On Sunday, March 6, all 20 Major League Soccer (MLS) teams will kick off their season with their sights set on claiming the MLS Cup. The highlight of the opening matches is the rematch of last year’s finals when the defending champion Portland Timbers take on the Columbus Crew. The Portland Timbers unexpectedly ran the table in last year’s playoffs to come away with the Cup. Going into the playoffs, the Timbers were just the third seed in their conference and were the third worst scoring team in the league. They were even almost eliminated in the first round, having to go to penalties to beat the sixth-seeded Sporting Kansas City. They still have something to prove in league analysts’ eyes, as none of them projected the Timbers to repeat as champions. So, who has the early advantage? A lot can change over the course of the season, but looking just at roster talent and past successes, here is a breakdown of what to expect this MLS season.
An easy pick is always the LA Galaxy, and it seems even easier this year as they have assembled possibly their best roster in recent years. That is quite an accomplishment, as they won the cup in three of the last five years. The additions of left back Ashley Cole and center back Jelle Van Damme will definitely improve their defense, which was a focus going into the offseason. They also return their talented core offensive players from a year ago, who put them third in the league in scoring. Once again, the Galaxy are a team to watch out for.
Of course, in the Eastern Conference, there is also the Columbus Crew. A team that was so close to glory last season before suffering a heartbreaking one-goal defeat at the hands of the Timbers. Can they recover and make it back to the finals, this time finishing the job? There is no reason to think they cannot. They return almost every player from last season’s very successful season, including the league’s leading scorer from a year ago, Kei Kamara.
Another team to watch is FC Dallas, who suffered a semifinal loss to the Timbers last year. They were the number one seed in the Western Conference last year, but just could not come through when it mattered most. So, what did they do this offseason? They grabbed one of the top offensive players from the team that beat them, forward Maximiliano Urruti. If he can provide consistently for them, they will be a tough team to beat.
The biggest winner in offseason pickups is Toronto FC’s addition of goalie Clint Irwin. Toronto were the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference last year, but their offense was the third best in the league. While they made other pickups on defense, if Irwin comes through for them in net they can jump all the way to the top.
While these are the favorites, the MLS is wide open. We’ve seen dramatic turnarounds from teams before and all the teams are very competitive, as was shown by all five of ESPN’s analysts picking different teams to win it all.