in the entire league. Alex Muyl can be brilliant and a disaster, frequently in the same play. Aaron Long remains an excellent defender, although his desire to be sold and Red Bulls’ refusal to do so complicate matters.

The diehard fans deserve better.

Prediction: Planning for a playoff place

Orlando City
Last season: 11th in East
Key additions: Andres Perea (MF), Junior Urso (MF)
Key departures: Cristian Higuita (MF), Sacha Kljestan (MF)

Orlando City SC’s first half decade in Major League Soccer has not been pretty. From seventh in 2015 to 11th in 2018 and 2019, attendance have also dipped from 25,028 per game after moving into Orlando City Stadium in 2017 to a franchise-low 22,761 last season. Leaving at the end of 2019 was Cristian Higuita, the last remaining member of the team’s inaugural squad. Perhaps that’s an indication of things to come, a fresh start and a clean slate for a club in desperate need of something new.

Hiring Oscar Pareja, the Colombian who helped turn FC Dallas into a talent academy, as head coach will help, assuming he’s given the control and time he needs. Turning Orlando around isn’t a one-year project, and ownership is not exactly known for patience.

Thirty-three-year-old Nani is back, jacked as ever and lightning when healthy. Paraguayan playmaker Mauricio Pereyra, signed midseason after his FC Krasnodar contract expired, gets an entire year to put his stamp on the proceedings. Dom Dwyer knows how to score and how to have fun doing so.

What else can you say? It’s slim pickings in central Florida. Kaka is not walking thorough that door, and even if he did, he’d need to bring a few friends with him if OCSC plan to compete for a playoff spot.

Prediction: In the cellar

Philadelphia Union
Last season: 3rd in East
Key additions: Matej Oravec (DF), Jakob Glesnes (DF)
Key departures: Auston Trusty (DF), Fabinho (MF), Marco Fabian (MF), Haris Medunjanin (MF)

One of the things that makes MLS fun or frustrating, depending on your perspective, is that signing the wrong big name can be OK as long as someone else steps up to fill the void. Marco Fabian, the Philadelphia Union’s marquee signing before the 2019 season, never got on track, playing just 23 games and losing his starting midfield spot more than once. The Union, never the deepest club, could have limped through the year. Instead, Jim Curtin kept the squad together, they spent a shocking amount of time at the top of the Eastern Conference, and a guy named Kacper Przybylko started pouring in goals. The Polish forward netted 15 in 25 starts as the Union reached the conference semifinals for just the second time in history.

And now, another year.

So, what’s next? Przybylko’s back and Brazilian forward Sergio Santos, signed in December 2018 but largely forgotten due to injury and poor performance, could provide an attacking spark. Homegrown Brenden Aaronson, a 19-year-old midfielder who recently earned his first cap for the U.S. men’s national team, has excellent touch and better hair. Center-back Mark McKenzie, still just 20, can be a rock in the present and the future, although his partner Auston Trusty was traded to the Colorado Rapids after slipping out of the starting XI. Leadership comes from Alejandro Bedoya, the always dapper Aurelien Collin and Ray Gaddis, the Union’s leader in games and minutes played.

While the Union shouldn’t be considered a top team in the East, they are a solid group that understands how they want to play and what they want to accomplish.

Prediction: Eastern Conference champion contender

Toronto FC
Last season: 4th in East
Key additions: Pablo Piatti (MF)
Key departures: Drew Moor (DF), Nicolas Benezet (MF)

In 2019, Toronto FC was slightly better than fine all season, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference and ninth overall. Actually, that’s an overstatement. The Reds were mostly bad in the first half of the year, then lost three regular season games after June 23 and none after Aug. 4, vaulting up the standings before taking out D.C. United, then NYCFC and Atlanta United on their way to MLS Cup. They fell short to a destined Seattle Sounders for the trophy, but you have to think they would have taken that result when they had 19 points after 16 games after a 3-0 drubbing by FC Dallas in Frisco, Texas on June 22.

This season begins with captain, leader, and spiritual tentpole Michael Bradley on the shelf with an ankle injury he suffered back in November. His friend and teammate, Jozy Altidore is not happy about it: “Make no mistake: in my opinion it was handled poorly … And it’s not the first time this has happened: we’ve seen our injury rate at this club since ’18. And we’re obviously trying to get it better, but it hasn’t and two months have gone by and now he’s having surgery to be out to June.”

Elsewhere, Spaniard Alejandro Pozuelo continues to be a wizard, not a like-for-like replacement for Sebastian Giovinco but enough of a facsimile to help TFC supporters start forgetting about the Italian who moved to Saudi Arabia a little more than a year ago.

This team will grind and battle and gut it out. As they showed MLS last year, count TFC out at your own peril.

Prediction: Planning for a playoff place

— Noah Davis (@noahedavis)

Western Conference

Colorado Rapids
Last season: 9th in West
Key additions: Drew Moor (DF), Nicolas Benezet (MF), Younes Namli (MF)
Key departures: Tim Howard (GK)

If the Rapids can build off the second half of 2019, when they won five of their last seven, the playoffs appear in reach. Their too-little, too-late turnaround was partly due to the departure of coach Anthony Hudson and the arrival of Robin Fraser, who heads into 2020 embarking on his first full season as a head coach in MLS since his Chivas USA days in 2012.

Improving the defense was an offseason priority for the Rapids, who conceded a whopping 63 goals last year, third most in the league. To that end, they’ve brought in solid options, including 21-year-old Auston Trusty from the Philadelphia Union and 36-year-old Drew Moor from Toronto FC.

The Rapids also come into 2020 adding some much-needed creativity and punch to the attack, including two new Designated Players. Midfielder Shkelzen Gashi and goalkeeper Tim Howard, who never quite made the on-field impact to justify their DP spots, are gone and playmaker Younes Namli is in. Namli, a 25-year-old Dane who arrives from FK Krasnodar, will be expected to both create chances for his teammates and score himself. Argentine forward Braian Galvan, 19, will arrive in the summer from Colon to offer some pace and production from the right wing. In the meantime, the Rapids will have French winger Nicolas Benezet at the start of the season, who could offer a big upgrade on the left wing.

The Rapids have hinted they may not use their last DP spot because other spending mechanisms allow them to sign high-quality players, but having an open spot in this summer’s transfer window could come in handy if the start to the season isn’t panning out.

Prediction: Watching the playoffs from home

FC Dallas
Last season: 7th in West
Key additions: Fafa Picault (FW), Thiago Santos (MF), Franco Jara (FW)
Key departures: Dominique Badji (FW), Pablo Aranguiz (MF)

After barely eking into the playoffs last season, FC Dallas has stuck true to its identity, avoiding splashy upgrades in favor of plugging holes with players already in its orbit. The question is whether Dallas has done enough to improve.

FCD brought in Fafa Picault from the Philadelphia Union with an eye toward using his speed to stretch defenses and make Dallas a more potent counterattacking team. They also signed homegrown defender Eddie Munjoma, and offered new contracts to keep homegrown midfielders Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira.

What there won’t be on Opening Day is a big marquee signing, but that could change. Pachuca striker Franco Jara has signed a pre-contract to join as a Designated Player once the transfer window opens in July, and if Dallas’ fortunes are to improve in 2020, it will probably depend on how well Jara adapts. The 31-year-old Argentine has 60 goals in 131 appearances for Pachuca and should be an immediate upgrade to the likes of Zdenek Ondrasek, who scored seven goals in 17 appearances for Dallas last season, or backup Ricardo Pepi.

But it will be a long wait as Dallas bides its time until then.

Prediction: Watching the playoffs from home

Houston Dynamo
Last season: 10th in West
Key additions: Darwin Quintero (MF), Marko Maric (GK)
Key departures: DaMarcus Beasley (DF), Romell Quioto (FW), A.J. DeLaGarza (DF)

The Dynamo’s biggest upgrade of the offseason may come from the technical area, as former U.S. U20 manager Tab Ramos takes over from Wilmer Cabrera. Ramos is a talented coach with a reputation for getting the most out of young players, and, with Houston’s lack of commitment to spending, the team needs a coach who can work a little magic.

That’s not to say the Dynamo won’t have talent, though. Darwin Quintero was never consistent enough in Minnesota but at his best he’s crafty and dangerous, and he should help a team that didn’t score enough last season. They finished 2019 tied for the third-fewest goals scored in the Western Conference, and if Quintero can add onto the solid production Houston already got from fellow forwards Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas, look out.

On paper, the Dynamo don’t look drastically different from the group that failed to make the playoffs last season, but if Quintero helps increase their production even just a bit, it may be just enough to make up ground this year.

Prediction: Planning for a playoff place

LA Galaxy
Last season: 5th in West
Key additions: Sacha Kljestan (MF), Aleksandar Katai (MF), Emiliano Insua (DF), Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (FW)
Key departures: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (FW), Uriel Antuna (MF), Romain Alessandrini (MF)

The biggest exit of the MLS offseason turned into the biggest acquisition with Zlatan Ibrahimovic skipping off to AC Milan and making way for Mexico star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Ibrahimovic takes with him most of the Galaxy’s production — he scored 30 goals last year, more than the rest of the roster combined — and now expectations are high for Chicharito to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps.

However, Ibrahimovic’s exit should make it easier for second-year manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto to build a system that doesn’t revolve entirely around getting the ball to one person. Chicharito should have a deeper, more varied attack around him that can provide service and score some goals without counting on him to do it all. After the Chicago Fire declined Aleksandar Katai’s option, the Galaxy scooped him up, and he ought to add both goal scoring and chance creation on the right wing. On the opposite side, Cristian Pavon will get his first full season in Los Angeles and expectations are high the former Boca Juniors winger can be more productive.

Sacha Kljestan arrives to provide some reliable depth to an already-solid midfield that includes Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan Dos Santos.

Defensively, the Galaxy gave up more goals than any other team that made the playoffs last year — a luxury they could afford thanks to Ibrahimovic. The question is: if the Galaxy can’t keep up their goal production without Ibrahimovic, is their defense improved enough to mitigate it? The jury is still very much out.

Prediction: Western Conference champion contender

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Javier Hernandez says he joined LA Galaxy to win a championship, not to be Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s replacement.

LAFC
Last season: 1st in West
Key additions: Francisco Ginella (MF), Jose Cifuentes (MF), Kenneth Vermeer (GK)
Key departures: Steven Beitashour (DF), Tyler Miller (GK), Walker Zimmerman (DF)

LAFC were the greatest team MLS had ever seen last year. By the time they broke the single-season points record, the fanfare was understated. Now Bob Bradley & Co. must prove they can do it in the playoffs, where a surprise loss last year to eventual MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders spoiled a historic season.

With reigning MVP Carlos Vela and fellow Designated Player Diego Rossi still on the team, LAFC’s pacey flank play won’t be going away, and the majority of LAFC’s offseason moves have been centered around adding extra depth, not changing the team’s attacking approach — with one notable exception.

Starting striker Adama Diomande broke his foot in a preseason match and will miss the start of 2020, forcing LAFC to reconsider their needs on the depth chart. They signed Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was once considered perhaps the most clinical striker in MLS with the Red Bulls, but struggled last year. At 35 years old, BWP seems to be a stop-gap measure for LAFC, but if he doesn’t work out, the club could give a chance to new arrival Danny Musovski, who comes from the USL’s Reno 1868.

Meanwhile, the bigger question for LAFC is whether their defense can be nearly as good as it was last year. LAFC only allowed 37 goals in 34 games last season, the fewest in MLS by far, but the club has seen some defensive shakeups this offseason.

First, LAFC will have a new goalkeeper this year, but whether he’s an upgrade remains to be seen. Tyler Miller wasn’t always appreciated by LAFC fans, but now he’s in Minnesota and his replacement, Kenneth Vermeer, who arrives from Feyenoord, is new to MLS. LAFC also traded away starting center-back Walker Zimmerman to Nashville for a pile of cash. Zimmerman and his center-back partner Eddie Segura had a good thing going, and whether breaking up that pairing was worth the money is a question left to be answered.

Prediction: Western Conference champion contender

Minnesota United
Last season: 4th in West
Key additions: Tyler Miller (GK), Luis Amarilla (FW)
Key departures: Darwin Quintero (MF), Vito Mannone (GK), Angelo Rodriguez (FW)

After two dismal seasons in MLS, the Loons seemed to finally figure things out last year, reaching the playoffs for the first time and making it all the way to the U.S. Open Cup final. The club is motivated to build on that success, with plenty of roster turnover this offseason.

The club’s first-ever Designated Player, Darwin Quintero, is now in Houston after an inconsistent 2019. Its second DP, Angelo Rodriguez, has been loaned to Deportivo Cali after a poor 2019. Abu Danladi, the team’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 2017, was taken by Nashville in the expansion draft. Goalkeeper Vito Mannone, who recorded the second-most saves in the league last year, went back to Europe at the end of his loan.

They’ve replaced many of these players, with potentially more big moves on the way. For now, however, Paraguayan striker Luis Amarilla arrives on a TAM deal, and he has vowed to score 25 goals this season. Tyler Miller, who anchored LAFC’s league-best defense, will be the Loons’ new starting goalkeeper.

But the Loons are counting on players who aren’t new to take steps forward this year. The club needs to get more out of Uruguayan playmaker Thomas Chacon, who arrived midseason last year but went onto play just 85 minutes. Likewise, Finnish attacker Robin Lod struggled to adapt after his midseason arrival as a TAM player and had a disappointing 2019, but the Loons are hopeful he’ll be more comfortable with a full preseason under his belt.

With many of Minnesota’s offseason moves looking relative like-for-like, the Loons can be a playoff contender again if things click. But it might depend on how Amarilla and rumored target Emanuel Reynoso — or whoever the club recruits to replace Quintero — play off each other, or if last year’s duds improve.

Prediction: Planning for a playoff place

Nashville SC
Last season: N/A
Key additions: David Accam (MF), Dax McCarty (MF), Daniel Lovitz (DF), Walker Zimmerman (DF)
Key departures: N/A

As the Western Conference’s lone expansion team, anything is possible for Nashville, whose inaugural-season blueprint so far has split the difference between the glitz and glamour of Miami and the disappointment of Cincinnati.

The front office has opted for MLS veterans across the roster, and several of them figure to be starters. Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy, who have a combined 20 seasons of MLS experience under their belts, will likely hold down central midfield. Walker Zimmerman, Jalil Anibaba and Dave Romney are all strong center-backs with proven track records in the league, while Dominique Badji and David Accam may be the ones leading the attack.

Nashville has opted to use its expensive roster slots for attacking players from outside the U.S., as most MLS teams do. Discovering new game-changing players is never easy, and for a first-year team, how well it scouts outside of MLS will probably make or break its season. To that end, Nashville is making a big bet on Hany Mukhtar, the first Designated Player in club history. The 24-year-old German playmaker has the resume to be an effective piece, with stints for Hertha Berlin, Benfica and Brondby under his belt.

Nashville will likely avoid the fate of FC Cincinnati’s catastrophic campaign last year with an assortment of experienced MLS defenders and plenty of depth filled by league veterans. But whether the debutante will be a playoff contender may come down to those DP slots.

Prediction: Watching the playoffs from home

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Nashville SC’s Dax McCarty has a laugh about his desire to play until his fifties so he can play alongside his son.

Portland Timbers
Last season: 6th in West
Key additions: Yimmi Chara (MF), Jaroslaw Niezgoda (FW), Felipe Mora (FW)
Key departures: Brian Fernandez (FW), Zarek Valentin (DF)

At some point last summer, it seemed like the Timbers had found the last piece of the puzzle. Their most expensive signing in club history, Brian Fernandez, was banging in goals and the holy trinity of Diego Valeri, Diego Chara and Sebastian Blanco was firing on all cylinders. But Fernandez’s goal scoring dropped off a cliff and he left under messy circumstances, and the Timbers were back to square one figuring out who would score most of their goals.

The Timbers didn’t look far: Yimmi Chara, brother of Diego, has joined as a Designated Player on the right wing. Yimmi hasn’t been the most prolific scorer in his career but he should be an upgrade. Leading the line will be new DP Jaroslaw Niezgoda, a 24-year-old striker who led Poland’s top flight in scoring this season. Right behind him is Felipe Mora, a 26-year-old Chilean striker on loan from Pumas and American prospect Jeremy Ebobisse, who will have to claw for minutes, despite being the team’s co-leading goal scorer last year with Fernandez.

As long as Diego Chara, who turns 34 in May, holds on to his incredible age-defying form, the question of the Timbers season will be whether they used their DP slots correctly. Fans have been quick to question if Yimmi will provide DP-level production, and it remains to be seen if Niezgoda’s tear in the Polish league can transfer to MLS. But if everything goes as planned, the Timbers should score a lot of goals.

Prediction: Planning for a playoff place

Real Salt Lake
Last season: 3rd in West
Key additions: Zac MacMath (GK), Justin Meram (MF)
Key departures: Nick Rimando (GK), Sebastian Saucedo (MF), Brooks Lennon (DF)

It’s weird to imagine an RSL season without Nick Rimando, who has been in goal for the club for more than a decade. But Rimando has retired, and a slew of other starters in recent years are gone, including Joao Plata, Luke Mulholland, Brooks Lennon and Danilo Acosta. Designated Player Jefferson Savarino has also returned to South America.

That’s a lot of change.

Replacing Savarino on the right wing should be Jeizon Ramirez, an 18-year-old Venezuelan who has been signed as a Young DP. But how it’ll work out in the near term is anyone’s guess. RSL added free agent and 11-year MLS veteran Justin Meram, who provides depth across the attacking line but could push for a starting spot if Corey Baird can’t make a leap forward this year. In goal, new arrival Zac MacMath will likely be given first dibs on the starting role with homegrown David Ochoa behind him with a chance to break out this year.

All in all, despite the returns of DPs Albert Rusnak and Sam Johnson, and a starting back line that figures to look much like last year’s, 2020 feels like a transition year for RSL. Freddy Juarez, by the way, returns as coach for his first full year at the helm, and it’s up to him to make the pieces work together. He officially got the permanent job in December after taking over midseason for Mike Petke.

RSL scored fewer goals than any other playoff team last year, and on paper, it doesn’t look like they’ve done much to improve production. They might be in trouble if their defense is even just a little bit worse than it was last year.

Prediction: In the cellar

San Jose Earthquakes
Last season: 8th in West
Key additions: Oswaldo Alanis (DF)
Key departures: Harold Cummings (DF)

The theme of the season, at least for fans, will be Chris Wondolowski‘s long farewell to MLS after more than a decade in San Jose, and after setting the league’s all-time goal-scoring record. The 37-year-old striker is still scoring goals at an impressive clip — he tallied 15 last season, plus two assists — so there won’t be any change up top.

And, in fact, there will be almost no changes on San Jose’s roster, period. Just about everyone is back, except for midfielder Anibal Godoy.

The Earthquakes needed to tighten things up in the back, and their biggest offseason signing is center-back Oswaldo Alanis, who arrives on a TAM deal. He also just happens to be someone who has played under Quakes coach Matias Almeyda before.

Otherwise, little changes. No team that has missed the playoffs has made as few acquisitions as the Quakes have, and of the four players they did sign, two are homegrown players and one is a draft pick.

Rather, San Jose’s 2020 hopes seem to rest entirely on Almeyda and his ability to get players to buy into his unique man-marking system. It’s a demanding tactical approach that only works if everyone is on the same page. If the Quakes have a slow start, everyone will blame the lack of reinforcements.

Looking across the Western Conference, the Quakes attack let them down last year. While their 55 goals allowed wasn’t catastrophic, it was going to be too much to make the playoffs unless San Jose had a 30-plus goal scorer on their roster. They better hope Alanis makes a big difference.

Prediction: In the cellar

Seattle Sounders
Last season: 2nd in West
Key additions: Joao Paulo (MF), Yeimar Gomez Andrade (DF)
Key departures: Roman Torres (DF), Victor Rodriguez (MF), Kim Kee-Hee (DF)

After reaching their third MLS Cup in four years and winning it, the challenge for the Sounders is to keep doing what they’ve been doing. That’s never an easy task for a reigning champion, but it would be foolish to bet against general manager Garth Lagerwey, who has solidified himself as one of the preeminent roster builders in MLS.

Ten players have left Seattle since lifting the trophy, and some of the names on the list are significant ones like Designated Player and MLS Cup MVP Victor Rodriguez, who was homesick and wanted to return to Spain. A rotating cast of starting defenders also leaves, including Kim Kee-Hee, Brad Smith, Roman Torres and Saad Abdul-Salaam. But most of the big guns will be back.

Striker Raul Ruidiaz returns as does left winger Jordan Morris, who doesn’t seem to have stopped getting better since he joined the league. Cristian Roldan is sort of a Swiss army knife for the Sounders, while Nico Lodeiro, who has been a game-changer for the Sounders since he arrived in 2016, will also be back. The only question is when. Lodeiro has been in Uruguay being treated for tendonitis. It shouldn’t be serious but it’s worth keeping an eye on because the Sounders don’t have any meaningful depth behind him.

Otherwise, if there’s any concern for the Sounders, it’s their thin back line. At left center-back, they have a Designated Player, 25-year-old Xavier Arreaga and, uh, that’s pretty much it.

With the addition of Joao Paulo as a Designated Player, the Sounders look to have a strong starting lineup, even if the lack of depth needs to be addressed. The 28-year-old Brazilian is expected to offer creativity to the attack and grittinesson the defensive side as the Sounders’ new No. 8.This looks like a playoff team in the making.

Prediction: Western Conference champion contender

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Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer pokes fun at ESPN FC’s Herculez Gomez, who won MLS Cup with Schmetzer in 2016.

Sporting Kansas City
Last season: 11th in West
Key additions: Alan Pulido (FW), Gadi Kinda (MF)
Key departures: Jimmy Medranda (DF), Seth Sinovic (DF), Benny Feilhaber (MF), Krisztian Nemeth (FW), Rodney Wallace (DF)

After their worst regular season finish in MLS history and their first time missing the playoffs since being rebranded as Sporting, something had to change in Kansas City.

There’s no way to pin SKC’s nosedive on any one particular thing — players got injured, players aged, players under-performed, and so on — but there were also self-inflicted problems. Sporting never signed a marquee striker after Dom Dwyer was sold in 201. The defense also lacked depth and injuries derailed their season too easily.

Sporting quickly went out and threw money at their biggest problem, signing 28-year-old Mexico striker Alan Pulido for a club-record transfer fee. Pulido, who arrives from Chivas, was Liga MX’s 2019 Apertura Golden Boot winner and should instantly solve most of SKC’s problems if he keeps up his scoring pace.

They’ve also added the defensive depth they were missing. Croatian center-back Roberto Puncec should be an upgrade while left-back Amadou Dia has been signed to the first team after some time in USL as a much needed backup to presumed starter Luis Martins.

It’s hard to doubt Peter Vermes, who returns as SKC’s coach and sporting director, because his record up until last season was pristine. But Vermes really needs the Pulido acquisition to work out. There doesn’t seem to be any reason it shouldn’t, but SKC fans won’t breathe a sigh of relief until Pulido starts banging in goals.

Prediction: Planning for a playoff place

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Peter Vermes explains the intangibles Alan Pulido will bring to Sporting Kansas City this season.

Vancouver Whitecaps
Last season: 12th in West
Key additions: Lucas Cavallini (FW), Cristian Dajome (FW), Ranko Veselinovic (DF)
Key departures: Doneil Henry (DF), Zac MacMath (GK)

Heading into 2020, the Whitecaps had one primary question to answer this offseason: Where will the goals come from? The Whitecaps scored an abysmal 37 goals in 34 games last year, the worst in the Western Conference by far, which negated the fact that their defense wasn’t that terrible.

To that end, the ‘Caps spent a record transfer fee of around $6 million to bring in DP striker Lucas Cavallini from Puebla in Liga MX, and the new-look Whitecaps are built around the Canada international leading the line. But that alone isn’t enough; they need to be able to get Cavallini the ball in scoring positions, and they’ve taken a chance on some attacking pieces that may or may not pan out.

What any of this means for Fredy Montero, the club’s leading scorer last year, is unclear. The 32-year-old is still on the roster and coach Marc Dos Santos insists he’s still an important part of the team, but it appears Cavallini has supplanted him. If Montero will figure into Vancouver’s attack, it could be as a chance creator if the Whitecaps’ other acquisitions turn out to be busts.

It shouldn’t be too difficult for the Whitecaps to fare better in 2020 than they did in 2019 because they were just so bad in the attack last year. But there’s too much uncertainty to expect a playoff spot.

Prediction: Watching the playoffs from home

— Caitlin Murray (@caitlinmurr)

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