David Accam - Chicago Fire - celebrate

One by one, their MLS Cup dreams fell by the wayside. First Chicago, then Orlando City, Vancouver and Houston. In San Jose and Columbus, the math says it's still possible but the quest borders on the impossible.


For these six and two more yet-to-be-determined clubs – almost certainly some combination of Portland, Sporting Kansas City, New England and Philadelphia – the 2016 MLS season will end with a relative whimper, hands cupped to the glass as the chase to make history on Dec. 10 begins.


And yet, despite the disappointment of a season that failed to reach the lowest rung of MLS regular-season success, 2017 already demands undivided attention. There’s no time to wallow, lest next year, which comes with even less margin for error thanks to expansion teams in Atlanta and Minnesota, end in the same manner.


Who will be protected in December’s Expansion Draft? Whose 2017 options will be picked up – or declined? Who will be signed to take the place of the inevitable departures or take on the responsibility that comes with a Designated Player or TAM tag? In some cases, who will be the general manager or head coach making those decisions?

As always, there are plenty of questions to be answered, but there is also hope for the Fire, Lions, ‘Caps, Dynamo, Quakes and Crew SC. Let’s take a closer look.


Chicago Fire


Like a few of the teams on this list, the Fire have a pair of DP spots to make a splash in 2017. Thanks to a cavalcade of trades – think Joevin Jones to Seattle, Harry Shipp to Montreal, DP Kennedy Igboananike to D.C. United and the No. 1 spot in the allocation order to Philly – they should have the roster spots and TAM/GAM flexibility needed to upgrade the roster around the chronically underappreciated (and under-supported) David Accam.


Can general manager Nelson Rodriguez push the right offseason buttons following a full season to diagnose the shortcomings within a squad threatening to finish dead last in MLS for the second year running for the first time in league history? Rodriguez’s tenure has been building up to this offseason and the January transfer window. He can’t afford to miss, and Fire fans will expect a splash after settling for mid-level signings after being pipped to Jermaine Jones and Didier Drogba in the recent past.


Still, no matter how successful Rodriguez’s offseason roster machinations are, those who stick around will have to make a leap for the Fire have any chance of competing for a playoff spot. Fortunately, Chicago head coach Veljko Paunovic and a cadre of foreign additions have a year of MLS experience to draw upon.


Despite his resume and reputation as a rising talent, Paunovic needed time to adapt to the vagaries of MLS. Same for the likes of signings Michael de Leeuw, John Goossens, Khaly Thiam and David Arshakyan. Like Paunovic, all four should be more familiar with their surroundings and the competition come 2017, as should talented rookies Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent. That comfort, along with few targeted and high-profile signings, must manifest itself in tangible improvement, production and, ultimately, results.


Houston Dynamo


One name: Mauro Manotas. The kid is good. We just hadn’t gotten the chance to see him in action until this summer. Nobody in MLS has scored more goals (6) since Sept. 9 than the 21-year-old Colombian striker, a stretch that includes two against the league’s stingiest defense and a hat-trick against the defending MLS Cup champs. With Giles Barnes gone, Erick "Cubo" Torres’ future uncertain and Will Bruin suffering through his least-productive MLS season since his rookie season, Manotas figures to get a real shot to establish himself as a starter in 2017.


But who’ll give the young DP that shot? Will it be interim boss Wade Barrett, who coaxed improvement but not a playoff spot out of the squad after Owen Coyle hightailed it back to England, or a new face? No matter who it is, Houston will have much-needed stability at the top of their coaching staff as the club attempts to find a long-term answer after beginning the post-Dominic Kinnear era on shaky footing.


Vancouver Whitecaps


When the hype train comes through town, you buy a ticket, find a seat and hold on for dear life. For the time being, 15-year-old dynamo Alphonso Davies is shoveling coal in the firebox as the ‘Caps (and North American soccer fans) drool at the young attacker’s long-term prospects. Davies was both the youngest player in USL and MLS this year, and didn’t look out of place at all against Colorado last month when he became the second-youngest starter in league history.


Assuming Vancouver keep the rumors linking the precocious star with Manchester United and Liverpool at bay, 2017 could be the year we see Davies and Kekuta Manneh terrorize opponents on opposite wings. There’s no doubt Manneh’s broken foot played a major role in the ‘Caps disappointing season, but the league’s best young, dynamic, open-field attacking talent should be ready to make “the leap” come next March.


Of course, Vancouver are still in need of a replacement for Pedro Morales, a reliable primary goalscorer – a constant since the departure of Camilo – and improved campaigns from the likes of Kendall Waston and others, but the young pieces are there. That won’t be enough to turn the ‘Caps into a playoff team overnight, but it’s a good start.


Orlando City SC


Camping World Stadium has been a perfectly acceptable temporary home – ideal, some might say, thanks to its size and versatility – for Orlando City, but the identity of the club will be irrevocably changed once the Lions take the field for the first time at their new downtown soccer-specific stadium to start 2017. I could tell you all about the massive, standing-only supporter section or the canopy roof that covers the 360-degree lower bowl, but photos (and the virtual venue) speak louder than words.


Playing on that natural-grass surface should also be a team that’s moved past the growing pains of Jason Kreis’ first few months in chargeKreis knows how to build a winner, and his time with Real Salt Lake showed he has an eye for foreign signings and squad building. With the mandate and support he never quite received in the Big Apple with New York City FC, 2017 should begin to reflect a new vision for Orlando City after back-to-back playoff failures to begin the MLS era.


Will Cyle Larin, reportedly the subject of foreign interest, be around to see it? Will Kaká be able to be a game-changer for a full season? Will Carlos Rivas consistently play like a DP? That remains to be seen, but the future begins now for one of the most ambitious clubs in MLS.


San Jose Earthquakes


Are the Earthquakes ready to splash some cash this offseason? It’s a real possibility, but no matter how much they spend, it’s clear club president Dave Kaval expects Designated Player money to go a lot farther under the guidance of his next general manager. The search to replace John Doyle is still in process, but with at least two DP spots expected to be open, the Quakes have an opportunity to add real attacking quality to a team that’s lacked a cutting edge this season.


One thing that whoever takes on GM duties won’t have to worry about is the man between the posts. David Bingham has developed into one of the best goalkeepers in MLS, and is beginning to push his way in the US national team conversation as well. The long-term fate of aging center backs Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez deserve a hard look – as does the rest of the squad, to be honest – but there’s no such ambiguity behind them.


Columbus Crew SC


In many ways, this season was hijacked by the drama that saw Golden Boot runner-up and MVP candidate Kei Kamarashipped to New England just months after leading Crew SC to the MLS Cup Final and signing an upgraded Designated Player deal. Thankfully for Columbus, by the time March rolls around, Kamara’s exit should finally be squarely in the past, though the scars (and Federico Higuain coming off by far his least productive MLS season) will remain.


Part of the salve that’s accelerated the healing process is another Kamara who scores goals for fun. There haven’t been too many bright spots this season – three wins in their first 22 games set the tone for a disappointing follow-up to such a thrilling 2016 campaign – but Ola Kamara (15 goals in 24 appearances) certainly qualifies. He doesn’t take up a DP slot and seems to fit well with the pieces Gregg Berhalter has surrounded him with.


Then again, goals aren’t really the problem. Even if they’re drama free and still boast a goal-scoring Kamara, Crew SC must find a better defensive balance to return to the heights of 2015.