The preseason is all but done, and the 2018 MLS regular season looms. So which MLS clubs are feeling more at ease with themselves now than they did at the end of the 2017 season?
Some of these teams answered vital questions about their squad, while others added important machine cogs with some late transfer business. The best did both.
No. 5: Portland Timbers
Last season, the Timbers' selection and injury woes started in the preseason and continued through to a disappointing quick playoff exit. Constructing the back line was a constant challenge and the goals dried up in the postseason with Fanendo Adi out.
Now, with key midfield man Diego Chara set to return from injury, the Timbers will start the new season with just one player (Roy Miller) in injury bay. Versatile attacker Samuel Armenteros joined after camp started, and he has been nothing short of dynamite since. Cristhian Paredes (another late addition) looks the part of a solid midfield handyman for the bench, while Julio Cascante's arrival ensures the heart of defense has able backup.
No. 4: D.C. United
Last season, the capital crew were shut out a woeful 16 times and ended as one of two teams unable to manage a goal per game. That's a major problem when eight of 11 teams in the East hit for over 1.5 per match. This preseason has shown that they should expect much more offense this term.
Acquiring Darren Mattocks didn't turn many heads, but gives the team a "get behind the defense" strike dimension. During the preseason, he combined with Lucho Acosta and Paul Arriola to notch six goals and five assists. And that sum doesn't even include mid-camp acquisition Yamil Asad, who brings great balance and production to an attack needing both.
No. 3: Toronto FC
As they are wont to do, the rich got richer. The champs went into camp with a right back shortage, and leave it spoiled for choice with Auro and Gregory van der Wiel. As an encore, the Reds then added another creative player in Ager Aketxe. That's some ritzy late shopping.
Meanwhile, on the field, TFC became comfy in a 4-4-2 diamond. Sebastian Giovinco looks primed for a big season regardless of what formation they use. Of course, they also got a head start at building competitive steam as the only MLS club to win in this week's CONCACAF Champions League tie openers.
No. 2: Orlando City SC
To be perfectly frank, this high ranking is not based on the eye test, for a very simple reason. The Lions didn't stream any preseason matches, leaving them a mystery to everyone, with my visual inspections limited to stray highlights. I'll tell ya what I did see: ace problem-solving.
Need an end-product winger? Bring in Justin Meram. Hunting for a reliable midfield anchor? Grab Oriol Rosell. Itching for an air-marshal center back to pair with Jonathan Spector? Bonjour, Lamine Sane. That's a whole lot of lineup strength to be adding after your preseason opened under a Cyle Larin cloud. Plus, they seem to have found a baller in top SuperDraft pick Chris Mueller.
No. 1: Columbus Crew SC
After Meram and Ola Kamara caught trains out of town, it became easy to wonder how the Columbus attack could make up for the loss of 31 goals, if not also whether they'd be forced to change their ball-hungry style. The preseason has at least wiped away some worries.
Question-mark strike catch Gyasi Zardes fit right in to Kamara's spot to the tune of eight goals. Pedro Santos was more productive in Meram's old left-side slot. Harrison Afful looked like the best right back in MLS and bookend defender Milton Valenzuela played like the Young Designated Player that he is, allowing Columbus to retain their possession-first identity.
Gregg Berhalter hardly could have asked for more from this tune-up phase.