It'll be about a month before we know what the really, truly big storylines to follow in 2016 will be. But here's a guess:
- L'Affaire Drogba
- LA aiming at an AARP sponsorship
- Portland defending their MLS Cup
- RBNY defending their Shield
- Euro-tinged rebuilds in Chicago, Philly and NYCFC
- "Young" teams in Dallas and Vancouver growing up
- Seattle's big shift (partially addressed yesterday)
- Year 2 of Seba
I could be wrong about some of those, and I'm sure there are other stories out there that will pop up. Believe me when I tell you that we will examine all of them in depth.
In the interim, though, we can take a look at a few of the under-the-radar moves/adjustments/darts thrown while blindfolded that have me intrigued in the days before this year's preseason begins in earnest.
Brek Shea, left back
First, let's look at his pants:
Those are amazing. Brek's off-field garb does not disappoint.
He was also not a disappointment in 2015 on the field, even if he wasn't the overwhelming force he'd been in 2011 when he was a finalist for MVP. That version of Shea was a livewire winger who often eviscerated backlines with his speed and ability to create separation when the game was north/south.
But that version of Shea was also figured out by mid-August, and had precious little impact down the stretch. He went overseas a year later, didn't do much, and came home at the start of last season as a man without a position and with a questionable future.
Shea's always been more effective on the move, and needs the game to be open in front of him to be an effective attacker. That's what I mean when I say he was "figured out" -- teams didn't allow him open space to run into. You can take that away from wingers.
It's harder, though, to take that away from overlapping fullbacks in the modern game, and I thought one of the smartest things Adrian Heath did last season was give Shea a bunch of reps at left back. Brek had some moments pushing into the attack from that spot where he was devastating, and while his instincts were raw on the defensive side of the ball, he usually held his own.
Happily for OCSC and USMNT fans, he did so with a smile. If he embraces the role and gets 30 games there, he could be an attacking force on the overlap unlike anything this league has had since Tony Sanneh back in the dynasty days at D.C. United.
And... well, if he stays healthy, and the rest of the young kids in Orlando City progress, and Kaká has one more good year left in those legs, this should be a playoff team. They went 5-2-0 over the last two months of the season, and while they won't keep that pace up I do think it's a good indicator of the type of talent they bring to the table.
The Big Empty
The New England Revolution have one of the most stable rosters in the league from year to year. They may add one or two depth players here, drop a starter there, or promote an Academy kid somewhere else, but in general this is not a team that wheels and deals. Jay Heaps -- whether by personal philosophy or financial necessity -- has built a team that thrives on internal, incremental improvement over time, and whether you love or hate this team you have to admire it.
There's also this: The local fans are noticing. They put 19,627 fans into Gillette Stadium this past season, a jump of nearly 3000 fans per game over 2014. The franchise's all-time average stands at about 15,500. While the growth in the fanbase hasn't been as dramatic as Sporting KC's, it's nonetheless been substantial and rapid. A winning team filled with likeable, local players will do that.
My question in 2016 is "Can this team still win at an elite level?" Right now they're adding much-needed defensive depth from Portugal and via the SuperDraft, which answers one of the questions from last season.
The other, bigger question is what happens in the middle of the park, as the Jermaine Jones Saga is ongoing and may not come to happy end. More to the point, though, is that I'm not sure it's possible for this to come to a happy end.
Money issues aside, Jones is now 34 years old and is a constant injury risk. He hasn't made it through a US national team camp without some sort of knock since 2013, and the hernia he picked up last January -- and subsequently played through -- caused him to miss a third of New England's season. For 2015 as a whole, he played just over 1300 minutes across 18 games.
That is not enough. A foundational piece can't be a part-time player, as the first couple of years of The Beckham Experiment showed.
Even so, the Revs were better with Jones on the field, going 8-4-6 when he played and 6-8-2 when he didn't. When healthy, he's still a difference-maker.
But Heaps & Co. have to seriously think about how many minutes they'll get out of him this coming year before they decide whether or not to bring him back. Jones will miss the first six games of the season with a suspension, and as long as Jurgen Klinsmann's the USMNT coach he'll be a part of every camp. And then after every camp, he'll miss more games.
That kind of instability makes it tough to win at an elite level. The Revs will still be good because of all the reasons they've been good the last couple of years: Inventive attackers, an underrated goalkeeper, and a core of young players that improves from year to year.
They need that one final piece, though -- a dominant, box-to-box No. 8 -- to tie the whole room together and compete with the league's best. From time to time that could be Jones.
But more often than not, it won't be.
The Quiet Man
The San Jose Earthquakes took some heat for signing Simon Dawkins a couple of weeks back. From a top-down perspective, it felt kind of deserved as Dawkins 1) Won't drive wider interest in the team, or 2) ratings. This, from Fox's Kyle McCarthy, is a reasonable take:
Simon Dawkins strikes me as an example of how teams should use TAM, not as a DP-type signing. But there is value in his #MLS experience.— Kyle McCarthy (@kylejmccarthy) January 6, 2016
However... Dawkins does make the team better, and he's a proven commodity in the league. There will be no worries with him about the rigors of MLS travel, or the differences in climate/altitude/playing surfaces that have flummoxed more famous imports from across the pond. There will be no adjustment period. He is a 28-year-old player who can come in and make a difference for a team that fell just four points short of a playoff spot last season.
And that's the question I ask myself when I look at this Quakes lineup: Are they five points better than last year, a season in which they had a new coach, a new central midfield, a new center forward, a new right back, a new starting goalkeeper, a rash of injuries and a lineup/formation that wasn't set until mid-August?
I think they pretty clearly are. But at the same time, their window of contention will close quickly if any of Chris Wondolowski, Clarence Goodson or Victor Bernardez get chopped down by Father Time. This coming season might be "now or never" for the Quakes.
Dawkins makes "now" more of a possibility, since he answers probably the team's biggest attacking need: Goal-scoring and creativity out of midfield. Shea Salinas will lock down one side and do his usual good work creating chances, but in the 4-4-2 this team ended up playing, the opposite side demands a player who's often able to directly threaten goal:
Dawkins had six goals in 2011, and then eight more in 2012. Those aren't All-Star numbers -- and many would argue that they're not DP numbers -- but San Jose's wide mids had a grand total of nine goals last season, only six of which came from the run of play. That left almost the entire scoring burden to the forwards.
You see what I'm getting at, right? Dawkins might not be the type of DP we see in other markets, but San Jose probably feel like they got this one right regardless because they signed for on-field need rather than off-field glamor. By their own reckoning the most important thing is to make the team better, and that's what they've done.
I don't think it'll be enough for them to truly compete at the top of the West, but it should be enough to get them back into the playoffs. And once that happens all you really need is a hot goal-scorer and a rock-solid defense to ruin everybody's day.