2016 MLS Season Preview

Eric Villarreal ‘16

With the 2016 MLS Season upon us, here is a team-by-team preview along with players to watch to get you up to speed before the start of the season:


Western Conference:

Colorado Rapids:

Colorado made a few changes over the offseason by shipping out starting goalkeeper Clint Irwin and bringing in Marco Pappa from Seattle, Shkelzen Gashi from Basel, Jermaine Jones from the New England Revolution, and reportedly Tim Howard will join the team from Everton in the summer. It’s still a puzzle as to what Rapids are trying to do since there is not an obvious youth movement happening and they’re not exactly built to win now either. This team will either have everything miraculously work out or they’ll most likely linger near the bottom of the standings.

Player to Watch: Shkelzen Gashi- Gashi has been the top scorer in the Swiss Super League over the past two seasons, scoring 19 goals with Grasshopper and 22 goals with FC Basel respectively. lol Look for him to be the main goalscoring threat in the Colorado attack this year.                  


FC Dallas:

FC Dallas made sure to keep their two most important players, Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo, as well as most of their young core. Their need at forward may or may not have been answered in the form of Maxi Urruti from Portland Timbers due to Urruti never being able to nail down a starting job for the 2015 MLS champion Timbers. FC Dallas has a young, talented core that could really make a run for the title this year.

Player to Watch: Fabian Castillo- Castillo is an emerging star out on the wing.   The Colombian international has recorded 19 goals over the past two season as well as 9 assists last year. Basic stats don’t give him the recognition he deserves for his ability to create chances whether it be penetrating the box or setting up his teammates. Look for Castillo to continue to flourish in 2016.                                                                                                                    

Houston Dynamo:

The Dynamo were busy over the offseason by trading for Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger and then trading original Dynamo and captain Brad Davis to Sporting KC, so expect a bit of a different team this season. This year is all about how manager Owen Coyle will lead a team that better is better suited to play his style of up-tempo, attacking soccer. Houston looks to have more depth than it has had the past couple of years and hopefully a return to the playoffs is in order.

Player to Watch: Cristian Maidana- Maidana will run the Dynamo attack by setting up the likes of Giles Barnes, Will Bruin, and Erick “Cubo” Torres. Maidana has racked up 11 and 15 assists the past two years with Philadelphia, so it’ll be interesting to see what he’ll able to produce with a plethora of quality forwards.


LA Galaxy:

Last year’s early exit from the playoffs was not taken lightly by LA’s staff during the offseason. The Galaxy were able to bring in notable European names in left back Ashley Cole and midfielder Nigel de Jong. Those additions as well as a full offseason for Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos will be hugely beneficial for the squad. The only question mark is at goalkeeper with Dan Kennedy expected to be the main goal stopper after losing out the starting job at FC Dallas to 20 year old Jesse Gonzalez. Look for this team to be up at the top of the standings and making a run in the playoffs.

Player to Watch: Giovani dos Santos- Look for the talented Mexican striker to get multiple opportunities to score in an attack that already features Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes. Either he’ll be scoring or setting up someone else to score. Maybe the MLS version of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez?


Portland Timbers:

After a great run of form that got them into the playoffs and eventually a championship, Portland was dealt a tough offseason. The Timbers lost Maxi Urriti to FC Dallas, Rodney Wallace to Arouca of the Portuguese Primeira Liga, Will Johnson in a trade to Toronto FC, and Jorge Villafaña to Santos Laguna of Liga MX. The Timbers were however able to extend the contracts of young stars, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe. They may look a little weaker on paper, but if last year shows us anything it is to not count Portland out.

Player to Watch: Darlington Nagbe- Together with Diego Valeri and Chara, Nagbe helps form one of the most talented midfields in MLS. Nagbe can both set up his teammates to score or score by himself as his 5 goals and 5 assists last year show. Over the offseason, Nagbe was rewarded for a great season by earning his first cap for the United States Men’s National Team. Look to see how Nagbe will play with more expected of him.


Real Salt Lake:

2015 was a very disappointing season for Real Salt Lake. The biggest problem was the defense, which allowed a whopping 48 goals. To help bolster an attack that featured Javier Morales as the only real threat, RSL brought in Yura Moysisyan from Spartak Moscow. Moysisyan scored 15 goals in his first stint with RSL. Ol’ Reliable a.k.a. Nick Rimando returns for the 17th season of his career. He’ll surely be remembered as one of the best MLS goalies of all time, but one has to wonder how much longer he can go until Father Time finally gets to him. Look for this team to challenge for the last playoff spot, but it will probably run out of steam and miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

Player to Watch: Luke Mulholland- Mulholland had a down year in 2015 producing only 3 goals and 2 assists compared to his 2014 totals of 6 goals and 7 assists. Look for the Mulholland to try and recapture his 2014 form with better personnel up top that he can set up scoring chances or open scoring chances up for him.


San Jose Earthquakes:

San Jose finished one spot out of the playoffs last year. 2 bright spots from the season were Fatai Alashe and David Bingham. Alashe finished as runner-up for the MLS Rookie of the Year Award while Bingham recorded 12 clean sheets in his rookie year and was called into the USMNT January camp. Those two along with captain Chris Wondolowski make this team dangerous playoff contenders that could win a few upsets.

Player to Watch: Chris Wondolowski- Wondolowski has scored a total of 102 goals over the last five seasons with the ‘Quakes including 27 in the 2012 season. Wondolowski now has the benefit of a better supporting cast in attack with Matías Pérez García, Quincy Amarikwa, and Chad Barrett. Look for him to draw the attention of the opposing defense and create scoring opportunities for his teammates as well as poaching his fair share of goals.


Seattle Sounders FC:

Seattle failed meet championship expectations again in 2015 with the team losing to FC Dallas in the Conference Semifinals. To make amends, Seattle made the biggest acquisition of the MLS offseason by signing Stanford product and emerging USMNT striker Jordan Morris to the largest Homegrown player contract in MLS history. Despite the high profile signing, Seattle lost top goal scorer Obafemi Martins to the Chinese Super League along with Chad Barrett, Marco Pappa, and Lamar Neagle. This team may be a little younger, but they still have Clint Dempsey up top to pair with Morris. Seattle should be in the top 4 of the table throughout the season.

Player to Watch: Jordan Morris- Morris carried Stanford to the NCAA Men’s Soccer championship win this year as well as winning player of the year. He’s also opened his goalscoring account for the national team with a goal against Mexico back in April, 2015. Watch him to see how he lives up to the hype.


Sporting Kansas City:

SKC lost to eventual champions Portland in heartbreaking fashion by penalties in the Knockout Round of the MLS Playoffs. The offseason was bittersweet when the team sold striker Krisztian Nemeth who scored 10 goals, but also acquired Missouri native Brad Davis from Houston. Look for SKC to make the playoffs, but not advance that much further.

Player to Watch: Graham Zusi- 2015 was an unproductive season for Zusi with only 2 goals and 5 assists to his name. With Nemeth gone, look for him to pick up some of the scoring responsibilities from the wing as well as set up his teammates to score more often.


Vancouver Whitecaps FC:

Vancouver had a stellar 2015 season that ended bitterly by being shut out in both legs of the Western Conference Finals to Portland. They acquired striker Blas Pérez from FC Dallas for more depth up top, but lost starting left back Steven Beitashour to Toronto FC. Not much turnover as Vancouver will rely more on the development of its young players to challenge for the cup title in 2016.

Player to Watch: Pedro Morales- Injury was a constant for Morales in 2015 thus he was only able to produce 6 goals and 4 assists compared to 10 goals and 12 assists in 2014. Look for him to have comeback season this year and return to becoming the engine that drives the Vancouver attack.


Eastern Conference:

Chicago Fire:

The Fire had a forgetful 2015 to say the least. Chicago hired new manager Veljko Paunovic after he led the Serbian U-20s to a U-20 World Cup title. Chicago also drafted arguably the best college soccer player not named Jordan Morris in left back Brandon Vincent from Stanford. Vincent was also called into the USMNT January camp for his great performance in leading Stanford to a national title alongside Morris. USMNT goalie prospect Sean Johnson will be looking to re-establish himself after a couple of down years. The one blemish on Chicago is the surprise trade of sending homegrown player Harry Shipp to Montréal. After two years of bottom feeding this Fire squad (pun intended) looks like it can climb out of the cellar and more.

Player to Watch: David Accam- David Accam had a great first year in MLS scoring 10 goals. Look for Accam to be the biggest attacking threat for the Fire due to Harry Shipp’s departure.


Columbus Crew SC:

If Columbus didn’t have worst possible opening seven minutes of the 2015 MLS Cup Final then we may be talking about how Columbus can defend their title. Anyways, not much turnover on this team besides a swapping of outgoing MLS vets with incoming MLS vets. Columbus was smart to keep Kei Kamara, who tied for first in the league with 22 goals scored in 2015, happy by doubling his salary. Look for this team to come out hungry as they contend again for a title.

Player to Watch: Kei Kamara- Last year was a career year for Kamara. Look for him to continue to be the big, physical striker up top and score a lot of goals. Let’s see how much desire he has to win after being awarded with a big contract.


DC United:

DC had an uninspiring 2015 campaign by losing to the New York Red Bulls in the Conference semifinals. DC was also dealt a big blow when star goalkeeper Bill Hamid tore his meniscus while training with the USMNT. Hamid will be out for 4-6 months. DC also lost starting midfielder Perry Kitchen who departed for the Scottish Premier League. To compensate, DC brought in MLS vets Lamar Neagle from Seattle and Marcelo Sarvas from Colorado. Both players are quality, but won’t lead you to a title. Look for a return to the playoffs for this team, but nothing more.

Player to Watch: Andrew Dykstra- With goalkeeper Bill Hamid not expected to come back till the second half of the season at the earliest, Andrew Dykstra will step in his place. The most games he’s played in a season is 17 back in 2010, so look to see how he will play as the undisputed number one for the first half of the season.


Montréal Impact:

Montréal’s 2015 season was saved by Didier Drogba and he nearly ruined the Impact’s 2016 season by almost leaving to become an assistant coach at Chelsea. Drogba had an amazing run at the end of the season by scoring 11 goals in 11 games while leading Montréal to the playoffs where they lost to Eastern Conference champs Columbus Crew SC in the Conference Semifinals. Montréal also made headlines by acquiring Harry Shipp from Chicago. Look for this team to be in the race for the final playoff spot.

Player to Watch: Harry Shipp- Shipp was a finalist for the MLS Rookie of the Year in 2014 by scoring 7 goals and notching 6 assists and was the talisman behind the Chicago attack in 2015 by racking up 8 assists. Watch Shipp to see how he links up with the likes of Didier Drogba in Montréal.


New England Revolution:

New England had an up and down season that ended in a disappointing loss at DC United in the Knockout Round. After weeks of unsuccessful negotiations, the Revolution traded Jermaine Jones to Colorado. Most of the same team that made it to the 2014 MLS Cup Final is still on the roster, so a playoff run is still very possible.

Player to Watch: Lee Nguyen- After scoring a career high 18 goals in 2014, Nguyen displayed his ability to set up his teammates by racking up 10 assists in 2015. Over the offseason Nguyen had a good showing for the USMNT by starting in friendlies against Iceland and Canada. With much of the same personnel returning this year, look for Nguyen to continue to produce at a high level.


New York City FC:

NYCFC’s amazing didn’t live up to hype by missing the playoffs despite David Villa scoring 18 goals and recording 8 assists as well as the mid-season arrivals of Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. As a result, manager Jason Kreis was fired and Patrick Vieira was brought in from Manchester City where he was head coach of the reserve team. Look for NYCFC to come out with a new energy and challenge for the final playoff spot in the East.

Player to Watch: Andrea Pirlo- Pirlo came in mid-season and disappointed in terms of his lack of interest in defence. He did notch 5 assists in only 13 games, but more is expected of a world class player such as Pirlo. After a full offseason to rest and properly prepare it’ll be interesting to see how much Pirlo can produce.


New York Red Bulls:

Despite winning the 2015 Supporters’ Shield, which is the team achievement of accruing the most points in the conference, New York’s season ended with the same result- a loss in the Conference Finals. Over the offseason, New York lost defender Matt Miazga to Chelsea so it’ll be intriguing to see who can replace him this season. Other than Miazga, most of last year’s team returns this year so expect them to challenge for the Cup title again this year.

Player to Watch: Luis Robles- Robles had a stellar 2015 season that resulted in a USMNT call up and the starting nod against Iceland. With Miazga gone watch to see how Robles performs with a weaker back line.


Orlando City SC:

Orlando performed admirably in its inaugural season, but a lack of roster depth and an overreliance on Kaká doomed a late season playoff push. Not much turnover in the roster except for a change in goalkeepers which seems quite risky given the apparent lack of depth last year. Look for OCSC to rely on Kaká as well as the development of its young players to challenge for a playoff spot in 2016.

Player to Watch: Brek Shea- After enjoying a good start in his return to MLS in 2015, Shea sustained a sports hernia that ultimately kept him out from the end of June until the final 3 games of the season. However in those final three games, Shea notched an assist in each game showing the potential impact he can have in games. Look for Shea to be one of the major contributors for OCSC in 2016 if he can stay healthy.


Philadelphia Union:

The Union missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year in 2015 and this year looks like it will be the fifth. In the offseason, the team brought in new Sporting Director (soccer version of a General Manager) Earnie Stewart from Dutch Eredivisie side, AZ Alkmaar, to position and steer the Union in the right direction. His first move was to trade Andrew Wenger and Cristian Maidana to Houston thus putting the rebuild into motion. Philadelphia will probably hover around the bottom of the conference, but expect to see a few young, bright players emerge.

Player to Watch: Tranquillo Barnetta- With Maidana traded to Houston look for Barnetta to step in his place. Being 30 years old, he be leaned on not only to produce on the pitch but to also lead off the pitch as well. Look for him to drive the Philadelphia attack in 2016.


Toronto FC:

Toronto made the playoffs for the first time in club history in 2015 mostly due to Sebastian Giovinco’s stellar MVP season in which he scored 22 goals and recorded 16 assists. Despite the record breaking season, Toronto’s season ended in a disappointing 3-0 defeat to Montréal in the Knockout Round. Toronto made sure to patch up a leaky defence by acquiring goalkeeper Clint Irwin from Colorado, center back Drew Moor from Colorado, defensive midfielder Will Johnson from Portland, and left back Steven Beitashour from Vancouver. With an upgraded defence look for Toronto to make a run in the playoffs.

Player to Watch: Jozy Altidore- Jozy had an up and down 2015 in which he scored 13 goals despite dealing with nagging injuries and USMNT call ups. Over the offseason, Altidore reportedly lost 20 pounds of muscle to increase his mobility. Look for him to take off some of the scoring slack from Giovinco in 2016.


Eastern Conference Playoff Team Predictions:

New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew SC, Toronto FC, New England Revolution, DC United, and Chicago Fire


Western Conference Playoff Team Predictions:

FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Seattle Sounders FC, LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo


Eastern Conference Final:

Columbus Crew SC over New York Red Bulls


Western Conference Final:

FC Dallas over Seattle Sounders FC


2016 MLS Cup Title Prediction:

FC Dallas over Columbus Crew SC


Week 1 Fixtures and Score Predictions: Sunday, March 6, 2016

Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls- Kickoff at 12:30 PM

Score Prediction: 2-1 Red Bulls

Real Salt Lake at Orlando City SC- Kickoff at 1:00 PM

Score Prediction: 3-1 OCSC

New York City FC at Chicago Fire- Kickoff at 1:00 PM

Score Prediction: 2-2 draw

Philadelphia Union at FC Dallas- Kickoff at 2:00 PM

Score Prediction: 3-1 FC Dallas

Colorado Rapids at San Jose Earthquakes- Kickoff at 2:00 PM

Score Prediction: 2-0 ‘Quakes

New England Revolution at Houston Dynamo- Kickoff at 2:00 PM on ROOT Sports

Score Prediction: 2-1 Dynamo

Columbus Crew SC at Portland Timbers- Kickoff at 3:30 PM on ESPN

Score Prediction: 2-1 Columbus

Montréal Impact at Vancouver Whitecaps FC- Kickoff at 4:30 PM

Score Prediction: 1-1 draw

Sporting Kansas City at Seattle Sounders FC- Kickoff at 6:00 PM on Fox Sports 1

Score Prediction: 2-0 Seattle

DC United at LA Galaxy- Kickoff at 9:00 PM on UniMás

Score Prediction: 3-0 Galaxy