MLS's 23rd season kicks off on Saturday, and it's one that is met with much anticipation.
There's the introduction of the league's newest team, LAFC, which follows Atlanta and Minnesota in joining with a significant amount of fanfare. In addition to LAFC's Banc of California Stadium, there's the welcoming of Audi Field, D.C. United's long-awaited soccer-specific home, later this summer. There's the return of juggernaut Toronto FC, which is coming off the heels of a treble-winning season and is eyeing more silverware. The league's all-time scoring record could fall again. There's a slew of new players to get to know, and a returning core of veterans and rising stars, which should make for an entertaining season on the field.
For our annual MLS kit critique and a look at the league's predominant offseason player trend, we've got you covered.
But for our picks for the upcoming season, read on here. SI's Grant Wahl, Brian Straus, Luis Miguel Echegaray and Avi Creditor look into their crystal balls to predict the 2018 campaign:
Who will win MLS Cup?
WAHL: Toronto FC – One of the best teams in MLS history kept all its best players and got even deeper for 2018. At this point, there is some distance between Toronto and any team in the rest of the league.
STRAUS: Toronto – Apologies for the boring choice. It may not make for compelling copy, but this is team that blew the doors off the league last season and then went out and signed Ager Aketxe, Gregory van der Wiel and Auro. It’s hard to make an honest case for anyone else.
ECHEGARAY: Atlanta United – Aside from the added star power in Ezequiel Barco and Darlington Nagbe now joining Miguel Almirón and Josef Martinez to make Atlanta even more of a force, let’s remember this is about Tata Martino. Now in his second season as manager, he knows the league better and more importantly, the opposition. Toronto will stand in the way, but I think Atlanta has enough to dethrone the king.
CREDITOR: Toronto – The champs had a legendary 2017 and managed to get better by adding the stars Brian mentioned and homegrown forward Ayo Akinola, who impressed at the U-17 World Cup. Plus, they won't lose Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley for any of the World Cup this summer. Sure, other teams improved, too, but what am I missing here?
Who will win the Supporters' Shield?
WAHL: Toronto – See above. I also think this is the year that Greg Vanney gets more deserved credit for being a terrific coach.
STRAUS: Toronto – The Reds approached last season as a team possessed. If they muster anything close to the same sort of focus in 2018, they'll win the Shield without too much trouble. If TFC wants it (and stays reasonably healthy), it’s theirs.
ECHEGARAY: Atlanta United – Atlanta finished with the fourth-most points in the regular season last year, but mainly due to the fact that it tied 10 matches–the most in the East. I think many of those will turn into wins in 2018, and Atlanta will run away from the conference competition.
CREDITOR: Portland Timbers – It being Giovanni Savarese's first season as manager doesn't faze me. He inherits a great team, and while Darlington Nagbe is gone, the club did well with its offseason business. In my opinion, there are fewer daunting matchups in the West (and thus more points for the taking), and a mid-renovation Providence Park will remain rocking. Oh, and getting Fanendo Adi and Diego Chara back from injury is a nice bonus. Toronto is great and Cup-worthy, but it's due for a minor step back from its 34-game pace a season ago.
How will LAFC fare in Year 1?
WAHL: Just outside the playoffs. Yes, Bob Bradley led an expansion team in Chicago to the MLS Cup title in 1998, but this is an entirely different league with a lot more teams than it had in ’98. I fully expect LAFC to be in playoff contention for most of the season, but there are enough question marks (including depth questions) to miss out in the end.
STRAUS: There’s some veteran talent here, obviously, and an excellent coach. Carlos Vela, Benny Feilhaber, Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman represents a pretty good spine. But there’s not a lot of depth, nor is there much margin for error in a tightly-packed and unpredictable West. The top end of LAFC’s roster is good enough to contend for a playoff spot, but it’s a long season.
ECHEGARAY: They’ll make the playoffs, just. This is a young team, but it's one coached by a man who knows how to take an expansion team to the MLS Cup. LAFC is still thin in many places, but last season, San Jose earned the sixth spot with 14 losses. I think Bradley’s team can do better than that. Just like it's been proven with past expansion teams, home form is crucial.
CREDITOR: They're building something special in Los Angeles, and Bradley will get it right eventually, but unless there are some significant additions to the roster in the next couple of weeks and this summer, that team is looking a little thin on paper, and making the playoffs in a tough and balanced conference is asking a lot. Also: It's really difficult to make the playoffs as an expansion team! Don't let Atlanta's success last year fool you into thinking otherwise. That's not the norm.
Which team will be the most improved from a season ago?
WAHL: Orlando City – This team pulled out all the stops in the offseason, adding Sacha Kljestan, Josué Colmán, Justin Meram and Uri Rosell. Jason Kreis is likely coaching for his job, and I think you’ll see this team in the playoffs for the first time.
STRAUS: LA Galaxy – Because David Bingham, Ola Kamara, Jonathan dos Santos (who gets a first full season) and Perry Kitchen are upgrades, because the defense has been rebuilt, and because they were just so bad a year ago. LA could finish mid-table and still be the league’s most improved team.
ECHEGARAY: LA Galaxy – Last year was awful to say the least, but given the added acquisitions, and more experience from Dos Santos brothers, as well as arrivals (Kamara, Kitchen, Bingham, Chris Pontius, Servando Carrasco), Sebastian Lletget's return from injury and the pressure from fans to show the city that Galaxy is still the team to follow, no matter what LAFC says, the Galaxy will go all out.
CREDITOR: Orlando City – Hello, roster renovation! Losing Cyle Larin is a blow, sure, but the players Grant mentioned plus NASL goal king Stefano Pinho, quality defender Lamine Sane, and domestic depth in young talents Jose Villarreal and Cameron Lindley make for quite the offseason haul. It'll take a bit to gel, but the pressure is on Kreis to get it right, and with this new-look squad, he has the pieces to do just that.
Who will win league MVP?
WAHL: Josef Martínez, Atlanta United – There’s so much quality all over the field in Atlanta, and Martínez’s strike rate, which was insane last year, will continue in 2018.
STRAUS: Miguel Almirón, Atlanta United – Surrounded by talent on a high-press, full-speed-ahead team and knowing full well that big European clubs are watching, Almirón will put up some scary stats for Atlanta, which will finish second in the East.
ECHEGARAY: Josef Martínez – 17 goals in the 2017 campaign is only the beginning, as I think now that Martinez knows the opposition and his teammates better, he’s going to improve on that number. All the talk may be about Barco, but my bet is that Martinez will produce more than expected.
CREDITOR: Miguel Almirón – The straw that stirs the drink for a dynamic team that should be even better in Year 2.
Which marquee winter signing will have the best season?
WAHL: Carlos Vela, LAFC – Vela has a lot of pressure on him as LAFC’s big star, but with the pressure of an expectant fanbase in a World Cup year, he’ll make sure to produce.
STRAUS: Carlos Vela – Look for Bob Bradley to get the most out of Vela, who’ll play like he’s got something to prove.
ECHEGARAY: Diego Rossi, LAFC – I don’t think folks understand how good Rossi is. Once he gets in the groove and understands the league and his partnership with Vela a little better, he'll help LAFC grab a playoff spot.
CREDITOR: Carlos Vela – LAFC will be heavily reliant on its Mexican star, and he'll be feeling the pressure to let Juan Carlos Osorio know he belongs in a valuable role this summer in Russia. He'll also be better equipped to make an immediate adaptation to the USA and a new league as opposed to the cast of rising stars joining MLS. A 20-goal debut campaign shouldn't be out of the question.
Which 11 teams will MISS the playoffs?
WAHL: In the East: D.C. United, Montreal Impact, Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution, Columbus Crew – It’s hard not to see Columbus struggling under the uncertainty of a potential move to Austin and underperforming its talent level.
In the West: Colorado Rapids, Minnesota United, San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouver Whitecaps, Houston Dynamo, LAFC – I think Minnesota might be worse this year than it was last year.
STRAUS: In the East: Columbus Crew, D.C. United, Montreal Impact, New England Revolution, Philadelphia Union. In the West: Colorado Rapids, Houston Dynamo, LAFC, Minnesota United, San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouver Whitecaps.
ECHEGARAY: In the East: Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution, D.C. United, Montreal Impact, Columbus Crew. In the West: Real Salt Lake, Colorado Rapids, Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Dallas, Minnesota United, Sporting Kansas City.
CREDITOR: In the East: New England Revolution, Montreal Impact, New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire. In the West: LAFC, Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids, San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo, Sporting Kansas City.
Which star will be part of a marquee summer transfer?
WAHL: Zlatan Ibrahimovic to LA Galaxy – As long as this is a TAM signing, it will be fantastic for LA and for the league itself (and, yes, for us journalists).
STRAUS: Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez – Post World Cup, the drawn-out, agonizing courtship between Chicharito and MLS will finally end.
ECHEGARAY: Chicharito – After a subpar season with West Ham that coincided with David Moyes’s arrival, Chicharito will be swayed by the Dos Santos brothers, Vela and others to join MLS after the World Cup.
CREDITOR: Incoming, Zlatan Ibrahimovic; Outgoing, Kellyn Acosta – There's so much emphasis on younger, dynamic signings, but Zlatan is the exception to every rule (or is it every rule is the exception to Zlatan?). In terms of going the other way, it sure seems like it's just a matter of time until Acosta takes the European leap, and FCD is equipped to handle his departure.
Who will be the highest-scoring American in the league?
WAHL: Dom Dwyer, Orlando City – Adding assist king Kljestan to the lineup has to have Dwyer feeling good about his scoring chances in 2018.
STRAUS: Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC – Considering the talent around him, the lack of injury-inducing international duty and the signal he sent with his clutch MLS Cup semifinal and final winners, Altidore is the obvious choice.
ECHEGARAY: Dom Dwyer – Now in a full season with Orlando, and with Larin gone, Dwyer carries the offensive responsibilities. The fact that he has Colman and Kljestan as providers can only help his cause.
CREDITOR: Chris Wondolowski – He keeps getting older, his goal tally stays (relatively) the same. And with Wondo sitting just 11 tallies behind Landon Donovan's all-time goal record and his sole focus set on bringing the Earthquakes back to the playoffs, I think the 35-year-old marksman has another 15+ season in him. Plus, it's usually not the obvious choice.
Which player will become a new breakout star?
WAHL: Justen Glad, Real Salt Lake – He might be the next great U.S. center back.
STRAUS: Alphonso Davies, Vancouver Whitecaps – Never quite sure what this means. Is Tyler Adams already a star? Is Barco? What about Davies? He’s a CONCACAF Gold Cup Golden Boot winner and still only 17 years old. Let’s go with Davies. He’s probably still under the mainstream radar, could be terrifying on a team that loves a good counter and has loads of potential.
ECHEGARAY: Jonathan Lewis, NYCFC. Jack Harrison is off to England, and David Villa and Maxi Moralez need help. It won’t all come from new signing Jesus Medina, and if Lewis gets more minutes, he can be the surprise package for Patrick Vieira’s squad. Special mention goes to Portland's Andy Polo.
CREDITOR: Alphonso Davies – The Canadian Christian Pulisic won't be long for MLS. Enjoy him while he's still here.