2017 MLS season preview and predictions

Photo credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The MLS offseason is drawing to a close, with opening day in Portland less than two weeks away.

After an exciting 2016 season, MLS sees two new teams join the league for 2017 with Atlanta United and Minnesota United making their debuts.

Here is a preview of the season to come as well as predictions on where the teams will finish in their respective conferences:

 

MLS WESTERN CONFERENCE

 

1. Seattle Sounders

Despite winning MLS Cup in December, Seattle GM Garth Lagerway used this offseason to put the finishing touches on the team he has been building since he arrived in Seattle in 2015.

Will Bruin, Harry Shipp, and Gustav Svensson have all arrived to provide depth, with the likes of Nelson Valdez, Eric Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, Ty Mears, and Zach Scott all departing. The Sounders are younger at every position in 2017.

There are only a few questions. The team is devoid of natural wide players, and could end up starting two inverted wingers in Shipp and Nicolas Lodeiro. The other question mark is Clint Dempsey, who is working his way back from the heart problem that ended his 2016.

Depending on how Dempsey progresses and plays, and how the team is situated come June, Seattle could make another mid-summer DP acquisition. With Brian Schmetzer entering his first full season at the helm, the Sounders should be in the Supporters’ Shield mix.

2. FC Dallas

Dallas was the class of the league last year, and very well might have won the treble if not for Mauro Diaz’s ACL injury on the penultimate day of the season.

Dallas has to integrate three new starters in its front four, with Cristian Coleman slotting in up top and Roland Lamah out wide while the great Javier Morales pinch hits for Diaz until he returns in the summer.

One upside is that Dallas is improved defensively, where Oscar Pareja has made upgrades at both full back spots. There is also, as always, a ton of exciting young talent making its way through the pipeline – including David’s son Jesus Ferreira.

This will still be one of the league’s best teams, but, as always, their MLS Cup hopes will rest on Diaz. Will he be himself when he comes back?

Projected XI: Seitz, Grana, Hedges (C), Zimmerman, Chala, Gruezo, Acosta, Lamah, Morales, Barrios, Coleman

3. LA Galaxy

In many ways, this offseason in Carson moving on completely from the group that won three MLS Cups between 2011 and 2014. The Galaxy cut ties with Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Landon Donovan, Alan Gordon, and AJ DeLaGarza, while Bruce Arena and his entire coaching staff bolted for the national team.

LA enters 2017 with a younger, leaner, more balanced team. Last year’s backline remains intact, while an attack led by Giovani dos Santos and Romain Alessandrini might be unplayable when its on. This team should be better than it was last year.

But that’s not say that the Galaxy hasn’t made certain gambles. They’re betting big on a 35-year-old Jermaine Jones who has never started more than half of his team’s games in an MLS season to be a focal point.

They’re also betting on Curt Onalfo, well respected at the club but twice failed as an MLS manager, to make the step up from Los Dos and steer the ship with the same skill as Arena did. It’s a big ask.

Projected XI: Rowe, A. Cole, Van Damme (C), Steres, Rogers, J. Pedro, Jones, Lleget, Alessandrini, dos Sanots, Zardes

4. Portland Timbers

This team is going to score a ton of goals. With the additions of Sebastian Blanco and David Guzman, it’s no stretch to say that Portland’s front six of Guzman, Chara, Nagbe, Valeri, Blanco, and Adi is the best in the league – and, unlike last year, there’s all kinds of depth behind it.

But the Timbers under Caleb Porter have always gone the way of their defense, and there’s plenty of reason to be concerned right now. The team is incredibly thin at center back, where – if the season started today – Lawrence Olum would start next to Liam Ridgewell.

The Timbers are likely too talented to miss the playoffs again this year, but that backline will be the difference between Portland being fun to watch and competing for a second MLS Cup.

It will also be interesting to see how Porter wants his team to play this year. The Timbers of the last two seasons have been a direct, counter-attacking group, but you get the feeling that Porter wants to get back to controlling games á la 2013.

Projected XI: Gleeson, Vytas, Olum, Ridgewell (C), Olum, Powell, Guzman, Chara, Nagbe, Valeri, Blanco, Adi

 

 

5. Sporting Kansas City

It’s pretty much going to be the same old Sporting. 4-3-3, high press, Besler, Zusi, Dwyer, etc.

Peter Vermes could have shaken things up in this winter, but, in bringing back the likes of Benny Feilhaber and Ike Opara, he decided to stick with the core of a team that has lost in the Wild Card round of the playoffs in three straight years.

The hope in K.C. is that Gerso Fernandes can provide the kind of production on the wing that Krisztian Nemeth did in 2015. If he can’t, it’s hard to see how this team is going to score enough goals around Dwyer to run with MLS’ elite.

They’re always tough, but last year they simply had to work too hard to manufacture wins. Vermes has given this group one more shot. They need to find a second gear.

Projected XI: Melia, Abdul-Salaam, Besler (C), Opara, Medranda, Mustivar, Espinoza, Feilhaber, Zusi, Fernandes, Dwyer

6. San Jose Earthquakes

This is it for Dom Kinnear in San Jose. A fourth straight year out of the playoffs in 2016 got GM John Doyle run out of town, and if this year ends without playoff soccer, Kinnear too will likely be gone.

The good news is that new GM Jesse Fioranelli has gotten his manager some help. San Jose has been active this offseason, bringing in a number of international players to bolster a squad that was found wanting at every position last year.

Marcos Ureña and Danny Hoesen should see minutes with Chris Wondolowski up top, Harold Cummings and Florian Jungwirth will factor in at center back, and Nick Lima will be penciled in at right back. Jahmir Hyka should start in midfield as well.

Will it be enough? San Jose isn’t going to compete for a title, but there’s enough talent here for Kinnear to plug into his 4-4-2 to get results. The ‘Quakes are going to be a tough matchup in 2017.

Projected XI: Bingham, Lima, Cummings, Bernandez, Francis, Godoy, Alashe, Dawkins, Hyka, Hoesen, Wondolowski (C)

7. Real Salt Lake

There have been a lot of goodbyes for Real Salt Lake in recent years, and this winter brought a big one: Javier Morales, after ten seasons in Sandy, left the club in fairly acrimonious circumstances.

To replace one of their best ever players, RSL went out and got highly rated 22-year-old playmaker Albert Rusnak as a young DP. They also made an eventually unsuccessful run at Landon Donovan, brought back Luis Silva, and got Brooks Lennon on loan from Liverpool.

There has been a lot of wheeling and dealing. Salt Lake is generally younger than they were last year, but their lineup hasn’t changed significantly. They’re still counting on the likes of Beckerman and Rimando, and still fairly unproven defensively.

It’s going to be a big year for Jeff Cassar, who you have to feel is just hanging onto his job by a thread right now.

Projected XI: Rimando, Beltran, Glaad, Maund, Phillips, Beckerman (C), Sunny, Rusnak, Allen, Plata, Movsisyan

8. Colorado Rapids

What the Rapids did in 2016 was fairly incredible. We’re about to see if they can do it again.

Colorado, as you’ll recall, finished second in the Supporters’ Shield race despite tying for the second-fewest goals scored in the league. They won practically every game they touched 1-0, and, if not for a hot Seattle team, might have hosted MLS Cup.

So, improve the offense and make another run at silverware? Not so much. Colorado’s only starting-caliber acquisition this offseason has been Manchester City product Bismark Adjei-Boateng. Alan Gordon will provide goals off the bench.

But the team’s best attacking player from last season, Jermaine Jones, is gone, and it’s hard to see how his production will be replaced. Pablo Mastroeni seems to want to play Kevin Doyle as a #10, which is slightly horrifying. If the Rapids win again this year, they’ll again do it with great defense and against the odds.

Projected XI: Howard, Burch, Sjoberg, Watts, Miller, Cronin (C), Adjei-Boateng, Hariston, Gashi, Doyle, Badji

9. Vancouver Whitecaps

Fredy Montero will help. He’s the first legitimate striker the Whitecaps have had since Camilo left in 2013. Attacking wise, Montero, Kekuta Manneh, and Christian Bolaños can produce, though losing Yordy Reyna for the first part of the year hurts.

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