Best of MLS: The top 10 stories of 2017

In many ways, 2017 was a bit of an inflection point for MLS.

The league took a big step, with huge crowds cheering on an exciting new team in Atlanta, innovative clubs Toronto and Seattle meeting in their second-straight MLS Cup and other clubs like Crew SC and Houston proving you don’t have to spend big to have huge success.

Off the field, LAFC are just four months from debuting, Nashville are on their way into the league, more expansion is on the docket, while the future of Crew SC is still to be determined.

So many huge stories that played out last year and so many that are still developing – here are our top 10 from 2017:

Toronto FC 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 became the first team in MLS history to claim a domestic treble, winning the Canadian Championship, Supporters' Shield and getting revenge on the Sounders to lift MLS Cup. 

Toronto dominated the league right from the jump, clinching the Supporters’ Shield with three weeks to spare in a record-breaking season that saw them claim their 69th point to break the league’s all-time points record on the final day of the regular season.

They did it all with remarkable depth. They were led during the regular season by the Designated Player trio of Sebastian GiovincoMichael 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’ll try to build on a roster that has a rightful claim to the title of best team in MLS history.

Crew SC's future up in the air

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

The team would proceed to rally around their fans in a memorable playoff run during which they survived a wild Knockout Round match at Atlanta before beating second-seeded NYCFC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

They ended up falling to Toronto in the Eastern Conference Championship series, but Columbus put up a strong fight, losing just 1-0 on aggregate to the eventual champs. It was an admirable performance against TFC, capping a playoff run that saw Gregg Berhalter and Co. earn plenty of respect around MLS.

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 MLS.

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 was felt all across the American soccer ecosystem, including in MLS.

Some of the MLS players that were part of the US team that missed out on Russia came under harsh criticism and the cries grew louder for younger players in MLS and overseas to get an earlier-than-expected shot with the USMNT due to the qualification failure.

While the US won’t be heading to the World Cup, 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 all likely to play leading roles for their country next summer.

Historic collapse in Dallas

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 once again 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 FCD miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

A talented team known for its unity and character came up on hard times as Dallas went just 2W-7L-6D (and endured a tumultuous 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 manager 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 was just as impressive. Offseason acquisitions Elis, Quioto, A.J. DeLaGarza, Juan David Cabezas and Adolfo Machado keyed the Dynamo’s revival, and some excellent defensive work and timely contributions from a few depth pieces led to a surprising postseason run. They got worked 5-0 on aggregate by Seattle in the Western Conference Championship series, but for a team that entered the year with very low expectations, the year was an unequivocal success. 

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 worse record than his predecessor. That didn’t stop LA from giving him a promotion this winter, handing 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) access to every available video replay and the ability to communicate with 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 can use the information from the VAR or review the play on a video monitor before deciding whether to uphold or overturn a decision.

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 and Caleb Porter surprisingly left the Portland Timbers in November.

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.

As the cities jockeyed for position, MLS eventually narrowed its list of candidates to four – Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento – for the first two slots. Nashville was the first bid awarded an expansion team in late December, and the league will announce another expansion team in the new year. Two more picks will follow at a later date, taking the league to 28 teams. 

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