Preseason is officially here, rosters are under construction (I'll update that post next week), and I am here to guide you through a little bit of the league in finding interesting storylines to follow.
Here are the five -- for now -- on my radar:
1. Babylon Revisited
"There are no second acts in American lives" is a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished, posthumous novel, The Last Tycoon. You should read it.
You should also know that Fitzgerald was largely wrong, and that one of the defining characteristics of life in the US over the last 70 years has been the propensity for people in the public eye to reinvent themselves time and time again. It's very much how things have been done in this world of ours.
Obviously there's a bigger point to be made here, but I'll distill it down to MLS. Chris Albright was, once upon a time, a can't-miss center forward, and once it was clear he was a can't-finish center forward, he became one of the league's best right backs. Davy Arnaud entered the league as an all-around attacker, and finished it as a box-to-box midfielder. Benny Feilhaber was, at the end of 2012, a relatively accomplished and potential-filled No. 10 who was surplus to requirements on a non-playoff team. A year later he led Sporting KC to MLS Cup, and he's been one of the best playmakers in the league in the three-and-a-half years since.
Freddy Adu is further down the path to oblivion than any of the guys mentioned above, and the reaction to Tuesday's news that he'd be part of Portland's preseason camp was... let's call it skeptical. I think it's fair to be exactly that about a guy who's played all of 22 games since his last tour in MLS, which came to an end in 2013. I think it's fair to be exactly that about a guy who barely got off the bench in NASL over the last two years. I think it's fair to have very low expectations of or hopes for a guy described to me thus by an anonymous manager about 18 months ago:
"Whatever he had once upon a time, it's gone now."
I also think it's fair to remember what he had once upon a time:
MLS is a better league than it was in 2012, of course, and I find it hard to believe that he could really make a difference after so much time in mothballs. But we can all admit this is a guy who was, once upon a time, loaded with natural talent, right?
This league specializes in second acts (though I'll freely admit that if anything comes of this trial, this would be Freddy's fifth act). Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen both found their second acts here, as did Chris Wondolowski -- a reserve league player nobody had ever heard of when he was Freddy's current age, heading into the 2010 season. Seven years later he's the most consistent goalscorer of all-time.
If Adu actually makes the Portland roster and contributes it would be a wilder story than any and all of the above. But this is MLS, so who's brave enough to rule it out?
2. A Tale of Two Cities
There are two newcomers to MLS this year, in Minnesota United FC and Atlanta United. And they've taken drastically different approaches to roster-building.
Atlanta have made the far bigger splash, signing a pair of attacking, South American DPs in Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba, and Trinidad & Tobago international Kenwyne Jones, and a host of Homegrown players, and... well, they've gotten some headlines. They can also potentially add two more DPs, depending upon how creative they get with their TAM.
MNUFC are the polar opposite. They've mostly put their team together with under-the-radar signings from within CONCACAF or out of second-tier European leagues, as well as a sprinkling of MLS players acquired via one mechanism or another, and a few guys who've been brought up from NASL. Add that to No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Abu Danladi -- given how well the last two guys who went first have done, that's likely a meaningful acquisition -- and you have a roster with upside despite being built on the down low.
Both teams will, of course, struggle. That's what expansion teams do no matter the budget.
Regardless, this is a test of philosophies: Do you have to spend big to win big? Or is MLS still a league in which you can put together a contender on a budget? Is there enough undiscovered or unpolished talent kicking around in North America for Minnesota to hang, or is Atlanta's spending pointing the way forward?
3. Children of Men
The LA Galaxy have one of the most celebrated academy systems in North America, and back in 2013 it seemed like that the next half-decade would be a story of one star after another breaking through to the first team. That was the year that Gyasi Zardes signed and started as a rookie, and Jose Villarreal was a starter at center forward for the US U-20s, and Jack McBean scored his first pro goal, and Oscar Sorto signed as an 18-year-old right back, and both Raul Mendiola and Bradford Jamieson IV pushed their way through the ranks.
Four years later and only Zardes is a starter. Each of the others I mentioned have gotten their looks, but none has been able to stick as a particularly essential piece, or even a gameday 18 regular (though it's fair to say that Mendiola might have made the leap in that regard in the second half of 2016).
Now, Sorto's out of contract -- he'll have to play his way onto the roster. The other four are all signed, but by no means guaranteed a larger role despite all the turnover in Carson this winter. The youth movement for LA is more assumed than assured at this point, and it's really up to the kids to make it a reality.
And if they don't? It shouldn't go unnoticed that LA are busy starting on another generation of academy signings.
4. Everything Is Illuminated
For a decade, RSL operated under the aphorism that "The Team is the Star." Naturally this meant that players, coaches and front office executives came and went, so it sort of held firm.
This was, however, a lie, since Javier Morales was the star. He's one of the genius chance creators in league history, and last year he finally started to get old. This winter, he summarily announced he was gone.
In walks Slovakian playmaker Albert Rusnak, a 22-year-old acquired as a DP from FC Groningen of the Eredivisie:
Rusnak is very much a No. 10 (and he'll wear Morales's old No. 11), but he plays the spot in a very different way. Morales was at his best when the lines were tight and he was to operate in close quarters, slipping players through and getting out of jams with a type of on-the-ball wizardry that is somehow still underappreciated.
The new version of RSL is much more about making the field big and playing the game fast, and that's plays to Rusnak's strengths. I don't think the Claret-and-Cobalt are going to be as run-and-gun as what Rusnak's used to via the Eredivisie, but it's clear they'll be something at least close to that.
How quickly he adjusts will tell a large part of this year's tale in Utah.
5. The Last Hurrah
Let's both keep the focus on JaviMo, and bring this listicle full circle back to second acts. Morales's star may have faded over the last couple of years, and the smart money says that's due to age. But there's also the chance that RSL's new formation and tactical approach simply didn't suit him, and that he still has a little bit of magic left in his boots.
That's what FC Dallas are banking on. Morales was signed as a free agent last month, and his role is simple: Play as the No. 10 for however long it takes Mauro Diaz to get healthy.
This seems kind of like a natural fit, though there are a few worries. First and foremost is that Morales is one of three new starters joining the attack, along with winger Roland Lamah and still-not-officially-signed-but-come-on-we-all-know-it's-going-to-happen forward Cristan Colman:
They're all walking into a team that won the Supporters' Shield/USOC double last year, the first team in league history to top 60 points in back-to-back seasons, and a team that has the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals staring them directly in the face five weeks from now.
This is a huge lift for everyone involved, and Morales is the one expected to make it all work in what is almost certainly his final chapter. One of the great stars of this past decade -- really, one of the great stars in league history -- will have his last hurrah in the spotlight, and the stakes are as high as they've ever been.