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.
It’s crazy to think that it was a little over 2 months ago that the collective heart of Toronto FC fans and players were broken by a fingertip save from a former draftee goalkeeper, but of course thats how it would go for TFC. After coming to grips with the devastation, preparation to take another run at the elusive MLS Cup began in earnest. It wasn’t through a total roster overturn or firing their coach, like had taken place in most TFC off-seasons previously, it was through consistency and continuity. As the 2017 season beckons, their 11th in Major League Soccer, Toronto FC has some unfinished business to take care of, but it will be far from a walk in the park.
Off-season Grade: B
Management clearly decided that the best route to take after 2016 was the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Taking into consideration the amount of games lost by major players due to injury and international duty, TFC was still in contention for the Supporters’ Shield until nearly the end and qualified for MLS Cup as host. Not a small achievement by any means. The team as it stands is more than competitive. A couple of key signings this off-season in Victor Vasquez and Chris Mavinga, as well as the re-signing of Benoit Cheyrou were very important. However, as TFC remained consistent, many of the teams around them vastly improved. With salary cap restrictions, consistency may have been the only real route management could’ve taken and it may come back to haunt them.
Key Player: Jozy Altidore
It’s obvious that as Seba Giovinco goes, so does TFC. But looking at their run at the Cup, it was Jozy Altidore’s beastly performances throughout the playoffs that were the real difference maker. Jozy’s 2016 season got off to a forgettable start, going several games without registering a single goal as well as being plagued by injury. Should he be able to carry his 2016 playoff form into 2017 and stay healthy, TFC’s two-pronged attack could be even more potent than it was just a season ago.
Best Case Scenario: MLS Cup
It’s cliche, I know, because for the most part, every team’s goal at the beginning of the season is to win MLS Cup. But after being *that* close in 2016, getting another crack at that trophy is the only thing on everyone's mind; players, managers, and fans alike. This team is still built to win despite the improvements made by every other team has made that stands in their way.
Bold Prediction: TFC will start the season with just 3 points from their first 5 games before getting on the right track.
Unlike in previous years, BMO Field is not undergoing a total overhaul. This means that for the first time since 2014, TFC will not be starting a season playing 7 games or more on the road. And as crazy as it sounds, they will actually play worse. It comes down to preparation. In previous years, they spent their off-season mentally preparing for the long road trip ahead. There’s a different kind of toughness that comes with that. Three of their first 5 games in 2017 will be played on the road against RSL, Philly, and Vancouver before their home opener against SKC, followed by newcomers Atlanta. Traditionally for Toronto, RSL and SKC have been difficult teams to beat, regardless of whether they play them at home or on the road. Atlanta United are not your typical expansion team. They are young and talented, they are expensive and well managed. If their pre-season is any indication, they won’t be a pushover, even at a raucous BMO Field. That leaves Philly and Vancouver. The Union have some revenge they would like to exact on TFC for that playoff defeat and have made some adjustments that might make that possible. Vancouver, although they are among the weaker teams in the West, they are traditionally quick starters and BC Place is not the most welcoming of atmospheres. The Reds will struggle as their MLS Cup loss hangover continues to take its toll until the team gets back to basics and readjusts their focus.
Off-season Grade: B
The Pedro Morales era is over and that’s probably a good thing as he frequently looked to be less than thrilled to a Whitecap last season. Reports of a training ground dust-up towards the end of last season with David Ousted, did nothing to obscure that view, and so Morales’ option was declined leaving a rather sizable hole in the Whitecaps’ midfield. Vancouver haven’t had a prolific striker since the acrimonious departure of Camilo, and though they brought in three forwards last year (Kudo, Perez, and Barnes), all three have since moved on or been dealt away. This brings us to Vancouver’s biggest off-season acquisition and that’s former Seattle Sounders striker, Fredy Montero. Vancouver sent quite a haul to Minnesota to acquire their spot in the allocation order and in Montero, who has spent his time since leaving MLS in Portugal and China, the Whitecaps are clearly hoping to find a stable goal scoring forward that can play at a high level for several years.
In addition to the Colombian, the Canadian team also brought in the enigmatic Brek Shea. Brek was clearly not in Jason Kreis’ plans going forward and Vancouver did well by using the opportunity to move Giles Barnes who they were unable to get off their books during the off-season. In addition to giving Vancouver a left back and, and left midfield option, they also cleared up some cap money that will leave them with a lot more flexibility should they need to make adjustments this season.
Yordy Reyna was also brought in from Austria, and while an unfortunate injury has limited our opportunity to see what he can offer, there’s every reason to believe that he could be a very solid addition to an attack that has been mostly devoid of flair and creativity over the last few seasons.
Key Player: Fredy Montero
Montero is the big man on campus now, and he’s got the paycheck to prove it. All eyes are going to be on him as he looks to recapture his form in Seattle that caught the attention of Sporting Lisbon. If Fredy can start scoring goals regularly, Vancouver is going to win matches. If he takes a while to refind his MLS footing it could be another rocky, joyless season for the Whitecaps.
Best Case Scenario
Vancouver can’t afford to miss the postseason again this season, and so getting back to the playoffs is clearly an important objective. Additionally though, Vancouver fans would probably like to get some joy out of watching their team play. Last year’s play was turgid and deliberate and Vancouver had a difficult time keeping 11 players on the field. Discipline HAS to improve this year if Vancouver wants to catch up with their Cascadia neighbors. Winning matches is hard enough in this league without frequently missing players due to suspension.
I can see the Whitecaps struggling out of the gate a bit, but I think they’ll be well positioned to make a run at the playoffs come the second half of the season.
There really is no place like home. After spending their first two MLS seasons in Camping World Stadium, the Lions are finally coming home, to a beautiful new stadium in downtown Orlando. The 25,500 seat stadium has North America’s only single deck safe-standing supporter section and should create a very loud atmosphere. But enough about the stadium, what is the team going to look like on that nice new field? After finishing their inaugural season with 47 points, OCSC slid back to 41 in 2016 and with that brought in a new coach. Now entering Jason Kreis’ first full season and with a new buzz around the team, can 2017 be the year that Orlando makes its first trip to the MLS Cup playoffs?
Off-season Grade: C
Orlando’s off-season was not too impactful, until the end. Tyler Turner, Pedro Ribeiro, Julio Baptista, Luke Boden, and Harrison Heath all left the club. Kevin Molino, along with backup keeper Patrick McLain, were traded (sold) to Minnesota for large amounts of allocation money. Left back Donny Toia joined via trade on expansion draft day, Will Johnson signed from Toronto FC as a free agent, and Jonathan Spector joined MLS from English side Birmingham City. Josh Saunders also came via trade in exchange for what would amount to a bag of beans. Perhaps the biggest move Orlando made came just this past weekend as Brek Shea was sent packing to Vancouver in exchange for Giles Barnes. Shea became a bench player late in 2016 and clearly didn’t fit in to Kreis’ plans coming in to 2017. Barnes, a versatile attacking player, should be able to fill Molino’s role and compliment Kaka, Matias Perez-Garcia, and Cyle Larin well.
Key Player – Jonathan Spector
Orlando scored the second most goals in MLS last season but finished with a negative goal differential because of their putrid defense. Joe Bendik was on some lists for goalkeeper of the year and saved them from being historically bad. Conceding 60 times in 34 games is simply not good enough, enter Spector. The American defender has spent his entire professional career in England, first with Manchester United then Charlton Athletic, West Ham, and Birmingham City. Spector turns 31 this week and his veteran presence and experience bring a much needed boost to the Lions’ back line. NASL signing PC and Toia bring an upgrade on the outside and Spector alongside Jose Aja for a full season will greatly improve the defense. If they can upgrade on this end and still manage to score a lot of goals, look out.
Best Case Scenario – Playoff Appearance
As mentioned above, Orlando has yet to make a playoff appearance during their short time in MLS. That could change this year. With what seems to be an improved defense (there really was nowhere to go but up) and a potent attack, the Lions can be a playoff team, especially in the Eastern Conference. A hot start, spurred on by a great home venue, could put them in a prime position to stay in the top 6 all year.
Bold Prediction – Cyle Larin Wins the Golden Boot
Larin, known in these parts as Canadian Messi, didn’t suffer from a sophomore slump after his historic rookie season of 2015. After a rookie record 17 goals in his debut season, the Canadian added 14 more in 2016 and is poised for even greater heights in 2017. With Kaka still doing what Kaka does and the addition of Giles Barnes, upwards of 20 goals is certainly not out of the question for Larin. I’ll boldly predict he finds the net 23 times and picks up the golden award.
It’s time for Orlando to take the next step. The stage is set, in a beautiful new stadium, and the pieces are there. Are the stars aligned in Orlando? MLS isn’t that easy to predict. But there’s no better time than now in the City Beautiful.
Off-season Grade: C+
The Galaxy lost too many big names in the off-season, along with injury woes before the season starts, without bringing in many heavy duty replacements. Head coach Bruce Arena, Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, AJ DeLaGarza, Alan Gordon, and Mike Magee all departed in the offseason leaving huge shoes to fill in an already limited depth team. The two biggest off-season additions were midfielder Romain Alessandrini and new head coach Curt Onalfo’s thorough knowledge of the young players coming up through the system.
Key Player: Jelle Van Damme
Now wearing the captain’s armband for the club, Van Damme has a big task ahead of him in unifying the group under new management. The lack of defensive depth for the club, in both experience and number of players, is something that Van Damme will have to work through on and off the pitch.
Best Case Scenario: MLS Cup Winner
Let’s face it. Anything less than this is a disappointment for this franchise based on it’s history. Okay, I’ll stop being delusional. I would be impressed if this team made it past the first round of the playoffs because of the youth and low number of MLS veteran leadership.
Bold Prediction: Open Cup Champs
Bruce Arena historically did not have much interest in the US Open Cup and focused his efforts on MLS regular season play. I'm predicting a US Open Cup Championship from this club this year because of Onalfo’s history with the team’s youth system. He has a thorough grasp of the players in this system and can use the youth depth to his advantage as needed for this tournament.