If SB Nation's soccer editors are correct, Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy will be the cream of the MLS crop this year. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

SB Nation MLS Power Rankings, First Kick Edition: The 18 Storylines That Will Define The 18 Teams

19 editors from around SB Nation soccer give their final preseason impressions of how they see the teams stacking up.

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SB Nation MLS Power Rankings, First Kick Edition: The 18 Storylines That Will Define The 18 Teams

For SB Nation Soccer's final preseason MLS power rankings, we decided to do something a little different. Instead of presenting the poll in one big chunk, the way we usually do and will continued to do throughout the season, we wanted to break it up into four distinct chunks.

Each tier will be followed by a small write-up on each team, examining what we believe will be the storyline that will define that team's season. Some of those storylines are presented in the forms of questions, others more as mottos.

First, here's a recap of how we do our rankings: Each of the 19 participants puts Major League Soccer's clubs into one of the four tiers. Teams in the top tier get three points. Next tier, two points, then one, then zero. Voters can put as many teams into each tier as they see fit. Though the vote total orders the teams, the clubs are intended to be grouped, not sorted. Although some of the names may indicate otherwise, the point of this is to assess current form and our voters are instructed to place teams in tiers based how those teams will fair in coming weeks.

Who participated: Richard Farley (SB Nation, soccer); Jeremiah Oshan (SB Nation, soccer); Kevin McCauly (SB Nation, soccer); Aaron Campeau (SB Nation, soccer); Ryan Rosenblatt (SB Nation, soccer); Steve Davis (Daily Soccer Fix); Ben Schneider (Once a Metro); Martin Shatzer (Black and Red United); Scott Kessler (Brotherly Game); Chris "UZ" White (Burgundy Wave); Zach Woosley (Dynamo Theory); Denzel Eslinger (RSL Soapbox); Robert Jonas (Quake, Rattle and Goal); Daniel Robertson (Big D Soccer); Dave Clark (Sounder at Heart); Andy Edwards (The Daily Wiz); Geoff Gibson (Stumptown Footy), Duncan Fletcher (Waking the Red), Steve Stoehr (The Bent Musket).


SB Nation Power Rankings, Tier 1: Playing For The Shield

The three teams that made our top tier did so either unanimously, or very close to it. There was only one of our 19 voters who didn't feel the Los Angeles Galaxy were worthy of the top tier and just three who don't quite believe in the New York Red Bulls. For these teams, their seasons will clearly be defined by the amount of hardware they win.

Playing For The Shield

Real Salt Lake

100% (57 out of 57 points)

LA Galaxy

98% (56 out of 57 points)

New York Red Bulls

94% (54 out of 57 points)

Real Salt Lake: The Quest for the Quad

On its face, trying to win four championships in one year seems absolutely absurd. No MLS team has so much as won three, after all, so why even talk about going for four. Yet that seems to be the goal RSL has set, whether implicitly or tacitly. The first part of that quest continues on Tuesday, when RSL take on Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. If RSL can win that two-legged playoff and advance to the finals, that would mean additional competitive matches going through the end of April. Then there's U.S. Open Cup qualifying, and of course the continuation of the MLS regular season.

It's enough to tax any team in any league, let alone one in MLS that has both strict roster and salary limits. But if any team can do it, RSL seems well position to give it a shot. Last year, they handled the increased load of the CCL group stage just fine, although some insist on blaming their early MLS playoff exit on the added workload. This year, the only real difference is that the added work is coming early in the season, as opposed to late. If they can manage it all, this could be real breakthrough season not just for RSL, but for the league as a whole.

LA Galaxy: MLS Cup or Bust

There may be a somewhat open debate among some about whether winning the Supporters' Shield is as big of an accomplishment as winning the MLS Cup, but there's no such confusion in Los Angeles: the reigning Shield winners know nothing less than the MLS Cup will do. This team is clearly built for an all-in run this year, as the chances of Juan Pablo Angel returning for a second year seem slim, at best, and Landon Donovan seems destined for a return to Europe. In those two players, the Galaxy have statistically the two best offensive players in the league over the past four years (a combined 109 goals and 59 assists), but remarkably little scoring depth beyond them.

Assuming those two stay healthy and continue to produce at a reasonable clip, this team is likely to go as far as their defense can take them. Omar Gonzalez, Sean Franklin and AJ De La Garza are all young and coming off solid seasons. But they are not perfect, as evidenced by FC Dallas' dismantling of their defense in last year's Western Conference finals. Whether Dallas exposed a weakness that will be exploited or merely found a hole that will quickly be patched will probably determine whether this team accomplishes its main goal.

New York Red Bulls: Revolutionizing roster construction

Of the 28 players currently listed on the Red Bulls roster, just eight were born in the United States. With MLS roster rules limiting the number of international players, many of those foreign-born players are either now citizens or have green cards. But the fact remains that the Red Bulls are expanding their scope for possible talent allocation to a degree previously unseen in MLS. In many ways, it's an experiment that should some interesting results. There are 20 different nationalities represented on a roster that features two Norwegians and a Swede on the technical staff. Just five players and no one on the coaching staff have been in New York for more than a year.

This is probably not what the league's founders had in mind, but the Red Bulls already showed how quickly a team can be turned around when they went from finishing last in the East in 2009 to finishing first in 2010 by thinking differently than their competitors. Now they'll see if they can take it another step. If they're successful, this could very well be a template other teams try to follow.


SB Nation Power Rankings, Tier 2: Enjoy The Playoffs

There are really two tiers within this one tier, as FC Dallas, the Seattle Sounders and the Colorado Rapids all just barely missed out on Tier 1, while Sporting Kansas City and the San Jose Earthquakes fit this tier are little more clearly. It is interesting to note that our voters only considered two teams, SKC and the New York Red Bulls, to be likely playoff teams.

Enjoy The Playoffs

FC Dallas

82% (47 out of 57 points)

Seattle Sounders

82% (47 out of 57 points)

Colorado Rapids

78% (45 out of 57 points)

Sporting Kansas City

61% (35 out of 57 points)

San Jose Earthquakes

54% (31 out of 57 points)

FC Dallas: Watching the youngsters develop

Coming off their most successful season in club history, the Toros underwent a surprisingly significant amount of change since their MLS Cup appearance. Gone are major contributors like Dax McCarty, Heath Pearce, Atiba Harris and Jeff Cunningham. Mostly in their place are younger players like Ruben Luna, Eric Avila, Eric Alexander and Fabian Castillo. All but Castillo have been with the team for at least a year, and are expected to play larger roles than they have in the past. There are seven teenagers already listed on the team's roster - six of whom were signed as Home Grown Players - and just eight players older than 25. FC Dallas may not be the youngest team in the league, but they will likely be the youngest to be competing for the MLS Cup. If Schellas Hyndman can guide this team to some silverware this year, this could be the start of the next MLS dynasty.

Seattle Sounders: Taking the next step

Two U.S. Open Cup titles and two playoff appearances in two years is obviously nothing to be embarrassed about. But Sounders officials have not minced words as they've made it clear that simply repeating those feats will not be satisfactory. At the very least, the Sounders expect to compete for the Supporters' Shield, advance deep into the MLS Cup playoffs, as well as continuing to perform well in the Open Cup and CCL. They are bold goals, to be sure, but this is a team that has spent as heavily as anyone outside of New York and Los Angeles and has done everything in its power to eliminate the standard excuses.

In order to do that, they'll need to stay healthier than they were last year, as well as have a more varied attack. Last year, Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani combined for more than half of the team's goals. With Designated Players Alvaro Fernandez and Blaise Nkufo benefitting from full training camps, they'll need more production out of both of them. The Sounders should also benefit from a fully fit Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, who has made great strides in returning from last year's knee injury. The ingredients for a special season are there.

Colorado Rapids: Potentially the final season of the hit action series C+C Goal Scoring Factory

While the nickname doesn't appear to be sticking, the fact of the matter is that Conor Casey and Omar Cummings are in the midst of a very impressive run of tandem success. In the last three seasons, the two Rapids forwards have combined for 70 goals and 30 assists, easily the best combined total of any two current teammates. The only MLS teammates to have posted better numbers are Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle (a combined 81 goals and 37 assists since the 2008 season), but they are no longer playing in the same league. Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel are currently teammates and also have more combined goals and assists (82 and 41 since '08), but did not accomplish those numbers while playing on the same team. If Casey and Cummings can continue to produce this way, they will likely become the most prolific teammates over a four-year period in league history. 

Part of the reason for that is teammates as good as Casey and Cummings simply are rarely able to remain together for such a long period. This will actually be their fifth season together, and it's hard to see them getting to a sixth. Neither are Designated Players, although Casey's salary is close, and Cummings, in particular, has started to draw interest from overseas. Enjoy it while it lasts as MLS is likely to see such a pairing anytime in the near future.

Sporting Kansas City: Road to Ruin or Riches?

This should really be a banner year for the team affectionately referred to as the Sporks. They are opening a new stadium, Livestrong  (sorry, I'm not capitalizing all 10 letters) Sporting Park, will have the services of Designated Player Omar Bravo, could have the next great American star in Teal Bunbury and generally play an attractive brand of soccer. But all of that would be somewhat wasted if this team fails to make the playoffs, something that is given an extra grade of difficulty because of the 10-game roadtrip they'll embark upon at the start of the season.

Failing to make the playoffs will not ruin this season, but it will certainly keep it from being the yearlong celebration that it has the potential of becoming. Soccer in Kansas City has never been a slam dunk, and this seems like a time when it could really turn the corner. With 10 teams making the playoffs, and at least three of them from each conference, SKC does not have to play great to start the season. But anything less than 10-12 points will make for a mighty hill to climb.

San Jose Earthquakes: Who emerges as the secondary scorer?

As was repeatedly chronicled, Chris Wondolowski carried a nearly unbelievable amount of the scoring load for the Earthquakes last year. He scored a MLS record 53 percent of his team's goals, while leading San Jose to the playoffs for the first time since their return to the league in 2008. Expecting a repeat performance is beyond unrealistic.

For San Jose to build on last year's success, they'll need a considerably more diverse attack. Wondolowski was one of just three players on his team to score more than once and no other player scored more than three times. The most obvious candidate to carry the scoring load is newly acquired Steven Lenhart (six goals in 2010), but Ryan Johnson is only a year removed from an 11-goal campaign in 2009. Whether it's those two or some other group of players, there's simply no conceivable the Quakes can build on their success if the Wondo-to-nothing game is once again a staple of their success.


SB Nation Power Rankings, Tier 3: Still Something To Prove

This group really shows how wide open the new 10-team playoff race at least appears to be. Every team in this group except Toronto FC received at least two second-tier votes and one voter even gave DC United a top-tier vote. I don't think any one of these teams making the playoffs would be considered a huge shocker, except maybe the Reds.

Still Something To Prove

Houston Dynamo

49% (28 out of 57 points)

Philadelphia Union

42% (24 out of 57 points)

DC United

31% (18 out of 57 points)

Chivas USA

26% (15 out of 57 points)

Chicago Fire

22% (13 out of 57 points)

Portland Timbers

21% (12 out of 57 points)

Columbus Crew

19% (11 out of 57 points)

Toronto FC

17% (10 out of 57 points)
Houston Dynamo: Was last year an aberration?

There was a fair amount of discussion this offseason surrounding what did and did not qualify as a MLS dynasty. The Dynamo/San Jose Earthquakes teams from 2002-09 was one that may have just barely missed the cut. Whether or not you consider that run of success worthy of the title dynasty may be a bit beside the point, though. During that period, the Dyna-Quakes (or Earth-Amo) won four MLS Cups, a Supporters' Shield and went to the playoffs every year. The one connective tissue between all those teams was coach Dominic Kinnear, who was an Earthquakes assistant from 2001-0, then took over as head coach and moved with the team to Houston.

That all came to abrupt end last year when the Dynamo were among the worst teams in the league, claiming just 33 points and losing 15 matches, more losses than their previous two seasons combined. In an attempt to rectify that, Kinnear has brought in a host of new faces that are expected to contribute immediately. Chief among those new additions are foreign imports Jermaine Taylor and Hunter Freeman and rookies Kofi Sarkodie and Will Bruin. A move to the Eastern Conference should also make the job a little easier.

Philadelphia Union: Stabilizing the goalkeeper

After a year in which Piotr Nowak handled his goalkeeping situation in as confusing a way as possible, he now seems to have clear plan: Turn it over to veteran Faryd Mondragon and groom No. 5 overall draft pick Zac MacMath for the future. Compared to the previously haphazard way in which the position has been handled, this seems like a sensible way forward, and simply improving the goalkeeping could lead to a significant leap forward for the second-year Union. Of course, that's assuming there are no major setbacks.

If Mondragon gets hurt or is not quite up to the task, there's really no clear fall back option. MacMath may be a great keeper someday, but he's just 19 years old and is still at least a couple years away from leading a team to the playoffs. The other goalkeeper on the roster is Thorne Holder, a 24-year-old out of Trinidad & Tobago via Adelphi University, does not seem any closer to leading a MLS team to the playoffs either.

DC United: Can Charlie Davies rehabilitate his image and career?

For all the change DC United underwent during the offseason, no one move drew more attention than the signing of Davies, the one-time "it" player in the United States National Team pool. With all the excitement around him, it's easy to overlook the fact that he's only scored four goals in the USMNT shirt and has scored just twice in Ligue 1 action. Granted, he's scored those goals in somewhat dramatic fashion, but even before his horrific injury, Davies was still a developing player. 

Now, he'll be given the chance to work back into form while playing in the domestic league he originally skipped. It really does set up nicely for him, as D.C. has welcomed him with open arms and he's been largely spared facing too much criticism over the circumstances of his injury (car crash while being out past curfew). But if he fails to perform, this could be a negative turning point in his career.

Chivas USA: Can a turnaround be engineered with other teams' cast-offs?

Of all the teams rebuilding in this off-season, none of them looked to do it with MLS veterans to the degree that Chivas USA did. Of the 11 players they have so far signed, seven of them had previously played in MLS. That list includes younger players like Tristan Bowen and Heath Pearce, as well as grizzled veterans like Jimmy Conrad and Alejandro Moreno. Most MLS teams rebuild by looking outside the league, either through the draft or international transfers. It's probably not unprecedented, but new coach Robin Fraser is obviously putting a lot of faith in players who are approaching the ends of their careers.

Chicago Fire: Will Carlos de los Cobos be able to bring the 3-5-2 back to MLS?

Somewhat lost in all the player comings-and-goings (11 players left, 10 have so far been signed) surrounding the Fire's offseason, was coach Carlos de los Cobos' announced intention to employ the 3-5-2. As anyone who follows soccer tactics can tell you, there's been a significant move away from the three-back formation in recent years. Last year, that was particularly evident in MLS. According the site football-lineups.com, three-back formations were used just two times in 502 lineups last season. As recently as 2008, three backs were employed 70 times and accounted for 16 percent of lineups. 

Few people are giving the Fire much of a chance to compete after losing so much of their experience and production, but de los Cobos is at least attempting to get creative. How successful that one change is will likely determine whether or not de los Cobos is back for a third season.

Portland Timbers: Don't call them an expansion team

One of the ongoing themes of the Timbers as they prepare for their inaugural MLS campaign is that they don't consider themselves an expansion team, but rather one that was promoted. Along those lines, they've already signed 11 players who spent last year in the lower divisions, 10 of which played for either the Timbers' USSF-D2 or PDL teams. Coach John Spencer and GM Gavin Wilkinson have also set the bar a little higher than your average expansion team, clearly setting their sights on the MLS playoffs and potentially beyond. 

No team has ever put so much faith in players who had spent the previous season in the lower-divisions of American soccer, but Portland does seem to have put together a strong side, even if their decision to not hold onto Dax McCarty still seems a bit baffling. Their strike force seems to be in capable hands with Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza, and their midfield will be filled by MLS vets, at least until No. 2 overall draft pick Darlington Nagbe returns from hernia surgery.

Columbus Crew: The Robert Warzycha coaching hot-seat watch

It's not entirely clear if the Crew coach was largely responsible for the housecleaning that occurred this offseason, but it's hard not to see how he's ultimately held responsible for its success or failure. Coming off two straight first-round exits from the playoffs, Warzycha is already feeling a bit of heat. Now, he's at the helm of a team that lost 10 players, most of whom were significant contributors to both of those teams. Most outsiders aren't giving the Crew much of a chance to compete this year (including me), but it sure seems like the Crew front office is at least expecting a run at the playoffs. If Warzycha can guide the Crew to the post-season, he'll have done his best job yet and likely earned himself a nice little extension.

Toronto FC: Is Aron Winter the answer to what ails the Reds?

Toronto FC became the first team in MLS history to go four consecutive seasons without making the playoffs when they finished 11 points shy of No. 8 San Jose last year. Aron Winter and Paul Mariner were brought in to change that, although it's probably going to take at least another year of no playoffs.

His hiring brought headlines promising the "return of total football", which is just ridiculous and is not something anyone should really expect to see. Three forwards? Sure, we'll see that. Will we see players rotating freely from position to position and filling multiple roles? Doubtful. But success will not be defined by whether or not Winter can accomplish "total football," nor has he ever really promised that. What will define success, and be the story of this season, will be the establishment of a clear organizational direction, something that has been clearly lacking in the previous four seasons.


SB Nation MLS Power Rankings, Tier 4: At Least There's No Relegation

The Whitecaps finally picked up a point in our final poll, and it came from me. After seeing them play in the Cascadia Summit, I'm starting to believe that they might not be as bad as many of us seem to think. It still seems like a stretch to see either of these teams actually making the playoffs though.

At Least There's No Relegation

New England Revolution

8% (5 out of 57 points)

Vancouver Whitecaps

1% (1 out of 57 points)

Vancouver Whitecaps: The Grand Experiment

Like the Timbers, the Whitecaps have relied heavily on their former USSF-D2 players to fill out their roster. There are 10 former USSF-D2 players, nine of them former Whitecaps, already signed to the roster and six more players from their old team and their residency program are still in camp. But what is different about the Whitecaps is that while the Timbers have brought in plenty of players with MLS experience, there are only five MLS veterans currently signed to contracts in Vancouver. Of those five, only Joe Cannon and Atiba Harris have as many as 100 games of MLS experience. The rest of the roster is filled out with foreign imports and draft picks, plenty of whom will be expected to contribute right away.

The roster has taken a little longer to take shape than many would have preferred, but it now looks like it might be better than many of us had initially believed. It's still hard to see them making a run at the playoffs, but there's a clear foundation there. If the Whitecaps can even contend for the playoffs this year, it will be just another sign that there are many ways to build a roster.

New England Revolution: Shalrie Joseph

After eight seasons in MLS, there's no question that Joseph is one of the best two-way midfielders in the league's history. He's helped guide his teams to four Eastern Conference titles, has been named to four Best XI teams and been mentioned among MVP candidates on numerous occasions. At 32, he's obviously closer to end of his career than the beginning, but should still have a few more good years in him. This year, the Revolution will probably go exactly as far as Joseph can take them.

Some off-season acquisitions, most notably defensive midfielder Ousmane Dabo, and some developing talent should help relieve some of that load, but the man upon whom this team's fortunes most reside is Joseph. Unfortunately, it's not exactly clear how much of a role he'll be allowed to carry. The league is still reviewing an incident that led to his being arrested in Florida and even if he escapes further punishment, it marks the second straight off-season in which he's had a personal issue (last year, he spent time in the league's substance abuse program). If those incidents are truly behind him and he can lead the Revolution to the playoffs, this would have to be considered his greatest season ever.

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