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2024 MLS staff predictions: Full standings, MLS Cup, MVP and more

Given the level of parity in MLS, the margins between success and failure can be extremely thin for every team in the league. The Athletic’s MLS writers have laid out possible futures for each club, as well as the player(s) who are likely to play the biggest role in deciding which way the season goes for their side. In addition, each writer laid out their predicted standings for each conference, Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup winners, plus the players they think will claim the golden boot and MVP awards (spoiler: some have even selected players not named “Lionel Messi”!).

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MLS 101: Trophies, key storylines and USMNT connections


Every MLS team in three sentences

Atlanta United

One good scenario: Atlanta United secures a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference by playing consistently good soccer at home and on the road.

One bad scenario: The above is a bare minimum objective for Atlanta in 2024, and if they fail to meet it head coach Gonzalo Pineda could be out when his contract expires at season’s end.

X-factor: Thiago Almada is the obvious choice here, but he may be gone in the summer, and Giorgos Giakoumakis has to be the man for Atlanta in the long haul if they hope to compete for an MLS Cup this year and beyond.

Austin FC

One good scenario: The good vibes from 2022 come rushing back, with Sebastian Driussi again in an MVP race as the team returns to the playoffs.

One bad scenario: The stale vibes from 2023 come lingering back, with Driussi bearing too much responsibility in an underwhelming attack.

X-factor: Diego Rubio has quietly been among MLS’ more dependable strikers for nearly a decade, and his ability in the game’s less-glamorous phases could help Driussi focus on igniting the attack.

Charlotte FC

One good scenario: Dean Smith significantly raises the floor, Charlotte gets one of their very ambitious DP targets over the line and suddenly they’re one of the most pleasant surprises in MLS.

One bad scenario: It takes a bit of time for Smith to mold the group and the lack of top-end talent pulls Charlotte down the Eastern Conference table.

X-factor: The X-factor isn’t on the roster yet because it has to be the quality of the new DP(s) arriving, following the departures of Karol Swiderski and Kamil Jozwiak.

Chicago Fire

One good scenario: A return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, and only the second(!) time since 2012.

One bad scenario: If Hugo Cuypers flops as a big-money DP, it will be a harsh indictment of owner Joe Mansueto’s decision to give the front office a third chance at building a roster.

X-factor: Cuypers, the $12 million forward who scored 26 goals in 44 games for Gent last season, needs to be a game-changing scorer in MLS to justify the record transfer.

FC Cincinnati

One good scenario: Luciano Acosta puts up another MVP-caliber season, Aaron Boupendza keeps producing at an unheard-of rate and Pat Noonan continues his development as the league’s most promising young head coach.

One bad scenario: Cincy excelled in close games last year, winning 14 of them by a single goal, but those razor-thin margins could be difficult to maintain without players like Brandon Vazquez and Yerson Mosquera.

X-factor: Cincy was sound defensively last year, but the addition of Miles Robinson to its backline has the chance to make them among the league’s elite teams in that respect.


The Columbus Crew defeated LAFC to win the 2023 MLS Cup. (Photo by Maddie Meyer, Getty Images)

Columbus Crew

One good scenario: Cucho Hernández stays healthy and scores 20+ goals.

One bad scenario: Diego Rossi regresses in year two under Wilfried Nancy.

X-factor: Columbus has an MVP candidate in Hernández but his club has now officially embraced Nancy’s coaching philosophy, and if his tactics and culture get stronger in ‘24, we could see the rise of a new MLS dynasty.

Colorado Rapids

One good scenario: An ambitious offseason makeover coalesces on the fly, with Djordje Mihailovic putting in around a 10g/10a campaign and the team playing its best stuff since 2016.

One bad scenario: The new pieces need more time to settle, with Chris Armas needing a season to acclimate as he coaches in the Western Conference for the first time.

X-factor: Zack Steffen will be eager to return to the USMNT goalkeeping conversation and hope to be the second straight goalkeeper to help a Western side excel under a former New York Red Bulls head coach in as many seasons.

FC Dallas

One good scenario: Dallas becomes far more dangerous in the final third and makes their first real push for a trophy since 2016.

One bad scenario: Alan Velasco’s absence is more glaring than hoped and Dallas regresses and falls out of the playoffs for the second time in the last four seasons.

X-factor: Dallas splashed out a club-record $9.7 million fee on Benfica forward Petar Musa in the hopes that he can transform their efficiency in front of goal.

D.C. United

One good scenario: D.C. keeps things simple, relies on new head coach Troy Lesesne to go back to basics on the field and GM Ally Mackay to make a few shrewd roster decisions off of it and makes the playoffs for the first time in five years.

One bad scenario: Christian Benteke, who last year was almost the singular focus of United’s attack, falls flat and D.C.’s backline and aging midfield — both of which still have holes — does the same.

X-factor: Ted Ku-DiPietro was easily United’s most pleasant surprise in an otherwise dour 2023, and if the 22-year-old can continue combining well with Benteke and can create a few more moments of individual brilliance, D.C. will be far better for it.

Houston Dynamo

One good scenario: Houston was maybe the league’s biggest surprise last year, St. Louis City aside, and Ben Olsen’s tightly-knit, semi-chaotic bunch continues trending upward and displays the pliability and unpredictability that made them such a tough opponent in 2023.

One bad scenario: Hector Herrera shows his age, the Dynamo drift back into their mediocre ways and Shell Energy Stadium drifts closer to its former, very empty state.

X-factor: As Herrera goes, so go the Dynamo; if he puts up another outstanding year and his dedication to the club remains, Houston will continue to prosper.


Former Barcelona teammates Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez reunited on Inter Miami’s roster. (Photo by Megan Briggs, Getty Images)

Inter Miami

One good scenario: Lionel Messi stays healthy and dominates.

One bad scenario: Messi and friends struggle with injuries throughout the season and Inter Miami ends the year without a trophy.

X-factor: It’s obviously Messi — Inter Miami’s success will depend on how prolific the 36-year-old Inter Miami captain can be during what will be a very busy season.

Los Angeles Galaxy

One good scenario: The West’s midfields are unable to keep up with Riqui Puig’s mazing dribbles down the pitch, helping launch the Spaniard into the MVP conversation with Gabriel Pec as a worthy deputy.

One bad scenario: It’s a continuation of the team’s post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era: some fantastic days, some bafflingly poor ones, and a team that never quite lives up to the sum of its parts.

X-factor: New right back Miki Yamane was among the J1 League’s best chance creators at any position, and he should have a quicker adjustment time with Japan teammate Maya Yoshida also in the locker room.

Los Angeles FC

One good scenario: The reigning, two-time conference champions continue their mojo into 2024, and a high-profile summer signing leads the attack back to MLS Cup for a third consecutive season.

One bad scenario: A lack of firepower up top is exposed and Denis Bouanga gets his desired summer move to France, sinking LAFC to mid-table status.

X-factor: Cristian Olivera didn’t quite make the intended impact upon arriving in August, but with a full preseason and more responsibility available without Carlos Vela, he can be every bit as enticing as compatriot Diego Rossi was in LAFC’s earlier years.

Minnesota United

One good scenario: A proven veteran core overcomes the club’s decision to go an entire preseason without a permanent head coach to return to the postseason and, in a forgiving first-round format, pull off an upset to return to the season’s business end.

One bad scenario: The team’s decision to not hire a coach until the final week of the offseason backfires, and the consequences of that delay keep the Loons out of the playoffs in a lost season.

X-factor: It’s anybody’s guess how quickly Eric Ramsay can impart his vision onto this roster, but Bongi Hlongwane was a revelation in 2023 and, if he can refine his finishing and provide greater consistency, he could be one of MLS’ best wingers.

CF Montreal

One good scenario: Nathan Saliba, Jules-Anthony Vilsaint and Rida Zouhir make good on their promise as intriguing, young, local players with serious playing time and Montreal just rides that wave of optimism.

One bad scenario: Montreal’s lack of spending catches up with them early on and they get chewed up and spit out in a treacherous-looking Eastern Conference.

X-factor: Montreal doesn’t have a ton of stability going on in attack and they’re making a serious bet that 2018 MLS golden boot winner Josef Martinez can stay healthy and put up numbers.

Nashville SC

One good scenario: Sam Surridge and Hany Mukhtar form one of the most promising attacking partnerships in Major League Soccer, and the boys from Music City finally shed their reputation as a meat-and-potatoes, boring side.

One bad scenario: After years of playing the same fundamentally sound yet incredibly predictable style, Nashville is punished for their vanilla approach and misses the playoffs for the first time in its history.

X-factor: Surridge showed great promise in spurts last year but faded when it counted — 2024 will be a massive test for the former Bournemouth striker.


Designated player Emil Forsberg joined the Red Bulls this offseason. (Photo by Howard Smith, Getty Images)

New York Red Bulls

One good scenario: Emil Forsberg truly is a best XI-caliber player in MLS and Dante Vanzeir lives up to the billing from last season, lifting the attack to complement the typically strong defense.

One bad scenario: Forsberg can’t do it all alone, Lewis Morgan gets hurt again and Vanzeir turns out to be a bust, meaning the group languishes down around the playoff line or worse with growing apathy from fans.

X-factor: Forsberg seems like a safe bet to be great, but he can’t carry the attack alone, so that makes Vanzeir the X-factor.

New York City FC

One good scenario: Anchored by a robust spine of James Sands, Keaton Parks, Thiago Martins and Birk Risa, NYCFC’s strong batch of highly-rated young attackers gets plenty of support to shine.

One bad scenario: The teenage attackers are more inconsistent than productive as they develop, the group continues their disappointing performances from 2023 and they’re looking for a new manager sooner than later.

X-factor: NYCFC has struggled mightily for a consistent goal scorer since Taty Castellanos left and now turn to 18-year-old Serbian youth international Jovan Mijatovic, signed for around $8.6 million.

New England Revolution

One good scenario: Carles Gil continues to perform as one of the best, most consistent players in the league and carries the group with plenty of talent around him, so long as the backline holds up.

One bad scenario: The last time we saw Caleb Porter, he missed the playoffs with the Columbus Crew … who won MLS Cup with essentially the same roster a year later under Nancy.

X-factor: Henrich Ravas doesn’t need to be one of the best shot-stoppers in MLS history like his predecessors (Matt Turner and Djordje Petrovic) were, but he can’t be disastrous like the goalkeeping situation was down the stretch in 2023.

Orlando City

One good scenario: Luis Muriel and Nico Lodeiro are game-changing presences, form a top connection and push the Lions to their second trophy in the last three seasons.

One bad scenario: That winning 11 of their final 14 games last season was a fluke, the underlying numbers from 2023 are more indicative of their strength, and they regress toward the mean (and tumble down the table).

X-factor: The 34-year-old Lodeiro was brought in to replace his countryman, Mauricio Pereyra, but has to show he can still be a top-level creator and replace the 33 assists Pereyra had over the past three seasons.

Philadelphia Union

One good scenario: Riding the same core group of players that has pushed them to the brink of the promised land in year’s past, the Union finally takes that final step and wins their first MLS Cup.

One bad scenario: Philly finally gets punished for a now decade-plus-long lack of financial ambition, and the fact that they have rarely, if ever, had an upper-echelon, elite playmaker — the type of player necessary to take that final step.

X-factor: The continued growth of the club’s young players, like Quinn Sullivan and Jack McGlynn — isn’t this always the story with Philly?

Portland Timbers

One good scenario: Evander performs like one of the league’s best No. 10s, the new-look defense holds up and the mystery DP attacker that is signed hits the ground running and Portland contends in a wide-open West.

One bad scenario: The defense is light and doesn’t hold up while Evander is more average than spectacular and Portland is middling … or worse.

X-factor: A lot rides on the shoulders of new arrivals Kamal Miller and Maxime Crepeau to fix and stabilize the Timbers defense.


Diego Luna, 20, had a breakout year in 2023. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

Real Salt Lake

One good scenario: Continued inspiration under Pablo Mastroeni and a double-digit goal-scoring season from Cristian Arango leads to a fourth consecutive playoff season.

One bad scenario: RSL can’t replace the leadership or production of Damir Kreilach, Danny Musovski and Jefferson Savarino (16G, 11A) and drop out of the playoff picture.

X-factor: Can 20-year-old Diego Luna produce at a top level and become a productive chance creator in MLS after being hyped up and coming off a January USMNT camp appearance?

San Jose Earthquakes

One good scenario: The returning core carries momentum from last year’s late push, newcomer Amahl Pellegrino is an immediate leading goalscorer and, in an uncertain Western Conference, the stability keeps them in the playoff places as less established rosters figure it out.

One bad scenario: The lack of top-end talent relative to the rest of the league keeps Luchi Gonzalez’s team from making a step forward, and some teams that finished below them in the 2023 table surpass them by year’s end.

X-factor: An early-season adductor injury kept Niko Tsakiris from a full breakout season last year, but the midfielder is one of the United States’ top teenage midfield prospects and, if he can consistently play at an MLS level, could become a vital orchestrator for the Quakes.

Seattle Sounders

One good scenario: One of the deepest, most talented teams in the league lives up to its potential and challenges for both a Supporters’ Shield and an MLS Cup.

One bad scenario: The Sounders made a major investment in Pedro de la Vega, including a $6 million transfer fee, in order to be more effective and dangerous in the final third, but if they can’t find more goals it might be a season that once again falls short in the playoffs.

X-factor: While De la Vega adds some firepower, the Sounders need Jordan Morris to once again lead the line and be a double-digit goal scorer.

Sporting Kansas City

One good scenario: Every depth player meets or exceeds their expected contributions, enabling the possibility of more rotation to create a fresher team come playoff time, which manager Peter Vermes takes advantage of.

One bad scenario: Age-related drops in form hit the team’s leaders: winger Johnny Russell (33), striker Alan Pulido (32), defender Andreu Fontas (34), and goalkeeper Tim Melia (37).

X-factor: If Daniel Salloi produces like he did in 2021 and at the end of 2023, KC will have one of the best attacking trios in the league, which makes them a threat almost regardless of how the rest of the team performs.

St. Louis City

One good scenario: The concentrated improvements at fullback and in midfield help the team evolve and stay ahead of the pack in the West.

One bad scenario: Teams have a better scouting report on how to overcome Bradley Carnell’s system and some good luck will balance out, causing St. Louis to regress into the middle of the conference.

X-factor: Samuel Adeniran and Aziel Jackson both showed flashes of brilliance in 2023, but greater consistency in the final third could make them undroppable for the defending Western Conference champs.

Toronto FC

One good scenario: Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi produce as they’re paid to do while John Herdman coaches up the bottom half of the roster to at least provide suffering fans a glimmer of hope.

One bad scenario: Those aforementioned Italian DPs again clash with their head coach and those same fans stop showing up to games.

X-factor: Herdman has worked his magic at the international level with Canada, but how will his energy and approach fare in the day-to-day grind of his first professional club coaching gig?

Vancouver Whitecaps

One good scenario: Ryan Gauld and Brian White don’t regress and put up something similar to the 27 goals and 16 assists they combined for last season.

One bad scenario: Vanni Sartini’s charismatic charm starts to wane within the team and they fail to play the kind of inspired soccer that got people talking in 2023.

X-factor: Ali Ahmed, 23, looks to be on the precipice of becoming a Canadian star. Can he be leaned on heavily to continue his ascent and provide both dynamic play and depth to the roster?


Staff predictions

Western Conference Standings

 

Eastern Conference Standings

MLS Cup

Writer Western team Eastern team Winner

Bogert

Seattle Sounders*

Miami

Cardenas

LAFC*

Inter Miami

Kloke

LAFC*

Inter Miami

Maurer

RSL

Columbus*

Rueter

Real Salt Lake

Columbus*

Tenorio

LAFC*

Inter Miami

*asterisk to denote home team 

MVP

Writer Player Team

Bogert

Columbus

Cardenas

Inter Miami

Kloke

Inter Miami

Maurer

Inter Miami

Rueter

Columbus

Tenorio

Inter Miami

Golden Boot

Writer Player Team

Bogert

Columbus Crew

Cardenas

Atlanta United

Kloke

Atlanta United

Maurer

Inter Miami

Rueter

Nashville SC

Tenorio

Atlanta United


Boldest prediction you can muster

Bogert: Inter Miami finishes closer to seventh than first in the East … but wins MLS Cup. This team is built for knockout tournaments, not the long slog of an MLS regular season.

Cardenas: Luis Suarez will retire before the end of the season.

Maurer: Lionel Messi will live up to the hype. To many, this may feel obvious, but wouldn’t we all be at least a little shocked if he scored 30 goals, led Miami to the playoffs and cemented his still-very-much-up-in-the-air legacy as a difference-maker in MLS?

Rueter: Tom took mine about Miami not being built to thrive in a regular season, so I’ll give you another. At least half of Xherdan Shaqiri’s goals scored in 2024 will come from his two games against Inter Miami.

Tenorio: MLS will hit double digits in coaches fired again in 2024.

(Top image: Getty Images; Design: Daniel Goldfarb)


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