The 26th season of Major League Soccer kicks off on Friday as Houston Dynamo host San Jose at BBVA Stadium (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) and after a wild season in 2020, it's a clean slate and a reset in 2021 with a full schedule, another new team (welcome, Austin FC) and plenty of iconic players and teams with a lot to prove. And so, a little over four months since Columbus Crew SC thumped Seattle Sounders to win MLS Cup, we're back and ready for a fun season.
ESPN's Kyle Bonagura, Jeff Carlisle, Gus Elvin, Danny Guerra and Austin Lindberg go down the table to preview each team's most pressing matter -- and give predictions on who'll win MVP, MLS Cup finalists, and ultimately who will win the MLS Cup.
Season in a sentence (or two)
It's always good at the start of a long season to set expectations. What constitutes success? How will we measure it? What's our primary goal? As such, we're taking a spin through every MLS club to establish what their baselines for 2021 might be, and how they can (or cannot) get there.
2020 season results: 6W-4D-13L
12th in Eastern Conference
It seems odd for a team in only its fifth season of existence to be trying to "get back to the top," but here they are. Much of Atlanta's hopes are being pinned on the culture instilled by new manager Gabriel Heinze, though the return of former MVP Josef Martinez should help as well. -- Carlisle
2020 season results: N/A
If designated players Cecilio Dominguez and Tomas Pochettino adapt quickly to the league and make the impact they're being paid to make, Austin can be added to the list of recent success stories for MLS expansion teams. With Alex Ring playing in front of a veteran back line, they have a good foundation in place. -- Bonagura
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2020 season results: 5W-8D-10L
11th in Eastern Conference
Jhon Espinoza and Stanislav Ivanov are 22 and 21, respectively, and both have international experience. That sort of pedigree will serve Raphael Wicky well if they're to get back into the East's top half; his debut season was one of learning and stabilizing given how the Fire regressed after the dismissal of his predecessor, Veljko Paunovic. -- Lindberg
2020 season results: 4W-4D-15L
14th in Eastern Conference
It really can't get a whole lot worse than 2020 -- or 2019. In fact, there's a sense that Cincinnati might be on the verge of getting noticeably better in 2021 to the point of challenging for a playoff place. Sure, Frankie Amaya is on his way out of town, but new Brazilian forward Brenner was on the radar of some of Europe's biggest clubs and promises instant offense for FCC. -- Lindberg
2020 season results: 8W-4D-6L
5th in Western Conference; MLS Cup first round
Cole Bassett, already pegged for a move to Europe, should be the breakout star on a team that has focused on developing young talent. USMNT regular Kellyn Acosta also has stated a desire to test his talents overseas. They made no major offseason signings, but the Rapids still have the pieces to rise above the pack in the West. -- Guerra
2020 season results: 12W-5D-6L
3rd in Eastern Conference; Eastern Conference finals winners
MLS Cup champions
The reigning MLS Cup champs didn't stand pat with their roster, adding Bradley Wright-Phillips, Alexandru Matan and Kevin Molino, though Molino recently injured a hamstring. That depth will be needed if they're to put up a fight on multiple fronts including in the CONCACAF Champions League. Combine that with its existing talent and the obsessiveness of manager Caleb Porter, and Columbus is plenty capable of ending the season on top again. -- Carlisle
2020 season results: 9W-7D-6L
6th in Western Conference; MLS Cup conference semifinals
The club is in a tier of its own when it comes to developing and exporting its own talent, but after 25 years, the franchise has yet to win MLS Cup. If this is the year that finally changes, it will require a number of intriguing young players to take their games to the next level as a collective, including USMNT forward Jesus Ferreira, playmakers Paxton Pomykal and Tanner Tessmann as well as another striker, Ricardo Pepi. -- Bonagura
2020 season results: 5W-6D-12L
13th in Eastern Conference
Once the model franchise in MLS, D.C. has fallen on hard times. After a 24th-place finish last year, D.C. made some changes this offseason, bringing in a new coach (Hernan Losada) and players like striker Nigel Robertha and centerback Brendan Hines-Ike. Bill Hamid remains one of the top goalkeepers in MLS, but the Black and Red will need improvement from winger Edison Flores, midfielder Julian Gressel, Yamil Asad and former LA Galaxy/Columbus Crew striker Ola Kamara. -- Elvin
2020 season results: 4W-9D-10L
12th in Western Conference
The Dynamo struggled in Year 1 under Tab Ramos, and though they've made some nice additions -- veterans Tim Parker and Joe Corona should help bolster in defense and midfield, respectively -- it's fair to be skeptical there will be significant improvement. Houston needs someone outside of Darwin Quintero, who is now 33, to emerge as a consistent attacking threat. -- Bonagura
2020 season results: 6W-4D-12L
10th in Eastern Conference
Since winning MLS Cup in 2014, the Galaxy have been mostly a nonfactor in both the playoffs and regular season. That should change under new coach Greg Vanney, who has a proven track record in the league and enough talent at his disposal to be competitive in the Western Conference. Can Mexico striker Javier Hernandez bounce back after a lackluster debut season? -- Bonagura
2020 season results: 9W-5D-8L
7th in Western Conference; MLS Cup first round
Not only do the Black and Gold have the most talented starting XI in the league, they have good depth pieces at the back and in midfield. If Brian Rodriguez doesn't return from his loan with Almeria in Spain's second division, the team could become even more dangerous by adding a Designated Player to play the No. 9 between the league's last two Golden Boot winners, Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. -- Bonagura
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2020 season results: 9W-7D-5L
4th in Western Conference; MLS Cup Western Conference finals
Is Boca Juniors striker Ramon Abila the man to finally provide some productivity from the No. 9 position for the Loons? If so, with a glut of dangerous attacking options operating behind him, Minnesota will be a legit MLS Cup contender in 2021. -- Lindberg
2020 season results: 7W-3D-13L
10th in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup play-in round
Miami seems to be a perpetual mess, with the roster compliance shenanigans due to signing four DPs being the latest example. Much responsibility lies on new manager Phil Neville and whether he's really up to the task of managing a side that includes Blaise Matuidi, Gonzalo Higuain and Rodolfo Pizarro. New holding midfielder Gregore could be the key to reaching the postseason. -- Carlisle
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2020 season results: 8W-2D-13L
9th in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup play-in round
Thierry Henry is gone, as is former Barcelona wunderkind Bojan. Montreal are expecting big things from USMNT midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, as evidenced by the initial $800,000 general allocation money (potentially rising to $1 million based on incentives) they paid Chicago for the playmaker. New manager Wilfried Nancy also has some intriguing players in attack, as Romell Quioto, Mason Toye and Lassi Lappalainen (on loan from Bologna) have all had bright moments in MLS at previous clubs. -- Elvin
2020 season results: 8W-8D-7L
7th in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup conference semifinals
Can the second-year side build on its surprising playoff run when Nashville beat Miami and Toronto? Nashville has one of the league's better defensive setups with MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman and do-everything Dax McCarty in the midfield. The attack needs to coalesce to be more of a threat in the East. -- Guerra
2020 season results: 8W-8D-7L
8th in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup Eastern Conference finals
The Revs continue to progress under Bruce Arena and are coming off a surprising run to the semifinals of last year's MLS Cup playoffs. With top attackers Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou and Teal Bunbury all returning, and exciting new arrivals Wilfrid Kaptoum (formerly of Barcelona and Real Betis) and winger Arnor Ingvi Traustason from Malmo FF, the Revolution could be a dark horse to go one further and make a run for that elusive title. -- Elvin
2020 season results: 12W-3D-8L
5th in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup first round
NYCFC should be a contender again in the East, as the club's midfield of Maxi Moralez, James Sands, Keaton Parks and newcomer Alfredo Morales stacks up with the league's best. NYCFC are also in good hands up front, as Heber, who is still recovering from an ACL tear, Valentin Castellanos and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi have all hit double digits in goals in a season during their MLS careers. -- Elvin
2020 season results: 9W-5D-9L
6th in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup first round
The Red Bulls lack the star DP they've had in years past, but young Caden Clark is reason enough to watch Gerhard Struber's side this season. The 17-year-old midfielder, who burst onto the scene late in 2020, is one of the USMNT's top prospects and should play a central role in 2021 before jetting off to Europe to join RB Leipzig. New York's roster is unspectacular on paper, but young striker Fabio, who scored goals for fun in Brazil's second tier, could prove a real find. -- Elvin
2020 season results: 11W-8D-4L
4th in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup first round
MLS Is Back Tournament runners-up
Alexandre Pato has an exquisite resume behind him, yet he's not even the most interesting striker in Orlando's squad. Will Daryl Dike return to the Lions after a dynamite loan spell with Barnsley, or will he make his European residency permanent this summer? That will determine how high this team can go this season. -- Lindberg
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ESPN's Rodrigo Faez joins Futbol Americas to explain whether Lionel Messi will eventually land in MLS.
2020 season results: 14W-5D-4L
1st in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup first round
Supporters' Shield winners
The Union's Supporters' Shield win was as much a triumph of philosophy off the field as play on it. But after transferring defender Mark McKenzie and midfielder Brenden Aaronson to overseas clubs, the challenge now is to see if Philadelphia can immediately reload. It's still a talented group, and Anthony Fontana will do his utmost to make people forget about Aaronson, but another trophy seems out of reach. -- Carlisle
2020 season results: 11W-6D-6L
3rd in Western Conference; MLS Cup first round
MLS is Back Tournament winners
Diego Chara is 35. Diego Valeri is 34. Sebastian Blanco is 33, so is Larrys Mabiala. Does the core of Giovanni Savarese's Timbers have the legs or the lungs to contend in another grueling season? Few teams will welcome the advent of increased charter flights more than Portland. -- Lindberg
2020 season results: 5W-7D-10L
11th in Western Conference
Ownership turmoil and the retirement of Kyle Beckerman initially gave RSL fans little to look forward to entering the season. But the signing of USMNT veteran Bobby Wood and the promising play of young keeper David Ochoa at the Olympic qualifying tournament are bright spots. Nonetheless, this team will probably struggle again. -- Guerra
2020 season results: 8W-6D-9L
8th in Western Conference; MLS Cup first round
After two eighth-place finishes in the Western Conference, Year 3 of the Matias Almeyda era demands significant improvement. The Quakes have been selective in terms of reinforcements, and the hope is that the arrivals of Eric Remedi and Javier Lopez, as well as the rise of Cade Cowell, will be enough. -- Carlisle
2020 season results: 11W-6D-5L
2nd in Western Conference; Western Conference finals winners
MLS Cup runners-up
A model of consistency, having made the playoffs in each of the past 12 MLS seasons, there's every reason to expect the Sounders to remain among the league's best. It hurts to lose Jordan Morris, who tore his ACL while on a loan with Swansea City, but they've shown in the past they can get results even with him on the sideline. -- Bonagura
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2020 season results: 12W-3D-6L
1st in Western Conference; MLS Cup conference semifinals
The best team in the West from the 2020 regular season will remain among the top sides again. Mexico star Alan Pulido needs to be healthy and Gianluca Busio must stay motivated with European clubs eyeing him, but Peter Vermes will do another reliably good job as manager. Despite some departures, SKC hopes French duo Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and Remi Walter can shore up the defense. -- Guerra
2020 season results: 13W-5D-5L
2nd in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup first round
Chris Armas takes over for Greg Vanney, and inherits a team that finished as runners-up for the Supporters' Shield last season. Reigning MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo is the main man for the Reds, who also still feature USMNT veterans Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, as well as promising young forward Ayo Akinola, who bagged nine goals in 2020. -- Elvin
2020 season results: 9W-0D-14L
9th in Western Conference
Vancouver can emerge from the lower-tier ranks of the West given how busy they were in the offseason. Colombia's Deiber Caicedo and Brazil's Caio Alexandre are expected to pair well with Lucas Cavallini, and ex-Sporting CP defender Bruno Gaspar seems to be nice pickups. 'Caps coach Marc Dos Santos came in three years ago with high expectations; it's time for it to come to fruition. -- Guerra
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Who is your MVP?
Carlos Vela, LAFC -- Injuries slowed Vela in 2020, but now he's healthy again and looks primed to repeat his stellar form of 2019. That and LAFC looks set to be just as aggressive going forward this season as it has in the past. Vela figures to be the prime beneficiary of that. -- Carlisle
Emanuel Reynoso, Minnesota United -- It's easy to forget that "Bebelo" joined Minnesota as recently as September, because he produced two goals and 14 assists in his first 16 appearances for the club. That sort of production so early in a player's transition to MLS is rare. He'll be more prolific with former Boca Juniors teammate Ramon Abila now leading the Loons' line. -- Lindberg
Carlos Vela, LAFC -- After a year in which his availability was limited for various reasons, the expectation is that Vela will return to something close to the form he showed in 2019, when he turned in the best individual season in league history. -- Bonagura
Lucas Zelarayan, Columbus Crew -- This award is Vela's to lose and Josef Martinez is primed for a feel-good return season, but Zelarayan has what it takes to build on the late form he found last season that led to him winning MLS Cup MVP. Like defending regular-season MVP Alejandro Pozuelo of Toronto, Zelarayan will be key in creating lots of chances rather than scoring tons of goals. But is Zelarayan even the best player on the Crew roster?
Carlos Vela, LAFC -- After a stop-start season due to opting out of the MLS is Back tournament and injuries, look for the Mexico playmaker to rekindle the form that saw him set the league ablaze in 2019 to the tune of 34 goals and 10 assists en route to the Golden Boot and the MVP award. -- Elvin
Who are your Eastern Conference winners?
New England Revolution -- Let's face it, parity is rife in the Eastern Conference. Any one of a half-dozen teams could win. But I'm going with New England given how well the Revs played once Carles Gil returned to fitness. Manager Bruce Arena has shored up the team's weaknesses, adding more bite in midfield with the arrival of Wilfrid Kaptoum. Arnor Ingvi Traustason has also been added for attacking depth. Health is an issue for any team, but at present, New England looks primed to make a run at the conference title. -- Carlisle
Columbus Crew -- Last year's MLS Cup champs are the favorites to win the East, and will edge out New England, NYCFC and Toronto for that crown. With Lucas Zelarayan, Gyasi Zardes, Jonathan Mensah and Darlington Nagbe returning, and the additions of Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kevin Molino and Alexandru Matan, Caleb Porter's side should be even better in 2021. -- Elvin
Orlando City -- The Lions should forget about Daryl Dike returning and will probably play without fullback Joao Moutinho for a long stretch. But if things go well for that attack -- Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, and Alexandre Pato stay healthy while Chris Mueller and Andres Perea continue to grow -- this team can definitely claim the East. -- Guerra
Columbus Crew -- The Crew deserve top preseason billing after their march to MLS Cup, but there are strong cases to be made for the Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC, Atlanta United, New England Revolution and Orlando City. -- Bonagura
Columbus Crew -- Columbus was consistently among the best teams in the league throughout 2020, culminating in a well-deserved MLS Cup. Since, Caleb Porter has added sharp-shooting Bradley Wright-Phillips, wide threat Kevin Molino and hard man Perry Kitchen. There is quality and depth that rivals any club in the league. -- Lindberg
Who are your Western Conference winners?
LAFC -- LAFC was an MLS Cup contender when the curtain fell on 2020, but sporting director John Thorrington did plenty to address the team's needs, acquiring defenders Marco Farfan and Kim Moon-Hwan. This was on top of adding center-back Jesus David Murillo late last season. There's always a chance that the likes of Seattle, Portland, Sporting Kansas City or Minnesota could rise to the top, but with Vela and Diego Rossi still on board, LAFC is poised again to make a run at the championship. -- Carlisle
Minnesota United -- The Loons' infamous three-year plan culminated with a playoff berth in 2019, and they were oh-so-close to appearing in MLS Cup last season. Now, with Emanuel Reynoso having a full season under his belt, and Ramon Abila taking up the No. 9 position that had previously been a revolving door of underwhelming forwards, Minnesota has positioned itself as one of the favorites for MLS Cup in 2021. -- Lindberg
LAFC -- An impressive run to the CONCACAF Champions League final with their full complement of players was instructive about the heights LAFC can hit. They're the clear favorite in Western Conference, ahead of the usual cast of characters, including Portland, Seattle, Sporting KC and even FC Dallas. -- Bonagura
Portland Timbers -- Like Vela and the MVP race, this is probably LAFC's to lose. Seattle, SKC and FC Dallas will make things fun the playoffs. However, the Timbers' veteran laden-midfield -- coupled a good striker rotation in Jeremy Ebobisse, Felipe Mora and (eventually) Jaroslaw Niezgoda -- will emerge out West.
LAFC -- With Seattle losing Jordan Morris to injury, and the Portland core a year older, look for LAFC to capitalize after an underwhelming 2020 league season. Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi and Eduard Atuesta are as good a trio as any in MLS, and Bob Bradley and Co. also made a couple of nice offseason additions to address their issues at full-back. Brian Rodriguez's future (on loan at Almeria) remains a question, as is the center-forward position, but LAFC will outgun Portland and SKC to win the West. -- Elvin
Who are your MLS Cup champs?
LAFC over New England Revolution -- For all of its regular-season brilliance during its first three years in MLS, getting to the MLS Cup final has eluded LAFC, but this is the year they should break through. New England, meanwhile will fall just short, making it 0-for-6 in the grand finale. -- Carlisle
Minnesota United over Columbus Crew -- The Loons stand to possess too many options for any opponent to successfully stop. There's the playmaking of Emanuel Reynoso, the finishing of Ramon Abila and opposite winger Robin Lod, as well as rumored additions Franco Fragapane of Talleres and Adrien Hunou of Stade Rennes. And we haven't even mentioned a midfield of Ozzie Alonso, Jan Gregus, Hassani Dotson and Wil Trapp. -- Lindberg
LAFC over Columbus Crew -- A theoretical Columbus-LAFC final would certainly deliver both in terms of star power and an entertainment perspective. LAFC, who broke records in 2019 when they were last at full strength, have unfinished business and with Carlo Vela and Diego Rossi in attack, they get over the hump and knock off the reigning champs in what would be a blockbuster final. -- Elvin
LAFC over Columbus Crew -- LAFC gets over the postseason bump, which will serve as an appropriate sendoff for Diego Rossi, who is overdue for a move to Europe. -- Bonagura
Orlando City over Portland Timbers -- A rematch of the MLS is Back tournament in 2020. Alexandre Pato and Nani play like its 2010, Joao Moutinho returns to form, Chris Mueller makes his case to stay in USMNT mix, and Orlando beat a Portland side that could face a roster reboot in 2022. -- Guerra