MLS 2019: Champions Atlanta face competition in new-look league

Atlanta United eased to a victory over Sporting Kansas City thanks to a Josef Martinez double.

It is all change in Major League Soccer as the new season looms.

FC Cincinnati have arrived to grow the league to 24 teams, while Copa Libertadores finalist Guillermo Barros Schelotto is in at Los Angeles Galaxy.

Columbus Crew are staying put in Ohio, but they have new owners, a new general manager and a new head coach. Even reigning champions Atlanta United look different.

Ahead of the big kick-off, we take a look at five key questions we hope to be able to answer between now and the MLS Cup in November.

 

Will champions Atlanta hit the ground running with new men?

Atlanta have lost two of the most important men in their young history - in Miguel Almiron and coach Gerardo Martino - since lifting MLS Cup, but the squad still looks great. Pity Martinez is in to replace Almiron, Florentin Pogba will add depth in defence, and Brek Shea might finally be ready to fulfil his potential as he fills the void left by Greg Garza.

Some concerns remain, however, and most centre around Frank de Boer. His 3-4-3 system should happily accommodate Ezequiel Barco and Martinez, but this is a make-or-break job for a man who is new to the league and must manage the expectations of a title defence.

Are Ibrahimovic and Rooney able to go again?

While Atlanta spent 2018 shaking off stereotypes about the typical profile of MLS stars, the Galaxy and DC United did the opposite. In came veterans Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney - and both were great.

Yet Ibrahimovic's 22 goals could not carry the Galaxy to the playoffs, before Rooney and DC fell at the first hurdle in the postseason. Both LA and United look better prepared for challenges in 2019, but the continued good form of Ibrahimovic - 38 this month - and Rooney will surely shape their fortunes.

Could LAFC follow Atlanta as second-season contenders?

Atlanta broke the mould for expansion sides when they reached the playoffs in their debut 2017 season and Los Angeles FC quickly followed suit 12 months later. Indeed, LAFC looked as though they might push the league's more established clubs all the way for a time last year.

Bob Bradley will hope to again replicate Atlanta's success and that means delivering silverware. Playing with a very similar squad to last season, they should expect to be in the mix.

Elsewhere, Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders, who contested the 2016 and 2017 MLS Cups, are usually good bets. However, Toronto endured a tumultuous offseason. The Reds brought in proven defender Laurent Ciman, but then lost Victor Vazquez and club icon Sebastian Giovinco and were thrashed 4-0 at minnows Independiente in the Champions League.

Can new boys Cincinnati compete without significant investment?

Atlanta and LAFC have set a lofty standard in recent years for expansion sides, but Cincinnati, whose spending is comparatively modest, might well be aiming a little lower.

Przemyslaw Tyton, Kendall Waston, Alvas Powell and Garza should at least provide a solid base, while Fanendo Adi and Kekuta Manneh have quality going the other way. At the other end of the spectrum from Atlanta and LAFC, Cincinnati will hope to avoid following in the footsteps of Minnesota United and Orlando City, who are yet to recover from poor debut campaigns.

Who could follow Davies and Almiron as the next big-money export?

This league, still just 23 years old, looks to be finally finding its feet in the global market, having brought in big fees from Bayern Munich, for Alphonso Davies, and Newcastle United, who signed Almiron. Zach Steffen and Tyler Adams are set to star in Europe, too, as commissioner Don Garber positions MLS as a selling league.

Further big outgoing deals will surely follow over the next 12 months. Luciano Acosta was linked with Paris Saint-Germain in January and there may be other suitors, while Josef Martinez's big new Atlanta contract might only keep him Stateside for a short time. United States midfielders Cristian Roldan, Marky Delgado, Kellyn Acosta and Russell Canouse - all 23 - could represent good value.