The Full 90

The Full 90’s 2016 MLS season preview

Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia (29) makes a save in front of Columbus Crew forward Kei Kamara (23) and midfielder Tony Tchani (6) during their Aug. 22 game at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia (29) makes a save in front of Columbus Crew forward Kei Kamara (23) and midfielder Tony Tchani (6) during their Aug. 22 game at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

2015 was a landmark season for MLS. The league celebrated its 20th birthday, with two expansion clubs and a new $90 million TV contract to show for it. The surge of exposure and brand awareness serves as a reminder of what came before – such as early uncertainty surrounding the league’s sustainability* that continued into the 2000s with the shuttering of two franchises.

*So much so that league officials were concerned a scoreless inaugural game would lead to its demise. San Jose Clash’s Eric Wynalda ended up scoring a late goal, though, nutmegging D.C. United defender Jeff Agoos who later said, “I sort of saved the league from going under in the first year. A 0-0 tie in the first game wouldn’t fly, so we had to do something.”

History lesson aside, MLS continues to grow. (However fast that growth is or should be depends on whom you ask). Teams continue to pump resources into their academies. More than half of the league has invested in their own USL franchise, with the remaining clubs likely to follow suit. Salaries are climbing, and the bottom half is finally reaping some of the benefits. Incoming players continue to raise the level of play. And with the rise of social media and other avenues of coverage, more and more people are tuning in.

The upcoming season may not be as historically relevant as others – at least not now – but the factors listed above are creating a more tangible, fun product that’s helping MLS continue to find its place in the American sports scene.

And that leads to this: The Full 90’s 2016 MLS preview. All 20 teams, preparing you for the insanity that is this magnificently wacky league.

Chicago Fire

2015 FINISH (wins-losses-draws): 8-20-6

KEY LOSSES: M Harry Shipp, D Joevin Jones, M Patrick Nyarko, M Matt Watson, F Mike Magee

KEY ADDITIONS: D Brandon Vincent (SuperDraft), D Michael Harrington (free agent), D Jonathan Campbell (SuperDraft)

SKINNY: Shipping away its top three players wasn’t exactly the best way for Chicago to earn the favor of its already frustrated fan base. The Fire had the worst goal differential in the league last season and one of the worst scoring rates. SuperDraft product Brandon Vincent appears to be an instant starter on the backline. But with no leadership in the middle of the field or a playmaker up top, Chicago is headed for another disappointing season. One bright spot, though: New boss Veljko Paunovic seems to be the right man for the club’s future.

Colorado Rapids

2015 FINISH: 9-15-10

KEY LOSSES: D Drew Moor, D Maynor Figueroa, M Marcelo Sarvas, F Gabriel Torres, M Vicente Sánchez

KEY ADDITIONS: M Zach Pfeffer (trade from Philadelphia Union), M Marco Pappa (trade from Seattle Sounders FC), F Conor Doyle (trade from D.C. United), D Eric Miller (trade from Montreal Impact)

SKINNY: Not much has gone right for the Rapids since 2010 when it captured the franchise’s only significant piece of hardware. Colorado has finished no better than fifth since that MLS Cup winning campaign*. Worse yet, little has been done to improve the product. The club has missed the mark on big signings, shipped away its most respected faces and is now reportedly going after U.S. international Tim Howard. All of this has fans, well, less than thrilled with the front office. Looking at its current pieces, Zach Pfeffer is a nice, young addition. Conor Doyle, Eric Miller and Bobby Burling are recognizable names. But where will the goals come from? Marco Pappa was stabbed after his trade from Seattle and has had off-the-field issues in years past. Shkelzen Gashi could surprise at forward, but all indication is that the Rapids will once again look to pack it in…early and often. And that won’t cut it in a competitive Western Conference.

*Ironically, the Rapids finished fifth in the West that season, too.

Columbus Crew SC

2015 FINISH: 15-11-8 (MLS Cup Runners-up)

KEY LOSSES: F Jack McInerney, D Chris Klute, D Emanuel Pogatetz

KEY ADDITIONS: D Corey Ashe (free agent), F Conor Casey (free agent), F Ola Kamara (transfer from Austria Wien)

SKINNY: Had it not been for two early mishaps in December’s MLS Cup final, Columbus could be looking to defend a title in 2016. Instead, the Crew are hungry to get back to the big stage where it faltered last season. Already boasting one of the league’s most potent attacks (not to mention a pretty solid group of defenders as well), with MLS MVP finalist Kei Kamara leading the charge, Columbus wasn’t forced to do much this season. The club’s biggest concern was and may still be the happiness of Kamara, who went into the offseason hoping for a much-deserved payday. Otherwise, the Crew are setup for another title run – a fun one at that.

D.C. United

2015 FINISH: 15-13-6

KEY LOSSES: F Jairo Arrieta, M Perry Kitchen, M Chris Pontius, F Conor Doyle

KEY ADDITIONS: M Lamar Neagle (trade from Seattle Sounders FC), M Patrick Nyarko (trade from Chicago Fire), M Marcelo Sarvas (trade from Colorado Rapids)

SKINNY: Void of offense in 2015, D.C. United settled into a counter approach that paid dividends during the regular season – a fourth place finish in the East – but self-destructed in the postseason. Rather than address this problem, the club optioned to let go of two forwards and a talented attacking midfielder, signing zero forwards. Lamar Neagle is a promising addition, but will it be enough? Assuming the bottom of the East improves, it may not be.

FC Dallas

2015 FINISH: 18-10-6 (First in the Western Conference)

KEY LOSSES: F David Texeira, F Blas Pérez, M Michel, GK Dan Kennedy, D Je-Vaughn Watson

KEY ADDITIONS: F Maximiliano Urruti (Re-entry Draft), D Maynor Figueroa (trade from Colorado Rapids), M Mauro Rosales (trade from Vancouver Whitecaps FC)

SKINNY: The fountain of youth was centered in Frisco, Texas, last season. Oscar Pareja’s FC Dallas squad was one of the youngest in league history – by design. His group responded, not by grinding out wins but dominating opponents with speed, ball skill and a goalkeeper who won’t be in MLS much longer. With the core in place, FC Dallas was tasked with finding a way to improve without shaking up things too much. And so it shed some of its excess – dumping more than $720,000 in cap space before going out and signing players like Urruti, Figueroa and Rosales. Excellent moves for a club looking to had multiple trophies to its cabinet in 2016.

Houston Dynamo

2015 FINISH: 11-14-9

KEY LOSSES: M Brad Davis, D Kofi Sarkodie, M Nathan Sturgis, D Jermaine Taylor

KEY ADDITIONS: M Cristian Maidana (trade from Philadelphia Union), M Andrew Wenger (trade from Philadelphia Union), D Jalil Anibaba (free)

SKINNY: Owen Coyle’s first season as manager of the Dynamo was filled with ups and downs. His team was soft of the road, inconsistent at home but remained in the playoff race until late in the regular season. Coyle knew what he was getting himself into when he came to Houston, acknowledging that he, too, would have to adapt to the league and its peculiarities, namely travel and weather. Year two will paint a clearer picture for the future of the Houston Dynamo, a franchise that has rarely missed the playoffs. The Brad Davis era has ended, with the midfielder now suiting up in Sporting blue. It’s now Giles Barnes’ team to lead on the field. The club hopes he can repeat his 2015 production, while also hoping Erick “Cubo” Torres can find his stride in MLS. Good news for Dynamo fans: their club got a double steal this offseason, nabbing Maidana and Wenger from Philadelphia.

L.A. Galaxy

2015 FINISH: 14-11-9

KEY LOSSES: D Omar Gonzalez, M Juninho, GK Donovan Ricketts, D Todd Dunivant, F Edson Buddle

KEY ADDITIONS: D Nigel de Jong (free), D Ashley Cole (free), D Jelle Van Damme (free), GK Dan Kennedy (trade from FC Dallas), F Emmanuel Boateng (free), F Mike Magee (free agent)

SKINNY: Bruce Arena exemplifies the phrase, “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” For years, Arena has found a way to circumvent the system of arbitrary rules and stipulations to come up with creative ways to bolster his roster. This offseason was no different. A roster overhaul saw the departure of Gonzalez and Juninho, two cogs in the Galaxy machine. And as criticism over those moves started to mount, Arena was already behind the scenes working on a master plan: bring in three top European talents on free transfers for a mere $1.3 million against the cap in 2016. Simply genius. De Jong has the biggest potential of the three, and should help L.A.’s current star – Steven Gerrard – in the midfield by taking up most of the box-to-box responsibilities. Robbie Keane isn’t getting any younger, but until his production drops off, he’ll be a force up top. And don’t forget the Mexican international, Giovani dos Santos.

Montreal Impact

2015 FINISH: 15-13-6

KEY LOSSES: M Justin Mapp, M Dilly Duka, M Nigel Reo-Coker, D Eric Miller, F Kenny Cooper

KEY ADDITIONS: M Harry Shipp (trade from Chicago Fire), M Lucas Ontivero (loan from Galatasaray)

SKINNY: The sole mission for the Montreal Impact this offseason was getting Didier Drogba back on the field at Stade Saputo. Frankly, little else mattered. Drogba reinvigorated the club at every level last season. His jersey was the 16th best seller in the league despite having not arrived in Montreal until nearly August. He was a force of nature on the field, scoring 11 goals in as many appearances as the Impact went from laughing stock in March to playoff winners in October. With Drogba back for one last rodeo, Montreal will at the very least be OK, with the potential for a deep playoff run. Of course, all of this rests on the health of Drogba, who will turn 38 on March 11.

New England Revolution

2015 FINISH: 14-12-8

KEY LOSSES: M Jermaine Jones, D Kevin Alston, M Andy Dorman

KEY ADDITIONS: M Gershon Koffie (trade from Vancouver Whitecaps FC), D Sambinha (loan from Sporting CP)

SKINNY: This Revolution offseason was always going to be about Jermaine Jones. The U.S. midfielder expected a raise after helping New England reach MLS Cup in 2014 and the playoffs again in 2015. The only problem? New England’s front office wasn’t sold on his demands, especially with the veteran midfielder set to face a six-match suspension after making contact with referee Mark Geiger last year. Without Jones, New England still has talent across the field. Former Sporting KC forward Teal Bunbury will be expected to pick up a big part of the load this season alongside Lee Nguyen. The summer transfer window could also be an option if the Revolution needs another playmaker.

New York City FC

2015 FINISH: 10-17-7

KEY LOSSES: M Ned Grabavoy, D Chris Wingert, M Sebastian Velasquez

KEY ADDITIONS: M Jack Harrison (SuperDraft/trade from Chicago), M Mikey Lopez (free), D Ronald Matarrita (transfer from Alajuelense)

SKINNY: New York City FC grabbed the attention of the casual sports fan with its Manchester City and New York Yankees connection. It garnered media fever with the signing of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. It even kick started a brash fan base in a matter of months. The only thing lacking was the product on the field. Effort certainly wasn’t a concern for captain Villa, who bagged 18 goals and eight assists. No, the real issue resided in the midfield, which looked more like a train wreck than a collaboration of world-class talent. In its second season, New York City FC should find a better footing. But without actually doing anything to address last season’s major issues, the club won’t be contending for a title this year.

New York Red Bulls

2015 FINISH: 18-10-6 (Supporters Shield Winners, First in the Eastern Conference)

KEY LOSSES: D Matt Miazga, D Roy Miller

KEY ADDITIONS: D Gideon Baah (transfer from HJK Helsinki)

SKINNY: It was a dream season for New York Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch, who in his first season won over fans and captured a major trophy along the way. The club’s success had a lot to do with the upped contributions from guys like Mike Grella, Lloyd Sam and Sacha Kljestan. Those three, as well as Bradley Wright-Phillips and Dax McCarty, helped New York overcome the loss of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. It also sets the club up for success in 2016. The biggest area of concern is replacing Miazga, which is somewhat ironic considering the Chelsea transfer was a homegrown product not yet able to drink. Most of New York’s offseason movement was internally, as the club signed seven new homegrown players.

Orlando City SC

2015 FINISH: 12-14-8

KEY LOSSES: GK Tally Hall, D Corey Ashe, M Eric Avila

KEY ADDITIONS: GK Joe Bendik (trade from Toronto FC), D/M Devron Garcia (transfer from CD Victoria)

SKINNY: At times last season, Orlando City SC looked better than its 12-14-8 record indicated. Other times, it looked way worse. Consistency, then, was a major factor for Adrian Heath’s club. The Lions played well at home in front of its passionate sea of purple, but then seemed lifeless on the road. Cyle Larin is a rising star in this league, and Kaka can still do his thing. But choosing not to overhaul his roster heading into year two means Heath is on the hot seat. If Orlando City improves significantly, it will be the result of fine-tuning a defense that far too often wasn’t on the same page last season.

Philadelphia Union

2015 FINISH: 10-17-7 (U.S. Open Cup Runners-up)

KEY LOSSES: M Andrew Wenger, M Zach Pfeffer, M Cristian Maidana, M Fred, F Conor Casey

KEY ADDITIONS: M Chris Pontius (trade from D.C. United), D Joshua Yaro (SuperDraft)

SKINNY: Sometimes life isn’t fair. The Philadelphia Union know this to be true. Last season, the club recognized it didn’t have the talent to compete for MLS Cup, so it decided to go all in on the U.S. Open Cup in hopes it could salvage some goodwill. As the story goes, the Union ended up losing in penalty kicks to Sporting Kansas City in front of a disappointing home crowd. With more front office changes since then, the Union are looking for positives – positives that just aren’t there in 2016. Wenger and Maidana are no longer with the club. That leaves C.J. Sapong, Maurice Edu and newcomer Pontius to lift an attack that scored just 42 goals to 55 goals allowed. A tough task, indeed.

Portland Timbers

2015 FINISH: 15-11-8 (MLS Cup Winners)

KEY LOSSES: F Maximiliano Urruti, M Rodney Wallace, D Jorge Villafana, M Will Johnson, M Michael Nanchoff

KEY ADDITIONS: F Jack McInerney (trade from Columbus Crew SC), D Chris Klute (trade from Columbus Crew SC), M Ned Grabavoy (free agent), D Jermaine Taylor (Re-Entry Draft)

SKINNY: Two months before Portland went on its magical postseason run that ended in an MLS Cup victory, questions surrounding manager Caleb Porter’s future started to creep up again. The Timbers were struggling, Porter was frustrated and some thought a divorce was coming. But how quickly things can change. The Timbers are defending champions now and look to remain competitive in 2016. The club lost some recognizable names, including Urruti and Johnson, but not necessarily huge pieces. Urruti was mostly used as a super sub late in games, while Johnson dealt with injuries and didn’t factor into the playoff run. McInerney and Klute can step in and contribute alongside a solid core that includes Darlington Nagbe, Nat Borchers and Diego Valeri. Simply put, the Rose City has reason to be excited once again.

Real Salt Lake

2015 FINISH: 11-15-8

KEY LOSSES: M Luis Gil, M Luis Silva, F Sebastian Jaime, D Chris Schuler

KEY ADDITIONS: D Chris Wingert (waivers)

SKINNY: Real Salt Lake missed its chance to hit the reset button this offseason. Understanding that Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando aren’t getting any younger, the club needed to begin thinking long term by re-signing young talent while also looking elsewhere in the league to add supportive roles. Instead, Gil and Silva left for Liga MX and only Wingert made any incoming noise. The Rio Tinto faithful aren’t used to missing the playoffs, but Real Salt Lake has done little to show it has improved in the offseason. Perhaps a busy summer transfer window could change that.

San Jose Earthquakes

2015 FINISH: 13-13-8

KEY LOSSES: M Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, M Khari Stephenson

KEY ADDITIONS: F Chad Barrett (free agent), GK Andrew Tarbell

SKINNY: Inconsistencies kept San Jose out of the playoffs in 2015. Case and point: In a span of two weeks last season, the Earthquakes topped Columbus by two goals, tied Orlando and then fell 3-1 to Toronto. The quiet offseason could be concerning to some fans, but San Jose believes it found the formula for success late in 2015 that will propel them to success this season. That is, the relationship between Chris Wondolowski and Quincy Amarikwa. It took time and a formation adjustment, but eventually the duo settled into a nice partnership – one that destroyed Sporting KC in a 5-0 rout. They’ll look to replicate that success this season.

Seattle Sounders FC

2015 FINISH: 15-13-6

KEY LOSSES: F Obafemi Martins, M Lamar Neagle, M Marco Pappa, M Andy Rose, M Gonzalo Pineda, F Chad Barrett

KEY ADDITIONS: F Jordan Morris (homegrown), D Joevin Jones (trade from Chicago Fire), M Nathan Sturgis (free agent)

SKINNY: China called and Jordan came home: the tale of one Sounders offseason. After another disappointing crash out of the playoffs, Seattle will look quite different when it takes the field in 2016. The backbone is now Clint Dempsey, who suddenly has a lot more on his plate than the year before. He will be charged with carrying a bigger burden, one that involves scoring at a higher rate and nurturing Morris. Dempsey appears ready, though, and Sigi Schmid is one of the best in the business.

Sporting Kansas City

2015 FINISH: 14-11-9 (U.S. Open Cup Winners)

KEY LOSSES: F Krisztian Nemeth, D Jalil Anibaba, M Amobi Okugo, M Mikey Lopez

KEY ADDITIONS: M Justin Mapp (free agent), M Brad Davis (trade from Houston Dynamo), D Lawrence Olum (free), F Daniel Salloi (homegrown)

SKINNY: There’s more to come next week on the blog as it pertains to Sporting KC. For now, though, it’s clear that Peter Vermes has some work to do. The club’s playmaker from last season is gone – the guy who also doubled as Dom Dwyer’s backup at striker. His replacement is either a 31- or 34-year-old league veteran, which is fine in theory but begs the question, “Who’s going to make up for Nemeth’s scoring production?” The good news is that Sporting KC finally has depth defensively and in the midfield. Roger Espinoza is fully recovered and ready to go, and Vermes finally has backup plans in place for Soni Mustivar and Ike Opara. Is it all enough, though? That remains to be seen. We’ll examine the entire roster next week, so stay tuned.

Toronto FC

2015 FINISH: 15-15-4

KEY LOSSES: F Robbie Findley, GK Joe Bendik, GK Chris Konopka, M Jackson, F Luke Moore

KEY ADDITIONS: D Drew Moor (trade from Colorado Rapids), D Steven Beitashou (trade from Vancouver Whitecaps FC), M Will Johnson (trade from Portland Timbers), GK Clint Irwin (trade from Colorado Rapids)

SKINNY: Toronto FC won the offseason, and this time it actually means something. For the past three seasons, the Reds have been overcompensating for its makeshift backline. It was able to do so somewhat successfully last season, in part, because Sebastian Giovinvo was so good*. But when push came to shove, Toronto FC couldn’t take the next step without addressing its defense. And so it did. The Reds grabbed two veteran defenders, brought Johnson home and got Irwin out of Colorado…finally. All of a sudden, the Reds are some people’s early favorites to capture the East.

*So, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so good.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

2015 FINISH: 16-13-5

KEY LOSSES: D Steven Beitashour, F Robert Earnshaw, M Mauro Rosales

KEY ADDITIONS: F Blas Perez (trade from FC Dallas), M Christian Bolaños (transfer from Saprissa)

SKINNY: Exciting last season. Exciting this season. Little is going to change for the Vancouver Whitecaps. The club has speed out wide, skill inside and a phenomenal-freak-athlete centerback in Kendall Watson. As talented as the Whitecaps are on the front foot, they’re equally as good locking down their third of the field. That’s a formula for success that Vancouver hopes can lead them to a title. At the very least, it’s entertaining soccer worth tuning into.