SWORN-HOOLIGAN-2Last season was the 20th in MLS history, and by all measures the league took another big step forward. From all kinds of records being broken to more and more big name players deciding to play the beautiful game here in ‘Merica, it ended with the Portland Timbers catching fire down the stretch before beating Columbus Crew 2-1 in the MLS Cup. We now take a look at the top 11 storylines entering the 21st edition of Major League Soccer that finally makes it legally able to drink in all 50 states. First games kick off Sunday March 6. Full disclosure, I am 100% a Seattle Sounders supporter so some of these views might be slightly (read: very much) biased.

  1. LA Galaxy Turnover

The most visible and decorated team in MLS had a very up and down 2015 season by their standards. It started in preseason, when despite winning their fifth title the previous season, they said goodbye to the best American field player the MLS has ever seen in Landon Donovan. They still had championship aspirations after building a star-studded lineup including Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Keane and Gyassi Zardes, and they announced the signing of former Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard. They got off to a slow start in the first month, drawing or losing 4 of their first 5 matches, but they took points from their next 5 to make it seem like all was right. They were amazing at home, going 12-2-3 but equally as terrible on the road (2-9-6).

Giovanni Dos Santos - Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire
Giovanni Dos Santos – Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire

Not even capturing the signature of Mexican star Gio dos Santos could help them fully right the ship. Despite the up and down nature of their season, they were one of the 60 percent of teams that make the playoffs and wound up facing a Seattle Sounders team they had dominated in the knockout rounds every other time they had squared off. Seattle was able to exercise their Galaxy demons because, you guessed it, LA was on the road and the thoughts of a repeat championship ended.

Alan Gordon - Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire
Alan Gordon – Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

Fast forward to this season, and the new LA Galaxy looks nothing like last season. Gone are championship team and 20-something stalwarts Omar Gonzalez and Juninho (both off to Liga MX). While conventional wisdom would suggest looking to the youth ranks to replace this talent, the Galaxy have decided to go in the complete opposite direction: every major signing they made this offseason is north of the dreaded 30 year old mark. Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole, Jelle Van Damme, Dan Kennedy, Mike Magee and Jeff Larentowicz all bring a wealth of experience from across the world but also considerable question marks as to how much they have left in the tank. Add these guys to Robbie Keane and Alan Gordon, no spring chickens themselves, and there are much more questions about this team than answers entering the season. There’s a reason that AC Milan, Roma and Standard Liege bought out the three Europeans brought in for pennies on the dollar. Make no mistake: there is still a ton of talent in this squad with Zardes, Keane and dos Santos, but the key question this season is whether all the retirement aged signings can keep up in the grueling MLS schedule. I think it will be a rough season for the Galaxy and they will be looking to rebuild next season.

  1. Jordan Morris picking Seattle over Bundesliga

    Jordan Morris -  Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire
    Jordan Morris – Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire

New American savior Jordan Morris had a dream 2015: he won a national championship at Stanford, made multiple appearances for the USMNT and had his choice of where he wanted to make the next step: Germany or MLS. He traveled to Germany on a two week trial with Bundesliga side Werder Bremen, and most casual American soccer fans urged him to sign with the Hanseatic side. He ultimately decided to sign the richest Homegrown player deal in MLS history with hometown club Seattle Sounders and is set to begin his first professional season this year.

I have mixed feelings about the Morris decision, but overall I think he made the right decision. As a USMNT supporter, I believe that he would have benefitted and developed most from playing regular minutes in the Bundesliga over the MLS. Like it or not, the MLS is not as deep or competitive a league yet, plain and simple. However, his decision ultimately might be the best decision for all involved.

First, it wasn’t guaranteed that he would have been handed regular minutes in Germany. Bremen is currently involved in a relegation battle, and although that would seem to provide an argument that the current squad is not so great (a good assumption), it would be unlikely that manager Viktor Skrypnyk would give a young, unproven player critical minutes in the relegation fight. Second, if Bremen are relegated, MLS is a much better place to face quality competition than the German 2. Bundesliga. There’s a huge drop from the top level in Germany to the second division. Third, Morris’ pockets will also be in a better spot since player compensation in Germany varies drastically by division. He might have made more money if they had stayed in Bundesliga, but he will make more money in Seattle if he had signed and they were relegated. Finally, thanks to Obafemi Martins following what seems like every other soccer player in the world signing in China (more on this later), Morris has an all but guaranteed starting spot on a Seattle team that is expected to contend again this season. Playing regular minutes trumps sitting on a bench in a better league, as we have seen with multiple US players signing in Europe. He gets to start his professional career in his hometown, in a familiar situation and with his family around him (his dad is the team’s medical director, he grew up in Seattle playing for the Sounders’ academy). Deandre Yedlin had a similar situation to Morris (signed with Seattle out of college, parlayed regular minutes into a starring role and signed with Tottenham) and things have turned out pretty well for him so far. We should all enjoy Morris this season, as it very well could be his first and only season in MLS before making the jump to a big club in Europe.

  1. MLS taking CCL more serious
D.C. United Starting XI - Tony Quinn/Icon SportswireD.C United won 2-0.
D.C. United Starting XI – Tony Quinn/Icon SportswireD.C United won 2-0.

Most MLS fans know the season starts March 6. What a lot of people don’t realize is that CONCACAF’s version of Champions League is set to start the knockout stages as well (February 23-24 first leg), and this season is a dream for organizers. Four MLS teams will take on four Liga MX teams, as Seattle plays defending champions Club America, DC United face Queretaro, LA Galaxy match up with Santos Laguna and Real Salt Lake entertain Tigres UANL. In previous years, most MLS teams that have won the right to play in this tournament have thrown the chance to win it away. New York Red Bulls are notorious for sending youth squads to compete and focusing solely on winning the Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup. To be fair, their reasoning made some sense: CONCACAF has yet to provide teams with prize money for actually winning Champions League while teams do have financial rewards for winning in the MLS and US Open Cup. CONCACAF’s reasoning has been that the reward money is getting to go play in the FIFA Club World Cup, where the last place team wins $500,000, but that is before travel expenses to go participate in the Club World Cup.

This season, however, we have publicly seen Seattle and LA declare they will be trying to win CCL, and Real Salt Lake and DC United have traditionally fielded strong squads as well. The big issue is whether or not these four teams will be able to compete against their Mexican rivals. MLS is just getting started into their preseason while Liga MX is well into their season. Match fitness is a huge determining factor in being able to compete over a two leg series, and the Mexican sides have the big advantage there. They have traditionally dominated CCL and look poised to continue that this season. As much as I want to be a homer and say this is the year that an MLS side finally wins the tournament and the right to go be embarrassed by Barcelona at the Club World Cup, it looks like we will continue to see Mexican dominance in this competition.

  1. Copa America Centenario / MLS taking a break

This June, Copa America Centenario takes place in the US. It is the first time in the history of the tournament that it will be hosted outside the South American continent and the US will be a seeded team along with Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. It is also the first time that the MLS will take a break from competition to accommodate an international date. Previously they had played through tournaments, including Gold Cup last season. It’s a great thing for the league that they have finally decided to take an international break.

The MLS is a salary-capped league, and the cap is a small one at that. This cap doesn’t allow for deep rosters to be built like European teams. In tournaments like Gold Cup and Copa America, most of the best players based in MLS are leaving to compete, leaving clubs to play reserves and youth players in meaningful games that matter when it comes time to decide playoff seeding. It is also unfortunate as a fan buying a ticket to see your favorite team take on a big name player on a rival team, only to have all the best players in the matchup not appearing because they’re facing off against Colombia. Taking a break means that MLS teams can compete with their full rosters for the entire season, ensuring that the competition is at its best for the fans and clubs alike. Let’s all enjoy MLS to start the season, take a quick break to watch the some of the world’s best players entertain us in a great international tournament, then come back to the stretch run to the playoffs. It is a win-win for everyone involved.

  1. New Players
Kaka - Marc Piscotty/Icon Sportswire
Kaka – Marc Piscotty/Icon Sportswire

Last season saw a ton of big name players arrive in the US: Kaka, Frank Lampard, David Villa, Didier Drogba, Sebastian Giovinco, Steven Gerrard, Giovanni dos Santos, Andrea Pirlo as well as American Jozy Altidore made their debuts in MLS in 2015. This season has seen many more big name players leave the MLS than arriving, with Omar Gonzalez, Juninho, Matt Miazga, Luis Gil and Erik Palmer-Brown all moving via loan or transfer (some may argue the big named-ness of these guys). However, the MLS still has a few names about to debut. The biggest named players to move from overseas to the MLS include Emmanuel Boateng from Helsinborgs to LA Galaxy, Yura Movsisyan returning to RSL from Spartak Moscow, Antonio Nocerino moving from AC Milan to Orlando City and the previously mentioned LA Galaxy players.

The current trend is still seeing aging, past their prime veteran players from Europe move to the MLS. We are still a long ways away from NYCFC being able to sign away even a player like Mario Balotelli as long as the salary cap and contract restrictions are in place. The ability to bring more relevant and bigger profile players to the MLS will come in time, as more and more TV money is brought into the league and the ownership groups spend more on improving the product on the pitch. For now, we will have to settle for watching the modest improvements that keep being made and enjoy being able to watch some of the best players of a generation play out their final years in the MLS.

  1. NYCFC and new coach Patrick Vieira
NYCFC - Robert Altman/Icon Sportswire Final score Orlando - 3, NYC FC - 5
NYCFC – Robert Altman/Icon Sportswire
Final score Orlando – 3, NYC FC – 5

NYCFC entered last season with a ton of hype: owned by the Manchester City group, playing in Yankee Stadium, a star studded roster including Pirlo, Lampard, Villa and Mixx. They were supposed to be title contenders from the start, but the season did not go the way they expected. Their stars didn’t join to start the season thanks to playing in Europe, and by the time they did arrive in the Bronx the team was already out of the playoffs thanks to a 1-5-7 start to the season (yes, that is 1 win in their first 13 matches). Finishing in 8th place in the East and being one of only 40% of teams that didn’t make the playoffs was enough for hot up and coming American coach Jason Kreis to be relieved of his duties after one season.

 NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira(LEFT) with Jack Harrison (right) - Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire
NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira(LEFT) with Jack Harrison (right) – Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire

In comes Arsenal legend and coaching newbie Patrick Vieira. It helped that he was a member of Manchester City’s youth staff before making the move, but he has not managed on this level and has not experienced the differences and intricacies that MLS provides compared to a European competition. Although the quality isn’t as good, the logistics of traveling much farther distances with extreme weather changes and coaching players of lesser talent in a season that is opposite the European schedule provides challenges that other prominent foreign managers (Juan Carlos Osorio, Hans Backe and Aron Winter to name a few) have found to be incredibly difficult to manage. He has said all the right things “I will be well prepared. I know what to expect. There are no excuses.” and has the talent to compete right away, but it will be interesting to see how quickly he will be able to adjust and teach his new squad. Having NYCFC competing for the MLS title can only be a positive for the league. Big market teams with big name players playing in primetime playoff games will drive viewers and fans to the stands. It will be one of the more fun things to watch develop as the early season starts.

  1. Can Portland repeat? (no)
Portland Timbers -  Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire
Portland Timbers – Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

Portland got off to a rocky start in 2015, drawing their first 3 games and winning only 1 of their first 6. They put together a nice run of games at the end of May into June before another up and down stretch throughout summer. They ended the season winning 4 of their last 5 matches heading into the playoffs as the 3rd seed in the Western Conference at 15-8-11. A crazy first round playoff matchup against Sporting Kansas City saw the Timbers go through on a ridiculous penalty shootout, winning 7-6 after a wild 2 post miss from Saad Abdul-Salaam. Knocking off Cascadia Cup rival Vancouver 2-0 on aggregate placed them into the Western Conference final against Dallas. A 5-3 aggregate win there and they improbably made the MLS Cup against Columbus Crew. They took home their first championship 2-1 and the Rose City rejoiced.

Portland Timbers Huddle - Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire
Portland Timbers Huddle – Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

This season, however, will be a different story. No one really had Portland on the radar to be MLS Cup champions last season. Now, they come into every game with a target on their back. It’s a completely different mindset and challenge defending a championship, and a big reason why we rarely see back to back champions in any sport. Every team is looking to prove they’re better than the champs, and they will play their hardest every time the step foot on the field vs the Timbers. Although they didn’t turn over the roster very much and return a lot of talent, this season is so wide open and knowing how difficult it is to repeat as a champion (I won a national championship my freshman year of college at Seattle University, we returned the entire starting 11 and missed the playoffs the following season) that, if I was a betting man (and I am sometimes) I would take the field this season. Sorry I’m not sorry Portland fans, better luck next season!

 

  1. New MLS Kits
Columbus Crew Kits - Columbus Crew Twitter
Columbus Crew Kits – Columbus Crew Twitter

MLS teams have been rolling out their various new kits for the past few weeks now, and the reviews have been decidedly mixed for most of them. They range from the totally awesome (NYCFC’s away kit), to the very clean (Sporting KC’s away kit) to the “what were they thinking?” (Columbus Crew’s away kit). Here is a biased, official unofficial ranking of the new kits that have been released so far:

  1. NYCFC away kit
NYCFC new Kits - NYCFC Twitter
NYCFC new Kits – NYCFC Twitter

2.  Vancouver’s away kit

3.  Sporting KC’s away kit

4.  New England Revolution’s primary kit

5.  Montreal Impact’s primary kit

6.  DC United’s primary kit

7.  Real Salt Lake’s primary kit

Real Salt Lake Home Kit - Real Salt Lake Twitter
Real Salt Lake Home Kit – Real Salt Lake Twitter

8.  Seattle Sounders blue away kit

9.  Orlando City’s away kit

10. Chicago Fire’s primary kit

11. San Jose’s away kit

12. LA Galaxy’s primary kit

13.  Philadelphia’s primary kit

14.  Portland’s away kit

Portland Timbers' new kits - Portland Timbers Twitter
Portland Timbers’ new kits – Portland Timbers Twitter

15.  Seattle Sounder’s primary kit

16.   New York Red Bulls away kit

17.   Literally any other kit on the planet

…..196,052. Columbus Crew’s away kit

  1. Who takes the next step?

Although the biggest name players in MLS are all aging European superstars, the MLS is still turning out some great young players that have been moving on to Europe (re: Deandre Yedlin, Matt Miazga). Here are a few young (24 or under) players looking to take that next step forward:

Kekuta Manneh - Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire
Kekuta Manneh – Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire

Kekuta Manneh, age 21, Vancouver – He is of Gambian descent but is in the process of acquiring his US citizenship, and has shown flashes of brilliance before being legally able to drink in his adopted home country (even though he plays in Canada). He ended 2015 with 7 goals (second on Whitecaps) and 5 assists (first on team) and is entering this season with a ton of potential.

Kellyn Acosta, age 20, and Fabian Castillo, age 23, Dallas – Dallas has 2 great young, rising stars in American Acosta and Colombian Castillo. Castillo came into the league at age 18 and has quickly pushed his way into being an MLS All Star and called into the Colombian National Team.

Kellyn Acosta - Christopher Brashers/Icon Sportswire
Kellyn Acosta – Christopher Brashers/Icon Sportswire

We might not be able to keep him on this list very much longer as teams all over the world are lining up to sign this ultra-fast talent. Acosta turned heads this January at the USMNT camp, including appearances in the back line in the friendlies against Iceland and Canada and looks to continue that momentum into the MLS season and potentially World Cup qualifiers.

Sebastian Lleget, age 23, LA Galaxy – A former West Ham prospect that signed on a free transfer for LA, he hit the ground running and was an integral part of the Galaxy from his first day in Carson. An all-around midfielder, he netted 7 goals and 2 assists in his first season and will look to improve upon those numbers this season as he tries to force his way into Jurgen’s lineup this year.

Kwadwo Poku - Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire
Kwadwo Poku – Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

Kwadwo Poku, age 24, NYCFC – Another player who no one knew anything about this time a year ago but has seen a meteoric rise. On a team with a ton of superstars, he has been able to make a name for himself with NYCFC supporters and overseas as well. Normally coming off the bench, he almost always made an impact in every match he appeared in and might not be in MLS much longer.

Cyle Larin, age 20, Orlando City FC – An imposing central forward who won MLS Rookie of the Year honors last season for his 17 goals, Larin has already become a mainstay with the Canadian national team and will look to avoid a sophomore slump and lead the Lions to the playoffs in their second season.

 

  1. Is the Chinese Super League a threat to the MLS?
Obafemi Martins - Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire
Obafemi Martins – Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

In a word, yes it is concerning to see the Chinese League grossly overpay average, aging players to come earn one last big paycheck before their careers are over. That used to be the MLS’s selling point. I don’t knock the players for doing it, if you told me I could have $200,000+ a week to play soccer in a mediocre league after I was sitting on the bench in various European leagues as most of these guys were, I would jump all over that and enjoy some authentic Chinese food as I padded that bank account. However, for the MLS this is very concerning. The MLS used to be the desired, number one location for these players to look for. We used to be getting the Lavezzis and the Ramires’ looking to play a few more years. Now, even MLS players are at risk of jumping to China as Obafemi Martins showed us a week ago. The MLS is slowly raising the salary cap as more TV money comes in, but it isn’t fast enough to compete against China. The best paid players in the MLS (Kaka and Giovinco made $7,000,000 last season) are making almost half of what the new, big players in China are making ($13,780,000 for Jackson Martinez, $11,000,000 for Alex Teixeira and Ezequiel Lavezzi). Some players might decide that living in the US is better than a few extra million dollars, but most people will say “show me the money” when it’s an extra $5,000,000. Big market MLS clubs like LAFC, NYCFC, Miami’s new team and Toronto will have no problem drawing a few big names to MLS, but the smaller clubs that weren’t having much luck before China splashing cash will now have to think even more outside the box.

  1. Top title contenders

This season there is so much parity and contenders for the MLS Cup, enough that I won’t go on record declaring a winner so that my one friend that reads this article can remember it at the end of the season 9 months from now and rub it in my face. You could make reasonable arguments for any of the following teams to contend for the title: Portland, Columbus, Dallas, New York Red Bull, LA Galaxy, Seattle, Montreal, NYCFC, Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City, Toronto, Orlando City. That’s more than half the league. It’s a blessing and a curse for the league to have so much parity and so many big name teams with that high of aspirations. At the end of the day, the dream final matchup for MLS would be an LA Galaxy vs NYCFC/NY Red Bulls matchup, the two biggest markets facing off for all the marbles. Here is as close as I will go to predicting a winner: I think that the best contenders this season are Dallas, Portland, NYCFC and Montreal. Dallas came close last year, retained a lot of the core they had and will be primed to get farther than they did. Portland had a ton of young talent and didn’t lose many players either, but as I said previously I don’t think they will defend their title but they will be in contention. I think NYCFC has too much talent to not contend this season. They will benefit from having all their big name players around from the start this season and be a force in the East this year.

And finally, Montreal ended last season on a solid run and return probably the most dominant player in the league in Didier Drogba. As much as I would love to see Seattle contend, I think they will be very good in the regular season and once again fail to survive in the playoffs. I’ve seen it way too much in the last few years and until Sigi Schmidt proves me wrong I won’t hold my breath that they will be a serious contender.

So there you have it. My semi biased, fairly encompassing preview on the upcoming MLS season. Saddle up, grab a beer (the league is legal now) and

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