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.
Off-season grade: B+
Minnesota United had the daunting challenge of putting a brand new team together without a lot of time to do it. On top of that, they made it a priority to go after players who were actually okay with living in Minnesota, which compared to other cities in MLS...let's just say there are cooler and warmer places to live. So assembling a brand new team with a bunch of guys who actually want to be there was a very positive start to their roster building.
The Loons started things off with hiring head coach Adrian Heath, former head coach of Orlando City. It's yet to be seen how the move will turn out, especially considering how his time in Orlando went, but many think he will have more freedom in Minnesota to really build and grow the team how he wants. He also knows the struggles of being an expansion team and that can only work in his favor.
Sporting Director Manny Lagos went on a recruiting spree in Scandinavia and his signings reflect that. Recently named captain and Norwegian international Vadim Demidov was one of the first European signings for Minnesota and his experience on the back line will be crucial. Lagos also brought in experienced Finnish international Rasmus Schuller to play as a box to box midfielder. Lagos brought in John Alvbage who is a proven goalkeeper from Sweden. He has four caps with the Swedish National Team and was selected for the 2006 World Cup squad. United also signed Bashkim Kadrii on loan from FC Copenhagen. Kadrii has suffered some knee injuries and is looking to get back in the swing of things. However, in preseason he looked in fine form. He had a very nice back heel assist and while it wasn't a goal he hit the crossbar on a shot from 30 yards out which shows his range. Another signing who has faced injury woes is American Josh Gatt who was playing in Norway when Lagos targeted him. Gatt was once a player who showed a ton of potential, having gone pro in Europe straight out of his Michigan high school. He has tremendous speed which the Loons will be looking to utilize. One of the most recent signings is Jerome Thiesson, an outside back from Zurich, Switzerland who will look to add some confidence to the Minnesota back line. The outside back position is pretty thin, so he adds some much needed strength for that position. And while they didn't have to go to Europe to sign him, Swedish midfielder Mohammed Saeid was picked up in the expansion draft as their #6 pick. As you can see, United does not lack a Scandinavian influence and these guys will be looking to make an impact in MLS. What's even more is that these experienced players were brought in using GAM and TAM which is helpful considering some of them could have easily been Designated Players.
One of the biggest signings that Minnesota made was the Kevin Molino signing. Molino was unhappy with his salary in Orlando and Adrian Heath wanted his guy back. Considering Heath is responsible for bringing him to the states in what was at the time the Orlando USL team, we can see why he wanted him in Minnesota. From what we’ve seen in preseason, it appears as if majority of the attack will run through Molino making him a very important player. As part of the trade for Molino, we also saw Minnesota obtain Patrick McLain who will likely be the third goalkeeper on the depth chart.
Since United was coming from the NASL, it's no shock that they signed some players from that team of guys too. Christian Ramirez was brought in almost right away and it was later announced that former star Miguel Ibarra signed as well. He was a popular player amongst Loons fans and they were sad when he wasn't finding that same success in Mexico. Ibarra and Ramirez will be looking for each other on the field and to get back to their goal scoring ways. Minnesota also snatched up experienced Brazilian Ibson as well as former Columbus Crew and Sporting KC midfielder Bernardo Anor who was with United last season. Minnesota also signed defensive partners Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas. Brent Kallman will also be following the team to MLS.
Minnesota United also had the two drafts to look forward to for helping build their team. First came the expansion draft. The Loons picked Chris Duvall as their 1st selection in the expansion draft but ended up trading him to Montreal for Costa Rican Johan Venegas, who looks to be another strong piece for the offense. We saw him score 3 goals in preseason and I expect him to be a solid player for the Loons. The team also selected Femi Hollinger-Janzen from New England but ended up trading him back to the Revolution for experienced goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth will likely be the number two goalkeeper behind Alvbage. Collen Warner and as I mentioned earlier Mohammed Saeid were also selected in the Expansion Draft.
As for the Superdraft, United had the #1 overall pick and they went with attacker Abu Danladi out of UCLA. Danladi has extreme potential and head coach Heath is very high on him. They also selected injured goalkeeper Alec Ferrell who many considered to be the best goalkeeper in the draft. Thomas De Villardi and Tanner Thompson were also selected.
Lastly, the Loons acquired some other players such as centerback Francisco Calvo, a Costa Rican International. They also picked up 6’6” defender and Naval officer Joseph Greenspan from the Colorado Rapids. Collin Martin was also picked up from D.C. United, he was a homegrown player who found little success in D.C. and is looking to change that in the great Midwest. Jermaine Taylor was also signed to the roster from Portland Timbers.
With all of these players, Minnesota did not sign a single DP. While that may bite them, it also is pretty impressive. They now have the opportunity to see where they need help and they can go shopping in the summer window. Overall, with the time that they had, I think the Loons put together a strong squad and used their money wisely. Perhaps Heath learned that from how his stint in Orlando went down.
Key Player: Kevin Molino
After seeing his preseason and how he combined with his fellow teammates, it was very clear that if the team wanted to succeed, a large part of that would depend on Molino playing his best. He has clearly been given free roam on the pitch and he was heavily involved in the attack. If he has a good season I think Minnesota will do better than people are expecting.
Best Case Scenario: Minnesota exceeds expectations
Since United didn't sign any DP’s and most of their players lack MLS experience, many are suggesting that the team will not do well. Grant Wahl went as far as to say they wouldn't win more than 5 games and even suggested that they would be the worst team in MLS history. Don't get me wrong, expansion teams are expected to struggle, and I fully expect the Loons will have their fair share of that, but to totally write them off is not only insulting to the team, it's also dangerous for other teams. We saw United draw with several MLS teams in preseason, and that's with wacky lineups and random trialists. To me it shows that they can compete. I see Minnesota proving a lot of people wrong, and while they may not finish top of the table, I don't see them finishing dead last either.
Bold Prediction: The Loons finish one spot out of the playoffs
Since many are expecting a terrible team, some might scratch their head at this prediction. Before you write this off, hear me out. Look at Orlando City’s inaugural season. They had terrible injuries (including a Molino acl tear). They really only used 1 out of their 3 DPs, granted the 1 they did use was Kaka (who also struggled with injuries). They had some terrible losses, but it wasn't decided until the final game that they would finish one spot out of the playoffs in their first season as an expansion team. The two are comparable because they both had pre-existing teams in a lower division league, they play on turf, they lack DPs, oh and they have the same coach. Everyone wrote Orlando off because they compared them to the other expansion team who happened to be NYCFC. With the signings New York made, everyone thought they would be the team to finish higher on the table. Hmm sound familiar? This is much like how Minnesota is being compared to Atlanta United. The only difference is that the Loons aren't tied to 3 DPs, they can still make a splash in the summer, which is also where we see lots of teams start to go on a run towards the playoffs (cough Seattle cough). I suppose one other difference is that Orlando plays in the Eastern Conference compared to Minnesota’s Western Conference, but I'm not convinced the West will be the stronger side this year as it has been in seasons past.
Offseason Grade: C-
After an abysmal 2016 that saw the 2015 MLS Cup champions miss out on the playoffs, the offseason didn’t get much better. Starting CB Nat Borchers retired, leaving a hole expected to be filled by the young Gbenga Arokoyo who joined from Turkish side Gaziantepspor. Unfortunately for Portland and Arokoyo he suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon in training, leaving PTFC in some serious defensive trouble. The Timbers turned to two former Sporting KC men in CDM/CB Lawrence Olum and FB Chance Meyers. Given that SKC hasn’t made it past the knockout round in three years, I’m not sure this will do much to help the Timbers chances. While the Timbers may be able to score some goals, they’re likely to give up even more. Oh, and two starting players (LB Ridgewell and GK Gleeson) getting arrested for DUII isn’t a good look, either.
Key Player: Darlington Nagbe
The attacking threat of Fanendo Adi up top, Sebastian Blanco and Darlington Nagbe on the wings and Diego Valeri at the #10 is on paper one of the top offensive fronts in the league. But Nagbe living up to his potential will be the key to whether the on paper threat translates to reality. At times, Nagbe looks like an absolutely world class player. His on-the-ball skills are among the best in MLS. But when he reaches the final third it’s like the soccer version of the Monstars steal his talent. He only scored one goal and had five assists in the 2016 season. He had a breakout year in 2013 with ten goals and three assists, but he’s struggled to find that same form since. It seems as if this could be a make or break season for Nagbe and the Timbers. More on that in a bit…
Best Case Scenario: Conference Semifinals
Things would have to play out just right for the Timbers to make it this far. They’d have to fire on all cylinders offensively right out of the gate. The defense would have to be better than expected. They’d have to win a road game (which is harder for Portland than you may think). They’d have to avoid the injury bug all season long. If all of this happens, then just maybe could the Timbers make a little noise in the playoffs and make the conference semifinals. But, there are just too many other teams that are more complete than PTFC in the West. Seattle, FC Dallas, Vancouver, LA Galaxy, Colorado and Sporting KC are all arguably better teams than the Timbers, which leaves virtually no margin of error for the Timbers in 2017.
Bold Prediction: Nagbe out
I know it seems weird that my prediction is the Timbers key player will be transferred from the team, but I guess you can say it’s indicative of how I think the season will go for Portland. Rumors have long circulated about a potential transfer, namely with Scottish side Celtic F.C. If the 26-year-old were to make a move to Europe, it would have to happen in the next year or so before he gets much older. If the Timbers have another disappointing year with their core of players, cashing out on the big money European interest in Nagbe seems like a no-brainer.
Offseason Grade: C
After winning MLS Cup, a team could be forgiven for resting on its laurels a bit, but we need only to look slightly South to see the dangers in such an attitude. After winning in 2015, Portland had an inactive offseason while the other teams challenging for the cup strengthened. Portland faltered in 2016 and didn’t even make the playoffs. So what did Seattle do to strengthen their roster?
They got rid of a ton of players. Erik Friberg, Herculez Gomez, Andreas Ivanschitz, Tyrone Mears, and Nelson Valdez all saw significant minutes last campaign and all have had their options declined. Younger prospects like Oalex Anderson, Darwin Jones, and Damion Lowe have also been allowed to leave.
On the other side of the balance sheet, the Sounders added Harrison Shipp and Will Bruin. Both have MLS experience and both have spent the last few years of their career in less than productive situations. Shipp, a versatile midfield option looks like he might fit right into one of the three spots in the Sounders’ 4-2-3-1, and Will Bruin will likely deputize for Jordan Morris up top. Gustav Svennson, appears to be an astute signing as he showed himself well in preseason and offers the champs a good backup option for Ozzie Alonso as well as filling in at RB when needed.
And then there’s the case of Keisuke Honda. The Japanese midfielder who currently struggles for minutes at AC Milan was the subject of some out of nowhere intense speculation last week, and it seems that there’s enough smoke to ascertain that Seattle are, in fact, interested in bringing him in. Whether the deal pans out or not, it’s clear that Seattle do have enough financial and cap flexibility to bring in another DP. Whether that’s Honda or not remains to be seen.
The biggest addition to the Sounders this offseason wasn’t a new signing at all. Clint Dempsey has finally been cleared to play following a mysterious heart ailment that sidelined him for several matches last season. We didn’t get to see Lodeiro and Dempsey play together for too many matches, but during the 4 matches they both started, Seattle scored 9 goals, put 24 shots on target, and combined beautifully with play that was reminiscent of his partnership with Obafemi Martins. If the Sounders can win MLS Cup without Clint Dempsey, you have to wonder how good they could be with him staying healthy.
Best Case Scenario: MLS Cup
Once you prove you can win it, the only thing to do is win it again. It’s a tough trophy to defend, but anything less will be something of a let down for fans. Last season was an uneven roller coaster for the champions, so having a less disastrous early season could put them in the running for a Supporters’ Shield.
Bold Prediction: Will Bruin will score more goals than Jordan Morris
Honestly, I’m not even sure I believe this one but the style guide here CLEARLY states that my prediction has to be bold. A lot of this will depend on Morris’ health. If Morris can stay as healthy as he did last season, he’ll be out there scoring goals a lot. However, if Schmetzer sees an opportunity in Will Bruin to be able to rest Morris occasionally, I think they’re both capable of scoring 12-13 goals this year. I don’t know though.
Offseason Grade: C
Neither good nor bad, D.C. United continued their traditional ways this offseason playing with the minimal cap space they had available. Though surprisingly, even though the team shows a tremendous loyalty to their tenured players, both Chris Korb’s and Miguel Aguilar’s options were declined (both serving six and two years with the club respectfully). Coming into the team, Sebastien Le Toux’s announcement also came at a surprise, given the stacked midfield presence already on the roster. In regards to designated players, United let go of the only one they had at the end of the year in Igboananike (though Chicago Fire were technically footing the bill), and replaced the gap at forward with depth rather than a star after Patrick Mullins’ door-crashing entrance midway through the last season.
Roster issues aside, D.C. United continues to further their commitment that 2017 will be the final year in RFK Stadium, finally making headway into building their new field in Buzzard Point and selling the naming rights to Audi. Given the time that a stadium takes to get built and the progress already made (plus the speed at which Washington D.C. operates in terms of red tape), one could expect the 2018 season to be similar to Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium in which the first home game of their stadium’s inaugural season was not until June.
Key Player: Nick DeLeon
DeLeon is not the best player on the squad, nor is he a guaranteed starter for that matter. Mullins will be important up top, Nyarko and Sam will provide service from the wings, and the combination of Acosta and Le Toux will be an attacking threat from the middle (with Marcelo grinding out the middle third with a more defensive mindset). What makes Deleon such an important figure this year is Ben Olsen’s commitment to working with Nick to move back to the defensive line, flanks specifically. Currently, Taylor Kemp commands the left and Sean Franklin covers the right, but depth in these areas are paper thin. Additionally, Franklin’s age and injury history has slowed him down, meaning his effectiveness on the wide areas has diminished slightly. Expect to see him moving into one of the centerback positions if Boswell or Birnbaum goes absent for an extended period of time.
DeLeon’s contributions will prove vital the longer the season drags on, and his versatility will provide an added spark when he gets comfortable attacking as well as tracking back. Remember, Olsen did this once before with Andy Najar in 2012, moving the playmaker to right back, and Najar’s talents proved effective enough to take the team to the Eastern Conference Finals (and went unbeaten at home as well).
Best Case Scenario:
D.C. United makes an earnest run through the playoffs, with realistic aspirations of making the MLS Cup Final. They have the squad depth needed for the long season, and a couple lucky bounces could prove the difference in the playoffs against opposition such as Toronto or the New Yorks.
United generate a goal scorer that actually nets more than 15 times this year. This feat has not happened in the nation’s capital since 2007.
New England Revolution
Offseason grade: C
The Revs invested in defense by bringing in two new center-backs, and also signed a bigger name designated player in Xavier Kouassi. The Ivorian internatonal will make his MLS debut after eight seasons in Switzerland and in his homeland. The Revs have a solid core that will be returning, so they did not make too many moves.
Key player: Juan Agudelo
The American international will have to take a step forward this season for the Revs should they want to be competitive. He scored 7 goals last season, which tied a career high, but with Kei Kamara getting into his 30’s, he seems to be the striker of the future at the time being for the Revs.
Best case scenario: Make the playoffs
The Revs are destined to struggle this season especially after losing Gershon Koffie and Jose Goncalves. New England did make a nice run in the U.S. Open Cup, falling to Dallas in the final last season. It would be nice to see them compete in that facet again, but in MLS play, it could be tough for the Revs to improve on an 11-14-9 record from last season.
Bold prediction: Jay Heaps fired mid-season
Heaps is entering his sixth season as head coach of the Revs with a 65-67-38 record in the regular season. A lot of fans are becoming restless with the results that New England has put out, and with the leadership of the Kraft’s. Remember, the Revs have never won the big dance. It would make sense for Heaps to be the first domino to fall should the Revs stutter out of the gate. The times could be changing in the Northeast.