The time of the year has come where all MLS fans look upon the new season with hope and intrigue. Could this be the year for your favorite team? Who knows. Our staff breaks down each team in MLS in our five part preview. Each preview has four parts: Offseason Grade, Key Player, Best Case Scenario, and Bold Prediction.
A new team. This was the mantra of the Houston Dynamo coming in to the 2016 season. Manager Owen Coyle was entering his second year and the team had a new group of players ready to rebound from recent disappointing seasons. Fast forward to the end of the 2016 season, Coyle was back in England, captain Giles Barnes was traded, and the team finished last in the Western Conference. So, the 2017 season awaits and the new team mantra again echoes around the halls at Dynamo camp. However, it feels different this time, it feels like a real change has happened and will happen on the field.
Offseason Grade: A-
Houston’s offseason was a busy one from start to finish. And not just busy, productive. Starting with the hiring of new coach Wilmer Cabrera, the Dynamo began to reshape their team in nearly every area. Out were Will Bruin, David Horst, Sheanon Williams, and Collen Warner. Hondurans Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto (the former a designated player), will add firepower to an attack that scored just 39 goals in 34 MLS games last season. A defense that played well at the backend of 2016 was completely overhauled. DaMarcus Beasley re-signed late in the offseason but new additions Dylan Remick (re-entry draft), Leonardo (re-entry draft), Adolfo Machado (transfer), and AJ DeLaGarza (trade) bring experience, leadership, and championship pedigree to Houston. Juan David Cabezas, a defensive midfielder, was also brought in and should contribute as an anchor in the midfield. Veteran forward Vicente Sanchez may not see a ton of minutes on the field but his work with the young Dynamo attacking corps could prove to be a huge asset. The only reason I gave a grade of A- is that the search for a #10 never panned out. However, even without that player, this team is set up nicely for a 4-3-3.
Key Player – Cubo Torres
Cubo’s time in Houston can only be called a disappointment to this point but a new year brings new hope, and the perfect ingredients for a turn around. The Mexican striker spent the end of 2016 on loan at Cruz Azul but returns to Houston with a chance at redemption. Cabrera, Torres’ former coach at Chivas USA, has gotten the best out of Cubo in his MLS career to this point and the additions of the pacey Elis and Quioto on the wings make 2017 the perfect chance for a career revival. Mauro Manotas burst on to the scene late in 2016 but Cubo’s goal scoring in the preseason and his history with his head coach tends to lead to the likelihood of the Colombian coming off the bench in 2017. If Torres can find his form and score 10-15 goals this season, the Dynamo have a chance to not only climb out of the cellar, but to compete for a playoff spot in the difficult West.
Best Case Scenario – Playoff Appearance
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, a playoff appearance is likely the best case scenario for Houston in 2017. The Western Conference remains strong, led by Shield winners FC Dallas and MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders but with 6 teams getting into the playoffs, there’s a chance the Dynamo could find a way in. They should be better than expansion side Minnesota and they’ll probably have to be better than teams like San Jose, Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City, Colorado, and Portland to have a chance the playoffs. If the team can come together under Cabrera early in the season, and their successful preseason shows they might, they could ride the wave all the way to October and a return to postseason play.
Bold Prediction – Deep USOC Run
The Dynamo have never been a team to take the US Open Cup seriously but with a deeper team, I think this is the year they may go for it. A semifinal run is possible if they avoid some of the higher level MLS teams in the draw, mainly Dallas. And who knows, maybe a trophy and the easiest route to Champions League are a goal for the club in 2017, and why shouldn’t it be?
Starting the season with the Desert Diamond Cup championship could be a good omen for the Dynamo. We’ll know a lot about this team in the first weekend of the season as they welcome the MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders to BBVA Compass Stadium to kick off the season. This team may be a work in progress and may not quite be ready to contend but there’s one thing I’m confident in saying about the Dynamo. This won’t be the worst team in the West. With their new attacking firepower and ability to launch lightning quick counter-attacks, this will be a fun team to watch. And who knows, they may just make this “new team” a memorable one.
Offseason Grade: A+
You’ll be hard pressed to find a team that went out and strengthened themselves more than the perennially forlorn Fire. Gone are Cocis, LaBrocca, Sean Johnson, and the truly awful Khaly Thiam. Four key additions to the Fire have made them look for the first time in a very long while like playoff contenders. Jorge Brava comes in to take over the the Lampson/Johnson rotation in goal. Dax McCarty and Juninho were both acquired and have given Chicago one of the best central midfield pairings in the league, and newly acquired DP striker Nemanja Nikolic looks ready to link up well with De Leeuw and score plenty of goals.
Key Player: Nemanja Nikolic
It’s been awhile since Chicago have had a consistent goal scoring threat up top, and the newly acquired Hungarian comes with a very impressive looking record in that department. The 29 year old comes fresh off a stint in Legia Warsaw where he tallied 55 times in 86 appearances for the Polish side, and has been a big part of a surprisingly potent Chicago attack this preseason.
Best Case Scenario:
Chicago have a fairly easy target for success as they simply have to finish not last place in the league to have shown signs of improvement, but I’m starting to think that they may have their aims set a little bit higher. A post season appearance would be an incredible result from a team that looked bereft of ambition just one year ago.
My bold prediction is that Chicago is going to make the playoffs this year and if Nikolic stays healthy, he’ll be in the running for the Golden Boot and Newcomer of the Year award. That should be bold enough for you.
Offseason Grade: B-
Dallas focused on locking down their homegrowns this offseason which a lot of people may say is lazy by the front office. But teenagers Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreria have shown great first-team quality, and after losing Weston McKennie to Schalke, you have to think the front office didn’t want these two to get away. Add in signing Roland Lamah and Christian Colman and it’s a solid offseason. Colman has already bagged a goal in his debut for the club in the CCL.
Key player: Kellyn Acosta
The Plano, Texas native is primed for a breakout season. He’s lacked scoring, but if his brace in the first competitive match of the season is any indication, he will find the back of the net more. With Mauro Diaz out, Acosta will be even more key in his deep-lying midfield role to link defense to attack. He and Carlos Gruezo will be massive to Dallas’ success this season.
Best Case Scenario: MLS Cup Champions
FC Dallas looked primed to make a MLS Cup run last season before Diaz went down. I think it’s very fair to say that FC Dallas could be primed to make a cup run again should Colman turn into a real number nine. FC Dallas fans know they have not had a solid No. 9 in quite some time, and Colman is the first real player they have been excited about in that role.
Bold prediction: Kellyn Acosta goes to Europe
I firmly believe that he is primed for a career season and the U.S. international could garner some eyes from abroad. He’s young, he’s dynamic and already in the national team picture. Sounds like a perfect Yank to move abroad. But to whom? Could possibly see a smaller club who appears in Champions League every now and then.
- Clay Massey
NEW YORK RED BULLS
Offseason Grade: D
The Red Bulls kept the majority of its roster that finished first in the Eastern Conference which saves them from a failing grade. The one piece they didn’t keep, however, was club captain and central midfield anchor Dax McCarty. McCarty was the team’s leader both on and off the pitch as well as one of its most important players. It was a stunning move that didn’t make much sense. McCarty is still in his prime at 29, was playing at an outstanding level (good enough to receive a national team call up) and wasn’t on anything close to an unreasonable salary. Outside of the McCarty trade, RBNY didn’t do much. Aaron Long and Zeiko Lewis are interesting pieces, but it’s unlikely either features prominently in 2017.
Key Player: Sean Davis
Stepping in to replace Dax McCarty is 24-year-old Sean Davis. He filled in well enough in McCarty’s absence last year (due to injury) that, presumably, Jesse Marsch felt comfortable heading into 2017 with Davis as a starter. The former Duke Blue Devil had a solid if unspectacular 2017 debut against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the CONCACAF Champions League. Davis showed he can play at a high level for an extended stretch last year, but now he has to do it from day one. Whether Davis sinks or swims will go a long way to determining whether RBNY can keep its place atop the East.
Best Case Scenario: MLS Cup Champion
This team has legitimate championship aspirations. The Red Bulls have been one of the best and most consistent teams in the league the last three years, but they have yet to translate consistency in the regular season to postseason success. New York could win another Supporters Shield or make a run to the Eastern Conference Final and either accomplishment would make for a great season. But this team, the fans and the front office will all feel like they came up short unless the Red Bulls are hoisting the Cup in December.
Bold Prediction: Gonzalo Veron is a Dark Horse “Best XI” Candidate
This prediction could’ve also been titled, “Gonzalo Veron actually stays healthy.” Veron’s talent is undeniable – when he played, he’s been a terror for opposing defenses. The problem is he’s only started eight games in two years due to nagging injuries. Veron finally seems healthy and he looked good in both preseason and the CCL tie against the Whitecaps. Head coach Jesse Marsch seems determined to get Veron into the starting lineup whether it be as a forward in a 4-2-2-2 or as a winger in a 4-2-3-1. 2016 Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips will always draw the majority of the defensive attention which could open up Veron for a big year.