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Armchair Analyst: 2016 MLS Season Preview Spectacular!

T-minus 48 hours and counting until the MLS regular season is back. As with anyone else, I have a ton of questions about how things are going to play out. But my job here is to pretend to have all the answers.

So here goes – 6,100 words of analysis and bad predictions. (And for more in-depth predictions, give Thursday's ExtraTime Radio a listen)

Enjoy!

The Defending Champs

Portland Timbers: Champs! No matter what happens in 2016, the Timbers will be sporting that shiny new star above their crest and justifiably lording it over their Cascadia rivals.

And what should happen is more winning. Caleb Porter struck gold when he made Diego Chara into a fulltime d-mid, setting off a butterfly effect that led all the way to MLS Cup. By the time November rolled around Chara, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe were the league's best central midfield, and Fanendo Adi was 1) banging in goals, and 2) bossing defenders physically, allowing the Timbers to advance into the attacking third en masse. It was really, really good soccer.

Let's talk about Nagbe again for a second:

Actually, let's not talk about him. Let's just watch that clip a million more times.

With the new set-up the Timbers achieved a level of stability with that set that had previously eluded them, turning one of the league’s true up-and-down teams into title winners.

Thus, their understated offseason makes a lot of sense. In Jack McInerney and Chris Klute they got plug-and-play replacements for two of the three important contributors who bid adieu. They haven’t quite done the same at the wing – Rodney Wallace will be missed more than most think – but given the late-season development of Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla late-season development, I’m not sure they had to. They can afford to wait and see.

That’s the champs' prerogative.

  • PREDICTION: Top three in the West with Nagbe, Chara, Adi and Liam Ridgewell in contention for Best XI
  • Team MVP: Adi. He's going to wreck the league this year.

One Step Away (Maybe)

FC Dallas: It feels like this is their year, right? Season three of working for a beloved coach who happens to be a club icon; a roster filled with players in or just entering their primes, most of whom have improved greatly since 2013; and an academy that seems to spit out MLS-ready talent at something approaching conveyor belt-level regularity. Those are the main ingredients, but they also went out and added a forward who proved to be perhaps the league’s best off-the-bench game-changer in Maxi Urruti, then got a back-up No. 10 for when Mauro Diaz inevitably misses a stretch of games.

So if Diaz, who is capable of utter magic:

Plays something like 2400 minutes (he was at about 2000 last year), this team will probably win the Supporters' Shield. And even if he doesn't hit that number they're still probably the favorites.

It really is hard to find any particular scabs to pick at with this team, but I'm going to name two. First, they lack a true target forward who can change up the look and inflict a beating on opposing defenders. Urruti is really, really good at finding spots to be dangerous, and Fabian Castillo is Fabian Freaking Castillo. But I still think there will be a need for a Blas Perez-like presence up front every now and then. In typical Dallas fashion that might end up being Homegrown teenager Coy Craft or 2016 SuperDraft pick Colin Bonner, but that really is a big ask for any kid.

Anyway, as a natural skeptic and contrarian, it makes me uneasy to see things lining up so predictably, so I'm not actually picking them to win the Shield. But if I were a Dallas fan, I’d be pumped for 2016.

  • PREDICTION: Western Conference champs (regular season) with Diaz as an MVP candidate, Urruti one of the league's break-out players, and Matt Hedges in the running for Defender of the Year
  • Team MVP: Diaz is going to be the league MVP this year, so that's my call

Vancouver Whitecaps: The Whitecaps are basically mirror images of presumptive Western Conference favorites FC Dallas. They’ve got the young head coach with franchise ties (Carl Robinson), they’ve got the brilliant-but-oft-injured playmaker (Pedro Morales), they’ve got the academy that spits out talent at an absolutely delightful rate, and they’ve got the livewire winger who simply murders folks in space (Kekuta Manneh).

And like Dallas, they have memories of a playoff run that came to an abrupt ending thanks to a lack of finishing. Robinson thinks that Octavio Rivero will improve upon his debut season just by being acclimated (I agree), but he went out and got both Masato Kudo and Perez just in case. He also got more young depth on the back line (Fraser Aird & Cole Seiler) and more veteran depth in midfield (Christian Bolanos).

The key, though, is Morales. They still don't really have a backup No. 10, and this is the type of thing they miss when Pedro's out:

Yeah... you can't just replicate that.

On the flip side, they do have one thing Dallas lack: Experience winning a title. Lots of Yanks tend to forget that the Canadian Championship exists, but it does and Vancouver won it pretty convincingly. Getting a taste of that is a huge step for a mostly young group, and feels like something they’re ready to build upon.

  • PREDICTION: Top two in the West and MLS Cup champions with Morales as an MVP candidate, Rivero as a potential break-out player of the year, and Kendall Waston winning Defender of the Year.
  • Team MVP: Morales. Just pray he stays healthy, Vancouverites

New England Revolution: Jermaine Jones was New England’s most dominant player. Not statistically, but in the sense that no matter the team or the situation or the guys around him, Jermaine did what Jermaine wanted to do. He’s been singularly resistant to structure and direction over the duration of his career, and that’s meant any team he was playing for ipso facto took on his personality. They had to, or it wouldn’t work.

Without him the Revs are less talented but more stable – they won’t regularly lose their dominant player to injury or national team camp or suspension or some combination of the three anymore, and in Gershon Koffie they’ve picked up an ideal replacement. He’s younger, healthier, less combustible and is possessed of roughly the same strengths and weaknesses, even if he’s not necessarily as gifted. He is a plug-and-play replacement.

Is that, combined with added defensive depth, enough to elevate them into the ranks of the Eastern Conference elite? Probably not, unless Juan Agudelo finally breaks out and becomes the star he should be, or unless Diego Fagundez returns to his goal-poaching ways of 2013. Both of those things are on the table, however, and I’m banking on at least one of them happening.

I'm also banking on Lee Nguyen continuing to be Lee Nguyen:

His numbers weren't as huge in 2015 as they were in 2014, but he was just as good, and his ability to get on the ball in the attacking third and hold it there is unmatched in MLS.

  • PREDICTION: Supporters' Shield champs! They added backline depth and midfield stability, and have a ton of guys in their prime who will be elite at their respective spots
  • Team MVP: Nguyen. He'll be in the mix for league MVP, too

Columbus Crew SC: There are many, many more stories in MLS history of the team that gets close to the mountaintop but can’t quite plant their flag than there are of teams that get close, then come back the next season and get it done. Take the 2014 Revs, or the Houston teams from earlier this decade, or any number of groups who came within inches of victory but ultimately succumbed to age, injury and the roster churn that is part and parcel of MLS life.

Crew SC have kept their group together for another offseason, and the year-over-year stability should be beneficial, especially given the crucial roles two mid-2015 arrivals (Gaston Sauro & Harrison Afful) played, and should continue to play.

There are a couple of questions though. First and foremost is this: Is Kei Kamara's 2015 season repeatable? In the end he was overshadowed by Sebastian Giovinco, but in just about any other season he would've been the league MVP. Even if he doesn't score 20 goals again -- and by the way, nobody in league history has more than one 20-goal season -- he'll still be valuable because of his workrate, skill and creativity:

That is a genius pass.

But if his goal-scoring drops off significantly, I'm not sure where Crew SC make it up.

That's one worry I'd have if I was a denizen of the Nordecke. The other one is, in Year 3 of the Berhalter Era, will some amount of staleness creep in? At some point chemistry can veer toward complacency. More than any tactical or personnel concern, that’s what Columbus have to be wary of.

  • PREDICTION: Top three in the East with Best XI caliber seasons from Wil Trapp, Kamara and Sauro
  • Team MVP: Kamara. He won't be as good as last year, but he'll be damn close

Some Adjustments

New York Red Bulls: The Red Bulls still have their front six, and they still have arguably the best goalkeeper in the league (Luis Robles), and in 19-year-old forward Anatole Abang, they have a guy who I think could end up being a breakout player. They have a new club in the bag as well, after experimenting with a 4-2-2-2 throughout preseason -- putting Abang in spots where he can use his physicality and goal-scoring instincts to torment defenses, while opening up space for Bradley Wright-Phillips.

People forget how good BWP is, by the way, and how adaptable he's been. Two years ago he was Thierry Henry's buddy, staying almost exclusively in the box and poaching. Last year, he was an integral part of a new-look, "all hands on deck" attack that prioritized quick movement and quicker decisions:

That is beautiful soccer, and you can see how BWP's movement perfectly complements Sacha Kljestan's ability to find pockets of space all over the field.

But losing that Matt Miazga/Damien Perrinelle partnership in the center of defense is a bigger deal than I think most recognize, because those guys were both 1) super aggressive in compressing space, and 2) super in-tune with each other. Partnerships make for winning soccer, and almost everything that went right for RBNY last year started with that partnership in the back. If the new guys can't provide that same thing, then the midfield will probably have to drop a little bit deeper, and then the front three has to drop deeper in order to stay connected, and then suddenly this is a vastly different team from a tactical perspective.

Above and beyond everything else, that’s what this upcoming season rests upon in Harrison: Can Jesse Marsch find the right combo in the heart of the defense? If the answer is “yes,” then they’ll be an excellent team again. If it’s "no," then they’ll take a step backwards no matter how well the rest of the team plays.

  • PREDICTION: Top 5 in the East with another outstanding season from BWP, Kljestan, Dax McCarty and Luis Robles, but some struggles from the defense
  • Team MVP: McCarty. He'll hold it all together when things start falling apart

Sporting KC: Sporting have more good players at more spots than they did at this point last year. There is a very easy to draw, very straight line between that truth and expected improvement. Brad Davis and Justin Mapp give them something they didn’t have; Lawrence Olum’s return gives them something they didn’t have; a more experienced Amadou Dia and Saad Abdul-Salaam gives them something they didn’t have; and a full year of Roger EspinozaTim MeliaSoni Mustivar and Jordi Quintilla gives them something they didn’t have. They should be good, even if Benny Feilhaber isn't able to replicate his Best XI season.

But moreso than any other team in the Western playoff picture, they have a glaring, obvious hole: Selling Krisztian Nemeth was absolutely the right move (business is business), but that’s left Peter Vermes & Co. without an obvious goal-scoring threat to play on the wing, and teams that play a 4-3-3 need goal-scoring from the wing.

He also had a knack for big goals in big moments:

How well and how early they address that need will likely have a large say in how good 2016 turns out to be for the reigning U.S. Open Cup champs. Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman has suggested a signing is imminent, so do keep an eye on his Twitter feed.

  • PREDICTION: In the playoff race out West, but not at the top of it. Dom Dwyer will make a run at 20 goals, and Espinoza will rediscover his form
  • Team MVP: Dwyer. He'll get a ton of service and he'll finish more of his looks than he managed to last season

Seattle Sounders: A new formation, a departed superstar, a grumbling captain, a club legend on the trading block, and a reconstructed midfield. It seems like the Sounders should be in for a year of (relative) misery and a slight rebuild, but it’s hard to ignore their performance against Club America in the CONCACAF Champions League. Yes, they missed Obafemi Martins, but damn… the pieces all fit, didn’t they? Clint Dempsey was cutting in from the left, Jordan Morris was extending the game on the right, and Ozzie Alonso playing as a true shield instead of ranging far and wide as a destroyer, and it all looked perfectly natural.

There's also this: I remain a big fan of Brad Evans at center back. Obviously he struggled in the air against las Aguilas, but his ability with the ball changes the way Seattle can transition from defense to attack. Expect him to find Morris on runs like this rather frequently:

As usual, though, health and availability are the big questions. Seattle cratered last year without a number of key cogs, and they’ll need the kids – especially Cristian Roldan – to bear a larger portion of the burden if they’re to avoid the same in 2016.

I suspect they’ll hold onto that DP slot the sale of Martins opened up, then make their decision on where to spend it during the summer window. The Sounders are still wearing an “under construction” sign, but don’t be surprised if this project turns out to be further along the path than most expected.

  • PREDICTION: In the playoff mix out West, but not near the top. Dempsey will be in the MVP race, while Alonso and Stefan Frei will both be potential Best XI selections
  • Team MVP: Deuce! The winter off did him some good -- he looked livelier against Club America than he's managed at any point in the past two years

D.C. United: Much of United’s success over the last two years was built around the play of Bill Hamid in goal and the partnership of Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud in central midfield. The fact that they’ll be without the first for half the season and the other for all of it (and beyond) does not bode well. There is real, honest, reason for concern among the United faithful even though new arrivals Luciano Acosta and Julian Buescher look very promising.

The warning signs could perhaps best be seen in the opening goal by Queretaro in the CCL first leg. It came after Marcelo Sarvas – playing the Kitchen role, for all intents and purposes – pushed into the attacking third and unleashed a cross that was taken by the ‘keeper. Usually that’s fine, but the D.C. midfield didn’t rotate to cover for Sarvas’s foray, and six touches later Queretaro were leading 1-0. I’m not sure that’s a goal they concede last season.

They will also miss Kitchen's distribution more than most realize:

They need quick switches and opportunistic counters like that in order to free up guys like Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, Patrick Nyarko and Acosta. All of those guys are clever, skillful attackers, but none excels at holding the ball up against a static defense..

Finding that balance and creating back-to-front chemistry is going to be priority No. 1, because this team really is at an overall talent disadvantage compared to most of the conference. In the past they’ve overcome that by adding up to more than the sum of their parts. If they can’t do the same again, 2016 will be a long year at RFK Stadium.

  • PREDICTION: Below the red line. Buescher will have an outstanding rookie season, but there are too many holes to plug
  • Team MVP: Espindola. He'll lead the team in goals and be among the league leaders in chances created, but it just won't be enough

Big Ambitions

LA Galaxy: While most of the rest of the Western Conference is veering young, or making understated and under-the-radar moves, the Galaxy are being the Galaxy. Want a former English national teamer? Want a Dutch Kung-Fu master? Want a Belgian with Champions League experience? Then come on down to Carson.

Each of these moves was understandable in and of itself (I remain especially skeptical about Ashley Cole, who can no longer run, though I’d probably risk 7% of my salary cap on him for a year), but as a whole it makes it difficult to look at this LA team as one that can last through multiple competitions, time zones, altitudes and climates. It took Steven Gerrard about 25 minutes to wear out in Denver – will these guys do any better?

The early returns are not good. The Galaxy got blown out at Santos in the second leg of the CCL, and their inability to recover defensively in transition was killer:

They were also incredibly bad defending set pieces, which was shocking to see.

That’s the obvious storyline. The other is this: I still don’t understand how a Robbie Keane/Gyasi Zardes/Gio Dos Santos attack works, because Keane and Dos Santos desperately want to occupy the same spot in attack and definitely don’t want to slide over to the wing in defense. The Galaxy, in short, have a roster full of recognizable names that may not fit together right.

Pretty soon, we’ll find out how much that matters.

  • PREDICTION: Below the red line. LA finally get a taste of how the other half lives
  • Team MVP: Keane. He'll still be awesome because he's Robbie Keane

Toronto FC: The switch to the 4-3-3 is a huge move, and it is fraught because it moves Sebastian Giovinco further from goal and Michael Bradley into a position as a true defensive midfielder. Both of those things make me uneasy.

My personal axiom in this sport is “play your best player in his best spot, and go from there,” and there’s no question that Giovinco’s best spot is as a second forward. He’ll get free rein as an inverted winger on the left, of course, but that does mean added defensive responsibility and different starting points for his runs, as well as a different kind of partnership with left back Justin Morrow. It’s an adjustment.

For Bradley, my issue is that he’s always been more of a hunter than a protector; he doesn’t sit and shield, which is what the 4-3-3 often demands. If he goes chasing, what does that mean for the central defense?

There's also a problematic lack of depth up top -- relevant, since Jozy Altidore's already hurt -- and a lack of speed either in attack or midfield. Bradley is one of the best through-ball artists in the league, and this team would be well-served to find a winger who can run onto them.

Even with those notes of caution sounded, it’s hard not to like what this group has done in the offseason. Getting veterans in on the backline, at ‘keeper and in midfield, and clearing out cap space in preparation for an in-season move or two was a smarter play than going for another splashy signing. They have the pieces, and now just have to figure out how they fit.

  • PREDICTION: They'll be a playoff team, and Giovinco will be an MVP candidate again. But I don't think this mix is quite right for them to contend
  • Team MVP: Giovinco. Even though I picked Diaz as the league MVP, Seba's still the best player in the league

Orlando City SC: The Lions got 29 games out of Kaká across all competitions last year. The last time he played 29 or more games two seasons in a row was 2008-2009 to 2009-2010 – the last gasp of his first stint with AC Milan and his first year of a disappointing spell with Real Madrid. He was in his prime then, with those years coming from age 26-through-28. By the seventh game of this season, he will be 34 years old.

Will OCSC get 29 games out of Kaká this season? His age and injury history will likely hang ominously over every expectation in the Sunshine state. Even if his on-field/off-field impact isn't as dramatic as other No. 10s, like Diaz or Morales, Kaká was still Kaká, and there is no easy replacement for what he brings to the field.

That said, OCSC were still able to create danger down the flanks as long as they had a few speed options out there. Most notable was Carlos Rivas's late-season development, as he became a legitimate weapon:

They have a young core of Cyle Larin, Cristian Higuita, Darwin Ceren, Brek Shea, Bryan Rochez, Rafael Ramos and Rivas that both produced and improved, and they have a bunch of veterans who can help add some knowhow. There is, of course, the worry that Larin will encounter a sophomore slump, but given their depth at that spot -- both Rochez and Pedro Ribeiro looked good in spurts last season -- they can probably weather that particular storm.

I do worry, however, about the lingering traces of front-office turmoil after this offseason's churn. That stuff's not supposed to affect how teams perform on the field, but it almost always does.

  • PREDICTION: They'll make the playoffs! Higuita will have a Best XI-caliber season, and Shea might be in that mix as well, while Larin mostly avoids the sophomore slump
  • Team MVP: Higuita. He's arguably the most underrated player in the league

Montreal Impact: What Didier Drogba did at the end of last season was magical and probably not repeatable, at least not over a 34-game season. He won’t do that again even if he gets ample rest to start the season.

But Mauro Biello & Co. have proved that they’re no dummies. Their offseason moves were smart and understated. In bringing back their entire backline they’ve ensured year-over-year continuity; in trading for Harry Shipp, they poached one of the league’s best under-25 playmakers, and seem intent upon playing him in a spot that highlights his strengths; in rebuffing multiple offers for Eric Alexander and coaxing one more year out of captain Patrice Bernier, they’ve ensured depth at the No. 8 spot at midfield. They also have Marco Donadel and Calum Mallace at d-mid, so in terms of depth their cup runneth over.

The one concern might be the wing, with Andres Romero hurt and both Justin Mapp and Dilly Duka gone. But even there, they brought in Lucas Ontivero to compete with Dominic OduroJohan Venegas and, most likely, Ignacio Piatti. He was really, really good on the wing in September, October and the playoffs.

Remember this?

So for the first time in their MLS history, the Impact had what I’d consider to be a shrewd offseason. That means they can afford for Drogba to play limited minutes, and for him to be something closer to mortal when he is out on the field.

  • PREDICTION: Top five in the East with Shipp making huge strides, Piatti a Best XI candidate and the Laurent Ciman/Victor Cabrera central defense being among the league's best
  • Team MVP: Ciman. He really is a joy to watch

New Starts

Chicago Fire: It was pretty clearly time for a rebuild, and hiring a guy like Paunovic shouldn’t really be seen as a risk – he has experience in MLS as a player, which means he probably won’t have the same type of struggles adjusting that we’ve seen out of imported managers before. And given the youth of the roster as well as Paunovic’s work with the Serbian U-20s, this should be seen as a pretty happy arrangement.

But boy, did they take a risk when they traded Shipp. Right now it looks like the replacement will be new Dutch signee John Goossens, who did this in preseason:

That's nice. Very, very nice. But what Shipp brought was chance creation from anywhere in the final third, and it remains to be seen if Goossens can do the same.

How they fill that spot (which could go to Collin Fernandez who, like Shipp, is a Fire Homegrown) will go a long way toward determining if the first year of this new regime is a success or a failure. The other starkly obvious area of concern is the entirely rebuilt backline, which is A) young and B) really impressive on paper. Brandon Vincent is a full US international; Rodrigo Ramos is a Brazilian youth international; Johan Kappelhof is a veteran of the Eredivisie; and Joao Meira has spent years in the Portuguese top flight.

Even so, rebuilding takes time, and Chicagoans -- who are justifiably tired to being patient -- will, um, probably need to be really patient.

  • PREDICTION: Outside the playoff hunt, but much better than last year. Gilberto will be really, really good and Vincent will be one of the league's best rookies
  • Team MVP: Gilberto. I could see something like 13 goals/7 assists

Philadelphia Union: Just about every year in MLS there is a potential-laden forward for whom everything comes together. Usually it’s a mid-career guy who’s scuffled along with a few bursts of productivity before catching fire and going from an 8-or-9-goal scorer to something approaching or exceeding 20.

The hope in Philly is that C.J. Sapong is about to have that kind of year. The 27-year-old equaled his career best with nine league goals last season, and more importantly, he wrestled the starting spot away from a Designated Player (since-departed Fernando Aristeguieta) and then kept it by consistently meeting the demands of the position and acting as a fulcrum around which the rest of the attack could function.

Beast mode engaged:

I still question whether he gets his shots off quick enough to be that elite goal-scorer, but he’s smarter and more committed than he was a year ago, and his movement in preseason has been promising.

While “can they put their chances away?” remains a big question, “who will create those chances?” is arguably bigger. Cristian Maidana’s departure probably makes the Union a better team overall, and the new arrivals are promising, but it’s still not clear who the brains behind the attack will be. Tranquillo Barnetta is more of a supporting cog, and Roland Alberg is a total unknown (though one with an impressive C.V.).

The other issues are the health of Maurice Edu -- they're so much better when he's on the field, but he's already hurt -- and the youth of the backline. Lots and lots of things have to break right for the Union to take a big step forward.

  • PREDICTION: They take a step forward, building most of their success around Sapong, but it's not big enough to put them into the playoff hunt. Nonetheless the denizens of Chester take heart from a promising young core of Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Eric Ayuk
  • Team MVP: Vincent Nogueira. Almost nobody outside of Philly will notice how good he is, though

NYCFC: Patrick Vieira says he is going to play Andrea Pirlo as a lone No. 6. This seems like slow suicide and a recipe for an ad hoc in-season adjustment to both the formation and tactical bent of the team.

Here is the problem with that idea: There are lots and lots of teams in MLS that love to counterattack. This isn’t to say that they’re primarily counterattacking teams, but almost everybody in the league looks more comfortable on the run than they are setting up shop in the final third and stringing together a series of intricate cuts, runs, touches and passes.

So if NYCFC are going to be a high-pressure, high-possession team, they are going to need to be really good at preventing counterattacking opportunities. However, high-pressure, high-possession teams are the ones that are most susceptible to counters. Thus you see young(ish), rangy, energetic d-mids like Soni Mustivar (Sporting Kansas City) and Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls) on those types of squads, and even those guys get lots of help from the Roger Espinozas and Felipes of the world. Try as I might, I don’t see that same structure in the Bronx.

Yikes.

Putting together a functional midfield is the primary job for Vieira this year, and I'm not sure there's an easy way to do it. Obviously Pirlo's going to play, and both Frank Lampard (when not injured) and Mix Diskerud will have to as well, and suddenly you have three guys who just don't do a lot of the dirty work.

  • PREDICTION: Well outside the playoff hunt. David Villa will still be awesome, but this team will probably have to flip some assets midseason in order to find some balance
  • Team MVP: Villa

Rebuild 2.0

Colorado Rapids: Let’s tick off the list of things the Rapids did this offseason that I like:

  • Brought in a DP attacker (Shkelzen Gashi) who should help address their biggest need (goals!)
  • Committed to moving Dillon Powers deeper, playing him in his natural midfield spot
  • Traded for a young fullback (Eric Miller) who, at the very least, should provide depth
  • They picked up youth on the wing, in central midfield, and the backline

That’s really not bad. Now, the way they went about it was muddled, undirected and frustrating to try to follow, and I still have my reservations about the impending Tim Howard signing. But yeah… they’re a better team than they were in 2015. I don’t think they’ll compete for any titles, but they’ll hang around in the playoff race and be a hell of a tough out at home.

Let's remember why we want Powers to play deep, rather than just underneath a lone forward:

Yes, that's from all the way back in 2013, and yes, that's Powers who one-timed a through-ball into the path of an overlapping fullback. This is the stuff that Colorado needs to be doing all year, given Kevin Doyle's aerial prowess. He will score a bunch of goals just like that one.

That’s progress, even if it’s come after two straight years of regression. The core isn’t as young or exciting as what they had in 2013, but at least it’s a core, and at least you can build around that.

It’s a start.

  • PREDICTION: Better than last year, but not in the playoff hunt. Gashi is a potential Newcomer of the Year winner
  • Team MVP: Sam Cronin. He'll be quietly solid as a true d-mid

Real Salt Lake: I’m having a hard time pegging this team, for a variety of reasons. I don’t know if Juan Manuel Martinez and Joao Plata will stay healthy; I don’t know if Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando will stay young; I don’t know if Yura Movsisyan will be as good a goal-scorer in MLS as he was in Europe (and remember, he was not a good MLS goal-scorer in his first run-through in this league), and most of all I don’t know what’s going to happen in central defense.

As of this writing the starting pair is Jamison Olave and Aaron Maund, and I don’t think that’s scaring anybody except poor Jeff Cassar. Olave’s shown over the past 18 months that he’s in the “fades in and out and can’t make up for those lapses with his athleticism anymore” stage of his career, and Maund has improved to “serviceable.” Upon this defense, a deep playoff run is not built.

So Craig Waibel needs to keep working the phones for reinforcements, and everybody else needs to stay out of harm’s way. On paper RSL are actually a much better, much more interesting and balanced team than they were in 2015. In particular, a healthy Plata is so much damn fun:

But their problems last year weren’t on paper, they were on grass. And despite a really, really good showing against Tigres in the CCL, I'm not 100% convinced they’ve been fixed.

  • PREDICTION: They'll hang in the playoff race until summertime injuries do them in. Rimando finally wins Goalkeeper of the Year
  • Team MVP: Morales. He'll end up with another 7 or 8 goals and 11 or 12 assists because he refuses to age

Houston Dynamo: How you felt about the acquisition of Cristian Maidana was a litmus test for analysts, and the season ahead will provide a new laboratory for the ongoing experiment regarding the importance of raw chance creation. I’ve already said my peace on Maidana and why I think building a midfield around him is a risky proposition – and you have to build it around him if you intend to play him, by the way; he can’t be a part of the supporting cast – but the man can clearly create chances. If he’s healthy and a week-in, week-out starter he’ll make about 70 of them, and has three double-digit MLS goalscorers to aim at in Will Bruin, Erick "Cubo" Torres and Giles Barnes.

If you say it all out loud like that, it sounds pretty damn good. Especially if Barnes recaptures his form from the first half of the 2015 season:

There is more of a question about the defense and deep-lying midfield, both of which have been reinforced via foreign and domestic shopping sprees. Owen Coyle has said he’s determined to have a more skillful team on the pitch in 2016, and the guys he went out and got seem to fit that bill.

They’ll all have to jell quickly, though. The West is murderous this year, and points dropped in March and April will almost certainly come back to haunt teams in October.

  • PREDICTION: It doesn't come together, and Houston actually become more fragile defensively, while one of Bruin or Torres is traded
  • Team MVP: Rico Clark, once more with feeling

San Jose Earthquakes: Grit and grind, toil and struggle, and win a lot of games. Or at least don’t lose many.

That’s what I expect from the Quakes this season, their second under Dom Kinnear. There were growing pains last year, including a host of different formations, a host of injuries, a rotation of target forward partners for Wondo, and – eventually – stability.

It came in the shape of a 4-4-2 with Anibal Godoy bossing the midfield and Quincy Amarikwa carving a #9-shaped path up top, and it resulted in a late-season push for a playoff spot that came up just short. But I look at this Quakes group and see a roster that’s at least five points better than last season on attack, and should remain rock solid in defense (so long as Clarence Goodson & Victor Bernardez don’t run face-first into Father Time).

Back to Amarikwa for a second. He had 6 goals, 4 assists and 3 drawn PKs in 17 starts for San Jose last year, which are very good numbers. But even if he's not that productive this season, he'll still be productive because of how he draws defenders to him:

That kind of strength and ball security from a starting forward gives you more options for playing out of the back. And in the final third, it peels defenders away from Chris Wondolowski -- exactly what you want to have happen as a Quakes fan. 

This isn’t going to be pretty, sexy football, but I will wager a body part that it’s effective.

  • PREDICTION: In the fight for one of the last playoff spots in the West, and they'll eventually claim it. Wondo will make a legit run at his third Golden Boot, while Goodson, Godoy and David Bingham will all have legit Best XI shouts
  • Team MVP: Goodson. Given the amount of deep defense San Jose will play, they need someone elite at that spot, and that's exactly what he is
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