MLS has made it to season No. 20. There were times when it seemed less than assured -- most notably back in 2001 when they lopped off a couple teams -- but here we are, with the league growing at a rather rapid pace.
It's the first year of a TV contract that pays the league $90 million annually and there are two new teams -- Orlando City SC and New York City FC -- giving the league a presence in the country's largest city as well as in the South, which had been abandoned ever since the infamous contraction. The league rid itself of the eyesore that was Chivas USA and even moved out of the craptastic Buck Shaw Stadium (the San Jose Earthquakes have a glistening new park ready for First Kick). Even the playoffs got bigger, and they'll now admit six teams from each conference.
It took a long time for the owners and players to finalize a Collective Bargaining Agreement, but that didn't slow teams' spending much. United States World Cup veterans Jozy Altidore and Mix Diskerud have joined the domestic circuit, and they aren't even close to the biggest names to sign up. Brazil's Kaka is wowing the folks in Orlando and David Villa will provide some big-name draw to NYCFC, while England legends Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard will be coming aboard this summer. Ghana's David Accam and Italy's Sebastian Giovinco are both international talents on the right side of 30, providing at least some evidence that MLS is more than a chance for a final paycheck.
Add it all up and you have a league that's just poised to break out.
OK, that's relative.
MLS is not going to overtake the NFL or Major League Baseball, and while it may be averaging more fans per game than the NBA or NHL, it's still fighting for a place on SportsCenter. And, sure, MLS may still only be the third most popular soccer league in North America -- it's still trailing Liga MX and the Premier League -- but MLS is finally figuring out what it is and how it fits into the sports landscape.
There are no more major concerns over viability or relevance. MLS is here to stay and it's only getting bigger and better. The pace may not be what everyone wants, but Year 20 promises to be the best in league history.
The league has no blatantly obvious dogs, with every team putting out a roster that makes them at least appear to be trying -- even if we don't entirely understand what the Montreal Impact are doing. After years as the obviously inferior conference, the East now looks ready to rise. Toronto FC has again dumped millions in rehabbing their roster, the New England Revolution only seem to have improved on the squad that made the MLS Cup final and the Columbus Crew have a high-octane offense that looks ready to take off. Even the expansion teams look capable of making a run.
Over in the West, the Seattle Sounders might not have gotten much better, but also don't seem to be much worse off from the team that won the Supporters' Shield a year ago. They'll surely be challenged by a young FC Dallas team that looks ready to take the next step as well as a LA Galaxy team that may start slow but always seems to find a way to finish strong.
But what really makes MLS so much fun is that you really don't know how it's going to turn out (of course, that's also something that drives some people absolutely bonkers). Some team we've written off will make a glorious charge up the standings and another will surely look like a MLS Cup contender at some point. This is a league perfectly suited for fans who don't tolerate years of rebuilding or a permanent place in the pecking order. That's one thing that really hasn't changed in 20 years.
Well, you didn't call it 'the MLS', which is a good start. Major League Soccer is a 20-year-old professional soccer league featuring teams from the United States and Canada. Creating the league was a requirement for the U.S. hosting the 1994 World Cup and despite some bumps (two teams were contracted in 2001) the league will grow to 24 teams by 2020, has stadiums all over the country and no longer has teams with names like ‘the Wiz' or ‘the Clash'. It does, however, have a 'Real Salt Lake' and a 'Sporting Kansas City', so it's not perfect.
If you're used to watching the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo play, MLS players will probably disappoint. But that's not really a very fair comparison, and although there are no world-class talents in the league, the level of play is actually fairly high, and it's only getting better. A few years ago a lack of quality was a major issue, but the league's come along in leaps and bounds recently, and boasts some very watchable matches as well as some household names.
You'll have probably heard of, for example, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, both of whom have held their own in top European Leagues. New to the league this year are guys like Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, Kaka and David Villa. English heroes Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard will be joining in the summer. In fact, most of last year's United States World Cup squad is now playing in MLS.
That's a great question, as the field seems to be pretty wide open. The defending champions are the LA Galaxy, and while they still have Robbie Keane and will get Gerrard by mid-summer, they lost Landon Donovan. The Seattle Sounders won the Supporters' Shield -- that's the champion of the regular season -- and return their team mostly intact. But Toronto FC went on another wild spending spree, bringing in Altidore and Giovinco and bolstering their defense. There are probably five teams that have a reasonable claim at top team heading into the season.
The New England Revolution, FC Dallas and Columbus Crew all have youngish teams that added to their impressive rosters and will be a handful. There's also no more Chivas USA to kick around, meaning there's no one team we can easily dismiss (although we have serious doubts about the San Jose Earthquakes). Even the expansion teams look like they'll be competitive.
We prefer to pretend that the 1990s never happened. Don't worry, MLS plays by FIFA rules now.
Because it's fun, mostly. MLS fans have imported most of the best bits of worldwide soccer culture -- the tifo (soccerese for ‘big awesome drawing'), the mass chanting, the flags -- and managed to avoid things like stabbing each other in the legs for wearing the wrong colors.
There's also a sense of parity that just doesn't exist in most soccer leagues. Enough teams make it to the playoffs to keep things interesting, and even the worst teams one season can improve enough in one winter -- we're looking at you, Toronto FC -- to be contenders in the next. In 20 seasons, nine different teams have won MLS Cup and 10 different teams have won the Supporters' Shield.
If you're into scarves, being an MLS fan will help add to your collection while keeping your neck toasty and warm. MLS is also great if you're into guys with chainsaws. Although that won't help keep you warm unless you're really into guys with chainsaws.
Yes. Sadly, he does not often feature on the field of play.
No, it's not, but MLS doesn't have that problem. The league averages more than 19,000 fans per match, which is good for eighth best in the world, and that was with Chivas USA averaging a crowd made up of friends and family. Without them, two new teams expected to at least hit the league average and a new stadium in San Jose, MLS will almost certainly press past 20,000 this year.
If you want atmosphere, check out Seattle, where 44,000 screaming and singing fans is the norm. Their rivals, Portland, match that passion, and if you look almost anywhere in the league, you can find a few hundred lubricated fans banded together as a supporters' group screaming obscenities at the other team's best player.
The league itself awards two major trophies at the end of each year. The first goes to the team that finishes the regular-season with the most points for which they receive the Supporters' Shield. Aside from a trophy -- and some level of pride -- that team also receives home-field advantage in the playoffs.
The MLS Cup is awarded to the team that wins the playoffs. They've tweaked the format a little this year, now allowing six teams from each conference (so 12 total, up from 10 a year ago). The top two clubs get byes to the conference semifinals, seeds No.s 4 and 5 and seeds Nos. 3 and 6 have to face off for the right to get there. The winners from each conference meet in the MLS Cup; the winner is the league champion.
There are also three further major competitions in which an MLS team might be involved, the U.S. Open Cup, the Voyageurs Cup (aka the Canadian Championship) and the CONCACAF Champions League. The former is a knockout tournament open to every team in the United States Soccer Federation (think England's FA Cup), the Voyageurs Cup is the rough Canadian equivalent and the Champions League is a competition between the top sides in leagues around North America, Central America and the Caribbean. No MLS side has won it in its current format, but they're getting closer and (theoretically) will one day defeat their Mexican overlords.
Do you believe in alternate universes?
Just like all the other North American leagues, they bought their way in. This year, MLS added Orlando City SC and New York City FC. Orlando had actually been playing in the lower leagues, while NYC FC is owned by Manchester City and was created entirely from scratch. In 2017, Atlanta and Los Angeles are both expected to join. Two more teams will be added by 2020, with Minnesota, Sacramento and Miami being the leading contenders.
So many, bro. Both new MLS teams are boasting season-ticket bases of about 14,000. And that's with both playing in temporary stadiums. Orlando will play in the refurbished Citrus Bowl, where they are expecting an opening day crowd of over 60,000, before moving into their own digs next year. New York City is playing in Yankee Stadium.
Look a bear!
OK, so the roster rules are a little bit involved. They're also a little bit... fluid. The short version of this answer is that the structure of the league means the players are actually employed by MLS rather than their teams. There is, therefore, no free agency and the rules for bringing in overseas players are murky at best and made up on the spot at worst. The short version is 'no'.
As for allocation order, it's probably best not to ask.
Since the league is salary capped, it's difficult to
bribe convince someone like David Beckham to work on his tan raise the league's profile by coming to Los Angeles. And so, when the LA Galaxy acquired David Beckham, a new rule was born: Teams can use a 'Designated Player' spot, which counts for a fixed amount on the salary cap, then pay the DP whatever they want. Currently, teams are allowed up to three DPs. Every team has at least one of those players and 16 teams use at least two of their three spots.
When a new league tries to draw off about five different naming conventions at once, what tends to result is a big mess. There are clubs with traditional sounding English names (D.C. United), others that go in for something more European (Real Salt Lake), ones with standard US-franchise names (Chicago Fire), one that is simply named after its owner (New York Red Bulls) and another named after its parent club (Chivas USA, which is thankfully no longer a thing). The latest trend is for teams to add "SC" to their names, so now we have Columbus Crew SC and Orlando City SC. That's "soccer club", in case you were wondering.
The most reasonable explanation for this is that MLS is still relatively young and went through a significant portion of its history trying to figure out what it wants to be. The best way to handle the issue is to say your sillily-named team does it right and to then relentlessly mock everyone else's sillily-named team.
That's another relatively new wrinkle to MLS. Starting in 2014, teams were allowed to launch stand-alone reserve teams that would play in the third-division USL. LA Galaxy II were the only MLS-owned team in the league last year, but they'll be joined by seven other MLS-owned teams this year. Among them are the equally-cleverly-named Sounders 2, Timbers 2, Toronto FC II, Whitecaps 2 and Red Bulls II.
I bet you're a lot of fun at parties.
A gradual increase in the quality of play in MLS, coupled with the advancement of youth academies and the invention of homegrown player rules, mean that the league is now a better place than ever for the young United States men's national team stars of tomorrow. America's elite used to jump to Europe early, but some early-to-mid-20s players who will become USMNT stars in the near future are starting to stick around for a while.
There are a lot of players in MLS who haven't become USMNT stars yet, but could feature in the 2015 Gold Cup and 2016 Copa America. Here are five of them.
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Gyasi Zardes is hardly a new arrival onto the radar screen of USMNT fans, but this will be a big transition year for him. Landon Donovan has retired and Zardes, who will turn 24 before the season ends, has looked dangerous in his two national team appearances. He scored 16 goals last year. He's not a prospect anymore.
But that's precisely why this is such an interesting and important season for Zardes. Lots of players get to this level, but it's more common for them to stagnate than to find a new level. He has elite size and pace to go along with enough creativity and technical skill to put up great numbers in MLS, but Jurgen Klinsmann will be disappointed if he doesn't improve in the latter two areas.
Playing on a team with Robbie Keane and, eventually, Steven Gerrard, should help Zardes to put up a big goal total again this season, but Gerrard isn't showing up until July, and will need some time to settle into his new role when he joins. Until then, Zardes will have to succeed on his own merits. He was streaky last season, scoring in bunches, then disappearing for a month. He can't do that this year.
The training wheels have now come off. It's time for Zardes to become a star.
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It took a couple of months for Steve Birnbaum to lock down his spot in D.C. United's starting XI last season, but once he grabbed it, he held on. His partnership with veteran Bobby Boswell is one of the league's best, and he'll be expected to improve this season.
Birnbaum combines solid athletic ability and size with above-average ability with the ball at his feet for an American central defender. He's comparable to Matt Besler in that respect, but Birnbaum is playing at a USMNT-caliber level at a younger age than the Sporting KC star, and he has a much higher ceiling physically.
While Birnbaum wasn't terrific in his USMNT debut this winter, he was asked to play an unfamiliar position -- on the right side of a back three -- and he certainly wasn't terrible.
Pace has never been the strong suit of his defensive partner Boswell, now 31, and D.C. will be counting on Birnbaum to lead their defense for years to come. Birnbaum didn't make many mistakes last year, but his partner won't be able to clean up the ones he does make for long. Can he make the step up from being a good young defender to being commanding center back?
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While Birnbaum looked a tad out of his depth in his first USMNT match, Wil Trapp looked completely off the pace. It was a surprising debut for the Columbus Crew man, who looked mature beyond his years from the first time he stepped onto an MLS pitch.
Trapp wasn't just one of the best young midfielders in MLS last season, but one of the best midfielders period. He's the glue between the defense, his energetic midfield mate Tony Tchani and attacking midfielder Federico Higuain; the biggest reason Gregg Berhalter's team occasionally looked like a cohesive unit in 2014. He's very much a defensive midfielder, but one with a very solid range of passing and the ability to press as well. He's everything Klinsmann could want in a holder.
That is, besides the fact that he was a half-second slow in every respect against Chile and that he gave the ball away on a few occasions. That was a bit surprising to watch. Hopefully he just needed one senior national team appearance to shake out the butterflies, and he's going to use this season to springboard himself into consideration for the main USMNT squad.
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"Colorado School of Mines?!?!?", cried everyone who watched the 2014 MLS SuperDraft when Tesho Akindele was selected by FC Dallas. But the Canadian-American Orediggers star had no problem making the transition from NCAA Division II to MLS and became the MLS Rookie of the Year, scoring seven goals in his first professional season.
His performance led to calls from Klinsmann to the FCD winger/forward, who is eligible to play for either the U.S. or Canada. He was reportedly called up to the USMNT's January camp, but ultimately declined to join the team, delaying his decision on who he'll represent internationally. The USMNT, currently short on both wingers and goal-scorers, could certainly stand to add a fast, direct, goal-scoring winger.
As for this season in MLS, there's every reason to believe that Akindele is going to improve. Dallas manager Oscar Pareja has had a season to implement his system and acquire players who fit into it. They'll expect to challenge for MLS Cup, and Akindele will expect a double-digit goal season.
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While the other four players on this list established themselves as first-choice players last season, Palmer-Brown is in a slightly different boat. The soon-to-be 18-year-old broke into the team last year, has made a handful of U.S. Under-20 team appearances already and should get more opportunities to play in the first team now that Aurelien Collin has left Sporting KC.
To this point, Palmer-Brown is more famous for being the subject of a rejected $1 million bid from Juventus than he is for anything he's done on the pitch, which has a bit to do with a foot injury he suffered last year. That should change this season. Ike Opara has been very streaky in MLS and Jalil Anibaba has played more on the right than in the center. Palmer-Brown will not start the season as KC's starter, but he might finish it there.
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Klinsmann made some waves by calling Miguel Ibarra up to the national team, despite the fact that he plays for a second division team. Just about every team in MLS would like to sign him, but Ibarra didn't necessarily have any incentive to push for a move while the CBA was being negotiated. Now that he knows he'll have a job if he moves, speculation will ramp up, and it'll be surprising if no one decides to pay up for him.
However, it's likely that Ibarra wants to be paid like a USMNT player, while MLS teams want to pay him like an NASL player. That could mess up negotiations a bit.
Some big names are entering MLS in 2015, and many of them are so big that soccer fans don't really need to be told much about them. The names Frank Lampard, David Villa, Steven Gerrard and Kaka speak for themselves, and are all among the greatest players the league has ever been able to attract.
There are also some United States men's national team players returning to the league, and more could follow come the summer, when the MLS CBA is likely to have been ratified and USMNT players' European clubs are ready to let them go. But there aren't a whole lot of questions surrounding these guys -- Jozy Altidore isn't going to dominate games by himself; he is going to score a decent number of goals.
But what about the newcomers whose impact isn't so easy to nail down? A lot of teams have brought in fringe guys from big teams or players from South America, Central America and smaller European leagues that could make a massive impact in their first seasons. Here are five of them that you should be keeping an eye on.
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How does an MLS team sign a 27-year-old Italian international currently on the books at Juventus? Simple. Give him $7 million. Sebastian Giovinco is now in David Beckham/Clint Dempsey territory, and he'll be expected to produce at the level of those two stars.
Giovinco should have the teammates in place to allow him to succeed, with Altidore in front of him and Michael Bradley behind him. But that positioning on the field -- as an attacking midfielder or second striker -- makes him TFC's most important player. He'll need to be the link between the two USMNT stars, and it's possible that Greg Vanney's system evolves to a point where it's built around Giovinco more than his fellow DPs.
And, as always with highly-paid players coming to MLS after long runs in Europe, there will be questions about how seriously Giovinco takes this. Does he think he'll be able to dominate from the outset, simply because he's the most skilled player around? Or is he going to treat every TFC game like it's a Juventus game? There have been plenty of each kind of player in MLS, and only time will tell us which category Giovinco falls into.
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Donovan Ricketts spent five seasons as a very good MLS goalkeeper and one as a minor burden on his team. Age appeared to catch up with him last year as the Portland Timbers struggled, and they probably weren't too bothered to see him selected by Orlando City in the expansion draft.
The Jamaican's replacement, Adam Kwarasey, is quite a bit younger than his predecessor, but has about the same level of experience. Kwarasey is only 27, but he's been a first-choice goalkeeper for five seasons and has 21 Ghana caps to his name, including important Africa Cup of Nations matches and World Cup qualifiers. The Ghanaian-Norwegian chose to represent his father's country of birth instead of his own at international level, and made 184 appearances over eight seasons for Tippeligaen side Strømsgodset.
Kwarasey's decision-making and distribution aren't spectacular, but he's probably at least equal to Ricketts in both categories. His shot-stopping ability and experience should improve the Timbers' defense significantly.
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After years of remaining somewhat dormant, the Chicago Fire got serious this offseason. Three new designated players signed on, and David Accam is potentially the most intriguing of the bunch.
Scotland international Shawn Maloney and Nigerian striker Kennedy Igboananike are solid gets, but Accam has a chance to be the best of the bunch. While Igboananike and Maloney are coming off down years in Europe, Accam was dominant in the Swedish Allsvenskan last season, scoring 17 goals. He also made his debut for Ghana, and the 24-year-old now has two caps for his national team.
Accam is likely to start the season as a left forward, with Maloney in the center and Igboananike up top, while Harry Shipp distributes from the midfield. They're a formidable foursome, and with so much talent around him, Accam could score a boatload of goals.
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With attackers and big-name DPs grabbing most of the MLS world's offseason headlines, Lucas Pittinari's signing flew a bit under the radar. He should start the season partnered in the center of midfield by either veteran and MLS Cup winner Marcelo Sarvas, a fairly similar player to Pittinari's Belgrano midfield mate, Guillermo Farré, or budding USMNT prospect Dillon Serna.
Even though he's just 23, Pittinari has a wealth of high-level experience under his belt. He was part of the Belgrano team that beat River Plate in a promotion/relegation playoff back in 2011 and established himself as a regular in the Argentine Primera afterwards. The manner in which Rapids picked him up was a bit of a coup -- he's on loan this season, and the club has an option to buy for $1.2 million. If he doesn't impress, they can send him packing, but if he does, he might be available for a fraction of the price a European, Brazilian or Mexican club might be willing to pay for him.
Pittinari's versatility and teamwork should make him a perfect fit for an MLS midfield, and if the Rapids manage to make the playoffs from a loaded West, it'll probably have a lot to do with what he does for them in the center.
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There aren't a lot of questions about Kaka's qualities or limitations. He'll be the most skillful, creative player in MLS, but he's also physically limited and can't do as much running as he did in his younger days. Kaká's contributions will only be as meaningful as the movement and finishing of the striker he's working with make them, and that striker is likely to be Bryan Róchez for most of the season.
Róchez is only 20, but Orlando City have high hopes that he can contribute right away. He already has six Honduras caps to his name, has been dominant in CONCACAF at Under-20 level and has a spectacular goal-scoring record in Hondruas' Liga Nacional. He was a no-brainer young DP signing, and he'll be expected to produce at a faster clip than rookie Cyle Larin or any of the MLS journeymen on the OCSC roster.
It’s been a long time since the Fire had an offseason comparable to this one. As few as three starters from last year’s opener will be in the lineup, and one of those – captain Jeff Larentowicz – will be playing an entirely different position after being moved from the midfield to center back.
Most of the buzz has been generated by the recruitment of Scottish attacking terrier Shaun Maloney. Ghanaian blur Accam and Nigerian trickster Kennedy Igboananike round out the DP signings, promising an entirely new attack from the men in red.
The midfield mix is as yet uncertain. Razvan Cocis and Matt Watson played well together in the middle before the latter’s injury, but Michael Stephens and Alex will push for time there. The group lacks a true destroyer, unless rookie Matt Polster can step into the role.
The defense also has been remade. Larentowicz looks comfortable on the backline. Brazilian Adaílton is the favorite to start alongside him. Lovel Palmer will start at right back unless exhausted or injured. The left side will likely feature new recruit Joevin Jones, a Trinidadian defender/winger. In goal, Sean Johnson is the starter until someone in Europe waves enough money.
The club will miss 2013 MVP Mike Magee and stalwart winger Patrick Nyarko through injury as the season begins. Magee is closest to returning; Nyarko’s rehabilitation will push into summer. Still, the roster looks markedly deeper than the 2014 group.
The roster turnover from last season has brought in a higher level of talent, and we’re not only talking about the (new, better) designated players.
This is a LOT of change to manage in a short time. It could take the team a while to sort itself out. Will a frustrated fanbase give this team the time it needs to coalesce, or will they turn hard if results are disappointing?
Can they keep clean sheets? Defensive problems hamstrung the Fire tactically and psychologically throughout 2014, turning the team cautious and fearful. If the reconfigured defense can put up a few defensive zeros early, there’s now enough attacking talent here to win games in this league.
The 2014 season for the Colorado Rapids was truly a tale of two halves. The first half of the year, they were in the top 3 of the Western Conference and looked to be a lock for the playoffs. However, the second half of the year was beset by injuries, poor finishing, dreadful defense and a lack of confidence as the team finished the year on a horrible 0-12-2 run. Truly, there is nowhere to go but up.
The Rapids attacked this off-season by shoring up many key areas of the team and looked poised to have a significant increase in performance on the pitch. The addressed their defensive depth woes with addition of Michael Harrington, Bobby Burling and Axel Sjoberg while adding to their midfield with Sam Cronin, Lucas Pittinari, Marcelo Sarvas, and Juan Ramirez. Look for the defense and midfield to be much improved, which should go a long way towards erasing the memory of 2014.
Offense is still a struggle for them, but with a rejuvenated Gabriel Torres and young striker Deshorn Brown coming back, goals should come for the Rapids at a greater clip than in 2014.
The Rapids have a lot going for them: they have a terrific young core, quality playmakers, and a much improved defense. The team’s offseason was about the best fans could have hoped for.
The squad has plenty of young talent, but the addition of a coach with zero experience hurt this team. Pablo Mastroeni struggled at points throughout the season from squad selection, debatable tactical choices and an ability to motivate his team to hold leads (especially at home). The growth of Mastroeni will be the determining factor to the final place in the table for the Rapids.
What is the identity of the Colorado Rapids? Are they a team that plays great defense and scores on the counter, circa 2010 when they won the MLS Cup? Or will they become a possession based team that they have stated that they want to be?
Crew SC returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2011, an even more profound statement than the rebranding that resulted in a new crest and adding “SC” to their name. The Black and Gold had several players break out in 2014 in Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram and Tony Tchani. Second year head coach Gregg Berhalter hopes to get similar production of these players once again in 2015. The Crew also made some key additions in the offseason to help improve upon their third place finish last year. After having a revolving door at right back, Berhalter brought in Hernan Grana from Boca Juniors and traded for Colorado Rapids fullback Chris Klute, a 25-year-old who’s just one season removed from a seven-assist campaign. After only getting 10 goals from true forwards a year ago, Columbus acquired former Sporting Kansas City attacker Kei Kamara. Hopes are high that Kamara can link with maestro Federico Higuain and become the clinical striker the Black and Gold were missing a season ago. Kamara’s 52 career MLS goals are by far the most on the team.
Year one of the Berhalter era was more successful than many expected. With the players more familiar with the system that features a pair of attack-minded fullbacks and constant pressing, Crew SC could definitely make a deep playoff run.
The Black and Gold have placed a lot of expectations on Kamara’s shoulders. The forward has shown an ability to score in MLS with Sporting Kansas City, but must do so as a lone forward who will often start with his back to goal as opposed to coming from the wing and running at defenders.
Can Crew SC’s midfield remain as intact as it did a year ago? By season’s end, the partnership of Tchani and Wil Trapp was settled and it made the Black and Gold a better team. Can they be consistent like that this year?
Ben Olsen has kept the gang together after 2014’s record-setting turnaround. This year will be a more challenging season, however, and for multiple reasons. United could play more than 45 competitive games if they do well in the US Open Cup and make the playoffs. Midweek games are going to be very common, which means a smart rotation of players will be required all year long.
The more abstract matter of motivation is arguably the bigger issue. Last year’s team was full of players eager to prove their rejection elsewhere in MLS was wrong, and expectations were merely for mid-level finish in the East. This year, with higher expectations and without the collective chip on the club’s shoulder, Olsen has a tougher job on his hands in terms of maximizing the talent at his disposal. Repeating last year’s performance would be more impressive than his Coach of the Year-winning 2014.
United was extraordinarily hard to score on last season, even though the back four featured two young players (Steve Birnbaum and Taylor Kemp) starting from June onward. That means the defending on an individual level should improve, and if Halsti is an improvement over Davy Arnaud the midfield will have become a tougher obstacle as well. Defensive solidity isn’t sexy, but it wins games.
There’s reason to be nervous about the forwards. Fabian Espindola is suspended for the first six games of the 2015 season. Eddie Johnson’s career hangs in the balance due to an unspecified issue that doctors are still evaluating. Luis Silva – who scored 11 goals from mid-June onward – and promising Homegrown striker Michael Seaton were both injured throughout the preseason (though at least Silva returned to training by mid-February).
That leaves an awful lot of responsibility on Chris Pontius, Chris Rolfe and Jairo Arrieta – another MLS reclamation project – to start the season in good form. Even if those three hit the ground running, a good start to 2015 is likely going to require grinding out 1-0 wins until the cavalry arrives.
United was very good last year, but they were also unusually fortunate in tight games. Is United good enough to contend if that luck dries up in 2015?
FC Dallas goes into the 2015 season with a lot of confidence following their playoff run in 2014. Oscar Pareja enters his second season as the club’s manager and he brings back a wealth of talent to the field with players from their playoff run.
FCD will hopefully finally see a healthy Mauro Diaz lead the team in 2015 – the young Argentine was sidelined for half of last season. A healthy Diaz and 2014 team MVP Fabian Castillo would be a strong nucleus in the attack, while captain Matt Hedges and Zach Loyd anchor the defense.
Dallas is looking to maintain the momentum they created in 2014, when they were a tiebreaker away from the conference finals. If the team’s offense can produce like they did a year ago (a club record 55 goals in 2014) and the defense stays healthy for the course of the season, they should have no issues contending in a crowded Western Conference.
The lack of turnover from a team that didn’t lose a single playoff game in 2014 (darn away goals) is a positive sign to see. Oscar Pareja was able to keep his core group of players in Frisco. The chemistry that this group possesses is also key, as the players are more familiar with one another going into 2015 than ever before.
Just like with any year, injuries could easily derail this season. FCD got hit by the injury bug time after time in 2014; the limited amount of depth on this squad going into the new season is still a concern. The other issue still centers on whether or not this team can remain disciplined through 34 games. In 2014, FCD lead MLS with 10 red cards.
Will Mauro Diaz be able to play more than 20 games in 2015?
For the first time since the team’s creation, Dominic Kinnear won’t be on the sidelines for Houston when the season starts – Owen Coyle has replaced him.
After failing to make the playoffs last season, fans were calling for a major overhaul to the Dynamo roster. They only got a minor one. While much of the starting roster looks the same, a lack of depth is what hurt the Dynamo last season, and that’s where the changes will be most evident. Stalwarts like Brad Davis and Ricardo Clark will still remain in the starting lineup, as will last season’s Newcomer of the Year Luis Garrido. With many of the depth players cut, the Dynamo have assembled a new bench mostly made of MLS veterans, like Nathan Sturgis and Chandler Hoffman. One exception is Leonel Miranda, a 21-year-old midfielder who’s on loan from Argentina’s Independiente.
While the woeful defense didn’t get the facelift many fans had hoped, what it did get is Raul Rodriguez. The center back from Spain has paired well with Jermaine Taylor this preseason. DaMarcus Beasley will also have his first full season with the Dynamo after joining the team in July of last year.
This team has depth, which is a big improvement – injuries decimated the roster last season. From veterans like Davis to rookies like academy product Memo Rodriguez, the Dynamo have a lot of talent to pick from in the midfield, and will have to leave MLS starter-quality players on the bench.
The Dynamo have a new coach and a number of new international players. Cubo Torres won’t be joining the team until late summer once his loan spell is over in Mexico, but it may be too late if the season doesn’t start the way it needs to.
Can Owen Coyle adapt to MLS?
After a magical MLS Cup run that had all the excitement, drama and emotional drainage of a Disney movie, the Galaxy start off 2015 with more questions than answers.
On the one hand, reigning MVP Robbie Keane is healthy as ever and the Galaxy forwards as well as the back line remain intact. On the other, the midfield has some holes. Who will replace Landon Donovan?
The Galaxy should eventually use their spot in the allocation order to address the issue, but until that happens, the left midfield position is a potential weak area. Some combination of Bradford Jamieson IV, Nacho Maganto and Jose Villareal is going to have to get the job done. Gyasi Zardes or Baggio Husidic could play Donovan’s old position too, but that opens up another hole – Zardes is penciled in up top, while Husidic is likely to start in the center until Steven Gerrard arrives.
As much as losing Donovan will hurt LA, Bruce Arena didn’t have much of a problem building an MLS Cup winner after David Beckham departed, and Gerrard should fix a lot of problems when he joins. If LA can acquire a dangerous winger, it’s very possible they can pull off the repeat.
After three MLS Cups in four years, will the Galaxy have the legs and the motivation to beat out teams led by players like Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones?
Will Gerrard make an impact in 2015? Not only does it usually take time for new signings to acclimate to the league, but integrating them into the squad halfway through the season can be a formidable challenge. Can a fatigued Gerrard make a difference come summer?
Simply put, the Impact cannot do worse than they did last year. Not only did they finish in last place, but they did so while playing quite a few veterans (average age of 27.75). Their 28 points were five fewer than Chivas USA and their minus-20 goal difference was the second-worst mark in the league. If there was ever a time for a complete reboot, this is it. The first three-year cycle is to be forgotten and Montreal needs to focus on building something viable.
Hard as it may be to believe, Frank Klopas is back, marking the first time in the Impact’s MLS existence that they’ve started a season with the same coach who finished the previous one. That’s either an encouraging sign that management isn’t looking for quick and immediate fixes or just another example of how clueless this organization is.
After years of seemingly solely focused on their offense – with little success – their big moves this offseason were along the backline. Lauren Ciman is a legitimate Best XI quality defender and he’ll be paired with Bakary Soumare, who has at least been competent in previous seasons.
If the Impact are given the underdog tag, the club will be happy with it. At the same time, they are not focusing on what others say about them, as much as they have in previous years. The team is building from the back with an accomplished center back duo and depth in almost all positions that will give real options to the coaching staff. They’ve also got an ace up in their sleeve in Ignacio Piatti, a darkhorse for MLS MVP.
The loss of Marco Di Vaio and his 29 goals over the past two seasons are significant and he has not been replaced by anyone with anything approaching his resume. The Impact have talented attacking midfield, but it remains to be seen if Jack McInerney can fill Di Vaio’s shoes.
Can Ciman and Soumaré stay healthy?
After years of being the underdogs, the Revolution will now play the role of favorites. Already returning the majority of the core that made it to the MLS Cup final in 2014, the Revs made a big-time signing when they reaquired Juan Agudelo. Furthermore, Jones, who is currently recovering from sports hernia surgery, is set to enter his first full season in MLS and the U.S. international is dreaming of grabbing some hardware. The Revs also return an impressive core that includes a resurgent Teal Bunbury, a focused Jose Goncalves, and a steady Bobby Shuttleworth.
One of the wildcards is Diego Fagundez, who recently sealed his international fate by playing with the Uruguay Under-20s. Must was expected of Fagundez after his breakout 2013, but he disappeared at times last year and will be looking to make this upcoming season count.
It’s unlikely that Lee Nguyen will repeat his 18-goal season, but with the squad the Revs have put together, he won’t have to.
The boys are back. In fact, the only player that started for the Revs in the MLS Cup final that won’t return in 2015 is A.J. Soares, and the club believes that Andrew Farrell will be a more than suitable replacement. Consistency goes a long way in MLS, and the Revolution are certainly achieving it.
Goncalves and Farrell are excellent individual players, but will they develop the chemistry needed to succeed? Early reviews have been mixed, but the duo still has time to iron out the kinks.
How does coach Jay Heaps organize his attack? Agudelo is the presumed starting forward but Charlie Davies will be challenging him on a daily basis. Similarly, Fagundez, Daigo Kobayashi, and Sean Okoli will all be fighting for minutes in the midfield. With so many attacking options, the starting lineup could change game to game, especially during the early stages of 2015.
Expectations are high for New York City FC. This is a club, remember, whose ultimate success or failure will go a long way toward defining MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s legacy as an American soccer impresario. This is why, perhaps, both its triumphs and missteps carry such outsized weight, however much supporters may wish otherwise.
Here’s what we can expect from the team itself: Jason Kreis’ teams have historically played attractive, possession-driven soccer, and NYCFC won’t be any different. In Chris Wingert, Sebastian Velasquez and Ned Grabavoy, Kreis has players who are already familiar with his coaching. David Villa, Frank Lampard, Mix Diskerud and whomever New York City sign as their third designated player will provide the star power needed for a flagship team.
Meanwhile, Grabavoy and Wingert, along with Josh Saunders, Jason Hernandez, and potentially, George John, give New York City veteran MLS experience and steel. Finally, just as in Real Salt Lake, New York City will have plenty of youth energizing the team. This roster has plenty of quality in it; they may not get off to a fast start, but they’ll pick up steam as they jell together, and have a good shot to make the playoffs.
More playoff spots in a weaker Eastern Conference mean that a this talented team could seriously contend, especially once Lampard joins the squad in July, even if they’re still a work in progress. And that’s without a third Designated Player, which New York City is certain to add.
Beyond two world-class players in Villa and Lampard, this team is a classic expansion squad, full of MLS cast-offs and young, unproven players new to the league. Lampard is 37 and joins the team in midseason; the history of European players joining MLS in midseason lacks instant success stories.
How will Lampard fit in after joining in the summer? Historically, MLS is brutal towards European players joining the league mid-season. At 37, New York City can ill-afford for him to squander precious games getting used to his new teammates, let alone getting used to playing in MLS.
Once Thierry Henry confirmed his retirement (two days after the Red Bulls were bounced from the 2014 playoffs), RBNY had the choice of viewing its glass as half full or half empty. The club chose the latter perspective, and brought in sporting director Ali Curtis to toss out the rest of the contents of the glass. Some would say he threw the glass out too.
The Red Bulls may as well stand for Re-Boot this year. Of the lineup that started the club’s last game of 2014 against New England Revolution in the playoffs, just four players remain with the team – and one of them (Peguy Luyindula) is going to have to fight for starting minutes this season.
The coaching team that guided RBNY through two successful seasons (Supporters’ Shield in 2013; Eastern Conference Final in 2014) is also gone.
Whatever momentum there might have been from the past two seasons has been fired, retired, or traded away. The challenge ahead is to justify the clear-out by matching or exceeding the achievements of the last two years, from a standing start.
We knew Henry was retiring at the end of 2014. The Red Bulls had time to plan. This is that plan.
Much of the core remains and Marsch has been able to pick up fresh faces that fit his vision for the team in 2015. RBNY has spent four years essentially shuffling a procession of players around Thierry Henry to see what works best. This season, we’ll see a tactical plan at the forefront of the team’s identity, and the players best able to execute it will be the ones who get the most time. It’s the model that has served Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake well, and seen Portland Timbers emerge as a force to be reckoned with. Why can’t it work for RBNY too?
History suggests this club isn’t great at planning. The defense is being remodeled, the forward ranks look perilously thin, and Marsch’s penchant for central attacking midfielders appears to have caused him to forget to acquire anyone resembling a specialist left winger. If the new signings don’t work out as intended, it could take a while to find the necessary replacements to make the new tactics sing.
Is this a good plan or a dud?
After four incredibly successful USL seasons in which they set attendance records and won two league titles, Orlando City moves up to MLS, keeping a core group from USL as part of the team’s roster. That group of players mainly consists of young up-and-coming talents, to which the Lions have added veterans such as Brazilian superstar Kaká, U.S. international Brek Shea, and others. The end result is a nice mixture of veterans and young players (like Rochez and Carlos Rivas) potentially about to break through.
The club’s preferred shape is an attacking 4-2-3-1 with lots of midfield possession and a striker equally adept at bringing the midfielders back into the attack with holding play or beating defenders to get chances on through balls. Look for the fullbacks to get forward and join the attack out wide whenever possible. This can stress the team’s defensive midfield and center backs at times and it will be interesting to see if a suspect back line can cope with playing this style. Orlando City will be successful if they maintain possession and may be brutally punished if careless with the ball in this inaugural MLS season.
This team has already won trophies. While it’s true that most MLS expansion teams tend to struggle in Year 1, Orlando City isn’t most MLS expansion teams – they already had a lot of players in place. The team has carefully put together a solid rosters capable of winning now, but the young players must develop and complement the veterans for that to happen.
Because even though Orlando City isn’t like most expansion teams, the reality is that only one has made the playoffs in their first year since 1998, and there have been plenty of others who made the jump from the lower leagues only to struggle in MLS.
Can the younger players follow the lead of Kaká, Shea, Okugo and Aurelien Collin to form a cohesive unit quickly enough to produce points early in the season?
A new year gives the Union a clean slate. After a 2014 season that saw the club fire manager John Hackworth, the club went 7-5-6 under Jim Curtin, just missing the playoffs and advancing to the U.S. Open Cup Final
Most of the starting XI from the latter half of the year is back, and the team has upgraded at striker, which was the club’s biggest weakness in 2014. Fernando Aristeguieta is just 22, but already has scored 49 professional goals. The Union don’t have any of the glaring holes they’ve had in previous years and even appear to have stopped compiling goalkeepers. They might just be ready to cement themselves as serious contenders.
The Union have been one of the most active teams this offseason. The club signed Steven Vitória from Benfica and Aristeguieta from FC Nantes in the past weeks, filling holes left by the departure of Carlos Valdés and the decline of veteran Conor Casey. Their big signings from the 2013-14 offseason are all still with the club and have had time to play with one another.
The Union did too little, too late. They plugged some holes with major signings, but might not have done enough. And as last year’s U.S. Open Cup Final so bluntly illustrated, depth is also a major issue – especially on defense where the club has only two options on the bench in Fabinho and Richie Marquez.
Is Jim Curtin the guy? The club’s third manager (in just six seasons) is new to the managerial game, having retired as a player only in 2009. He was named permanent manager during the offseason, and there are some that doubts he has what it takes to turn the Union around. That being said, he did well enough last season to earn a job. We’ll know shortly if the U.S. Open Cup run was a fluke or a sign of things to come.
Coming into the 2015 season, the Portland Timbers will be hoping to pick up where they left off last year. It is a strange sentiment coming from the 6th place finishers in the Western Conference – a team that fell a point shy of knocking their rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps, out of the playoffs – but the Timbers were looking good in the final weeks of 2014. In the last month of the season, the Timbers went 3-0-1 and finished the season with a dominant 2-0 road win over FC Dallas, a playoff team.
Of course, fans will hope that the Timbers of those final weeks of the season are the team that come to play on opening day rather than the curiously impotent side that failed to get a win through their first eight matches in 2014.
Either way, the Timbers of 2015 will look both similar to and different from last year’s side. Barring a big change before the start of the season, the Timbers will return nine of their 11 starters from the end of last year, but Will Johnson and Diego Valeri are both expected to miss the first couple of months. Caleb Porter has tweaked the side to accommodate their absences, setting up the Timbers in a 4-4-2 rather than the constant 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 of the last two seasons and giving the side a different look going forward.
In 2014, the Timbers attack compensated for their lackluster defense. In 2015, the Timbers will return the majority of their attacking corps and have made two important upgrades on defense: bringing in Nat Borchers and Adam Kwarasey.
The Timbers got off to a slow start in 2014 and it was enough to keep them out of the playoffs. With Diego Valeri and Will Johnson out to start the season in 2015 the Timbers are in danger of another slow start and another disappointing campaign.
Is Diego Valeri back yet? Timbers fans think that ‘The Maestro’ is an MVP caliber player in MLS, so the speed with which Valeri can return to full fitness and get back into the starting lineup will make or break the season. Without Valeri the Timbers still have every chance to be a good team, but with Valeri the Timbers can be a great team.
Real Salt Lake’s 2015 could be an exciting one, with meaningful contributions coming from most players in the squad. But with the changing of the guard that comes along with an expansion draft, there’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding the squad as well. Three of Real Salt Lake’s most important players on any given weekend — Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, and Ned Grabavoy — have left the club through trade or expansion draft, and a handful of reserves have also made their way out the door.
Even though Jason Kreis left the team ahead of last year, this is probably the year in which the team will really becomes Jeff Cassar’s. How the second-year head coach manages that transition alongside departed GM Garth Lagerwey’s replacement, Craig Waibel, will make all the difference going forward. Throw in the fact that Cassar looks like he’ll be deploying the squad in a 4-3-3 – not the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield that marked former coach Jason Kreis’s tenure – and it’s a season that will feature plenty of risks from the club’s management. Will it bring a reward?
A host of young, exciting players have joined the club – with the highlights being Elias Vasquez and Pecka – to provide additional depth. Vasquez is a 22-year-old Guatemalan defender who has already logged almost 90 first-team appearances at Comunicaciones. Pecka is a Brazilian defensive mid, finally giving RSL a worthy backup to Beckerman.
Veteran departures could spell a difficult season — Borchers, Wingert and Grabavoy consistently played in most matches for the past five years, and that sort of change can either shock a system into life or open it to threats once kept at bay.
Can Real Salt Lake succeed with a transitioned squad and a new formation?
The Earthquakes ended the 2014 season on a 15-game winless streak, fired their head coach, and let go of some key veterans. They enter 2015 with a new Designated Player in Innocent Emeghara, a new (old) head coach in Dominic Kinnear, and a new home in Avaya Stadium.
So many changes have to lead to improvements, right? Not necessarily, as the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the average age of the starting line-up, particularly the long-in-the-tooth 31 years old-average for the back four, and the necessity to keep such players healthy over a long season.
However, Kinnear did sign a host of young and speedy new players, which should help a team that created the second fewest scoring opportunities in 2014 stretch opposing defenses and gain more possession in the attacking third. The Quakes are hoping that all of the additions made in the offseason will help them improve on a last-place Western Conference finish last season and make the postseason for the first time since 2012.
The opening of 18,000-seat Avaya Stadium will give the Quakes a true home field advantage, one that they didn’t have at primitive Buck Shaw Stadium in the recent past. The field is immaculate and the dimensions of the pitch, comparable to those at the Buck, will provide the faster, more offensively minded squad all the room they need to make Avaya a fortress. Finally shedding the ‘temporary’ label from its home stadium, the club is primed for a morale boost that will be worth double-digit points in the MLS standings.
San Jose will need to make a huge jump from last year’s performance to factor in the race for the playoffs. Team health is the number one priority, as such failings in 2014 doomed the Quakes to inconsistent performances week to week. Plus, Perez Garcia and Shea Salinas need to improve on their supply for Wondolowski and Emeghara, or Earthquakes fans will be spending more time drinking than watching the play on the field.
Can Emeghara and Perez Garcia, the two biggest signings of the last 12 months, stay healthy and contribute to an offense that was among the worst in MLS in 2014?
The Sounders return almost the entirety of the team that won the Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup, just the second team in MLS history to pull off that particular double. The major changes are to the backline where Evans appears to be moving to center back and English veteran Tyrone Mears is the replacement at right back for DeAndre Yedlin. Early in the season there will be issues as Seattle attempts to play without four-time All-Star Osvaldo Alonso. Defensive anchor Chad Marshall will try to win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award while being ignored by the national team.
The offense should be as potent as ever. Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins put in two MVP caliber performances in 2014 and there is little reason to think it can not repeat. Pappa is now a regular starter. He should be able to do what he always does in MLS, score 5-8 goals and provide 4-5 assists. Another 60-plus goal season should be the expectation for an offense that should again be among the best in the league.
If Evans can play his new CB role well, the team will be truly special.
The Sounders’ defense can’t be as bad as last year and the only thing between them and a trip to the MLS Cup last year was a tiebreaker.
The lack of width could mean that teams can clog the center and frustrate Dempsey and Martins.
Can Evans be a better than average center back?
Despite a devastating combination of injuries and international duties last season, SKC were still in a good position deep into the season before fatigue set in and things fell apart. The club wasted no time making sweeping changes, ditching the constantly disappointing Claudio Bieler and their top two goalkeepers. Heck, they even changed their TV commentators.
However, there will still be a core of familiar players who have seen success together. This is a team still just a season removed from a MLS Cup and three of the championship-winning back line are still here, U.S. Open Cup winner Roger Espinoza is back, and national team-quality players like Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi and Dom Dwyer all return. Top-end talent is not something this team lacks.
With a versatile lineup, Vermes has hinted at a formation change, but the trademark physical and fast-paced style will of course remain. The dead weight has been dropped, the holes have been filled, and Sporting will look to challenge for the West.
This was already a team considered to be among the most talented in MLS and now they’ve added Roger Espinoza, Krisztian Nemeth and Bernardo Anor to their midfield, and a quality starting keeper in Luis Marin.
Beyond a core of starters from last season, the roster is filled with players who are either young and untested, attempting to return from serious injury, or new to the club, if not the league altogether. Players of all skill levels tend to have an adjustment period coming to MLS and KC’s will need to learn quickly.
Peter Vermes has earned the benefit of the doubt with his offseason moves in the past, but are the changes enough to get them back on top of this new look MLS?
For the second straight offseason, Toronto FC ‘won the offseason.’ There’s no trophy for that, and it didn’t help TFC get into the playoffs last time around.
The key areas that TFC needed to address this offseason were defensive depth, a creative attacking midfielder and a replacement for Jermain Defoe. The big defensive addition was French center back Damien Perquis and they further bolstered their defense with promising youngsters Eriq Zavaleta and Marco Delgado. The other two areas were addressed in a big way by adding Giovinco and Altidore.
Argue you all you want about what TFC paid to get Sebastian Giovinco, but he gives the team their first true creative No. 10. Altidore will be the main Toronto forward counted on to replace the goals that left town with Defoe, but Robbie Findley will help in that regard as well. And Toronto even took their offseason shopping spree one step further, adding Cheyrou to fill a defensive midfield role as well.
On paper, Toronto FC may have the best roster in the entire league. Now they just have to translate it onto the field, something they’ve never come particularly close to doing since joining the league in 2007.
Giovinco has the potential to be Jermain Defoe 2.0 in terms of attitude, and the rest of the team could follow if things don’t exactly work out with him.
Has Toronto FC finally learned enough from its mistakes to insure they are not repeated?
The Vancouver Whitecaps have heightened expectations heading into 2015, given they made the post-season in 2014. However, this is truly the season of question marks, with several unknown quantities in defense and attack.
Jay Demerit, Andy O’Brien and Johnny Leveron all played CB last year – compiling nearly 4,500 minutes between them – and they’re all gone. They’ve been replaced with the volatile Pa Modou Kah and unproven Diego Rodriguez, a former Uruguay Under-20 player whose career has stalled a bit. Can they carry the torch? Then there’s the attack, which features the same old carrousel of young players (Darren Mattocks, Kekutah Manneh, Erik Hurtado) and another unknown in Rivero. There’s plenty of speed and loads of talent in that bunch, but their 15 combined goals a season ago were one of the prime reasons the offense never really hit its stride.
In short, it’s tough to tell what the Whitecaps are going to bring to the table this year. The one area where they seem set, though, is in the midfield. Matias Laba and Russell Tiebert hold down the defensive side of things, while Morales and Rosales are perfectly capable of providing service and even bits of magic when called upon.
A full season of Rosales and Morales – if they can stay healthy – could be too much awesomeness to even quantify at the moment right now, and the Whitecaps have an enviable crop of young players that could make a real impact. A playoff appearance is expected.
The offense produced just 42 goals a year ago – by far the fewest of any playoff team and in the bottom third of the league – and there’s been very little in terms of proven talent brought in to provide any help. This team went through several frustrating droughts a year ago. If they repeat those performances, they could be in serious trouble.
Will Rivero score goals? If not, this team isn’t going anywhere.