Every year contains it's own share of surprises, and for Major League Soccer, 2018 was no exception.
Before the new year clocks in, we felt like looking back at the players, clubs, moves, incidents and trends that kept us all on our toes before, during and after the season that just was. Some were pleasant surprises and some were letdowns, but they all contributed to what makes MLS "keep em' guessing" special.
No. 10: Late goal swooners
There were a handful of attackers who looked set for career seasons in the summer, only to sadly slump their way down the back stretch.
Houston star man Alberth Elis was en fuego with nine goals and seven assists on July 7, but notched just two and three, respectively, the rest of the way. On the same turning point date, LAFC power forward Adama Diomande had nine goals in his first 472 MLS minutes, but waited three months for another while nursing injuries.
At the end of June, both Teal Bunbury of the New England Revolution and the San Jose Earthquakes’ Danny Hoesen were leading their clubs in goals, having already hit double figures; they each turned ice cold as summer heated up, grabbing just three goals between them over the final four months of the season.
You may notice that three of these players' teams missed the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoff cut, and the fourth was pulled at halftime of a shock home Knockout Round defeat. The lesson: consistency may be boring, but it pays.
No. 9: LAFC, SKC break molds
Don't get me wrong, it's no shock that either of these teams excelled this season. It's just that they did it in unexpected ways.
New league blood LAFC had Bob Bradley to mastermind a peculiar system that allowed them to set a record for points in an expansion season while playing the majority of their games without a natural defensive midfielder. What's more, the team maintained cruising altitude despite bidding adieu to captain/backline marshal Laurent Ciman.
Meanwhile, Sporting KC won the West for the first time since 2012 and nearly reached MLS Cup to halt a streak of four straight Knockout Round ousters, but were oddly hard to peg. With their most-used striker only managing two goals, KC's offense by committee broke the 22-year-old club scoring record. And though their notoriously stingy defense did log 13 clean sheets and finish third best in goals allowed, they also conceded multiple times in 13 games and three or more goals in five contests.
No. 8: Gyasi Zardes turns lethal
It's perfectly reasonable to wonder if this item really belongs in the list. Things weren't working in LA and that was before the arrival of Zlatan. Columbus' team looked tailor-made to spark a decent Gyasi Zardes form revival, and hey, we knew there would be no more baffling right back assignments.
Okay, fine. Fair enough. Now, everyone who imagined Zardes would take that favorable scenery change No. 9 assignment and bang home 20 combined regular season and playoff goals, please raise your hand. Yeah, that's what I thought.
No. 7: Production outages
Down years happen, even to the best of players. And yet, it always takes us aback when the well runs dry for players with a history of producing.
Of course, Orlando City SC got the worst of it with the double whammy that was their Sacha Kljestan and Justin Meram acquisitions. The duo combined to average 15 goals and 26 assists over the last three MLS campaigns. This year, the Lions got precisely seven goals and nine assists out of them (nearly all of that coming from Kljestan, the one who lasted the whole year).
No. 6: Coaching carousel hits overdrive
Records being set can certainly make for good surprises. But the fact that a new MLS high of six in-season head coach switches went down this year doesn't even begin to cover the shock factor. We saw some rather esteemed tacticians exit stage left, and it was a bit jarring.
Patrick Vieira left NYCFC for Nice in June, and less than a month later, New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch followed him to Europe. Jason Kreis was also out in Orlando before the summer was over. September brought pink slips to old league hands Carl Robinson (Vancovuer) and Sigi Schmid (LA Galaxy), as well as first-year MLS coach Mikael Stahre (San Jose).
Oh, and we weren't even close to done for the year. Gregg Berhalter and Oscar Pareja gave up steady jobs for new horizons during the postseason, and MLS Cup winner Tata Martino did the same after his Atlanta victory parade. For those not keeping tally at home, nearly 40 percent of league clubs had to find replacement bosses this year.
No. 5: A slew of big-name trades
There was so much excitement around the boatload of international arrivals and some major departures for good reason. Zlatan gave us Zlatan, Wayne Rooney and Raul Ruidiaz changed the course of the season, we're sure going to miss Clint Dempsey, best of luck to Alphonso Davies, so forth and so on.
But as fun and emotional as all that was, it kind of overshadowed the shockingly large number of trades that relocated reliably impressive MLS names. Playmakers Benny Feilhaber, Kljestan and Lee Nguyen were shipped away from previously cozy clubs, as were young team lynchpins Kellyn Acosta and Tim Parker, as well as Zardes and fellow attackers Fanendo Adi, Yamil Asad and Christian Ramirez.
Most of these guys aren't just All-Star level players, they were also emblems of the club that sent them packing.
No. 4: Orlando City worked really hard on the wrong formula
Let's not pretend. Virtually everyone in our soccer bubble saw all the glitzy pick-ups made by the Purple Lions last winter and figured they were headed to the playoffs for the first time. And then came the extended and crushing disappointment that was Orlando City's season.
We already discussed the end product plummets suffered by Kljestan and Meram. Injuries made sure the backline never gelled on the way to leaking an MLS-record 74 goals. The midfield also never settled into a smart rhythm, and the June coaching change had no happy effect.
A six-game run of victories in spring only served to raise Orlando City hopes to set up the jarring crash of their 2-20-3 finish to the season. And so, the wait for playoff soccer the club and city crave continues for another long year.
No. 3: Unprecedented away team playoff success
Everyone knows home teams rule in MLS, and traditionally that has gone double for the postseason. Not so this year, in which three of four road teams win their Knockout Round matches.
That victory rate was obviously unsustainable, but we still ended up with new standard for road team success in the playoffs. All told, the away sides had a combined five postseason wins in unfriendly confines.
Naturally, Portland was the poster child for this 2018 phenomenon. The Timbers gave FC Dallas the quick Knockout Round trip home, won a penalty shootout behind enemy lines in Seattle and broke hearts in Kansas City before running out of road luck against MLS Cup hosts Atlanta.
No. 2: Galaxy's Decision Day collapse
With all the LA Galaxy had gone through in 2018, all the wild (and generally Zlatan-studded) highs and UGH-worthy lows, they entered Decision Day presented by AT&T with a silver platter chance to make their postseason return after a lost 2017 odyssey. A late 3-0-1 run put them in the enviable position.
All they had to do to grab sixth place in the West from idle Real Salt Lake was beat Houston, a team that had seemingly already checked out for the season fat-and-happy-enough with their first-ever U.S. Open Cup capture. The Galaxy's playoff rally was effectively half in the bag after Ola Kamara had them up two at the intermission.
Even after Romell Quioto halved the lead near the hour, the G-Men regained control and nearly added an insurance tally. And then suddenly, Mauro Manotas flipped the score line with a six-minute brace and there was no Ibrahimovic magic to rescue them on this day. It was an all-time "OOF" episode for a storied club.
No. 1: Toronto FC goes splat
There's really no way of getting around this one. Plenty of MLS pundits around the country were still insisting into autumn that the defending MLS Cup champs could, or even would, snap out of their season-long stupor in time to reach the postseason as soon as they got fit.
Of course, the Reds never got things together for more than a game or two, even on the rare occasions Greg Vanney had his full squad. In fact, Toronto FC managed a grand total of one two-game league win streak in 2018.
There were just too many injury shuffles for the team's appreciable depth to cover. By the end, the 2017 team that won the treble had nose-dived from tops in the East last year to ninth, 20 wins to 10, +37 goal differential to minus-5 and from combatants in consecutive MLS Cups to spectators in November.