The 2017 MLS season is nearly upon us, with the Portland Timbers and expansion club Minnesota United pulling back the curtain on the new campaign Friday night at Providence Park.
It's been a few months since the Timbers' rival, the Seattle Sounders, captured their first MLS Cup title in Toronto. Since then, two new full rosters have been built (Minnesota and fellow expansion club Atlanta United); big-name, big-money stars have moved on (farewell to the likes of Robbie Keane, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Steven Gerrard); a new cast and breed of talent has joined the fold (hello to Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Sebastian Blanco, Alberth Elis, Romain Alessandrini and Albert Rusnak, among others); and future league expansion remains on the horizon.
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With a nine-month road ahead, you have a couple of options: watch it play out, or have it all spoiled for you with our fearless and peerless, never-wrong season predictions.
So with that, take a look below as SI's experts Grant Wahl, Brian Straus and Alexander Abnos make select picks for how the league's 22nd season will play out:
Who will win MLS Cup?
WAHL: Toronto FC. Somehow, TFC failed to win the MLS Cup final in December despite being on its home field and despite outplaying Seattle before falling on penalties. That will be plenty of motivation to get back to the final—and win it this time.
STRAUS: FC Dallas. Last year’s treble dreams were shattered along with Mauro Díaz’s Achilles tendon. But instead of feeling sorry for itself, FC Dallas went out and got better. Javier Morales was acquired as a replacement playmaker, striker Cristian Colmán arrived from Paraguay and Belgian winger Roland Lamah was signed to fill the hole left by Fabián Castillo. Defenders Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman are evolving into national team candidates while FCD’s academy gold mine has produced Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira and Reggie Cannon.
FCD’s trophy drought ended with last year’s Open Cup and Supporters' Shield. Now it can focus on MLS Cup. Coach Oscar Pareja will be more patient in pacing his team, Díaz will return in the fall and Dallas will hit the playoffs focused and in form. It’s their time.
ABNOS: FC Dallas. Morales was an inspired pickup, and his veteran presence will not only help a very young team in the absence of Diaz, but also in the period after Diaz comes back. Pareja always has his team playing without fear, and that should serve them well come playoff time.
WAHL: Dallas. Even without the injured Mauro Díaz for most of the season, Dallas has a good short-term replacement (Javier Morales) and a cast of terrific veterans and emerging youngsters.
STRAUS: There will be no hangover in Toronto, despite the short offseason. The pain of that agonizing MLS Cup final loss will fuel the Reds through the spring and summer, while a tactical and personnel changes by the New York Red Bulls and Dallas’s shifting priorities remove the past two Shield winners from the equation. Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco are unstoppable and Spanish playmaker Víctor Vázquez will help TFC diversify its attack. Toronto finished seven points behind FCD last year after spending the season’s first two months on the road. With a more normal slate at BMO Field in 2017, Toronto will make up those points and more.
ABNOS: Toronto FC. Greg Vanney’s side is just stacked from top to bottom, so they stand a good chance of picking up points even when one or all of Altidore, Michael Bradley or Giovinco are unavailable. Plus, don’t discount the motivating factor of losing last year’s MLS Cup final. That team will be doing everything it can to get that taste out of their mouths as quickly as possible.
Who will win the Golden Boot?
WAHL: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto. The most dangerous scorer in the league, period.
STRAUS: David Villa is 35, but until he stops being awesome he’s going to get the benefit of the doubt. NYCFC plays a wide-open game and it attacks with flair through the Spanish veteran. Villa, who finished one goal off the golden boot pace last season, won’t split the scoring load like Giovinco will in Toronto. That’ll make the difference for the 2016 league MVP.
ABNOS: Fanendo Adi. He’s scored 16 goals in each of the last two seasons and has the fearsome trio of Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri and newly arrived DP Sebastian Blanco behind him.
Who will be the highest-scoring American in the league?
WAHL: Jordan Morris, Seattle. Kind of crazy that the highest-scoring American in MLS last year was (wait for it) Chris Pontius. Morris is emerging as a star, and I think he’ll be the guy this year.
STRAUS: Jozy Altidore appears to have overcome his hamstring issues. He’s found his comfort zone for both club and country and has a powerful team behind him in Toronto. Even though Giovinco will score plenty, a full season at his full potential will be enough to lift Altidore to the top of the American scoring chart.
ABNOS: Altidore. When healthy, Altidore is as hard-working a forward as there is in the league, and he proved at the end of last season that he can be a volume scorer as well (15 goals in his last 21 games with Toronto in 2016, including playoffs).
Which 10 teams will miss the playoffs?
WAHL: East: Chicago Fire, Montreal Impact, New England Revolution, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union; West: Colorado Rapids, Houston Dynamo, Minnesota United, San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouver Whitecaps
STRAUS: East: Atlanta United, Chicago Fire, New England Revolution, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union; West: Colorado Rapids, Houston Dynamo, Minnesota United, San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouver Whitecaps.
ABNOS: East: Atlanta United, Chicago Fire, Montreal Impact, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union, Orlando City; West: San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo, Minnesota United, LA Galaxy, Vancouver Whitecaps.
Who is your sleeper, under-the-radar team due for a bounce back?
WAHL: Columbus. Last season was a strange one for Gregg Berhalter’s team, and with greater stability this season I suspect 2016 will end up being viewed as an anomaly.
STRAUS: Agree with Grant here. Last year was an everything-that-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong stumble for Columbus. But the yellow kits are back and the Crew’s 2015 mojo will return as well. Ola Kamara will continue to score, and coach Gregg Berhalter addressed the issues in defense with the signing of DP center back Jonathan Mensah and left back Jukka Raitala. Columbus has depth and talent in center midfield and if Federico Higuaín can stay healthy, the Crew should have no issue returning to the postseason.
ABNOS: New England Revolution. The Revs really found a groove towards the end of 2016 and you know Jay Heaps has spent all offseason thinking of a way to get all the talent in their front six to play well together. They’ve improved just enough on the defensive side of the ball that I think they’ll bounce back in a big way in 2017.
Which off-season acquisition will look like an act of genius?
WAHL: Javier Morales, Dallas. Mauro Díaz left big shoes to fill while he’s out. It says here that Morales has one more season in him in that spot.
STRAUS: Chicago’s turnaround will get a jumpstart from striker Nemanja Nikolić. He scores goals at a robust rate and will remind us of the days when a vigorous Eastern European influence helped carry the Fire to trophies. Nikolić was born in Serbia, plays for Hungary but broke through in Poland, where he tallied 55 goals in 86 games across 1.5 seasons at Legia Warsaw. He struck six times in 11 Champions League matches last season. He’s a pure finisher, and with Michael de Leeuw and David Accam providing service and Dax McCarty and Juninho locking things down in midfield, Nikolić will get his chances.
ABNOS: McCarty to the Chicago Fire. “Act of genius” may be a little strong for this one, actually. It’s more like “Act of spellbinding obviousness.” The Fire clearly had developed a losing culture at the club, and Dax proved in his time with the Red Bulls that he brings the exact opposite. Together with some of the Fire’s other moves, McCarty will make a noticeable difference in Chicago. I’d be shocked if they finish near the bottom of the table again this season.
WAHL: D.C. United's Ian Harkes is my pick for Rookie of the Year; FC Dallas's Kellyn Acosta is on the brink of stardom; NYCFC's Tommy McNamara won't be just a cult hero anymore in 2017.
STRAUS: Kellyn Acosta, FC Dallas; Luciano Acosta, D.C. United; Jordan Allen, Real Salt Lake; Fabian Herbers, Philadelphia Union; Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders
ABNOS: Sporting Kansas City's Jimmy Medranda is a sparkplug of a player that seemed to get better and better as last year went on. If he can cement a permanent spot in the SKC lineup, look out; FC Dallas did damage last year without a go-to center forward, so the addition of the 23-year-old Cristian Colman could elevate an already-good team to another level. He’s been in good form in preseason. Real Salt Lake homegrown player Jordan Allen performed well when called upon last season and should have an even bigger role this time around for a more balanced RSL team than we’ve seen.
How will Atlanta United and Minnesota United fare in their respective Year 1 campaigns?
WAHL: Atlanta will make playoffs after finishing sixth in the East. Minnesota will finish last in the West.
STRAUS: There’s a reason the Sounders are the only first-year club to make the playoffs since MLS’s initial expansion in 1998—it’s hard to build a cohesive side in a few months. So while both Atlanta and Minnesota will be fun to watch, it’s a tall order to expect either to play in November. Atlanta is stocked with young talent and has enormous potential. But relying on 22- and 23 year-olds with no MLS experience will pose challenges, and by the time this team gels and gets comfortable, it’ll be too late. But watch out in 2018. Minnesota will score goals thanks to Christian Ramirez, Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino, but United will be far too busy in back to contend this year.
ABNOS: Atlanta will be inconsistent but occasionally very, very good. However, it’s tough to expect an expansion team starting from scratch to make the playoffs. Minnesota, on the other hand, will struggle.
Which cities will be given MLS expansion teams by year's end (including Miami)?
WAHL: Miami, Sacramento, St. Louis. Sacto and STL are the favorites, and David Beckham’s group will finally get their act together in Miami.
STRAUS: Miami will figure it out and finally nail things down. St. Louis and Sacramento were the heavy favorites entering 2017. But a couple of political hurdles remain for the former, while the latter stumbled last month thanks to some internal ownership intrigue. Don Garber has made no secret of his interest in San Diego, and an impressive plan there (plus the Chargers’ departure) could see it spring a surprise.
ABNOS: Sacramento, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Miami would be a good addition to MLS but that bid only ever seems to lose momentum despite having one of the sport’s biggest celebrities behind it.