The beginning of every year brings the same thing: a fresh piece of paper waiting for the story of the season to be typed on it.
A new crop of international stars has joined Major League Soccer, some looking for redemption and some still established stars. The old guard, including Landon Donovan, is still here. They’re all looking to be in top shape for the World Cup in June and playoff push in October.
Preseason results mean little in the grand scheme of things when the real competition starts, but based on those games and offseason acquisitions, here’s how the league shapes up at First Kick:
2014 MLS POWER RANKINGS
1. Sporting Kansas City (Last season's record: 17-10-7)
It feels natural for the reigning champions to start on top of the power rankings to begin the season. Kansas City also completed preseason with an 8-1-1 record, so things haven’t cooled off much since December.
2. Real Salt Lake (16-10-8)
Despite Jeff Cassar taking over from Jason Kreis, RSL is in good shape. It won’t be a shock to any players, since Cassar has been with the team since 2007 and has guaranteed he will do his best to maintain continuity.
3. Portland Timbers (14-5-15)
Caleb Porter’s team has only gotten stronger in the offseason, with Gastón Fernández and Norberto Paparatto headlining his acquisitions. If the Timbers can sort out their set-piece defensive woes, they will be close to being a complete team.
4. New York Red Bulls (17-9-8)
Speaking of continuity, New York maintained most of its Supporters’ Shield-winning roster and didn’t lose any players it wanted to hold onto (the team declined its option on Fabián Espindola and terminated Markus Holgersson). The status quo seemed to work toward the end of last season, at least.
5. L.A. Galaxy (15-11-8)
2013 was an off year for the Galaxy in terms of the way it finished in the standings — but after winning two consecutive MLS Cups, almost anything would be a letdown. The team picked up Brazilian forward Samuel and Canadian forward Rob Friend to add some experience and firepower that could put the team over the top again.
6. New England Revolution (14-11-9)
The Revs have perhaps the most talented group of players younger than 23 in the league, including Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe, and draft picks Patrick Mullins and Steve Neumann. They are poised to surpass what they did last year -- 51 points, third place in the East -- with their roster of young talent.
7. Seattle Sounders (15-12-7)
After suffering a bit of an identity crisis at the end of 2013, Seattle may put it together this year. Obafemi Martins looked fresh and dangerous in preseason, and Marco Pappa fills in nicely where Mauro Rosales left off (maybe a couple years ago). All eyes will be on Clint Dempsey's form, though, as the grace period after last summer's acquisition is certainly over.
8. Houston Dynamo (14-11-9)
Every year, the Houston Dynamo looks like it might be missing a few key pieces to make a serious run, and yet, every year, Dominic Kinnear finds a way to win. It might be tougher this year, though, as Houston’s roster isn’t overwhelmingly scary, and other teams in the East went to far lengths to improve themselves.
9. Colorado Rapids (14-11-9)
A year after finishing 1-2 in the MLS Rookie of the Year race, Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown should be even better. If they can keep their good form and goalkeeper Clint Irwin continues to be an unexpected revelation, the Rapids should be a playoff team again.
10. Philadelphia Union (12-12-10)
The Union shocked plenty by trading up to take goalkeeper Andre Blake in the draft. Zac MacMath hasn’t had the most solid career, but the position is far from Philly’s only worry. Even Maurice Edu, the club’s big offseason signing, has serious question marks by his name leading up to the first match given his inactivity over the last year.
11. FC Dallas (11-12-11)
Dallas made some intriguing acquisitions, including Young DP David Texeira and former U.S. residency and UVA star midfielder Brian Span, and Óscar Pareja has a good track record of working with young players. Still, his first season in Colorado wasn’t a huge success.
12. Chicago Fire (14-13-7)
To replace Frank Klopas, the Fire picked up another member of the MLS coaching merry-go-round in Frank Yallop. Yallop was behind the transformation of the Earthquakes into the most direct, unattractive style of play in the league.
13. San Jose Earthquakes (14-11-9)
Smash-and-grab has been the Earthquakes’ style for several seasons, and the shock value is wearing off for other teams. Most of the league had San Jose figured out last year, and it doesn’t look like the tactics will change much this year.
14. Toronto FC (6-17-11)
Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, and Júlio César are great signings on paper, but until they prove they can turn the team around, the reality of the past seven seasons is still grim. Remember what happened in David Beckham’s first season with L.A.?
15. Vancouver Whitecaps (13-12-9)
Leadership has been the Whitecaps’ biggest problem since joining MLS. Martin Rennie was shown the door after two seasons despite showing flashes of putting together a good squad in 2013 and improving the team’s point total both years. First-year manager Carl Robinson takes the reins for 2014.
16. Montreal Impact (14-13-7)
Former head coach Marco Schällibaum wasn’t a good role model for his players, picking up numerous fines and sending offs, but the man who replaced him, Klopas, finished behind Montreal on goal difference, which hardly seems like an upgrade. Plenty depends on 37-year-old forward Marco Di Vaio's ability to find the back of the net with regularity again.
17. Columbus Crew (12-17-5)
After the Crew’s poor season in 2013, and with new owner Anthony Precourt taking over, change was a big topic in Columbus. New head coach Gregg Berhalter had marginal success as the first American managing in Europe with Hammarby, but he was fired for the team’s unimaginative attack.
18. D.C. United (3-24-7)
D.C. picked up proven MLS goalscorers Eddie Johnson and Fabián Espindola, but Ben Olsen’s words from last year are hard to shake, and they don’t inspire confidence: “We’re not good enough to start from (goalkeeper) Bill (Hamid) and build out of the back and play like the best team in the world. We’ve got to earn the right to play.”
19. Chivas USA (6-20-8)
With everything that has gone on at Chivas in the past year, it’s a wonder they found a way to win six games. Most of their offseason signings are well past their prime and struggled at their last clubs, so unless they all have a major resurgence, it’s looking like more of the same in 2014.