Who will win MLS Cup? Who will be named MVP? How will expansion teams NYCFC and Orlando City fare in Year 1? Planet Futbol's expert panel makes its 2015 MLS season predictions.
There will be soccer! MLS and the players union agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement Wednesday night, just in time for an uninterrupted 2015 season, the 20th in league history. With focus turning from the conference room to the field, it's time to look ahead at what we'll see over the next nine months.
League fixture Landon Donovan is no longer an active player, but his legacy lives on in the form of the MVP trophy. His LA Galaxy will aim for their fourth title in five seasons, with reigning league MVP Robbie Keane leading the way and Steven Gerrard due to join in the summer.
New teams in New York and Orlando have drummed up expansion buzz with signings like Kaká, David Villa, Frank Lampard (no, seriously), and the two sides will open against one another in front of more than 60,000 at the Citrus Bowl. More U.S. national team players have returned stateside, with Jozy Altidore's signing with Toronto and teaming with Michael Bradley the most notable of the bunch. Also among the returning capped U.S. internationals are Sacha Kljestan, Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo and Mix Diskerud.
So how will the season play out? Our expert panel of Grant Wahl, Brian Straus, Liviu Bird and Alexander Abnos offers answers on 10 pressing questions entering MLS Year 20:
Who will win MLS Cup?
WAHL: LA Galaxy. Bruce Arena’s dynasty will win its fourth MLS Cup title in five years. This team knows how to peak at the right time, and even though some ups-and-downs in the first half of the season will keep LA from winning the Supporters' Shield, the Galaxy will add Gerrard at midseason and find the right chemistry when it matters most.
STRAUS: The Seattle Sounders have claimed four of the past six U.S. Open Cup titles (and lost on penalties in the 2012 final). They have won three home-and-home series in the CONCACAF Champions League and are one of only two MLS clubs to best Mexican opposition in a two-game, knockout-stage showdown.
“It’s really difficult to argue that Seattle’s not a good tournament team. They’ve excelled in that format as much as anyone else has,” said recently appointed GM Garth Lagerwey, who split a pair of playoff series against Seattle while running Real Salt Lake. “So as to why haven’t won [MLS] titles, a big part of that answer is that the LA Galaxy beat them.”
Indeed, LA has knocked the Sounders out of the MLS Cup chase in three of the past five seasons. But the tide will turn in 2015. While the Galaxy look to replace Landon Donovan (the 13 goals and 21 assists he tallied last year don’t just go on trees, even in sunny, soccer-rich California), Seattle will return the vast majority of its Supporters' Shield-winning roster. With chemistry strengthened and its primary rival retooling, the Sounders finally will break through.
BIRD: The most important offseason acquisition by any MLS team has to be Lagerwey. He showed great MLS acumen with fewer resources at Real Salt Lake, winning an MLS Cup there and taking the team from the smallest market in the league to the CONCACAF Champions League final. He's already used that shrewd sense in Seattle, trading up to draft Cristian Roldán, and the Sounders have retained all of their most important players from last season besides perhaps DeAndre Yedlin. This could finally be Seattle's year.
ABNOS: New England Revolution. It's tempting to go for the Sounders here, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a New England vs. Seattle MLS Cup. However, I'm giving the edge to New England. Jay Heaps' team sits at the nexus of a bunch of desirable qualities; The Revs have had success, but not so much they'll have to deal with Champions League dates. Their roster is incredibly deep, but still boasts standout individuals that can win games. There's just too much positivity to ignore there.
Who will be the first recipient of the Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award?
WAHL: Robbie Keane. He’s already the best foreign Designated Player signing in league history. Now he’ll win his second straight MVP award.
STRAUS: The first time Donovan was a finalist for the award now named for him, in 2008, the winner was a brilliant playmaker in yellow and black–Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The first recipient of the Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award will be Schelotto’s heir, Columbus Crew talisman Federico Higuaín.
The Crew are on the rise under second-year coach Gregg Berhalter and added a few complementary pieces over the winter, including forward Kei Kamara and Congolese winger Cedrick Mabwati.
In a tight, somewhat mediocre Eastern Conference, Higuaín’s technique, intelligence and ability to shape a match will stand out.
BIRD: If Seattle's going to win MLS Cup, Clint Dempsey will have to continue leading by example on the field. Without major international commitments besides the Gold Cup, for which he won't have to leave the U.S., and with a full offseason behind him, Dempsey should be ready for his best season since returning to the league. He and teammate Obafemi Martins have formed the most lethal strike partnership in MLS, so either of them could win MVP, but Dempsey's stats and overall impact on the team should improve with more matches played for the Sounders than the last two seasons.
ABNOS: Dempsey. The U.S. captain has his feet firmly under him in MLS, has a great team around him, and is generally due for the kind of outstanding season that Donovan made look routine.
The breakout player we’ll all be talking about in the fall (a la Lee Nguyen, Dom Dwyer) is ____?
WAHL: Wil Trapp, Columbus. The young Columbus midfielder has a soccer IQ and skillset that aren’t possessed by many U.S. players, and in Columbus he has the chance to show it for 90 minutes a game. (LA’s Gyasi Zardes would also be here, but I already consider last year to be a breakout year for him.)
STRAUS: The Vancouver Whitecaps have plenty of speed and attacking commitment – now they appear to have found their finisher. Uruguayan striker Octavio Rivero, 23, combines size with skill and tallied 10 goals in 16 games for O’Higgins during the fall Chilean Primera División season.
We’ll certainly all be talking about him if he maintains that strike rate in MLS.
BIRD: A couple of offseason Ghanaian acquisitions have caught my eye: Kwadwo Poku at New York City FC and Adam Kwarasey with the Portland Timbers. Poku seems like a dynamic, strong central midfielder who could flourish in Jason Kreis' diamond-midfield system. He's drawn comparisons to and models himself on Yaya Touré, and if he can be as effective in a similar role for NYCFC, he could be a new "hipster favorite," as Nguyen has been for a while.
Kwarasey should fit into Caleb Porter's system much better than Donovan Ricketts could the last couple years, as his distribution is much better and his presence a bit more calming, with less drama in stopping shots and commanding the back line.
As long as the Timbers sort out the problem position directly in front of him, he should be in for a good first season in MLS.
ABNOS: Tommy Thompson, San Jose Earthquakes. The 19-year-old appeared in a handful of games last season, but his skill on the ball and visionary passing stood out on an otherwise woeful Quakes team. With direction from a new coach that is among the most successful in MLS history (Dominic Kinnear), there's no reason why Thompson can't thrive in 2015. It'll help that he'll have Chris Wondolowski and Swiss DP signing Innocent Emeghara to work with in attack.
Which eight teams will MISS the playoffs?
WAHL: East: D.C. United, Philadelphia, Chicago, Montreal; West: Vancouver, Houston, San Jose, Colorado.
STRAUS: East: Montreal, NYCFC, Orlando City, Philadelphia; West: Colorado, Houston, Real Salt Lake, San Jose
BIRD: East: Chicago, Montreal, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia; West: Colorado, Dallas, Houston, San Jose.
ABNOS: East: Montreal, Philadelphia, New York Red Bulls, NYCFC; West: Colorado, Houston, Portland, Vancouver
What's your Year 1 forecast for NYCFC?
WAHL: Fifth place in the wide-open Eastern Conference. There’s too much talent on hand in the players and the coach to miss the playoffs.
STRAUS: We’ll see glimmers of the sort of stylish soccer coach Jason Kreis unleashed at Real Salt Lake, but NYCFC lacks the stability the manager enjoyed out west, and that ultimately will leave the club on the outside looking in as the playoffs approach. Lampard’s late arrival, questions on defense and in goal, the lingering stadium issues (imagine the headlines the first time Joe Girardi complains about the arrangement) and the fact that the front office still is taking shape during the build-up to the regular season all indicate that NYCFC will need a year to find its footing.
BIRD: Kreis is one of few people in the NYCFC organization who hasn't had a major slip-up of some kind in the lead-in to its inaugural season. The system he developed at RSL under great adversity and his continued success with less resources should translate well to a big-market franchise. Of course, he's never really had to deal with inflated egos or players with immense profiles before, so we'll have to see how his man-management abilities adapt to the new circumstances. NYCFC will make the playoffs after an up-and-down regular season.
ABNOS: They will start slow, pick up a bit around midseason with the arrival of Lampard, but fall just short of a playoff spot. Which, all things considered, wouldn't be a bad way to start things off.
What's your Year 1 forecast for Orlando City?
WAHL: Fourth place in the East—and perhaps even more important, a great response from fans in Florida, where Orlando has a chance to replicate what’s happened with MLS teams in the Pacific Northwest.
STRAUS: The atmosphere at the Citrus Bowl, some sublime passing from Kaká, and guaranteed great quotes from manager Adrian Heath ensure a fun first season in MLS. But a lack of reliable finishing will doom the Lions’ playoff prospects. There’s a solid foundation, however, and Heath and GM Paul McDonough will have Orlando primed for a playoff run once they move into their new stadium in 2016.
BIRD: Expansion franchises are supposed to struggle, but between NYCFC's resources and Orlando City's established roots as a soccer organization, it seems like they'll both do just fine in Year 1 (or Year 5 for the Lions, if you choose to look at it that way). Orlando should have a steadier regular season than NYCFC, with all its players available from the start and Kaká leading the line from the very beginning of preseason. The Lions will make the playoffs.
ABNOS: They'll make the playoffs, and make some noise once they're there. Love the construction of this team.
With a different cast around him, how many goals will BWP have after his record-tying season?
WAHL: I’ll say 12 goals. He’ll be hurt by the absence of Thierry Henry.
STRAUS: Henry assisted on 10 of Wright-Phillips’ 31 MLS goals (regular and post-season) in 2014. Henry also drew a lot of defensive eyeballs away from his English understudy. But BWP still reads the game well, and his composure didn’t board the plane with Henry. So let’s say 16 goals.
BIRD: Less than 10. As Henry said multiple times, if Wright-Phillips could finish the chances he got at a more efficient rate, he would have scored far more goals in 2014. Without that constant service from Henry, who assisted BWP eight times in the regular season and twice in the playoffs, he might not get anywhere near the amount of opportunities, depending on what role Sacha Klještan plays in midfield for the Red Bulls.
ABNOS: 12. Respectable, but nowhere near the machine he was before.
Over/under: 15.5 goals for Jozy Altidore in Toronto
WAHL: Over. I’ll predict 17.
STRAUS: Under. But not by much.
BIRD: Considering that the single-season franchise goalscoring record sits at 15, courtesy of Dwayne De Rosario in 2010, and nobody in Toronto has managed to score more than 10 goals in a season since then besides Jermain Defoe, I'll go with the under. Altidore will do better in MLS than he did in his Premier League stint, but probably not as well as he did in the Eredivisie. MLS defenses, like those in England, are used to dealing with players of his size and physicality, and Toronto likely won't have as good a season as a team as AZ did in either of his seasons there.
ABNOS: Over, but not by much.
Which coach is already feeling the heat entering the season?
WAHL: I would have said Montreal’s Frank Klopas, given his trigger-finger owner and the Impact’s performance last season, but Klopas has bought some time by reaching the CCL semis. So I’ll say Colorado’s Pablo Mastroeni. The Rapids dealt with a lot of injuries last year, but another season of struggles would make things tough for him.
STRAUS: In the East, Greg Vanney. Because Toronto. In the West, Mastroeni. The Rapids icon has no track record as a manager, meaning his benefit of the doubt may run out without an early sign that that last season’s 0-12-2 finish won’t be repeated.
BIRD: Jesse Marsch has felt the heat since before he was hired, walking into a delicate situation at Red Bull Arena after the way Mike Petke was ousted. Then again, he handled it with poise and should have some fans on his side—or at least not overtly against him—after the franchise's town hall meeting.
Anybody who steps into the role in Toronto or Montreal is automatically on the hot seat these days as well, so Greg Vanney and Frank Klopas could do with some positive results to start the season. Toronto is desperate to finally make the playoffs after all the resources MLSE has put into the team recently, and Montreal fired its technical director last year but retained Klopas, so the pressure is firmly on him to win games now.
ABNOS: Marsch, but the heat he'll be feeling probably won't come from upstairs. Instead, it'll come from the stands. Marsch would always have a tough task replacing a club legend (Petke) who was unceremoniously fired after leading the team to its best season in ages as well as its only major trophy in its history. If the Red Bulls falter this season, chances are he (or maybe sporting director Ali Curtis) will be hearing it from the South Ward.
The not-yet-announced/known incoming transfer sure to create the most buzz will be ____?
WAHL: Xavi to NYCFC. We’ll see whether he comes this summer or at the start of 2016, but if it is this summer he’ll be tremendous fun to watch on a team with Frank Lampard and David Villa.
STRAUS: Javier Hernández. If MLS wants buzz, it’ll sign Chicharito. MLS seems perfectly O.K. with Mexico coach Miguel Herrera, and Chicharito (now on the bench at Real Madrid) will be entering the final year of his Manchester United deal this summer. It’ll be the perfect time to swoop.
BIRD: It seemed ridiculous at the time, but Didier Drogba was probably closer to joining the Seattle Sounders from Galatasaray than many would believe. According to two sources in Seattle, the team even left an international roster slot open late into the season in the hopes that Drogba would be the man to fill it. Could this summer finally be when the Drogba-to-MLS flirtation is fulfilled? Remember, commissioner Don Garber confirmed that he turned down a $10 million offer from the league already in 2012 before joining Shanghai Shenhua instead.
ABNOS: Rafael van der Vaart to Sporting KC. That one is already a rumor, but it's an easy choice. Sporting KC sometimes struggles when teams pack players behind the ball, but the creative Dutchman could go a long way toward alleviating that problem.