It's the First Mailbag of 2017!

2016 has come and gone. The Sounders lifted MLS Cup on a cold Canadian night and the curtain closed on a memorable season. With the 2017 season right around the corner it's time to bring back our mailbag! That's right, your questions, our answers. Without further ado, let's open the first mailbag of 2017.

Firstly, I wouldn’t expect to see Neagle much up front at all in 2017. With the depth of Ortiz, Kamara, Mullins, and Acosta all able to command the front lines in various formations, and backed up by a central midfield of Harkes, Le Toux, and Acosta when he’s not up front (These options really only raise the question of who sits on the bench when Sarvas is needed as a bruising D-mid), Neagle’s role will most likely become more specialized on the outside. Even then, the support productivity of Sam and Nyarko will create a system of rotating starters on the wings if Neagle hopes to gain any significant minutes.

Now, to the original question, I have to say that the addition of Le Toux is the biggie here, as he will provide the extra bit of service that will keep Mullins hot for a much longer period of time. Ortiz and Kamara may likely become a depth option, depending on Mullins’ form.

To be honest, I can’t think of a recent time when D.C. United had this deep of an offense, mostly concerning themselves with beefing up the midfield and solidifying the back line. Usually, Olsen made an effort of finding a single ringer and hoping for the best. This year...this team may cause much more of a headache for opposing defenses on a regular basis.

- Steven Clark

Hi Jared! Thanks for the question.

As a TFC supporter myself, quiet off-seasons make me feel uneasy. Historically, as I’m sure you know, they’ve been fraught with firings, hirings, cuts, trades, speculation...etc. That’s what we’ve all grown accustomed to. Stability is not something we’re familiar with, and it’s something that’s caused me more than a few sleepless nights waiting for the almost inevitable ridiculousness to ensue.

But in all honesty, a quiet off-season, especially after a season like 2016, could be exactly what the doctor ordered. I think management took the, “if it ain’t broke…” approach. The team is young and hungry and is going to work their butts off to get some redemption. There appears to be a closeness and friendship amongst the players that I can’t remember ever seeing in the past. Coach Vanney is the best coach the team has ever had, however I’m sure he’s still on a very, very tight leash. Now, does this mean there aren’t specific areas that could’ve used some shoring up? Certainly not. The team still lacks creativity and a presence on the wing.

Keep in mind also that cap space has always been a concern. It would be counter productive to blow whatever space is remaining in the off-season when the team, as it is, functions just fine. If any unprecedented injuries creep up, there’s still room to move if need be.  

Players that needed to be re-signed were, specifically Benoit Cheyrou, and the addition of Danny Mavinga is interesting. He could go either way. I see him as a possible Ahmed Kantari situation. I hope that isn’t the case however and I’m curious what type of salary he commands.

What I’m most concerned with is the ongoing speculation over Giovinco possibly heading to China. Although things have calmed down for the time being, I’m sure rumours will flare up again come the opening of the next transfer window. Should he decide to leave in the summer though, all bets are off and this uncharacteristically quiet off-season will probably be viewed as a missed opportunity to add some backup. He is the linchpin.

- Rob Ditta

Well that’s a nice question for me to start the year with. I’ll tell you who it isn’t going to be. Chicago. It also won’t be Houston. So who indeed? There are so many contenders. Minnesota would be a safe pick, having a lot of unknown on their roster and coming into the league 80% less hyped than their expansion buddy Atlanta. New England could easily falter this season. In my opinion the smartest money is on Vancouver. They were woeful last season and don’t seem to have improved all that much over the offseason. Fredy’s going to help them out a bit, but is it enough to keep them out of the cellar of an extremely competitive Western Conference this year? I think maybe not. Then again this is MLS, a league where the defending champions of 2015 couldn’t win a match on the road and didn’t make the playoffs the following year. Anything could happen. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if it were LA?

- Ian L.

This is an interesting question that I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to. The reason I say that is because it seems like Minnesota United’s entire transition to MLS has been very rushed. So rushed so that they haven’t really taken the time to promote their team and their inaugural season in MLS around the state of Minnesota, specifically around the Twin Cities where majority of their supporters will hail from. I suspect there will be a big push to get the word out there for their opening home game, but you’d think they’d have started a little sooner. There is also the glaring fact that there are only around 9k season ticket holders last I’ve seen. The Itasca Society which is an exclusive group of season ticket holders (the first 11,842 people to buy season tickets) hasn’t even reached its full capacity yet, which is a little worrisome given that opening day is fast approaching.

Now with this being said, having Target as a sponsor will likely help draw some attention, I’ve already seen people snapping pictures of new merchandise in Target stores. Then there is the fact that they will be playing their games at TCF Bank Stadium, which resides on the University of Minnesota’s campus. That surely should pique some interest amongst the college aged supporters. Not to mention that the college friendly “Dinkytown,” where popular bars and restaurants reside, is not far away from the stadium. Given that there will be no tailgating allowed, that becomes a bit more important. United also has the Dark Clouds supporters group that has been with them since their days in NASL.

Taking everything into account, I think their play on the field will dictate if average fans show up. United has their supporters group and their season ticket holders, but the real question is if the casual fans will show up. Nobody knows sporting heartbreak quite like Minnesotans. Given the lack of championships that the Vikings, Timberwolves, Twins, and Wild have brought to the state, Minnesotans are begging for something to be proud of. Ultimately, if the Loons can show that their competitive, I truly believe the team will see a rise in supporters.

- Anne Marie

This is probably the most top-of-mind question for MLS fans entering any new season. Perhaps more than in any other sport teams can go from worst to first with just a few key acquisitions. Just look at the turnaround Colorado had from 2015 to 2016.

This MLS offseason had no shortage of big moves. Lots of teams took big steps forward and acquired some big-name players. Vancouver acquired former Sounders star Fredy Montero from Tianjin TEDA. NYCFC brought in Argentinian Maxi Moralez from Leon. Toronto FC looks to have kept Giovinco out of the hands of China (for now, at least). But three teams in particular stand out in terms of addressing team needs.

Chicago Fire

I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue with you if you said Chicago had the best offseason in MLS. And honestly, it’s not even close. The Fire were more like the “Dumpster Fire” last season, finishing with a league low 31 points. Chicago’s attack was anemic, with a league low 125 shots on goal (an average of just 3.7 SOG/game) and were bottom half of the league for total goals scored. Their top goal scorer was David Accam with just nine goals. Their defense wasn’t much better, allowing 55 goals for the season. Only Columbus and Orlando were worse.

Chicago addressed their offensive problems in a big way with the acquisition of Hungarian international Nemanja Nikolic. Nikolic joins from Polish side Legia Warsaw, where he scored 41 goals in 58 league matches. Don’t be surprised if Nikolic is in the Golden Boot race at the end of the year.

The defensive midfield got a significant boost with the acquisition of Dax McCarty from NYRB and former Galaxy man Juninho, who’s on a season-long loan from Liga MX side Club Tijuana. Both players will bring veteran, defensive minded presences to the midfield.

Don’t be surprised if the Chicago Fire find themselves in the playoff hunt this year.

Seattle Sounders

The reigning MLS Cup champions didn’t have a ton of holes to fill considering they’re bringing back most of their championship roster. They let go of DP Nelson Valdez, but the acquisition of Harry Shipp and Will Bruin should more than make up for any offensive prowess lost there.

Will Bruin joins from the Dynamo where he got off to a great start but seemed to stall out over the past couple of years. His 50 career goals are nothing to sneeze at, and while he certainly won’t start, he’ll be a great attacking option to bring in late in games when the Sounders need to score. A change of scenery may be just what Bruin needs to revive his career.

Harry Shipp entered the league as a rookie in 2014 and looked to be a big impact player for the Chicago Fire. He scored seven goals his rookie season and ended up a finalist for MLS rookie of the year. While his goal scoring took a step back in his sophomore season, he led the fire in assists in 2015. Shipp was sent to Montreal where he had a lackluster 2016 before being acquired by the Sounders for GAM. Like Bruin, a change of scenery may be what Shipp needs, and he’s going to an experienced team with a great coach in Schmetzer who can get the best out of him. He won’t be asked to score lots of goals under Schmetzer’s system, but rather to create chances, which is what Shipp does best.

The biggest news of the off-season for the Sounders wasn’t who they acquired, but who got healthy. Clint Dempsey has been officially cleared to return to all soccer activity and has been playing with the first team during the Sounders preseason matches. The 33-year-old missed the latter half of the 2016 season and the entire post-season run with heart problems. But now that he’s back to full health, he’ll slot right into his normal position under Jordan Morris and should bolster an already strong Sounders attack.

The Sounders should be right back in the hunt for MLS Cup once again in 2017.

Sporting KC

Sporting KC may not have had the flashy signings of some other teams, but they made a concerted effort to get younger and faster during the offseason. Well, they were certainly successful at that.

The average age of the ten newly acquired players is just 23.8 years old. Average age of departing players? 28.7. A near five-year average age difference is pretty huge.

Head coach and technical director Peter Vermes hasn’t been shy about heaping praise (and raising expectations) on his new signings, either. When talking about 20-year-old Ghanaian forward Latif Blessing, who led the Ghana Premier League in scoring with 17 goals last season, Vermes repeatedly praises his electric speed and dynamic style of play. I expect Blessing will fill the desperate need of another attacking option off the wing that’s been missing since Krisztian Nemeth left.

SKC also added DP winger Gerso Fernandes who joins from Portuguese side Belenenses. Vermes has been slightly more reserved in his praise of Gerso than he has Blessing, but I expect Gerso to step in and play a significant role on the wing, which has been Sporting’s biggest area of need the past few seasons. If Vermes moves Zusi to RB on a more permanent basis, Gerso and Blessing on the wings with Dom Dwyer up top and Benny Feilhaber in the #10 spot could pose real problems for opposing defenses.

Finally, Ilie Sanchez was brought in to push Soni Mustivar for a defensive midfielder spot that has been problematic for Sporting since the departure of Uri Rosell. The good news for SKC fans? “Ilie is like Uri 2.0,” says Vermes. That’s enough to pique the interest of any Sporting KC fan.

For three years straight, Sporting KC has only made it as far as the knockout round of the playoffs, but with the added speed and athleticism to this year’s squad, I’d expect them to break that streak and extend their playoff run in 2017.

- Jimmy Mack

My favorite thing about this question is that it’s really difficult to answer. The quality of designated players coming into MLS this offseason has been amazingly high. I think Nemanja Nikolic and Albert Rusnak are going to be very good. Miguel Almiron is an exciting piece for Atlanta to build around. But my favorite signing is actually the Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis for a couple reasons. First off, he can play. People whose opinions I trust are very high on him and all the video I’ve watched makes it look like he’ll be a great fit. But this is my favorite move because of what it represents on a macro level. Elis is young (he just turned 21 on February 12), already a full international (15 caps and three goals for Honduras) and from a CONCACAF member country. This is the kind of player MLS needs to be pursuing and landing. The league needs to become the premier destination for North and Central America if it’s ever going to meet Don Garber’s “one of the top leagues in the world” mandate. So I’m really excited to see what Elis can do and I hope his signing is the start of a trend for the rest of MLS.

- Anders Aarhus

DJ Shaggy Sean, if that is your real name, you ask a question on every Fire supporter’s mind (at least the ones who have yet to give up all hope).

Yes.

Dennis Reynolds would say “yes” to this new experience. Charlie Kelly would as well (Always say “yes.”). Just remember to look out for truckers picking up lot lizards on their way to Atlantic City.

But to those in Chicago who are hesitant to believe in the offseason Fire hype the simple message is: look at the personnel improvements in key positions.

From the top down, Paunovic and Rodriguez have done some significant wheeling-and-dealing. Nikolic is a well-liked (at least in Total MLS circles) darkhorse pick to produce for the Fire up top, alongside Michael de Leeuw, who was Chicago’s most productive attacked per-90 minutes in 2016. David Accam will continue to provide the pace needed on either flank, and will more than likely see his assists rise, much in the way Ethan Finlay’s did in 2015, with two competent strikers which he can serve. Chicago will easily have three threats starting up top for them, and that is quite extraordinary considering the fact that they rid themselves of both starting targets in 2016.

But perhaps the most immense change is in the rest of the midfield. Dax’s abrupt transfer to Chicago took MLS off guard, but the fact that Chicago now has the US international to pair alongside Juninho makes Chicago extremely formidable in the midfield.

That new McCarty-Juninho shield in front of the Vincent- Campbell/Meira- Kappelhoff-Harrington(?) back line will change the attacks Chicago must face. The Fire could essentially be assaulted from all sides last year with very little resistance. This doesn’t even include the recently-injured Matt Polster, who will duke it out for a starting gig once he has returned to full fitness. It’s plain to see that the set of McCarty-Juninho-Polster is vastly superior to Polster-Thiam-Cocis-Labrocca. Chicago actually kept six shutouts in the first half of 2016, which is remarkable considering how poor their possession was throughout the season’s entirety. With the new personnel ahead of that back line, one that has played a full season in MLS together by now, the Fire can look forward to looking like the fire of the pre-Yallop or even pre-Klopas tenures.

The only gaps that remain are at right back and at number 10. Michael Harrington is the default right back with the exit of Rodrigo Ramos. At least he is competent and during his Portland tenure under Caleb Porter earned a national team call-up. Arturo Alvarez is the default number 10, but that could easily fall to John Goosens. Neither inspire confidence nor rival Diaz, Lodeiro, Piatti, or Valeri. But, perhaps this is a position the Fire mean to fill by the midseason transfer window.

For the moment, however, it’s an easy bet that the Fire are hands-down a more competitive team than they were the past three seasons.

- Cory Jensen

Between the two expansion teams, Atlanta is the odds on favorite to have a better season and possibly make the playoffs. Atlanta has established an impressive roster, while Minnesota has to play in the very difficult Western Conference. I don't think Minnesota will be as bad as some people are saying they will but I can't see them making the playoffs. Atlanta should finish in the top 6 in the East on talent alone, so I'll say just one of the Uniteds, Atlanta, makes the playoffs in 2017.

After playing in MLS Cup 2015, both Columbus and Portland missed the playoffs in 2016. Will they bounce back? Yes and no. I don't think Columbus is good enough to be a playoff team and could ultimately go through a coaching change this season if they start off slowly. Portland's defense remains a question mark but the addition of Sebastian Blanco makes an already potent attack even more dangerous. And they've got to win at least one road game right? The Timbers will return to the playoffs in 2017.

- Dustyn Richardson