The new Major League Soccer season is less than two months away, but now that the full schedule has been released, it's time to ID the surefire highlight matchups from what should be a fairly open 2019 season.
Atlanta United rounded into form just in time to thrash all comers in 2018, but with their best player likely out the door and their coach already gone, United may not have the organization that helped put such fear into a Supporters' Shield winning Red Bulls team that head coach Chris Armas opted against the frenetic pressing that got him to the conference championships.
Red Bulls also lost a key player in midfield engine Tyler Adams and whether NYCFC can compete without David Villa remains a mystery. Columbus has a new head coach and DC United is relying on Wayne Rooney to be able to sustain his elite level when he actually has to, well, leave the district once in a while. That's a lot of chaos for teams that made the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2018, and anybody thinks they can predict how 2019 will play out right now is guessing without saying or knowing it.
Add into the mix that Toronto FC has more talent than their 2018 record showed and Orlando City is hitting the reset button for the second time in two years and it's clear that the east is filled with uncertainty this year.
Yet there are already some matchups that will clearly be circle-on-the-calendar-gotta-see-it games, and the first is the season opener.
Toronto FC - March 2, 1 p.m.
- Jozy Altidore
- Michael Bradley
- Victor Vazquez
- New General Manager, Ali Curtis
Last season, TFC had Philly's number and beat them home and away. The Union had huge opportunities to open the scoring in both matches but couldn't convert and Toronto made their chances count. That's a simplified look at how things went down, but Toronto was, all season, a different team when they could get the opening goal. In the 14 matches they went ahead, TFC lost exactly once; in contrast, they won only one match when giving up the first goal.
So: The Union created the chances that could have put them in front against a team that struggled when punched first, but the finishing wasn't there. Once Toronto was ahead -- and the match at Talen Energy Stadium was an unfortunate but perfect example of this -- they could turn the match into a slow-paced, sticky affair that made chances for both teams few and far between.
This offseason, Toronto has added excellent offensive but low-key-meh defensive center back Laurent Ciman to the roster, and they'll hope to get an extended run of health from key players that missed time a year ago. However, they will also play a Concacaf Champions League match on February 26, and if they win and advance to the quarterfinals, the Reds will play again midweek after their MLS opener against the Union. This could result in squad rotation that may neutralize the advantage TFC will get from having a couple of competitive matches under their belt before they start the 2019 regular season.
FC Dallas - April 6, TBD
- Reto Ziegler
- Zdenek Ondrasek
- Dominique Badji
- New head coach, Luchi Gonzalez
What makes a Union-FC Dallas matchup so intriguing is that these are now the two teams in the league that are most dedicated to creating a pipeline of academy players to the first team. Philly took a chance on two teenaged center backs -- and gave Matt Real some experiences that will surely shape his development -- in 2018, and they've already added a homegrown playmaker and a goalie to the roster since the season ended. Dallas, meanwhile, has introduced North Texas FC as a USL One team and immediately began populating the roster with the cream of their incredibly strong academy. Oh, and they made their academy director the new head coach of the first team. So yeah, that's going all-in on youth.
With Maxi Urruti gone, Dallas has a lot of room to give opportunities to young attackers like Paxton Pomykal and players searching for a next level like Dominique Badji. Ondrasek will hopefully provide a more consistent veteran scorer than Cristian Colman has over recent seasons, and Gonzalez will try to get the most out of high-ceiling right back Reggie Cannon.
After pawing around the top of the Western Conference under Oscar Pareja in recent seasons, there's more uncertainty in Texas this season; Gonzalez will likely have a bit of a runway to put his stamp on the side and grow some of the young prospects toward their peak. As the first Western Conference team to roll into Talen next year, Dallas will be hoping to steal some early points that will help them survive the brutal summer months in Texas.
FC Cincinnati - May 1, TBD
- Fanendo Adi
- Kendall Waston
- ...Becoming a MLS team
Come one, come all to see the newest member of Major League Soccer. After a spectacular USL regular season in 2018, Cincy fell at home in the playoffs to future MLS franchise Nashville SC. Now they hop up to the top tier of American soccer with a roster that is both in progress and already stacked with MLS experience. Adi, the behemoth striker that arrived from Portland, is a box-dominator when motivated, and Waston vacillates between hard-charging leadership and confoundingly silly tackles in back.
Cincinnati already acquired Greg Garza from Atlanta to give the club width, and they may try to play Jamaican speedster Darren Mattocks off Adi up front. Mattocks was excellent for DC United before Wayne Rooney arrived last season, but that level of output is an outlier in his career numbers.
In short, Cincy is currently a mystery. In the end, they will likely follow the path of most expansion clubs and get exactly as far as their defense can carry them.
One interesting Union storyline here will be the return of Jimmy McLaughlin. Philadelphia's second homegrown signing will make the MLS leap with Cincy after proving a very effective winger in USL. McLaughlin still returns to Philly in the offseasons to train.
New York Red Bulls - June 8, TBD
- Bradley Wright-Phillips, of course
- Kaku if he remembers how to do assists
- Kemar Lawrence, Aaron Long, Tim Parker, and Luis Robles
- Sean Davis
- No more Tyler Adams
- BWP's age
For all the praise -- much of it fair -- that has been heaped on Atlanta United's postseason run to a MLS Cup title, the biggest hurdle Tata Martino had to leap was lowered a few feet by Chris Armas' decision to play conservative in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals. Red Bull spent years under Jesse Marsch assembling a defense talented enough to support its extremely aggressive pressure. Then, in the pivotal match of the season, that defense didn't play on the front foot nearly as much as usual, particularly in the first half. Now Armas and New York must once again power through a regular season in hopes of finally securing a title of some kind.
In recent years, the Union have given Red Bulls fits though, and Philly had a strong case for being the better side in both league matchups a year ago and were easily the better team in the US Open Cup. At Red Bull Arena, CJ Sapong's missed penalty allowed New York to escape with a home point, then in Philly an extremely odd penalty call on the Union after Wright-Phillips shoved Ale Bedoya handed the visitors a lucky victory.
If the Union set up anything like Ernst Tanner's Red Bull Salzburg this season, this match will be a particularly compact one, with both teams looking to suffocate the space around the ball.
There are a number of key international competitions going on around June 8 that could also make this matchup a big test of both clubs' depth. The U-20 World Cup will in its home stretch and if the US advances past the group stage, Philly could be without Matt Real, Anthony Fontana, and potentially Mark McKenzie. The Gold Cup will also be ramping up around the same time -- June 8 is technically during a FIFA international break -- so if either team is leaning heavily on players regularly called into their national teams (eg, Kaku, Andre Blake, Kemar Lawrence, Aaron Long, Cory Burke) there could be a scramble to find a system to fit guys who don't regularly feature.
Chicago - July 20, TBD
- Bastian Schweinsteiger
- Alex Katai
- Nemanja Nikolic
The biggest reason to highlight this Chicago match on your calendar is that anything could happen. Last year, former Union midfielder Veljko Paunovic ran out a man-marking midfield system In Talen, then David Accam flummoxed the entire Fire squad with an epic extra time goal in the Windy City. Oh, and this is another team that the Union dropped out of the Open Cup in 2018.
So now, after looking anything but coherent, soft defensively, and weak in goal last year, the Fire have changed... very little. Bastian Schweinsteiger will be back and likely continue to play as a center back/inside forward and make all published formations meaningless. Fabian Herbers has joined the fold and, on the surface, feels like a good fit for team that will be looking for goals from anybody that isn't Nikolic or flighty attacker Katai.
There just isn't much certainty in Chicago right now. But there is Schweinsteiger, and there is Nikolic, Katai, and even a slowly-declining Dax McCarty. So there's a lot of experience and talent, but it could be that all these pieces came from different puzzles.
This match will be weird, and, very likely, quite exciting.
August 24 - DC United, TBD
- Senor Wayne
- Lucho Acosta
- Russell Canouse
- Bill Hamid
- A schedule that isn't back-loaded with home games
- A full season of Wayne Rooney
- Lucas Rodriguez on loan
DC United came alive after Wayne Rooney arrived last year, and with a friendly schedule set up to allow them to move into Audi Stadium mid-season, they leapt into the playoffs before falling at home to Columbus Crew.
The beginning of Rooney's stateside adventure coincided nicely with the return of goalie Bill Hamid and holding midfielder Russell Canouse. Both players helped establish a defensive foundation upon which Rooney and Acosta could tear apart the rest of the league. The rest of the league except Philadelphia, that is. The Union were quite firm with Rooney and company when they rolled into the district, and there was never a doubt who would come out on top once CJ Sapong opened the scoring.
On top of the already tense rivalry that has developed between DC and the Union, this match has huge import as the opener of a challenging home stretch for the Union. Atlanta, LAFC, and Red Bulls will be waiting in the wings, and a win over DC will provide the momentum Philly will need to punch back against teams that are likely to be in the thick of the playoff hunt.
LAFC - September 14, TBD
- Carlos Vela
- Benny Feilhaber
- Lee Nguyen
- Andre Horta
- Nothin' yet
Perhaps the weirdest thing about LAFC's 2018 season was that they always looked a little flimsy in the back end of their midfield but never really addressed the issue. Instead, Bob Bradley leaned into a very creative and free-flowing center that could produce chances at the drop of a hat but give them up just as quickly.
What makes that so weird is that it looked from the outside as if LA had the piece they needed right there on the roster. Designated Player Andre Horta was brought in from Portugal to be a two-way midfield dynamo, but his only two-way contribution was sitting on the bench either flat-footed or cross-legged.
Still, LA was extremely unlucky to go out of the playoffs at home to Real Salt Lake. They gave up three goals on two shots on target (and only four shots total), and one of the goals was an absurd stunner more at home in a Karate Kid movie than on a soccer pitch.
Under former US Men's National Team head coach Bob Bradley, LA will probably grow into a stronger side in 2019. Vela will continue to be one of the most exciting players in the league to watch and Horta should begin to integrate into a side that could desperately use his dynamism. Also, Mark-Anthony Kaye will be healthy again. The big, fast, intelligent midfielder provided excellent balance before a serious injury saw him miss the back half of the year.
For the Union, this will be a revenge game. Los Angeles got to face Philly during Haris Medunjanin's red card suspension last year, and the big Bosnian's absence made it far more difficult for the Union to control possession the way they often did at their best.
New York City - October 6, 4 p.m.
- Maxi Moralez
- Yangel Herrera
- Alex Ring
- End of the Villa era
This one is easy. After NYC took two in four days to end the Union's 2018 season, Philly fans can circle this match as prime revenge candidate. The Union tore apart NYC in Talen Energy Stadium in 2018 but struggled at the Light Blues' laughably-dimensioned home ground.
New York City never looked fully comfortable after a mid-season coaching change saw Patrick Viera move to Ligue 1's Nice and former Manchester City assistant Dome Torrent arrive as a replacement. Torrent's side missed Villa for stretches and all-around midfielder Herrera for nearly the entire year. Herrera's return against the Union was a huge boost to a side that desperately needed someone that could destroy while remaining comfortable on the ball next to Alex Ring.
The knock-on effects of Herrera's return -- more freedom for Ring and the team's wide attackers -- helped Torrent defeat the Union and set up a grindingly ugly matchup with Atlanta that gave birth to the kinda-true narrative that Atlanta made genius tactical adjustments for the postseason.
If the Union can once again put themselves in playoff position on Decision Day, a chance to bring NYC into Talen instead of traveling will be a wonderful storyline.