Way-too-early look at MLS in 2020: Beckham's Miami or Nashville to reach playoffs, LAFC to win it all
Well, that was fun. The 2019 Major League Soccer season finished Sunday afternoon with a comprehensive 3-1 Seattle Sounders win over Toronto FC in front of nearly 70,000 fans at CenturyLink Field. Another year gone. Sad face. But also: Happy face, because it's never too early to start thinking about 2020. The transfers! The trades! The youth movement! The coming collective bargaining chaos!
Here are 10 things that definitely, 100%, bet-your-condo-on-them will happen next year.
Miami or Nashville wins a playoff game
Making the playoffs as an expansion franchise is a relatively common occurrence in modern MLS. FC Cincinnati was an apocalyptic nightmare in 2019, but LAFC made the postseason in 2018 and Atlanta United accomplished the mission in 2017. Winning an opening-round match, however, hasn't happened since the expansion Chicago Fire ran the table in 1998. (The Houston Dynamo prevailed in their first playoff match of 2006 but they were relocating from San Jose, so they don't count.)
That will change in 2020, with high-powered, pink-clad Inter Miami CF (that name!), linked with every remotely available superstar, and Nashville, backed by two years of planning, taking the field. While neither will be in MLS's top tier, bank on the fact that one of them will make some noise in the postseason.
FC Cincinnati remains the league's worst team ... and that's OK
Speaking of expansion teams, the Orange and Blue finished 2019 on 24 points, 10 back of Vancouver Whitecaps in 23rd place overall. They boasted a remarkable -44 goal differential, double the next worst goal differential (Vancouver with -22). It's not good even for an expansion franchise that had less than a year between getting awarded a team and kicking off in MLS. At the end of the season, the team restructured its technical staff with an eye on the future. This will help, but FCC remains a long way from a competitive squad.
The good news is that MLS is a forgiving league and Minnesota United, a group with two bad seasons before a breakout third one in its new stadium, offers a strong example of how the slow play can work.
Michael Bradley announces his retirement ...
Call it a hunch. Bradley missed out on the $6.5 million option that would have been triggered if he led his club to the 2019 MLS Cup. TFC still holds his option for 2020, and while details are scarce, he'll certainly make less than his current salary, which puts him as one of the highest-paid players in the league. Bradley turned 32 in July, still loves the game and can still contribute. Maybe he won't retire this offseason, but I can't help but feeling like he'll walk away sooner than most people anticipate.
... and so does Don Garber
The MLS commissioner will start his third decade in charge next season, though he's been hinting at retirement for some time now. And why not? Under Garber's tenure, MLS expanded dramatically, increased its investment in the domestic game and moved from being a league on the brink to a thriving organization backed by Soccer United Marketing. That's some good work. But as MLS tries to move into the next phase, the commissioner faces more challenges of trying to compete on an international level. That's an enormous project, and one that might benefit from new leadership and vision.
Here's saying that the 2022 season, which leads into what will hopefully be a strong U.S. performance at the World Cup, is Garber's last.
CBA Negotiations get contentious
The CBA expires following the 2019 season, so players and management will meet over the winter months to hammer out a new one. It could get ugly, uglier than the 2014-2015 battle that nearly saw the league miss the first week of games. The MLS Players Association seems better prepared this time out with MLSPA executive director Bob Foose openly threatening a work stoppage. (Then again, it was Foose blinking in 2015 that led the players to cave.) But it sure does feel like the experienced players learned from last time around, seeing team valuations spiking leaguewide and wondering out loud why they aren't exactly getting theirs.
Bye bye, TAM
While we're on the issue of negotiations, one of the biggest issues is Targeted Allocation Money. TAM, a net benefit to the league in terms of supercharging overall investment, hasn't done much for domestics. Both the MLSPA and many people on the technical side of teams appear ready for TAM to disappear in favor of more flexible spending. It should go the way of the early penalty shootout: fun while it lasted, destined to die a quick and painless death.
Efrain Alvarez becomes a star, and U.S. Soccer supporters have a collective meltdown
The teenage Mexican-American sensation balled out at the U-17 World Cup in Brazil, playing for El Tri after spending some time with the U.S. U-15s in 2016. The slick midfielder appeared in 14 matches (four starts) for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2019, tallying three assists in 518 minutes. He'll play a larger role in 2020 and is poised for a breakout season with eventual designs on European football. While Alvarez could still return to the Stars and Stripes, his path looks set.
- Replay 2019 MLS Cup: Seattle Sounders 3, Toronto FC 1 (U.S. only)
The Chicago Fire make the conference final
The MLS franchise with the least juice on Google missed the playoffs for the second straight season and the eighth time this decade. But the Fire tied for the third-best goal differential in the Eastern Conference and the fifth-best league-wide. It's a time of transition for a team that's lost its way, with a new majority owner in Joe Mansueto, a home venue switch to Soldier Field, and a new coach after the sacking of Veljko Paunovic.
The Fire have maximum roster flexibility entering the offseason with the contracts of their three designated players expiring, plus a plan set in place by general manager Nelson Rodriguez. If they can get the signings right -- a big if, given their track record -- the Fire will be a hot postseason ticket.
We start talking about a decline in attendance
MLS attendance in 2019 features some excellent stories. More than 52,000 fans per game in Atlanta, over 40,000 in Seattle, 27,336 for FC Cincinnati's inaugural season and 25,000-plus at an expanded Portland Timbers stadium and in Toronto. In total, the league had over 21,000 per game, good enough for ninth in world soccer and nearly 4,000 more fans than the NBA and the NHL. And yet average attendance fell for the second straight season, down 2.7% from 2018, when it was already down 1.1%. Ten squads averaged below 18,000 fans a fixture, with three others under 19,000.
Is attendance a major issue? Not yet. Could it become one soon? Absolutely.
Bob Bradley loses Coach of the Year but wins MLS Cup
LAFC posted a ridiculous 72-point, +48 goal differential season but ran into a charmed Seattle Sounders team that was better on the night of the Western Conference final. In 2020, Bradley's squad will look different -- Diego Rossi isn't long for the league, for starters -- but could/should be even stronger. In 2019, teenage Uruguayan starlet Brian Rodríguez served as an awkward midseason acquisition. Next season, Bradley will figure out ways to unleash the eight-figure transfer in tandem with MVP Carlos Vela, who is happy, healthy and deadly.
Would LAFC winning the treble really be a surprise?
Lionel Messi still doesn't come to MLS
Well, maybe in 2021.