The 2021 MLS season is almost here and while we are eight months away from finding out who lifts the MLS Cup title, there are some clearcut championship contenders heading into the new campaign.
The defending champion Columbus Crew were a bit of a surprise title winner in 2020, but the quality they showed on their way to the team’s second MLS Cup, coupled with their aggressive approach to adding even more key pieces this past offseason has the Crew looking like a good candidate to christen their new stadium with another trophy.
Los Angeles FC will have something to say about that, and while LAFC’s 2020 regular season didn’t go anywhere near as planned, Bob Bradley’s side showed in its run to the Concacaf Champions League final that it is very much still among the league’s elite.
The Philadelphia Union might seem like a team primed for taking a step back after the winter transfer departures of MLS Best XI standouts Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, but rest assured the reigning MLS Supporters’ Shield winners still have a strong team and a new crop of youngsters ready to step in.Jim Curtin has come into his own as a head coach, and will have the Union near the top of the East once again.
One team that looks poised to make the jump from playoff team to title contender is the New England Revolution. Bruce Arena is known for building championship teams, and another offseason to tinker with the Revs roster, coupled with the return of a healthy Carles Gil to go with standout goalkeeper Matt Turner, has New England looking very much like a team that could win the East, and more.
Minnesota bid farewell to Kevin Molino, but the Loons will have a full season of Emmanuel Reynoso and made some good offseason additions, including Argentine striker Ramon Abila, that should help Adrian Heath’s squad stay near the top of the Western Conference.
In terms of teams poised for a turnaround, Atlanta United tops that list. New head coach Gabriel Heinze has the Five Stripes looking impressive in Concacaf Champions League, and the front office’s aggressive efforts to upgrade the roster should have Atlanta in contention. That, coupled with the return of Josef Martinez, could have the 2018 MLS Cup champions knocking on the door of the league’s elite.
The LA Galaxy are another team that should see a turnaround. New head coach Greg Vanney brings a championship pedigree, familiarity with the Galaxy organization, and a roster with some talented piece to a Galaxy project that should jump back into the playoff picture in 2021.
The Houston Dynamo had a rough first season under head coach Tab Ramos, but the second-year coach has a revamped roster to work with, which should have the Dynamo contending for the playoffs after a last-place finish in 2020.
FC Cincinnati had one of the most aggressive offseasons in MLS, with the additions of Brenner and Luciano Acosta, but questions remain about the Cincy defense. Jaap Stam will have his chance to show off his coaching chops with more talent to work with, and while FC Cincinnati should improve, it might still be a bridge too far to expect a playoff run in 2021.
Which teams are poised to slide in 2021? The Seattle Sounders are still a strong team with Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz, but the loss of Jordan Morris to a torn ACL coupled with an exodus of key contributors this past winter will make this upcoming season the toughest coaching challenge of Brian Schmetzer’s tenure.
The New York teams could also be in for some rough sledding in 2021. New York City FC bid farewell to captain Alexander Ring and Ronald Matarrita while the Red Bulls shook up their roster once again with an infusion of young talent that could take time to come together under head coach Gerhard Struber.
CF Montreal has a new name and logo, but the team formerly known as the Montreal Impact bid farewell to Thierry Henry, leaving Wilfried Nancy to try and put the pieces together on an Impact side that will struggle mightily to return to the playoffs.
If there is a team that feels like it could go either way it is Inter Miami. The second-year side has a new head coach in Phil Neville, who is an untested head coach on the club level. Miami has the talent to be a legitimate playoff team, but if Neville struggles to adapt and can’t put the pieces together then we could see Inter Miami struggle in an improved Eastern Conference.
The first 2021 SBI MLS Power Rankings are the rankings heading into the season, and it should be noted that the current transfer window and summer secondary transfer window can still change the status of some teams. A team like Orlando City will move up a few spots if and when Daryl Dike returns from his highly-successful loan stint at Barnsley, and the New York Red Bulls could make a jump if the resources from Kaku’s departure lead to the acquisition of another impact player.
With all that in mind, here are the SBI MLS Power Rankings heading into the 2021 MLS season: