The new Major League Soccer season gets underway this week. The Seattle Sounders will look to defend their first ever MLS Cup title as expansion outfits Minnesota United and Atlanta United will both set out on their maiden seasons in the league. Let’s take a look at what else we can expect as MLS enters its 22nd season.
The Champions Reigning champions Seattle Sounders already look like favorites to retain the title. The Sounders were the best team in the division in the latter stages of the season and will be bolstered by the return of Clint Dempsey.
The veteran USMNT striker was sidelined for much of last season with an irregular heartbeat, but has since been cleared to return to action. Last season, rookie attacking sensation, Jordan Morris picked up the slack in Dempsey’s absence and Seattle fans will be eager to see what the combination of a fit “Deuce” and a more experienced Morris will mean for the Emerald City attack. While the Sounders will have to make due without veteran defender Brad Evans for the early going in the season, influential Designated Player Nicolas Lodeiro will be back. The question many Sounders fans have, is who will fill Seattle’s third DP slot? AC Milan attacker Keisuke Honda is looking like the current favorite.
FC Dallas For the second season in a row, FC Dallas start the new season looking like the best team in the league overall. Dallas won the Supporters Shield last season for winning the most games in regular season and Oscar Pareja’s well-balanced side remains largely intact. New additions like promising young Paraguayan striker Cristian Colman, Argentine right-back Hernan Grana and Venezuelan midfielder Carlos Cermeno could put the pieces in place for Dallas to get over the line for their first ever MLS Cup title.
Toronto FC Last season’s MLS Cup runners-up will be eager to do one better this season. With DPs Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley still in place, Toronto FC has got the star power and talent to realistically aim for the top. The addition of creative midfielder Victor Vazquez will hopefully provide more balance for TFC in the center of the park and has Toronto again looking like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Montreal Impact Last season’s Eastern Conference final between Toronto and Montreal Impact was an instant classic. The Impact provided much stiffer than expected resistance to favorites TFC and kick off the new season as a team to look out for. Veteran striker Didier Drogba is gone but manager Mauro Biello has retained the services of his most influential player, Ignacio Piatti. The Quebec outfit has acquired Argentine midfielder Adrian Arregui on loan for the season and if they can pick up where they left off, they’ll certainly have a say on this season’s Eastern Conference race.
Colorado Rapids The Colorado Rapids finished second in the Western Conference last season and had things shaken out a little differently, could’ve wound up in the final. Colorado lost midfielder Jermaine Jones in the off-season but have retained the services of goalkeeper Tim Howard and influential attacking midfielder Shkelzen Gashi. If the Rapids can find a solution to their goal-scoring problem from last season, they have the potential for another deep run.
Best of the Rest
New York Red Bulls Following Thierry Henry’s departure a couple seasons ago, NY Red Bulls have reinvented themselves as scrappy underdogs led by goal-getting machine, Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Wright-Phillips is back, along with influential midfielder Sacha Kljestan. If the Red Bulls can fill the hole left by the departure of Dax McCarty to Chicago, look them to have another strong season in the Eastern Conference.
NYCFC With the acquisition of attacking midfielder Maxi Moralez from Mexican outfit, Leon, NYCFC have made a marked departure from their previous DP strategy of signing faded top-tier European stars. That said, veteran striker and reigning league MVP David Villa is still onboard, as is celebrated midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo.
Manager Patrick Vieira exceeded expectations in his first season in charge and with a successful season under his belt, the Frenchman will be looking to makes his stamp on the Eastern Conference this time around.
Works in Progress
LA Galaxy It’s unusual to do a season preview on MLS without listing Los Angeles Galaxy among the favorites. But that’s the world we live in currently with the Galaxy very much in the process of rebuilding following the departures of manager Bruce Arena and striker Robbie Keane, along with the ultimate failure of the Steven Gerrard experiment.
The good news is that last season’s best attacking player Giovani Dos Santos and best defensive player, Jelle Van Damme both remain on the books. Van Damme has been made a DP with French midfielder Romain Alessandrini signed from Marseille in the offseason to round out the third DP slot. But with questions remaining over the relative inexperience of manager Curt Onalfo and injuries that will see key players Gyasi Zardes, Ashley Cole and Robbie Rogers miss the start of the season, it remains to be seen whether LA will be capable of returning to their usual spot at, or close to the top of the Western Conference.
Portland Timbers After winning the title in 2015, last season was huge disappointment as Portland failed to reach the playoffs. While questions remain regarding the Portland defense, going forward the Timbers have what could be one of the most formidable attacks in the league with Darlington Nagbe on the left, striker Fanendo Adi in the middle and new DP signing Sebastian Blanco on the right. Portland outplayed LA in their final preseason friendly and if coach Caleb Porter can sort out the back line, the Timbers could be back to their 2015 best.
DC United While they haven’t done much in terms of signing this offseason, D.C. have secured the services of striker Patrick Mullins by doubling his money and making him the team’s unquestioned starting striker. The club also recently broke ground on its long-awaited own stadium and with continuity from last season, will head into the 2017 season on a wave of optimism.
Whether that will prove enough to return the club that dominated the early seasons of the league to the top this time around remains to be seen.
Sporting Kansas City The 2013 MLS Cup winners have spent a couple of seasons out in the wilderness. But with one of the league’s best midfielders in Benny Feilhaber and one of its best strikers in Dom Dwyer, Sporting KC have the potential to once again be a factor this season.
The Chasing Pack Real Salt Lake, Philadelphia Union, Orlando City, New England Revolution, Columbus Crew, San Jose Earthquakes, Chicago Fire all fell short of the playoffs last season. We’ve seen some interesting moves from many of these teams this offseason and with MLS being a league with more parity than most, almost any one of them could bounce back this season by at least making a run to the playoffs; although you’d be hard-pressed to make a case for any of them as a title contender.
The Expansion Sides Minnesota United and Atlanta United are both playing their inaugural seasons in MLS. Minnesota made a good account of themselves in NASL last season, but it remains to be seen whether they can carry that over into MLS.
Atlanta meanwhile, have no track record but with former Barcelona manager Tata Martino in charge, it will be interesting to see what they can achieve in their inaugural season in MLS.
The 2017 MLS Season kicks off on Friday, March 3 at 9:30pm ET on Fox Sports 1 when the Portland Timbers face Minnesota United.