2017 MLS Season Preview

The 2017 MLS season kicks off in two days, when expansion team Minnesota United FC travel to Portland to take on the Timbers.  Last season was a phenomenal one, capped off by a dramatic penalty shoot-out that saw the Seattle Sounders spoil the party for host Toronto FC.  This year looks like it will be an exciting one, as well—the addition of two new teams, Minnesota and Atlanta United FC, along with all of the new, and incredibly talented, faces that found their way to MLS this season will make the competition for the MLS Cup higher than ever.  So how will the season play out?  Here are my thoughts about what will occur in the coming year:

 

Western Conference

  1. Minnesota United FC

One of two expansion teams entering the league this season, the Loons will be spearheaded by the underappreciated duo that helped ease Orlando’s transition from the USL to MLS—midfielder Kevin Molino and manager Adrian Heath.  They also reacquired the two players that made the club a NASL powerhouse, Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra.  The problem is that… well, that’s about it.  This team doesn’t have a lot of money in compared to some of their rivals, and while they have certainly made countless shrewd moves that will pay off in the near future, this team just won’t be that good this year.

  1. Vancouver Whitecaps

Carl Robinson is a fairly solid manager that gets more heat than he deserves, and the addition of Fredy Montero to partner with Kekuta Manneh in attack will give the ‘Caps arguably the best, if not the most versatile, attacking duo outside of Toronto.  The issue is that behind them, outside of goalie and captain David Ousted, there aren’t many players that are consistent enough to really consider Vancouver to be much more than a bottom feeder this season, particularly in midfield, which is especially important in a league that is quickly increasing its talent pool.  They need to fill those massive holes in the middle of the park before they can really get back into contention.

  1. Houston Dynamo

Houston seems to be in kind of a weird place.  The man widely tipped to become their permanent manager this year, last year’s interim, Wade Barrett, was let go and replaced by former Chivas USA man Wilmer Cabrera.  They have a solid back line, anchored by captain DeMarcus Beasley and new acquisition AJ DeLaGarza, but everyone on that defense except for DeLaGarza is on the wrong side of 30.  They have a lot of young Latin talent, headlined by Mexican youth star Erik “Cubo” Torres, but none of them, Torres especially, have proven that they can perform at the MLS level.  For that reason, I expect it to take a couple years before the Dynamo get back into the play-off race.

  1. Real Salt Lake

This past offseason the Royals parted with one of the greatest players in their club’s history in Javier Morales, but with Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando still performing at high levels, they still have a solid core in place.  Jeff Cassar and his staff actually managed to bolster the depth and talent of the midfield after Morales’s departure, signing a new DP in Albert Rusnak, securing a midfielder on loan from Liverpool, Brooks Lennon, and bringing back former youth product Luis Silva.  None of those midfielders are real scorers, though, and that’s where I think this team is the most deficient; they lack true scoring threats.  That’s the reason I can’t see them cracking the post-season this year.

  1. Colorado Rapids

The Rapids were one of the best stories of last season, a team that rose from one of the league’s bottom dwellers to one of the most electric teams in the league.  Their defense will remain as solid as ever, even in the absence of Tim Howard—back-up Zac MacMath is good enough to start in a lot of other cities—but the reason they’ll stay below the line this year is because of their attack.  Colorado scored the second-fewest goals in the league last season, and with the departure of Jermaine Jones and no real major additions, it doesn’t seem like their attack will have enough to allow them to keep up with the teams in front of them.  A year after being among the best, they’ll fall just short this year.

  1. San Jose Earthquakes

Dom Kinnear will be under a lot of pressure this season—his ‘Quakes haven’t made the play-offs in 4 seasons—and I think that the roster additions that he and his staff made to give Chris Wondolowski a bit of a helping hand will push them over the line.  The most important part about the newbies, headlined by Florian Jungwirth and Jahmir Hyka, is that they filled holes from back to front in the San Jose squad and that they’re proven in highly competitive professional leagues.  For those reasons, count on the ‘Quakes to top the Rapids and save Kinnear’s job.

  1. Sporting Kansas City

Sporting didn’t make many changes to its well-established group this past off-season—they’ll still be marshalled by Matt Besler at the back, fronted by Dom Dwyer, and operated in the midfield by the trio of Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, and Benny Feilhaber.  That group alone is enough to boost Peter Vermes’s team into the play-offs, but Zusi has started to fade off as a scoring threat from his favored left flank, and so KC may struggle to get the goal-scoring they’ll need to really compete for the top.  Until they get somebody that can truly ease some of the burden off of Dwyer, they’ll be stuck in the middle of the conference.

  1. Portland Timbers

Portland is set up to be one of the league’s highest goal scorers, with speedsters Darlington Nagbe and Fernando Adi leading a very versatile attack; they certainly won’t lack for offense.  However, they might have some problems on defense—stalwart Nat Borchers is retired, captain Liam Ridgewell has struggled with some injuries, and the team never really replaced Jorge Villefana after his departure for Mexico.  If Caleb Porter can sort out this team’s back line, watch out; until then, the Timbers will have to hope that their offense can hold up their defense, and come October, that’ll be a tough ask.

  1. Los Angeles Galaxy

The biggest names from last year’s squad—Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, and manager Bruce Arena—are all starting new phases of their lives, but the Galaxy will be just fine, re-tooling around their remaining star, Giovanni dos Santos.  They re-upped Jelle van Damme to hold down the fort in back and added Romain Alessandrini to support dos Santos in attack.  The Galaxy aren’t as deep, and don’t have as much talent from top to bottom, as their great teams of years past, but Curt Onalfo and crew are still among the top five teams in the league.

  1. FC Dallas

Oscar Pareja’s squad won the Supporters’ Shield last season, and even though Seattle’s off-season additions give them a slight edge to win it this year, Dallas will still be a force to be reckoned with.  Javier Morales was signed away from Real Salt Lake and will deputize for Mauro Diaz until the star returns from injury, providing the team with a great veteran midfielder to keep the attack ticking.  The team also bulked up at the back by adding Hernan Grana and Anibal Chala, which allows young up-and-comer Kellyn Acosta to play his natural position in the center of midfield.  A dangerous attack headlined by newcomer Cristian Coleman completes the team.

  1. Seattle Sounders

The fact that the Sounders managed to gel so fast with mid-season signing Nicolas Lodeiro last year was impressive; that they were able to pull out a championship without their captain, Clint Dempsey, was even better.  Seattle lost a couple of important role players this off-season in Eric Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, and Zach Scott, but having signed younger, and arguably more talented, depth players in the forms of Harry Shipp, Will Bruin, and Gustav Svensson, Brian Schmetzer should have no problem leading this team back to the top of the conference, especially if Dempsey comes back and plays anything like he is capable of.

 

Eastern Conference

  1. Philadelphia Union

I would love to move the Union up the standings—their manager, Jim Curtin, was a stud as a center back for my hometown Fire.  Andre Blake is a future USMNT starter, Alejandro Bedoya is one of the most underrated players in the current US setup, and Kegan Roseberry has shown potential to be a steady force from right back for years to come.  Outside of those guys, though, there isn’t much that the Union can rely on, whether it’s due to age (Oguchi Onyewu, Chris Pontius), injury (Maurice Edu, Joshua Yaro), or a simple lack of talent—the team doesn’t really have a ton of proven depth, either.  Expect the Union to struggle mightily this season.

  1. New England Revolution

New England has some incredible creativity in its team—their attack could theoretically feature Kei Kamara, Juan Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen, and Diago Fagundez, all extraordinarily talented players.  The problem is that all of those players are extraordinarily inconsistent, and if last season is anything to go by, they don’t gel well together at all.  The defense is also a bit of a question mark—the only truly reliable performer that they have is Chris Tierney, and it’s uncertain how the re-tooled backline, which sees former right back Andrew Farrell move in to center back, will function.  In what could be a make-or-break year for former Revs great, solid coach and solid man, Jay Heaps, I, unfortunately, see a break in their future.

  1. Orlando City

I loved Orlando’s hiring of Jason Kreis last season—Adrian Heath is a good manager, but Kreis is a great one with an incredible track record.  Every other move that the team has made since then, though, has been a little curious.  Putting faith in Will Johnson to man the center of midfield, despite the former Toronto FC man struggling a bit last season, and not getting him a back-up will cost them.  Trading Brek Shea for Gilles Barnes was good value, but left a hole in their defense.  All in all, this team has some decent talent, but their roster is a mish mosh of borderline starters and guys that might be better served playing in Heath’s old system.  I just don’t think the Lions will be able to find enough consistency to be good this year.

  1. Chicago Fire

The Fire have been struggling for years, but this season they should be competitive enough to make some noise in the play-off race.  They added striker Nemanja Nikolic to give speedster David Accam some help in attack and acquired midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho to shore up the center of the park.  The Fire attack is still missing a playmaker, and there’s some questions about their defense—they have potential building blocks in Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell, but the unit as a whole doesn’t inspire much confidence at the moment—so they won’t end their playoff draught, but manager Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez have this team moving in the right direction.

  1. Montreal Impact

The Impact attack will be incredibly dynamic, led by the creative force of Ignacio Piatti, who will be joined by the undervalued pair of speedster Dominic Oduro and Matteo Moncosu.  The team also has Belgian international Laurent Ciman manning central defense, so they should be fine there, as well.  I’m extremely worried about their midfield, though—captain Patrice Bernier is 37, and there really isn’t anybody that stands out on either side of the ball that I think can step up and make a real difference.  Montreal were part of one of the most incredible pair of games in play-off history against their Canadian rivals in Toronto, but that lack of real presences in midfield will see them miss out on the post-season this year.

  1. Atlanta United FC

There’s a lot of factors working against Atlanta this season—they’re an expansion team.  Their manager is new to MLS.  They don’t have an established goalkeeper.  Many of their new acquisitions haven’t played much recently as they waited for the new club to launch.  However, the attacking talent that Tata Martino and company have accumulated, headlined by striker Kenwyne Jones and attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron, makes it impossible for me to keep the ATL out of the play-offs.  Their defense, marshalled by Greg Garza and Michael Parkhurst, will be decent, as well, but not having a stable partner for Parkhurst, and the lack of a holding presence in front of the D, will keep them from the conference’s upper reaches.

  1. New York Red Bulls

Ali Curtis and Dax McCarty have both left the club, so the ball is squarely in manager Jesse Marsch’s court this season—he’ll have to really deliver to assure that he keeps his job next year.  Having Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan in your team is a good start, and if his performance in Monday’s USA U-20 victory is any indication, Tyler Adams has the potential to fill, and possibly exceed, McCarty’s contribution to the team.  However, the Red Bulls didn’t really add anybody that can ease some of Wright-Phillips’s scoring burden or help steady their inconsistent defense—Aurélien Collin isn’t getting any younger—and for those reasons, I think the Red Bulls will be good, but not good enough to crack the conference’s upper echelon.

  1. Columbus Crew

Columbus was really, really bad last year—they never were able to recover from their early season drama, performing poorly at home and only picking up more points than two other teams.  Now that Kei Kamara is gone for good, though, the Crew can re-establish their efficient style and make a run at the conference’s big guns.  Ola Kamara and Federico Higuain will keep the attack ticking, Ethan Finlay will provide speed on the flanks, Wil Trapp and the underrated Tony Tchani will hold down the middle of the field, and new additions John Mensah and Zach Steffan will solidify a shaky defense.  Expect Gregg Berhalter’s crew to rebound and make the play-offs this year.

  1. DC United

United has built its brand on being solid, but not spectacular, and while this team was constructed in the same vain, it is certainly the most talented team that they’ve had in former star Ben Olsen’s tenure as manager.  Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam went on a tear at the end of last year, and assuming that they can regain at least most of their scoring touch from last season, the rest of the roster is all set—Bill Hamid and Bobby Boswell make a fantastic goalkeeper-center back pairing, and the midfield was bolstered by the addition of former USMNT star John Harkes’s son, Ian.  United won’t be flashy, but they’ll get the job done more often than not and crack the top three in the conference.

  1. New York City FC

Patrick Vieira’s squad definitely has some issues—there isn’t a ton of depth, and the defense will probably not win any awards anytime soon—but there’s a lot to like about this team.  They upgraded at goalie by trading for former Fire shot-stopper Sean Johnson while getting younger around maestro Andrea Pirlo in midfield.  They also added former Portland winger Rodney Wallace to an attack that already boasts one of the best strikers (David Villa) and young wide players (Jack Harrison) in the game.  Their D won’t be steady enough to see them topple Toronto at the top of the conference, but you can certainly expect that the Blues to make some noise in their attempt to do so.

  1. Toronto FC

Almost nothing has changed from the team that lost last year’s MLS Cup, a game they arguably deserved to win—squad member Will Johnson is the only loss—and that’s certainly a great thing for Greg Vanney and company.  If anything, this squad is slightly stronger, with new signings Chris Mavinga and Victor Vazquez pushing the 11 returning starters for playing time.  Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when you have three of the league’s best, and biggest, players in Sebastian Giovinco, Joy Altidore, and captain Michael Bradley.  With little turnover and lots of talent and motivation, Toronto will certainly be the team to beat in the East.

 

Playoffs

Eastern Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

LA Galaxy over San Jose

Portland over Sporting KC

Conference Semifinals

Seattle over Portland

FC Dallas over LA Galaxy

Conference Final

FC Dallas over Seattle

 

Western Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

Atlanta over DC United

Columbus over New York Red Bulls

Conference Semifinals

Toronto over Atlanta

NYCFC over Columbus

Conference Final

Toronto over NYCFC

 

MLS Cup

FC Dallas over Toronto

 

Awards

MVP: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

Coach of the Year: Gerardo Martino, Atlanta United FC

Rookie of the Year: Ian Harkes, DC United

Newcomer of the Year: Hector “Tito” Villalba, Atlanta United FC

Surprise of the Year: Javier Morales, FC Dallas

 

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