The 2014 Major League Soccer seasons opens with Kansas City in an unfamiliar place: On top of the mountain looking down.
Sporting KC’s title defense starts Saturday in Seattle, one of the 18 teams with a good chance of knocking KC off its perch. Here’s a look at how the league looks heading into the season.THE CONTENDERS
Three of the most consistent teams from last year all return with very few holes and very few questions.
Sporting Kansas City
KC is a fast, aggressive and extremely cohesive team with a very deep bench and very few holes. Unless Kansas City has trouble coping with the early Champions League congestion and the loss of key players Matt Besler and Graham Zusi during the World Cup, Sporting KC is in the mix for more silverware in 2014.
The Timbers return many of the same pieces from a team that only lost five regular season games. They are deep, talented and coach Caleb Porter has an exciting trio of Argentine attacking talent in Diego Valeri, Maximiliano Urruti and Gaston Fernandez.
New York Red Bulls
In 2013, the Red Bulls collected the first trophy in the team’s history by taking home the Supporters’ Shield. The big names return in Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Jamison Olave. The question is how much those guys have in the tank for a very long season and whether the supporting cast can step up after solid campaigns last year.THE RELIABLES
There are few certainties in a parity-driven league, these teams making the playoffs are pretty close to a sure thing.
Real Salt Lake
The core of last year’s MLS Cup runners-up — Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Alvaro Saborio — are all back. The biggest loss for this team was on the sideline, as head coach and architect Jason Kreis left to take over 2015 expansion team New York City FC. Jeff Cassar, a longtime assistant for Kreis and first-time MLS head coach, will take over and try to keep Salt Lake in the mix.
Los Angeles Galaxy
You can never really count out a team coached by Bruce Arena. Nor a team that features Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane in a prominent way. Since 2009, the Galaxy has made the playoffs every year and made it to the MLS Cup three times, winning the whole thing twice (2011 and 2012).
You can never really count out a team coached by Dominic Kinnear, either. The Dynamo might never wow anybody on the field or in the standings column, but it finds its way in the fall. This year’s team should be more explosive offensively with Brad Davis, Oscar Boniek Garcia, Will Bruin and a healthy Omar Cummings.THE UNPREDICTABLE BIG-SPENDERS
Two teams with big pockets went all-in this offseason to crash the MLS Cup party.
The heat under Sigi Schmid’s seat on the bench should be somewhere between molten lava and raging inferno. He has to win. The team broke the bank to get Clint Dempsey in rave green and this offseason surrounded him with experienced players Chad Marshall, Marco Pappa and Kenny Cooper. The talent is there for a deep Cup run. Will there be enough continuity and patience to get there?
Nobody did more this winter to move the needle in MLS than Toronto. A team that has never (not once) made the playoffs added former Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe, American midfielder Michael Bradley, Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar and former MVP Dwayne De Rosario. It might be big to ask of second-year head coach Ryan Nelsen to get everyone to mesh and get enough out of his suspect defense to compete for a Cup.THE UP-AND-COMERS
Without gigantic, ocean-spanning moves, two teams relied on small moves and emerging talent to push for the playoffs.
New England Revolution
Last season, 18-year-old Diego Fagundez made a tremendous leap by wowing the entire league with 13 goals and seven assists. In 2014, he could go from dangerous to breakout MLS star. Around him, the Revs have crafty midfielders Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen, and MLS defender of the year Jose Goncalves. Former Sporting KC forward Teal Bunbury will be counted on to channel the creativity around him into goals.
After a disappointing 2013, Dallas parted ways with long-time coach Schellas Hyndman and playmaker David Ferreira. Former Rapids coach Oscar Pareja should be able to turn an interesting mix of young potential (Fabian Castillo in particular), solid defense and experience into a playoff team.THE REGRESSION CANDIDATES
The team teams above this point are the teams I expect to make the MLS playoffs. The teams that follow have serious questions or flaws that could keep them out.
The Rapids youth movement, particularly fullback Chris Klute and rookie of the year Dillon Powers, surprised everyone. They should continue to rise, right? Here’s the problem: They don’t have a coach right now. Oscar Pareja had them playing some very attractive soccer last season. He’s in Dallas and Pablo Mastroeni, who played a bit for the Rapids and Galaxy last year, is the interim coach. That’s a big drop off.
The biggest move for the Impact this year was the departure of coach Marco Schällibaum. The team faltered down the stretch as Schällibaum’s behavior became increasingly erratic. New coach Frank Klopas will hope that the returning veterans — Marco Di Vaio (37), Patrice Bernier (34) and Matteo Ferrari (34) — can carry the Impact through a long, grueling season.THE MUDDLED MIDDLE
Will these teams make the playoffs? Maybe. Could they finish down in the cellar? Yes. Welcome to the parity-filled MLS.
Attacking won’t be the problem with the likes of Federico Higuain, Jairo Arrieta and Dominic Odurro around. Last year, defense was. New head coach Gregg Berhalter will begin the year with a new defense centered around fringe U.S. national teamer Michael Parkhurst.
San Jose Earthquakes
Two years removed now from a Supporters’ Shield run, the Quakes find themselves looking up at the rest of the Western Conference. Injuries were the main culprit last season, and if key players like Chris Wondolowski and Shea Salinas, can stay healthy, this can be a playoff-caliber roster.
Replacing a good striker isn’t easy. Replacing a Golden Boot-winning striker is very, very tough. That’s where the Caps are this year after Camilo Sanvezzo left controversially for Mexico this offseason. New head coach Carl Robinson is depending on the talented but inconsistent Darren Mattocks to carry a lot of the burden, but is he a 20-goal scorer?
Mike Magee won the MLS MVP because he nearly single-handedly carried Chicago to the playoffs last year. Will he have to do it again by himself this year? Besides 33-year-old Ecuadorian striker Juan Luis Anangonó, new coach Frank Yallop’s supporting cast on offense isn’t very deep.
The league’s worst team in 2013 has shuffled the deck, adding new designated-player Eddie Johnson, former KC captain Davy Arnaud and expensive defensive cast-offs Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke. It should be a more consistent squad this year, but the talent has a mid-table ceiling.
The Union isn’t quite starting from scratch, but coach John Hackworth is rebuilding the team with a new formation (4-3-3) and an overhauled midfield featuring new high-priced designated player Maurice Edu. But, Philly’s playoff hopes are dependent on shaky goalkeeper Zac MacMath (with first-round pick Andre Blake hot on his heels) and an inconsistent Jack McInerny, who struggled after a hot start last year.THE SPOT FOR CHIVAS USA
One day, Major League Soccer will go an entire offseason without its second Los Angeles franchise making headlines for all of the wrong reasons.
The league purchased the team from Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes last month. Nobody knows when a new owner will be found, but a new owner is needed. Over the last few years (on the field, in the boardroom and in the stands) this team has been nothing short of a dumpster fire. The good news? There is a little talent to work with with Mauro Rosales, Erick Torres, Carlos Bocanegra and goalkeeper Dan Kennedy. The bad news? It’s still Chivas, and it’s still an uphill climb.