MLS 2019 – Season Preview Part 1
The 2019 season for Major League Soccer opener is right around the corner. Seems like it hasn’t been that long since Atlanta United won the 2018 MLS Cup but in reality its been over two months ago. So as the season preparations are underway lets take a look at the latest from the league as well as a look at the Eastern Conference. We’ll look at the Western Conference in Part 2 next week.
If we learned nothing else in 2018 we saw that the MLS is on strong footing and no longer tied to how well the US Men’s National Team is fairing. Historically soccer enthusiasm in this country has closely followed the success of the National teams. And while the Women’s team had an outstanding 2018 as is preparing for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the Men’s team was out of sorts. For the first time since 1986 they Men didn’t qualify for the World Cup. And to make matters potentially worse, they had gone without a permanent head coach for over a year. To say that the team was in a disarray would be an understatement. But it seems like soccer interest in this country has grown to the point where it isn’t so closely tied to how well the Men’s team is fairing.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
MLS attendance for the season was down just 1% compared to 2017. Considering that the World Cup, without the US, took place during 6 weeks of the MLS season it actually speaks volumes on how popular the league has become. The season finale was a sold out Mercedes Benz Arena in Atlanta with over 71,000 fans in attendance. For the season Atlanta FC had an average attendance of over 53,000. The original plan for Atlanta home games was to artificially limit the seating to 42,500. In 2018 the fewest fans at any home game there was just under 45,000!
There have been other signs showing how strong the league has become as well. One of the hottest issues facing the league last year was the pending move of one of its original franchises, the Columbus Crew, to Austin, Texas. A sport with a limited fanbase would have watched the relocation take place with hardly a ripple in the news. Well the outcry was just a bit more than a ripple, more like a tidal wave. Lawsuits were filed and soccer fans were livid. In most businesses, management and marketing typically overestimate a products popularity. And they make incompetent decisions as a result. But in this case the League markedly underestimated the power of its fan base and after an ugly bit of time soccer in Columbus prevailed and the Crew stayed. While its hard to argue that a competently run entity wouldn’t have attempted such a bone head move in the first place its a testament to the strength of the product that such a ruckus was made over it. And thankfully the fans prevailed. Fans in most sports across the country seem united in this front. They generally don’t like their league and commissioner but stand behind their local team with a fervor.
The playing side of things is also showing sides of growth and improved play. Numerous players have moved on to the bigger European leagues and we even have MLS players earning their clubs some significant transfer fees. Atlanta transferred Miquel Almiron to Newcastle United in the English Premier League for an undisclosed amount rumored to be $27M. Its a mixed blessing of course. Losing players to the big time leagues certainly lessens the level of play in our league. But the flip side is that it provides increased opportunity for younger players and it clearly shows that the quality of coaching and training in the league has vastly improved.
By and large every team in the MLS has things to point to as proof positive that they are building strong programs and that bodes well for the league and especially its fans. So lets take a look at the Eastern Conference teams and what to expect this coming season.
Atlanta United FC
So lets see. We start with a team coming off a year in which they won the MLS Cup, averaged over 53,000 fans/match, and set an MLS record for the highest transfer fee obtained in league history. Well that also has some bad news attached. First, that transfer fee resulted in the loss of star midfielder Miguel Almiron. In his two years with the club he found the net 21 times. Then the Mexican National Team came calling and lured their manager, Tata Martino away. But they also have plenty to positives to point to as well. They replaced Martino with long time dutch player and manager Frank de Boer. Under de Boer Atlanta fans can expect to see the attacking style they have come to love. Of course, that means they will continue to watch star striker Josef Martinez score goals at a crazy rate. Martinez set all kinds of records last season in becoming the first MLS player to win MVP honors for the All Start game, regular season, and MLS Cup in the same season. Then to replace the departed Almiron, they signed Argentinian start Gonzalo Martinez. Pity as he is known was the 2018 South American Player of the year and should step right in to replace Almiron.
Its a long season but at this juncture Atlanta is one of the odds on favorites to reach the MLS Cup. Don’t be surprised if they make it back-to-back.
Straight to the point. 2018 was a terrible season and one Fire fans can’t wait to forget. They finished next to last in the Conference. In many cases statistics can be misleading or can be twisted to fit an agenda. Not the case here. Only three teams scored fewer goals and only two teams allowed more goals in the entire Conference. So they ended up with the second worst goal differential in the Conference. Right where they finished in the standing. The biggest improvement for the upcoming season was the signing of Brazilian defender, Marcello. Much of the Fire’s issues have been in the back requiring Bastian Schweinsteiger to track back in support of the defense. Taking him out of what he is there for in the first place, leading the midfield. If he is able to stay more central and build up the attack the Fire could be looking at a playoff spot. They probably aren’t deep enough to make much of a serious run but just getting back to the playoffs would be a big boost for Fire fans.
Maybe of equal importance is if owner Andrew Hauptman stops picking fights with the fans and acts like he actually cares about the club and soccer. We’ll see.
Coming into their inaugural season its a bit hard to know what to exp. ect. Typical for an expansion team in any sport fan enthusiasm is high and players are fighting with everything they have to try and earn a roster spot. Given their depth at the center back position it looks like manager Alan Coch will run the team out in a 3-5-2 formation. Greg Garza, Kendall Watson, and Alvas Powell will be the mainstays in the back. Garza coming over from Atlanta will provide both talent and experience in high pressure situations. The attack will be lead by Fanendo Adi and either Kekuta Manneh or Darren Mattocks. Like most sports, and MLS is no exception, its hard to see a team being a playoff contender in its first season. Well at least that used to be the sentiment. But with Atlanta winning the MLS Cup in just their second season and the Las Vegas Golden Knights reaching the NHL Stanley Cup finals in its first year just shows you that anything can happen.
One thing you can count on and that is plenty of support from their fan base. They averaged over 21,000 fans/match last year as part of the United Soccer League. Moving up to the MLS should drive attendance numbers even higher.
Columbus Crew SC
First the best news for Crew fans was that the team is staying in Columbus. The pending move caused a revolt not only by Crew fans but by fans all across the states. And with good reason. The Crew and their stadium hold a special place in the hearts of American soccer fans. Dos y Cero anybody? The bad news is that their manager, Gregg Berhalter has move on to become the manager of the USMNT. But he is being replace by a very solid guy in Caleb Porter. Don’t look for Porter to shake the lineup much, if at all.
Again this year the Crew should be solid on defense. With Zack Steffen in the nets, at least until he transfers to Manchester City this summer, and Harrison Aful and Jonathan Mensah defending they should be stout. But the best group of players the Crew can field are in the midfield. With Wil Trap, Artur, and Frederico Higuain not to mention Justin Meram and Pedro Santos controlling the center of the field how they play will dictate most outcomes. And they drafted UCLA midfielder Frankie Amaya with the first pick in the draft. In the attack they will need Gyassi Zardes to continue his goal scoring play from last year.
Overall the Crew will be a solid team and should make one of the lower slots in the playoffs. And if they get there who knows?
The big news last season was the arrival of EPL and English National Team superstar Wayne Rooney. And he didn’t disappoint. Rooney joined the club well into the season and ended up playing 21 matches in 90 days. That’s a lot of soccer and probably not to be duplicated this season. Especially if they look to make a deeper run into the playoffs. So how big of an impact did Rooney make on the club? Well, its not often that a newcomer is named the captain after just three matches. Its also not often that a newcomer comes in mid season and goes on to lead a team in scoring and be named the team MVP. But for Rooney that was just par for the course.
The key this year will be for manager, Ben Olsen to find the right balance of keeping him on the field as much as possible but also keeping him fresh. He’s 33 playing a physically demanding position so will have to have some time on the bench. The problem for Olsen, though, is finding where the goals are going to come from when Rooney is on the bench. Second leading scorers, Darren Mattocks has gone on to Cinncinatti in the expansion and Luciano Acosta has been eyeing a move to Europe. But so far Acosta is still with them so he will be the likely scorer Olsen relies on.
The defense will be anchored by keeper Bill Hamid and center back Steve Birnbaum. Both are capable and steady players. Hamid can have the occasional big time stop but also has some games where you wonder if somebody else is playing in his jersey. Thankfully for DC fans those matches are far and few between. In what may be the most exciting news for DC fans is their recent signing of University Maryland defender Donovan Pines. Pines is a towering beast in the back at 6’5″ and recently lead the Terrapins to the NCAA National Championship. He has forgone his final year of eligibility to turn pro. If he continues his growth as a player and excels at the next level they may field one of the best back lines in the MLS.
DC United should make the playoffs and could be a team to watch. They could make a deep run if they can keep Rooney fresh and find enough goals around him.
The impact had two major problems last season. First they were flat awful on the road winning just 3 of their 17 away matches while drawing 2 and losing 12. The second worst road record in the conference. The problem is that means you have to be almost perfect at home. But while they were much better they were no close to perfect. The second problem is that they have a really great and much overlooked star in Ignacio Piatti. Piatti scored 16 times last season from his midfield position but from there the wheels fall off. They had no other player score double digits with second leading scorer Saphir Taider notching but 7 times. So the problem is that teams figured out quickly to just shadow Piatti. He’s good but not good enough to score at will without some help. If the impact don’t find someone on their roster to step up this season it will be a long one for the Impact and their fans.
New England Revolution
Sports fans in New England are coming off a season in which the Red Sox won the World Series and the Patriots just won their insane 6th championship. The Bruins are second in the Eastern Conference of the NHL standings and the Celtics are 4th in the Eastern Conference of the NBA. Soccer fans wish some of that would rub off on the Revs. Last year they finished 8th in their Conference and watched the playoffs from the sidelines. Suspect that will be the case again this season.
Manager, Brad Freidel’s first season was anything but a success. He was quick to move players out that weren’t buying into his team philosophy and tactics. While that is a good first step a good manager must also adapt his tactics to the players he has at his disposal. Freidel seemed to struggle with that. Perhaps he is being too stubborn in his approach or perhaps he just needs more time for his players to mold to his approach. Time will tell but if things don’t improve this season odds are that they will move on to a new coach. Doesn’t mean they have to necessarily make the playoffs but they need to start showing some better coehsive play at a minimium. Soccer fans are rooting for Freidel as one of the long time favorite keepers of the USMNT. But managing and playing are a different animal and being a great former player will only open doors. But he’s in the room now so he needs to get his team to step up.
New York City FC
They finished third in the Eastern Conference last season but repeating that will be difficult. David Villa is no longer with the team. Villa has moved on to Vissel Kobe in Japan’s top league joining former Spanish teammate Andres Iniesta.
But they do have some young guys coming in who could well turn out to be solid, capable players. Jonathan Lewis and Keaton Parks are up and comers who have seen time with the USMNT and should feature well in Yankee Stadium.
On the season they certainly will be looking to make the playoffs again and they have a good shot. Other than that they need to finish higher up in the standings then the Red Bull!
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls had a tremendous 2018 finishing on top of the Eastern Conference. And although they didn’t play as well during the playoffs as they did during the regular season fans have plenty to look forward to this year. And lest not forget they they did win the Supporters Shield last season. Chris Armas took over as the manager mid season and had the team playing aggressive, pressing soccer. But then they got to the playoffs and for some odd reason he changed their tactics. Well that didn’t sit well with fans or pan out in the win column either. Like most strong soccer clubs they feature talent in the back lead by keeper Luis Robles and defenders Aaron Long and Kemar Lawrence. But when we move to midfield is where the big hole has developed. Tyler Adams has transferred to RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga and has started off very well over there. Replacing him simple won’t happen.
That doesn’t mean that they don’t have other capable midfielders to put on the field, far from it. They have three young talents in Cristian Cessares, Jr. and two products of their youth program in Omir Fernandez and Jean-Christophe Koffi. If those players can adequately fill some midfield mintues it will enable the side to spend on some big name reinforcements come this summer. In the attack they still have the ageless Bradley Wright-Phillps. If young Danish striker Mathias Jorgensen can rise to what some see as being a Bundesliga level striker, then the Red Bulls should make plenty of noise this summer.
Look for them to compete for the Supporters Shield and make a deep run in the playoffs. Anything less will be deemed a poor season.
Orlando City FC
Really no place to go but up for Orlando. They finished dead last in the Eastern Conference last season and it wasn’t particularly close either. They were actually the worst road team in the entire league managing just two wins to go with their 15 losses. Not making any real game changing moves over the offseason has Orlando fans wondering once again if, come the end of the regular season, will they once again be watching from the outside. The short answer is most likely. They have a few players worth watching such as Dom Dwyer and Sasha Kljestan. By bringing in former Manchester United Winger, Nani, they do have a trio in the attack that should be able to generate some scoring.
So improvement up front and hopeful increase in goal scoring is a start. Unfortunately they are bad at the other end of the field. They allowed a league worst 74 goals last season. Certainly they shouldn’t be that bad this year but they still don’t have the horses to be markedly better either.
So sorry but the fans in purple will be sitting home come playoff season. At least this summer its the only major sport in town to they have that going for them.
The Union squeezed into the last playoff spot in the Conference last season but were quickly dispatched 3-1 by the NYCFC in the first round. The Union once again opened up the checkbook this winter by setting a new signing record with Marco Fabian. They then went south. Way south to bring in Brazilian striker Sergio Santos. Coupling Santos with Fafa Picault should provide much improvement in front of the net. Union fans hope the days of watching CJ Supong hitting moon shots into the stands are over. We shall see.
To bolster the very young backline they brought in Aurelien Collin and Kai Wagner to give the youngsters a little more time to grow. If they do then they could be looking to the playoffs and a bit of a run. But I think its still a year before they are really a team to watch.
Wow how the mighty have fallen. Winners of the MLS Cup in 2017, Toronto fell to 9th in the Conference last year, way short of the playoffs. And the winter season did not start with a positive note either with the transfer of Sebastian Giovinco to Saudi Arabia. Really, Saudi Arabia? To replace him they have brought in Terrence Boyd from Germany. Boyd will play up top with oft injured Jozy Altidore. Both of these guys are in the mix for the USMNT but will need to have much better showings to get looks from the MNT. Altidore recently said that his long time injury issues with his thigh muscles have been erased and his last couple of injuries were more of a flukey nature than body structure problems. Time will tell. Another MNT fixture, Michael Bradley, will be running the midfield from his defensive midfield spot. If the defense has improved it will certainly enhance Bradley’s ability to play higher in supporting the attack. Also, look for keeper Alex Bono to rebound from a subpar season.
All things considered Toronto still has a pretty decent club and should make the playoffs somewhere in the middle of the pack. Maybe win a knockout match and move one. Then who knows?
So there you have it. A league that continues to grow and remains strong is less than two weeks away from the openers. We’ll follow this up next week when we look at the Western Conference in Part 2.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.