MLS' 19th season will commence Saturday with plenty of anticipation. It's a World Cup year, and MLS has quite a stake in the summer's tournament, with players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Julio Cesar, Jermain Defoe and a host of others potentially starring on the world's stage. The need for replacement referees on the eve of First Kick certainly casts a shadow over the opening weekend, but the games will go on regardless.
Sporting Kansas City is the defending champion. The New York Red Bulls hold the Supporters' Shield. Millions of dollars were shelled out to bring quality from overseas and keep quality on North American soil. So how will the 2014 season pan out? Our expert panel, consisting of Grant Wahl, Brian Straus, Alexander Abnos, Liviu Bird and Avi Creditor, takes a stab at predicting the future.
Without further ado (Edu? Adu? Oduro?), here is a Best XI of prediction questions and answers for the season ahead:
How will Toronto FC fare after its offseason splash?
GRANT WAHL: On paper Toronto has upgraded tremendously with Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, Júlio César, Gilberto, Dwayne De Rosario, Justin Morrow and Jackson. But the games aren’t played on paper, and if you remember how much L.A. struggled when David Beckham first joined, you’ll know how hard it can be at first. That said, I do think Toronto will get it together enough to make the playoffs for the first time, going out early.
BRIAN STRAUS: TFC already has succeeded, in a way – BMO Field is the place to be, once again, after a few years serving as the Canadian understudy to Cleveland’s “Factory of Sadness.”
But with great expenditure comes greater expectations, and Toronto will have to make the playoffs to validate the path Tim Leiweke has set it on. And I think they will, in part because failure really isn’t an option and in part because Bradley will make all the difference directing TFC on the field. There’s chemistry to establish, changes in back and questions about who might score the goals Defoe doesn’t, but this team surely is good enough to finish third, fourth or fifth in the East. Finally.
LIVIU BIRD: It all comes down to coaching, and Ryan Nelsen didn’t have a stellar first season in MLS. It’s always difficult to jump straight from playing into coaching, and he’s just the latest example of that. Even with the new players, I’m not sure they will go too far under him.
ALEXANDER ABNOS: They will have their best season in club history. Which, amazingly, isn't even a remotely bold prediction. The club has finished in the bottom three of MLS in five of their seven seasons, has never made the playoffs, has never finished with a winning record and has only reached double digits in wins once. If this offseason's incredible haul can't reverse at least one of those things, it will rank among the loudest thuds in MLS history.
AVI CREDITOR: Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs? Well, finally, yes. No lifting MLS Cup though.
How many MLS players will be on the USA's final 23 for Brazil?
WAHL: 11 - Nick Rimando, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, Brad Evans, Michael Bradley, Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi, Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey.
STRAUS: 11 - Rimando, Besler, Evans, Gonzalez, Goodson, Bradley, Beckerman, Zusi, Donovan, Johnson and Dempsey (Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski will be tough cuts).
BIRD: 10 - Rimando, Besler, Gonzalez, Evans, Bradley, Donovan, Beckerman, Zusi, Dempsey, Johnson.
ABNOS: Enough to have a pretty decent starting 11 (with no bench): Rimando, Gonzalez, Besler, Goodson, Evans, Bradley, Donovan, Zusi, Beckerman, Dempsey, Wondolowski.
Which (if any) MLS team makes a deep CONCACAF Champions League run?
WAHL: L.A. Galaxy. All three remaining MLS teams face Mexican clubs in the quarters, but the Galaxy is lucky enough to get Tijuana, which has struggled in the current Liga MX season. That’s not the case for Kansas City (vs. Cruz Azul) and San Jose (vs. Toluca), who drew the top two teams in the Mexican league.
STRAUS: Sporting Kansas City can win it. They probably won’t, but they can. There’s a very tough quarterfinal opponent to deal with in Liga MX leader Cruz Azul. But one of these days a Mexican club will get punished for overlooking an MLS foe, and it might as well happen against the seasoned and disciplined MLS champs. Roster continuity will help SKC fight through any preseason rust. The club wants this title badly and its pace and pressure could pose trouble for Cruz Azul. Blue Machine, welcome to the Blue Hell.
BIRD: The Portland Timbers have the best chance (in the 2014-15 edition, that is), as Caleb Porter’s style is the likeliest to be successful on the international stage. With their new signings, the Timbers could make a run similar to Real Salt Lake in 2011. As for this season, none of them. All three received a tough draw with Liga MX sides, and Mexico has had the U.S.’s number in this competition since before it was called the Champions League. San Jose plays the No. 1 seed, the Galaxy take on a Tijuana team with plenty of motivation to beat L.A., and Cruz Azul is crushing the field in the Clausura and should do the same to Kansas City.
ABNOS: San Jose Earthquakes. Yes, they face a stiff test against Toluca in the quarterfinals, but the Quakes have built their recent reputation at coming through when people least expect them to. Plus, no matter if they face Panama's Arabe Unido or Costa Rica's Alajuelense in the semifinal (should they get there), it's a significantly easier draw then either Sporting KC or the LA Galaxy would face.
Which non-playoff team(s) from 2013 make(s) the postseason in 2014, and at whose expense?
WAHL: New playoff teams will be Columbus, Toronto and Dallas. Last year’s playoff teams missing out will be Montreal, Houston and Colorado.
STRAUS: Toronto will qualify. Canadian rival Montreal Impact won’t – they deserve a year on the playoff sidelines after last year’s meltdown against Houston. Philadelphia is an intriguing possibility as well thanks to midfield newcomers Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira. If Jack McInerney gets in a groove and the rest of the squad gels, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Union get in, perhaps in place of the somewhat static Dynamo.
In the West, the hierarchy is pretty well established. But uncertainty concerning newcomers in Colorado, both on the bench and in midfield with Spaniard José Mari, could leave the door open for FC Dallas or San Jose.
BIRD: Chicago Fire in, Montreal Impact out.
ABNOS: In the East, a full season with Mike Magee, a fresh outlook with new coach Frank Yallop, and a slew of other additions will push the Fire into the playoffs. Toronto FC's numerous additions, covered earlier, should be enough for them to make it, too. Dropping out will be the Montreal Impact and Houston Dynamo, two teams that lost far more than they gained in the offseason.
In the West, the general state of limbo the Rapids find themselves in will lead to their drop from the final playoff spot, replaced by the somewhat more stable Earthquakes.
Who scores more goals in 2014: Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey (and be bold, give a number)?
WAHL: Landon Donovan. I’ll say 11 goals.
STRAUS: Dempsey. Eager to quiet the critics, he’ll settle in during his second season in Seattle, where his role in the attack will be more clearly defined. Robbie Keane will be the primary marksman in L.A., and that includes taking most of the PKs. Donovan also might play in midfield. That tilts the scoring scales in favor of Deuce, who will finish 2014 with 14 goals.
BIRD: Landon Donovan: 11.
ABNOS: They will each score exactly 11 goals.
CREDITOR: Dempsey. Book him for nine deuces (AKA 18).
Which MLS coach will be the first one fired?
WAHL: Ryan Nelsen, Toronto. MLSE boss Tim Leiweke committed $100 million to two players, Bradley and Defoe, in the offseason, so the pressure is extremely high in Toronto to win. But Leiweke didn't hire Nelsen, and if the team gets off to a slow start you can be sure Leiweke will find someone else.
STRAUS: I've got no clear answer. Two coaches start the season under pressure – Nelsen and Sigi Schmid. A slow start in either Toronto or Seattle could spell trouble. Offseason overhauls have lengthened the leash on Ben Olsen in D.C. and John Hackworth in Philly.
BIRD: Nelsen is under pressure to produce right away. He’s the one major Toronto FC holdout from the pre-Leiweke era, and if the cash the team has spent in the winter doesn’t pay off right away, he could be out of a job quickly. Nelsen is another example of a player thrown into coaching a top-division club straight after retirement, and it hasn’t suited him well so far.
ABNOS: Nobody, Colorado Rapids: After the gut-punch departure of Oscar Pareja to FC Dallas, Colorado needed a strong character to continue the good work Pareja did in turning the Rapids into one of the more entertaining young sides in the league. The hiring of Nobody, while a bold move, completely ignored what the club needed. Personality-less and devoid of any kind of knowledge (tactical or otherwise), the biggest shock is that Nobody has even managed to hold on to the job for this long. Look for Special Assistant to the Technical Director Pablo Mastroeni to take the reins from Nobody sooner rather than later, and expect Nobody to accept a head coaching job with a five-a-side rec league team in the aftermath.
The team nobody is talking about but certainly should be is…
WAHL: New England. The Revolution was the league’s most entertaining team by the end of last season, and with so many good young attacking players the Revs will be even better this season. Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez will be fantastic.
STRAUS: Philadelphia. Edu, a defensive stalwart, has World Cup experience and knows MLS. Nogueira, a box-to-box midfielder, is a Ligue 1 veteran and captained FC Sochaux. Maidana is an Argentine winger who’s played in Russia, Mexico and Chile. It should be fascinating. Throw in young talents like McInerney and defender Austin Berry, add the pressure from the River End to return to the postseason and you’ve got a team that’ll be a story regardless of the results.
BIRD: Pareja’s return to FC Dallas could see them making a push to the playoffs again in 2014. The improvements he made in two years in Colorado were drastic and impressive, and we could see the groundwork for another good team laid this season.
ABNOS: The Revolution. Didn't make any super-splashy signings over the winter, but instead elected for smart additions (Teal Bunbury and Daigo Kobayashi) that fit with the up-tempo, exciting style of play they established last year en route to a third-place finish in the East. What's more, the only player they're likely to lose to the World Cup is Honduran forward Jerry Bengtson.
CREDITOR: The Dynamo. So they didn't make any major moves and lost center back rock Bobby Boswell. But have we learned nothing from Dominic Kinnear and his ability to manage? And don't sleep on the potential impact of Honduran Young DP Alex Lopez, if he can win Kinnear's favor after being out of shape upon his arrival last summer. Not saying that Houston is the class of the league, but I'll need to see it is not a playoff-caliber team with my own two eyes before I believe it.
Which international star will sign with MLS after the World Cup?
WAHL: Jozy Altidore. He may not be an "international superstar" yet, but Altidore fits the profile of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey as a U.S. national team starter who's not in a good club situation and can get a big payday by returning to MLS. I already know of at least one MLS owner who's interested in bringing Altidore home.
STRAUS: Orlando City will strike a deal with Kaká. He'll tear up USL Pro.
Kidding. He'll play somewhere else until next winter, when City makes the jump.
BIRD: If somebody could land Chicharito, that would be a great step toward engaging the Hispanic soccer community that never quite worked out with Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Rafael Márquez.
ABNOS: Barcelona captain Carles Puyol (is he a "star?" He should be.)
CREDITOR: It's got to be Didier Drogba. MLS made a $10+ million play for him two years ago, and once his time in the World Cup with Ivory Coast comes to an end, look for the rumor mill to go into high gear linking the former Chelsea hero to MLS. And what an add he'd be.
Who will be MLS MVP?
WAHL: L.A.’s Robbie Keane. Won’t miss any time for the World Cup and could pile up huge numbers.
STRAUS: I’ve also got Keane. He’ll be fresh and focused and the midfield will be better behind him. Let the goals flow. Portland's Diego Valeri will be runner-up in a close race.
BIRD: With the pieces in place around him and his astronomical ascent over the last three years, this could finally be the season Darlington Nagbe gets the recognition he deserves.
CREDITOR: Clint Dempsey. Nobody performs better when the doubters arise. He's certainly brought this round of doubters on himself with his form since joining Seattle, but perhaps that's just what he needs to get going.
Who will win the Golden Boot?
STRAUS: Ditto on Keane.
BIRD: Based on preseason form, it seems Obafemi Martins is settling in nicely in Seattle. With Clint Dempsey playing just behind him, he shouldn’t lack for goalscoring opportunities. Remember that after he joined MLS, he led the league in goals per 90 minutes before injuries caught up to him.
CREDITOR: If Jermain Defoe isn't near the top of these standings it's a colossal disappointment, no? I say he lives up to the expectations. Bolder call: MLS has more 20-goal scorers in 2014 than it did in 2013 (Camilo, Magee, Marco Di Vaio), and it's a list that includes Defoe, Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane.
Who will win MLS Cup?
WAHL: New England. The Revs may have some ups and downs due to their youth, but they’ll put it all together in the postseason.
STRAUS: The Timbers will win the Supporters Shield, ending a lengthy trophy drought in PDX. But after that, as we all know, anything can happen. When in doubt, betting on the players who can score goals in the clutch probably isn't a bad idea. Keane and Donovan won't get shut down two years running. L.A. to make it three out of four.
BIRD: They were close to pulling off the improbable last year, but with the changes Caleb Porter has made in the progression toward Porterball 2.0, the Portland Timbers are the team to beat.
CREDITOR: I'm aboard the Timbers bandwagon as well, but dealing with the added pressure of expectations and playing on three fronts (CCL, Open Cup), will provide a curveball. Enter Portland's rival Seattle, which has no CCL to worry about this year and the expectations to get it done. The club made shrewd signings to improve, especially defensively, and there's enough motivation to go around for nine months while the new parts build cohesiveness. The MLS season starts in Seattle with the MLS Cup champion being the visiting team, and it will end there on a frigid night in December, with the hosts hoisting the silverware.