MLS 2019: Can Atlanta Repeat as Champions?
By: Chris Altruda
As most domestic football leagues are ramping up to a run-in, Major League Soccer has always stood out for their spring-to-fall season. Still a relative youngster in terms of age, the 24th season of MLS play which opens Saturday offers plenty of intrigue. It also has something new – a 24th team in the form FC Cincinnati as commissioner Dan Garber’s aggressive expansion plans will result in a 28-team league by 2022.
Also new for this season is the playoff format. The league increased the number of postseason spots to 14, with the top seven from each conference advancing and the conference champions receiving byes. The playoffs will also be a single-match knockout elimination tournament, replacing the two-legged ties in the conference semifinals and finals before the MLS Cup.
But the here and now is what matters, and there are plenty of teams capable of preventing the upstart Atlanta United from winning their second MLS Cup in just their third season of existence. The reigning champs have some new faces in key places, but do not lack for quality and support as they bid to become the first repeat winners since the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011-12.
(All odds courtesy SugarHouse)
Atlanta United (+550) –
The defending MLS Cup champions are second-choice to the New York Red Bulls among the favorites to win the title. The Five Stripes return Golden Boot winner and league MVP Josef Martinez, who set the MLS single-season record with 31 goals last season and added another four in the playoffs. Success, though, came with a price as coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino left to become Mexico’s national coach, and midfielder Miguel Almiron departed for English Premier League side Newcastle United on an MLS-record $27 million transfer.
In their places are manager Frank De Boer and midfielder Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez. For De Boer, the United job is a chance at redemption after a disastrous stint at Crystal Palace in which he was sacked after four losses and no goals to start the season. The former Netherlands international has an outstanding pedigree as a player, but his short-lived runs at Inter Milan and Palace have tarnished a successful coaching start in which he won four Eredivisie titles with Ajax from 2010-14.
Atlanta have been an aggressive team in terms of spending money thanks to the deep pockets of owner Arthur Blank, and rather than simply count the millions from the sale of Almiron, the club aggressively sought his successor and found Pity Martinez. The 2018 South American Player of the Year, Martinez led River Plate to the Copa Libertadores final over eternal Argentine rivals Boca Juniors, and his $17 million price tag is the highest incoming transfer in MLS history, breaking the mark Atlanta sent last year with its $15 million outlay for Ezequiel Barco.
New York Red Bulls (+450) –
All that has been missing for the New York Red Bulls is an MLS Cup. The Red Bulls claimed their third Supporters’ Shield trophy in the last six seasons in 2018 and were the first team in MLS history to accrue more than 70 points in a season. NYRB, though, could not seal the deal as it failed to overturn a 3-0 first-leg loss to Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals.
Chris Armas – in his first full season in charge after taking over following Jesse Marsch’s departure — returns nearly his entire starting XI, but a key loss is midfielder and U.S. international Tyler Adams to parent club RB Leipzig in Germany. The Red Bulls are still dangerous in attack with Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was the first to 31 goals in the MLS in 2013 and bagged another 20 last term as he surpassed 100 for his career in the U.S. NYRB boasts the best backline in the MLS, anchored by centre back Tim Parker, and have support offensively for Wright-Phillips with Daniel Royer and Kaku.
Sporting KC (+1,100) –
Sporting KC were the bridesmaids of 2018 in the MLS – Western Conference regular-season winners, lost in the conference finals in the playoffs, finished third in the Supporters’ Shield race and reached the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. Sporting score by committee and must replace standout defender Ike Opara, who was dealt to Minnesota United.
Portland Timbers (+1,600) –
Last year’s MLS Cup runners-up, the Timbers are an intriguing long shot because they open the season on a marathon 12-match road trip as renovations to add seats are currently being done to Providence Park and will not be completed until June. If the Timbers can stay within touching distance or in the middle of the pack in that stretch, a home-heavy back half of the schedule can provide a kick-start to a title run.
D.C. United (+2,200) –
The Eastern Conference will be difficult to navigate with Atlanta and NYRB, but the promise shown in the second half of the season with the partnership of England’s all-time leading scorer Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta makes the club in the nation’s capital one to watch as D.C. United play their first full season at Audi Park.