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Ranking Each MLS Eastern Conference Team for 2021

| January 30, 2021 5:30 am PDT
Ranking MLS Eastern Conference Team 2021

The MLS Eastern Conference is going to look a whole lot different in 2021.

Ben Olsen won’t be leading DC United into the new season, Montreal Impact is now Club de Foot Montréal, while Toronto FC, Atlanta United, and Inter Miami all have a new head coach.

But as they say – the show must go on!

Philadelphia Union finished atop the East last year, claiming the Supporters’ Shield in the process. Meanwhile, FC Cincinnati ended up rock bottom of the table for the second campaign in a row.

So, how is the Eastern Conference likely to shape up this year? Below, I rank each MLS Eastern Conference team for 2021.

1. Columbus Crew

Fresh from securing the 2020 MLS Cup, I’m backing the Crew to pick up where they left off last season.

Caleb Porter’s men finished third in the 2020 Eastern Conference with a points-per-game average of 1.78, behind second-place Toronto FC (1.91) and first-place Philly (2.04). But I can see them outshining their rivals in the East in 2021.

Columbus’ roster was among the strongest in Major League Soccer last term, and with the recent arrival of MLS legends like Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kevin Molino, Porter’s squad is now arguably even better.

I can’t wait to see what the Crew brings to the table this year.

2. Toronto FC

With the exception of 2018, TFC hasn’t finished outside the top four in Eastern Conference in the past five seasons. Oh, and let’s not forget that Toronto clinched both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup back in 2017.

The Reds were on course to finish atop the East last term, too, before a sticky patch towards the end of the campaign saw them fall by the wayside. Still, they managed to end up second.

Long-standing leader Greg Vanney has since departed BMO Field, with ex-Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas being chosen as the man to guide the team into 2021. I’m expecting Armas to maintain TFC’s high standards, with 2020 MVP Alejandro Pozuelo set for another glittering season.

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3. Philadelphia Union

The Union clinched their first-ever Supporters’ Shield last term, ending the previous campaign as the only side with a +2.00 points-per-game average. It was a truly remarkable achievement, although it will be difficult for Philadelphia to replicate that level of success in 2021.

Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson were both named in the 2020 MLS Best XI, but the prodigies have since earned big-money moves to Europe. Needless to say, Philly will struggle to replace the highly-rated duo.

Notwithstanding, the club still has plenty of young prospects coming through the ranks, so the U should be able to achieve a respectable top-three finish this year.

4. New York City

It is no secret that New York City made a below-par start to the 2020 campaign. The Boys in Blue lost four of their opening five games last term, yet they eventually managed to climb to fifth in the East.

Having secured four consecutive top-three finishes between 2016 and 2019, last year was viewed as a bit of a failure for NYCFC. But I can see Ronny Deila’s men bouncing back when the new season gets underway.

Valentin Castellanos notched up six goals and two assists in his final seven regular-season appearances last term. If the Argentine hits the ground running in 2021, New York City will be difficult to stop.

Club captain Alexander Ring has departed for expansion team Austin FC, while teenage sensation Joe Scally has joined German side Borussia Monchengladbach. But NYCFC boasts more than enough quality to break back into the top four in the East.

NEW YORK CITY’S RECENT EASTERN CONFERENCE FINISHES
Season Finish Points Per Game Average
2016 2nd 1.59
2017 2nd 1.68
2018 3rd 1.65
2019 1st 1.88
2020 5th 1.70

5. Inter Miami

All things considered, Inter Miami’s inaugural Major League Soccer campaign didn’t go too badly.

The Herons scraped into the postseason at the eleventh hour, only to fall to fellow newcomers Nashville SC in the Eastern Conference play-in round. Still, they can take confidence from the fact that four teams finished below them in the standings, right?

This year, I’m expecting a lot more teams to finish below Inter Miami.

In Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi, the Florida outfit possess two of the most gifted players in MLS history. With Englishman Phil Neville now at the helm, the club will be able to attract even more big-name stars.

It is certainly an exciting time to be an Inter Miami supporter.

6. New York Red Bulls

Between 2010 and 2018, the Red Bulls topped the Eastern Conference no fewer than five times, winning the Supporters’ Shield on three occasions during that period.

However, the fallen giant heads into the 2021 season on the back of successive sixth-place finishes.

Chris Armas was sacked midway through the previous campaign, with ex-Barnsley manager Gerhard Struber taking the reins at Red Bull Arena. The team’s performances improved slightly following the change, but not dramatically.

It is likely to be another season of transition for the Red Bulls.

7. Atlanta United

Atlanta United’s fall from grace was one of the standout stories of the 2020 MLS season. Just two years after clinching the MLS Cup and one year after winning the Open Cup, the Five Stripes ended up third from bottom in last year’s Eastern Conference standings – and fourth from bottom overall.

It is no secret that Josef Martinez’s season-ending injury destroyed Atlanta’s campaign. The Venezuelan is one of the most prolific MLS Golden Boot winners of all time, but he barely kicked a ball last term.

With Martinez on the mend and exciting new arrivals such as Marcelino Moreno and Erik Lopez recently joining the club, I can see the Five Stripes breaking back into the top half of the Eastern Conference this year.

8. Orlando City

It’s safe to say that Orlando City was an unlikely MLS Cup contender last season. The Lions came from nowhere to finish fourth in the East, just a few months after going all the way to the final of the MLS is Back Tournament.

But the Florida club could find life a bit more difficult in 2021. With teams like Inter Miami and Atlanta United likely to offer stiffer competition, I wouldn’t be surprised if Orlando slipped down the standings this year.

Don’t get me wrong – eighth is still a respectable finish for Oscar Pareja’s men. If Chris Mueller and Nani pick up where they left off last term, they could even end up a little higher.

MOST 2020 MLS GOAL INVOLVEMENTS – EXCLUDING THE MLS IS BACK TOURNAMENT
Player Team Games Goals Assists Goal Involvements
Raul Ruidiaz Seattle Sounders 14 11 3 14
Jordan Morris Seattle Sounders 19 9 5 14
Alejandro Pozuelo Toronto FC 20 9 4 13
Gyasi Zardes Columbus Crew 18 9 4 13
Chris Mueller Orlando City 19 7 6 13

9. DC United

Only FC Cincinnati finished lower than DC United in the Eastern Conference last year, with the Black & Red arguably enduring the worst campaign of their 25-year stay in MLS.

For the first time in a decade, the club is set to start a Major League Soccer season without Ben Olsen at the helm.

The time-hallowed DC legend was relieved of his duties following a seven-game winless run in October 2020. Argentine head coach Hernan Losada – who recently managed Belgian side Beerschot – has been appointed as Olsen’s successor.

After such a drastic change, it is difficult to gauge exactly how DC will fare in 2021. A bottom-half finish feels about right.

10. Nashville SC

Ultimately, it is going to be extremely tough for Nashville SC to improve on their phenomenal maiden MLS campaign.

The Boys in Gold finished seventh in the Western Conference before seeing off Inter Miami and Toronto FC in the postseason. However, they fell to Columbus Crew in the conference semi-finals, despite pushing the eventual champs all the way to extra-time.

Center-back Walker Zimmerman was named Defender of the Year for his efforts, while goalkeeper Joe Willis found himself among the 2020 MLS stat leaders by achieving the most shutouts last season.

But at the other end of the pitch, Gary Smith’s men struggled for goals. In fact, they were the third-lowest scorers in the East last term. I can see their lack of cutting edge in attack costing them in 2021.

11. New England Revolution

The Revs have been one of Major League Soccer’s great underachievers in recent times. After finishing second in the Eastern standings back in 2014, they have failed to finish higher than fifth in any of the previous six seasons – and I can’t see them bucking that trend this year.

It is tricky to pinpoint exactly what needs to change in order for New England to get back among the East’s leading teams. The 2019 appointment of Bruce Arena felt like a turning point, yet the former USMNT head coach hasn’t been able to turn things around.

We could see the Revs record their lowest finish for a long time this year.

12. CF Montréal

CF Montréal – formerly Montreal Impact – underwent a total rebranding recently. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the off-field changes will make too much of a difference to the team’s on-field performances.

Despite qualifying for the postseason in 2020, the Canadians were knocked out by the Revs in the play-in round, meaning they didn’t actually reach the playoffs.

There are still question marks over Thierry Henry’s coaching ability. The Frenchman had a torrid time at Monaco before taking the Montreal job, and he hasn’t exactly proved his doubters wrong since arriving in MLS.

If results don’t go Montreal’s way at the start of the new campaign, Henry could be the first managerial casualty of the season.

13. Chicago Fire

It’s pretty clear that Chicago’s third-place finish in 2017 was somewhat of a fluke. The Fire finished rock bottom in the two seasons prior to that, and they have since found themselves battling at the bottom end of the standings in each of the past three campaigns.

Only Atlanta, DC, and Cincinnati finished below Raphael Wicky’s side last year, and I think we can all agree that all of those teams were terrible throughout 2020.

Robert Beric was a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy season for Chicago. The Slovenian forward netted 11 goals in 22 appearances last term, although I can’t see him getting too many opportunities in 2021.

14. FC Cincinnati

Sorry, Cincinnati supporters!

The Orange & Blue has finished rock bottom of both the Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings in each of their two campaigns in Major League Soccer. Sadly, I’m expecting a similar outcome this year.

Under Jaap Stam, the team has made some minor improvements. But there is no hiding from the fact that Cincinnati has been the worst team in MLS for two seasons now.

Another last-place finish is on the cards in 2021, unless the Ohio outfit can completely turn things around.

Final Thoughts

Whatever happens in the Eastern Conference this year, 2021 is set to be a thrilling season.

Philly faces tough competitions from the likes of the Crew and Toronto at the top, while Cincinnati will be aiming to avoid the embarrassment of finishing last for a third consecutive year.

The 2021 MLS season kicks off on April 3. If you can’t wait until then to get your Major League Soccer fix, why not check out some of my recent MLS posts?

Ben Morris
Ben Morris

Ben is a sportswriter and tipster who specializes in soccer. Currently based in the UK, he has traveled all around the world watching – and betting on – his beloved sport.

Alongside his regular soccer content, Ben publishes blogs and picks for cricket, Formula 1, Aussie rules, darts, and various other sports.

Ben is a diehard fan of Nottingham Forest and England, so he hasn’t had much to cheer about in recent years!

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