Predicting MLS 2017: Everything you need to know about the contenders, pretenders and unknowns
Major League Soccer's 22nd season kicks off on Friday, and it's still anyone's guess as to how things are going to shpe up. Nobody expected the Colorado Rapids to contend for the Supporters' Shield last year, and the thought of Seattle Sounders capturing the MLS Cup crown seemed preposterous in late July.
Predicting the MLS season is a fool's errand. The summer transfer window can change things quickly, and the Cup fight is ultimately about who's hot at the end, not who's been best over the season's first eight months. But FFT is game. We'll play the role and divide the 22 clubs, including newcomers Atlanta United and Minnesota United, among three categories: Contenders, Pretenders, and The Unknowns.
Let’s start with the teams who shouldn’t get their hopes up...
This isn't the dynastic Galaxy that Bruce Arena governed. He's gone, so are Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard – Landon Donovan, too – and the transition is going to require time. Not that the Galaxy have been all that great in the last couple of years. They haven't, and now Curt Onalfo has questions to answer up top, with Giovani dos Santos running the show. And Onalfo will hope the depth and skill deeper down the field comes through. There’s always the chance that LA will get hot, but what happens when things go cold?
There's a lot of buzz surrounding this newcomer, with former Barcelona and Argentina manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino at the helm and some nifty, young South American talent at his command. To meet the elevated expectations, a lot of foreign players must adapt right away, and that's a big ask. There's a reason first-year teams in MLS's modern era (Sounders aside) don't make the playoffs.
An off-season reconstruction, upon missing the playoffs after the 2015 title run, has given the Timbers a more youthful glow – but that was bound to occur with the retirements of Jack Jewsbury, Ned Grabavoy and Nat Borchers. Much is expected of Argentine midfielder Sebastian Blanco and Generation Adidas phenom Jeremy Ebobisse, but keeping Darlington Nagbe on board was vital. They're a work in progress, so it could come together – or not – at any point.
Jason Kreis is still tinkering with the squad, remaking it to his requirements, and that's going to require more time and effort. There's more money to play with after the Kevin Molino trade, and the Lions need to find Designated Players who can contribute as Kaká does. Kreis just missed in his bid to steer OCSC into the playoffs in Year Two after taking over mid-season, and it's not going to be any easier this year.
The 'Caps aim to bounce back from last year’s precipitous fall, and this week's addition of former Seattle Sounders forward Fredy Montero answers, on paper at least, the most troubling concern. This is a frugal club which has struggled to find a consistent goalscorer since Brazilian Camilo took off after the 2013 season. A healthy Kekuta Manneh would help, too, but if things aren't tighter at the back, progress won't come easy.
San Jose Earthquakes
Success would be simply making the playoffs, which the Quakes have missed out on the past four years. It's eminently doable if someone other than Chris Wondolowski can score goals. Beyond that? Probably not. Former Roma technician Jesse Fioranelli has lots of work to do as the new General Manager, but the addition of five versatile foreign players in their primes is a plus – if they can adapt quickly.
Things are going to be better under Wilmer Cabrera, who with Matt Jordan has worked to give the Dynamo a real identity after three post-season misses in a row. They've crafted a group that's more creative, more dynamic, deeper and sits atop the allocation order, which might be a big deal. Better still: Cabrera has a history with Mexican striker Cubo Torres, who needs to start paying off.
The NASL grads arrive in MLS pretty deep under the radar, especially in contrast with the other expansion team. They've got no Designated Players, a bunch of journeymen and little-known foreigners, and will need big things from $650,000 midfielder Kevin Molino, top draft pick Abu Danladi, and sort-of-established tandem Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez. It'll be interesting, for sure.