Atlanta United FC, NY Red Bulls enter 2019 as MLS’ Eastern Conference elite

Both conference finalists from last year remain the teams to beat as the league kicks off its new season this weekend.

The MLS season kicks off Saturday, and the Eastern Conference has two teams that clearly are the class of the conference.

Atlanta United FC, the reigning MLS Cup champions, conquered the league in its inaugural season. It has a new coach in Frank de Boer and designated player in midfielder Pity Martinez. Martinez won the Copa Libertadores with Argentina’s River Plate and was named the 2018 South American player of the year. He’ll need to replace the production of Miguel Almiron, who netted 12 goals and notched a team-leading 14 assists before moving on to the Premier League’s Newcastle United.

Last season, Atlanta finished second in the race for the Supporters’ Shield, given to the MLS’ top regular-season team. Having the consistency to win that while searching for a second title will be its goal, but won’t come easy. The club is competing in the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time, which can stretch starters thin over a long year.

Should Atlanta stumble, the New York Red Bulls will be lying in wait. New York City FC’s Hudson River Derby rivals won the Shield in 2018 and return integral pieces of a potent offense including, Bradley Wright-Phillips (20 goals, 8 assists) and Kaku (14 assists, 6 goals).

Aaron Long is a key to the Red Bulls’ back line after being named the MLS’ top defender last year. He’ll pair as a center back with Tim Parker, who signed a three-year, $2.4 million deal this offseason.

Kieran Lynch