MLS Preseason Power Rankings: How do new clubs Atlanta, Minnesota fit in?
- Where do all 22 teams rank entering MLS's 22nd season? Plus, a key question for each club ahead of the new campaign.
Preseason is over. All the drafts are done. Thanks to the CONCACAF Champions League’s continually-weird scheduling, some teams have already played official games. The 2017 MLS season is upon us, which means it’s time for the first edition of MLS Power Rankings.
The league has added two new teams in Atlanta United and Minnesota United, and that combined with the fact that no teams have played a league game yet will make this edition of the Power Rankings different from those that will follow.
These one emphasize off-season moves and improvements to last year’s rosters (or the crafting of new ones), as well as gauging the general sense of momentum surrounding each team as it heads into the season. That’s why, for example, Atlanta United is ranked so high despite never having played an official game, and also why the Red Bulls are ranked in the middle of the league despite being of of MLS’s strongest teams last year (unexpectedly trading your club captain will tend to have that effect).
Feat your eyes on this now, because this is MLS, and this list will be constantly in flux throughout the season. But for now, here’s where the league's 22 teams stand entering its 22nd season:
The Big Question: Can the Reds recover? Toronto FC followed a solid season and a brilliant playoff run with a loss at home in the MLS Cup final that could hardly have been more heartbreaking. TFC returns just about everyone from the team that got them to that point–and added a vital piece in attacking midfielder Victor Vazquez–and Sebastian Giovinco looks poised to continue his reign as the league’s best player. The biggest challenge for this team may be to simply put last year’s final loss behind them and maintain focus throughout a long regular season.
The Big Question: Can Javier Morales impersonate Mauro Diaz? FCD’s 2016 regular season could hardly have been better, and a big reason for that was the playmaking ability of Mauro Diaz. However, Diaz’s late-season Achilles injury disrupted the club’s playoff run and will keep him out of the club’s plans for this season until summer. Enter Javier Morales, who played a Diaz-like role with Real Salt Lake for nearly a decade before he was abruptly let go this offseason. Morales is 37, but the rest of Dallas’s roster remains as young, dynamic, and exciting as it was last season, with no other major pieces gone. If Morales can fill in capably until Diaz returns, chances are Dallas will once again be favorites for the Shield and MLS Cup in 2017.
The Big Question: Can they repeat? In every other season they’ve been in MLS, the Sounders have done well in the regular season only to flop in the playoffs. Last season, it was entirely the opposite–they floundered through much of the regular season before turning it on around playoff time and winning MLS Cup despite several key absences. The most key of those absences, Clint Dempsey, is back after dealing with a heart condition, and Jordan Morris has one amazing rookie season under his belt. This team is deeper than last year’s and looks on paper to be better in every way. However, if this is a team that needs to suffer before success, maybe that’s not a good thing.
The Big Question: Will the defense improve? NYCFC made huge strides in 2016, playing some really stylish soccer under coach Patrick Vieira and developing Jack Harrison, Khiry Shelton, and Tommy McNamara into solid contributors even while DPs David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo each enjoyed fine seasons. NYCFC swapped the retired Lampard for Argentine attacker Maxi Moralez, so chances are this team will continue to score tons of goals. That puts the onus on the back line to improve, and with a new goalkeeper (Sean Johnson), defensive midfielder (Fininish international Alexander Ring), and center back (Peru international Alexander Callens), they have an excellent chance to do so.
The Big Question: Who will score (other than Dom Dwyer)? Sporting Kansas City was solid enough last season but continually struggled with a one-dimensional attack. Put simply: if things weren’t going through Dom Dwyer or Benny Feilhaber, they generally weren’t going anywhere. The team’s attempt to fix this comes in the form of Guinea-Bissau DP winger Gerso Fernandes, as well as Latif Blessing, the player of the season in Ghana’s Premier League. If either of those two can take the load off Dwyer, that will make all the difference for a team that is otherwise solidly constructed from the top down.
The Big Question: Can the coaching staff and players adjust quickly to MLS? Atlanta United has done just about everything so far–it hired a top-class coach with an international profile never seen in the league before, unveiled a sharp (if not totally original) inaugural look, secured an impressive home field and stocked its roster with gobs of young skillful talent (I’m particularly excited to see if 22-year-old Argentine Yamil Asad can do things like this regularly). Problem is, none of that will mean much if Atlanta suffers a rocky first season. To justify all this hype, Tata Martino will need to get this brand new team rolling like one that’s been around for years. Luckily, he has all the tools to do so.
The Big Question: Was last year a fluke? The Rapids were MLS’s ultimate surprise package in 2016, challenging for the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in a year when many predicted them to be hovering around the bottom of the table. They did this thanks to its absurdly stingy defense, which conceded just 32 goals in 34 games last season and returns the entire starting back four, the defensive midfield and goalkeeper Tim Howard from that squad (though Howard will be injured to start the year). Still, the likelihood of repeating a defensive season like that is fairly low, so the Rapids need to improve on last season’s dismal 39-goal output (tied for second-worst in the league). Forward Alan Gordon, a free agent acquisition, could hardly be a better fit for the team’s style.
The Big Question: Will more of the same be good enough? The Impact stayed remarkably quiet throughout the offseason, with their biggest move letting Didier Drogba go (which is just fine, as Matteo Mancosu outplayed Drogba toward the end of last season). That may seem fine for a team that made a run to the conference final, but just like last season, the aggregate age of this team may be a factor–every member of the team’s front six is over 30. The season may come down to how effectively the team’s depth is able to step in and get the job done.
The Big Question: Will off-field drama carry over? The Red Bulls enjoyed two of their most successful years ever with Ali Curtis as sporting director, Jesse Marsch as head coach and Dax McCarty as captain. Two of those characters are now gone, with McCarty traded to Chicago and Curtis relieved of his duties after a curious off-season saga. Why the Red Bulls would make either move with things going so well begs a bevy of questions, especially with the opaque and sometimes contentious way both departures were handled. The team still has plenty to like on the field–Sean Davis performed well in McCarty’s absence through injury last season–but there’s a danger that the good vibes that permeated the last two seasons may have gone.
The Big Question: Will RFK Stadium go out in style? The answer is no, it won’t. RFK Stadium hasn’t been “in style” since the Ford administration. But D.C. United has a chance to give its longtime home a winning goodbye with what, on paper, seems to be the most well-balanced roster it has had in a while. Luciano Acosta maintaining his level of play from last season will be key, and Patrick Mullins needs to establish himself as a go-to option for goals in a way he hasn’t for most of his his first three seasons. Still, D.C. has plenty of options surrounding both those players, a solid defensive unit, and a coach in Ben Olsen that will know better than most how significant leaving RFK will be for the club’s future.
The Big Question: How best to balance options in attack? The Revolution struggled through most of 2016 but came on strong at the end of the season after shifting to a two-forward lineup with Kei Kamara and Juan Agudelo up top. This season, the onus is again on Jay Heaps to try to find a system where all of Kamara, Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez can be contributors in roles that suit their strengths. There are a lot of overlapping skill sets there, but that’s still an embarrassment of riches that just about any team in the league would gladly take.
The Big Question: What’s it like to win away from home? It’s a question that the Timbers haven’t been able to answer since December 6, 2015–the last time they won an MLS game away from home (luckily for them, that was MLS Cup in Columbus). The Timbers obviously can’t endure another season like they had in 2016, and chances are they won’t. The team has looked good in preseason so far, especially with DP winger Sebastian Blanco joining up with the ever-present Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe behind Fanendo Adi up top. The real problems could come at the back, where the team has yet to find a high-caliber replacement for Nat Borchers after his retirement.
The Big Question: Can Onalfo keep things consistent? Under Bruce Arena’s leadership, the Galaxy could always be counted on for solid performances throughout the season that would inevitably ramp up once playoff time came around. With Arena replaced by Onalfo and Robbie Keane retired, this Galaxy team has lost two anchors that practically scream “consistency” (and that's to say nothing of the other key departures like Landon Donovan, Mike Magee, Gordon, A.J. DeLaGarza and others). Onalfo still has plenty of talent at his disposal, especially with the addition of French winger Romain Alessandrini, but his past stops as coach in D.C. and Kansas City didn’t show him as the type to coax consistently winning results in the league. Galaxy fans will hope that Onalfo’s time coaching the Galaxy’s USL affiliate has sharpened his instincts.
The Big Question: Will a re-tooled midfield lift this club off the bottom? It seems like it’s been forever since the Fire have been relevant in MLS, having missed the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons and finishing dead last in each of the last two. Now, after a blockbuster trade for Dax McCarty and the acquisition of former Galaxy mainstay Juninho, the Fire might have the best central midfield combination in the league on paper. Add in DP striker Nemanja Nikolic, and there's reason for optimism. Now it’s up to second-year coach Veljko Paunovic to turn that big-time talent upgrade into better results.
The Big Question: Will Jason Kreis regain his RSL magic? Kreis built a reputation as one of the best coaches in the United States with Real Salt Lake, but at NYCFC he struggled to get an expansion team full of talent off and running. His hire at Orlando halfway through last season was sold as a fresh start in a place where he’d have more control, but he couldn’t really get them playing better than his predecessor Adrian Heath could. This being Kreis’s first full season in charge, anything less than a playoff berth will be considered a failure. It’ll be a real shame if Kaka ends his MLS career with no postseason games played.
The Big Question: Is the defense Ghana improve? After a 2016 in which it leaked goals, Columbus lost its captain and starting center back (Michael Parkhurst, traded to Atlanta United), its other starting center back (Gaston Sauro, ruled out with knee injuries), its starting goalkeeper (Steve Clark, moved to Denmark), and a regular contributor in deep-lying midfield (Mohammed Saeid, selected by Minnesota in the expansion draft). Crew SC responded by signing three defensive-minded Ghanaians: center back and national team regular Jonathan Mensah (as a DP), deep-lying midfielder Mohammed Abu, and first-round draft pick Lalas Abubakar. That’s to say nothing of the Crew’s myriad other additions, which may give this team far more depth and flexibility than in 2016. If they can all get on the same page in short order, a repeat of last year’s disappointment looks unlikely.
The Big Question: Can you win anything with kids? Slovakian international Albert Rusnak will be the new No. 10 in town after Morales’ departure, and he’ll have plenty of talent around him that is mostly quite young, including Joao Plata and Jordan Allen, who looked great for stretches of last season. That’s to say nothing of the team’s other youth products, including rising U.S. youth national team stars Sebastian Saucedo, Brooks Lennon, and Danilo Acosta. RSL didn’t look as cohesive last season as they normally do, but Rusnak is the only major addition, so chemistry should be less of an issue this time around. If the team’s youth products take a step up, the team will as well.
The Big Question: Can reclamation projects perform? The Union were a surprise story much like Colorado through much of last season...and then midfielder Vincent Nogueira abruptly left and returned to France. The Union sputtered the rest of the season. However, with Bosnian international Haris Medunjanin joining incumbents Alejandro Bedoya and Roland Alberg, the midfield should be fine. Biggest questions come up top, where the team will rely on former English fourth-tier striker Jay Simpson for goals, and in the back, where Oguchi Onyewu must recover from years of inactivity to lead the back line with Josh Yaro ruled out for months with a shoulder injury.
The Big Question: Have last year’s problems been fixed? Vancouver was a trendy MLS Cup pick a year ago, but simply couldn't score goals or prevent them–two things that are, uh, pretty important! The defense is still largely the same, but the attack should benefit from the additions of former Sounders standout Fredy Montero and Peruvian striker Yordy Reyna (though the latter is out injured until the summer). The Whitecaps should continue to be exciting to watch, but last season was such a weird disaster that it’s hard to be too confident in them entering 2017.
The Big Question: Will the roster rebuild work? The 2016 season was Houston’s third straight that ended without a playoff berth, so the club responded by changing just about everything. Wilmer Cabrera is the new coach, DeLaGarza and Leonardo are major new additions along the back, Juan David Cabezas comes into midfield, and Honduran internationals Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto will hope to boost the club’s attack. In all, Houston is likely to feature five-to-seven new players in its opening XI.
The Big Question: Does slow and steady win the race? While Atlanta opted to make one big splash after another in building their team, its expansion counterpart elected to follow a slower, more methodical path to building an inaugural roster. The final result doesn’t look half-bad on paper, with intriguing names sprinkled throughout and just enough MLS experience throughout the roster to keep this team from looking totally out of its depth. Heath has become something of a specialist in leading expansion teams, so he clearly knows this territory well, but it really does seem like the Loons lack a proven game-breaker in their starting lineup.
The Big Question: Is this the year they stop relying on Wondo? Chris Wondolowski rose from relative obscurity to become one of MLS’s most consistent goal-scoring threats. However, in recent seasons he’s been just about the only one on the Earthquakes that can pose that kind of threat. With Wondo not getting any younger, it’s imperative that the Quakes find another option this season, and they’ll hope that Dutch forward Danny Hoesen, or perhaps Costa Rica’s Marco Ureña, will be it. If not, it’ll be another long season for Dom Kinnear and the Quakes.