1. Atlanta United
Atlanta's championship-winning team last season might just have been the best in MLS history. It was in turns swashbuckling and ruthless, and its title win was more than deserved.
This season, though, will present its share of challenges. Miguel Almiron is gone — and off to a mighty impressive start to life in the Premier League with Newcastle — as is Tata Martino, the manager whose signing in the fall of 2016 signaled Atlanta's intent to compete with the league's best.
The transition from Martino to de Boer in particular be interesting to watch. The two coaches come from different parts of the world and have fairly different approaches, and preseason has been anything but smooth: Darlington Nagbe has been unsettled, Michael Parkhurst is being played out of position, and the club was smacked in a Concacaf Champions League game in Costa Rica.
That said, this is easily is the most talented, most complete squad in the league. They're probably not too good to figure it out and, at some point, start to roll.
Lineup: Guzan, Ballo, Gonzalez Pirez, Parkhurst (C), Robinson, Gressel, Larentowicz, Remedi, P. Martinez, Barco, J. Martinez
2. New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls are staying the course. A year after winning the Supporters' Shield while amassing 71 points, the Red Bulls sold Tyler Adams to Leipzig, and are turning to within the club to replace him — just as they successfully replaced Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty last year and two years ago.
As per usual, the Red Bulls didn't make any major offseason signings. They added a few young players, inked center backs Aaron Long and Tim Parker to new contracts, and will likely start an opening day lineup comprised exclusively of players who were with the club last season.
The blueprint is, at this point, well established. But to be as successful as they were last season — and perhaps finally lift MLS Cup — the Red Bulls need a big year from Sean Davis and another big year from Bradley Wright-Phillips, who will turn 34 in less than two weeks' time. They're not givens.
It will also be interesting to watch Chris Armas, was able to take over rather seamlessly from Jesse Marsch partway through last season, but will see his managerial capabilities better tested by the rigors of a full campaign.
Lineup: Robles (C), Lawrence, Parker, Long, Murillo, Davis, Rzatkowski, Muyl, Kaku, Royer, Wright-Phillips
3. DC United
Outside of Atlanta, DC might have been the story of last season. They finally moved into their own stadium, signed a superstar in Wayne Rooney, and stormed down the stretch before losing to Columbus on penalties in a thrilling Wild Card game.
This year should — should — be even better. DC ultimately held onto Luciano Acosta after a transfer deadline day saga in Paris, and now they're looking at an entire year of he, Rooney, on-loan Estudiantes winger Lucas Rodriguez and U.S. international Paul Arriola bombing forward.
They've also upgraded in defense, bringing aboard former Boca Juniors right back Leonardo Jara. Bill Hamid and Russell Canouse and Steve Birnbaum all have U.S. caps. The starting eleven should be one of the league's very best.
There are, however, questions about this team's depth — especially in defense and at forward. This year might also test Rooney, who was excellent in his debut MLS season but only had to leave the Eastern timezone once because of DC's backloaded home schedule. If he regresses, or gets hurt, this team is in trouble.
Lineup: Hamid, Mora, Birnbaum, Brilliant, Jara, Canouse, Moreno, Arriola, Acosta, Rodriguez, Rooney (C)
By far and away, the most important news of the Crew's offseason was the completion of their sale to the Haslems and Pete Edwards. Had this team been moved out of Columbus, it would have cast a permanent pall over MLS. The league can thank Columbus' fans for helping it to avoid what would have been a calamity.
The new ownership group's first big task after taking the reigns was replacing sporting director and head coach Gregg Berhalter, who departed after the conclusion of last season to take the U.S. national team job.
The new owners deserve high marks for who they picked: Columbus native Tim Bezbatchenko as club president, and Caleb Porter as manager. Both men have won MLS Cups, Bezbatchenko with Toronto and Porter with Portland, and both are highly regarded in U.S. soccer circles.
On the field, Columbus will be the same team they were last year, though Milton Valenzuela is out for the year recovering from a torn ACL, and Zach Steffan will be departing in the summer for Manchester City. The interesting thing to watch is how and how much, if at all, will Porter deviate from Berhalter's tactical system.
Lineup: Steffan, Francis, Sauro, Mensah, Afful, Artur, Trapp (C), Meram, Higuain, P. Santos, Zardes
The Union weren't half bad last season — they made the playoffs while playing both a cadre of young players and some very nice soccer — but they're going in a new direction this season.
Earnie Stewart's departure for the newly-created USMNT general manager job cleared the way for Philadelphia to bring in German executive Ernst Tanner as the club's new sporting director.
Tanner wants the Union to play high-pressing, front-foot soccer, and the team appears set, as a result, to ditch the possession-based 4-3-3 that they used last year for a 4-4-2 diamond headed up by Marco Fabian — who arrives as perhaps the biggest signing in club history from Eintracht Frankfurt.
Both the system change and the Fabian signing are gambles. Last year's team punched above its weight in the 4-3-3, while Fabian, brilliant as he's been throughout his career, has had a hard time staying on the field over the last two seasons. It's an exciting time for the Union, but one that is not without its risk.
Lineup: Blake, Wagner, Trusty, McKenzie, Mbaizo, Medunjanin, Bedoya (C), Jones, Fabian, Santos, Burke
Ever since they were defeated in by Chivas Guadalajara on penalties in the final of the Concacaf Champions League last spring, Toronto FC have been living a nightmare.
Riddled with injuries, they won just ten league games last season and missed the playoffs. Then Gregory van der Wiel left the club after clashing with the coaching staff, Victor Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco were sold to the Middle East, and the club was humiliated in the CCL by Panamanian side Independiente.
Concerns about the locker-room notwithstanding, TFC needs help. They need to sign a replacement for Giovinco — Genk's Alejandro Pozuelo should be announced imminently — they badly need some wingers, and they badly need to get Drew Moor back and playing like he did in 2017.
Should those things happen, though, this is a playoff team. There's talent aplenty, and everyone inside the club will have a point to prove given what's happened over the last ten or so months. We'll see what happens.
Lineup: Bono, Moor, Ciman, Mavinga, Morrow, Auro, DeLeon, Bradley (C), Delgado, Osorio, Altidore
7. New York City
NYCFC pretty well fell apart after Patrick Vieira left for Nice and was replaced by Dome Torrent halfway through last year. In the Supporters' Shield race until early August, they finished 15 points behind the Red Bulls and were crushed by Atlanta in the second round of the playoffs.
Now, with David Villa and Yangel Herrera gone, Torrent has a challenging job in front him. NYC still has a strong spine — anchored in the center of midfield by new captain Alex Ring — but they don't have a single true forward on the roster or, as of yet, a clear tactical approach.
The big move of the offseason was the high seven-figure acquisition of Alexandru Mitrita from the Romanian side Universitatea Craiova. Mitrita might play as a false nine, while Argentinian playmaker Maxi Moralez will become the focal point of the attack.
Whether the attack will cohere, or whether the central midfield will have the same bite without Herrera, remains to be seen. If this team doesn't start well, Torrent will be under a huge amount of pressure.
Lineup: Johnson, Sweat, Callens, Chanot, Tinnerholm, Ring (C), Parks, Medina, Moralez, Tajouri-Shradi, Mitrita
Remi Garde figured it out about a third of the way into last season, transforming the Impact into a no-frills, deep-defending, counter-attacking team led by Ignacio Piatti and Alejandro Silva, but the turnaround came just a fraction too late to get Montreal back to the playoffs.
A postseason return will be the target in Garde's second year, and with both Silva and Mauro Mancosu gone, the Impact have bet big on former Dallas striker Maxi Urruti to get them there.
Urruti will play up top and look to establish a fruitful connection with his compatriot Piatti, and hope that Harry Novillo, who will start on the right wing, can adequately replace Silva. If he does, and if Urruti is more the player he was in the first half of last year than the second half, this will be a difficult team to play against.
But there's reason to be nervous about the defense, which looks below average — potentially a major issue for a team that will likely will again try to play primarily on the break. You also have to wonder whether, outside of Piatti and Taider, there's enough elite MLS talent here to make a serious playoff push.
Lineup: Bush, Lovitz, Camacho, Diallo, Sagna, Piette, Taider, Choiniere, Piatti (C), Novillo, Urruti
After a surprise playoff trip in 2017, the Fire took a huge step backwards last year — averaging less than a point per game and finishing tenth in the Eastern Conference.
Both general manager Nelson Rodriguez and manager Veljko Paunovic survived the disappointment of 2018, but both are now entering the fourth season of a reign that has yet to produce a playoff win. This, you figure, has to be the year that Chicago puts it all together.
They do certainly have the attacking talent to make noise. If Bastian Schweinsteiger plays in midfield, and not at center back as he did frequently last year, the Fire will have one of the league's better front sixes — one that will include Djordie Milhailovic, one of the league's best young prospects, as the number ten.
The defense, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Matt Polster, Brendan Vincent, and Christian Dean — three of the team's better young players — are all gone, the latter two having simply retired, and the backline is almost entirely new. If it doesn't gel quickly, the Fire are going to concede 60-plus goals again.
Lineup: Ousted, Corrales, Marcelo, Kappelhof, Hasler, McCarty (C), Schweinsteiger, Katai, Mihailovic, Frankowski, Nikolic
Cincinnati might not be Atlanta or LAFC, but they're determined not to be Minnesota.
Cincinnati began its roster construction process by investing heavily in its defense and central midfield, acquiring several players, like inaugural captain Kendall Waston, of considerable MLS stature. They should, at the very least, be difficult to break down.
Will they be able to score any goals? That appears to be the big question. There's a great deal of pressure on DP forward Fanendo Adi to produce, but the big Nigerian forward going to need some help — either from the team's wingbacks bombing forward or from a player like Emanuel Ladesma or Roland Lamah.
Either way, expect FCC to be competitive — especially at Nippert Stadium, where they should have one of the league's better home-field advantages — and add immensely to the league.
Lineup: Tyton, Garza, Waston (C), Deplagne, Hagglund, Powell, Ulloa, Bertone, Lamah, Ledesma, Adi
11. Orlando City
It's difficult to overstate how bad Orlando City was last year. They broke the record for most goals conceded in a season, had a nine-game losing streak, and went on a run during which they took six points from 23 games. It was a mess.
There was a coaching change halfway through the year, when Jason Kreis was fired and replaced by former Orlando player James O'Connor, but that hardly seemed to help matters.
O'Connor and new executive vice president of soccer operations Luzi Muzzi parted ways with 15 players during the offseason, but a number of the disappointing marquee acquisitions from last winter — including Sacha Kljestan, Josue Colman, and Lamine Sane — are back.
Orlando just needs them to buy in and play better. If they do, if the defense improves, and if Nani still has anything left in the tank, this team might be pretty entertaining. But a playoff appearance, the club's first ever, would be a huge surprise.
Lineup: Rowe, Acosta, Ascues, Sane, O'Neill, Smith, Rosell, Mendez, Kljestan (C), Colman, Nani, Dwyer
12. New England
A year and change into his tenure, it looks like Brad Friedel has run the Revolution into the ground.
The former American international took over a team last winter that was stocked with a substantial number of proven MLS contributors, and, in the likes of Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe, a few top-tier players — and almost immediately drove them all away.
The core of the Jay Heaps Revolution teams have a few highly expensive, highly questionable imports — Michael Mancienne at the back, Carles Gil in the attack — and question marks everyone else.
The Revs played ugly soccer last year and couldn't beat anybody after teams figured out their press, and whether Friedel can craft this group into a team capable of outplaying anybody seems doubtful. Morale, by all indications, is low. It could be a long year.
Lineup: Knighton, Castillo, Delamea, Mancienne (C), Bye, Caldwell, Caicedo, Penila, Gil, Fagundez, Agudelo