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MLS is notoriously difficult to predict because the league has so much parity. But the 2017 season is upon us starting on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, FS1) so, even though it's a tough job, someone has to do it.
Here are our biggest predictions for this coming season:
Geoff BurkeGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Toronto FC will win the MLS Cup
Is it that bold of a prediction to think Toronto can make it all the way make to the MLS Cup again? In some ways no – after all, they keep much of the core roster that got them there last season. But reaching back-to-back MLS Cups is easier said than done – just ask the Portland Timbers and the Columbus Crew, who made in there in 2015 and missed the playoffs in 2016.
But Toronto FC have shown a hunger in their past two years that was often absent from the club, and they should be as eager as ever to make another run. The core of their star power returns, and as long as the likes of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore stay healthy, they are the types of players who can be the difference in a very tight league.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY SportsJoe Nicholson
The MVP will be Nicolas Lodeiro
There's a very fair argument that he should've won the award last year. He arrived in MLS in July, but he led a stunning and historic turnaround that saw the Seattle Sounders go from the bottom of their conference to MLS Cup champions. He just hadn't played enough to merit consideration.
But now that he'll be with the Sounders all year, there's no reason he can't make enough of an impact to win the league's top honor. Whether it's scoring goals himself or setting up his teammates, Lodeiro fundamentally changed Seattle's attack, and he can do it again.
USA TODAY SportsTroy Wayrynen
The Golden Boot winner will be Fanendo Adi
While the Western Conference has long been considered the dominant one, this year's crop looks as unpredictable and as dubious as it has in recent years. Amid some questions about how the rest of the West will fair, the opportunity is ripe for a team like the Timbers to take control and win a lot of games.
If that happens, Adi will be at the center of all of it. The Timbers attack boasts a fearsome foursome of Diego Valeri in the central midfield, Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco on the wings, plus Adi up top. Adi scored 16 goals last year, despite the Timbers dealing with some serious form, chemistry and depth issues. With the attack the Timbers have going into 2017, he could be in for his best year yet.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY SportsGreg Bartram
The Chicago Fire will make the playoffs
They've been at the bottom of the league two years running and it’s hard to be overly optimistic about the Fire's chances this year. But this is MLS, where there's so much parity that one or two changes can take a team from the basement to the title race. Just look at last season and Seattle's midseason turnaround, or Colorado's stunning start.
No, it doesn't look like they're going to get Bastian Schweinsteiger after all, but Dax McCarty and Juninho are big upgrades in the central midfield. Their attacking line was never their biggest problem, and it looks like they may have the midfield to create some actual changes. Defense remains a concern, but they should have enough to compete in the East.
Isaiah J. DowningIsaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor
The Colorado Rapids will miss the playoffs
And here is the other end of the spectrum of MLS's unpredictability. The Rapids were at the bottom of the league two years running, and then spent much of 2017 looking like a Supporter's Shield favorite. It was a stunning turnaround – and there's plenty of reason to think it may have been an anomaly. A harsher word for that would be a "fluke.")
It hasn't exactly helped that the Rapids have had a rather quiet offseason, even in light several players leaving, including Jermaine Jones. The Rapids seem willing to stand pat and see if they can have another magical start to the season that will give them the momentum they need. But it seems unlikely and it's not entirely clear where their goals will come from.
Atlanta United will make playoffs
The newest soccer team to debut in 2017 presents a bit of conundrum. On one hand, MLS expansion teams rarely make playoffs, and they are trying to do it with a coach who has never coached in North America (and its unique geographic challenges) nor MLS (with its unique roster rules). But at the same time, it's hard not to look at their roster and think they might be able to pull it off.
The talent on their roster seems like the real deal. Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba are two exciting young players who will lead what looks like a juggernaut attack that includes Venezuela's Josef Martinez. Meanwhile, their defense includes some good MLS experience. Building an MLS roster from scratch may be a tough task for newcomer coach Tata Martino, but technical director Carlos Bocanegra clearly offering a heavy touch of guidance. They don't need to get everything perfect in Year 1, but if they find any chemistry at all, there's no reason they can't defy the odds and make playoffs.
Russell IsabellaRuss Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Cassar will be fired midseason
This isn't fun for anyone, but there's usually a couple coaches who are fired or resign in the middle of the season. It wouldn’t be the worst bet to think Cassar could be the first one to go. The problem for Cassar is that the further the Real Salt Lake gets from the era of Jason Kreis as coach and Garth Lagerwey as general manager, the less they seem to have an identity and the less convincing they look. Cassar hasn't made his stamp on the team after two years at the helm, and the players don't look particularly motivated under him.
RSL have gone through a bit of a roster re-build that saw their midfield core replaced and they've got some young up-and-comers who figure to play prominent roles. That could be enough to rejuvenate the team and Cassar. But if not, RSL might want to re-think their approach.
Jerome MironJerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
FC Dallas will struggle without Mauro Diaz
Last season, Dallas dominated all the way through – until Diaz, their magician in the midfield, got hurt with a torn Achilles tendon. Then, suddenly the formula that worked was nowhere to be found and their playoffs ended with a whimper. Dallas won’t be caught off guard this year – they have known for months that Diaz won’t be back until the summer at the earliest. Javier Morales seems like the stop-gap solution until Diaz gets back, but there are real questions about how it’ll work.
If Diaz can quickly make his way back, there’s little reason to doubt FC Dallas can bounce back. After all, the Seattle Sounders proved last season being a bad team until August is manageable. But it could be tough going until then, and Dallas will have to be able to turn it on down the stretch. If Diaz can’t make a return at all this season, the Western Conference is in for some big shake-ups.
No one signs Chicharito, contrary to constant rumors
It’s the rumor that will not die. There's no question that every team in MLS would love to have Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, and there’s reason to believe that one day, MLS is a definite possibility. But as much as the story gets floated out there, Chicharito is going to stay put at Bayer Leverkusen, where he has been playing well.
The rumors had more plausibility when Chicharito was struggling, but he’s wiped out his goal-scoring drought with an emphatic run of form. The Bundesliga seems to suit the 27-year-old at this point in his career and MLS fans will have to wait for the Mexican international.