Major League Soccer 2018 – What to Expect
Nothing quite captures soccer in the US in 2017 that the iconic picture of Jozy Altidore after he scored the opening goal in the MLS Cup Final in the 67th minute leading Toronto FC to the championship ultimately besting Seattle 2-0. Yes the same Jozy Altidore who played a very unemotional and lackluster game for the US National Team in their final World Cup Qualifying match falling to lowly Trinidad & Tobago 2-1. A night that saw the US hopes of qualifying for Russia fail. While there are those who tout the success of the MLS, and rightfully so, there are an equal number who believe that the MLS approach, while good for the league making money, may not be the best approach for overall soccer progress in the United States. So just where does the MLS stand. How far have they come and what’s on tap in the near future?
(You can discuss this on the BSL board here.)
The 2017 season surely was a successful one from a business standpoint. The league averaged just over 22,000 fans per match. In fact the lowest overall average was FC Dallas which averaged just over 15,000 fans per match, which is still 75% capacity as their Toyota Stadium seats just over 20,000. But the big winner was first year club Atlanta United FC which averaged 48,200 fans per match. A higher average than every team in Major League Baseball.
The league instituted Video Assistant Referee (VAR) for the second half of the season. And it was met with mixed review, pretty much how its been received in Germany and Italy. Just like instant replay in every American pro sport, fans wonder how referees can watch a series of replays, take several minutes to come to a decision, and still screw up the result. Still VAR isn’t going away and with time will get better and better. With the technology today there is simply no reason to not use it.
The league also continued is plan for controlled growth announcing that Nashville was awarded a franchise joining Miami as the next two clubs to join the league. The league had previously give a second franchise to the Los Angeles area with the Los Angeles Football Club starting play this season.
And lastly lets look at the television contract and viewership. MLS had another year of increased viewership. While the gains were modest, in this day and age any increase is noteworthy. And there is clearly plenty of interest in televising the matches. Last summer MP&Silva offered a contract to MLS to the tune of $4B for the broadcast rights for the ten seasons from 2023-2032. However, the offer came with one stipulation, and it was a big one. They insisted that the MLS institute promotion and relegation and that, at least currently, is not in favor with the MLS.
So lets take a look ahead to 2018 and what to anticipate from each club.
Atlanta United FC – Coming off a season where they made the playoffs in their first year and led the league in attendance, the bar is set pretty high for 2018. And they have been aggressive this offseason bringing over Darlington Ngabe from the Portland Timbers and signing upcoming Argentinian star Ezequiel Barco (paying the largest transfer fee in MLS history). Atlanta should make the playoffs this year.
Chicago Fire – The good news for Fire fans is that they brought back their well known star, Bastian Schweinsteiger. The bad news is that traded away their best attacking player, David Accam, on draft day. To replace Accam, they signed Serbian attacker Aleksandar Katai. They are going to have to have some other players step up this season or they are likely to slip back in the pack. Chicago should be on the cut line for making the playoffs or not.
Colorado Rapids - They are coming off a pretty dismal 2017 campaign that saw them lose nine matches in a row in the heart of the season. That led to the firing of head coach Pablo Mastroeni. The Rapids should have a fairly strong defense this season anchored by center backs Kortne Ford and Axel Sjobeg. But they don’t have the talent to make much of a playoff push and might be best served by moving some older players for younger players with potential for the future. Expect a finish near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Columbus Crew SC – They almost upset the best team in MLS history in the Eastern Conference Championship, but getting to that point again will be a tall task for Gregg Berhalter’s team. Star attackers Justin Meram and Ola Kamara were traded away in the offseason. And to date they have replaced that production only by bringing in Gyasi Zardes. And that isn’t enough. Columbus will likely be relying on an intact defense and Zack Steffen in the nets. Steffen was a human highlight during the playoffs and more of that will take the Crew further than they might otherwise go.
D.C. United - The best news for United fans for 2018 could be that they will be playing in their new stadium. And they may be a fun fast paced team to watch. But the schedule they have been handed is tough. The front half is loaded with road matches then when the season gets to the back half their games are stacked tightly. Probably not headed to the playoffs unless their last summer signings Paul Arriola and Zoltan Stiber continue to progress and Kellyn Acosta takes his game to the next level.
FC Dallas – Dallas was the first team in MLS history to have back to back 60 point seasons and they returned essentially their entire roster for 2017. And they played great…..until they didn’t. After the summer break for the Gold Cup, they went a dismal 1-7-6 and failed to make the playoffs. But you can’t expect to be a playoff team, no matter how good you were, when you essentially stopped playing for three months. Disappointment is all you can say for last year. The good news is that they have too much talent to falter like that again. Expect them to make the playoffs.
Houston Dynamo – Much like 2017, the storyline for the 2018 Dynamo will be the counter attacks down the wings by Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto. If Tomas Martinez can build on his promising showing from last season the Dynamo attack may be even stronger. The question mark for this team is likely the same one they faced last year. Is this the season when age catches up to defenders DeMarcus Beasley and Phillippe Senderos? The aging left side of their defense defied logic and performed quite well last season especially at the friendly confines of BBVA Compass Stadium. Senderos turned 33 two weeks ago and Beasley will turn 36 just two months into the season. This team could swing anywhere from Cup contenders to falling short of the playoffs.
Los Angeles Football Club - Bob Bradley is back in the reins of a US soccer club, this time with expansion LAFC. Typically expansion teams don’t fare well in any sport and soccer is no exception. Well until last year that is with Atlanta making its big first year run. And LAFC is taking a different approach to building their roster. They have gone after some big name talent in Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi coupled with proven MLS players in Walker Zimmerman (although he had a subpar 2017), Benny Feilhaber, and several others. In fact their first 13 look to be on par with just about every club in the league save for Toronto. That’s the good news for Bradley. However, if he has to dig much deeper into his reserves their fortunes could quickly fall. Look for LAFC to have a respectable first season and if things fall right they may sneak into the first round of the playoffs.
Los Angeles Galaxy – First the good news. Its pretty hard for the Galaxy to have a worse season than they did in 2017 finishing last in the Western Conference. All the while allowing the second most goals in the league. Only the expansion Minnesota United allowed more. Now the bad news. If they don’t improve, and by a fair bit they may end up being overshadowed by their new neighbors. But they did make a lot of changes this past offseason turning over half their roster. What remains to be seen is if the changes result in the intended results. But to their credit, they made no excused or tired platitudes for last years abysmal showing They sucked. They admitted they sucked. And are attempting to right the ship. I believe they will right the ship. Not strong enough to challenge for the Cup but they should be in the playoffs.
Minnesota United FC – In their first year the Loons were one of the worst three or four clubs in the league. They played some respectable soccer at times but simply didn’t have the talent to make much of a showing. The bad news is they pretty much stayed pat over the winter and are relying on growth of their existing players to make them markedly better. They did arguably did less to improve their roster this past offseason than any other club. That doesn’t bode well for 2018. And the few additions they did make hardly seem to be difference makers, with the exception of newly signed goalkeeper Matt Lampson who may take over the #1 spot from a mediocre Bobby Shuttleworth. So Loon fans but gotta call it as I see it. Eh, don’tcha know that you will be watching the playoffs from the sidelines again this year.
Montreal Impact – The impact would certainly like to join Toronto as the only Canadian club to ever with the MLS Cup. The Impact had a very odd 2017. With a roster laden with European talent one would have expected them to show much better than they did. However, that talent didn’t seem to translate well to the MLS. They made a lot of moves this winter to get younger. And in a long season fresher legs can yield better results. But it doesn’t look like the moves they made were enough to swing the needle very far. Expect them to miss out on the playoffs again this year.
New England Revolution – The Revs were an enigma last season. One of the leagues stronger teams at home but the second worst road team. Not a recipe for success. The big news was the signing of former US MNT goalkeeper Brad Friedel to the head coaching position. While Friedel was a long time MNT fan favorite he has limited coaching experience. Then Lee Nguyen held out for a month before reporting to camp. Not something you like to see especially from a guy who didn’t even crack the top 20 in the league in scoring. But he is back with the team. We’ll see how that plays out in 2018 as to whether thats a good or bad thing for the Revs. I suspect its won’t matter one way or the other. Don’t think they have the horsepower to make the playoffs.
New York City FC – They finished second in the Eastern Conference last season and look to be strong once again this year. Although they lost Jack Harrison to Manchester City and Andrea Pirlo to retirement they still have David Villa and one of the best midfields in the league. Young star Yangel Herrera should see more playing time this year and he can be a difference maker. They will be on of the top teams in the Eastern Conference again this season as coach Patrick Viera has molded a very strong team that knows how to win.
New York Red Bulls – Over the winter the Red Bulls lost two of their team leaders in Sacha Klejstan and Mike Grella. Replacing those two will be difficult not for as much as they bring to the field but the locker room and training field. But they did bring in their main target over the winter, Argentinian playmaker Alejandro Romero Gammara, known as Kaku. They look to be a middle of the pack team this year but if Kaku gels with his teammates and young American star Tyler Adams takes another big step they could make some noise come the playoffs.
Orlando City SC – The Lions have had one of the most significant offseason in league history bringing in a cadre of great players. Will it be enough to get them over the hump and inot the playoffs? Something they haven’t done in the history of the club. Its up to coach Jason Kreis. If he can mold his talent into a cohesive team then they will make the playoffs. I think it happens.
Philadelphia Union – Another club who did well enough at home but so poorly on the road as to miss out on the playoffs. And they didn’t do a lot over the offseason to change things up. Although the one big move, bringing in David Accam, is a game changer. Whether that move alone is enough to move the Union up into the playoff ranks probably depends on who plays the #10 role for them and how creative they are. In the back they need at least two of the young four center backs (Jack Elliot, Josh Yaro, Auston Trusty, and Richie Marquez) to become much more consistent defenders. I don’t think they have done near enough to make a strong playoff push, in fact I think they end up nearer the bottom of the Conference than to the playoffs.
Portland Timbers – The Timbers finished the 2017 regular season in first in the Western Conference and they bring most everybody back for 2018 with the exception of Darlington Ngabe. And it doesn’t look like any other team has made enough major moves to separate themselves from the pack to I suspect 2018 to be a very tightly contested Conference once again. The big question mark for the Timbers going into the season is fitness of three key players. Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Liam Ridgewell are all on the north side of 30. If they remain fit and healthy then the Timbers will be in the running for the top spot in the Conference once again. If not, well that might new head coach Gio Savarese scrambling.
Real Salt Lake – They had a very slow start to 2017 but finished as one of the strongest teams in the league at the end. Unfortunately their finish didn’t quite overcome their weak start and they fell short of the playoffs. But they are a young team that includes three players from their academy program (Justin Glad, Danny Acosta, and Brooks Lennon). They are one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch play and that will continue in 2018. Expect them to make a big jump this season to join the teams in the upper echelon of the Western Conference.
San Jose Earthquakes – The Quakes took a definite European look this winter bringing in a pair of Swedes, in head coach Mikael Stahre and striker Magnus Eriksson. The made the playoffs in 2017, just barely. But they were the only team in the league to make the playoffs with a minus goal differential. They must improve on their -21 if they want to make it back in this year. I don’t see it unless Eriksson finds the net a bunch and somehow aged Chris Wondolowski still has the knack for punching in plenty of banger goals. Tough to do but somehow at age 34 he still managed to score 13 times last year.
Seattle Sounders – The Sounders had a tremendous 2017 losing in the Cup final to Toronto. And they have stayed the course for 2018. That may or may not turn out to be a good course of action. They have an aging core led by Clint Dempsey, Chad Marshall, and Ozzie Alonso. The only two moves made so far were to bring in Waylon Francis to compete for the left back spot and Magnus Wolff Eikrem as another center midfield piece. Neither of those two moves appear to be any more than depth (which isn’t a bad thing). However, the problem is they have lost striker Jordan Morris for the entire season with an ACL injury. They have enough talent and depth to remain in the hunt and should make the playoffs. But another key injury could be very problematic. Look for them to add another striker somewhere down the road this season.
Sporting KC – The saying is that defense wins championships and Sporting has a great one. Unfortunately it hasn’t translated to a title for them. At least not yet. They have bolstered their defense even more for 2018 but failed to bring in the game changing striker many feel they need. Peter Vermes continues to produce results that seem to be above what the roster makeup should achieve and with such stout defense 2018 should follow suit. One of these years things may come together to push the team over the top for a title. They’ll make the playoffs. Be a tough out. But in the end you still have to find a way to score a goal to win. Tough to make the final leap if you can only score 40 goals in 34 games.
Toronto FC – Lets cut to the chase. They were the best team in the league in 2017. They won the MLS Cup. And they return pretty much everybody from a season that saw them win three trophies. And they have started out very well in the CONCACAF Champions League. Four trophies in 2018? I doubt it but its certainly possible. Many have suggested that head coach Greg Vanney should be a candidate for the USMNT position. His clever use of his entire roster over a long season to keep players fresh yet still winning has raised his stock considerably. He played ten seasons in the MLS, three in the French Ligue 1, and earned 36 caps for the USMNT. For now he is still conducting the orchestra in Toronto and Reds fans hope that continues. Keep and eye on this over the summer. Now that the USSF election has occurred they will start to look at coaching options. If Toronto has another outstanding MLS season Vanney’s will get a lot of looks. I think Toronto is a lock to make the playoffs and a deep run once they get there. The one hiccup could be if they have to deal with a coaching change this summer.
Vancouver Whitecaps – The Caps love to punish teams on set pieces with dangerous players Kei Kamara and Kendall Waston. But in the playoffs when it was time to go toe to toe they simply didn’t have a way to score. They will once again be tough in dead ball situations but they need to find a way to be able to score more on the run of play. 2018 looks to be more of the same for the Caps. They should be strong enough to make the playoffs but if they have any regression on defense or they don’t find a way to keep getting their heads on balls in the box they could falter.
So there you have it. So much for the paper prognosis. Time to play the games and see who has what it takes to make it to the final in December.
The season kicks off this Saturday and once again the games this year will be televised Fox Sports and ESPN.