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Goal's MLS Preseason Power Rankings

20:06 GMT+3 26/02/2019
Atlanta United MLS Cup Celebration 12082018
Reigning MLS Cup champions Atlanta United and Supporters' Shield holders New York Red Bulls lead the field as Major League Soccer kicks off this week

The race for the 2019 MLS Cup will go through the Eastern Conference, and if defending champion Atlanta United has anything to say about it, through Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Tata Martino and Miguel Almiron may have moved on, but the Five Stripes remains the favorites, led by MLS goal king Josef Martinez and newly-acquired Argentine midfielder Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez.

The New York Red Bulls fell short in their quest to finally win an MLS Cup title last year, but they bring back most of the same squad that set a new league record for points in a season, so another title challenge is a safe bet. Tyler Adams leaving will make things difficult, but the Red Bulls boast the best defense in the league and the ever-reliable Bradley Wright-Phillips.

There are some clear-cut title contenders in the West, led by Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders, two teams with balanced veteran lineups, and also with the salary cap space to make big acquisitions this summer, if not sooner. Sporting KC has what may be its deepest team ever, but the search for a big-money striker continues. The Sounders struck gold with last summer's signing of Raul Ruidiaz, but Garth Lagerwey has the resources to add another attacking weapon.

The city of Los Angeles could have a say in the MLS Cup conversation as well, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading a revamped LA Galaxy and Carlos Vela ready to build on last year's impressive debut season for Los Angeles FC.

Several teams underwent significant roster shakeups, particularly in the Western Conference, where Minnesota United and the Colorado Rapids made multiple big-time acquisitions to push themselves into the playoff conversation.

Those are just two of teams who could be this year's surprise turnaround. The San Jose Earthquakes are another candidate, with new head coach Matias Almeyda leading the way. Orlando City is another team that could see a dramatic turnaround after a disappointing 2018. Toronto FC is just a year removed from being considered the best team in MLS history, so a return to the playoffs could take place, assuming TFC succeeds in finding a suitable replacement to fill the void left by Sebastian Giovinco's departure.

Here is how the 24 MLS teams stack up heading into the 2019 season:

  • Josef Martinez Atlanta United MLS Cup final 2018

    #1 Atlanta United

    The defending MLS Cup champions may have sold Miguel Almiron, but the arrival of Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez keeps the Five Stripes at the top of the hill heading into 2019. The big questions left to answer are whether Darlington Nagbe will stay put and will Ezequiel Barco live up to the hype after a disappointing 2018...
  • Kaku MLS New York Red Bulls 11292018

    #2 New York Red Bulls

    The 2018 Supporters' Shield winners fell short in their quest to win their first MLS Cup title a year ago, but they are poised for another strong run. Losing Tyler Adams hurts big time, but bringing back Kaku for a full season, and having the league's best defense back intact gives Chris Armas the squad to make another run at the Supporters' Shield.
  • Johnny Russell MLS Sporting KC 04212018

    #3 Sporting Kansas City

    The search for a star striker continues, but Peter Vermes has stockpiled a deep and dangerous team even if there is no marquee goal-scorer. Gone are Ike Opara and Diego Rubio, but the addition of Kelyn Rowe and continued improvement of Daniel Salloi and Gianluca Busio could help Sporting KC boast some of the best depth in MLS, making an MLS Cup run a very distinct possibility.
  • Raul Ruidiaz MLS Seattle Sounders 12042018

    #4 Seattle Sounders

    A dominant second half of the 2018 season should provide a good measure of what we should expect from the Sounders in 2019. It may have been a quiet winter on the transfer front, but having a full season of Raul Ruidaz and a healthy Jordan Morris should help the Sounders make a strong push for a third MLS Cup final appearance in four seasons.
  • Wayne Rooney D.C. United MLS 2018

    #5 D.C. United

    Wayne Rooney's arrival, Bill Hamid's return and Russell Canouse's recovery all came together along with the opening of Audi Field to help D.C. enjoy an outstanding second half of 2018. Ben Olsen's squad succeeded in keeping the team's formidable nucleus intact, meaning Rooney and Luciano Acosta will be able to spearhead the attack starting in week one. Whether or not D.C. United challenges for top honors in the East will come down to how well the D.C. defense comes together.
  • Diego Valeri MLS Portland Timbers 08062017

    #6 Portland Timbers

    The 2018 MLS Cup finalists definitely surprised people with their impressive postseason run, but now expectations will be sky high in the Rose City after coming so close to another title. The Timbers are on the hunt for a star striker, and if they can land a big-ticket goal-scorer, then Giovani Savarese's men can challenge for first place in the West. Without that star striker, the Timbers will need Jeremy Ebobisse to have a breakout season to take some the pressure of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco.
  • Carlos Vela MLS LAFC 03312018

    #7 Los Angeles FC

    A disappointingly early exit from the 2018 MLS playoffs put a sour ending on an otherwise excellent debut season for LAFC, and now head coach Bob Bradley is primed to produce a good encore. Bradley will need to solidify a defense that struggled down the stretch, while also looking to tighten things up at Banc of California Stadium, where dropped points became a far too common occurrence. Carlos Vela should once again be an MVP candidate, while Adame Diomande could push for 20 goals on a team with the talent to reach the MLS Cup final.
  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic LA Galaxy 2018

    #8 LA Galaxy

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back for a second season in Los Angeles, and he'll be eager to erase the memory of last year's failed bid to reach the playoffs. New head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto has the challenging task of fixing a terrible defense, but the arrival of Uruguayan defender Diego Polenta should help tighten things up. Schelotto will be looking to incorporate more young talent from the Galaxy academy, which could mean breakout campaigns for Efrain Alvarez and Julian Araujo, but if the Galaxy are going to be a title contender, they will need their stars, including Jonathan Dos Santos and Romain Alessandrini, to have better and more consistent seasons.
  • Maximilliano Moralez NYCFC 05282017

    #9 New York City FC

    The David Villa era is over in the Bronx and head coach Domenec Torrent will now have his chance to mold the team to his liking after taking over for Patrick Vieira in the middle of the 2018 season. Romanian forward Alexandru Mitrita is the marquee acquisition of the winter, though American midfielders Keaton Parks and Juan Pablo Torres are intriguing pick-ups. The NYCFC defense should be solid, but Torrent must construct a front six that can generate goals and also deliver adequate defensive support, which won't be easy after the departure of Yangel Herrera.
  • Federico Higuain MLS Columbus Crew 11212018

    #10 Columbus Crew

    Gregg Berhalter has moved on to take charge of the U.S. national team, and in steps MLS Cup-winning coach Caleb Porter. The former Portland Timbers boss inherits a strong squad with veterans throughout the lineup, including USMNT regulars Zack Steffen, Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes. Implementing a new system will be Porter's biggest challenge, along with solidifying a defense that can be called the team's weakness.
  • Alejandro Bedoya Philadelphia Union MLS 2018

    #11 Philadelphia Union

    The 2018 season was a bittersweet one for the Union. They set a new team record for points and reached the U.S. Open Cup final, but the lopsided loss in that final and a quick exit from the playoffs left Union fans unsatisfied. Union ownership stuck by Jim Curtin, and now the addition of Marco Fabian has Philadelphia looking like a team that could make the jump from barely making the playoffs to actually making some noise.
  • Jozy Altidore Toronto FC CONCACAF Champions League

    #12 Toronto FC

    It's tough to imagine Toronto FC not bouncing back from last year's disappointing campaign, but Sebastian Giovinco's departure leaves a huge void in the TFC attack. The team's embarrassing start to its Concacaf Champions League campaign also has Greg Vanney's team looking vulnerable. While that may be, there are still some excellent pieces in place, and if general manager Ali Curtis can find solid replacements for Giovinco and Victor Vazquez, TFC will be a playoff team again once Jozy Altidore is back healthy, and if TFC's defense can develop some good chemistry.
  • Albert Rusnak Real Salt Lake 082317

    #13 Real Salt Lake

    There wasn't much expected of Real Salt Lake when it entered last year's Western Conference playoffs, but after shocking Los Angeles FC and pushing Sporting Kansas City to the brink, RSL suddenly looks like a team to watch for in 2019. Mike Petke's side made some interesting additions, including Liberian striker Sam Johnson and Brazilian midfielder Everton Luiz, who were brought in to address some very clear needs.
  • Chris Wondolowski MLS San Jose 04082017

    #14 San Jose Earthquakes

    The worst team in MLS in 2018 needed to do something dramatic to give fans reason to be optimistic in 2019 and the Earthquakes did just that by landing new head coach Matias Almeyda. A proven winner with a Concacaf Champions League title under his belt from his time with Chivas Guadalajara, Almeyda takes over a San Jose side that had some talent to build around. He has added some dynamic wing options in Cristian Espinoza and Marcos Lopez, and a veteran goalkeeper in Daniel Vega.
  • Reggie Cannon MLS FC Dallas

    #15 FC Dallas

    Oscar Pareja's decision to leave for Club Tijuana was initially seen as a devastating loss, but FC Dallas has approached it as a chance to reset and jump into a new commitment to developing its stockpile of academy talent. Enter former academy director Luchi Gonzalez, who heads into his first pro head coaching job with a very good grasp of the talent at his disposal. There will be growing pains, but a defense led by Matt Hedges and Reggie Cannon should keep Dallas in games as its attack works out the kinks. That still may not be enough to avoid taking a step back in 2019.
  • Darwin Quintero Minnesota United 2018

    #16 Minnesota United

    The Loons have endured a rough first two seasons in MLS, a stretch that has been made all the more brutal when compared to the impressive success enjoyed by its expansion classmate Atlanta United. There is reason for optimisim though after some high-profile acquisitions in Ike Opara and Osvaldo Alonso, and the return from injury of key midfielders Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay. If Alonso and Opara can solidfy Minnesota's previously-awful defense, and striker Angelo Rodriguez can live up to the hype he failed to live up to last season, the Loons could definitely secure the first MLS playoff berth in club history.
  • Tim Howard Colorado Rapids

    #17 Colorado Rapids

    Anthony Hudson's first season in charge of the Rapids was one to forget, and general manager Padraig Smith carried his share of the blame for that after several lackluster international signings. A different approach this winter saw the Rapids land a plethora of MLS standouts, with Kei Kamara, Benny Feilhaber, Diego Rubio and Keegan Rosenberry providing significant upgrades at several positions of need. Throw in a full season of Kellyn Acosta, and the motivating of sending Tim Howard out on a winning note in his final season, and the Rapids have the makings of a team primed for a big turnaround.
  • Mauro Manotas Houston Dynamo Open Cup final 09262018

    #18 Houston Dynamo

    The U.S. Open Cup title was a satisfying consolation prize for the Dynamo, but didn't conceal some very real issues Houston endured in 2018. Terrible road form and an inconsistent attack that far too often alternated between unstoppable and invisible left the Dynamo 10 points short of the playoffs. Now, after successfully holding onto Alberth Elis and adding some defensive reinforcements, Wilmer Cabrera's side could close the gap on the West's playoff teams.
  • Diego Fagundez MLS New England Revolution 02072019 NER

    #19 New England Revolution

    Brad Friedel's first season as a head coach was a frustrating one for the legendary goalkeeper. New England played some attractive soccer at times, but inconsistency plagued the team and doomed it to a disappointing finish. Friedel made it clear he would shake up his roster to better suit his preferred philosophy, and he has done that, bringing in Colombian striker Juan Caicedo and Edgar Castillo. The most important addition though is Spanish playmaker Carles Gil, a designated player who the Revs will be hoping can be an elite-level midfielder in MLS.
  • Fredy Montero MLS Vancouver 04152017

    #20 Vancouver Whitecaps

    When the Whitecaps parted ways with long-time head coach Carl Robinson, it was clear a roster shakeup was looming. Throw in the departure of Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich and Kendall Waston's deal to FC Cincinnati, and you have a team that was going to have a dramatic makeover. Enter head coach Marc Dos Santos, a well-respected coach who won titles in the USL and NASL. He has his hands full trying to integrate a multitude of new pieces, but bringing back Fredy Montero was a big bonus. Constructing a strong defense is the key task at hand, and one that won't be easy for the Whitecaps.
  • Dom Dwyer Orlando City MLS 04082018

    #21 Orlando City

    Gone is Kaka, but in steps Nani to help fill the big-name void. Now Orlando City just needs to sort out the defensive woes that plagued the Lions in 2018. The pressure is on Dom Dwyer to perform, but it will be the back-line head coach James O'Connor puts together that will make or break Orlando City's season.
  • Daniel Lovitz MLS Montreal Impact 07192018

    #22 Montreal Impact

    After falling four points short of the playoffs in 2018, the Impact picked up veteran forward Maxi Urruti to try and help Montreal close the gap. The more pressing concern is how the Impact's revamped defense will perform. Urruti should help Montreal generate more goals, but the defense must be stingy if the Impact are going to reach the posteason.
  • Atlanta United MLS Cup Celebration 12082018

    #23 Chicago Fire

    The good news for Fire fans is Bastian Schweinsteiger is back and Djordje Mihailovic is poised for a breakout season. The bad news is the Fire's defense looks very suspect and a lack of depth could prove costly for a team that didn't do enough this winter to close the gap on the playoff teams in the MLS Eastern Conference.
  • Nick Hagglund MLS FC Cincinnati

    #24 FC Cincinnati

    The expansion team made plenty of moves this winter in an effort to put together a respectable roster, but while there is a good nucleus of veterans, it is still going to be a rough debut season for the league's newest team. Fanendo Adi is a solid striker, and Costa Rican midfielder Allen Cruz is a special talent, but head coach Alan Koch will be hard-pressed to turn FC Cincinnati into a playoff team in year one.