Only a few more sleeps until Major League Soccer returns on Saturday. While the road to MLS Cup will be a longer one thanks to changes to the playoff format this season, teams will do their best to prevent Steve Cherundolo's Los Angeles FC squad from repeating this year. MLS is one of the most unpredictable leagues in the world with six different teams winning each of the last six MLS Cups, but who can consider themselves the cream of the crop heading into the year?
The below list is presented in no particular order but I'd back any team from the below group to lift MLS Cup at the end of the season:
The Columbus Crew
If games ended at 60 minutes, the Crew would've been one of the best teams in the league but dropping 24 points from winning positions is why Caleb Porter is out after leading the team to win MLS Cup in 2020. Replaced by Wilfred Nancy of CF Montreal, the Crew will keep a similar 3-5-2 this season but they'd be well drilled under Nancy who inherits a team with a similar level of talent to the Montreal squad that he left, but with deeper pockets to make an impact in the transfer window.
Being led by Cucho Hernandez, who scored nine goals in 16 matches as a summer arrival, and Lucas Zelarayan, the Crew's attack can compete with anyone in the league. Losing Pedro Santos to DC United is a blow and they haven't added much depth yet but Cristian Ramirez could be a sneaky good addition to what they do well. Despite likely opening the season with Jimmy Medranda at wing-back, the Crew are a side that I can see finding balance and Nancy knows how to use his wing-back as well. If things aren't working early, that's where spending power is king and they have that as an option to make a run at MLS Cup after missing the playoffs last season.
The reigning champs being favorites to repeat speaks volumes of just how much talent LAFC have at their disposal. Losing Gareth Bale, Latif Blessing and Cristian Arango, the team has lost some attacking power but they'll also gain balance in return. There is a thing as having too many attackers and that's what LAFC hit at times trying to accommodate Carlos Vela, Denis Bouanga, Arango, and Bale. Not to mention that they have a ready-made replacement who came off the bench in Kwado Opoku. Jose Cifuentes and Kellyn Acosta will also have major parts in making the team tick.
They'll still have Concacaf Champions League to contend with but it would be a shock if LAFC finish lower than second in the Western Conference. With the first round being a best-of-three series now, it's also unlikely that they'd get bounced due to being rusty coming off of a bye week. LAFC will be a team with a target on their backs but considering their spending power, if new additions are needed, they'll push for them to try and book a spot in the final once more.
Returning their entire core from a team that came within penalty kicks of winning MLS Cup last season, the Union are easily favorites to win the Eastern Conference and for good reason as Jim Curtin's side boasts one of the best attacking records in the league and the best defensive record. Daniel Gazdag came close to winning the golden boot with 24 goals last season and is also an MVP candidate. The only thing that could derail the Union is the summer transfer window.
Anytime the window is open, left-back Kai Wagner is linked with a European move that hasn't materialized yet but the more that he racks up assists while playing excellent defense the harder it will be for the Union to keep him. Jack McGlynn could be in a similar situation but Ernst Tanner has shown the ability to replace players that the team loses so even in a worst-case scenario, he should be backed to reload the side.
Alright, this one is 100% on hope but there's a little rumor that won't go away in relation to Inter Miami and that's one linking them with Lionel Messi. Already adding Josef Martinez to support Leonardo Campana, Phil Neville will have a good attack at his disposal even with Alejandro Pozuelo's departure. But this isn't about the current roster. It's about potential.
As is, Miami would do well to make the playoffs but with Messi, they'd immediately become MLS Cup contenders. Messi would be the most talented player to set foot in the league and still one of the top players currently playing in it as well. If he were to come to Miami, it wouldn't happen until the summer but that would be plenty of time to get the team above the playoff line and turn them into contenders.
Despite winning Concacaf Champions League last season, the Sounders missed the playoffs due to a rash of injuries and bad performances down the stretch. But healthy now and with an upgrade at backup striker in Heber, Brian Schmetzer's squad will be back competing with the cream of the crop in the west. Joao Paulo is one of the best midfielders in the league and he'll be back while Abert Rusnak is now integrated with the squad as well.
The Sounders will have to log fewer games since they didn't qualify for Champions League which helps with securing a higher seed in the Western Conference. This is a team that won't stay down for long as the Sounders are easily one of the most talented teams in the league on paper.