Major League Soccer 2017

Last season saw a remarkable turnaround from Seattle Sounders to go from second bottom of the Western Conference, under Sigi Schmid, in July to MLS Cup winners, under Brian Schmetzer, in December.

It was made all the more spectacular given the fact that Clint Dempsey was ruled out from August due to a heart condition but the former Fulham and Spurs man is back in good health and ready for this season.

 

Will they follow in the footsteps of LA Galaxy who won successive titles in 2011 and 2012 or do like Portland and miss out on the play-offs completely?


New Franchises

It doesn’t seem five minutes since New York City and Orlando City were being introduced in to the MLS but the 2017 sees two new teams making them 11-team conferences.

The Eastern Conference sees Gerardo Martino lead Atlanta United and the Argentinian head coach has recruited some big names, as well as those with MLS experience.

Former Stoke and Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones is a familiar name for English viewers and he’ll be tasked with leading the line with Miguel Almiron, brought in from Lanus, to supply those chances.

 

Tyrone Mears was at Seattle last year but has made the switch while Chris McCann left Wigan for his place in the Atlanta roster.

They’ve recruited some experienced MLS players as well. Michael Parkhurst has 215 appearances with New England Revolution and Columbus Crew while striker Jacob Peterson has 246 appearances across four clubs; he was with Sporting Kansas City last season scoring six goals in 22 appearances.

Of the two conferences the Eastern is one where a new franchise could sneak into the final play-off spot, so if Atlanta get off to a good start then we could see them into the latter stages of the season.

A familiar face is at the helm at Minnesota United. Adrian Heath led Orlando City into their first season in the MLS but departed from the Florida club midway through last year.

Heath still has three places to fill in his roster before the season kicks off but he has already gone back to Orlando and taken Kevin Molino, a player who he knows well after coaching him during the Lions USL campaigns going back to 2011.

 

The Trinidadian is likely to become a fans favourite and his first MLS season was curtailed with a serious knee injury but he came back as good as ever last year however he wasn’t in the Jason Kreis’ picture for Orlando this time around.

Minnesota had the first pick in the SuperDraft, as did Heath’s Orlando back in 2015 when they picked Cyle Larin. I’m not drawing comparisons but Abu Danladi was the one selected by United, so keep an eye out for the Ghanaian forward because Heath does give youth plenty of chance.

Versatile defender Jermaine Taylor has joined after a season at Portland and his experience at the back around some of the younger players will be invaluable, as will well-travelled Norwegian central defender Vadim Demidov.

Interestingly, they are only one of two clubs yet to name a designated player(s), so that might be something that happens over the coming days to boost their squad depth and quality.

Expect Minnesota to play an attacking brand of passing football, likely to be a 4-2-3-1 formation as they make their MLS debut.


Eastern Conference

The sides from the Big Apple dominated with Red Bulls finishing three points clear of City to fill the automatic play-off spots.

Red Bulls thrived and that was courtesy of Bradley Wright-Philips’ goalscoring exploits and he finished the regular season with 24. The Englishman has already picked up from where he left off as he netted in the 1-1 draw with Vancouver in the CONCACAF Champions League.

The Red Bulls are relatively unchanged but one man that has left is Dax McCarty after six seasons with the club. His presence in front of the back four may be missed but with Felipe and youngster Alex Muyl able to do the job they should be fighting strong once more.

Sacha Kljestan was an integral part of the Red Bulls midfield and his performances were rewarded by a call-up to the American national side at the end of the season. If the 31 year old finds that sort of form this season then you can expect Jesse Marsch’s side to be flying high once more.

 

Across the city, Patrick Vieira’s star-studded NYC side fared much better after their inaugural campaign.

After finishing second they were put to the sword over two legs by eventual runners-up Toronto losing 7-0 on aggregate.

There have been two key outgoings at the Yankee Stadium that could impact on the season in different way. They managed to offload keeper Josh Saunders, who never really convinced under high balls into the box. The GK was caught out on a number of occasions throughout the season but no more so than the embarrassing 7-0 defeat in the Hudson River derby against Red Bulls.

That contributed a big part in them having the third worst defence in the conference and that is something they’ll have to improve this time around because not all games can be about their ‘we’ll score one more than you’ mentality.

Frank Lampard has retired after a short, successful and somewhat patchy spell with the club. After a disruptive start to his time at the club through injury he’s debut from the bench was greeted with boos from the home faithful.

That didn’t deter the midfielder, who soon won them over. In 21 appearances (16 starts and five sub) he managed to score 12 goals in his usual instinctive play.

With Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings in midfield and David Villa putting away goals for fun (23 last season) then you expect entertainment when NYC are in town.

He’s no secret no more but watch out for Jack Harrison, who lit up the MLS with some of his combination play last season and the 20 year old should make a similarly big contribution to this side going forward.

 

New signing Maximilliano Moralez will add more attacking quality and he joins from Mexican outfit Leon after a season over there. He goes straight in as a designated player. In pre-season he’s already being teeing up Villa, so they could potentially be a potent partnership.

It was third place Toronto who made it all the way to the MLS Cup showdown and they had home advantage but they couldn’t crack a Seattle side before ultimately going down on penalties.

Not much has changed at BMO Field in the off-season with the Reds retaining the majority of their squad.

Sebastian Giovinco was the standout player once again for the Canadian side with 21 goals despite missing a month’s of action through injury and that is the spell where Toronto struggled, so if he stays fit then Greg Vanney’s side have the chance to go one better.

One thing they do well is defend and conceded the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference. With an unchanged defence then you can expect more of the same with Vanney likely to continue with the wing-back system that served them so well in 2016.

The side that finished with most momentum after a dreadful start was DC United and it is Ben Olsen’s men that I’m expecting big things from this season.

It was the mid-season recruitment that caught the eye bringing in Lloyd Sam from NYRB and Patrick Mullins from NYC. The pair instantly gelled and it saw an upturn in form that saw the Black-and-Reds lose just three of their final 15 games.

A fourth place finish was unexpected after picking up just ten points in their opening ten games. They ended the season playing good football and were scoring goals for fun with players popping up from all positions.

If Mullins hits the ground running with support from Lamar Neagle, Lloyd Sam and loan signing Jose Guillermo Ortiz then I can see the side from the capital having a successful season, especially if they can defend as well as they did at times.

 

They are the second most successful team in MLS history with four trophies to their name but the last one was back in 2004. This squad looks capable of giving it a go at joining LA Galaxy on five MLS Cup wins.

The rest of the play-off spots look wide open. Montreal Impact threw it away in the play-off semi-final against Toronto after seeing off NYRB earlier on.

Mauro Biello’s men were enjoyable to watch with Ignacio Piatti stealing the limelight more often than not in this side and it’ll be the Argentine who will be the talisman of this side.

 

If he reaches the performances of last season then they will challenge but they still lack an out and out goalscorer.

Matteo Mancosu caught the eye at the backend of the season with seven goals from 20 appearances while Dominic Oduro got eight over the campaign, so they are quite goal shy, which has to be the worry.

Orlando City have brought in veteran Jonathan Spector in hope of resolving their defensive problems plus Will Johnson will add some spark to the midfield, which is now lacking of Kevin Molino.

Kaka needs to be more consistent, as does Cyle Larin but the pair are going to be the ones to fire the Lions in their new home this season.

However I didn’t see too many signs of progress under Jason Kreis towards the end of the season and he might have work to do to win over all of the Purple Army.

For the rest then expect similar from Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution both of whom will be targeting a play-off spot. Union edged out the Revs on goal difference last season and all in all it was the defensive issues at Revolution that cost them.

Chicago Fire had off the field issues and looked bereft of confidence on it. They and Columbus Crew both conceded 58 goals – only Orlando conceded more – and both of these could be struggling again.

Fire have recruited McCarthy from NYRB, who will hopefully run the midfield but they need to improve on their away form, which saw them pick up just five points (one win, two draws) on the road all season.


Western Conference

FC Dallas did the double last season winning the Supporters Shield and the US Open Cup.

Oscar Pareja has built a talented squad but did lose one key player during last season. Fabian Castillo was the heartbeat of the Dallas side at times but after 159 appearances and 34 goals he left the club for pastures new at Trabzonspor.

That said they still have plenty of quality with the likes of Maxi Urruti and Michael Barrios plus the experience of Javier Morales and Maynor Figueroa.

 

One thing that makes Los Toros so good is their superb home form. One defeat in their last 26 in Frisco (20 wins) shows why they collect so many points but they need that because their away form is generally sketchy.

Seattle Sounders won their first MLS Cup after completing an extraordinary revival. The signing of Nicolas Lodeiro was instrumental in helping them to success.

The Uruguayan chipped in with eight goals and eight assists in 19 appearances after making his debut against LA Galaxy in July.

 

His partnership with rookie Jordan Morris was pivotal and if Morris can continue popping up in the areas he found himself in then they’ll score plenty once again.

They’ve been linked with a move for AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and if they completed the signing of the Japanese international it would send out a clear statement to the rest of the MLS that they are here to defend their crown.

Colorado Rapids are likely to continue like last season where they went unbeaten at home in the regular season. In total they lost just six matches, which was the joint lowest with LA Galaxy.

But don’t expect entertainment from Pablo Mastroeni’s side. Just 39 goals scored in total last season and only ninth placed San Jose Earthquakes scored fewer in this conference.

They have an experienced spine with Tim Howard in goal, Marc Burch and Sean St Leger at the back with Kevin Doyle leading the line up front. However they look weak in midfield following Jermaine Jones’ departure to LA Galaxy.

 

That responsibility will now likely fall on the shoulders of the steady and dependable Sam Cronin to sit and protect the back four while Michael Azira will be the one offering support when they are on the ball.

It was a good first season in the MLS for Albanian Shkelzan Gashi after his switch from Basel in Switzerland. Ten goals for the season was a fair return by they are a side that needs to improve their shot conversion rate with Gashi at 9% and Doyle at 8%.

The Rapids have brought in striker Alan Gordon from LA Galaxy and he pulverises opinion. The 35 year old will hold the ball up and poach the odd goal – just four last season, but he doesn’t look to offer them a consistent threat like some of their rivals possess.

LA Galaxy are the most successful side in the MLS but they begin life without Bruce Arena, who after eight years at the helm, has returned for a second spell in charge of the national side.

Curt Onalfo takes the reins stepping up from the LA Galaxy II team in the USL Pro and he’ll be looking to do better than he did when in charge of DC United in 2010 where he only recorded three wins out of 18 matches he was in charge of.

 

Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane have left but Ashley Cole remains for those in the UK. Frenchman Romain Alessandrini and Jermaine Jones have been added to the midfield while the season could be about keeping their two livewires in Giovani Dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes fit.

That said there is already a few injuries in the Galaxy camp with Robbie Rogers and the aforementioned Zardes both being ruled out for undetermined spells plus Ashley Cole will miss the first month with a calf strain.

They finished third last year before losing in the Conference Semi-Final’s to Colorado and it just feels as if the majority of sides have caught them up

Real Salt Lake started in great style winning seven of their opening eight games but their poor end to the season and general away form saw them just about pip Portland Timbers to a play-off spot.

They lasted just one more game before defeat against LA Galaxy ended their season. However with a relatively unchanged side then Jeff Cassar’s side could mount a strong challenge this season.

The Royals are built on their form at the Rio Tinto Stadium where they picked up 32 points of their 46 total. That just emphasis the point on how poor they were away from home and that is definitely an area where they’ll need to improve.

It’ll be interesting to see how Albert Rusnak settles into life in the MLS after his move from the Netherlands while you have to expect more of the same from Yuri Movsisyan in the goalscoring department with Kyle Beckerman dictating the midfield area.

Portland Timbers begin life without Nat Borchers after the bearded defender decided to hang up his boots at the end of the season.

 

Head Coach Caleb Porter will want more from his squad this season after failing to reach the play-offs but they’ve kept hold of the majority of quality they had.

Last seasons hopes were pinned around a defence featuring Borchers and Liam Ridgewell, both of whom spent the majority of the season injured, so that was part of their problem.

Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi all offer creativity and goal threats. That showed with them scoring the third most goals in the Western Conference however it was defensive errors and the failure to keep clean sheets that cost them.

53 goals conceded with just six clean sheets shows you part of their problem. They kept three clean sheets since the arrival of Lithuanian defender Vytautas Andriuskevicius at the end of July, so if they build a defence around him that may help to solve the issue.

 

With that in mind they do look to have the complete squad it’s just putting it together on the field. There is no Champions League to focus on, so there are fewer distractions than last season and with that being the case they could be serious contenders once again.

Sporting Kansas City are play-off contenders as usual but they are usually win or bust after picking up few draws last year. They are dependable at home but sloppy on the road. A side with a strong spine to the team and they have a few interesting youngsters to blood, so may take time to gel.


MLS Cup Winner Verdict

I generally feel that the Western Conference is slightly stronger in terms of depth and quality compared to the Eastern. That is somewhat backed up by the fact the MLS Cup winner has come from the Western side in the last eight seasons – Columbus Crew were the last Eastern Conference side to win the cup back in 2008.

That said I like one side in each conference to mount a challenge at big odds outside of the usual suspects. In the betting market the top five all will have Champions League involvement to contend with later in the campaign and balancing trips to the likes of Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica can be difficult on top of the travelling to and from away games in the league.

In the Eastern Conference you can expect DC United to put it together this season as they proved they are very capable on their day towards the backend of the season.

Ben Olsen’s side played some really exciting football and with Mullins and Sam combining up field they’ll be scoring plenty of goals and they aren’t bad at the back either!

Then it’s 2015 Champions Portland Timbers who can put a forgettable 2016 behind them to mount a challenge in the Western Conference.

Expect Timber Joey and his chainsaw to be kept busy with their attacking options and if they’ve resolved their issues at the back then this squad has potential. Watch out for Jeremy Ebobisse, who spent some time in the USL Pro with Charleston Battery and this 20 year old could be quite useful.

Not only will they have to defend well they’ll have to remain disciplined, something which was lacking during last season, especially from Diego Chara, who picked up nine cautions and a red.

DC United (25/1 e-w)

Portland Timbers (25/1 e-w)


Top Goalscorer

Bradley Wright-Phillips finished one ahead of David Villa on 24 goals in the regular season and BWP is the most likely in my book to top the chart once more.

He averaged a goal every 115 minutes and had 56 shots on target in the campaign, which was the third highest. With NYRB playing an attacking brand of football then the Englishman is likely to have another fine season in front of goal.

 

His link up play with Sascha Kljestan was crucial and that is highlighted by the fact Kljestan finished top of the assists charts with 15, one clear of Sebastian Giovinco.

If that pairing stay fit for Red Bulls then goals will be expected in their fixtures with them likely to be combining.

David Villa scored on average every 124 minutes plus he takes the penalties for City and he converted five of six attempts from 12 yards last season.

The Spaniard managed to remain injury and suspension free last season but in pre season he showed his nasty side when being sent off for striking an opponent in a friendly against Houston, which was caught by the Video Assistant Referee which is in use in this campaign.

He has the all round game with playing on the shoulder, poaching and even taking the odd free kick instead of Andrea Pirlo.

 

The 35 year old attempted 166 with just 68 hitting the target, so his shot conversion rate took a hit at just 13.9% compared to a very high 23.3% from Wright-Phillips.

There is a point difference in the betting market with Villa the slight favourite but like I said at the start I’d be leaning towards BWP.

Sebastian Giovinco finished with 17 goals and that is after missing a month of action through injury. Plus he wasn’t called into the Italy squad for the European Championships that surprised many.

If staying fit then he will produce moments of magic from open play and set pieces, as many a team found out including DC United and NYRB.

Two players to note at big prices would be Jordan Morris and Fanendo Adi.

Morris netted 12 goals in his rookie season with MLS Cup winners Seattle and with him having Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro around him they’ll create plenty of chances for him.

 

The 22 year old earned an international call-up following his good season and scored in their most recent friendly win over Jamaica.

He finished the season with a shot conversion rate was 16.9% from all shots but from those that hit the target he scored his ratio was one goal every three shots on target, which is quite economical.

Adi has spoke positively about this Timbers side in the build up to Friday nights opening fixture and that he is expecting them to mount a serious challenge.

As I’ve written above they have the pieces it’s just putting them all together to complete the picture because there will be plenty of goals in this side.

Adi himself finished with 16 in the regular season and he could have had more given he missed two of the four penalties he took.

The Nigerian notched 18 in the title winning season, so if consistent in scoring goals in the high-teens, so expect similar this season given the supporting cast around him is the same as last season and that is strong.

 

Diego Valeri (6), Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Melano (both 5) will create plenty of chances from the wings and set pieces, so Adi, with his instinctive finishing, looks a tempting price to push the usual suspects close in this market.

Fanendo Adi Top Scorer (14/1 e-w – William Hill)

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