Roundtable: 2016 MLS predictions
As your favorite elementary school teacher likely once said, there are no wrong answers.
With a new Major League Soccer season comes a new set of predictions. The Portland Timbers capped the 2015 season–and a riveting postseason–with their first MLS Cup, but the page has been turned, rosters have been reworked and reshuffled, and every team will kick off the 2016 campaign on Sunday, March 6. The opening day marathon kicks off at the home of the Supporters' Shield-holding New York Red Bulls and ends across the country with two league originals, the LA Galaxy and D.C. United, facing off at StubHub Center. That kicks off a longer marathon, the march to MLS Cup 2016.
So how will the season unfold? Here are our fearless picks for the 2016 MLS season:
Who will win MLS Cup?
GRANT WAHL: Toronto FC. MLS’s most underachieving team will finally turn it around in 2016, mainly because it finally has some guys who can defend. Clint Irwin in goal and Drew Moor in the central defense should help bring some stability to a group that has been overly attack-heavy with the formidable Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. I think Toronto will win the Supporters' Shield as well—such is the advantage of playing in the weaker MLS East—which means the MLS Cup final will take place in a chilly Toronto in December.
BRIAN STRAUS: Time to end what is by far the league’s longest trophy drought. It’s been 18 years since FC Dallas claimed a major honor (the U.S. Open Cup), but the club’s trajectory suggests that funk ends in 2016. Coach Oscar Pareja’s group finished atop a loaded West last season and then earned valuable playoff seasoning on a run to the conference finals. The young, cohesive core is intact, Fabián Castillo and Mauro Díaz are legitimate stars and the roster has been bolstered by the addition of veteran playmaker Mauro Rosales and Ecuadoran international Carlos Gruezo. FCD’s depth, dynamism and fitness will make the difference come playoff time.
LIVIU BIRD: It feels like the LA Galaxy are really built with a focus on winning right now. It's hard to see any other reason for bringing in so many, shall we say, experienced players nearing the end of their careers. As always with Bruce Arena's team, I'd expect them to start a little slower before going on a long run of results in about August and finishing with yet another MLS Cup final hosted in sunny Southern California in December. Not that I'm complaining about that last part.
ALEXANDER ABNOS: FC Dallas. Pareja’s side has standout individuals like Diaz and Castillo to go with a solid back line, balanced midfield, and experience winning big games in big moments in the playoffs. Moreover, just about every piece of that puzzle is young enough and hungry enough to rebound after last year’s loss to Portland in the MLS Cup semifinals. What’s not to like?
Who will be league MVP?
GW: Kei Kamara, Columbus. Giovinco will have a good season, but his numbers will be somewhat limited by missing time for Euro 2016. That leaves an opening for Kamara, who has proven himself as a goal-scorer in this league and has a constant supply of scoring chances thanks to the work of teammates Federico Higuaín and the Columbus wide guys.
BS: Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco. Foreign stars typically need a year or so to figure out the peculiarities of MLS. Now that the skillful Italian is comfortable and has a more balanced team around him, watch out.
LB: If his heart's in it from the start, Didier Drogba's insane goalscoring pace from last season has to make him a favorite heading into 2016. The guy played 11 regular-season games and scored 11 goals—even if he falls off a little bit, as long as he doesn't get injured, we're potentially looking at a record-breaking season.
AA: The most valuable player in the league will be Michael Bradley, but he won’t win the MVP award because those (with the exception of Tony Meola in 2000) have exclusively gone to players that play in attacking positions. Bradley’s status as an elite two-way player set to thrive with a re-vamped supporting cast doesn’t help him here. Instead it’ll go to someone like Kei Kamara–an excellent player primed for another season full of goals, but also a player that benefits from strong play in central midfield (via Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp).
Over/Under: 35 combined goals/assists for Giovinco
GW: Well, Giovinco had 38 last year (22 goals, 16 assists), but I don’t think he’ll quite get there this year due to Euro 2016.
BS: With all due respect to the Atomic Ant, expecting someone to repeat something that’s been done only once in 20 years is asking a lot. So, under. But not by much.
LB: Simply because of the difficulty of having two such prolific seasons back-to-back in a physically grueling league such as MLS, I'll say under. But probably not by much, and he could very easily go over again.
AA: Under. Yeah, he’ll miss time for the Euros, but besides that I just don’t see him being quite the phenomenon he was last season. That’s no knock on Giovinco—he’s still going to be one of the best players in the league. But last season he put together arguably the best all-around, single-season performance of any field player in the league’s history. To expect better than that in a league as consistently inconsistent as MLS is to expect too much.
Which 8 teams will MISS the playoffs?
GW: East: Chicago, Montreal, New England, Philadelphia; West: San Jose, Salt Lake, Houston, Colorado.
BS: Before flipping these coins, let's make it clear that we should have to pick more than eight teams. Twelve postseason qualifiers is too many. It devalues the regular season and gives fifth and sixth place finishers a shot at a championship they don’t really deserve. Now, for the guesswork: East: Chicago, New England, NYCFC, Philadelphia; West: Colorado, Houston, Real Salt Lake, San Jose.
LB: East: Philadelphia, New England, D.C. United, NYCFC; West: Colorado, Houston, San Jose, Sporting Kansas City. (One of the teams that misses the playoffs in the West will inevitably be better than the sixth-placed team in the East.)
AA: East: Chicago, Philadelphia, D.C., NYCFC; West: Colorado, Houston, Real Salt Lake, San Jose.
Who will be this season's breakout player?
GW: Mauro Díaz, FC Dallas. Díaz has already made a significant impression when healthy, but this will be the year he becomes recognized by everyone as the top playmaker in the league.
BS: Lucas Melano arrived in Portland last summer and showed off a bit of his potential during the Timbers’ playoff run. As a regular starter this year, the 23-year-old should blossom playing alongside Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe.
LB: His surprise offseason trade might be the best thing for Harry Shipp, who just couldn't drag his team in Chicago anywhere the last couple years despite solid individual seasons. He'll be surrounded by playmakers and goalscorers in Montreal, making his ability to serve a ball and cut in from the wing a little more relevant. It's hard to have a breakout year at age 24, but Shipp could be on his way to one.
AA: Jordan Morris. Who else? You could say that Morris has already “broken out” via his goal-scoring exploits with the U.S. national team, but performing well in one-off games (albeit against good competition) is an entirely different animal than performing well consistently at a professional club. With the departure of Obafemi Martins, a solid supporting cast, and the Sounders’ tactical switch to a 4-3-3, no rookie will have as much opportunity as Morris to take his game to a different level.
Which American will score the most goals?
GW: Chris Wondolowski, San Jose. He’s Mr. Consistency, a double-figure goal-scorer in MLS in each of the last six seasons. Wondo needs 35 goals to catch Landon Donovan as MLS’s all-time leading goal-scorer, and I think he’ll cut that deficit in half this season.
BS: Clint Dempsey. Deuce will play desperate this year.
LB: The obvious choice here is Jozy Altidore. The TFC attack looks strong again, and he's done a lot of work on himself physically to get into the most efficient shape possible for the MLS long haul. If he can parlay that work into avoiding injury the whole year, he could be a 20-goal scorer.
AA: Dempsey. With Obafemi Martins out of the picture, Dempsey will need to take on more of the scoring responsibility for the Sounders. Luckily for Seattle, he has the quality and experience needed to do so.
How many MLS players will make the U.S. Copa America squad (and who?)
GW: 12: Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Ethan Finlay, Bill Hamid, Jermaine Jones, Jordan Morris, Darlington Nagbe, Brek Shea, Gyasi Zardes, Graham Zusi.
BS: 11: Altidore, Besler, Kyle Beckerman, Bradley, Dempsey, Morris, Nagbe, Shea, Wil Trapp, Zardes and a goalkeeper to be named later.
LB: 10: Altidore, Beckerman, Besler, Bradley, Mix Diskerud, Jones (assuming he stays in the league), Morris, Nagbe, Nick Rimando, Zardes.
AA: 11*: Altidore, Besler, Bradley, Dempsey, Diskerud, Morris, Nagbe, Rimando, Wondolowski, Zardes, Zusi (*12 if Jones is able to reach a deal with an MLS club and serve his suspension before the tournament)
Which coach is already on the hot seat?
GW: Maybe the question is: Who isn’t? Here are the guys I would list (in order of seat hotness): Toronto’s Greg Vanney, Colorado’s Pablo Mastroeni, Salt Lake’s Jeff Cassar, Montreal’s Mauro Biello (the Impact coach will always be on the hot seat as long as the owner remains Joey Saputo), Philadelphia’s Jim Curtin and Seattle’s Sigi Schmid.
BS: Curtin. Philadelphia hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011 and unfortunately for Curtin, he’s not Earnie Stewart’s hire. The Union’s new sporting director probably won’t hesitate to make a change if the season starts slowly.
LB: Based on last season's finishes, both Rocky Mountain coaches, Mastroeni and Cassar, will have to show quickly that their clubs' faith in them hasn't been misplaced. For RSL, it was more a matter of injuries and call-ups that kept them from finding a rhythm in 2015, but that won't matter to fans if the team starts slowly this year. The Rapids brought in John Spencer to work with Mastroeni, but if things don't turn around quickly, Spencer would be an easy replacement, having had head coaching experience in the league already.
AA: Mastroeni. The Rapids were simply awful last season, and a spree of additions to the team (including Albanian DP striker Shkelzen Gashi) means that the organization will be looking for noticeable improvement. If Colorado fails to show that, Mastroeni will get shown the door, with club legend and newly-hired assistant coach Spencer an easy replacement.
Who will be the biggest marquee summer signing?
GW: Tim Howard, Colorado.
BS: Everything that’s happened up to this point has been about setting the stage for the arrival of Zlatan.
LB: This year, there don't seem to be any obvious, major foreign names kicking around the rumor mill, so I'll go with Howard coming back to MLS to join the Colorado Rapids. It won't come as a complete shock given reports that it is a done deal, but it will be interesting to see what Howard can do as the reportedly highest-paid goalkeeper in the league behind a back line that leaked 43 goals in 2015.
AA: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. I know I’m swinging for the fences with this once, since there will be no shortage of suitors for Ibrahimovic’s services all around the world after his PSG contract expires this summer. If an MLS team can get him, though, no other player (bar a Messi/Ronaldo type) will get as much fanfare. And deservedly so!
By season's end, what's one development we'll learn about league expansion?
GW: St. Louis will find a local billionaire owner to spearhead the league’s 25th team (and his name won't be Raymond Tusk).
BS: Sacramento Republic is ready and finally will be confirmed as team No. 25—or 24, if David Beckham continues to take his sweet time in Miami.
LB: The proxy war to take over the soccer world between Abu Dhabi and Qatar moves to U.S. shores as David Beckham sells more of his stock in the Miami expansion team, setting up a Miami-NYCFC showdown when the Southern Florida team finally joins the league.
AA: Sacramento will be confirmed to join MLS, at one point or another. There’s just too much positivity going on there for it not to pay off soon.
Let the games begin.