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.
After reaching heights they never thought possible in 2016, the Montreal Impact will be hoping to replicate their form and improve this upcoming season. The Impact enter 2017 with some unfinished business of their own. After squandering a 3-0 lead in the semi-final match up with their heated rivals from down the 401, Montreal felt they were the better side and more deserving of playing in the Cup Final. Although he seemed to be mentally checked out from the jump in 2016, Didier Drogba is officially no longer with the club, making this truly Ignacio Piatti’s team, as if it wasn’t already. With Swiss international Blerim Dzemaili set to join Montreal this summer, the Impact will hope he’s the catalyst and missing piece they need to take them to the next level.
Off-season Grade: A-
The Impact have a solid core that remains completely intact from 2016. With Ignacio Piatti leading the attack, Laurent Ciman anchoring the backline and Ambroise Oyongo blossoming into a threat up the wing, the Impact didn’t need to do much this off-season in order to improve. Although they have been playing above expectations for a while now, the key was adding a player like Dzemaili. By using Dzemaili in an attacking midfield capacity, it will free up Piatti to play almost purely as a forward. Containing an attack that features Piatti, Mancosu and Dzemaili will be a tall order for any potential defensive lines.
Key Player: Matteo Mancosu
Piatti is clearly the star of the Impact show. However, Matteo Mancosu will have to be the ‘Robin’ to Piatti’s ‘Batman’. As the 2016 playoffs progressed, it was easy to tell that Mancosu was becoming comfortable and his production began to skyrocket. Now, without the potency of Didier Drogba to come off the bench when needed, Mancosu will be heavily relied upon to produce at a high rate to compliment the output of Piatti himself and be able to finish Oduro’s crosses in a pure strikers capacity.
Best Case Scenario: Top 3 Finish in the Eastern Conference
The Impact have a solid core of talented players that has largely been unchanged for a couple of seasons now. The loss of an uninspired Didier Drogba, to be replaced with Swiss international Dzemaili in the summer, as well as the return of Andres Romero will certainly be a boost. However, Montreal has played well above expectations and are not actually as good as people think they are. Unless the can catch fire at the perfect time, I don’t see a Cup run in their future, despite what Dominic Oduro has said in the media, and a top 3 finish in the East will likely be their ceiling.
Bold Prediction: Ignacio Piatti will be sold to Boca this summer
It does say “Bold Prediction”, doesn’t it? There are a couple of scenarios that would have to play out in order for this to be a possibility. The first of which would be for the rumours of Piatti to Boca Juniors from the winter window to be actually true and for the Argentinian side to submit a formal offer. The second would be for the Impact to be having an absolutely dreadful season, a season to forget, and thoughts of a rebuild crossing the mind of owner Joey Saputo. With the opportunity to sell a top player at a high price just too good to pass up, Joey does the unthinkable and begins scouting for a replacement.
Sporting Kansas City
Offseason Grade: A-
Sporting KC had clear goals this offseason: get younger and faster. By all accounts, they were hugely successful on both fronts.
Sporting acquired ten new players in the offseason at an average age of 23.8 years old. They parted ways with fourteen players averaging 28.7 years old. I’d call that getting younger.
Three players that SKC brought in this offseason in particular stand out. 20-year-old Ghanaian forward Latif Blessing may be the partner Dom Dwyer needs in the attack. Blessing led the Ghana Premier League in scoring with 17 goals last season. He’s also fast. Very fast. When describing Blessing, head coach and technical director Peter Vermes uses phrases like “electric speed” and “dynamic.” He looks to add goals from someone other than Dom that Sporting has been missing since Krisztián Németh left after 2015.
Designated Player Gerso Fernandes joins from Portuguese side Belenenses and will likely start opposite Blessing on the wing in place of SKC hometown favorite Graham Zusi, whom Vermes will likely move to RB on a more permanent basis. The trio of Blessing, Dwyer and Gerso with Benny in the #10 spot will scare opposing defenses.
The third key signing for SKC is central defensive midfielder Ilie Sanchez. The 26-year-old Spaniard joins Sporting after spending six years with FC Barcelona B and two years with Spanish club Elche CF. He was brought in to compete with two-year starter Soni Mustivar for a defensive midfielder spot that has been problematic for Sporting since the departure of Uri Rosell, and all signs seem to show that Ilie won that battle.
Key Player: Ilie Sanchez
There are quite a few options when it comes to key player for Sporting KC, which may be more indicative of the team’s unknowns more than anything. A fair case could be made for mainstays Benny Feilhaber and Roger Espinoza or newcomer wingers Latif Blessing and Gerso Fernades. But it’s Ilie Sanchez that could be the key to SKC’s 2017 success.
When discussing Ilie Sanchez, Peter Vermes described him as Uri Rosell 2.0. That’s enough to make any SKC fan’s heart skip a beat. Uri was the starting CDM for SKC during the 2013 MLS Cup run, and what he was best at was link up play between the defensive line and Sporting’s attack. Soni Mustivar has been a solid replacement over the past two seasons, but he plays a much shorter passing game than Uri did, requiring Benny Feilhaber to sink deeper in the defensive half and become more of a facilitator as opposed to attacking threat.
Ilie’s strength lies in his link-up play. When he gets the ball he immediately looks up for a long pass. He doesn’t default to short, easy passes like Soni Mustivar. This will free up Benny to drift farther up in the attack. It’ll push the already fast-paced Sporting offense to be even faster. If Ilie can successfully connect with new wingers Blessing and Gerso and set them up to feed Dom, watch out for SKC.
Best Case Scenario: MLS Cup … maybe?
Sporting KC has reached the playoffs for each of the past six years, an impressive feat. But, it’s crashed out of the playoffs in the knockout round each of the past three seasons. The last two have been especially painful, with the infamous double post game against eventual champions Portland in 2015 and the controversial late loss to eventual 2016 champions Seattle thanks to an 88’ goal by Nelson Valdez who some (read: Sporting KC fans) believe was offside.
With all the new faces this year it’s really hard to determine just how far this team can go. Vermes certainly addressed the team’s most pressing issues. So the real question is, will the new faces mesh with the core players and can SKC stay healthy? If so, Sporting’s attacking woes will be a thing of the past. The back line should be much more consistent barring injury this year, and the midfield is full of talent. I fully expect Sporting to get out of the knockout round this year, and the talent is there to make a deep playoff run. If SKC ends up lifting MLS Cup in December, I’d be less shocked than others may be.
Bold Prediction: Dom’s last year at Sporting KC
It’s supposed to be bold, right? Dom has never been shy about his ambition to play in Europe, particularly for a Champions League team. In fact, it almost happened last season. It was widely known that SKC turned down a reported $3 million bid from Greek side Olympiakos, but I’m not sure people realized how close this deal was to happening.
Peter Vermes told fans at Sporting KC’s fan forum that it was a “real offer” and implied SKC strongly considered it, but ultimately turned the offer down after consulting with Dwyer. When asked about the transfer offer, Dom said “It's a fantastic team, and one I definitely would be honored to play for, but it wasn't the right time for me to go yet. In the near future, who knows?” That’s not really the long-term commitment most SKC fans would look for. And now that his wife Sydney Leroux Dwyer isn’t expecting their firstborn, the timing may be a bit better for a move across the pond.
Dwyer is originally from Liverpool, England, and while joining the EPL at 27-years-old isn’t unheard of, it’s not exactly likely. However, I could see Olympiakos coming back for another bid or a team like Celtic F.C., who was strongly linked to Darlington Nagbe this past offseason, throwing their hat in the ring.
Offseason Grade: D-
Philadelphia remained relatively quiet in regards to acquiring players through the offseason after refusing the options of six of their lesser known players and the mutual termination of Tranquilo Barnetta’s contract. Until a week after the holidays, fans were finally gifted a contract signing of 2. Bundesliga defender Giliano Wijnaldum, followed closely by FA League 2 striker Jay Simpson. The Union finished their signings with Haris Medunjanin from Maccabi Tel Aviv, Fafa Picault on a free from 2. Bundesliga, and Oguchi Onyewu from “unassigned” (Onyewu hasn’t played professionally for a team since Charlton Athletic in the Championship, and only appeared in three total games that season...that’s 756 days between his last professional competitive appearance and the first game of the MLS regular season).
Their drafts produced little excitement, and no homegrowns have been signed.
Key Player: Alejandro Bedoya
Bedoya’s first full year with the club and the title of Designated Player At Large in Philadelphia brings with it a lot of responsibility for the midfielder. In 2016’s ten appearances, Ale reached the back of the net once, assisted no one at all, yet picked up three yellow cards in the same amount of time. The team’s end to the season saw them secure only two points in seven matches (only Vancouver and Kansas City achieved that feat at any time in the year), followed by an epic collapse in their first playoff appearance since the team’s sophomore year in 2011.
If 2017 is to buck the trend of Philadelphia continually disappointing fans with substandard DP signings, Bedoya will have to be in his absolute best form throughout the season.
Best Case Scenario:
Philadelphia makes the playoffs and hosts the wildcard match. Whether or not they win it is irrelevant; the fans have only been treated to a solitary postseason match in their own stadium in team history (even Toronto can now boast a higher figure).
Another worthy achievement would be to win the U.S. Open Cup. Twice, the team has hosted the final, and twice the team has lost. The trophy cabinet is itching for something to fill it, and this tournament is the most realistic possibility the team has.
Chris Pontius may suffer a slight leg injury that would pull him out of a game, but not serious enough to have him miss a significant portion of the season. But, between him being helped off the field and the news breaking about the severity of his injuries, Philadelphia fans’ hearts collectively break in a heap of despair and anxiety as to his condition, resulting in wild speculation and a moment when it feels as if the rest of the season is a wash.
Real Salt Lake
Offseason Grade: B-
If Real Salt Lake dumped Jamison Olave, Javier Morales, Boyd Okwuonu, Olmes Garcia, Devon Sandoval, Jeff Attinella, and Burrito Martinez, and finished the offseason similar to how New England went about signing players, fans would be in an uproar over the absolutely atrocious mismanagement of the club. Fortunately, there was activity in droves by the front office, and plenty of new names to discuss.
First, here are some explanation as to why some of these players were shown the door in 2016. Beginning with Jamison Olave, the 35 year old defender performed sluggishly throughout the season, appearing in only seventeen games and contributing minimally in that time. Olave’s second stint with RSL could be considered a disappointment by many, and rightfully so. It may not have been the ending Jamison wanted, but this departure could spell a forced retirement by the Colombian.
On the other end of the age spectrum - and other end of the pitch - Devon Sandoval’s contributions were abysmal compared to 2015. Last year, the forward was on the field for a scarce 228 minutes, taking only three shots of which none were on target. The only impact this regular substitute provided was that of the questions the media had in questioning Jeff Cassar of his decision making bringing Devon on.
Javier Morales and Burrito in the midfield also produced lackluster results through the season. Morales, who scored eight and assisted twelve in 2015, contributed to only a half and a third of those numbers respectively last year in the same amount of time played. And while Burrito expressed wishes to leave due to homesickness, his performance (eight goals and four assists in 40 games with RSL) didn’t inspire RSL to fight for him to reconsider.
As a result, Salt Lake reverted to what they do best, acquiring talent in MLS with shrewd “moneyball” tactics. In addition, they sought out talent in Albert Rusnak, a former Manchester City hopeful, and welcomed former RSL playmaker and beloved Luis Silva back to the squad.
Silva has not been in MLS since 2015, playing with Tigres of Liga MX for a season. Prior to that, he played two halves of 2015 with RSL and D.C. United, the latter of which he scored 11 goals the year prior.
Rusnak, the 22 year old Slovak midfielder, arrives from the Dutch side, Groningen. Prior to that, eh young player experienced multiple loan stints out of Manchester City after spending three years in their youth program. What Rusnak brings with him is a slew of talent as well as a mind still able to mould to the Real Salt Lake system. Partnered with Silva and Plata, and backed by Beckerman, Rusnak has the potential to become a pivotal star in the RSL lineup.
Key Player: Nick Rimando
The release of Jeff Attinella places extra pressure on the 37 year old keeper, who just recently enjoyed a USMNT call up for the January camp. In addition to leading newly acquired, former NASL keeper Matt Van Oekel, Rimando also has to command a backline no longer facilitating the familiar face of Jamison Olave, but with new faces suchs as rookies Reagan Dunk and Justin Schmidt as well as veteran David Horst.
Rimando’s tenure in MLS is legendary, possibly at a point that a Goalkeeper of the Year award could be named in his honor (essentially a Gigi Buffon of MLS); however, he is still an active player with an incredibly crucial role in the Real Salt Lake system if they hope to garner any success this year. Injuries will have to be avoided as well as consistency has to be maintained.
Best Case Scenario:
Real Salt Lake makes it out of the Wildcard stages. Most likely, with a stacked Western conference, a realistic goal would be to at least secure a 4th-6th seed going into the post-season. Then, winning that first playoff match will be the ultimate goal. Beyond that would be icing on the cake, of course, but the odds are slim in Utah.
If RSL start the first five months poorly, or are not in contention for a playoff position by the All-Star break, Jeff Cassar will be fired. The club has been a roller coaster of mediocrity to sorrow since Lagerway and Kreiss parted ways, and Cassar barely snuck in the playoffs last year thanks to a Portland Timbers implosion on the final day of the regular season. Cassar in 2017 will need to win convincingly, and show that his tactics are solid enough to merit matches in November.
Offseason Grade: A
It's tough to tell how any of these pickups will be a week from now, let alone by the all star break in August. But, Atlanta have not behaved like a normal expansion team. They've bought young DP talent in the forms of Almiron (snatched away from the grasp of Arsenal and other European clubs) and Villalba. They've brought in MLS experience with Parkhurst, Mears, and Larentowicz. Add into the mix US international Greg Garda and preseason mixtape highlight man Yamil Asad and there is a good chance Atlanta won't look like an expansion team in a month’s time.
Key Player: Miguel Almiron
All eyes are on the $10 million Paraguayan international. He's the centerpiece of that squad and will hopefully fulfill every expectation. Did you think I’d say Kenwyn Jones? Nothing good has ever come out of Stoke (ask Brek Shea).
Best Case Scenario:
Atlanta makes the playoffs. Plain and simple. That's the universal benchmark for expansion teams, although it's rarely achieved. With Tata Martino, two US internationals, a $10 million playmaker, and some MLS experience mixed together you think playoffs would be a given.
Arthur Blank will dance in the Atlanta United locker room at least once this season for the betterment and enjoyment of us all.