MLS is back! Brush up on 2016's big storylines thus far

MLS is almost back!

The league’s summer break will officially end this weekend, when all 20 teams return to action after taking the last two-plus weeks off thanks to Copa America Centenario.

Before we dive back into league play, a quick refresher is in order. Here’s a brief recap of the storylines of the season so far.

Rocky Mountain High

Widely picked to finish dead last in the Western Conference, the Colorado Rapids spent the first three months of the season shocking the entire league. Pablo Mastroeni’s crew currently sit atop the Supporters’ Shield standings, with their stingy defense and Jermaine Jones-powered attack pushing Colorado to an 8-2-4 record through their first 14 matches.

They’ll pick up a major reinforcement this summer. Longtime US national team goalkeeper Tim Howard is set to join the team after the US’s Copa America run ends, and he’ll be eligible to play for Colorado once the league’s secondary transfer window opens on July 4.

It’s an open question whether or not they’ll be able to keep up their brisk pace through the second half of the season, but one thing's for sure: The Rapids won’t be an easy out.  

Feelin’ the (Brotherly) Love

Colorado haven’t been the only surprising success story of the first third of the season. The Union have been equally impressive in the East, and currently lead the conference with a 6-3-5 record.

Striker C.J. Sapong has been very strong up front for Philadelphia, while former No. 1 SuperDraft pick Andre Blake is beginning to blossom into a star in net. Veterans Tranquillo Barnetta, Chris Pontius and Sebastien Le Toux have all played their parts well, and Jim Curtin will be hoping his young backline – highlighted by Rookie of the Year frontrunner Keegan Rosenberrycan stay strong in the second half.

Crew SC Say Bye to Kei

Less than six months after he tied Sebastian Giovinco for the MLS Golden Boot and led Columbus to an appearance in MLS Cup 2015, striker Kei Kamara was sent packing by Crew SC. The Ohio club traded the veteran forward, who signed a new Designated Player contract with Columbus this winter, to the New England Revolution days after he got into a public spat with teammate Federico Higuain in early May.

Kamara’s outburst was an apt characterization of Crew SC’s start to 2016. The defending Eastern Conference champions struggled out of the gate, and were just 2-4-5 when they traded him to the Revs. They’ve rebounded a bit since (they’re 1-1-2 since Kamara was dealt), but now have some major injury issues in the back. They’ll need to figure those out – and get into an attacking groove – if they want another shot at a cup this year.

Villa Shines, NYCFC Stumbles

David Villa has gotten his second MLS season off to a spectacular start, with the Spanish striker leading the Golden Boot race with 10 goals in 15 games.

Things haven’t gone quite as well for NYCFC under new head coach Patrick Vieira. The second-year club is in fourth in the East (a decent enough spot in the standings), but their points-per-game average is sixth in the conference. More worrisome is their home record: NYCFC are a dismal 1-3-5 in the Bronx, a record that includes that 7-0 drubbing to the rival Red Bulls. They’ll need to vastly improve at Yankee Stadium if they want to stay above the red line into October.

Kljestan Chasing History

He doesn’t get any attention from Jurgen Klinsmann and the US national team, but Sacha Kljestan has emerged as one of the best attacking midfielders in the league. The 30-year-old has 10 assists in his first 14 matches, and has been one of the biggest catalysts for the Red Bulls’ excellent recovery following their brutal start.

It’s unlikely he’ll match Carlos Valderrama’s single-season assist record (El Pibe had 26 helpers in 2000), but Kljestan has a great chance to join the legendary Colombian as one of just two players in MLS history to reach 20 assists. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on Kljestan throughout the second half.

Western Heavyweights Struggling

Defending MLS Cup champions Portland Timbers and regular Western Conference powers Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City have all had a rough go out of the gates, with all three teams currently below the red line in the West.

Portland have had the least concerning start – they’re just one point behind sixth-place San Jose and are unbeaten in their last three matches.

It’s a bit of a different story for Seattle and SKC, however. Kansas City have two more points than the Sounders, but they’ve played three more matches and have won just once in their last 11. Seattle haven’t fared much better. They’re currently in ninth in the West and are in desperate need of some attacking help – their 13 goals are second-fewest in the league.

Toronto Survive Early Road Trip

Another year, another lengthy season-opening road trip for Toronto FC. The Reds opened the year with eight straight road matches to accommodate for renovations at BMO Field. They did well to end the trip with a 3-3-2 record, but oddly, have struggled a bit since opening up their home schedule.

They’ve won just one of four matches at BMO Field and have a 1-2-2 record in the five games total since playing their first match in Ontario. They’re still in decent shape in the standings, but they’ll have a bit of late-season anxiety if they don’t get better at BMO.