SB Nation

SB Nation Soccer News | March 6, 2014

MLS Season Preview

+League

It's both strange and exciting to realize that MLS in 2014 would be virtually unrecognizable to fans watching a decade ago.

The league's early years were a constant struggle, and the fight to stay operational led to a cautious, stability-first mentality that persisted even after the initial trauma was over. Where there was growth, it was carefully managed. MLS's reach was never allowed to exceed its grasp.

Progress was slow, but steady. The losses of the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny were balanced out by adding Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake in 2005; five more teams have been added in the nine years since. Eleven clubs have moved into soccer-specific stadiums, the league is averaging over 18,000 fans per match and Philip Anschutz and the Hunt family are no longer required to keep the league financially afloat.

There are no longer any questions over the league's survival — MLS is here to stay.

From one angle, 2014 is a celebration of what's come before. The league's growth, slow and fitful though it may have been, has borne impressive fruit. Revenue is up. The quality of play has improved massively. Several teams have thoroughly entrenched themselves in their local markets, becoming staples of their communities. And while the idea of getting their own stadiums used to be a pipe dream for MLS teams, Portland and Kansas City aren't just thriving in their soccer-first homes, they're actually considering expanding them.

Designated Players, introduced to the league in 2007 to accommodate the signing of David Beckham, are no longer rare. Eighteen teams will enter the season with at least one on their roster; 11 have at least two. Clubs have brought over big name Europeans, mined Latin America for promising young talent and invested heavily in American internationals. MLS has come a long, long way. Meanwhile the clubs’ academies are finally beginning to produce not just MLS-quality players, but full-blown internationals.

Viewed from another angle, 2014 also represents a harbinger of what's to come. With stability no longer an issue, MLS is finally starting to dream big. Although MLS has been successful on its own terms, it is neither competing on the global stage nor with the established Big Four professional leagues in the United States. That's the new target.

The Seattle Sounders' capture of Clint Dempsey during the summer sparked a wave of major acquisitions, including players that the league would never have imagined being able to attract in the past. At Toronto, Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe are the most potent symbols of the new era, but signs are bubbling up everywhere. A new TV deal is coming in, as is a new collective bargaining agreement. NYCFC, bankrolled by Manchester City, will join the league in a year along with Orlando City; Beckham’s continued quest to aid the growth of American soccer will manifest itself in MLS’s return to Miami shortly thereafter. That trio will be followed up by two more as yet undetermined expansion teams.

Even Chivas USA are on the rise. While expansion partners RSL are considered the best example of what a well-run team can achieve on a limited budget, Chivas are the polar opposite, having been run into the ground by an incompetent owner and front office. But in the new paradigm, even the Goats are in the midst of a rebirth. The league has bought the team and is working towards a sale to an owner who will pour money into Los Angeles' second club.

As the situation at Chivas demonstrates, there's still plenty left for the league to do. But we're finally at the point where anything and everything seems possible. The league is at critical mass, the question of "how long can we last?" replaced with "how big can we get?"

2014, then, could well be remembered as one of the major turning points in the league's history. It also promises to be the finest show that MLS has put on yet. We can look to the future and dream big. We can look to the past and appreciate how far we've come. Or we can simply sit back and enjoy what looks set to be a very fun ride.

+Teams

East | West
Chicago Fire +
Columbus Crew +
D.C. United +
Houston Dynamo +
Montreal Impact +
New England Revolution +
New York Red Bulls +
Philadelphia Union +
Sporting Kansas City +
Toronto FC +
Chivas USA +
Colorado Rapids +
FC Dallas +
LA Galaxy +
Portland Timbers +
Real Salt Lake +
San Jose Earthquakes+
Seattle Sounders +
Vancouver Whitecaps +
Vancouver Whitecaps
Seattle Sounders
Portland Timbers
San Jose Earthquakes
LA Galaxy
Chivas USA
Real Salt Lake
Colorado Rapids
FC Dallas
Sporting Kansas City
Houston Dynamo
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
Toronto FC
D.C. United
Philadelphia Union
New York Red Bulls
New England Revolution
Montreal Impact
Chicago Fire

2013 was a year of too little, too late for the Fire. After a horrible start — they won just two of their first 11 matches — they managed to recover to the point that they reached the season's final weekend in control of their own destiny. Unfortunately, a defeat in the finale caused them to lose out in a tiebreaker with the Impact. That loss apparently sealed head coach Frank Klopas’ fate, and he was ultimately replaced by Frank Yallop during the offseason.

Yallop immediately engaged in a rebuild, mostly focusing on a back line that was tied for the third most goals conceded (52) in MLS last season. But are Lovel Palmer and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado really that much of an improvement over Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry? They hardly seem to be a clear-cut upgrade on their predecessors.

Even if they are, the Fire simply have to get better elsewhere. Mike Magee is not going to match his astonishing 2013 — 21 goals last campaign is the same number as he scored in the previous seven combined — and the Fire have to find a way to mitigate his expected drop in production. If they don't, this could very well be another rebuilding season.

Best Off-Season Move

The Fire were one of only three teams to enter a special lottery for Benji Joya’s rights. Since his arrival, the former USA Under-20 captain — still only 20 years old — has made a strong case for a starting spot in the center of midfield. Joya’s vibrancy and determination could be part of the Chicago midfield for years to come.

Reasons to be worried

There are teams in every league that mind their pennies, but in an offseason where several clubs swung for the fences, the Fire have gone small-ball, trying to bunt their way to success. If it works — if the affordable roster built around youth plays well — we’ll see this as a turning point year for Chicago. But it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where there are a couple of injuries, the youngsters don’t produce, and there are no wise older hands to help bail the team out of a mess.

There’s also the terrifying specter of regression. The Fire offense in 2013 was the Mike Magee show — he was the director and the star — but he hasn’t practiced with the team much in preseason thanks to protracted wrangling over a new contract. It’s hard to imagine he’s going to put up 21 goals again. Who will step up?

Reasons to watch

This edition of the Fire seems to be moving away from the dull counterattacking style of the Klopas era. Early indications suggest a transition to a compact, high-pressing team intent on winning the ball back as early as possible and then retaining it. Their matches should therefore have a bit more snap to them.

Chicago also boasts Magee, the league MVP. If you’re a fan of intelligent soccer, watching Magee play is a treat - his movement off the ball is excellent, and he’s a vicious competitor on top of that. Seeing young players come into their own is also fun, and the Fire have a pair to watch in Joya and Harrison Shipp. Joya’s exuberant box-to-box play could make a major difference in midfield, while Shipp is more of an x-factor, a schemer who sees spaces and angles invisible to lesser mortals.

Columbus Crew

Ever since Sigi Schmid departed for the rave green pastures of Seattle, the Columbus Crew have been a team searching for direction. After four-and-a-half seasons of mediocrity, Robert Warzycha has finally been fired, a move that should allow the team to move forward once more.

Replacing Warzycha with Gregg Berhalter was certainly a bold step. The former United States international earned a reputation for fostering an attacking style during his time at Sweden’s Hammarby, making him almost the antithesis to his predecessor.

Of course, there’s only so much change a coach can enact in one offseason, so it’s understandable Berhalter’s first order of business was rebuilding his defense. Going forward, the Crew will likely be relying heavily on the magical Federico Higuain, but one man’s greatness can only take a team so far.

Best Off-Season Move

The addition of Michael Parkhurst filled a big hole in the Crew's leaky back line. In Parkhurst, the Crew have a smart player who can lead a defense in transition. He’s not a towering player and doesn’t have blazing speed, but he more than makes up for his physical limitations with excellent technique, and he’s always where he needs to be. Berhalter said he was looking for smart soccer players to fit into his system. Parkhurst fits the bill.

Reasons to be worried

In a word: Offense. This team will struggle to score goals. Federico Higuain might be the best playmaker in MLS, scoring 11 goals and creating a slew of chances, but thanks to a lack of help up front, he only finished fifth in the assists charts.

Dominic Oduro was the team's leading scorer last season, notching 13 goals. But despite him finding his scoring touch in 2013, his finishing is still streaky and he's difficult to rely on. Meanwhile, Jairo Arrieta can't really get much worse than he was last year — the team's supposed top forward managed a paltry three goals in 21 starts — Eddie Gaven has retired and Berhalter added no new impact players on offense.

Columbus will need consistent performances from players who struggled last year if they want to get back in the playoffs. That might be too tall a task for this team.

Reasons to watch

This is the start of a new era in Columbus. Berhalter is busy reshaping this team, and the first order of business is building from the back. Parkhurst and Gonzalez will tighten up central defense while the outside backs will provide some attacking flair. Wil Trapp is a potential national team stalwart in the making at holding midfield. Fans of well drilled defenses, in other words, will likely have something to watch when Columbus plays.

The bigger reason to keep an eye on the Crew is the man wearing the No. 10 shirt this year. Higuain can create magic almost anywhere on the field. He can slip in an incisive through ball or lead the break himself with the ball at his feet. He is a set piece artist and has enough confidence to test the goalkeeper regularly. To paraphrase the Ohio State motto: With Higuain, all things are possible.

The expectations aren't high, but there is enough talent for the Crew to be in the playoff picture, and they have enough salary budget space to make moves to shore up the team and make a real run in 2014.

D.C. United

Once Major League Soccer’s model club, D.C. United is now the only team in the league that faces anything resembling a threat to its existence. Supporters’ sections, once almost unique to the club, are now very much the norm throughout the league, the casual fanbase has disappeared during their run of irrelevance and they don’t yet have a solution to their stadium problem.

D.C. has good young players and wealthy ownership, but as long as they play at RFK Stadium — which is as dilapidated as it is expensive — they’re not going to compete with the best of MLS. Until their new stadium is built, everything is a band-aid, and they’ve slapped on quite a few of them this offseason. Their roster has been turned over, with departing players replaced by a who’s who of MLS veterans who either never quite realized their potential or are on the downslope of their careers.

D.C. United will not be as bad as they were last season (which, somehow, saw them lift the U.S. Open Cup), but they’re still an MLS 2.0 club watching helplessly as the MLS 3.0 brigade passes them by. Eddie Johnson and their veteran defenders will keep them off the bottom of the table, but they can’t realistically aspire to much more than a face-saving playoff place.

Best Off-Season Move

Trading allocation money to Seattle for Eddie Johnson. Back in the 1990s, several USMNTers roamed RFK Stadium, but not since Ben Olsen's World Cup days has a regular player for the Yanks worn black and red. Johnson changes that. More importantly, he brings a much-needed attacking presence to the table — as bad as United's defense was last year, the forwards were worse. Johnson, a threat from both open play and set pieces, provides the hold-up play that Olsen values and the goals that United needs.

Reasons to be worried

Olsen and Dave Kasper are still making decisions. After the team broke (read: shattered) nearly every MLS record for futility in 2013, the head coach and general manager were brought back in the same roles for an encore. Last season, the team on the field wasn't only inept, they were downright unwatchable for long spells. Olsen's tactical choices were easy to criticize, but most of the time he didn't have a side good enough for tactics to matter. Even with the potential excuses, that he and general manager Kasper have held the reins for this winter's rebuild doesn't inspire much confidence.

Reasons to watch

This ain't 2013's United. Just look at the list of losses and additions. Out are the aging Dwayne De Rosario and the inconsistent Dejan Jakovic; in are defensive stalwarts Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke, well-regarded fullbacks Sean Franklin and Christian Fernandez, captain-wherever-he-goes Davy Arnaud, MAC Herman Award finalist Steve Birnbaum, and "guys who actually score goals" Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson. You could probably put together a newcomer 11 that would beat the 2013 edition of D.C. United. Ben Olsen is going to have options at nearly every spot on the field, something that was a theme during 2012's run to the Eastern Conference finals but vanished last season. If nothing else, the addition of so many aerial targets — Johnson, Boswell, Parke, Christian, Birnbaum — means that los Capitalinos will be fun to watch on set pieces. And if the team is as bad as they were last year, there's always the train wreck factor to draw people in.

Houston Dynamo

Some things in life are certain. Death, taxes and the Houston Dynamo making a genuine run at the MLS Cup. Or, at least, that’s how it's felt over the past decade.

Since moving to Houston in 2006, the Dynamo have only failed to make the playoffs once (in 2010) and have played in four finals, winning two. Throughout that spell Dominic Kinnear has successfully melded together a mixture of veterans and new faces, getting consistent results no matter what his squad has looked like.

For 2014, all eyes will be on the overhauled central defense, but the key to the Dynamo’s success this season will be whether or not the likes of Omar Cummings and Will Bruin can score enough goals to keep them competitive. After a poor 2013, Bruin will be under extra pressure to bounce back and become the striker the Dynamo need.

Best Off-Season Move

Re-signing Andrew Driver. With Boniek Garcia headed to Brazil this summer and Brad Davis looking like a serious contender to join him, the Dynamo's chances of making a run may well depend on the depth of their midfield. Driver showed flashes of brilliance last season despite his injury troubles, and keeping him in Houston is a move that will pay off this year.

Reasons to be worried

Lack of acquisitions and lack of depth. With the quality of the league improving around them, it sometimes seems as if the Dynamo are content with simply standing pat. When other clubs are bringing in big-name players, the front office that doesn't starts to get questioned. If the Dynamo fall short of expectations – which are almost always high – that lack of big names (or in this case, names in general) will be perceived as playing a role, whether or not it actually does.

The other main worry is related. With more players leaving than coming in, the roster might not have enough depth to compete in the Eastern Conference. Although the Dynamo won't be playing in the CONCACAF Champions League this year, said depth will be tested during the World Cup this summer. The Dynamo's hopes might just rest on their few acquisitions performing.

They're also desperately in need of another scorer. SuperDraft pick Mark Sherrod might turn into that scorer in the future, but he's not there yet, leaving this year's hopes in the hands of a group even smaller and possibly less reliable than the last vintage. Uh oh.

Reasons to watch

Depth is an issue everywhere but in the midfield. But the midfield is stacked. The Dynamo kept Driver and picked up Tony Cascio in MLS's first-ever intraleague loan. Alex Lopez has had more time to get acclimated in Houston. Omar Cummings' health means that Barnes might be able to drop back to his accustomed midfield position. Boniek Garcia is all smiles and skills, and Brad Davis still somehow manages to be Brad Davis year after year. If nothing else, this roster has the ability to create loads of chances. Whether or not those chances are converted is another question.

Barnes, a midfielder by nature, led the Dynamo in scoring last season (playing mainly as a forward), so the goals should come. If they come more consistently than last year, the pieces for another playoff run are still there. It's simply a question of whether or not the stars will align like they so often have for Kinnear and his team. If they do, the sky is the limit. If not… well, the Dynamo will be watchable for very different reasons.

Montreal Impact

In early 2013, the Impact were the Supporters’ Shield favorites and looked like they might run away with a trophy in their second year in MLS. It was, of course, not meant to be. The Impact finished off the regular season with a 1-6-1 record and squeaked their way into the playoffs as the No. 5 seed. It was hardly a shock that they were eliminated in the first round.

Unfortunately for Montreal, the issues that dogged them down the stretch — tired legs and a lack of depth — don’t seem to have been addressed this winter. They're still likely going to be leaning heavily on Marco Di Vaio as their top scoring threat, and he’ll be turning 38 over the summer. Can he really repeat his 20-goal performance of 2013? Who's going to pick up the slack if he doesn’t?

There’s also the looming specter of Alessandro Nesta, who stepped down as a player at the end of last season and was reportedly very close to being hired as head coach, eventually ending up as part of the team's technical staff. Despite Frank Klopas taking the reins this offseason, Nesta's presence is unlikely to add any sense of stability to an organization that already seems to operate at the whims of its owner.

Best Off-Season Move

As their only significant offseason move, the Impact’s acquisition of Santiago Gonzalez is important on two levels. On the pitch, Frank Klopas will have options in the attack, a luxury available to none of his predecessors. Even if Di Vaio can maintain his scoring rate from last year, the Impact won't have to rely on him quite so heavily. Signing Gonzalez using the discovery rule gives the Impact the flexibility to amortize his contract and salary. Even more importantly, the third designated player spot remains free.

Reasons to be worried

There are plenty of worrying questions surrounding the club. The injury-hit back line continues to be a source of concern, and until Adrian Lopez recovers — hopefully by March — from his ACL surgery, Klopas will need to play with good, but inexperienced, young defenders while also getting the most out of Hassoun Camara and Matteo Ferrari.

The midfield and attack are relatively stable but the whole left side of the pitch is up in the air. With no real left back or left winger, the Impact are faced with the difficult job of finding a starter for both positions. So far Jeb Brovsky has been the go-to-guy at left back, but he's neither a natural fullback nor is he left-footed.

At left wing, it’s a crap-shoot between Andres Romero, Sanna Nyassi, Felipe Martins and Blake Smith. In other words, Montreal's left flank depends on a stay-at-home left back and a slew of midfielders all aiming to become 2014 Comeback Player of the Year.

There are also questions about whether or not the team can stay fit for the whole season. It will be down to Klopas to rotate the squad and keep everyone fresh while also aiming for as many wins as possible.

Reasons to watch

The Impact will focus, as always, on playing a technically adept, counterattacking game. The Patrice Bernier-Hernán Bernardello connection should be beautiful to watch, especially now that Bernardello has had the chance to bed in following his move from Almería.

Up front, the team could be downright scary. Marco Di Vaio should continue to deliver his weekly clinic even though the rest of the league will be doing everything in their power to stop him. Andrew Wenger has every chance of breaking out under a coach who actually believes in him. And finally, the addition of Gonzalez will give the coaching staff yet another option in the attack. If all goes well, the Impact will be plenty of fun to watch.

New England Revolution

Once the most boring, stuck in a rut franchise in MLS, over the past couple of seasons the New England Revolution have turned themselves into contenders. Through some combination of good scouting, good drafting and good luck, the Revs have gone from being best ignored to appointment viewing on MLS Live.

At the center of that turnaround is Diego Fagundez. The 19-year-old Uruguayan might end up starring on the international stage someday, but in the meantime he'll be focusing on making a difference for the Revolution. He stunned MLS with 13 goals and 7 assists last season, and he'll be expected to improve on those numbers this time around.

Juan Agudelo is gone, but New England will hope that some combination of returning forwards Dimitry Imbongo, Jerry Bengston and Charlie Davies, the newly acquired Teal Bunbury and rookies Patrick Mullins and Steve Neumann can replace him. None of the six is a surefire starting-quality player, but there’s reason to believe that all six can contribute.

As good as Fagundez is, New England’s season is going to hinge on his supporting cast. They’ll be fine if just one of those players comes good and very solid if two of them produce. If three or four end up as useful attacking options? They’re a legitimate MLS Cup contender.

Best Off-Season Move

It may have been a no-brainer, but the Revs' best offseason move was surely exercising the purchase option on captain Jose Goncalves, adding him to the squad permanently after he spent 2013 on loan from FC Sion. The 2013 Defender of the Year is a pivotal piece to the Revolution puzzle and a major factor behind their success last season. Goncalves remains at an impasse with the team regarding his salary, but despite that the Revs will have high expectations of their captain in 2014.

Reasons to be worried

Aside from the aforementioned Goncalves contract situation, the other big worry for New England is surely the need to find a replacement for striker Juan Agudelo, who signed with English Premier League club Stoke City and is currently out on loan at Eredivisie side FC Utrecht.

Agudelo’s impact on the Revs last season was almost immeasurable. He had the perfect skillset for New England, a team that otherwise struggled going forward. And their playoff berth (the Revs' first since 2009) would not likely have been achieved without the striker, whose game-winning goal against the Columbus Crew on the final day of the season ensured that they would make the postseason. Replacing Agudelo will be no easy task, and the Revolution have made no secret of the fact that they are taking their time in finding the right player to fill his boots.

Reasons to watch

While the last two seasons were about revamping the roster and finding an identity, 2014 will be about building around a core of players and seeing if they can reach their fullest potential. Youngsters Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe both had outstanding seasons in 2013 and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t be able to carry that productivity into this year. Lee Nguyen, who extended his deal with the Revs this offseason, completes that trio of midfielders, who serve as the creative force behind the Revolution’s free-flowing attack.

Another interesting storyline will be the competition between the sticks. Bobby Shuttleworth and Brad Knighton are set for what many believe to be the most heated goalkeeping battle in New England's history. There seems to be a good chance that they'll simply split time over the course of the season — Jay Heaps may opt to play the ‘hot hand’ from week to week.

This squad basically snuck into the playoffs in 2013, needing an away victory on the very last day of the season to claim their spot. Meanwhile, at least three Eastern Conference teams who did not make the playoffs — D.C. United, Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union — have made waves in the offseason. Arguably, the biggest questions for the Revolution are if they’ve done enough this winter to keep pace, and whether or not their young core has what it takes to step up in 2014.

New York
Red Bulls

There's an old joke: "Why does Red Bull come in a can?" "Because they have no cups." Well, that joke lost most of its punch last year. New York ended their 18-year run of cup futility, winning the Supporters’ Shield on the season’s final weekend. Although they weren’t able to follow that up with a MLS Cup, 2013 has to be considered a successful season, especially considering it was Mike Petke’s first as head coach.

The team isn't messing with a winning formula; most of the Red Bulls’ offseason tinkering has been around the fringes of the starting lineup. It would be a stretch to say they are markedly improved over a year ago, but they don’t look much worse either.

Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry form an utterly lethal forward combination. The only concern is their ability to stay healthy, as Henry will be 37 by the end of the season and Cahill is 34. Assuming those two can continue to fend off Father Time, the Red Bulls could easily emerge from 2014 with another trophy.

Best Off-Season Move

The best offseason move made by the Red Bulls this year was not making a big move. The Red Bulls/MetroStars have been known for their massive overhauls, with 2013 a great example. While players who have featured, such as Markus Holgersson and Brandon Barklage, are no longer with the team due to salary restrictions, the front office seems to have learned its lesson in not spending money when there's no need to.

Reasons to be worried

2013 is the year that the Curse of Caricola was broken. While the Red Bulls came up short in the playoffs, they are primed to make another run this season, with the majority of the last year's starting 11 still on the team. The only key players missing are Holgersson, who left because of salary constraints, and Fabian Espindola, whose form dipped drastically in the second half of 2013. With Mike Petke having a year under his belt as manager, and most of his squad returning, the team looks set for good things. The only possible hurdle is the CONCACAF Champions League. New York will be in the notoriously grueling tournament for the first time since 2009-10, and the schedule might be difficult for the likes of Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry to handle.

Reasons to watch

With the Red Bulls, you are guaranteed a few things every year: the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, and the roller-coaster ride in between. In 2013, they lost to Chivas USA in August and then went undefeated for the rest of the regular season en route to winning the Supporters’ Shield, topped off with a 5-2 hammering of the Chicago Fire. They followed that with an overtime playoff loss against Houston despite being two goals up in the first leg and taking the lead in the second. This is a team that puts its fans through the wringer and yet brings them back for more.

Philadelphia Union

What started off as a promising season once again ended in disappointment for the Union. The team has qualified for the playoffs just once in their four seasons since joining the league and has now missed out two straight. Last year, it was an awful run in that proved their undoing — they won just two of their final 10 matches.

That run of results was exacerbated by Jack McInerney’s run of poor form, which saw the striker go nearly four months without finding the back of the net. But McInerney was hardly the team’s only problem. The entire offense basically packed it in over the season’s final two-and-a-half months, when they combined for just six goals in 10 games, never managing to score more than once in a match.

To address that shortcoming, the Union ownership finally opened its pocketbooks. The midfield was almost completely remade with the acquisitions of United States international Maurice Edu, Ligue 1 veteran Vincent Nougeira and Argentinian Cristian Maidana. This whole team will have a new look; each offseason acquisition has a chance to become a regular starter.

Best Off-Season Move

The Union went all in for Edu, and got their man. The front office had been under increasing pressure from the supporters for a perceived lack of ambition; acquiring Edu has not only addressed the fans’ concerns, but fills a positional need. Last season the Union handed the keys to the midfield to Michael Farfan, who failed to live up to expectations. Farfan's gone, but Edu more than makes up for his departure, adding a wealth of experience and a skill set more in line with head coach John Hackworth's philosophy.

Edu will bring a veteran presence and a bigger, stronger, engine to the center of the Union's midfield. Most fans would have liked the transfer to be a permanent deal — he's actually in Philadelphia on a one-year loan — but Edu has a lot to play for and should be sufficiently motivated to be an important part of the 2014 Union.

Reasons to be worried

The mood amongst Union fans is optimistic. However, the 2013 season left the fans decidedly split over Hackworth’s credentials. Now that the training wheels have been taken off and the Union are finally cruising under their own power, Hackworth will, for the first time, have his team. Which could be good or bad. The Union's performances had some fans questioning Hackworth's tactical nous, and 2014 will put to rest the debate over whether it was roster limitations or tactical naivety that cost the team last year.

The midfield makeover is another reason for concern. Two of the three new additions are completely unknown quantities. Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana are both new to the league and should be expected to undergo a bedding-in period. The fact that both are expected to start immediately could be an issue in the early stages of the season as they settle in. The Union can take solace, however, in the fact that many other teams in the East are in the same position.

Meanwhile, the Union's back line has been a concern since day one. This season continues that rich tradition. Effectively exchanging Jeff Parke with Austin Berry is tough to call anything like an upgrade. Although the acquisition of Berry, the 25-year-old former Rookie of the Year, does gives the Union an upgrade over Ethan White, he's not expected to perform at Parke's level this season.

Reasons to watch

One word: unpredictability. There is no doubt that on paper the Union will be a much stronger team in 2014. But the reality is that the new-look Union are completely untested as a unit. The additions should bring an attacking verve and drive that will be exciting to watch, but until this group of players actually plays together in real games, the outcome of the rebuild is still in question. Couple that uncertainty with a change in philosophy and tactics, and there's plenty which could go wrong this season. Regardless of how things play out, the result is guaranteed to be infinitely more entertaining than the listless, lifeless and head-scratching displays of 2013.

Sporting Kansas City

When you win MLS Cup with arguably the deepest roster in the league, it’s hard to get better. And it would be hard to say the 2014 version of Sporting KC looks much better than the one that hoisted the trophy last December. But this team isn’t much worse, either.

Peter Vermes returns to a club that is virtually intact, the only true loss being goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen.

Although Nielsen retired with the lowest career goals against average of any goalkeeper in MLS history, how much of that was down to a standout back line is an open question. No matter whether or not his reputation was inflated by his defenders, though, how seamlessly he’s replaced will likely determine KC’s ability to repeat in 2014. Assuming some regression in their ability to prevent goals, Sporting KC will need to get more out of an offensive unit that seems to somehow be less than the sum of its parts. Claudio Bieler and Benny Feilhaber in particular will almost certainly need to become more consistent offensive contributors in order for Sporting to make another deep run.

Best Off-Season Move

The best moves the team made may have been the ones they didn't. There was lots of speculation that Claudio Bieler would go elsewhere in search of playing time after the striker was dropped from the starting lineup during the final stages of the season. Instead, Vermes held onto him, and so far he's been rewarded with a fit and and hungry Bieler in preseason. Homegrown defender Erik Palmer-Brown might also have left — Juventus came calling for him — but Vermes managed to hold on to him as well.

Reasons to be worried

The defending MLS Cup champions went after Michael Bradley and lost out. Toronto FC spent a serious amount of money in the offseason and most teams in the East managed to upgrade their squad. Sporting not only failed to add any big-name players, they lost their captain, statistically the best goalkeeper in league history.

Sporting KC will also face fixture congestion and the probable loss of Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to the World Cup in summer. Any side would have difficulty with those two gone, but KC just isn't the same team without their USMNT players controlling the game.

Reasons to watch

Some may not like the style of Vermes' squad, but if you appreciate consistent, all-out effort, then Sporting KC is well worth watching. Critics have claimed SKC was too physical, but then that's overlooking Feilhaber's passing ability, the incredible crosses from Zusi, the deft touch of Oriol Rosell and the raw ability of others throughout the lineup. This year with a Sporting-fit Benny Feilhaber and Claudio Bieler available from the start of the season, expect some defenses to be sliced apart, Kansas City barbeque brisket style.

If you want more reasons to watch Sporting KC, tuning in means you'll get the chance to check out soon-to-be 17-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown, whom Juventus have been drooling over, and young Colombian midfielder Jimmy Meranda. There's a lot of young talent itching to get onto the field, and they'll do their best to put on a show.

Toronto FC

Seven years after their founding, Toronto FC have yet to make the playoffs. But they've also yet to have a full season under Tim Leiweke. And if one thing has been made clear since Leiweke took over as president of TFC last June, it's that nothing is going to be the same at BMO Field.

In just nine months since taking the reins, Leiweke has signed three Designated Players, two of whom — Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe — cost roughly $90 million combined. He's overhauled the front office too, and is even working on a major renovation to the stadium, which will see capacity increase, amenities improved and a roof added.

The additions should make an immediate impact. It's difficult to see TFC missing the playoffs, even if they have questions about both their back line and manager Ryan Nelsen. But for the new regime in Toronto, merely making the playoffs is small time. This is just the start for the Reds, who Leiweke has dreaming big again.

Best Off-Season Move

Michael Bradley. It seemed like he fell into management's laps, and yes, TFC clearly overpaid, but having a player of his quality on a long term contract is a very good thing for both this season and for many years to come.

Reasons to be worried

Well, despite all the fancy new players, it's still Toronto FC, so there's a very good chance they'll find a way to mess it all up. How might that happen? Injuries are an obvious worry, as depth is still a problem. The first choice defense currently consists of two newcomers and 20-year-old Doneil Henry, with Steven Caldwell holding things together. Caldwell’s getting on a bit, and it's unclear whether or not can he get through another full season. If not, that could be trouble. Bright Dike has already been ruled out for the majority of the season and the remaining forwards look like a very small, lightweight bunch. That might not be a problem depending on tactics deployed, but that brings us to the biggest question mark of all: Ryan Nelsen.

Last season (his first as a coach) he did an adequate job of taking a poor squad, having them play a basic style and getting them to the level of… competitively poor. They were very rarely blown out, but they rarely were truly in matches either. Expectations are a lot higher now, and nobody knows whether Nelsen has what it takes to get a more talented squad to play up to their potential. It could work, or we could be set for a Ruud Gullit-at-LA Galaxy-type fiasco.

Reasons to watch

Despite the big-name signings, there are enough question marks to guarantee that following TFC will be interesting. Jermain Defoe will get plenty of goals, but fellow striker Gilberto is much more of a gamble. Can he avoid becoming the latest South American starlet to fail to adapt to MLS? Can he and Defoe find a way to work together?

Dwayne de Rosario is another big question mark. Can he find his form after a disappointing 2013? Can he adapt to not being the focal point for his team's attack, or will he still try to do too much on his own?

Michael Bradley has looked good in limited preseason action and so far it looks like he’ll be partnered with Jonathan Osorio in central midfield. Can they be an effective partnership, especially defensively? There are plenty of very good questions about this team, and the only way we'll find the answers is by watching.

If everything comes together as hoped, then TFC should be a great team to watch and could deliver some heavy beatings. If things go wrong, well, who doesn’t love to watch the big-spending clubs fail?

Chivas USA

This year will mark the end of Chivas USA. The club has finally been bought by MLS, wresting control away from the terrible ownership duo of Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes. The club will be re-sold, re-branded, kept in Los Angeles and eventually get a stadium of their very own.

But before Chivas can turn to 2015, when there will be new ownership and a new name, they have to slog their way through this season. Maybe the only positive is that it can't be as bad as it was the year before.

As is always the case with the Goats, there's been a lot of turnover, from the front office, to the manager, to the players. They'll take a hit in June when Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres returns to Chivas Guadalajara after his loan finishes, but apart from that the good news is that they should avoid the volatility that marred 2013. Then again, it would be impossible to be any less stable than the Goats were last year.

Best Off-Season Move

Chivas are still rounding out their roster, and there are a lot of new faces this season, but without a doubt the highest expectations are reserved for Mauro Rosales. In recent years, Chivas have lacked quality service to the strikers and a legitimate set piece threat. As long as the former Seattle playmaker can stay fit, he should be able to provide both, dramatically improving the Goats’ attack.

Reasons to be worried

First and foremost, this is a transition year for Chivas USA, and there has to be concern that a lame duck air will permeate the team. How will the sale of the club to the league and uncertainty regarding a new owner impact the players? Though the assumption is that the move will improve morale, we still don’t know how it will shake out.

Secondly, Chivas are undertaking a fourth rebuild in five years. One shouldn’t expect them to be among the league’s best teams this year. But have they upgraded their talent enough to be more competitive this season? They’ve overhauled their defense, but will it be enough to prevent them from shipping goals? The jury is still out.

Reasons to watch

For those of you who didn’t want to support Chivas, or even watch games they were involved in out of principle, you’re in luck! The incompetent owner is no longer in charge and you are now welcome to watch this team without a weight on your conscience.

In all seriousness, despite the many questions about Chivas’ talent, there seems to be cause for optimism on the attacking end entering the season. Rosales represents a major upgrade, and Erick Torres, who'll hopefully be able to match his 2013 form, will be around for the first few months of the year. Carlos Alvarez has a season of MLS experience under his belt, and he and rookie Thomas McNamara look like they might be able to help with the scoring this year. Though question marks surround the strikers beyond Torres, it's not out of the question that one (or more) of them can find their scoring touch and contribute regularly.

Colorado Rapids

The Colorado Rapids have some of the best young talent in the league and are fresh off a playoff appearance last season. In other words, everything should be coming together for the team, and they should be dreaming big coming into the year. But they're not.

The problem? They don't have a manager.

With the club in disarray since the departure of head coach Oscar Pareja, who left to take the helm at FC Dallas, it's tough to put much stock in the team, no matter how tantalizing their roster may look. Clint Irwin has proven that he's a capable goalkeeper, Chris Klute, Deshorn Brown, Shane O'Neil and Dillon Powers give them a great young quartet of players and Gabriel Torres can be a dynamic, dangerous forward. This should be a very good team, and one that's getting better to boot.

But about that whole manager thing…

Best Off-Season Move

Did the Rapids even have a best offseason move? That's a serious question; the Rapids had an absolute trainwreck of an offseason thanks to Oscar Pareja's decision to bolt back to Texas. Just look at the additions and losses up there — quality out, question marks in. If you had to pick a transaction to get excited about, it's probably the trade that finally sent Atiba Harris packing in return for a potentially exciting winger in Marvin Chavez.

Reasons to be worried

When's the last time that a team without a coach did well? The timing of Oscar Pareja's long-winded 'transfer' saga couldn't have been much worse, and the Rapids are still in the midst of their coaching search. If they don't hire Pablo Mastroeni (who is acting as coach for preseason purposes), the new manager will have just days to get the squad ready for the big time. If they do hire Mastroeni, they'll be taking a gamble on another Pareja type — that is, a guy who most agree has the stuff to be a great leader, but might need some time to get there as a coach.

As far as the squad goes, the Rapids have made almost no signings this offseason. Their biggest needs, right back and defensive midfielder, were completely ignored save for some low draft picks. Since they got to the playoffs last year using great depth, that's a concern. They also lost two of their best players in Hendry Thomas and Martin Rivero with two draft picks, Jared Watts and Marlon Hairston, from an uninspiring draft class as their replacements.

Reasons to watch

The myriad problems that the Rapids offseason introduced might mean that the team won't contend for the playoffs this season, but they are still virtually guaranteed to be an enjoyable watch. Colorado brass made it very clear that they have a ‘team-wide philosophy,’ which guarantees that they will be playing the same entertaining 4-2-3-1 that got them to the playoffs last year, regardless of coach. They've also retained the majority of that great young core that did most of their work last year. Dillon Powers, Deshorn Brown, Chris Klute, Shane O'Neill and Clint Irwin have stuck around and will be aided by Dillon Serna, who should play a bigger role this season, as well as newcomer Charles Eloundou. It's going to be fun to watch the Rapids, even if they end up out of the playoff race.

FC Dallas

The biggest change for FC Dallas entering the 2014 season is the new face on the touchline. Gone is the stubborn and rigid Schellas Hyndman, replaced by Oscar Pareja, whom ownership managed to pry away from the Colorado Rapids. Pareja spent eight seasons playing for Dallas, and worked for the club as a coach for five more years before taking over the Rapids in 2012.

Now one of FC Dallas’ true legends is back with the club he loves, and Pareja will be looking to get the team back on track after two years without a playoff appearance. The team has allowed several aging, high priced players to leave and will look to rebuild around a solid core of young players. Given Pareja’s success with the Rapids, there are high hopes for what he might achieve with Dallas.

2014 may not end up being the year that FC Dallas gets back to the postseason, but the long term outlook for the club is much brighter than it was last March.

Best Off-Season Move

FC Dallas has made a series of interesting moves, dumping big contracts like David Ferreira, Jackson and Kenny Cooper to free up the space to retool the roster. But landing Oscar Pareja as the new head coach has to be the biggest move of them all. Ever since the announcement, there has been a buzz about the team that hasn’t been seen in a long while. People are excited about the club again, and a lot of former season ticket holders are planning on making a comeback.

Reasons to be worried

New coaches are always accompanied by an adjustment period, and Pareja's reign will be no different. Combine that with the fact that there are several new faces in the midfield, and it might take a while for the team to really gel.

Health is always a question with any MLS team, and Dallas is just as vulnerable as everyone else in the league. If the likes of George John, Mauro Diaz or Blas Perez get banged up and are out for long stretches, the team will certainly suffer.

It should also be noted that FCD did not face a single MLS squad in the preseason. Their shorter preseason saw them face two NASL teams, one Swedish team (twice) and one college team. Time will soon tell if that's enough prepartion for the regular season.

Reasons to watch

The pieces for Dallas to succeed have been in place for the past couple of seasons, but it hasn't all come together just yet. There's plenty of promise, however. Pareja will bring his possession-oriented style to the club, and that will go well with the speed on the outside and with Perez up front. The new manager is inheriting a better roster than he did two years ago in Colorado, and the Dallas owners are also committing money to bring in the type of players Pareja wants in his system. The mix of youth and veteran experience on this squad will also be entertaining to watch.

LA Galaxy

Last season, the LA Galaxy were thinking three-peat, but that dream fell apart one evening in Utah as they went crashing out in the conference finals to Real Salt Lake. And with that loss, the air of invincibility that surrounded Bruce Arena's squad evaporated.

A year ago, the question was whether or not LA could be the greatest dynasty in league history; now it's whether or not they can still win with this group of players. Can Bruce Arena learn new tricks? How much do Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan have left in their legs? In a salary-capped league and with a roster stuffed full of big-money players, can the Galaxy put together the depth required to compete all season?

The Galaxy have done their best to answer the depth question by adding Rob Friend and Samuel. They're counting on Gyasi Zardes to make a jump. They believe in Robbie Rogers. They've shuffled around the back line. Will that be enough to catapult them back to the top of the league? It's time to find out.

Best Off-Season Move

Of the three attackers the Galaxy's brought in, Samuel has stood out most. He does lack some veteran instincts but shows a great nose for the ball, and at 6'1", he's as tall as Edson Buddle, whose ability on set pieces was something the Galaxy missed badly in 2013. With his height and his ability to find space in the box, Samuel's going to be relied upon as a target forward, with Robbie Keane dropping back into more of a creator role. If the 23-year-old gets the starting gig, double-digit goals are expected.

Reasons to be worried

There was a time when the Galaxy back line was a thing of beauty and 1-0 victories were commonplace. But since Omar Gonzalez tore his ACL in 2012, it's been far less settled. LA's ideal back four was always Sean Franklin-Omar Gonzalez-A.J. DeLaGarza-Todd Dunivant, but now having DeLaGarza at right back and Leonardo as Gonzalez's partner isn't an experiment; it's the norm. Arena has no shortage of young center backs to try if the third iteration of the Leonardo experiment doesn't work out, but things are shakier at fullback. Dunivant had trouble staying healthy last season, and if James Riley has to play left back that leaves DeLaGarza without a proven backup. One injury could cause the Galaxy to start leaking goals.

Reasons to watch

Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan alone are worth the price of admission. When the Galaxy finally figures out who their third main attacker is, the forward line is going to be magnificent. There are many options who could fill in there. Robbie Rogers could step up, or Juninho could move forward. Gyasi Zardes is a possibility if he manages to improve his shot selection. Stefan Ishizaki hit a speed bump in preseason, but certainly he could be helpful as well. With so many options, one is bound to work out. Right?

Portland Timbers

If you’re looking for a chic pick to dominate MLS over the next few years, these are your guys. In his first season at the helm, former Akron coach Caleb Porter managed to turn the moribund Timbers into a genuine force in the Western Conference, and there’s reason to believe this year’s vintage is even better than 2013's.

The potential problem, assuming that you're looking for one, is that it will be very hard for the Timbers to manage to go another season with just five losses. Then again, they're unlikely to end up drawing 15 times, either. Some of those ties will turn into defeats, but there's plenty of room for Portland to improve on last season's points total.

Don't look too hard for a reason to doubt the Timbers, who are unlikely to be forced into using their fourth- and fifth-choice center backs for the bulk of the season, as they were last year, and have managed to upgrade their attack as well. They have all the makings of a lethal team and smart money is on them getting better.

Best Off-Season Move

The Timbers' pickup of Gaston Fernandez, for reportedly far less than Designated Player money, has looked like a good one so far. In three preseason matches, filling in for Diego Valeri at attacking midfield, Fernandez managed two assists and, more importantly, looked instantly at ease within Porter's system.

Reasons to be worried

In 2013, the Timbers had five players score seven or more goals over the course of the regular season. They're going to struggle to match that this year. Ryan Johnson, who had nine, is off to try his luck in China. Will Johnson, who also scored nine, plays a holding midfielder in the club's system, and more doubled his previous best for goals scored in a year — he's unlikely to repeat the feat. Rodney Wallace, who scored seven, had ACL surgery during the offseason and isn't expected back until May.

There are plenty of questions to be asked about the players brought in to fill the expected goal-scoring gaps. Maximiliano Urruti, despite getting several matches with the Timbers last year, is still raw and unproven in MLS, while Gaston Fernandez may turn out to be more playmaker than poacher.

Reasons to watch

At the start of the 2013 season, Caleb Porter ran out a team full of attacking intent, playing a possession-heavy style that is the exception rather than the rule in MLS. After looking good — but failing to win — in the team's first two matches, Porter made some changes to his team's structure and the Timbers suddenly became one of the strongest defensive sides in MLS, going on a 17-game unbeaten run and finishing second in goals allowed.

With the move to a more defensive footing, emphasizing team shape over flow, the Timbers sacrificed some of their attacking prowess to lock things down at the back. Over the course of the year, however, the Timbers began looking more and more dangerous going forward, culminating in their 5-3 aggregate demolition of the Seattle Sounders in the playoffs. With a full season of playing ‘Porterball’ under their belts, the Timbers look primed to roll out a side that can keep things locked down on defense while still bringing an attacking flair and fluidity that you rarely see in this league.

Real
Salt Lake

Last year, Real Salt Lake came within one penalty kick of winning the MLS Cup. But instead of being defending champions, they head into 2014 as runners-up. They're also a markedly different team to the one that fell in heartbreaking fashion last December.

It's not that their roster has been overhauled. It's that Jason Kreis is gone.

Gerneral manager Garth Lagerwey probably deserves as much credit for RSL's recent successes as Kreis, especially considering the way he handled the loss of several of his stars a year ago, but it was Kreis who brought the new team together, and it was Kreis who developed the distinct attitude and style that made this side so good. Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio, Nat Borchers and Nick Rimando are still in Salt Lake City, but their manager is gone.

2014 will be a year of questions at the Rio Tinto. Then again, 2013 was too, and that went pretty well.

Best Off-Season Move

Instead of taking their sweet time finding a new coach to replace New York-bound Jason Kreis, Real Salt Lake moved swiftly in appointing Kreis' former assistant, Jeff Cassar. There was no dallying on the issue, leaving little room for disruption of a near-Cup-winning setup.

Reasons to be worried

While nearly everyone in MLS has strengthened (some more than others, certainly), Real Salt Lake remains nearly the same as last year — just a year older. There's some value in veteran leadership, but with experience comes an increased risk of tired legs. The departure of Kreis also puts the club in an uncertain position. Cassar's head coaching experience is non-existent, and while he's had plenty of time to study the trade, there's always some risk involved in appointing a raw manager. If Cassar has a rocky start, are bigger changes likely? Will ownership be patient if things don’t work out?

Reasons to watch

They aren't worth watching for off-the-field drama (they're woefully short on that), nor their on-the-field antics (there are no Bash Brothers to heat things up), nor their big-name additions (paging top-US-player-in-Europe). What you get with Real Salt Lake is a side devoted to pass-and-move attacking play. They've been widely hailed as one of the most entertaining teams to watch in Major League Soccer, and that's not likely to change under Jeff Cassar. The focus remains on ‘doing things the right way’ — a loaded phrase, obviously — but when it leads to both entertaining soccer and winning ways, it's worth paying attention to. Combine that philosophical slant with a smattering of top players, national team contributors, and exciting young talents, and Real Salt Lake continue to be one of the most interesting sides in the league.

San Jose Earthquakes

Goonies do die after all. A year after winning the Supporters' Shield with a team that became known for their late comebacks, the San Jose Earthquakes didn't even make the playoffs in 2013. The legend was dead.

At least for now.

The fearsome strike force of Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon are all back in action this season, lending hope to the idea that the Quakes might be able to bring back the memories of 2012. But they were together last season, too, and the trio's under-performance was a big reason that even a furious finish of seven-straight unbeaten wasn't enough to get the Earthquakes into the postseason. Nearly every San Jose player had trouble repeating their 2012 form last season, lending credence to the theory that their Supporters' Shield was nothing more than a fluke.

It's a time of transition in San Jose. They have a new crest, new uniforms and a new stadium opening next season. But they're hoping their play on the field looks a little old. 2012-old. Or, if pressed, the end of 2013 will do as well.

Best Off-Season Move

Sending starting central midfielder Rafael Baca to Liga MX served two purposes for the Earthquakes: collecting a transfer fee for a player that would likely have left on a free when his contact ran out later this year, and freeing up space in the starting line-up for Corsica native Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi alongside team MVP Sam Cronin. Baca had reached his ceiling as a Quake, while the 28-year-old Pierazzi is a player in his prime, ready to elevate San Jose’s midfield play.

Reasons to be worried

Other than the addition of Pierazzi, and perhaps first-round SuperDraft selection J.J. Koval, the Earthquakes did little to improve a roster that failed to make the playoffs last season. Sure, San Jose only barely missed out on the postseason, losing a tiebreaker with Colorado, but their competitiors in the West were busy in the offseason, while the Quakes stayed quiet.

Tommy Thompson, the club’s first homegrown player signing, could provide a spark for the team, but he’s only 18 years old and still regaining fitness following a knee injury last fall. Wondolowski, who played more than half of last season with a broken foot, should rebound from a subpar 2013, but he might miss time with the club should he get a call-up to the U.S. World Cup roster. Going without Brazil-bound center backs Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez will gut the Earthquakes' defensive unit come May and June.

On paper, the roster looks comparable to the sides proffered in 2012 — a Supporters’ Shield winning season — and 2013 — which featured a disappointing sixth place finish. The big question is whether the 2014 Earthquakes play like in ’12 or ’13.

Reasons to watch

The club that has fully embraced the slogan "Never Say Die" — even emblazing it on the back collar of their alternate jerseys — will always make for good theater, even if the action is more Jerry Bruckheimer and less Martin Scorsese. Renewed focus from target forward Lenhart and the aerial ability of Atiba Harris on the wing could prove a big boost to Wondolowski’s chances of regaining the form that won him the 2012 MLS MVP award. Solid defensive play across the back four for an entire season, especially if the departure of Steven Beitashour can be overcome, will keep the Earthquakes in the playoff hunt even if the offense doesn’t always deliver.

Visually, the Quakes are not expected to be a possession-oriented team, and a direct style of play may prove less the exception and more the rule. However, the newly-built midfield should be good at providing some excitement in transition, especially with speed on the wings from Harris and Shea Salinas as well as overlapping defender Jordan Stewart. The team showed a real knack for locking things down defensively over the second half of 2013, and that will remain the plan this year. Ultimately, it will come down to the results on the scoreboard — winning, even ugly, is always worth watching.

Seattle Sounders

Despite making the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season — they're one of only three MLS teams to have accomplished that feat — the Sounders opted for a roster overhaul last winter. Ten players were shown the door, including top scorer Eddie Johnson, starting goalkeeper Michael Gspurning and club captain Mauro Rosales. One name that didn't change was that of the man in charge. After narrowly escaping a firing at the end of last year, Sigi Schmid will lead the Sounders for a sixth season. Unless the Sounders show some marked improvement, one imagines it will be his last.

The philosophy guiding the Sounders’ efforts to replace their outgoing players seems to have been rooted in locker room harmony, something that was in short supply last season and was a contributing factor in a disappointing stretch run. Seattle won only once in their final ten games, including the postseason, and, to add insult to injury, the team who bounced them from the playoffs was the hated Portland Timbers. The newcomers will be asked to stem the tide. Former MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall was probably the Sounders' biggest addition, but goalkeeper Stefan Frei and forward Kenny Cooper are expected to have major impacts as well.

More than any of those moves, though, the Sounders seem to be relying upon fully-fit versions of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins to be the big difference-makers in 2014. If that duo can find a way to stay healthy and re-adjust to MLS, the Sounders could be a contender for the Supporters' Shield.

Best Off-Season Move

With such a massive change in the roster it's difficult to focus on just one move. It happened in several steps, but somehow a club that lost its leading goal scorer and two of its top four defenders looks to be at least as good in attack and defense as the the previous version, and they finished with the sixth-most points in the league.

Reasons to be worried

So much change could mean that the players fail to gel quickly, meaning that the club could get off to a slow start. With a highly competitive West and Clint Dempsey missing all of training camp with stuttering Fulham, March performance could be the difference between a top seed, the play-in round or missing the postseason entirely. Watch how well Dempsey, Marco Pappa, Martins and Cooper work together by April and you'll see if Seattle's offense is fixed or not.

Sounders FC also does not have the caliber of goalkeeper that they've possessed in previous years. For their first five years in MLS, the Sounders relied on Kasey Keller and Michael Gspurning, both rocks in goal. Now there'll be a battle for the starting spot between Frei and the legendary, but elderly, Marcus Hahnemann, two keepers who come with question marks. Both look like they can be average in a league with several high-quality stoppers, but that's well below the level Seattle is used to. The defense is going to need to do better at preventing shots without the likes of Keller and Gspurning back there to rescue them.

Reasons to watch

That starts with Clint Dempsey. He's still going to try ‘stuff,’ doing things that few other American players can do. He'll make your jaw drop and leave your eyes wondering what they just saw. Even when he's not scoring or assisting, his technique is worth a look.

In a more practical sense, Seattle will be an athletic team that rapidly transitions from defense to offense. On the right that will mean using the speed of DeAndre Yedlin and the left will be reliant on Marco Pappa's service. The middle is Clint's. Obafemi Martins plays soccer in a way that doesn't necessitate a nuanced look at his game. He terrifies defenders with short bursts of speed and surprising strength. Last year he burst onto the scene with six goals in his first ten matches, but couldn't keep that rate up for the whole season. Now, with an offseason of rest, the expectation is that he puts on a goals clinic at CenturyLink Field.

Vancouver Whitecaps

2013 was a odd year for the Whitecaps. Despite improving their goal difference by 14 and claiming five more points than they managed in the previous season, Vancouver ended up missing the playoffs. There had already been rumblings that Martin Rennie had lost the locker room, and failure to qualify for the postseason was enough of excuse for the front office to step in and make a coaching change.

It's easy to fire a manager; recruiting one is a far more difficult task. Frank Yallop was supposedly offered the job and turned them down and the Whitecaps were also reportedly trying to lure Bob Bradley to Canada. Neither came through, and ultimately former assistant coach Carl Robinson was given the reins.

Possibly as a result of their managerial hunt, the Whitecaps had a late start to their offseason, which was made even more stressful when Camilo Sanvezzo forced a transfer to Mexico’s Queretaro. The Whitecaps have signed Malaga's Pedro Morales, but even with the playmaker they'll still be running out a relatively inexperienced attack. Patience will surely be needed in British Columbia.

Best Off-Season Move

With Lee Young-Pyo heading to the greener pastures of retirement, the Whitecaps needed to obtain a right back fit to fill his boots, not an easy task at all. Yet Carl Robinson was able to steal Steven Beitashour from the San Jose Earthquakes in a move that elated Whitecaps fans and thoroughly annoyed the Earthquakes support. The Whitecaps got younger at the position, acquired an offensively-minded, all-star backliner who can move the ball up the pitch, and best of all they didn't have to give up much in return. Robinson went so far as to say that Beitashour was "arguably the best right back in the league," which certainly gives the 27-year-old Iran international plenty to live up to in 2014.

Reasons to be worried

While the back line was given the tweaks it needed, the attack has been left largely untouched by Whitecaps upper management. Instead, the club opted to promote from within, and has given the keys to young guns like Omar Salgado, Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh. While youthful energy could be a boost for the club, it's rare to avoid some growing pains when you lean on prospects. We all saw how good Manneh looked last year, but then, we also saw how ineffective Erik Hurtado was; Unfortunately, both are being counted upon to provide offense now. Beyond the kids, the Whitecaps have one veteran up front to guide the ship: the injury-prone Kenny Miller. If he goes down again this season, all of the Caps' eggs will firmly be in the ‘young gun’ basket. This season could be great, but it could also be a trainwreck. Welcome to MLS.

Reasons to watch

Those young strikers could be awfully fun if they fulfill expectations. Salgado is a former first overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, Mattocks looked like a future star in 2012, and Manneh is a popular pick for to break out in 2014. Toss in an old hand in Kenny Miller; a powerful, charging midfielder like Nigel Reo-Coker, a promising youngster in Matias Laba and a young, creative Canadian in Russell Teibert, and the attack could actually be fun to watch, rather than a weak point. Beyond that, the club should have a strong defense, which means that even if they struggle to score they'll stay in most matches.

+Conferences

East | West

The Eastern Conference team our bloggers were most bullish about is Sporting Kansas City. The defending MLS Cup Champions were picked to win the conference by about three-quarters of our bloggers; they were also the most popular pick to win the Supporters' Shield. It's not hard to see why: Months after beating Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup final, they return with their team almost completely intact, the only significant losses being goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen and, to a lesser extent, Teal Bunbury.

The big question is who their most significant challenger might be. It won't come as much surprise that the bloggers picked the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC as the most likely candidates. The former were last season's Supporters' Shield winners, and while the latter possess the dubious honor of being the only team in league history never to make the playoffs, their huge offseason shopping spree means that their long streak of futility is expected to end in spectacular fashion this year.

Further down in the standings is a collection of teams that all appear capable of competing for a playoff spot. The New England Revolution, led by a young attacking corps as good as any in the league, were perhaps the surprise package of 2013, and they'll be looking to build on those gains. Meanwhile, several clubs who struggled last season have made big strides this winter, with the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United making the most of the offseason to significantly improve their squads. All in all, this should be one of the most competitive Eastern Conference races we've seen in years.

Projected Standings
  1. Sporting Kansas City
  2. New York Red Bulls
  3. Toronto FC
  4. New England Revolution
  5. Houston Dynamo
  6. Chicago Fire
  7. DC United
  8. Philadelphia Union
  9. Montreal Impact
  10. Columbus Crew

+Players

These are not the five best players in Major League Soccer. At least, that's not why we selected them. All have the ability to be amongst the league's stars, but it's not their talent that has us intrigued — it's the impact their performances will have on their teams' fortunes. Each has something left to prove: Clint Dempsey needs to show that his best days aren't already behind him, questions remain about Claudio Bieler's ability to stand up to the rigors of MLS, Juninho's form in 2013 took a sharp hit, Darlington Nagbe must demonstrate that he can be a top performer on a consistent basis and Diego Fagundez is only scratching the surface of what he can achieve. They might not end up one through five in the MVP voting, but this group is certainly worth keeping a very close eye on.

Clint DempseySeattle Sounders

David Beckham aside, no player has entered the league accompanied by anything even approaching the fanfare that greeted Dempsey a year ago. When the rumours began, the idea that the USMNT captain, then poised for a second season with Champions League hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur, might make a return to MLS seemed absurd. But it soon became apparent that Dempsey really was on his way back across the Atlantic, accompanied by an almost ridiculous wave of hype. As it turned out, it was much ado about very little. Dempsey only appeared in 12 matches, including the playoffs, registering just one goal and one assist with Seattle. He followed that up with a two month loan spell at Fulham, where he played sporadically and failed to score in eight matches. Two years ago, Dempsey was joint fourth-highest scorer in the Premier League, but that form's been nowhere to be seen of late. If he can regain it, the sky is the limit for both him and the Sounders.

Diego FagundezNew England Revolution

Diego Fagundez is what you might call precocious. He became the Revolution's first Homegrown Player at 15, netted in his MLS debut at 16, and two years later set the league record for goals scored by a teenager with 13. Now, expectations are higher than ever, for both forward and team. The Revs made the playoffs last year and almost managed to knock out the eventual MLS Cup winners; the time now looks right for them to take the next step and become a perennial force in the league. If they do make that leap, it will be Fagundez who carries them. He has the potential to turn into the type of player who can transcend MLS, and if he can lead the Revs to glory a European move may also be in the offing.

Claudio BielerSporting KC

Claudio Bieler was supposed to take Sporting Kansas City to the promised land. Instead, it ended up the other way around. Their star striker didn't earn his paycheck, losing his starting spot down the stretch and failing to make a much of a difference during their playoff run. Bieler's flop didn't matter one bit. Sporting were the deserved winners of the 2013 MLS Cup despite his slump, proving once and for all that teams can succeed despite their stars under-performing. Still, if they want to repeat as champions, they could do with Bieler living up to his price tag. He scored six goals in his first ten games, showing that the talent's there for him to be a force in front of goal, but his main issue last year was a combination of questionable fitness and an inability to play the high-intensity game Peter Vermes requires of his team. If Bieler manages to step it up, Sporting might be unstoppable.

Darlington NagbePortland Timbers

Ever since he was selected with the second overall pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, Nagbe has been one of the most exciting players in the league. But until last year he struggled to consistently impose himself on the game. Caleb Porter relieving Nagbe of some of his playmaking duties for 2013 worked wonders: the 23-year-old set career highs with nine goals and four assists, starting all 34 of the Timbers' matches. Diego Valeri was the final piece to Portland's puzzle, but Nagbe became their metronome, keeping them in rhythm and offering a constant attacking presence. His raw speed makes him a threat on the wings and his absurd control gives him the ability to cut inside and become a second No. 10, a combination that's difficult to track, let alone stop. 2013 saw Nagbe finally blossom into a star, and now it's just a matter of consolidating his gains. If he does, Portland will be in very good shape.

JuninhoLA Galaxy

Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane did the scoring, David Beckham hogged the limelight and Omar Gonzalez earned a Designated Player contract as the Galaxy won back-to-back MLS titles in 2011 and 2012. But it was Juninho who ran the show for those teams. The Brazilian's brilliant play allowed Beckham to do whatever he pleased, provided a shield for the back line and also furnished some rather spectacular long-range goals. But Juninho's form slipped precipitously last season and, unsurprisingly, so did the Galaxy's. He struggled to match his former range, appearing at times unfit, and neither he nor midfield partner Marcelo Sarvas were anything like an effective barrier in front of LA's defense. If LA wants to get back to the final and win yet another MLS Cup, they'll need Juninho to prove that last year was an aberration, not the new norm.

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