Last year, Atlanta United became the sixth different team in the last six seasons to lift the MLS Cup, and it could very well be the case that another new name gets their hands on the trophy in 2019.
In just their second season in MLS, ambitious Atlanta qualified for the playoffs with the league’s second-best record and then eliminated New York City and New York Red Bulls to progress to the final, where they secured a 2-0 win over Portland Timbers.
Coach Gerardo Martino has since departed, and while there are question marks over the quality of his replacement, Frank de Boer, following failed spells at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace, Atlanta still have one of the best squads in MLS. With it, they will seek to become the first team since LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012 to score back-to-back MLS Cup triumphs.
Atlanta are one of the primary teams chafing against the restrictions of the egalitarian model on which MLS was formed and continues to be run. With salary caps and revenue sharing, the league has always sought to avoid the excesses of the NASL, its 1970s and ‘80s forebear, and provide a basis for the slow and steady development of the sport in the United States.
That has certainly resulted in a fair spread of titles amongst its teams. There have been seven different MLS Cup winners in the last 10 years, 10 in the last 15, and 13 since its inaugural season in 1996. Only DC United, Houston Dynamo and LA Galaxy have won consecutive titles. Each of the last four seasons have seen a maiden winner of the trophy.
New York Red Bulls are the prime candidates to achieve that in 2019. They claimed the Supporters Shield with the best regular-season record of any team in MLS during 2018 but fell to champions Atlanta during the playoffs. Runners up in 2008, Conference Finalists in three of the last five seasons, and twice more winners of the Supporters Shield without going all the way in the playoffs, could this finally be their year?
A couple of newer teams in big markets will also hope to compete. New York City will have to find an able replacement for the goals (and shots) provided by the now-departed David Villa, but should still be in the mix. Off the back of a promising debut season that led to the playoffs, LAFC will hope to parlay the second-best attack in MLS, with Carlos Vela at its heart, into a deeper run this time around.
A trio of former champions will also be keen challengers. Sporting Kansas City combined the league’s fourth-best attack with its third-best defence last season and should again be one of the best-balanced teams in MLS. Seattle Sounders won 14 of their 16 regular-season matches following the signing of prolific Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz in July, while DC United were similarly transformed by the arrival of ex-Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney.
A word, too, for Portland Timbers, who made a surprise run all the way to the MLS Cup final last year despite a relatively average regular-season campaign. With a settled squad, they might just be capable of similar progress if they can secure themselves a playoff berth. The same could be said of the likes of Columbus Crew, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake.
There a couple of other former champions hoping to recover after failing to make the playoffs last season.
LA Galaxy did so for a second consecutive campaign but were at least improved from 2017, when they finished bottom of their Conference. New coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, an MLS Cup winner as a player with Columbus Crew, will seek to bring a bit more defensive solidity to a side who had the third-best scoring record in the league last season with an attack fronted by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Toronto went from hero to zero last season, from champions in 2017 to the fifth-worst team in MLS, without one clear standout reason for that downturn. Can they return to prominence in 2019?
There is one new expansion club this year in the form of FC Cincinnati, taking the league up to 24 teams. They won the USL last season, and their squad for their debut MLS campaign features a mix of those players, MLS veterans and some potentially interesting transfers from abroad. They are unlikely to make it straight into the playoffs like Atlanta and LAFC, but will hope to establish a solid basis for further development.
Our Betting Preview’s MLS 2019 Picks & Betting Predictions Verdict
With the league’s outstanding goalscorer in Josef Martinez, a bevy of incisive creators behind him and a well-established playing style, Atlanta have a good chance of successfully defending the MLS Cup in 2019.