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.
GALLERY: Critiquing the full 2015 MLS uniforms
Critiquing every MLS uniform, head to toe
New York City FC
New York City FC took some heat for its sky blue home shirt, which looks a whole lot like the one worn by parent/sister club Manchester City. But an homage was inevitable, and NYCFC has differentiated itself from MCFC, and the rest of MLS, with the white shorts and socks. It’s a sharp look. The away kit, highlighted by a flash of orange (from the city flag) at the neck and five stripes you can barely see that "represent the five boroughs of New York City," is lazy. With a blank template, NYCFC should’ve come up with something other than the mono-black already worn in D.C. and Columbus.
After several overhauls—LA wore black and teal, then teal and yellow, then yellow and green—the Galaxy’s white and blue brand has taken root. Three championships in four years certainly help. The sash on the home uniform, re-introduced in 2012, has quickly become iconic, and, along with the socks, helps make this all-white kit stand out. The new secondary set maintains the same feel as its recent predecessors. The yellow accents look sharp, but we can’t help but feel a white or yellow sash would tie the uniforms and brand together.
Of the four MLS teams with an all-red home uniform (that’s 20 percent of the league), the Fire were first. They’re the “Men in Red,” after all. But Chicago began veering away from its traditional look in 2012. First the famous white hoop became blue. Then last year, the blue expanded to the chest and shoulders. It doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t seem right, either. The new away kit is another all-white offering. But at least designers put a bit of thought into this one. The thin, light blue hoops on the shirt and socks, intended to reflect the design of the city flag, are a nice touch.
Montreal exemplifies MLS/Adidas’ fixation on tiny details rather than the impact (sorry) a uniform makes when viewed from more than three feet away, which is where most people watch a game. The new away kit features a tiny silver fleur-de-lis affixed to the back and more woven subtly into the fabric. But overall, it’s just another anonymous all-white uniform that mirrors the existing, plain blue primary set. The tragedy is that Montreal’s gorgeous blue-and-black striped alternate, which would be the only striped kit in MLS, is gathering dust. It should be the club’s primary.
D.C. United calls itself the “Black and Red,” but its uniform palette typically has ignored the latter. That’s been rectified with the club’s new secondary kit, which features a welcome splash of red on the traditional white jersey. The home uniform, which carries over from 2014, still looks unfinished without the white chest stripes that were dropped in 2008. If D.C. could find a way to re-introduce them, perhaps above the sponsor logo and behind the crest, it once again would boast one of the sport’s most distinctive designs.
Real Salt Lake
RSL stubbornly refuses to look great. It took a small step forward with its new secondary uniform, which now features two blue sleeves. It's too bad there isn’t even more of RSL’s beautiful claret, cobalt, and gold color scheme in the kit. The red home set carries over from 2014, making it six seasons since RSL abandoned the claret shirt, cobalt shorts/socks combo it wore when winning its only MLS title. The yellow chest stripe adds a little something extra, but RSL’s preference for an all-red kit similar to others around the league instead of a classy, one-of-a-kind look with championship pedigree is baffling.
Toronto FC’s new home set could be the reddest uniform in the history of a league that loves red uniforms, which we suppose is noteworthy (guess Adidas insisted on the contrasting three stripes). Club management has focused on building a team capable of ending an eight-year playoff drought, likely leaving little time for kit design. The holdover secondary set is charcoal gray, which features in the TFC logo and is a unique uniform color in MLS. The hooped socks finish off a striking look and make us wish there was a bit more gray in the primary.
New England Revolution
The Revs are Exhibit A for the effect a second color, even if it comes from something as mundane as a plain pair of shorts, has on a club’s brand. Long a believer in boring, N.E. last year overhauled its home blues with white shorts and hooped socks. It’s a classy yet instantly recognizable look. The image shake-up continued Tuesday with a new secondary kit inspired by the regional flag flown during the American Revolution. The red-and-white set is clunky and geometric, but it’s different, daring and local. Better to take a chance than look dull and anonymous.
The Union got it right in 2010. The inaugural navy kit with the gold center stripe, reflecting the Philadelphia flag, was iconic. The gold-and-blue away set, a reversal of the primary, was one-of-a-kind. The holdover home uniform still looks great, although the sponsor’s logo wrecks the balance. But the new secondary is a disaster, a needless departure from the brand and an 10th all-white MLS kit. Once innovators, the Union are now followers. The “WE ARE ONE” collar slogan, the tiny snake below the neckline and the embossed stars on the front are lost in a sea of white.
The Vancouver Whitecaps new primary uniform is meant to be experienced up close. It’s slogan heavy. “Our All. Our Honour.” appears inside the neck and on the hip. “SINCE 1974” is on the back. The thin, diagonal pinstripes that featured on the previous home kit have been replaced by light blue shading designed to represent Vancouver’s water and mountains. It’s all a bit too subtle. The shirt will look nice with jeans, but in the end, Vancouver’s all-white kit—and the holdover mono-navy secondary—simply blends in.
Portland quietly switched crests, from a logo featuring its name to a simpler version focusing on the axe and chevrons (the old logo lives on elsewhere). Few teams wear a badge with no writing, but the Timbers can because they’ve built such a powerful brand. Only they could wear the new home set, a bold green-and-white offering anchored by the chevrons. They're a bit wide, and the yellow below the collar clutters the shirt, but it's impressive overall. The road kit, released in 2014, is everything a good one should be: distinctive, perhaps edgy, yet connected to the club. In this case, Rose City red.
The Crew released new home and away sets featuring the club’s revamped logo, a roundel that looks nice enough but makes sense only with a cheat sheet. The explanations (the ‘O’ for Ohio, the founding year, the checkerboard pattern found in flags waived by fans) certainly tie the club to Columbus more than the goofy construction workers did. As the Crew forge ahead, they’ll stay true to their sartorial tradition. The all-yellow primary is simple but elegant, and certainly recognizable. The mono black secondary could use a bit of flourish–why so subtle with the checkers? But it works and shouldn't be needed that often, anyway.
Orlando City SC
The Lions’ love for purple is welcome in a league featuring so many similar looks. But it didn't result in creative inaugural kits. The home uniform features more up-close details, like “jacquard engineered banding…representing Orlando City’s transition to a new era” and even the club's old USL logo inside. The mono-white secondary has colored hoops on the waist and sleeves and includes more small symbols and slogans. But it’s still just another white set. The answer is obvious—swap the socks. The “Chelsea” look is underrated. White hosiery at home and purple on the road would make all the difference.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls have company in New York so have set out to reinforce their tenuous connection to the market within the constraints of the club’s corporate brand. The only white-red-white team in the league, RBNY now must compete with NYCFC’s pale blue. The Red Bulls’ new home set doubles down on that contrast with red sleeves and “NEW YORK” emblazoned on the shirt’s lower left in a manner “mimicking the iconic New York skyline.” The “EST.1996” on the back collar reminds fans who was there (or nearby) first. The holdover secondary definitely is unique and is great in reasonable doses.
Houston’s club motto is “Forever Orange,” and while that remains the cornerstone of the brand, the Dynamo typically add a wrinkle here and there to ensure we’re not beaten over the head with it. The new home uniform is a great example. The white shorts and checkered fade on the jersey add the right amount of contrast. On occasion, the Dynamo have worn monochrome both home and away. But there’s no need to do so, especially on the road. The balance in the primary kit and the immediately identifiable orange shorts with the secondary set showcase the Dynamo at their best.
Sporting Kansas City
From irrelevant to trendsetting, SKC has profited from one of the most successful sports rebrands in recent history. The club now must share light blue with NYCFC, but Sporting still stands out. The new home set is a departure form the bicolor “state line” uniform of 2013-14 and is anchored by a “fashion-forward window pane pattern” that’s almost as preppy as the recent argyle alternate kit. The secondary uniform is stunning. The hoops, which mirror the stripes on the club crest, highlight one of the most eye-catching sets in MLS history. It’ll be tough to see it go after this season.
FCD’s kits are an example of a good idea, poorly executed. The club made an inspired decision to go with hoops when rebranding in 2005, but the jerseys always let them down. Unnecessary seams, plackets and panels always ruined the shirt. Dallas gave up last year and went with a boring all-red primary. But it stuck with the hoops on the new blue-and-white secondary, where the side panels and sleeves still disrupt the flow. Both blue and white shorts are an option. Our 2016 ideal: a primary jersey with seamless, sleek red and blue hoops. Unique and colorful, but less jarring. Make it happen.
Another club that’s bounced from brand to brand (green-and-white, blue-and-black), the Rapids have settled in nicely with the unique but elegant burgundy-shirt, white-shorts combo. The sleeves, which mirror those worn by sister club Arsenal, add a subtle touch of flair. The new away uniform is a prime example of how a secondary kit can be tasteful and connect to a club’s brand. Last season’s mono blue state-flag set has evolved into a sharp gold-and-blue kit that maintains Colorado's colors and stands out from the crowd. We’re not fans of recolored badges—logos should be sacrosanct—but overall it’s a winner.
The club that brought us rave green, cascade shale, super cyan and electricity has succumbed to the all-white virus. Seattle is one of five MLS clubs to adopt the look this season, ensuring half the league now embraces the white-out copout. The Sounders new away kit is especially devoid of any personality—a surprising choice for a club that has much of it. The new home set features a less cluttered shirt than in seasons past. It’s a template, but it’s a step up. The uniform also features blue shorts and socks for the first time. Here’s hoping we see it as often as possible.
San Jose Earthquakes
"Earthquakes" is an appropriate moniker for a club that’s experienced so much upheaval. While the new Avaya Stadium offers stability, the brand remains in flux. SJ’s '14 overhaul produced a beautiful blue-and-black primary kit that’s already a modern classic. But the logo, awkwardly anchored by “Quakes”—a nickname of a nickname—lacks gravitas. We liked the re-introduction of the NASL-era red, which inspired last year’s away kit. That’s been replaced by a new white secondary set (yes, another one). It lacks the creativity, individuality and ambition that should be associated with a Bay Area club on the rise.