2019 MLS predictions: Atlanta United and Zlatan picks to dominate

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Will a revamped Atlanta United repeat as MLS Cup champions or will the New York Red Bulls finally break their MLS Cup curse?

That's the question entering the 2019 MLS campaign, which kicks off Saturday with last year's top two teams taking the field in the midst of their Concacaf Champions League campaigns. Another MLS team in Concacaf Champions League is a popular pick to reach the MLS Cup final in Sporting Kansas City, which is seen as the favorite to represent the Western Conference when the dust settles.

There are very few consensus selections, with only one unanimous pick among Goal staffers, Atlanta United's Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez is the unanimous choice to be the best newcomer in MLS in 2019, which shouldn't come as a surprise given how good he was for River Plate.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Josef Martinez are neck and neck in the conversation for most likely MVP pick, with LAFC's Carlos Vela also generating consideration. All three were finalists in 2018, with Martinez taking the prize.

Here is a look at all of the 2019 MLS predictions by the Goal editorial staff:

  1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic MLS LA Galaxy 04082018

    Most Valuable Player

    IVES GALARCEP: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The LA Galaxy striker threatens the MLS goals record set just a year ago by Josef Martinez in a dominating season.

    JON ARNOLD: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. If the Galaxy have a quality season, Ibra will be a huge part of it. He only needed half a year to score 22 goals. With that experience and a full preseason under his belt, it could be time for the MVZ to emerge.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Betting against the Swede is not something I'm willing to do at this point. Coming off an injury and missing the preseason he still managed 22 goals in his first year in MLS. I look for big things in 2019. 

    RYAN TOLMICH: Carlos Vela. Heading into a second year in MLS with a team built around his talents, Vela and LAFC should learn from the lessons of 2018 and contend once again this season. He reached double-digit goals and assists last campaign and, if he can do so again, LAFC should be in the thick of the Western Conference race.

    BEN VALENTINE: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There have been older stars who light things up in Year 1 in MLS only to find things a struggle in Year 2 (Didier Drogba), but after 22 goals and 10 assists in 24 games last year, it seems like Ibra was just getting started in MLS.  

    SETH VERTELNEY: Carlos Vela. After an impressive opening statement in 2018, the Mexico international is poised to go one step further this season and go from MVP finalist to MVP winner.

  2. Peter Vermes MLS Sporting KC 03052018
    Denny Medley

    Coach of the Year

    IVES GALARCEP: Matias Almeyda. The new San Jose Earthquakes boss takes the worst team in MLS in 2018 and transforms them into a playoff team, and the most exciting San Jose side since the Goonies version of 2012.

    JON ARNOLD: Peter Vermes. If Sporting KC can combine a strong CCL run with a good MLS campaign – and it has the team to do both – the MLS OG may stand above his peers and capture this award.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: Caleb Porter. His return to MLS will be welcomed by many – none more so than the Crew faithful who will be thrilled to see the former Timbers boss take over their saved club. 

    RYAN TOLMICHPeter Vermes. Sporting KC appears to be a team build for the long haul given the squad's depth, experience and talent in the middle of the field. Coach of the Year honors tend to fall to the guy who leads his team to the top of the table, and Vermes can certainly do just that again.

    BEN VALENTINE: Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The Galaxy are a club that shouldn’t stay down for long and Barros Schelotto brings a history of success with Boca and experience in MLS as a player with the Columbus Crew. 

    SETH VERTELNEY: Bob Bradley. It's hard to bet against LAFC taking another step forward after an impressive expansion season, and the veteran manager knows better than anyone what it takes to build a roster and win in MLS.

  3. Walker Zimmerman Los Angeles FC MLS

    Defender of the Year

    IVES GALARCEP:  Walker Zimmerman. The LAFC central defender will be asked to be the leader in the back on what should be a strong LAFC side, and his tough defending and set-piece goal contributions help him edge out Aaron Long for the honor.

    JON ARNOLD:  Kemar Lawrence. The Red Bulls defense will again be solid with the outside backs playing a big part. Michael Murillo may not last the whole season in New York, and while European teams may call for the Jamaica international as well, look for him to improve upon his fifth-place finish from last season.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: Walker Zimmerman. The center back looks set for a strong season under Bob Bradley with LAFC after a bounce-back campaign in 2018. Fresh contract in hand, look for the 25-year-old to round into one of the most dominant defenders in the league. 

    RYAN TOLMICHKemar Lawrence. One could argue the Jamaican was snubbed in several ways thanks to the rise of Aaron Long last year, but this is the year he earns his own recognition. Lawrence should contribute in a big way to both the attack and defense for a Red Bulls team that should be good at both. 

    BEN VALENTINE: Matt Besler. The veteran has been part of a strong Sporting KC defense before and will get credit for being one of the constants on a unit that routinely is one of the better groups in the league.

    SETH VERTELNEY: Walker Zimmerman. The USMNT defender had a bounce-back season in 2018 in his first campaign with LAFC. With a fresh contract extension now signed, Zimmerman has the tools to be one of the league's best center backs yet again in 2019.

  4. Brad Guzan MLS Atlanta United 11252018

    Goalkeeper of the Year

    IVES GALARCEP: Andre Blake. The Philadelphia Union goalkeeper should have a better defense in front of him, but he'll make the big saves that need making and re-establish himself as the league's best.

    JON ARNOLD: Tim Melia. A strong shot-stopper who could be part of the unit that concedes the fewest goals this season, the 2017 GK of the Year may get another piece of hardware for his trophy case.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: Brad Guzan. Coming off an MLS Cup title, Atlanta will likely stay in the headlines throughout the year, but they'll need the former Aston Villa stopper to be at his best for a repeat to be on the cards. 

    RYAN TOLMICHBrad Guzan. A recognizable name on a big-name team, the USMNT goalkeeper seems the perfect candidate for end of season honors. He was rock solid during Atlanta's postseason run and, with the team in front of him set to contend once again, Guzan should make the saves to battle for awards by season's end.

    BEN VALENTINE: Luis Robles. The Red Bulls had the league’s best defense last year, and Robles, as he usually is, was a big part of that. That defense remains intact and Robles should continue to command it well. 

    SETH VERTELNEY: Sean Johnson. The NYCFC man has always been a top shot-stopper, but he continues to cut out the mistakes that have hampered him over his career, and has vastly improved his distribution as well. This could be the year he's recognized for the strides he's made.

  5. Pity Martinez MLS Atlanta United

    Newcomer of the Year

    IVES GALARCEP: Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez. The Atlanta United midfielder is too talented not to dominate playing in a stacked lineup. He should run away with the MLS assist crown, assuming teammate Ezequiel Barco doesn't beat him to it. 

    JON ARNOLD: Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez. It may take a bit of time for the former River Plate star to adapt, but he eventually will get plugged in and thrive in an attack with a number of other South American weapons.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez. It's as much about situation as talent for Martinez, who has plenty of the latter but has been blessed with the former as well. Stepping into one of the best attacks in the league should be easy enough for the former River star. 

    RYAN TOLMICHGonzalo 'Pity' Martinez. It may take some time for the Argentinian star to get going, but he will most certainly get there. After dominating during his time in South America, Martinez will prove a star in North America as well once he finds chemistry with the likes of Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Tito Villalba.

    BEN VALENTINE: Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez.The former River Plate star has big shoes to fill after Miguel Almiron’s departure, but he has the quality to do so and a strong supporting cast to help him put up the numbers.

    SETH VERTELNEY:  Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez.The Argentina international may not equal Miguel Almiron's numbers in his first season, but he's got the quality to slot into the Paraguayan's spot and ensure Atlanta United hardly skips a beat.

  6. Omir Fernandez MLS New York Red Bulls 01312019

    Rookie of the Year

    IVES GALARCEP: Omir Fernandez. The New York Red Bulls homegrown player has plenty of competition for minutes, but he brings some real quality to the flank and could be a difference-maker off the bench.

    JON ARNOLD: Andre Shinyashiki - It should be an easy transition for the former Denver forward to Colorado. He should get playing time and benefit from a midfield that now includes Benny Feilhaber, Kellyn Acosta and Nicolas Mezquida.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: Frankie Amaya. The situation with FC Cincinnati makes this look like the obvious choice, with a very talented young player set to earn playing time early and often. 

    RYAN TOLMICH: Frankie Amaya. Not only is Amaya seen as the most talented of this year's draft class, but he's also in the perfect situation to tap into that talent in his rookie year. With expansion side FC Cincinnati, Amaya should get chances to shine in a more consistent role.

    BEN VALENTINE: Omir Fernandez. The Red Bulls are not afraid of giving time to young players and the former Wake Forest man has already seen time in Concacaf Champions League play. 

    SETH VERTELNEY: Justin Rennicks. This is always a difficult award to project but Rennicks is a United States U-20 international who looks ready to contribute right away at the pro level. Will Brad Friedel give him enough minutes to shine?

  7. Paxton Pomykal MLS FC Dallas 04152017

    Breakout Player

    IVES GALARCEP: Efrain Alvarez. The LA Galaxy academy product tore up USL a year ago, and if he gets a chance under Guillermo Barros Schelotto, he could thrive playing next to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

    JON ARNOLD: Paxton Pomykal. The FC Dallas teenager is set to start for rookie head coach Luchi Gonzalez. He's been chomping at the bit to get an opportunity and should have a great MLS season in addition to playing at the U-20 World Cup.

    ALLEN RAMSEY:   Paxton Pomykal. FC Dallas has a history of bringing young guys through and the time seems right for the 19-year-old to be given his chance to shine. 

    RYAN TOLMICHMiles Robinson. After two years waiting in the wings, Robinson should get his chance to shine under Frank de Boer. With Michael Parkhurst getting up there in age, there should be minutes for the former Syracuse defender, who appears ready to step in and fit in with a talented Atlanta team.

    BEN VALENTINE: Ezequiel Barco. On the field struggles with adapting to a new team and league combined with off the field issues to make 2018 a year to forget for Atlanta’s big signing. But he won’t turn 20 until the end of March and could turn it around under a new manager.

    SETH VERTELNEY: Paxton Pomykal. FC Dallas won't hesitate to play their kids now that former academy director Luchi Gonzalez has taken over as head coach. Pomykal received limited opportunities in 2018 but should shine this season with a more consistent role.

  8. Zlatan Ibrahimovic MLS LA Galaxy 04142018

    Golden Boot

    IVES GALARCEP: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. After scoring 22 goals in his first season in MLS, Ibrahimovic takes it up a few notches, breaking the 30-goal mark and breaking Josef Martinez's goal record.

    JON ARNOLD: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Look for the veteran to bag goals this season and outpace last year's champ Josef Martinez – though Dynamo forward Mauro Manotas could be a dark horse.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. What did you expect me to say? He and Josef Martinez love nothing more than scoring goals, and the race is going to be brilliant to watch all season. 

    RYAN TOLMICH: Josef Martinez. It's hard not to take the chalk when it comes to a player that is probably the best pure goalscorer MLS has ever seen. Could his production drop without Miguel Almiron? Sure, but there's plenty of reason to believe Martinez should score plenty more goals in 2019.

    BEN VALENTINE: Josef Martinez. Tough call between Ibrahimovic and Martinez, but it’s hard to bet against a 25-year-old who has netted 50 times in 54 regular season games over two seasons. 

    SETH VERTELNEY: Josef Martinez. If the Venezuelan keeps scoring goals at the rate he has in his first two MLS seasons, the league may eventually have to name this award after him.

  9. Houston Dynamo U.S. Open Cup 2018

    Dark-horse contender

    IVES GALARCEP: The San Jose Earthquakes. The Quakes go from worst record in MLS to making the playoffs in Matias Almeyda's first season in charge. New arrivals Cristian Espinoza, Marcos Lopez and Daniel Vega, along with holdovers Nick Lima and Vako, give Almeyda the weapons to field a very strong side.

    JON ARNOLD: Montreal Impact. Ignacio Piatti has a partner in crime with Maxi Urruti in attack. If they can carry over the momentum they showed in the second half of the season last year with Remi Garde understanding the league better it could produce good results.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: Houston Dynamo. Honestly, this category is always tough, but Houston has a chance to slip into the playoffs, and with the Dynamo's attacking talent, nobody will want to play them. 

    RYAN TOLMICH: Montreal Impact. The Impact finally have a complementary piece for Ignacio Piatti in the form of Maxi Urruti, offering a bit of balance to the attack. The club got hot down the stretch in 2018, but couldn't find enough to make a real run. The talent is there to make that run last a little longer this year and, ultimately, push for the postseason.

    BEN VALENTINE: Real Salt Lake. They have a lot of very good attacking pieces. Can they find a defense that comes close to matching? If so, RSL could be a real threat to do some damage this season. 

    SETH VERTELNEY: Houston Dynamo. There are very few teams in MLS that have two players 23 or younger that could realistically be sold to Europe tomorrow for eight figures, but the Dynamo have that in Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis. Sure there are question marks in defense, but if Wilmer Cabrera can get his attack firing, the Dynamo should make the postseason at the very least.

  10. Sporting Kansas City MLS 2018

    Supporters' Shield

    IVES GALARCEP: New York Red Bulls. The Red Bulls have too good a defense, too much depth, and too good a track record at home not to rack up the points to repeat as shield winners.

    JON ARNOLD: Los Angeles FC.  Bob Bradley's side put together a strong campaign last season and returns its most important pieces. With a content Walker Zimmerman next to new addition Eddie Segura, things should be tighter at the back as well and the Black and Gold should rack up plenty of points.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: Sporting Kansas City. Is there another points record on the way in MLS this year? There could be, and Sporting Kansas City looks like a very reliable team heading into the 2019 season. 

    RYAN TOLMICHSporting Kansas City. Deep, talented and built to last for the long haul, Sporting KC should thrive in the dog days of summer where others fall apart. Are they a No. 9 away from being great? Possibly, but they're also a safe bet to contend for trophies once again in 2019.

    BEN VALENTINE: Atlanta United. Questions about Frank de Boer aside, the team remains the most talented in the league. And as hard as it is to replace Miguel Almiron, Pity Martinez should – whereas it’s unlikely the Red Bulls find a player of Tyler Adams' caliber. 

    SETH VERTELNEY: Los Angeles FC. Bob Bradley has continuity, cohesion and talent on his side and he can truly make his side one of the league's best in year two. There are few weaknesses in the lineup and a ton of talent all over the field, as well as depth.

  11. Atlanta United MLS Cup 2018

    MLS Cup

    IVES GALARCEP: Atlanta United over Seattle SoundersAtlanta holds off the Red Bulls in a memorable East final before edging the Sounders to repeat as champion. Seattle reaching the final will be contingent on them making some big summer additions, otherwise Sporting KC should reach the final.

    JON ARNOLD: Sporting Kansas City over New York Red Bulls. The question for SKC is who will score the goals, but look for a committee to get it done with Felipe Gutierrez and Daniel Salloi emerging with fair number during the season and team relying on its strong midfield and defense to lift the trophy.

    ALLEN RAMSEY: LAFC over New York Red Bulls. LAFC has all the tools to make this run and the Red Bulls are a decent bet to be there or there about at the end of the season. 

    RYAN TOLMICH: Atlanta United over Sporting Kansas City. Last year's MLS Cup champions possess so much more than 90 percent of their competitors and, even if it starts slowly under de Boer, it'll eventually show. No other team in MLS could replace a star like Almiron so swiftly and, in that end, that will be the difference that leads Atlanta back to the top of the mountain.

    BEN VALENTINE: Sporting Kansas City over Atlanta United. Sporting KC have been one of the most consistent teams in the league for years under Peter Vermes. They’ve tripped up in the playoffs in recent campaigns but this season they’ll break through to capture another MLS Cup

    SETH VERTELNEY: Atlanta United over LAFC. The Five Stripes may take a while to get up to speed after losing Tata Martino and Miguel Almiron, but it's hard to bet against this franchise firing on all cylinders by the time the postseason rolls around.