Bob Bradley's team was terrific in its first season in the league last year — scoring a Western Conference-high 68 goals, playing some of the league's most intricate attacking soccer, and finishing fifth in the Supporters' Shield standings.
They just couldn't finish games off. Especially late in the season, after they lost young Canadian midfielder Marc-Anthony Kaye to injury and sold Laurent Ciman to Dijon, LAFC was soft defensively. Their playoff exit at the hands of Real Salt Lake came in a game in which they outshot RSL 20-4 and had 63 percent possession.
If LAFC can fix that this year — be just a fraction more clinical — they'll be serious Cup contenders. Getting Kaye back into the lineup will help, as will bringing back the trio of Danilo Silva, Walker Zimmerman, and Jordan Harvey.
Going forward, LAFC will be a force. They played tremendous attacking soccer in their expansion season — intricate, inventive, and ambitious. We should see more of the same this year, especially if Andre Horta, the club's third DP, can figure MLS out after struggling upon his arrival last summer.
Lineup: Miller, Beitashour, D. Silva, Zimmerman, Harvey, Kaye, Atuesta, Nguyen, Rossi, Vela (C), Diomande
2. Sporting KC
In some respects, last year's Sporting team might have been Peter Vermes' best ever. They were excellent going forward for the first time in years, won the Western Conference in the regular season, and came within a game of getting back to MLS Cup.
This year, Sporting might be even better. They return nine starters from last year's team, swung a three-team deal to acquire Kelyn Rowe from New England, and should be plenty hungry for silverware after the way last season ended.
There are two big question marks. The first is at center back, where, instead of paying him, Vermes decided to trade Ike Opara to Minnesota United. Opara was the MLS Defender of the Year two years ago, and it will be up to Spanish center back Andreu Fontas to adequately replace him.
The second is up top. Sporting lost Diego Rubio in the Rowe trade, and appear set to turn to Krisztian Nemeth — who scored ten goals as a winger for SKC in 2015 but has two MLS goals since — as the primary forward.
Lineup: Melia, Sinovic, Besler (C), Fontas, Zusi, Ilie, Espinoza, Gutierrez, Russell, Salloi, Nemeth
The Sounders' 2018 followed what has become their norm over the last three years: they started slow, and finished on fire — before being upset in the playoffs by the Timbers and failing to get back to MLS Cup for the third year in a row.
Seattle was tremendous defensively all last year, and got much better going forward after the addition of Raul Ruidiaz after the World Cup. The club had a quiet offseason, with the big moves coming in the form of long-term contracts for young stars Christian Roldan and Jordan Morris.
Roldan in particular will have a lot on his shoulders this season. The Sounders decided to move on from Osvaldo Alonso, and it's the Washington native who will step into central midfield alongside Gustav Svensson to try to fill his shoes.
Otherwise, it's business as usual. Ruidiaz will be relied upon to score goals, Morris to stretch backlines, Nico Lodeiro to create chances, and Chad Marshall to organize what is probably the league's best defense. The team isn't particularly young or deep, but it's as formidable as it's ever been.
Lineup: Frei, Leerdam, Kee-hee, Marshall, Smith, Svensson, Roldan, Rodriguez, Lodeiro (C), Morris, Ruidiaz
4. LA Galaxy
The Galaxy might be back, and they might be back for these two reasons: Dennis te Kloese as general manager, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto as manager. Te Klose arrives after a stint as director of the Mexican national team; Schelotto after three intense, highly successful seasons in charge of Boca Juniors.
The duo has outstanding connections in Central and South America, which is where the Galaxy brought in the majority of their offseason reinforcements from, and brings a cache to the club's soccer operations that had missing in the two season since Bruce Arena departed for his second spell in charge of the U.S.
The first order of player personnel business this offseason was re-signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That completed, the Galaxy went about rehabbing their backline. Diego Polenta is the big addition at center back, while Rolf Feltscher and Jordan Skjelvik both needs to take steps forward in their second years in the league.
Going forward, even if Ola Kamara is sold, this team has a pretty astounding array of talent. Gio dos Santos probably isn't even a starter. If Schelotto can develop a coherent system and get some decent defending, this team will be a force to be reckoned with.
Lineup: Bingham, Feltscher, Steres, Polenta, Skjelvik, dos Santos, Lleget, Antuna, Alessandrini, O. Kamara, Ibrahimovic (C)
The Timbers' run to MLS Cup last season was propelled primarily by three players: Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, and Sebastian Blanco. All three are among the best players at their respective positions in MLS, and, as long as all three are healthy, the Timbers are going to be in every game they play.
The Timbers also have an unusual advantage this year: their schedule. Because of construction at Providence Park, Portland will finish the season by playing 17 of their final 22 games at home.
Teams in similar positions — DC United last year, Toronto FC and Sporting in years past — have all used their slew of late-season home games to surge into the playoffs. So while the 12-game road trip facing the Timbers to start the year will be trying, the benefit, especially considering how formidable Portland is at home anyway, should be sizable.
There are, however, reasons to wonder whether the Timbers has done enough this offseason to keep themselves in the MLS Cup hunt. The club has failed so far to land the DP striker they're after, but center back, where Liam Ridgewell is set to be replaced by committee, might be a bigger problem.
Lineup: Attinella, Villafaña, Dielna, Mabiala, Moreira, Guzman, Chara, Polo, Valeri (C), Blanco, Ebobisse
6. Real Salt Lake
RSL snuck into and had a thrilling run in the playoffs last year, and they have been consistently dangerous from week-to-week since Mike Petke took over a month into the 2017 season.
Much of the reason why is the young talent that : Justin Glad and Brooks Lennon along the backline; Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino, and Corey Baird going forward. Damir Kreilach, meanwhile, put up a combined 20 goals and assists last year.
There are, however, plenty of reason to be skeptical that this team can make the jump into the upper echelon. Their major offseason singing, DP forward Sam Johnson, comes from a middling club in Norway. Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando are both a year older, and the central midfield as a whole is a huge question mark.
There's also the feeling that this team has flown by the seat of its pants tactically under Petke, and it's a mystery what system they're ultimately going to use this year.
Lineup: Rimando, Lennon, Glad, M. Silva, Herrera, Beckerman (C), Kreilach, Savarino, Rusnak, Plata, S. Johnson
After spending last winter recruiting players from the lower divisions of English football and going on to average less than a point per game in 2018, the Rapids changed course last summer and through this winter — targeting proven MLS players from inside the league.
As a result, all of the sudden, the roster doesn't look half bad. Kellyn Acosta and Benny Feilhaber will provide real skill in midfield, while the additions of Diego Rubio and Kei Kamara should go a long way in solving the team's long-running goalscoring woes.
But there are still major question marks. The team appears set to play a 4-4-2 diamond with Nicolas Mezqiuda — a former Whitecap with four assists in five MLS seasons — as the number ten. Kamara especially needs consistent service to do his best work, and not entirely clear that he's going to get it.
The other main question is about the manager. Does Anthony Hudson have what it takes to be a successful MLS coach? With two DP spots set to come open next winter when Tim Howard retires and Shkëlzen Gashi's contract expires, he needs to win some games this year.
Lineup: Howard (C), Rosenberry, Smith, Sjoberg, Wynne, Price, Feilhaber, Acosta, Mezquida, Rubio, K. Kamara
8. FC Dallas
Dallas was fairly underwhelming last season, finishing fourth in the West and losing a home Wild Card game to Portland, and, shortly thereafter, long-time manager Oscar Pareja departed for Tijuana.
In his place, Dallas elevated former academy director Luchi Gonzalez — reaffirming their Western Conference-best commitment to signing, developing, and playing young talent.
Dallas is going to need some of that young talent to step up this year. While the defense should be strong, the club is likely going to need a breakout year from either Paxton Pomekyl and Jesus Ferreira, while either Dom Badji or offseason signing Zdenek Ondrasek will have to score the goals to replace Maxi Urruti up top.
The problem, as always, is that Dallas do not have appear to have any elite attacking talent. Unless Pomekyl has a huge year, this is a collection of competent, hard-working players without a Mauro Diaz to elevate them to a level where they can compete for silverware.
Lineup: Gonzalez, Cannon, Hedges (C), Ziegler, Pedroso, Gruezo, B. Acosta, Barrios, Aranguiz, Pomekyl, Ondrasek
After a surprise trip to the Western Conference Final in 2017, the Dynamo took a step backwards in 2018 — winning the U.S. Open Cup, but finishing ninth in the Western Conference, plagued by a below-average defense and year-long inability to close games out.
If this year is going to be different, a big reason will be the presence of Juan David Cabezas in central midfield. The Colombian missed the majority of last season injured, and the Dynamo weren't nearly the same team without him.
But the defense is still a major concern. There's a new central defense comprised of Slovenian import Aljaž Struna and 35-year-old Maynor Figeuroa, while the projected starter left back, AJ DeLaGarza, missed all of last season after tearing his ACL.
The Dynamo are always dangerous. Their front four, led, for now, by Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis sees to that. Whether the rest of the side can hold up remains to be seen.
Lineup: Willis, DeLaGarza, Fuenmayor, Struna, Beasley (C), Cabezas, Vera, Elis, Martinez, Quioto, Manotas
It's now or never for Manny Lagos and Adrian Heath. Minnesota has to get right it this year, its third in MLS and first at Allianz Field, or its likely the end of the road for the franchise's first top-flight sporting director and manager. The pressure is on.
The duo's first and main priority this winter was overhauling Minnesota's defense. The Loons conceded 70 goals in its expansion season — a then-all-time league worst — and then followed that up last year by conceding 71.
So they signed Alonso from Seattle and Jan Gregus from Copenhagen to form a new central midfield partnership, traded for Opara to anchor the defense, and brought in former Arsenal goalkeeper Vito Mannone to replace Bobby Shuttleworth in goal.
Those are four very good players, and Alonso and Opara, along with Darwin Quintero, are elite. Whether Alonso can stay healthy, and whether Heath can get his team to play with a level of discipline and defensive cohesion that he hasn't ever produced his four years as an MLS manager, remains to be seen.
Lineup: Mannone, Calvo (C), Opara, Boxall, Metanire, Alonso, Gregus, Molino, Quintero, M. Ibarra, Rodriguez
The 2019 Whitecaps are drawing comparisons to an expansion team, and for good reason. Marc dos Santos, hired as coach to replace Carl Robinson, has gutted what was a competitive, if deeply flawed team last season and throughout the Robinson era.
15 new players have been brought in, the vast majority from outside of MLS, and there are very few clear signs pointing to how the Whitecaps will try to play or in what formation. Dos Santos has talked about installing a progressive, attacking style, but most new coaches do.
Fredy Montero, re-acquired from Sporting Lisbon, will be relied upon to score the goals. Felipe is still around and figures to get minutes in midfield, alongside new young DP and South Korean international Hwang In-boem.
Other than that, there are question marks everywhere. Dos Santos is a confident young coach who has had success thus far in his career, but he and his new club's supporters are likely going to be tested early and often this season.
Lineup: MacMath, Nerwinski, Henry, Godoy, Levis, Eric, Felipe (C), In-beom, Venuto, Reyna, Montero
12. San Jose
After a historically dismal 2018, the Earthquakes made a splash with their coaching hire last October: Matias Almeyda, a former Inter Milan and Lazio player, a River Plate manager, and the reigning CONCACAF Champions League winner with Chivas Guadalajara.
Almeyda is a big hire, especially for a club that has rarely spent big on coaches or players of international renown, and he has a big job ahead of him.
The 'Quakes had very little cap space and roster flexibility going into the offseason, which means that the core of the last year's team, which remarkably won just four league games, will be back.
That suggests that it's going to be another difficult year. The roster as its currently constructed is lopsided and lacking. The biggest storyline, again, may be now 36-year-old Chris Wondolowski's pursuit of the all-time MLS goalscoring record.
Lineup: Marcinkowski, Lima, Kaisha, Cummings, Lopez, Godoy, Espinoza, Vako, Judson, Wondolowski (C), Hoesen