2021 MLS season preview: Eastern Conference

Major League Soccer is officially back. Yes, the 2021 season is finally here. 

Well, kind of – it technically made its return yesterday. However, I am still accurate in my statement, as the Eastern Conference makes its return to the pitch this afternoon.

At this point, you already know the drill if you read the preview for the Western Conference. How do the clubs in the East stack up, and more importantly, where do they initially rank as the season gets underway? Well, let’s look into it.

14. FC Cincinnati 

2020 record: 4-4-15 

You have to give some credit to Cincinnati. They are certainly making the necessary strides to transform into a legitimate contender. However, to say the club is still a year or three away would not be derogatory, but factual. Regardless of where the club currently stands, they should still not be seen as a complete pushover. More talent continues to be pushed into a franchise vying to shed the expansion label, and a new stadium could definitely make matters improve. However, the improvements might only be moral in nature. FC Cincinnati might begin to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, but they are still deep within the tunnel. 

13. D.C. United 

2020 record: 5-6-12

D.C. United conceded 41 goals last season. Out of all Eastern Conference clubs, this ranked second-to-last (Montreal allowed 43). This will be the first of many challenges newly minted head coach Hernan Losada must tackle as he looks to take his club back to the promised land. Just like Cincinnati, though, it might take several seasons until progress can be definitively noticed. Playing spoiler is certainly a possibility, but they will need a vast improvement from the backline and practically everything else to make it remotely probable. 

12. CF Montreal 

2020 record: 8-2-13

A rebrand during the offseason is pretty much where Montreal is at heading into the 2021 campaign. They do have solid pieces on defense in place for first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy to tinker with, but as a whole, this team does not bring enough star power or firepower to make their presence known. The club will definitely have the “we will prove everyone wrong” mentality this season. Even still, they remain closer to the bottom of the conference than the top. 

11. Chicago Fire FC

2020 record: 5-8-10

If you like scoring, this club is for you. Their 33 goals scored last season was tied for 10th in all of MLS last season, and with an additional year of Robert Beric at the attacking helm, the club should continue to make the strides on offense to make any and every match interesting from start to finish. It all comes down to the defense, which definitely had some growing pains last season, to put it nicely. This will be the point of emphasis in the new season. 

10. Inter Miami CF

2020 record: 7-3-13

Their inaugural 2020 season as an expansion club did not go as hoped, but a hungry club will do whatever it takes to back up the bark with the bite. This is what Miami certainly did over the offseason, as they turned multiple parts of the roster to hopefully make 2021 more successful than 2020. Inter Miami certainly looks like an exciting club – they bring a fresh coaching staff to pair with legitimate stars, but can all of the puzzle pieces fit right away? A culture shift does not happen overnight. Automatically winning does not, either. Inter Miami could be higher as the season moves along, but as of right now, their floor starts here. That’s fair. 

9. New York Red Bulls 

2020 record: 9-5-9

The Red Bulls bring nice variety and solid depth to all areas of the pitch, but this is also their inherent flaw, to a degree. They are good enough everywhere, but not elite anywhere. This is not to say that the club will not be completely lost in the woods, but should they want to cement themselves in the upper echelon of this conference, career years will need to happen. This means you, Daniel Royer and Co. This club will certainly win some matches, but if they want to win a ton of them, that is what needs to happen. 

8. New York City FC 

2020 record: 12-3-8

This is a club that, on paper, should be right in the thick of things all season. The x-factor for NYFC, as it has been the past couple seasons now, will be health. You have probably heard this before, and while this applies to all franchises across all sports, it most definitely applies to a NYCFC club slowly but surely aging, and not in particularly the best way. Their core is still solid, do not get me wrong, but the teams ahead of them bring more depth and a little more kick (no pun intended) to them. 

7. Atlanta United 

2020 record: 6-4-13

If you talk to 100 MLS fans, you will likely get 100 different answers regarding the outlook of Atlanta United. After winning the MLS Cup less than three years prior, the club gradually fell off before completely plummeting to a 12th-place finish last season. Heading into the new year, there is some sign of optimism. Gabriel Heinze looks to implement his brand of soccer in his first year as manager of the club. Josef Martinez (ACL), meanwhile, looks to make his return as explosive as his goals are. Attempting to pinpoint where this club definitively is in the grand scheme of the Eastern Conference table is difficult. On one hand, they could be top three. They could also have a transitioning period and be closer to the bottom. At this point, they will start off with a clean slate and be right in the middle.  

6. New England Revolution 

2020 record: 8-8-7

New England’s goal differential last season looked fishy (+1) but make no mistake – this club is stingy. To the bane of every other MLS club, they might be even stingier. With upgrades to the attack, midfield and backline, New England’s knack for taking away the ball (they ranked sixth in interceptions with 304) should become more potent of a collective unit. This might seem like a middle-of-the-pack ranking, but in due time, they could be much higher. 

5. Toronto FC

2020 record: 13-5-5

Now, Toronto does bring a fair share of warts. Their defensive performance at times left a bit to be desired last season, and their goal differential (+7) was pretty mediocre when compared to other playoff clubs. Their MO, though, comes in their offensive firepower, and boy, do they have a surplus of it. Alejandro Pozuelo and Ayo Akinola both tallied nine goals apiece last season. To keep it blunt, the team can (and will) score, but can the back end hold up for the duration of an entire MLS campaign? This will be the million-dollar question. Think of Toronto as the MLS version of the Edmonton Oilers or Los Angeles Angels. They have a ton of star power, but they also have pretty significant flaws that could be exposed. This club could be a mainstay atop the conference or become a bottom-dweller quickly should things go haywire.  

4. Nashville SC

2020 record: 8-8-7

Nashville’s inaugural 2020 season was a solid one. They finished within the upper half of the conference, and despite bowing out of the MLS is Back Tournament, they grinded all the way to the Conference Semifinals before succumbing to Columbus in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Their formula for success was simple as it was straightforward – choke off the passing lanes and maintain a stalwart backline. While their firepower might not be the strongest, they are built very similarly to a club that did quite well last season: Columbus. Are they carbon copies? Of course not. However, it is a good formula to replicate. Nashville might not be a conference monopoly, but they will be very, very sneaky. 

3. Philadelphia Union

2020 record: 14-5-4

This is a very intriguing club. Philadelphia led the entire Eastern Conference in goals scored last season (44) and additionally led all of MLS in goal differential (+24). Now, they are not a guarantee to be a top-of-the-line club this season – the departure of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, specifically, must mean that Philadelphia will have to lean on the next-man-up strategy should they want to compete in what is an ever-strengthening Eastern Conference. However, retaining the likes of 2020 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in Andre Blake, along with possessing Kacper Przbylko on the attack, will keep the club perched atop the upper-third of the Conference at the minimum. Do not discount what Philadelphia can do. 

2. Orlando City 

2020 record: 11-8-4

After failing to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs for five straight seasons (2015-19), Orlando City made its return to the postseason spotlight in 2020 and did not disappoint, as the club defeated New York City FC in the penalty shootout, 6-5 in the opening round. This, coupled with their runner-up finish in the MLS is Back Tournament, gives Orlando City fans high expectations in what is a brand-new season. Luckily for them (and the club, of course), there is a lot to look forward to – Chris Mueller, their leading goal-scorer, makes his return, and although Daryl Dike is no longer a consistent mainstay (he is currently on loan to Barnsley across the pond), the sheer passing philosophy of the club will not go away, regardless of who departs. After all, their 30 assists last season led all Eastern Conference clubs. Even still, there will be an adjustment period as Orlando City looks to build off of an excellent campaign. They have the right idea. Now, they must show it again. 

1. Columbus Crew SC

2020 record: 12-5-6

Are we surprised? The reigning MLS Cup Champions snag the top overall spot in this preview, even if by sheer benefit of the doubt. Where to begin? Practically the entire team makes their return for their title defense. Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Magbe makes up the elite framework that is the midfield, and their goalkeeping unit led by Gyasi Zardes remains in the Crew’s arsenal. While the club’s overall team health last season was a roller coaster at times, the sheer balance cannot be taken lightly. Until proven otherwise, this club, even with their potential road woes (they went 0-5-5 away from Historic Crew Stadium last season), is the reigning champ for a reason. Enough said.  

Published by John Crane

I am originally from Alexandria, Louisiana, but have lived in South Carolina, Texas, Arizona and now Colorado. After recently graduating from Northern Arizona University, I am now continuing to sharpen my journalistic craft through writing, radio and podcasting. My dream is to become a sports reporter or broadcaster.

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