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MLS 2018 Preview

The first weekend in March sees the start of the new Major League Soccer campaign beginning with last season’s winner Toronto hosting Columbus Crew.

Not only is it a new season but we also have a new franchise too with Los Angeles FC, managed by Bob Bradley, enter the competition in the Western Conference.

Here’s a look at a few franchises and players to watch in this new season.

Eastern Conference

There is only one place to start and that’s with last season’s MLS Cup winners and runaway Eastern Conference winners Toronto.

The Reds only lost five times all last year showing how formidable they proved to be after building on their 2016 campaign, which saw them lose the MLS Cup Final on penalties at BMO Field.

Greg Vanney has kept his team together, which is hugely important, and he’s added Dutchman Gregory van der Wiel, who will fit in very well with the set-up of playing wing-backs.

They have had a few outgoings and allowing Raheem Edwards to leave was a slight surprise. The 22-year-old Canadian is an emerging talent and he could turn out to be a big player for Montreal.

With Toronto also having the Canadian Championship then allowing the likes of Armando Cooper, Benoit Cheyrou and Steven Beitashour to leave with their contracts expiring could see them being a little light at times.

Vanney’s men were the best-attacking unit in MLS with 74 goals and had the second-best defence – only Sporting KC conceded fewer, so there is a balance in this squad.

Sebastian Giovinco is the obvious talisman and he bagged 16 goals, while fellow forward Jozy Altidore got 15. Once he settled then Victor Vazquez proved to be a very useful acquisition and he chipped in with ten assists.

The Canadian outfit has all the tools there to defend the MLS Cup they hold and they are likely to make a bold bid with games at BMO Field holding significant importance having only lost one regular season game on home soil last season.

New York City finished second in the regular season but lost in the conference semi-finals to Columbus Crew.

Patrick Vieira’s side were a good attacking side but their weakness was their defensive aspect of the game and they kept just seven clean sheets all last year.

There have been changes to their backline with RJ Allen and Frederic Brilliant both exiting the club with Saad Abdul-Salaam joining from Sporting KC while Anton Tinnerholm and Cedric Hountoondji have joined on frees.

Vieira will be hoping to stay more solid this season because they looked vulnerable a number of times last year plus the lapses of concentration proved costly.

As ever, there will be a big weight of expectation on David Villa. The Spaniard scored 22 goals – the second highest total last season – but the next best at the club was Jack Harrison with ten.

However, Harrison has been transferred to Middlesbrough on loan, via Manchester City, so Jo Inge Berget and Ismael Tajouri both have big shoes to fill in replacing the energy and goals of Harrison.

Tajouri joined from Austria Vienna and the 23-year-old could well fit seamlessly into this side with his pace and power, plus getting the encouragement off Vieira like Harrison did then the Libyan could flourish.

The Bronx locals will be expecting nothing less than the play-offs but many will want them to go further than last year. However, bedding in the new players in defence and forwards gelling with Villa then I’d say the play-offs is their ultimate aim.

As an expansion side last year, Atlanta United took to the MLS like a duck to water under Gerardo Martino when finishing fourth.

Mid-season they got the boost of moving into their new home, the Mercedes Benz Arena, and that helped inspire them to pick up points – none more so than the six straight home games that saw them win four and draw two.

The Five Stripes were an entertaining side to watch with plenty of goals and that saw them finish with the second-best attack with 70 goals scored and they had the second-best defence in this conference.

Keeping Josef Martinez fit will be important. His 19 goals were paramount to their attacking threat and his finishing is impressive, no matter what part of the final third.

Not only did they have Martinez but Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba all contributed in attacking areas while midfielder Julian Gressel earned ‘Rookie of the Year’ following a number of impressive displays.

Last year the had Yamil Asad also contributing but his loan expired and he’s now plying his trade at DC United, which is a blow for Martino but the Five Stripes acquiring talented 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco and Darlington Nagbe from Portland shows they’ll be lining up with the same all-conquering spirit.

There was a noticeable difference too when Brad Guzan joined the club and deputised in between the posts. In the 14 games, he started the American shot-stopper kept eight clean sheets, four more than the man he replaced Alec Kann despite playing fewer games.

When you think back to last season they had everything to make a challenge but lost out in the play-off round when stifled by Columbus when maybe lacking that experience.

This time around though I can see them being a big threat to Toronto because they have all the tools from a reliable goalkeeper, solid defence, balance in midfield and flair in attacking areas.

Chicago Fire were third last season but were hammered 4-0 by New York Red Bulls in the play-offs.

They had last season’s top scorer in Nemanja Nikolic, who proved to be an excellent signing by Veljko Paunovic but this time around they haven’t got the services of David Accam, who was a surprising trade to Philadelphia Union.

The pacey, tricky Accam finished with 14 goals and eight assists, so he being at another franchise is a blow to their chances. Not only have they lost him they allowed first choice keeper Matt Lampson to go to Minnesota.

Fire still have Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger but the latter only played 24 games due to some of the surfaces putting strain on his muscles and joints.

There have been plenty of outgoings and they haven’t really replaced them. Just five players in with one being classified as a Homegrown player with two others coming from the SuperDraft.

Defender Rafael Ramos has joined from Orlando, but he lacked game time last season due to persistent injuries, plus Aleksandar Katai will be the one they hope can have as much success as Accam from wide areas.

It was an achievement to finish third last season but that looks a tall order given their off-season, so the locals would be happy with a play-off spot.

The controversial franchise of Columbus Crew finished fifth and made the conference finals but lost 1-0 on aggregate to eventual MLS Cup winners Toronto.

Last season also ended with news that the franchise was looking to up sticks and move to Austin, which has caused no end of uproar and rightly so, but more news has emerged of a potential buyout.

On the pitch, things don’t look too bad either having recruited Mike Grella and Gyasi Zardes, while 21-year-old Venezuelan Eduardo Sosa could prove to be a useful acquisition in attacking areas too.

That trio are like-for-like replacements for Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Kekuta Manneh but losing the 31 goals scored by the first two means it could take some time for the Crew to click with reliance on Zardes to bag a large percentage of their goals.

Distractions off the pitch won’t make life easy for Gregg Berhalter and despite some smart trades in the off-season they could have a bit of a struggle this time around.

2015 expansion side Orlando City are yet to make the play-offs in their three campaigns but Jason Kreis has made some of the shrewder trades in strengthening and replacing in his Lions roster.

With star players, Kaka retiring and Cyle Larin getting his wish to move to Europe then the Lions have had to bring in quality.

Those two have been instrumental to Orlando in their first three seasons with Larin being their top scorer in each campaign.

Not only have those two gone but it has been an off-season of change. Seb Hines, Antonio Nocerino, Servando Carrasco, Giles Barnes and Carlos Rivas have all departed for pastures new but they have been well replaced.

Lamine Sane is the latest player through the door from Werder Bremen joining RJ Allen, Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, Josue Colman and Jose Villarreal.

Kljestan joins from Red Bulls and got 17 assists in 32 games last season while Meram bagged 13 goals for Columbus.

The Lions added Dom Dwyer in a big money transfer midway through last season but Larin and he never really hit it off when playing together. There is a big responsibility on him this season to lead the line and link up with Kljestan and Meram.

There is a blend of experience and highly promising youth in this squad, so if everything falls into place with Kreis’ tactics then they can put behind them a forgettable 2017 campaign.

With the feverish support they’ll get at home games there is an air of anticipation that this squad is the one that can finally earn a play-off spot.

Western Conference

While the Eastern Conference saw runaway leaders Toronto, this league was far tighter with the top four all finishing on points between 50-53.

Portland Timbers ended up top spot and were surprisingly beaten in the conference semi-finals by Houston with that defeat coming on home soil as well.

Since then things have changed. Giovanni Savarese replaced Caleb Porter as head coach and the former New York Cosmos manager won three NASL championships in five seasons.

He’ll try and instil his work ethic on his players and even though that could take time, this side has plenty of quality to do the things he asks.

For a start, they have last season’s Most Valuable Player in Diego Valeri, who netted 21 goals alongside his 11 assists to help the Timbers Army fall in love with the Argentine.

Valeri was consistent and managed to go on a scoring spree bagging in nine consecutive games – an MLS record. If he stays fit alongside Fanendo Adi then they will conquer all once more.

Allowing Darlington Nagbe to leave was a strange decision but if Cristhian Paredes or Andy Polo continue their development in this Timbers side then they will be an entertaining watch.

Once again the concern for them is their defence. They conceded 50 goals last season, which was a slight improvement on 2016 when they let in 53 but that aspect of their game does let them down, so if Savarese focuses some of his attention to that then a big showing could be on the cards.

Seattle Sounders went close to defending the MLS Cup last season when reaching the final, a repeat of 2016, but unfortunately for them, it was a different outcome.

In the end, they were outclassed by Toronto but it was another fine season from Brian Schmetzer’s men.

They have their work cut out this time around though due to a quiet off-season, despite having lost Joevin Jones to Darmstadt in Germany.

Given the amount of assist Jones recorded last season then he’ll be a big absence in the full-back position.

Sounders have spent Trade Allocation Money to bring in Magnus Eikrem but he’ll be competing with Clint Dempsey for an attacking midfield role while he’ll struggle to oust Nicolas Lodeiro from the side because the Uruguayan is the linchpin to any success they’ll have.

They build their season around making CenturyLink Field a fortress and difficult place to go – only MLS Cup winners Toronto won there last season!

If they hold that home form and are more consistent on their travels then they are candidates for the final once more but they have potential CONCACAF Champions League duties, which could make balancing games a little tricky.

They may have a busy few weeks in the market coming up to make sure their squad is big enough to cope with the demands but if they can get Jordan Morris scoring and Lodeiro supplying then they may have a fruitful season.

Houston Dynamo were a bit of a surprise package last year. After dwelling lowly in the league for a couple of seasons it seemed things were on a turn for the better.

Wilmer Cabrera drafted in fellow South and Central Americans to help give his side a chance and it was successful.

Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres scored 14 goals, Alberth Elis got ten, as did Mauro Manotas but you have the feeling the latter is going to have a big part to play this season because Torres is back in native Mexico with Club Pumas.

Losing your top scorer isn’t easy but neither is losing your creative midfielder. Brazilian Alex was out of contract, so he’s moved to pastures new in South Korea meaning they’ve lost his assists, which he got 11 last season.

They’ve drafted in defensive midfielder Darwin Ceren to add some bite into the middle of the park plus Arturo Alvarez has joined from Chicago.

Alvarez has the big boots of Alex to fill but considering he was in a quite successful Chicago Fire side last season he only managed three goals and two assists in 25 appearances.

Like most of MLS, home form is crucial and if Dynamo is able to replicate last seasons, which saw them only lose once in the regular season, then they can compete but it could be a struggle having lost your top scorer and top creator.

FC Dallas missed out on the play-offs last season, as San Jose Earthquakes edged them out, so it was a disappointment for Oscar Pareja’s men.

They pride themselves on a solid defence, so it has been strange seeing defenders leaving the club in the off-season.

Hernan Grana, Atiba Harris and Walker Zimmerman have all moved on with Pareja bringing in Anton Nedyalkov from CSKA Sofia and Reto Ziegler from Luzern.

Nedyalkov is likely a starter for the left-back berth while Ziegler brings experience, so we’re likely to see him deployed alongside Matt Hedges in a centre back pairing unless Pareja goes with three CBs and puts Maynor Figueroa into that position.

Dallas has been weakened by the injury to Kellyn Acosta that will see him miss first few weeks of the season a big blow.

Something that was far too common last season was their reliance on Maxi Urruti. He got 12 goals, one more than Roland Lamah with 11 but the next best was Tesho Akindele.

Opportunities were not taken in front of goal and they have to be more ruthless, especially away from home because that’s an area of weakness and it proved costly come the end of the season.

They picked young forward Francis Atuahene in the SuperDraft. He will add an aerial presence if getting a chance and not only good in the air but he’s two-footed, which could give defenders a headache coming up against him if given his chance.

A second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League is on the horizon for them after they lost the first leg 1-0 in Panama to Tauro FC.

If they turn it around, as you’d expect then those games add strain to their fixture list but it’s still a season you’d think they’d make the play-offs.

Sporting Kansas City were one of the lowest scorers last season but had the best defence in the whole of the MLS with just 29 goals conceded in 34 games in the regular season.

A big part of their game is the defensive aspect that saw them keep 11 clean sheets in total but their top scorer Gerso only finished with eight goals – a single figure tally isn’t going to get you very far despite them actually reaching the play-offs before losing to Houston.

Peter Vermes is a practical coach but he wasn’t helped by losing Dom Dwyer mid-season however with the money offered it’d have been daft to turn it down.

In the off-season, they have signed Khiry Shelton from NYC, which could prove a shrewd acquisition while they have done further good business by bringing in the likes of Yohan Croizet and Felipe.

Croizet gives Vermes an option to play anywhere across the midfield while Felipe could be a player to watch this season. The central midfielder could add some further quality alongside Roger Espinoza and featured at the 2014 World Cup for Chile.

The fact they give Vermes options means opposition managers may have a tough time weighing up how to set up against SKC but not only that they managed to sign Johnny Russell from Derby County.

The Scot could thrive in the MLS with his directness and pace. He’s recorded plenty of assists in England and he’ll be able to add to them here plus you’d expect him to bag a few more goals too.

SKC’s off-season transfers have added depth but more so quality yet I’m still left questioning where are the goals coming from. Is Gerso going to get 12+ goals to get you to an MLS Cup Final? Probably not but the supply line is there for them to have a really good season.

I was really against LA Galaxy last season under Curt Onalfo and it proved to be the case with him departing before August and Sigi Schmid returned to try and steady the ship.

However, the season was a complete failure with Galaxy recorded just 32 points from 34 games and finishing bottom of the Western Conference.

An off-season overhaul has taken place with 15 players leaving with ten coming in, so it’s a time of change at the StubHub Centre.

New contracts were offered to Baggio Husidic and Ashley Cole before they started to bring in players to fill an empty roster.

Midfielders Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen and Servando Carrasco all came in with forward Ola Kamara joining from Columbus Crew.

Three defenders brought in plus David Bingham in between the posts and this newly refreshed side is one that should be capable of challenging this time around, once gelling.

Their player of last season by some way was Romain Alessandrini, who had an excellent first season in the MLS with 13 goals and 12 assists. The Frenchman will have more pressure on him this season to replicate those sorts of performances.

With everything that has happened in the off-season, things look a lot rosier for the Galaxy this time around and having two-time MLS Cup winner Schmid in charge should give them the confidence this season.

New franchise Los Angeles FC will look to follow in the footsteps of Atlanta United and make a strong challenge for the play-offs in their inaugural season.

They’ve managed to pull off some excellent trades with Laurent Ciman coming in from Montreal, Walker Zimmerman from Dallas and Benny Feilhaber from SKC.

Those three are quality players in this league but not only that they all have the experience to deal with the situations they’ll face throughout the season plus they’ll be able to guide the younger group of the squad.

LAFC has also managed to pick up Steven Beitashour on a free after his release from Toronto while the Expansion Draft saw them get their hands on some solid attacking options like Latif Blessing and Marco Ureña.

Not only have they managed to get players with MLS experience, they’ve got the real coup in signing Carlos Vela from Real Sociedad, whose pace could cause plenty of problems in this league.

Vela is still only 28 and the forward scored 69 goals during his time in La Liga plus he’s a permanent fixture in the Mexico national side where he has 18 goals.

Coach Bob Bradley has a fine assembly of players, including some youth to watch, which includes Uruguayan Diego Rossi. He’s a U20 international and has goals plus assists in his locker.

At Peñarol, one of the top sides in Uruguay, he scored 13 goals and created 11 goals for teammates in 51 appearances, so he’s one to watch when given a chance.

I’m looking forward to seeing LAFC compete and think they can challenge the norm and reach the play-offs but the concern is regarding their depth in the squad.

Real Salt Lake narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season and could be one to fly under the radar in Mike Petke’s first full charge season.

Injuries partly accounted for last season, so if able to keep their squad in full health, especially Albert Rusnak then they could have a big season.

Outright Picks

Unsurprisingly last season’s winners Toronto are in as the bookmaker’s favourites to add a consecutive MLS Cup to their trophy cabinet.

They’ve kept their core together and adding a useful player in van der Wiel will make them difficult to beat but at prices, I think there are some better options.

Atlanta United fell short last season after making the play-offs in their inaugural season but this time around I see them being more of a challenge to Toronto.

Keeping their attacking options fit will be key, especially Josef Martinez, and this time around they are more of an attractive proposition with Brad Guzan in goal from the start of the season because early season concessions possibly cost them finishing high up the Eastern Conference table.

Martino is a shrewd tactician and will have highlighted areas they’ll have improved over during pre-season, so for me, these could be the real deal this year.

I’m quite excited about my own MLS side Orlando City. Some good recruitment has seen them with a good core and if Dom Dwyer goes on a run of goals then the Lions could prove difficult to tame.

The doubt with them is their lack of concentration and discipline in certain games when things aren’t going their way.

At their current price, around the 33/1 mark, then they are worth a small go because for me they are the outsider/underdog going into this season due to their lack of play-offs during their existence.

In the Western Conference then last season’s top side Portland Timbers have to be on the shortlist despite changing managers.

They’ve got real quality in their side and if Diego Valeri plays like the man possessed he did last year then he can fire them to another round of play-offs.

Despite me being fully against them last year, LA Galaxy could prove to be very good this season. A manager that has been there and done it plus after a roster clear out they have a squad capable of challenging.

With no CONCACAF Champions League to worry about, unlike some rivals, then I’m making them one of my ante-post bets for this season while city rivals LAFC, who are 66/1 with Unibet, could spring a few surprises throughout the campaign as well.

Atlanta United to Win the MLS Cup (8/1 – William Hill/Unibet)
LA Galaxy to Win the MLS Cup (16/1 – Paddy Power/Unibet)

Top Goalscorer

A look at this market has to start with Chris Wondolowski at San Jose Earthquakes.

The veteran is joint second in the all-time MLS goals with 134 and needs just 12 more to overtake Landon Donavan’s record.

The 35-year-old is a solid yardstick in this market but he’s reached double figures in his last eight seasons at the club and last season he bagged 13.

Age is starting to take its toll on him but he’s still a useful finisher and can break Donavan’s record this season.

Last season’s top scorer was Nemanja Nikolic with 24 goals but he’ll have his work cut outscoring that many without his partner in crime David Accam, so he is one to skip past this time around.

David Villa got 22 last season taking his MLS tally to 63. He’s still a ridiculously good footballer and it’ll be no surprise to see him bag 20+ again once more, especially given he’ll take penalties and score a couple of hat-tricks along the way.

With me liking Atlanta’s chance then it would be remissive of me not to mention Josef Martinez.

The Venezuelan featured in 21 games (starting 18) and bagged 19 goals. Quite the tally when you consider that Nikolic, who scored five more played 14 more games.

It’s a question of fitness for Martinez but if he stayed fit last season then he’ll have easily pushed Nikolic for the Golden Boot. With pre-season under his belt then Martinez looks one of the most likely top scorers given his pace, power and finishing attributes.

The other to follow is Ola Kamara, who joined LA Galaxy in the off-season. After 18 goals in the regular season last year another fruitful campaign looks on the cards.

He’ll be linking up with the likes of Giovani Dos Santos, Emmanuel Boateng and Romain Alessandrini, so should get plenty of chances to put away and that’s probably more than he got at Columbus yet still managing 35 in two seasons in Ohio.

For Toronto, the front pairing of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore are a formidable pairing and the way their games match each other has been part of their success.

Giovinco is a set-piece specialist and some of his free-kicks over the last few seasons have been phenomenal while Altidore is more of an aerial presence and does the dirty work. You can’t ignore either in this market but neither reached 20 goals last season.

Dom Dwyer has a mix of scoring seasons but if he gets somewhere to his best then he can hit the heights like he did at SKC back in 2014 when scoring 23 goals.

The US international will want a good scoring season to nail down a place in the national team after getting his first call-up last year.

He scored four goals in 12 appearances for Orlando after his transfer from SKC, where he already had five goals.

He’ll have a fairly reliable supply line with Kljestan and Meram, so if that trio hit it off with their link-up play then Dwyer could be one with an outside chance to top the scoring charts.

Diego Valeri managed to end up with 21 goals after his crazy run that saw him get 11 in as many games.

He got 14 goals back in 2016 too, so he does know where the net is from drifting inside but whether the new Portland coach will play to his strengths is yet to be seen.

Carlos Vela is an MLS newbie but he’s got a fairly good record in La Liga, so with his proven calibre in a top European league plus a solid goal-scoring record at international level is one that you could take a chance on having a good debut season with LAFC.

Josef Martinez (8/1 – Unibet)

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