By: McLeod Brown
That’s a tree. A timber to be exact.
Alright that was a god-awful attempt at a pun, but the fact remains that every team in the MLS is looking up at the Portland Timbers this season. The Timbers, fresh off their first MLS trophy last year with a 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew, enter the season with the unfriendly “target on their back” mantra firmly in hand.
Now, whether the Timbers were in fact MLS’s best team last year can be argued surely. What can’t be argued, however, and what is just as important, is that Portland was the league’s hottest team when it mattered most – in the playoffs.
So let’s preview a few of the contenders in the league, starting with the Western Conference and the champs.
2015 Record: 15-8-11 (W-T-L), 53 points, 3rd in Western Conference
2015 Goals For: 41, Tied for 18th in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 39, Tied for 3rd in MLS
Portland didn’t do much this offseason, sticking to the whole “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it idea.” The thing is that has hurt more people than it’s helped in recent years.
The whole Maximiliano Urruti fiasco puzzles me. I understand he wasn’t a starter for most of his tenure with the club, but he added a spark off the bench few other people on the roster seem to be able to. Plus he’s only 25. You’d figure there is still plenty of room for him to grow and expand on his skills.
What I did like from the team is keeping Nat Borchers. In his first campaign with the team, Borchers almost immediately became the heart and soul of the Timbers’ backline. His beard is illustrious in his own right, but he’s the “glue guy” so many championship teams need to win.
A key addition for the club? Try Jack McInerney. If you can’t beat them, join them (think my count is now three on clichés in this). The 23-year old comes over from the Crew after barely playing at all for the runner-ups. But people shouldn’t forget the run he had with the Philadelphia Union earlier in his career. The forward scored 25 goals in four seasons with the team after joining them when he was only 17. Kid couldn’t even by cigarettes before he was sniping goals.
If he shows out for the Timbers, well damn.
2015 Record: 14-9-11 (W-T-L), 51 points, 5th in the Western Conference
2015 Goals For: 56, 4th in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 46, 11th in MLS
You smell that? What The Rock is cookin’? No, but really, that refreshing scent of a brand new world? That’s what it was like last season for every MLS fan with the Galaxy not fully continuing their usually-dominating ways.
This team has always been built to win now, and this year isn’t any different. Big names checker the roster – Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Alan Gordon, and the newly signed Ashley Cole. But all of those guys are older than 34. It’ll be up to the team’s younger generation of stars – Giovani dos Santos, Robbie Rogers, and Gyasi Zardes among others – to really take the torch and run with it this year.
That purrttty doh.
2015 Record: 15-6-13 (W-T-L), 48 points, 4th in the Western Conference
2015 Goals For: 44, 12th in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 36, Tied for 1st in MLS
Defense, defense, defense. Anchored by a backline of Chad Marshall and former EPL competitor Tyrone Mears, the Sounders allowed the least goals in the MLS last season, helping to propel the team to the Western Conference semifinals.
So while the defense stays in tact for the upcoming season, what’s the offense look like? Well the team has arguably now the most popular United States-bred homestay in Clint Dempsey at the top. But what they have lost is his partner in crime Obafemi Martins.
The dynamo foreigner scored 40 goals over 72 appearances with the club in his three seasons in the Northwest. He was transferred to Chinese club Shanghai Greenland Shenhua this offseason, taking a reported $3 million transfer fee.
The Sounders are faced with the classic two-way street of replacing Martins with his opened designated player spot, a homegrown athlete, or maybe a combination of the two (so that’d make it a three-way street, apologies).
If their backline holds up like they’re expected to, that will make the transition that much easier.
2015 Record: 16-5-13 (W-T-L), 53 points, 2nd in Western Conference
2015 Goals For: 45, 11th in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 36, Tied for 1st in MLS
To preface this, if you haven’t been to Vancouver before, add that to your bucket list. It is a very cool city.
As hard as it is to believe, the Whitecaps were honestly better than their record indicated last year. A rash of injuries and sudden bad play towards the tail-end of the season threw some shade on what was still a very successful season for Vancouver.
Nevertheless, the team still had by all accounts their most successful campaign to date, advancing to the Western Conference semifinals, while capturing their first Canadian Championship.
Octavio Rivero paid immediate dividends in his first season in the league, leading the team in goals. Also, he’s only 24. So that’s a piece to build on. Christian Bolaños also joins the club for the upcoming season. The Costa Rican national has competed in two World Cups for his country, and any time you play against the best in the world from all over the world, well that’ll help.
Also, Blas Pérez comes over from FC Dallas. The striker appeared in 103 games for the Texas club, and immediately becomes one of the most experienced players on the Whitecaps.
2015 Record: 18-6-10 (W-T-L), 60 points, 1st in Western Conference
2015 Goals For: 52, 5th in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 39, Tied for 3rd in MLS
Last year was so Dallas it hurts.
Even when they finish the season with the best record in the conference, they still failed to bring home their first major title in 19 years. But losing to eventual champions and red-hot Portland isn’t anything to hang your head at.
Oscar Pareja has done an outstanding job at the helm his first two seasons. What he’ll be leaning on this year is talent and youth over experience. Think the Galaxy but the complete opposite.
Maximiliano Urruti comes over from the Timbers, while Pareja also brought in Ecuadorian national Carlos Gruezo, who went to the World Cup with his country in 2014. The team obviously saw something with the Blas Pérez-for-Mauro Rosales trade. Both are over 30 years old, with Rosales focusing more in the middle of the field than Pérez.
According to Pareja’s early track record, he seems to know what he’s doing.
Orlando City SC
2015 Record: 12-8-14 (W-T-L), 44 points, 7th in Eastern Conference
2015 Goals For: 46, Tied for 10th in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 56, 17th in MLS
I like this team more than I should.
But OCSC defied the repeated expansion team regime in 2015, finishing with almost as many wins as losses, just missing a playoff berth in the process. Granted, having a -10 goal differential won’t get you very far a lot of the time, but the fact that they almost advanced to the playoffs in their first year in the MLS says something.
Adrian Heath continues to be a great mentor for the team, carrying over from their USL success. Dealing with a lack of depth last year, as most expansion teams do, he found ways to keep winning ballgames behind legend Kaká and rookie Cyle Larin.
Speaking of Larin, you’d be hard-pressed to find another rookie that mimicked his success in his first year on the pitch. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft notched 17 goals in 26 appearances for the club. That’s impressive.
Did having Kaká on the other side take pressure off of Larin? Absolutely. But you still have to take advantage of what the defense gives you. The Brazlian played 28 games his first year in Florida, silencing a lot of doubts about his durability.
If Kevin Molino can regain his early form after a torn ACL, and Antonio Nocerino brings the calming influence in the middle he’s become known for during his time abroad, this team could make their presence felt in the MLS earlier than most expected.
Columbus Crew SC
2015 Record: 15-8-11 (W-T-L), 53 points, 2nd in Eastern Conference
2015 Goals For: 58, Tied for 2nd in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 53, 14th in MLS
The Columbus Crew had a heartbreaking end to their 2015 season, losing on home turf to the Timbers in the MLS Cup finals.
The image of Kei Kamara sitting on the ground following the full-time whistle is one that will stick in a lot of the Columbus Crew faithful minds in coming years.
The positives? The starting 11 from last year is still fully intact. But, and this is a big but, Kamara’s contract has become a bit of a dilemma. If they lose him, they lose arguably the most athletic and threating striker on the roster.
Bringing in guys like the Norwegian Ola Kamara (no relation), Corey Ashe, and Rodrigo Savaria is nice, but it remains to be seen how much they’ll produce if Kamara does in fact lead the Ohio club.
This team is deep on paper, but on the pitch is something different.
New York Red Bulls
2015 Record: 18-6-10 (W-T-L), 60 points, 1st in Eastern Conference
2015 Goals For: 62, 1st in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 43, Tied for 6th in MLS
Goals aren’t everything, but when you score them at the voracity that NYRB did last year, it surely helps mask other deficiencies.
However, those holes came unmasked in the Eastern Conference finals, as the Red Bulls fell to Columbus Crew, continuing their search for the franchise’s first MLS Cup title. To make matters worse? Bradley Wright-Phillips’ shot literally hit off-post in the waning seconds of the final, failing to push the game into extra time.
Climbing their way back to the conference finals and beyond is definitely possible, with the team’s attacking core returning. If anything, the team should feature more versatility and depth with players watching from the sideline last year.
On defense, Gideon Baah enters the fold and will be looked on to solidify the center back position. The Ghanaian has represented on a national level, and should help relieve some of the pressure placed by Matt Miazga’s departure.
New York City FC
2015 Record: 10-7-17 (W-T-L), 37 points, 8th in Eastern Conference
2015 Goals For: 49, 6th in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 58, Tied for 20th in MLS
Well, somehow Toronto FC was able to squeak into the playoffs while allowing the most goals in the league. New York City FC was the less fortunate of the two, finishing eighth in the conference in their inaugural MLS season, one spot behind fellow expansion team Orlando City.
The star power on this team rivals that of the Galaxy on the west coast. David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo all bring invaluable talent and experience to the second-year club.
But none of those guys play defense. Which is what this team needs most.
Patrick Vieira enters his first season as coach of NYC FC with the task of finding that right mix on the backline, whether it be with holdover of last year’s team or somewhere else, to help this year’s squad move up the ranks in the Eastern Conference.
If their defense picks up just a little bit at all, the star power on the offensive side should be able to hold their own for the club.
2015 Record: 15-6-13 (W-T-L), 51 points, 4th in Eastern Conference
2015 Goals For: 43, Tied for 23rd in MLS
2015 Goals Against: 45, Tied for 9th in MLS
For a team that didn’t have a lot to smile about for a long time, D.C. United has come into their own the last few years and remained competitive throughout. However, after a first place Eastern Conference finish in the 2014 season, the team fell to fourth this year, being dispatched in the conference semifinals.
Chris Rolfe and Fabián Espíndola lead the attack for the Black and Red. The real man to watch is Ben Olsen. The longtime player in the nation’s capital appears to have made his mark on the sideline as well, coaching the team to a turnaround from their late 2000s fortunes.