T-minus 48 hours and counting until the MLS regular season is back. As with anyone else, I have a ton of questions about how things are going to play out. But my job here is to pretend to have all the answers.
So here goes – 6,100 words of analysis and bad predictions. (And for more in-depth predictions, give Thursday's ExtraTime Radio a listen)
The Defending Champs
Portland Timbers: Champs! No matter what happens in 2016, the Timbers will be sporting that shiny new star above their crest and justifiably lording it over their Cascadia rivals.
And what should happen is more winning. Caleb Porter struck gold when he made Diego Chara into a fulltime d-mid, setting off a butterfly effect that led all the way to MLS Cup. By the time November rolled around Chara, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe were the league's best central midfield, and Fanendo Adi was 1) banging in goals, and 2) bossing defenders physically, allowing the Timbers to advance into the attacking third en masse. It was really, really good soccer.
Let's talk about Nagbe again for a second:
Actually, let's not talk about him. Let's just watch that clip a million more times.
With the new set-up the Timbers achieved a level of stability with that set that had previously eluded them, turning one of the league’s true up-and-down teams into title winners.
Thus, their understated offseason makes a lot of sense. In Jack McInerney and Chris Klute they got plug-and-play replacements for two of the three important contributors who bid adieu. They haven’t quite done the same at the wing – Rodney Wallace will be missed more than most think – but given the late-season development of Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla late-season development, I’m not sure they had to. They can afford to wait and see.
That’s the champs' prerogative.
- PREDICTION: Top three in the West with Nagbe, Chara, Adi and Liam Ridgewell in contention for Best XI
- Team MVP: Adi. He's going to wreck the league this year.
One Step Away (Maybe)
FC Dallas: It feels like this is their year, right? Season three of working for a beloved coach who happens to be a club icon; a roster filled with players in or just entering their primes, most of whom have improved greatly since 2013; and an academy that seems to spit out MLS-ready talent at something approaching conveyor belt-level regularity. Those are the main ingredients, but they also went out and added a forward who proved to be perhaps the league’s best off-the-bench game-changer in Maxi Urruti, then got a back-up No. 10 for when Mauro Diaz inevitably misses a stretch of games.
So if Diaz, who is capable of utter magic:
Plays something like 2400 minutes (he was at about 2000 last year), this team will probably win the Supporters' Shield. And even if he doesn't hit that number they're still probably the favorites.
It really is hard to find any particular scabs to pick at with this team, but I'm going to name two. First, they lack a true target forward who can change up the look and inflict a beating on opposing defenders. Urruti is really, really good at finding spots to be dangerous, and Fabian Castillo is Fabian Freaking Castillo. But I still think there will be a need for a Blas Perez-like presence up front every now and then. In typical Dallas fashion that might end up being Homegrown teenager Coy Craft or 2016 SuperDraft pick Colin Bonner, but that really is a big ask for any kid.
Anyway, as a natural skeptic and contrarian, it makes me uneasy to see things lining up so predictably, so I'm not actually picking them to win the Shield. But if I were a Dallas fan, I’d be pumped for 2016.
- PREDICTION: Western Conference champs (regular season) with Diaz as an MVP candidate, Urruti one of the league's break-out players, and Matt Hedges in the running for Defender of the Year
- Team MVP: Diaz is going to be the league MVP this year, so that's my call
Vancouver Whitecaps: The Whitecaps are basically mirror images of presumptive Western Conference favorites FC Dallas. They’ve got the young head coach with franchise ties (Carl Robinson), they’ve got the brilliant-but-oft-injured playmaker (Pedro Morales), they’ve got the academy that spits out talent at an absolutely delightful rate, and they’ve got the livewire winger who simply murders folks in space (Kekuta Manneh).
And like Dallas, they have memories of a playoff run that came to an abrupt ending thanks to a lack of finishing. Robinson thinks that Octavio Rivero will improve upon his debut season just by being acclimated (I agree), but he went out and got both Masato Kudo and Perez just in case. He also got more young depth on the back line (Fraser Aird & Cole Seiler) and more veteran depth in midfield (Christian Bolanos).
The key, though, is Morales. They still don't really have a backup No. 10, and this is the type of thing they miss when Pedro's out:
So for the first time in their MLS history, the Impact had what I’d consider to be a shrewd offseason. That means they can afford for Drogba to play limited minutes, and for him to be something closer to mortal when he is out on the field.
- PREDICTION: Top five in the East with Shipp making huge strides, Piatti a Best XI candidate and the Laurent Ciman/Victor Cabrera central defense being among the league's best
- Team MVP: Ciman. He really is a joy to watch
Chicago Fire: It was pretty clearly time for a rebuild, and hiring a guy like Paunovic shouldn’t really be seen as a risk – he has experience in MLS as a player, which means he probably won’t have the same type of struggles adjusting that we’ve seen out of imported managers before. And given the youth of the roster as well as Paunovic’s work with the Serbian U-20s, this should be seen as a pretty happy arrangement.
But boy, did they take a risk when they traded Shipp. Right now it looks like the replacement will be new Dutch signee John Goossens, who did this in preseason:
There is more of a question about the defense and deep-lying midfield, both of which have been reinforced via foreign and domestic shopping sprees. Owen Coyle has said he’s determined to have a more skillful team on the pitch in 2016, and the guys he went out and got seem to fit that bill.
They’ll all have to jell quickly, though. The West is murderous this year, and points dropped in March and April will almost certainly come back to haunt teams in October.
- PREDICTION: It doesn't come together, and Houston actually become more fragile defensively, while one of Bruin or Torres is traded
- Team MVP: Rico Clark, once more with feeling
San Jose Earthquakes: Grit and grind, toil and struggle, and win a lot of games. Or at least don’t lose many.
That’s what I expect from the Quakes this season, their second under Dom Kinnear. There were growing pains last year, including a host of different formations, a host of injuries, a rotation of target forward partners for Wondo, and – eventually – stability.
It came in the shape of a 4-4-2 with Anibal Godoy bossing the midfield and Quincy Amarikwa carving a #9-shaped path up top, and it resulted in a late-season push for a playoff spot that came up just short. But I look at this Quakes group and see a roster that’s at least five points better than last season on attack, and should remain rock solid in defense (so long as Clarence Goodson & Victor Bernardez don’t run face-first into Father Time).
Back to Amarikwa for a second. He had 6 goals, 4 assists and 3 drawn PKs in 17 starts for San Jose last year, which are very good numbers. But even if he's not that productive this season, he'll still be productive because of how he draws defenders to him:
That kind of strength and ball security from a starting forward gives you more options for playing out of the back. And in the final third, it peels defenders away from Chris Wondolowski -- exactly what you want to have happen as a Quakes fan.
This isn’t going to be pretty, sexy football, but I will wager a body part that it’s effective.
- PREDICTION: In the fight for one of the last playoff spots in the West, and they'll eventually claim it. Wondo will make a legit run at his third Golden Boot, while Goodson, Godoy and David Bingham will all have legit Best XI shouts
- Team MVP: Goodson. Given the amount of deep defense San Jose will play, they need someone elite at that spot, and that's exactly what he is