The MLS season won’t kick off until April, but it’s never too early to make some rushed predictions about the final regular-season standings. This week, it’s the Eastern Conference!
Between raging COVID and raging collective bargaining disputes, it’s hard to know which constitutes the biggest existential threat to this twenty-sixth season of Major League Soccer. But should this small miracle be realized and the league does indeed begin, who will come out on top?
Philadelphia cruised to the top of the COVID-abbreviated league year in 2020, and they’ll be right in the mix this time around. Cup winners Columbus Crew will return the bulk of their talented squad and will fight for the Supporters’ Shield. Perennial favorites Toronto FC and New York Red Bulls are poised for precipitous drops. Traditional punching-bags FC Cincinnati and Chicago Fire FC will continue to flounder. Where will your club land come November?
Eastern Conference Predictions:
1) Columbus Crew SC:
They won MLS Cup without some of their best players on the pitch. Somehow they managed to get even better. Depth pieces like Bradley Wright-Phillips will keep them atop the bloodbath of the Eastern Conference.
2) New England Revolution:
Say what you will, but Bruce Arena knows how to win. In MLS, that is. Not at Ato Boldon Stadium. They’ll be the surprises of the east with talented DPs in Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil. Adam Buksa will score in buckets, and Barcelona-product, Cameroon International Wilfrid Kaptoum is an intriguing signing.
3) Philadelphia Union:
Jim Curtain is another savvy coach who knows how to get it done in those boring, humid summer night matches where champions are made. They lost Brendan Aaronson to Salzburg, but their defense is sturdy. Kacper Pryzbylko will do the goals thing and Philly, the New New York Red Bulls, if you will, will no-frills their way near the top of the East.
4) Orlando City SC:
Isn’t it nice to see a good Orlando side for a change? They’re a fascinating mix of old-guard talent (Nani) and exciting young players. Brandon Austin and Jonathan Suarez, on loan from Tottenham and Queretaro, respectively, pique the interest of neutrals headed into 2021.
5) Atlanta United:
How in the world did Frank de Boer not work out of the Five Stripes? Okay, so anyone could have seen that coming. Gabriel Heinze doesn’t exactly have a managerial pedigree but he certainly brings the intensity to a lackadaisical side. Josef Martinez will be back, and ATL recently re-upped Cubo Torres in a backup role. CB Miles Robinson will be in the mix for the USMNT when World Cup qualifying kicks off.
6) Inter Miami CF:
Good soccer players are good soccer players. It doesn’t matter how old they are, or that the walking definition of milquetoast, Phil Neville, will be their manager. Blaise Matuidi is a World Cup winner, and along with Rodolfo Pizarro and Matias Pellegini makes up as fearsome a midfield as any in the recent memory of MLS. Despite having a corner booth reserved at Manolo (try the churros), a slightly-rotund Gonzalo Higuain will positively feast this year.
The New York clubs boast three designated players between them, as it stands. NYC has two of them in Maxi Morales and Jesus Medina. Alexandru Mitrita (diacritics omitted) left, on loan to the desert. Alexander Ring and Ronald Matarrita are gone in defense. Valentin Castellanos looks to be on his way to Copa Libertadores champions Palmeiras in Brazil. The sky is slowly, boringly falling, and New York’s blue half, bastions of decent soccer recently, look set to miss the playoffs for the first time in years.
8) Nashville SC:
Last season, Nashville went on a Vegas Golden Knights-esque Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference semifinal. Not terrible for an expansion team. They’re perfectly likable, a Frankenstein’s monster of unappreciated players snatched up from more successful MLS clubs. Their lack of a pure goalscorer will likely be their downfall, but it’s safe to say that the team in yellow will remain a favorite of neutrals.
9) New York Red Bulls:
A team frequently plagued by the silly, the comical, and downright absurd, RBNY has perhaps reached a new low. Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra, a Red Bulls player under contract, was recently announced as a new signing for Al-Taawoun of the Saudi Premier League. RBNY countered by saying “Uh, no, he’s our player.” This has yet to be rectified. None of the recent signings by Director of Sports Kevin Thelwell will be enough for Gerhard Struber to make the playoffs with this uninspiring roster.
10) Toronto FC:
Chris Armas is a seemingly bizarre hire for a team perennially in the MLS Cup final. It represents a step back for a club with a real talisman in Alejandro Pozuelo. While tenth in the East may seem insultingly low, their core of tangential USMNT players is aging fast, and they don’t seem to have an inspiring amount of direction.
11) Club de Foote Montreal:
L’Impact is dead. Long live L’Impact. Manager Thierry Henry just isn’t quite as good as Player Thierry Henry was. They’ve made a boatload of speculative off-season moves, but it’s hard to see this group of players gelling in an increasingly-competitive North American soccer environment.
12) D.C. United:
Perennial candidate for the “How Does this Man Still Have a Job” Award Ben Olsen is gone. He was replaced by 38-year-old Argentinean manager Hernan Losada, in perhaps the strangest managerial hire of the offseason. Paul Arriola, perhaps the only exciting player on this wet paper towel of a team, is gone for the first part of the season, on loan to Swansea.
13) Chicago Fire FC:
Not to be confused with the NBC property of the same name, Chicago’s horrid badge isn’t the only stinky thing about them. None of their designated players make much sense, and they’re middling just about everywhere on the field. They’ve made a slew of lateral offseason moves, bringing into youth international is Colombia’s Jhon Duran and Bulgaria’s Stanislav Ivanov, but they represent little more than rolls of the dice by an unambitious franchise.
14) FC Cincinnati:
Wooden Spoon Champions in their first two seasons in the top-flight. Who else can say that? Once darlings of the lower divisions, Cincinnati has become a punching bag, a joke. Bringing in Ronald Matarrita will help in defense, but Jaap Stam has more than his work cut out for him in keeping Cincy out of the league’s musty basement for the third consecutive year. Allan Cruz is perhaps the standard-bearer of decent play for the club, but Japanese forward Yuya Kuba has been an uninspiring presence in attack. The loan signing of Jurgen Locadia from Brighton has been nothing short of disastrous. The club announced that it will be extended to June, so Locadia has one last chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the FC Cincinnati faithful.
There you have it, some way-too-early predictions for the 2021 Eastern Conference of MLS. Let’s hope for the moment that the league and the players’ union can reach some sort of agreement, so this season can get kicked off in the first place!