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MLS 2021 predictions: LAFC’s first title and the return of Josef Martínez | MLS

I’m most excited about …

The stage is set for the return of Josef Martínez. The Atlanta United forward has been one of the brightest stars in the league and he was sorely missed last campaign. ACL injuries aren’t quite as debilitating as they once were, so hopefully we see the Venezuelan back to his best in 2021. TR

Atlanta United (hopefully) returning to their origins. The club abandoned its identity in selecting Frank de Boer to replace Tata Martino, United’s first manager. Now, the hire of Gabriel Heinze will hopefully usher in a return to the frenetic style MLS fans have been missing. They may not be that good, but they can be fun. CM

Austin FC’s expansion season. If you can look past the questionable circumstances that saw Anthony Precourt secure an MLS franchise in Texas, this is a club doing some interesting things. They have made some eye-catching signings (Tomas Pochettino), appear to have a solid sporting structure (Claudio Reyna) and will move into a stunning new stadium soon. They even have good uniforms! GR

Three new stadiums! Austin FC, playing their maiden season; FC Cincinnati, moving to a permanent home after two seasons in the league; and Columbus Crew, whose stadium deal helped keep the club in their city, will all find themselves in fresh digs in 2021. JF

Is 27 teams too many for MLS?

At one point I believed so. There’s a version of the MLS in my head with only 20 teams and better talent across the board. That said, I’ve accepted the inevitability that over time MLS will create its own “football pyramid”, and continued expansion is how we eventually get to some wacky version of promotion and relegation stateside. TR

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Commissioner Don Garber has already hinted MLS will become a 32-team league, but ask any player who competed in Europe before coming stateside: travel in MLS is too taxing and makes for worse soccer. If MLS won’t consider promotion-relegation, it should add regional divisions like other North American sports leagues. CM

Yes, in its current form. The lopsided schedule compromises the integrity of the regular season, with some teams facing more difficult fixtures than others. MLS is right to expand into new markets, but it surely has to work out a better, and fairer, system than the one currently in place. GR

No. The schedule will look strange compared to more traditional leagues but, as the league has grown, teams have improved their scouting, especially of South America. The world does not lack for talented players, and the more of them that get to play professionally, the better. JF

One bold prediction …

Austin FC hit the ground running and at least challenge for the playoffs. Expansion teams tend to have a rough go of it initially but there’s something special brewing in Texas. All that hard work behind the scenes, and off the pitch, will come to fruition on it. And if not … at least they’ll be full of goals. TR

MLS will announce a surprisingly lucrative TV deal. MLS ratings aren’t good compared to other leagues, and Garber has hinted it wouldn’t be ideal to negotiate a new deal during a pandemic. But live sports will be irresistible for broadcasters and somehow MLS will announce a TV deal worth more than $300m in annual fees, dwarfing the league’s current $90m annually. CM

NYC FC will leave Yankee Stadium … for Red Bull Arena. Ronny Deila’s side are already set to play some regular season fixtures at the home of their rivals due to scheduling issues at Yankee Stadium, but a full move will happen in 2021. The longer NYC FC’s search for a permanent home goes on, the more their stay at Yankee Stadium seems untenable. Red Bull Arena at least has an actual soccer field. Not a single turfed-over pitcher’s mound in sight. GR

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An MLS team will win the Concacaf Champions League in 2021. Mexican and Central American stadiums that normally provide some of the most intimidating crowds in the sport will have either limited or no attendance, boosting MLS teams’ odds. JF

Your MLS MVP will be …

Columbus Crew’s Lucas Zelarayan will be the attacking fulcrum for his team this season
Columbus Crew’s Lucas Zelarayan will be the attacking fulcrum for his team this season. Photograph: Greg Bartram/USA Today Sports

Lucas Zelarayán. A technical marvel, the Columbus Crew midfielder will shine this season with the improved attacking options around him. New additions Kevin Molino and Bradley Wright-Phillips bring a wealth of experience to an already formidable attack. They should only make Zelarayán’s job that much easier. Expect Gyasi Zardes to bag quite a few up top as Zelarayán shines putting that attacking puzzle together. TR

The voters can’t resist a goalscorer, and Carlos Vela is going to get a ton of goals. After spending much of 2020 sidelined for various reasons, he’ll return in 2021 refreshed and eager to win the Golden Boot and MVP awards, just as he did in 2019. CM

Carles Gil. His candidacy might not be as obvious as the likes of Carlos Vela’s, Josef Martínez’s (finally back from injury) or Alejandro Pozuelo’s, but the New England Revolution’s playoff chances depend almost entirely on Gil providing goals and assists. That will amplify his case having already shown his quality in the final stages of last season. GR

When he played last year, which wasn’t often courtesy of a left knee injury and his wife’s pregnancy, Carlos Vela looked every bit the star he was when he won this award in 2019. If LAFC can put it together with him in the lineup, he’ll be well on his way to a second. JF

Eastern Conference playoff teams

New England Revolution, Columbus Crew, Inter Miami, Atlanta United, Toronto FC, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union. TR

Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC, New England Revolution, Orlando City SC, Atlanta United, New York City FC. CM

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Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union, Atlanta United, New England Revolution, New York City FC, Orlando City, Toronto FC. GR

Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union, NYC FC, Atlanta United, Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls, Orlando City. JF

Western Conference playoff teams

Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, LAFC, Austin FC, Colorado Rapids, Minnesota United, FC Dallas. TR

LAFC, Minnesota United, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, Colorado Rapids. CM

Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles FC, Portland Timbers, Sporting KC, LA Galaxy, Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids. GR

LAFC, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Sporting KC, Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas. JF

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Your MLS Cup champions will be …

LAFC 4-2 Columbus Crew in the final. No big surprises in terms of the matchup itself as both clubs are shaping up to be the best in their respective conferences. But the attacking firepower of Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi will prove too much for the Crew in an exhilarating encounter. Rossi wins man of the match with a pair of assists and Vela caps off a brilliant season with a brace. TR

In LAFC’s three-year MLS existence, they’ve been a powerhouse during the regular season but could never put it together during the playoffs. This is their year. The talent on their roster is top-notch and, just as importantly, they’ve got a returning core of players who have suffered postseasons losses together. Collectively, this group will want to correct the embarrassment of failing to reach an MLS Cup, and they’ll beat the New England Revolution there, 3-1. CM

Only three teams have retained MLS Cup, but the Columbus Crew are a good bet to add their name to the list. Caleb Porter’s side don’t have any superstars, but they do have a squad without any obvious gaps. What’s more, the Crew will move into their new downtown stadium midway through the season. The momentum that will give to a strong team that already knows how to win could be significant, and they’ll beat LAFC 2-1 in MLS Cup. GR

LAFC will face off against Atlanta United in a showdown between two of the league’s most exciting goalscorers, Carlos Vela and Josef Martínez. Both teams will look to rebound after lackluster 2020 campaigns, which were knocked off rails by injuries to their strikers. Expect LAFC’s strength in numbers to prevail. LAFC 4-2 Atlanta United in the final. JF

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