Most of the work feels like it's done. New targets have been acquired, new contracts have been signed, new formations attempted. Kids have grown up, injuries have been rehabbed, and veterans have found that extra life in their legs, enough to propel them for one last year (or, conversely, maybe not).
Everyone should, at this point, be relatively secure in what they've done. The MLS season lasts 9 1/2 months including the playoffs, but it really is a year-round sport, and a year-round job. The work doesn't stop.
Even so, every team – even very best – has questions they must answer. Some are relatively minor, some are season-alteringly huge. None will be left unasked.
Jump to a specific club
Atlanta United FC
Columbus Crew SC
Minnesota United FC
New England Revolution
New York City FC
New York Red Bulls
Orlando City SC
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Sporting Kansas City
Here, then, is one big question for every team in the league. It's not the only question for any of them, by any stretch, but it's one that will need an answer sooner rather than later.
Can the defense hold?
I'm on record as not being 100-percent convinced the trove of attackers Atlanta United FC cobbled together are going to stomp a hole in the league. Lots of people disagree with me, and that's fine – we don't really have any data one way or the other, so it's just a matter of opinion or speculation at this point.
I haven't heard anybody say that Atlanta are going to be a top defensive team, and as a matter of fact I've heard quite a few folks worried that they'll be subpar (I'm cushioning the blow) on that side of the ball. This potential shortcoming can be enhanced by the high pressing system Atlanta are likely to play, and the fact that everybody spent money on their attack over the past six months. There are no days off.
Who creates the chances?
The Chicago Fire are better, but I'm not yet sure they're good, largely because I'm not sure who'll hit the ball that unlocks the defense. Arturo Alvarez had a career year with nine assists (his previous high was four, way back in 2005), and 1) He was still pretty far from being an elite chance creator; and 2) That feels like it's not repeatable given his age and track record.
Chicago have Michael de Leeuw playing as a pseudo-No. 10 in preseason. He has good instincts for combining around the area and is vicious running the channels on the break, but he's not the type of guy that can break down a static defense.
He is a poacher with great instincts and good feet. I'm not convinced that's a No. 10.
Was that defense a one-year wonder?
The team last year's Colorado Rapids were closest to in terms of feel were their polar opposites in terms of style. The 2012 Earthquakes came out of nowhere with a group of journeymen, unfancied draft picks and MLS lifers to win the Supporters' Shield. They did so, of course, with one of the most relentless and productive attacks in league history.
Colorado's make-up was largely the same, though obviously their M.O. was different. The Rapids had what was legitimately one of the best defensive years in league history last season, and I think they'll be a good defensive team again this year. But lightning doesn't tend to strike twice in the same spot.
Columbus Crew SC
Is there gas left in Federico Higuain's tank?
Columbus Crew SC went out this offseason and got depth at virtually every spot except for the one where they need it most: Playmaker. The 4-2-3-1 they've played almost exclusively under Gregg Berhalter is built around Pipa's vision, movement and brain, and it's impossible to ignore the fact that he posted career-lows in goals and assists while missing nearly half the season with an injury.
He's 32, and there are other guys on the team (notably Justin Meram) who can slide inside and be a No. 10 for a little bit, so they won't be entirely sunk if Higuain can't get back to his peak. But that really does feel like a toss of the dice for a team that has every other reason to think they'll bounce back and be contenders after a disappointing 2016.
Was that real?
I thought Patrick Mullins would be good, and expected that D.C. United could be a fun attacking team if Ben Olsen took the brakes off, and have always rated Patrick Nyarko as one of the most underrated wingers in the league.
I did not expect what happened in August and afterward. United scored 33 goals in their final 13 games, which was easily the best mark in the league, and did it in style. I still kind of can't believe it – there has never, in the history of the league, been a switch thrown like that right in the middle of the year.
Is there a solution without Mauro Diaz?
In 2014 and 2015, Oscar Pareja had an answer when Diaz missed significant time for FC Dallas: He went to a 4-4-2, bunkered deep, and just fed Fabian Castillo repeatedly on the counter.
Castillo's gone, and Diaz is likely to miss close to the entire regular season (nobody comes back from a torn Achilles' and is fully fit within 12 months, I'm sad to say). Pareja has what seems like an ideal stopgap in Javier Morales, and Dallas looked great against Arabe Unido in Leg 1 of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
But it's a long season, and it'll require lots of answers. Diaz probably isn't going to be around to provide any of them until 2018, and as good as the feelings are in Frisco right now, that's still a scary proposition for a team with eyes on a title.
Is the defense right?
I get that the focus is going to be up top for a team that has three forwards who are DPs. I get there's going to be a focus on the midfield as the new regime tries to sort things out. Those are both important.
As of now, though, I am wary of the Houston Dynamo central defense. Leonardo is one of the most inconsistent center backs in recent league history, while Adolfo Machado is capable of some astonishing gaffes for a player of his experience. Rebuilding teams need to be solid at the back first and foremost, and I'm not sure that's what folks will be saying about Houston six months from now.
Are the kids ready?
It's not a full-blown youth movement in Carson, but a few of the Homegrown Players folks have been waiting for – Jack McBean, Jose Villarreal and Ariel Lassiter – are going to have bigger roles in 2017, and if they don't produce the LA Galaxy are in trouble. Where would they have been without Alan Gordon last season, or Mike Magee or Jeff Larentowicz?
The answer is "not the playoffs." No matter how good the stars are in 2017 (and they do still have stars, including a legitimate MVP candidate in Gio Dos Santos), this team will need those kids to contribute meaningful minutes.
Minnesota United FC
Will the NASL guys translate up?
Minnesota United FC are nowhere near as short of talent as certain narratives suggest. They've done a nice job of collecting sub-DP talent from CONCACAF, Northern Europe and right here at home. This team has a balanced core.
They're also, however, going to be relying upon a number of holdovers from the NASL version of the Loons. Guys like Christian Ramirez, Miguel Ibarra and Justin Davis are all potential (likely, even?) starters.
For what it's worth I think Ramirez is very good, and his multi-faceted skillset should translate nicely as a center forward:
I'm less sure of the other two. Adrian Heath will need to make his decisions quickly, though, because the Western Conference is not for the faint of heart.
New England Revolution
Can they find midfield balance?
Scott Caldwell has to play, but he can't be a lone D-mid in the 4-4-2 diamond that the New England Revolution seem likely to line up in. Rather, that'll probably be the job of DP Xavier Kouassi, with Caldwell starting as a shuttler on one side and Kelyn Rowe on the other. Or maybe Diego Fagundez, with Rowe as the No. 10 … though that would leave three players (Juan Agudelo, Lee Nguyen and Kei Kamara) for two forward slots.
One really talented attacker is going to have to sit for the sake of defensive balance in midfield. The Revs were at their best last year with Caldwell and Gershon Koffie in midfield, and they'll try to replicate that with Kouassi in Koffie's place.
New York City FC
Will they get those Lampard™ goals?
In their two-year history, NYCFC have only ever been really good for about three months last summer when Frank Lampard was using his Jedi mind tricks to find space in the box and bang home goals:
Maxi Moralez will most likely have that job now. Moralez has a good pedigree and should be a lot of fun to watch, but he's never been that kind of goalscorer at any of his stops.
New York Red Bulls
Does Gonzalo Veron have "it"?
Veron's numbers across all competitions during his year-and-a-half with the New York Red Bulls are actually better than you'd guess: four goals and five assists in 1663 minutes. I'd argue that's not a DP-level ROI for an attacker, but it's still very good.
Yet I'm constantly left wanting more when I watch Veron play, and struggle to remember any particular big moment in which he was a difference-maker. With the switch to the 4-2-2-2 he's been handed a starting role, and he'll have to be a difference-maker in big spots if RBNY are going to remain among the league's elite.
Orlando City SC
Who's the D-mid?
There are probably five players who can be the No. 6 in the 4-3-1-2 (I'm reluctant to call it a true "diamond" until I see the rotations) Jason Kreis is likely to run out this year for Orlando City SC. I think Cristian Higuita is the most talented of them, but he's also injured, so he won't be starting the year in that spot.
By the way, OCSC haven't publicly released any lineups this preseason, so it seems like this is one secret they'd like to keep right up until the last minute.
Simpson was the single weirdest signing any team made this offseason. He's a 28-year-old journeyman center forward who spent the last three years in the third or fourth division of English soccer, the year before that in Thailand, and has scored double-digit goals just twice in a decade-long professional career.
MLS can still be a home for retreads or guys trying to revive once-promising careers, with BWP as the single best example of that in league history. But the rest of the league is getting younger, more proven talent while the Philadelphia Union decided to shoot the moon, and the preseason returns haven't been great:
It's worth remembering BWP started slowly in New York, so Philadelphians shouldn't run for the pitchforks or boo Santa Claus just yet. But they will certainly keep a justifiably skeptical eye on their attacking import.
Do Darlington Nagbe's counting stats matter?
Just about everybody in US soccer wants, on some level or another, Nagbe to have a breakout season in which his productivity finally matches his talent. The Portland Timbers seem to have aided and abetted that by moving him further upfield as an inverted left winger, and given the other attackers around him, Nagbe's in a good spot to put a stamp on any game.
But I'm just not convinced that'll result in more than five or six goals, and maybe seven or eight assists. Good-not-great numbers.
I'm also not convinced that matters. Nagbe's greatest gift is his ball security, and putting him at left wing means that left back Vytautas Andriuskevicius can get forward – All. Day. Long. He'll have less to worry about regarding bad turnovers than any other fullback in the league, and while that might not show up in Nagbe's stats, it'll show up on the scoreboard for the Timbers.
We saw a ton of that in preseason, by the way.
Real Salt Lake
How good is Justen Glad?
I think he's pretty freaking good! So did the vandals who got ahold of Ronaldo Cisneros's Wikipedia page after Glad put the Santos Laguna and Mexico U-20 attacking star in his back pocket during Monday's historic US win:
Glad is a proactive defender – he makes plays rather than waiting for them to happen. The Real Salt Lake braintrust, at the end of last season, challenged him to be more of a vocal leader and organizer as well, and if he takes that step it could go a long way toward keeping what became a gappy team in the second half of the season both tighter and more difficult to break down.
If he doesn't take that step, he'll still be a very good MLS defender with a great future. But if they want to win this year, Glad can't be a kid anymore.
San Jose Earthquakes
Is this the year for Tommy Thompson?
TomThom is now a 21-year-old, three-year MLS veteran with nearly 2000 minutes. He has yet to score a goal or record an assist for the San Jose Earthquakes.
But still, the hype train exists because of this:
Even in a preseason friendly that's ridiculous. You can't count on goals like that, of course, but you could always count on Thompson's footwork and creativity, and he's undeniably improved over the last 18 months at picking the right pass/hitting the final pass. Nobody's going to confuse him for Diego Valeri in that regard, but both on loan with Sacramento Republic last year and this winter in preseason, Thompson has been very good at completing plays – especially when he's spread out to the right side.
Is there enough speed on the flanks?
This shouldn't be a huge issue when Jordan Morris is around, but still … I look at that attacking corps, and he's the only guy who can run away from defenders. Whenever the Seattle Sounders needed cross-field penetration last year they had to bring one or both fullbacks waaaaaay up the pitch and just let them run.
Obviously it worked pretty well, and you can all admire the star they're sporting on their shirt as proof. If Seattle don't add another player all year I think they'll still be one of the league's five best teams.
Still, attacking diversity is important, and Morris absolutely will miss time with the USMNT. I think they need to get a change-of-pace sub who can play on either wing, push defenses deep and get onto some of those through-balls you know Nicolas Lodeiro and Harry Shipp will be hitting.
What's going on at right back?
Graham Zusi hasn't provided the scoring punch Sporting KC needs from the wing, and now appears to be in the midst of a conversion to right back for both club and country. Results thus far have been mixed.
But... why? Saad Abdul-Salaam was the only consistent defender on Sporting last year, and his pace and ability to play the last pass made him arguably the league's most effective two-way fullback. I don't see how benching him – even for a player with Zusi's credentials – makes much sense for a SKC team that absolutely needs their fullbacks to press high and hard in order to be effective.
What if Drew Moor gets old?
You could've made a very good case that Moor was last season's Defender of the Year or, at the very least, Most Valuable Defender. He's a veteran organizer who's at home in a back three, a back four or a back five and he's possessed of the kind of on-field knowhow that is almost impossible to quantify. When Moor was good, you almost didn't notice. When he struggled, Toronto FC were a tire fire.
He's 33 years old, and has more than 20,000 miles on his legs. TFC have put a lot of talent around him, and have a consistent system now, and are justifiably one of the favorites this year.
But I don't see an obvious replacement in the middle of that backline if Moor loses a half step.
Will any of the Homegrowns break through?
There was a sense, a couple of years ago, that the Vancouver Whitecaps were on the verge of becoming the Canadian version of FC Dallas. They had a celebrated academy, a raft of young talent at multiple spots, and a seemingly upward trajectory. Russell Teibert was a starter, Sam Adekugbe was about to join him, Marco Carducci was the heir apparent in goal, and Marco Bustos was the anointed next No. 10.
During the past 24 months Teibert has become a bit player, Adekugbe's gone on what looks like a permanent loan, Carducci was released, and Bustos has played all of 92 MLS minutes. Kianz Froese was sold this winter, and Ben McKendry – who got his first Canada cap in January – has yet to make his MLS debut.
Only 16-year-old w¨nderkind Alphonso Davies has a safe spot in the Vancouver rotation.
Vancouver need more from the Homegrowns if they're going to copy Dallas's plan.