The new MLS season kicks off on Saturday, with the first 24-team race to MLS Cup getting underway. MLS in 2019 has more new wrinkles than just the addition of another expansion team and some new players and coaches. The league's competitive format has been altered, with a single-elimination postseason looming in the fall and a championship game taking place a month earlier than last year.
Before the playoffs enter the discussion, though, there's the matter of the regular season. Atlanta United enters as the reigning champion and the likely favorite to win it all again, but the Five Stripes have their work cut out for them. A number of contenders will come calling for that crown, and, given it's MLS, there's always a surprise or five to sneak up and snatch a place at or near the top of the table.
With all that said, here's how we see the league stacking up entering the new season:
1. Atlanta United
Last season record, finish: 21-7-6, 69 points; Won MLS Cup
Atlanta enters as the favorite to win it again, but not without some serious questions. Replacing Tata Martino and Miguel Almiron with Frank de Boer and Pity Martinez and expecting things to carry on seamlessly is a pipe dream. There's work to be done here, but at the very least there's relief in the form of a Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal berth after an initial flop in Costa Rica. Top to bottom, though, this remains the class of the league.
2. Sporting Kansas City
Last season record, finish: 18-8-8, 62 points; Lost in Western Conference finals
Peter Vermes's side is also off to the CCL quarterfinals and might be the deepest in the league, and while there still may be some questions at striker, the additions of MLS-tested stars Kelyn Rowe and Rodney Wallace bring added flexibility to SKC's approach. SKC will have to hope that Andreu Fontas or Botond Barath fill the void in central defense after Ike Opara's departure to Minnesota, but blessed with a combination of experience and capable youth, physicality and creativity, SKC should hover around the top of the table all season long.
3. Portland Timbers
Last season record, finish: 15-10-9, 54 points; MLS Cup runner-up
The Timbers came close to winning a second MLS Cup in four years, gelling at the right time under Giovanni Savarese and showing their backbone on the road in the playoffs. They'll need that same kind of effort to get through the start of the season, with the first 12 games coming away from home with renovations to Providence Park ongoing until June. But with Diegos Valeri and Chara roaming the midfield and Jeremy Ebobisse a year further along up top, there's reason for optimism. Filling Liam Ridgewell's void in central defense will be key to success, though.
4. New York Red Bulls
Last season record, finish: 22-7-5, 71 points; Supporters' Shield, Lost in Eastern Conference finals
There's no sugarcoating the loss of Tyler Adams to RB Leipzig, but after winning three Supporters' Shields in six seasons, the Red Bulls have earned the benefit of the doubt that they can find a way to transition and still find success. The remaining core pieces are in place, and the club resisting the sale of Kaku to Club America is huge for its outlook. The biggest question may surround what's been as sure a thing as there's been in the league for the last five seasons: In his age-34 season, can Bradley Wright-Phillips still be an elite goal scorer?
5. Seattle Sounders
Last season record, finish: 18-11-5, 59 points; Lost in Western Conference semifinals
The Sounders reset their own standard for flopping through half of a season only to turn it on down the stretch in 2018. They won just four of their first 18 before steamrolling to 14 wins in their last 16 to remind all that it's just what they do. Clearly, that's not the preference, and with Jordan Morris back after missing last season with a torn ACL and Raul Ruidiaz in the fold for his first full season, there's reason to believe things will be a bit different. Losing midfield staple Osvaldo Alonso to Minnesota will require an adjustment, but there pieces are in place for Seattle to contend again.
Last season record, finish: 16-9-9, 57 points; Lost in knockout round of playoffs
The training wheels are off for Bob Bradley's team, now in its second year after the best expansion regular season in league history. More will be expected in 2019, and with an attack led by Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Christian Ramirez, Lee Nguyen and Adama Diomande, there should be plenty of goals that follow. The questions remain in the back, where U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman was fortunately retained, but with few other reinforcements, the balance of the side could be a bit off.
7. LA Galaxy
Last season record, finish: 13-12-9, 48 points; Seventh in the Western Conference
That the Galaxy missed the playoffs last season with the amount of money spent on that roster was a calamity. Enter new GM Dennis te Kloese and new coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The new braintrust should help the Galaxy improve from being barely over .500, while a full season of Zlatan Ibrahimovic should help bring the magic back to Carson, too. Diego Polenta's presence in an underachieving defensive unit from a season ago will be key as well. Being forced to buy out Giovani Dos Santos to solve the club's glut of DPs on the eve of the season was clearly not the preferred option, but there was no other viable alternative.
8. Toronto FC
Last season record, finish: 10-18-6, 36 points; Ninth in the Eastern Conference
Toronto followed up the best season in MLS history with arguably the biggest underachievement of all-time. How that team, with those players and that pedigree wound up not even coming close to making the playoffs is a mystery (well, the psychological and physical toll of losing the CCL final after everything dedicated to it, while injuries piled up along the way had plenty to do with it). Attacking fulcrums Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez are gone, but Jozy Altidore has been retained, and a new DP-level playmaker appears to be on the way. Much will fall on the aging shoulders of Laurent Ciman, the Belgian international center back charged with turning around last season's porous defense.
Last season record, finish: 16-10-8, 56 points; Lost in Eastern Conference semifinals
The post-David-Villa era begins for NYCFC, who didn't directly replace the Spanish legend. They did, however, drop the third-biggest transfer fee in league history to sign an attacking standout in Alexandru Mitrita to pair with other dynamic stars in Maxi Moralez and Jesus Medina. Taking over midseason is tough for any coach, so Domenec Torrent gets a bit of a pass for the sluggish way in which NYCFC ended last season after appearing to be a title contender under Patrick Vieira. There's no more room for excuses now, though.
10. D.C. United
Last season record, finish: 14-11-9, 51 points; Lost in knockout round of playoffs
D.C. went from last place to hosting a playoff game after Wayne Rooney's arrival last season, and the hope is that a full year of Rooney will mean more success in 2019. Keeping Luciano Acosta after a near deadline-day sale to PSG should help–but not for the long haul if he departs in the summer. Reinforcements in the form of right back Leonardo Jara and midfielder Lucas Rodriguez should help D.C. improve a team whose strength is clearly in the midfield.
11. Real Salt Lake
Last season record, finish: 14-13-7, 49 points; Lost in Western Conference semifinals
There were more peaks and valleys in Mike Petke's team than in the Wasatch Mountains a season ago, but, thanks to some help from Houston in the regular season finale, it made the playoffs–and made noise when it got there. RSL was a Nick Besler chance facing a gaping goal away from putting Sporting KC to the brink in the conference semis, and it added DP striker Sam Johnson and veteran midfielder Everton Luiz to its returning core. There's depth, star power and experience on a team that can compete in the west.
12. Houston Dynamo
Last season record, finish: 10-16-8, 38 points; Ninth in Western Conference
Last season's U.S. Open Cup champions are alive in the CCL quarterfinals and did well to retain star attackers Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas, with the latter a dark horse to win the league's golden boot. Having a healthy Juan David Cabezas in midfield will be paramount to success, but questions regarding the depth of the roster will linger over Wilmer Cabrera's side, especially if the early CCL schedule grind takes its toll. There's playoff-caliber talent on this team, though.
13. Philadelphia Union
Last season record, finish: 15-14-5, 50 points; Lost in knockout round of playoffs
The Union underwent some major changes despite having the best season in franchise history in 2018, with MLS assist leader Borek Dockal not returning after his loan expired and forward CJ Sapong being dealt to Chicago. Marco Fabian's arrival as the club's No. 10 is met with excitement, anticipation and expectation, while Sergio Santos should help boost the attack as well to complement a young defensive core that's a year older, wiser and stronger.
14. Columbus Crew
Last season record, finish: 14-11-9, 51 points; Lost in Eastern Conference semifinals
Like with Houston, the starting XI looks quite capable, but there's a dropoff beyond that. The core remains intact, save for the key loss of surging left back Milton Valenzuela, who will miss the season with a knee injury. Other questions surround this squad, which was built by Gregg Berhalter and inherited by new coach Caleb Porter. Can Gyasi Zardes maintain his scoring form from a season ago? At what point does Federico Higuain break down? Is Pedro Santos providing DP value? And can Joe Bendik be serviceable in goal when Zack Steffen leaves for Man City in July? The fact that the Crew are still playing in Columbus at all is a win entering the season, though.
15. FC Dallas
Last season record, finish: 16-9-9, 57 points; Lost in knockout round of playoffs
Manager Oscar Parjea left for Club Tijuana, with Luchi Gonzalez taking over at the helm. There should be a seamless transition of philosophy, but much of what the club can do will be based on the success of its wealth of rising, homegrown talent, with nine homegrown players on the first-team roster. New signings Bryan Acosta and Zdenek Ondrasek should help balance the side that has playoff-potential but some questions to answer.
16. Minnesota United
Last season record, finish: 11-20-3, 36 points; 10th in Western Conference
Minnesota upgraded in a big way, strengthening its spine by bringing in Opara in defense, Alonso in the midfield and signing another key central midfield cog in DP Jan Gregus. There are heightened expectations in year three in MLS, especially as the club enters its sensational new Allianz Field. Having a full season of Darwin Quintero and Kevin Molino back from injury should help the attack, but if the club concedes 70 or more goals for a third straight season, it won't matter. Opara and Alonso, both in their 30s, are signs that Adrian Heath's side is intent on winning now.
17. Montreal Impact
Last season record, finish: 14-16-4, 46 points; Seventh in Eastern Conference
In Ignacio Piatti, Montreal boasts one of the league's best creators, one who is coming off a 16-goal, 13-assist season. At 34, he's entering what appears to be his last season in the league, though. The Impact appear to have upgraded the squad around him, bringing Maxi Urruti in from Dallas and adding winger Harry Novillo and on-loan Bologna forward Orji Okwonkwo, but their arrivals also come with the element of the unknown. What's for sure is that Montreal can ill afford to get off to the same start it had last season, when it went 3-12-0 in the first 15 matches under Remi Garde before turning it on and making a playoff push.
18. Orlando City
Last season record, finish: 8-22-4, 28 points; Last in Eastern Conference
Orlando posted a league-worst -31 goal differential and conceded a league-record 74 goals last season, so there's really nowhere to go but up. In Lamine Sane and Carlos Ascues, the Lions boast an under-the-radar center back partnership, and in acquiring Nani they have, at least on paper, another attacker who can add punch going forward. They'll need Sacha Kljestan and Dom Dwyer to find their past form, though, while getting more out of young DP Josue Colman in order to make noise in a crowded Eastern Conference.
19. New England Revolution
Last season record, finish: 10-13-11, 41 points; Eighth in Eastern Conference
The Revs loosened the pursestrings a bit, signing Spanish playmaker Carles Gil after making Michael Mancienne the highest-paid defender in the league, but that alone doesn't bring success. The second year of the Brad Friedel project will be considerably more indicative of whether more wins are in the offing, with the manager able to shape the roster more to his liking. Whether there's any fallout regarding club owner Robert Kraft and the scandal with which he's currently embroiled, remains to be seen.
20. Vancouver Whitecaps
Last season record, finish: 13-13-8, 47 points; Eighth in Western Conference
The Whitecaps are essentially starting from scratch, offloading 21 players from their 2018 squad that missed the playoffs and bringing in 15 new players under new coach Marc Dos Santos. Much will be expected from returning star forward Fredy Montero and new DP midfielder Hwang In-beom, but this is, for all intents and purposes, akin to an expansion project. There are just so many unknowns going into a new season.
21. Chicago Fire
Last season record, finish: 8-18-8, 32 points; 10th in Eastern Conference
The Fire are reportedly on the cusp of adding Argentine veteran Nico Gaitan, which would strengthen its midfield and allow Veljko Paunovic to shift German veteran Bastian Schweinsteiger into central defense. It's that back unit that is the cause for criticism on this unbalanced team, which was defined by its eight-game losing streak last summer. Nemanja Nikolic's drop-off from a golden-boot-winning 24 goals in 2017 to 15 a season ago is also reason to raise an eyebrow. Some select pieces are in place for an improved finish, but just how improved remains to be seen.
22. Colorado Rapids
Last season record, finish: 8-19-7, 31 points: 11th in Western Conference
The Rapids' offseason was an interesting one. Instead of spending big on lesser-heralded commodities like in their recent past, they went out and brought in MLS-tested talent in Kei Kamara, Benny Feilhaber, Keegan Rosenberry and Diego Rubio and locked up Kellyn Acosta to a new deal. The former two are 34, though, and the roster still looks light on dynamism compared to their counterparts. Tim Howard's farewell tour may wind up short of the playoffs.
23. FC Cincinnati
Last season record, finish: N/A
FCC starts near the bottom because it's always tough to gauge an expansion team. The roster build has been gradual, and on the surface, there's a lot to like. The club is expecting a ton out of Fanendo Adi and Darren Mattocks, two players with varying degrees of past success in MLS. There's a glut of options in central midfield, but Kekuta Manneh on one side and the reported acquisition of U.S. international Kenny Saief on the left makes for some sneaky choices out wide. The strength is in the defense, and if its core can remain healthy, the club could find itself grinding its way to a better season than most may be expecting.
24. San Jose Earthquakes
Last season record, finish: 4-21-9, 21 points; Last in Western Conference
This is not where the Earthquakes will necessarily wind up, and there's reason to believe Matias Almeyda will turn this ship around, but expecting an instant worst-to-first kind of season with a roster that hasn't been drastically overhauled is a bit much. The Earthquakes were a long way away from relevance last season, and there's a large gap to bridge. On the plus side, Chris Wondolowski could become the league's all-time regular season scoring leader as soon as Saturday night. He enters the season a goal behind Landon Donovan's record of 145.