People who don’t watch MLS like to mock it as a “retirement league.” Most of the players in MLS aren’t the ancient relics that detractors would like to claim but the presence of players like Didier Drogba (38), Frank Lampard (38) and Steven Gerrard (36) didn’t help the league’s image. After largely forgettable seasons (well, Drogba’s outbursts were at least a bit interesting?) all three of them decided to call it quits after the 2016 season.
But on the other end of the spectrum, the league continued to build its ranks of exciting foreign players in the prime of their careers. Nicolas Lodeiro (27) of Uruguay was a game-changer for the Seattle Sounders and let them to MLS Cup. Mauro Diaz (25), Sebastian Giovinco (29) and Ignacio Piatti (31) again all had stellar seasons and proved themselves to be world-class. In this offseason, Atlanta United signed a pair of youngsters, Miguel Almirón (22) of Paraguay and Héctor Villalba (22) of Argentina, who may very well continue the trend.
The greatest comeback in MLS history
On July 10, 2016, the Seattle Sounders sat in last place of the Western Conference. On December 10, 2016, they were the league champions. Sure, say what you want about the playoff format, but their run was incredible any way you slice it. They had gone a dismal 6-12-2 and — after a coaching change and the arrival on Nicolas Lodeiro — followed it up by going 8-2-4. No team in MLS history made as much ground as the Sounders and win the MLS Cup.
Credit surely goes to Lodeiro, who not only filled a much-needed role but did it with world-class magic, although incoming coach Brian Schmetzer deserves his due too. He changed the team’s system, tweaked the roles of the players on the field and got more out of his floundering squad that outgoing coach Sigi Schmid had this season. Add in the fact that Jordan Morris had the best rookie season an American had ever had and everything managed to come together in the nick of time.
A season of surprises: Colorado and New York City surge
Whoever picked the Colorado Rapids before the season to be Supporters Shield contenders, please raise your hand. Everyone with their hand raised is lying. Fine, there may have been some fans who believed in the Rapids, but their ascent was hardly expected. They finished 2015 in a last and the year before that in second-last. They strengthened their defense quite a bit, but they still didn’t have many goal-scorers — yet somehow it didn’t matter.
For New York City FC, expectations were also low. The club fired Jason Kreis after missing playoffs in the first year, which seemed extraordinarily harsh, especially given that signing a struggling Frank Lampard didn’t really seem to be his choice. But coach Patrick Vieira came in and seemed to have a clear vision of what he wanted to do, adjusted his tactics throughout the season and unlocking a more cohesive team that finished near the top of the East table.
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How the mighty have fallen: top teams miss playoffs
Remember when the Portland Timbers and the Columbus Crew battled it out in the 2015 MLS Cup? It feels like it happened longer than a year ago, mostly because the Timbers and the Crew struggled all year. In the Timbers’ case, a revolving door of injuries, an unsuccessful post-Cup rebuild and a serious lack of road confidence plagued the reigning champs all year. They wouldn’t defend their MLS Cup because they didn’t even make the playoffs.
For the Crew, the most exciting thing that happened all season for them was a bizarre quarrel between their two Designated Players, Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain over who should take a penalty kick. For some reason, it resulted in Kamara being traded away to the New England Revolution while Higuain was pretty ineffective on his own. On top of it, their defense just didn’t get the job done either. Playoffs weren’t going to happen.
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The year of Canadian soccer
One can only assume a Toronto FC vs. Montreal Impact pairing in the Eastern Conference final was not what league and network executives were hoping for when the alternative was New York City FC vs. the New York Red Bulls. But here’s the thing: The TFC-Impact series was an instant classic that included 12 goals and the score advantage jumping back and forth. To say that it was thrilling feels like an understatement.
Never have Canadian teams dominated the MLS playoffs like they did this season, and that it was two regional Canadian rivals duking it out mad it that much better. MLS is often thought of an a strictly American league because, well, the biggest teams tend to be American ones. But Montreal and especially Toronto FC changed that this year. Canadian soccer is on the map.
Coaching shuffle: Some of the league’s biggest coaches exit
Any MLS season is bound to see some coaching changes and 2016 was no different. Owen Coyle left the Houston Dynamo in May and Orlando City sacked Adrian Heath to bring in Jason Kreis. But the biggest departures came from the league’s two winningest coaches.
Bruce Arena, who has won five MLS Cups, left in November to take over the U.S. men’s national team from fired coach Jurgen Klinsmann. But over the summer it was Sigi Schmid, who led the Seattle Sounders to seven straight playoffs and several trophies, who left the league, being sacked after a particularly bad 3-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City.
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Expansion teams prepare to make a splash
Sometimes it feels like everyone is more interested in the MLS teams that don’t exist yet. To that end, Atlanta United gave everyone a lot to be excited about with their ambitious coach hire, bringing in former Argentina coach Tata Martino, and deep-pocketed roster moves, like signing Miguel Almirón for several million dollars.
Minnesota United has done considerably less in preparing to compete on Day One next year, but they are building a new stadium and, well, their team logo is pretty awesome.
The expansion race gets more crowded as finish line becomes clearer
Now, there are at least another four unclaimed expansion spots and a field of prospective cities that grew significantly more crowded in 2016. Ownership groups from Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Nashville and Raleigh all announced their interest in MLS this year. On top of it, David Beckham is still looking to make good on his promise of an urban stadium plan in Miami.
In the nick of time before the new year, MLS announced their plans for how the bidding process will work — and MLS commissioner all made it clear the league is growing impatient waiting for Miami. There wasn’t any actual progress on expansion in 2016, but there were a lot of new wrinkles that set the stage for a showdown in 2017.