MLS 2017 Season Preview and Predictions

The 2017 MLS Season is here at last. A record-high 22 teams will battle for this year’s MLS Cup in what is Major League Soccer’s 22nd season. Two new expansion franchises enter the league this year, with Atlanta United joining the Eastern Conference and Minnesota United joining the West, while Orlando City’s brand new soccer-specific stadium will host MLS matches for the first time too. The top six in each conference will make the playoffs once again, but with 11 sides now in each, things are sure to be more competitive than ever before in what could be the most unpredictable season in the league’s history.

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The New Boys

It’s been a busy offseason for Atlanta and Minnesota, with both sides dealing with the challenge of building a squad that can jump straight into MLS and compete. No expansion side has made the playoffs at the first attempt since the Sounders did in 2009, and that will undoubtedly be the aim for both of this year’s new sides in 2017.

Atlanta have splashed the cash to build a team that, on paper at least, looks good enough to earn a place in the postseason at the first attempt. Former Barcelona head coach Tata Martino is the man in the hotseat tasked with getting a talented young group of players to deliver on their preseason promise. Three south American Designated Players have been signed – all under the age of 23, with each expected to get fans off their seats from the first whistle.

They’ll be plenty of fans in those seats too, given the fact Atlanta have already sold a staggering 30,000 season tickets before a ball has been kicked. Expansion sides tend to flatter to deceive in their first campaigns, but Atlanta looks like the sort of team ready to make a real splash.

By stark contrast, Minnesota United have been much more careful in terms of spending. They have not signed a single DP ahead of the opening weekend, with any big spending likely to take place in the summer once the squad has found its feet. Instead, Targeted Allocation Money has been spent to build the squad, along with some clever trading to bring in the likes of Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino. Molino in particular is expected to shine under former Lions boss Adrian Heath, who has his second chance to get an expansion side into the playoffs at the first attempt this season.

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The Loons have also kept a host of names from their NASL days, and they now have to hope that their trust in those players pays off in what is sure to be a fiercely competitive Western Conference. There have been some suggestions that this Minnesota side will be one of the worst in MLS history, but they look to have enough about them to prove those critics wrong.

Standout Signings

As always, there have been a host of changes to squads over the course of preseason. But unlike any other year, MLS clubs have started to look for younger talent as it has become clear all 22 sides are starting to prioritise longer-term goals. Atlanta’s trio of young DPs have already been mentioned, but they weren’t the only side to splash the cash on younger Designated Players this winter. FC Dallas have added striker Cristian Colman, Real Salt Lake have landed Albert Rusnak, Vancouver have brought in Yordy Reyna and Sporting Kansas City have moved to sign Gerso Fernandes. All of those names are sure to make an impression in 2017, along with a host of more ‘traditional’ DPs that have joined the league, although the following five are all still under the age of 30.

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LA Galaxy have added some raw pace by bringing in Roman Alessandrini from Marseille, NYCFC have added creativity by signing Maxi Moralez to replace Frank Lampard and Chicago have added firepower by bringing in Nemanja Nikolic. On top of that Portland have signed Sebastian Blanco, while Fredy Montero is back in MLS after four seasons abroad. He has joined the Vancouver Whitecaps and will be hoping to pick up where he left off with Seattle, where he scored 47 goals in 119 regular season games.

What’s for certain is that the new DP signings will give MLS a fresh feel in 2017. More quality should mean more entertainment and more goals. Oh, and more selection dilemmas for MLS Fantasy managers…

Emerging Stars

With MLS getting younger this year, there will be plenty of focus on some of the league’s emerging talents. Some were here last season and left an impression, while others are looking to prove their worth as early as possible. The average age of squads in MLS this season is now 26.3, with FC Dallas boasting the youngest squad with an average age of 24.31. Walker Zimmerman will look to continue his improvement as an MLS defender, but will also be hoping to make an impression on the international stage if he can keep getting better. Elsewhere, the likes of LA Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget and NYCFC’s Jack Harrison will be looking to have breakout seasons so long as they can nail down regular starting roles.

Jack Harrison, MLS: NYCFC vs. LA Galaxy

Cody Cropper will be hoping this is the year he can become a standout goalkeeper. He had struggled for game time in England in the past but is now in New England, where he’ll expect to impress. While in New York, Sean Davis has the seemingly impossible task of trying to fill the void left by Dax McCarty’s departure to Chicago. But he should be giving the time on the field to prove his worth and will be looking to help lead the Red Bulls to the top of the East once more.

Who Will Be MVP?

As with any season, making a prediction like this before the first ball has even been kicked is brave stupid, but why not do it again? There are a host of new unpredictabilities all over the league this year but the same star names will expect to be challenging at the top end of the scoring charts, and for the MVP award too as a result. Sebastian Giovinco was probably shocked not to pick up the 2016 MLS MVP award, with David Villa instead scooping that award, and both attackers will once again be tipped to dominate defences from day one.

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Strikers have dominated the MVP award over the past five seasons, but playmakers such as Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Sacha Kljestan will fancy their chances of making a case for the honour if they can have standout campaigns.

But it’s impossible to overlook Giovinco. The Atomic Ant has scored 39 goals and picked up 31 assists in 61 regular season games and is arguably the greatest player to ever play in Major League Soccer. If he stays healthy, he’s surely going to be MVP.

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Who Will Win MLS Cup?

The only thing that’s even more brave stupid to predict than the MVP is picking the team that will lift MLS Cup nine months on from now. But hey, why not give that a go too? The way the Sounders marched to MLS Cup glory last season from a seemingly lost position in the summer was incredible, but is unlikely to be repeated this term given the increased competition and quality in the league. No side has retained the trophy for four seasons but the Sounders still have the tools at their disposal to put up a strong defence. LA Galaxy are usually in the mix but they are set for a transitional year and don’t look to be in a position to go and get their hands on a sixth title this year.

MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders

What does look likely is that the winner will come from the Western Conference for the eighth time in nine seasons. FC Dallas have still never lifted MLS Cup, which seems insane considering they’ve finished top of the West for two-straight seasons. They have all the tools to go all the way this year. Mauro Diaz is out for the first four months of the new season, which is a huge blow, but he’ll be back at a key time of the season and will be able to help Oscar Pareja’s men go all the way in 2017.

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Vancouver Whitecaps also look like contenders this year, as the addition of Montero should make them much more of a force this term. Toronto FC were one shootout away from winning the title last term, and if Giovinco and Jozy Altidore can remain healthy for the majority of the campaign, they will likely be there or thereabouts again.

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PODCAST: MLS ‘dark horses’, MVP predictions & Arsenal discussed

In this week’s MLSGB Podcast, Zack Walford sits down with Jamie Ives and Louis East to discuss who they think will be this year’s dark horses in MLS, as well as their predictions for who will be the 2016 MLS MVP.

Then the team finish by looking at Arsenal, and whether they can go on and win a first Premier League title in over a decade.

Be sure to comment below or get in touch on Twitter: @MLSGB_

Will LA Galaxy’s Robbie Keane be as prolific next campaign?

Major League Soccer MVP and MLS Cup winner Robbie Keane had a wonderful season, capped off by scoring the winning goal in the final but he has a lot to do for the upcoming season to maintain his brilliant form.

The loss of the now-retired Landon Donovan will certainly have an impact on Keane’s performances, because as we know teams feared playing against the deadly duo but they can now pay more attention to Keane.

The 34-year-old forward will need to continue his successful partnership with the impressive Gyasi Zardes, who only netted three less than the Irishman last term.

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It will be interesting to see who the Galaxy bring in as a replacement for Donovan, with some reports suggesting Ronaldinho could be on his way to MLS.

With many players we know age is just a number, Keane will turn 35 during the next season but given his hunger and desire for the game it shouldn’t impact his performances at all.

He showed throughout last season that he still has that killer instinct in front of goal – a trait that he will never lose. With that in mind, teams will be fearing him possibly even more so in the upcoming season due to confidence being as high as ever.

We can expect Keane to be heading someway towards his 20-goal tally of this season again next term and unless any other outside factors hinder him such as injuries he should have no problem reaching his targets.

His wealth of experience will again help him no end, and the displays we saw from Keane last season were as good as when he was at his best with Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League.

The Galaxy will be going into the new season full of confidence and will believe they can beat anybody despite the loss of Donovan, and they’ll want to push on and continue making history with another MLS Cup title in 2015.

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The departure of Donovan could be a blessing in disguise for Keane as the Galaxy fans will be looking to him as their standalone cult hero, and we know that fans in MLS certainly get behind their players.

He is one of the most experienced players in MLS and will go down in the same category as Thierry Henry when he retires too.

We excitedly await the new campaign and are looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

Will Robbie Keane impress again next season in MLS?

5 tackles, 11 clearances – John Brooks puts in solid display against Dortmund

USA international defender John Brooks put in a blockbuster performance for Hertha Berlin this afternoon as they beat Borussia Dortmund 1-0 at the Olympiastadion in the Bundesliga.

He was voted man of the match for his solid performance at the heart of the defence, making more clearances and interceptions than any other player on the pitch.

Centre-back performances in Hertha Berlin vs. Borussia Dortmund (December 13 2014):

John Brooks stats

[Stats according to whoscored.com]

Hertha Berlin midfielder Peter Niemeyer was the only player on the pitch who made more tackles (7) than John Brooks, while fellow centre-back Jens Hegeler was the only man to block more shots (3).

A faultless performance from the 21-year-old helped lift his side into twelfth position in the table.

The 6′ 4” giant came through the youth system at Hertha Berlin and has become an established member of the first team over the last two years.

It’s a positive sign for the future of the USMNT as John Brooks continues to develop well at the German club and he’s certainly not doing himself any harm if he continues to put in performances of this level.

How good is John Brooks?

Stats: MVP winner Robbie Keane’s season compared to Nguyen, Martins and Wright-Phillips

LA Galaxy forward Robbie Keane was announced as Major League Soccer’s Most Valuable Player of 2014 yesterday, as he beat Obafemi Martins, Lee Nguyen and Bradley Wright-Phillips to the MVP award.

Keane has had his best season to date with the Galaxy, scoring 18 goals in the regular season, and two more so far in the playoffs with an MLS Cup Final clash with New England Revolution in store on Sunday.

Don’t miss: MLS Cup Preview and Prediction – LA Galaxy vs New England Revolution

The Irishman has notched 12 assists in the regular season and postseason combined and has been at the heart of everything for the Western Conference Championship winners.

Table: How the MVP award was decided (via mlssoccer.com)

Table: How the MVP award was decided (via mlssoccer.com)

Keane was a convincing winner of the award in the end, with Obafemi Martins and Lee Nguyen behind, closely followed by MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips.

All four players were in prolific goalscoring form in 2014, and Keane and Nguyen will hope to add to their tally in Sunday’s MLS Cup Final.

Table: MLS MVP candidates 2014 stats including playoffs (via Squawka)

Table: MLS MVP candidates 2014 stats including playoffs (via Squawka)

Both Keane and Martins have picked up 12 assists this season – more than Nguyen or Wright-Phillips managed, but the Revs playmaker has been more effective with the ball.

Nguyen has created more chances per game, and has better shot accuracy and pass completion rates than the other three goalscoring stars who were in the running for the MVP award.

Though it is Keane who is celebrating winning the award and he will now be looking ahead to Sunday’s MLS Cup title decider with Nguyen’s New England Revolution side.

Did Robbie Keane deserve to win the 2014 MLS MVP award?

 

Playoff Preview and Prediction: New York Red Bulls vs New England Revolution

The Eastern Conference Final kicks off on Sunday night with New England Revolution travelling to Red Bull Arena to take on the New York Red Bulls in the first-leg.

The Revolution have never won at Red Bull Arena and lost twice to New York during the regular season.

But the Revs are expected to come into the game at full strength seeing as Jermaine Jones and Lee Nguyen came home early from the USMNT’s mini-UK tour after facing Colombia last Friday.

The Red Bulls should be much of the same with their illustrious front three of Lloyd Sam, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry firing on all cylinders. While Peguy Luyindula will look to continue his fine run of form in the playmaking role.

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New York have made Red Bull Arena a bit of a fortress of late, having won nine out of their last ten at home. And have won back-to-back playoff games at home too as the days of home playoff losses could be over. New England will need to perform as they have been in recent weeks to change that.

New York Red Bulls Home Form: Played 19 – Won 12 – Drawn 4 – Lost 3

However, the Revs come into the game unbeaten in their last seven. And with the emergence of Charlie Davies and his recent proficiency, they haven’t had to rely on the outstanding Lee Nguyen as much.

Don’t Miss: Stats: Thierry Henry vs Lee Nguyen – Which playmaker will make the difference on Sunday?

The MVP candidate has stayed sharp from his trip to the UK with the National team and will look to be the difference-maker once more.

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New York are the favorites here though, seeing as their home form has been superb. And they will want to lay down a marker for the second-leg while remaining tight at the back to try and ensure away goals don’t become a deciding factor.

Red Bull Arena is expected to be at full capacity as the club revealed they had sold out the stadium ahead of the first-leg this Sunday.

New England’s Away Form: Played 18 – Won 7 – Drawn 2 – Lost 9

The Revs have netted a staggering 11 goals in their last four away games and with Lee Nguyen in the form of his life, it would take a brave man to back against them getting at least one in New York.

This should be a cracker!

Key Player: Lee Nguyen – ‘MVLee’ scored 18 goals in the regular season and is integral to any MLS Cup hopes the Revs have. Classy player, always expect the unexpected.

Key Stat: New York have not lost to New England in 11 home games. The Revolution’s last win against the Red Bulls in MLS was in July 2012.

Prediction: New York Red Bulls 2 – 1 New England Revolution

Thierry Henry backs Bradley Wright-Phillips for MLS MVP award

New York Red Bulls star Thierry Henry has backed teammate Bradley Wright-Phillips in the race for Major League Soccer’s Most Valuable Player award for the 2014 season.

Wright-Phillips tied the single season goalscoring record with his brace against Sporting Kansas City in the final regular season game on Sunday, as he equalled Chris Wondolowski and Roy Lassiter’s record of 27 goals in one season.

And Henry believes that his consistency over the course of the season make it hard to overlook the Englishman.

“No disrespect to anyone, Bradley’s been doing that since Day 1, not finished well, not played well in the middle or started well. He started, was still there in the middle and finished strong.

“He played well from the beginning. And the [MVP award] is for the player of the season. Player of the season, not the last three months, not the middle months, not the five first games. Player of the season.

“Did you play well the whole season? How many games has Bradley had? Thirty-two. That’s why for me he will get my vote,” Henry said.

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Robbie Keane, Lee Nguyen and Obafemi Martins are expected to go head-to-head in a three-way battle for the prestigious award, but Wright-Phillips has already beaten all of those to one award this season.

His 27 goals saw him scoop the Budweiser Golden Boot, and although he will be delighted with that, he will still feel he could have broken the MLS single season goalscoring record.

“You saw it when the ref blew the whistle,” Henry said when asked for his thoughts on Wright-Phillips tying the record. “I won’t say what he said, but you could see he was upset. That’s the right attitude, and that’s why he reached that level this year because he wanted more and more and more.”

“If you look at the amount of goals he missed one-v-one with the ‘keeper, and I’m not having a go, that’s what I kept putting in his head because you want that guy [motivated]. Because let’s be honest, if it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if we would’ve made the playoffs.”

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The Red Bulls have made the playoffs, and will face up against last year’s MLS Cup winners Sporting Kansas City at Red Bull Arena on Thursday night in the Eastern Conference knockout round.

Henry could be playing his last games for the club as his future is up in the air, but a new striking sensation has proved himself to be the real deal, and Wright-Phillips will need to keep scoring goals if New York are to go far in the playoffs.

Does Bradley Wright-Phillips deserve to win the MVP award?

The MLSGB team’s MLS MVP picks

The 2014 Major League Soccer season is close to completion, with just one more weekend of regular season action to look forward to before the excitement of the playoffs.

It has been a long season, interrupted halfway through by the World Cup in Brazil, but the standard of football in the league has been impressive throughout, and will only continue to improve in years to come.

It is nearly the time of year when the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award is announced, and the MLSGB team have all picked who they feel deserves the prestigious accolade.

Louis East – Lee Nguyen

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The New England Revolution would not be where it is without Lee Nguyen. No doubt about it. The playmaker has been phenomenal all season, and has scored an incredible 17 goals from midfield, while also picking up five assists. He may add to that tally in the final game against Toronto this weekend, but even if he doesn’t, he deserves the award as his side would not be heading into the playoffs were it not for his contribution, and he will hopefully receive a USMNT call-up before too long too.

Simon Pyne – Robbie Keane

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Robbie Keane has been phenomenal this season, and his goals have lead the Galaxy to a successful season yet again. He finished as runner-up for the MVP award last year, but deserves to go one better and claim it this season. He will look to continue to shine into the playoffs as LA search for their fifth MLS Cup.

Jamie Ives – Bradley Wright-Phillips

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The Englishman’s goals have been the only reason New York Red Bulls have challenged for a playoff spot. Goals win games and he has won a fair few points for the Red Bulls single-handedly. Undoubtedly the best player in the league this year, especially when you consider the improvement we have seen in his game.

Ben Ashton – Robbie Keane

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If Robbie Keane does scoop the MVP award, I don’t think many people could complain about it. The Irishman has been in fine form once again this season, contributing to an impressive 33 goals in total (19 scored with 14 assists), which is more than any player in the league. It’s very much a cliché, but the game is all about creating and scoring goals – and Keane is the absolute master of both.

Lewis Addley – Lee Nguyen

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Scoring 17 goals from midfield is exceptional, with a lot of those goals coming in games where New England have only won by the odd goal or avoided defeat. He has started every game for the Revs this season, performing consistently well throughout, and his general game has come on leaps and bounds from the last campaign.

Zack Walford – Landon Donovan

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The retiring legend has had another fantastic season. He has continued to perform to the best of his ability, despite the shock exclusion from Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup squad in June. His creativity has helped the LA Galaxy to the playoffs once again, and it would be the perfect ending if the Galaxy were to lift their fifth MLS Cup at the end of the season.

Who do you think deserves to be named as MVP from the 2014 MLS season?

Obafemi Martins further emphasises importance in Seattle’s comeback display

The Seattle Sounders rallied in the second-half to earn a valuable point away at fellow MLS Supporters’ Shield contenders LA Galaxy on Sunday night, with Obafemi Martins at the heart of everything the Sounders did going forward once again.

A Seattle win would have wrapped up the Supporters Shield a week before the end of the season, but the draw means that their is all to play for when the sides meet again in the final game of the regular season at CenturyLink Field.

Goals from Baggio Husidic and Marcelo Sarvas either side of halftime put LA 2-0 up, and all looked to be going accordingly in Landon Donovan’s final regular season home game.

But Seattle weren’t to be defeated that easily, and Martins inspired them to come back and earn a draw as he picked up two assists for Clint Dempsey and Lamar Neagle goals in quick succession.

Omar Gonzalez was sent off late on, and he will miss the decider on Saturday night as a result, but Martins is the man who deserves to be talked about, as the 29-year-old did his MVP claims no harm by setting up both Sounders goals.

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Martins had more shots than anyone on the pitch last night with five, and also completed more dribbles than anyone else on the field.

He made three key passes, and proved to be the main attacking threat once more – a significant claim when playing alongside Clint Dempsey.

Martins is undoubtedly in the running for the MVP award, and another outstanding display in the final game could be a huge factor, as Robbie Keane appears the favourite for MVP at the moment.

The Nigerian striker has scored 17 goals this season, joint-fourth most in the league, tied with Lee Nguyen (another MVP candidate), and has the joint-second highest amount of assists with 11, as only Landon Donovan has more (14).

Martins looks set to stay in Seattle for another couple of seasons as he is reportedly closing in on a contract extension, but that won’t be until after the season.

He will be crucial for the Sounders on Saturday night, and in the playoffs as well as Seattle are set to fight for their first MLS Cup win.

How important is Martins to Seattle? Does he deserve the MVP award?