Best of MLS: The top 10 stories of 2017

In many ways, 2017 has been a bit of an inflection point from MLS. The league has taken a big step, with huge crowds cheering on an exciting new team in Atlanta, innovative clubs Toronto and Seattle potentially on track for a MLS Cup rematch and smaller budget teams like Columbus and Houston proving you don’t have to spend big to have huge success.

Now, as the year winds down, MLS faces a few huge choices that will play a huge role in shaping what the league looks like in the future. LAFC are just four months from debuting, expansion is on the docket and Crew SC’s future hangs in the balance. So many huge stories are on tap, and so many have already played out this year. Here are our top 10 from 2017:

Turmoil in Columbus amid Austin talks

A serious, serious wrench was thrown into Crew SC’s season in October, when it was revealed that just two weeks before the start of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs that owner Anthony Precourt is considering moving the team to Austin, Texas.

The news came as a huge shock to nearly everyone around the league, Crew SC players and coaches included. They’ve shown remarkable resilience in the face of overwhelming uncertainty, rallying around their fans and surviving a wild Knockout Round match at Atlanta before beating second-seeded NYCFC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

They’re not done yet. As Precourt continues to explore options in Austin and Crew SC fans fight to keep their club in Ohio, Gregg Berhalter and Co. are prepping for a huge Eastern Conference Championship series against Toronto FC. A win against their Trillium Cup rivals, and Columbus would host a second MLS Cup in three years.

Toronto make history

After losing MLS Cup at home to Seattle in a penalty kick shootout in 2016, Toronto came back with a vengeance this year. The Reds dominated the league right from the jump, clinching the Supporters’ Shield with three weeks to spare and claiming their 69th point to break the league’s all-time points record on the final day of the regular season.

Toronto also tied the 2014 Seattle Sounders for most wins in the league’s post-shootout era with 20, tied 1998 D.C. United for second all-time with 74 goals in a season and recorded the second-best goal differential in league history with a plus-37 margin.

TFC did it all with remarkable depth. They were lead in the regular season by the Designated Player trio of Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, but also got huge contributions from playmaker Victor Vazquez, defenders Justin Morrow and Drew Moor, goalkeeper Alex Bono and midfielder Marky Delgado. Now, they’re eyeing another piece of history: The first domestic treble (MLS Cup-US Open Cup/Canadian Championship-Supporters’ Shield) by an MLS team.

Atlanta amaze in Year 1

They didn’t take home any silverware, but Atlanta United FC recorded one of the best expansion campaigns in MLS history in 2017. The Five Stripes made huge waves off the field, breaking the single-season and single-game attendance records in their first year in the league. They were nearly as transcendent on the pitch, with hugely talented youngsters Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad leading the way for an attack that scored the second most goals in the league.

With a year of experience under their belt and another winter to add to their roster, Atlanta will likely enter the 2018 season as one of the top picks to lift MLS Cup.  

USMNT miss World Cup

No, this isn’t strictly an MLS story, but the US men’s national team shocking failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup can’t exactly be separated from the league’s year, either.

The USMNT’s utter capitulation in qualifying will be felt all across the American soccer ecosystem, including in MLS. Many of the players that failed to take the US to Russia play in MLS, and their attitudes and performance will be at least somewhat informed by their absence at the World Cup next summer. How MLS academies operate will also likely be affected, and a few younger MLSers could get an earlier-than-expected shot with the USMNT due to the qualification failure.

While the US won’t be heading to Russia, plenty of MLSers will take their place on the sport’s biggest stage next summer. The league will be particularly well-represented among CONCACAF teams, with Mexico's Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos, Costa Rica's Kendall Waston and Francisco Calvo, Panama's Roman Torres and Anibal Godoy and, should they win their qualification playoff against Australia, Honduras' Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto all likely to play leading roles for their country next summer.

FC Dallas’ historic collapse

What happened?

That’s the enduring question of 2017 for FC Dallas, who had back-to-back 60-point seasons in 2015 and 2016 and began this year looking like one of the top teams in MLS. Dallas were at or near the top of the West well into the summer, but a shocking second half collapse saw the Hoops miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Locker room issues clearly popped up for what was a very talented side, as Dallas went just 2-7-6 (and endured a rough transfer saga with Maxi Urruti and Michael Barrios) over the final three months of the season. Their disappointing finish will no doubt mean major changes at Toyota Stadium over the winter as Oscar Pareja looks to get FCD back on track in 2018.

Big turnarounds in Chicago and Houston

The two worst teams in MLS in 2016, the Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo both turned things around in a huge way in 2017.

The Fire started brightly, getting key early-season contributions from new signings Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger to take the Supporters’ Shield lead at the Gold Cup break. Late season injuries put a dent in their hopes down the stretch, but the Fire still finished with the third best regular season record in the league before bowing out to the New York Red Bulls in the Knockout Round.

Houston didn’t quite hit the same regular season heights as Chicago, but their turnaround has been just as impressive. Offseason acquisitions Elis, Quioto, A.J. DeLaGarza, Juan David Cabezas and Adolfo Machado have keyed the Dynamo’s revival, and some excellent defensive work and timely contributions from a few depth pieces have led to a surprising postseason run. They’ll take on Seattle in the Western Conference Championship series beginning next week.

Battle for LA begins

LAFC won’t join MLS until next year, but the battle for MLS hearts and minds in Los Angeles is already well underway. The incoming club made some major waves over the summer, inking former USMNT manager Bob Bradley as head coach and signing Mexican international Carlos Vela as their first Designated Player. Those two will no doubt look plenty good in black and gold when they open the brand-new Banc of California Stadium next season.

The LA Galaxy also made plenty of noise this year, just not for the right reasons. The five-time MLS Cup champions endured their worst-ever season, firing head coach Curt Onalfo in July, less than a year after he was hired to replace Bruce Arena. Sigi Schmid took over for Onalfo but couldn’t get the Galaxy going, finishing the year with a far worse record than his predecessor. That didn’t stop LA from giving him a promotion this winter, giving Schmid GM duties in addition to his role as head coach. We’ll see what moves the winningest manager in MLS history can pull off this winter as he attempts to right the ship.

Video Review comes to MLS

After a lengthy testing period, MLS became one of the first leagues in the world to implement Video Review this summer, taking the replay system online following the All-Star break.

The new system allows a fifth official (the Video Assistant Referee, or VAR) to watch each match on several monitors and radio down to the head referee in the event of a clear and obvious error involving goals, penalty kicks, straight red cards and cases of mistaken identity. The head referee then checks the play on a video monitor and can change the call at his or her discretion.

Despite some initial questions, the system has worked fairly seamlessly in MLS. It’ll be back next year, and, pending an eventual decision from the IFAB, could become standard practice all over the world in a couple of years.

Record-breaking coaching upheaval

As good of a year as a few head coaches had, 2017 was a tough season for MLS managers. The casualties came early and often, with the midseason firings starting all the way back in March and continuing until late-September. In all, five coaches – RSL’s Jeff Cassar, San Jose’s Dom Kinnear, Colorado’s Pablo Mastroeni, LA’s Curt Onalfo and New England’s Jay Heaps – got the axe during the season, an MLS record. Montreal’s Mauro Biello joined their ignominious club shortly after the season ended.

Expansion sweepstakes heat up

With MLS getting ready to expand to 28 teams, groups from 12 cities – Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis and Tampa/St. Petersburg – submitted expansion applications to the league at the end of January.

There have been plenty of twists and turns over the past 10 months, but the league is nearing a decision on two new expansion teams. The league is slated to announce two new teams from the list of candidate cities before the end of the year, with two more to follow from the group of 12 applicants in the future.

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