The MLS season. It is here.
After a massively disappointing start to 2016 via a CONCACAF Champions League bloodbath at the hands of Liga MX, MLS plunges headlong into the blessed retreat of the 2016 season this weekend. No expansion teams, no excuses. Or, you know, something.
We here at TopDrawerSoccer pay close attention to the young guns, so our MLS preview is a mite different than the rest. In addition to brief breakdowns, we’ll run you through the top U21 players, unsigned Homegrowns, rookies and more for every MLS team. Some need the reinforcement more than others.
Without any more hemming and hawing, let’s dive in.
Nuts and Bolts: Now that Chicago’s miserable 2015 is in the rearview, they can focus on the future with idealistic new coach Veljko Paunovic. The Serb has already cut ties with a handful of the old guard, and with plenty of speed to burn it would seem like the Fire plan on playing a type of Gegenpress to wash out the bad memories of the past few years.
Best Player Under 21: The Fire quietly picked up Brazilian youth international Rodrigo Ramos on loan this offseason. The speedy, technical 20-year-old outside back should provide the width and pace Paunovic so desperately wants.
Impact Rookie: Brandon Vincent is coming off a tremendous college career, and the U.S. international should compete (and win) minutes at left back from the get-go.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: The Fire watched U.S. YNT midfielder Cam Lindley commit to North Carolina in February as he polishes his final U18 season with the Fire. He’ll likely keep his commitment, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t last all four years.
Bold Prediction: The Fire will win a playoff game in their first year under Paunovic. The style won’t be particularly high minded, but after the last couple seasons, Fire fans won’t care when it gets results.
Nuts and Bolts: While Chicago replaced its coach after a poor year, the Rapids stayed the course with the embattled Pablo Mastroeni. How a fresh tactical look actually affects the soccer remains to be seen, but Mastroeni desperately needs to push his side into a playoff spot to keep his job. Unfortunately, he has probably the weakest roster in MLS at his disposal, and a multi-million dollar splash for a geriatric Tim Howard isn’t what the team needs.
Best Player Under 21: There’s been a firesale of Rapids youngsters lately, but Dillon Serna remains in the mix. Whether he’s a left back or a left midfielder, though, Colorado hasn’t seemed to figure out.
Impact Rookie: To date, the Rapids have not signed any rookies for 2016, if that tells you anything.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Quentin Pearson had a quality freshman campaign for Washington in 2015, and the defender looks like the best bet if the Rapids want to slap the Homegrown tag on someone this year.
Bold Prediction: Mastroeni will ride another good defensive team to the edge of the playoff picture, and he’ll miraculously survive the season. Again. The mustache does not make a comeback.
Nuts and Bolts: The Crew took a gigantic step forward under Gregg Berhalter last season. Playing a cohesive style that emphasized play through the middle and rapid interchange, they rode a high-flying attack to the MLS Cup final. With many of its best pieces locked up – including an interesting DP contract doled out to Kei Kamara – the Crew certainly look like a contender for the next couple years under Berhalter’s razor-sharp gaze.
Best Player Under 21: Considering Ben Swanson is the only player in this category on the Crew roster, he’ll have to do. Swanson is a promising holding midfielder who could form a tantalizing Homegrown pairing with Wil Trapp some day.
Impact Rookie: The Crew value four-year college players, and it looks like Chase Minter could make an impact coming off the bench after a sterling career at Cal Poly.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Incendiary forward Ahinga Selemani had five goals and two assists as a sophomore for UCSB last year. If the Crew want to pull a quick-witted attacking player out of their coffers, Selemani is the play.
Bold Prediction: The Crew will avenge their loss in the 2015 MLS Cup and win the thing in 2016, as Berhalter’s cacophonous laugh echoes in lockstep with Jurgen Klopp’s down the chambers of time.
Nuts and Bolts: Most of the team returns from 2015 for D.C. after a somewhat surprising fourth place finish. A pragmatic side under Ben Olsen that excelled at home and struggled on the road, changes are minimal. Luciano Acosta is the one somewhat flashy acquisition, a former Boca Juniors midfielder who stands at 5-foot-3. He showed well for D.C. in its CONCACAF quarterfinal loss to Queretaro, and he’ll see most of the minutes up front with Fabian Espindola. Bill Hamid is slated to miss a large chunk of 2016, meaning United will be without its best player for a majority of the season.
Best Player Under 21: Acosta clocks in for this distinction ahead of homegrown players Jalen Robinson and Collin Martin.
Impact Rookie: Generation adidas midfielder Julian Buscher is poised to contribute after making a couple of sub appearances in the CCL.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Despite its lack of youth on the roster, D.C. has some decent options in school. Ian Harkes played for D.C.’s Academy and is possibly better than a number of players on its roster, though who knows if he’s still eligible to sign. Eryk Williamson enjoyed a solid freshman season for Maryland last fall. Jose Carranza is the No. 7 ranked player in the class of 2017, while 2016 graduates Lucas Mendes (Virginia) and Donovan Pines (Maryland) should be impact players in the fall at their respective schools.
Bold Prediction: RFK Stadium doesn’t implode (yet) as D.C. enjoys another up-and-down season. Luciano Acosta is surprisingly effective in United’s midfield before getting scythed down and injured for the rest of the season by a Ricardo Clark challenge. D.C. finally breaks ground on a new stadium. Maybe.
Nuts and Bolts: Youth was served for FC Dallas in 2015. The North Texas outfit practically threw its young kids in the fire at will, starting entire lineups under 25 at times. The youth movement got Oscar Pareja’s bunch as far as the Western Conference Finals, but it was an encouraging sign that perhaps MLS coaches can do more with the youth they largely ignore.
Best Player Under 21: There’s more competition here than on any MLS roster, but this has to go to U.S. YNTer Kellyn Acosta. The versatile defensive Swiss Army Knife has USMNT written all over him.
Impact Rookie: FCD hit the mother-lode when Timo Pitter fell to their slot in the draft. The German midfielder/second forward might’ve been the steal of the draft and should worm his way into some PT in 2016.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: There’s a ton to choose from here, but we’ll go with Devin Vega. The diminutive U.S. YNT attacking player is good up top or on the wing, and he fits FCD’s first team system like a glove.
Bold Prediction: Pareja will find a way to start 11 teenagers in a match against the LA Galaxy in 2016, thus providing us with the first matchup between a U20 team and a team entirely made up of spare parts.
Nuts and Bolts: The Dynamo’s first season under Owen Coyle was rugged, so it’s anyone’s guess how the Englishman adapts in year two. But the club made a few encouraging youth signings in 2015, and the opening of a USL franchise in the dramatically underserved Rio Grande Valley was a coup. Coyle’s probably under the gun now to made the playoffs.
Best Player Under 21: Christian Lucatero almost made it to college soccer before the Dynamo pulled him back. Good call. He’s one of the best playmaking attackers in the universe.
Impact Rookie: This has to be Bradley Bourgeois by default. The former Tulsa defender seems to fit Coyle’s ethos after a rollicking college career.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: With Juan Flores and Lucatero both signed there’s a bit of a fall-off, but goalkeeper Fernando Pina had a tremendous first season with Coastal Carolina in 2015 and looks like one for the future.
Bold Prediction: Owen Coyle will magically morph into MLS’s Big Sam Allardyce and the Dynamo will start winning wacky (and direct) 4-3 games via the magic of the stereotypical enormous English soccer coach.
Nuts and Bolts: The Galaxy responded to the retirement of Landon Donovan in 2014 by throwing buckets of cash at old men. This offseason, the triple splash for Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole and Jelle Van Damme – all north of 30 – added with Steven Gerrard to make this team geriatric. The Galaxy did sign Ema Boateng, but are the legs fit enough to make it through the season without falling off?
Best Player Under 21: It seems like wispy winger Bradford Jamieson’s been kicking around the discussion for a few years now, but it’s time for the 19-year-old to take a step forward and prove he deserves to be on the field.
Impact Rookie: The Galaxy don’t have any of these, so we’ll say left winger Ema Boateng. He’s an MLS rookie, at least, and is an explosive dribbler with good instincts.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: This has to be Efrain Alvarez, who’s playing up a couple years with the Galaxy U16s and doing nasty things like this.
Bold Prediction: Nigel de Jong somehow makes it through the season without kicking off someone’s head and the Galaxy pull their rambling wreck into the postseason before exiting in the first round.
Nuts and Bolts: Didier Drogba and eleven other guys was the story of 2015. The Ivorian dominated after arriving in North America. What he does for an encore is going to be the main story to watch in Montreal as they look to make another run to the playoffs. Laurent Ciman returns to guide the back line, while Harry Shipp joins Ignacio Piatti as Drogba’s supply line. They may not be good, but Montreal looks like it could at least be fun.
Best Player Under 21: Canadian youth goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau has yet to make an MLS appearance for the Impact, but remains promising.
Impact Rookie: Belize international Michael Salazar has the tools, experience and ability to bring something to the table for Montreal in 2016.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Forward Badreddine Boulajoul can’t be long for the U18 team. He’s scored 11 goals in 13 games so far for Montreal in the Development Academy.
Bold Prediction: ‘Where in the World is Didier Drogba?’ becomes a syndicated video game as the Ivorian continues to ‘prepare for the season’ separate from the team. Until June, when he comes back, plays 60 minutes a game and scores 30 goals.
New England Revolution
Nuts and Bolts: Despite mostly striking out on the international market, the Revolution’s core is back. Given the likes of Juan Agudelo, Charlie Davies and Lee Nguyen are all there, New England should be good enough to contend in the East. The biggest question is the departure of Jermaine Jones, who added steel to the midfield. The recent acquisition of Gerson Koffie softens the blow, not to mention that Jones looked like he was running on fumes at times. Success in 2016 likely boils down to the team’s defending, as there are attacking options aplenty.
Best Player Under 21: Entering his sixth season in MLS, Diego Fagundez remains one of the league’s best examples of Academy success. Only recently turned 21 in February, a big year from the young veteran would be big for the Revolution.
Impact Rookie: Capable of playing left or right back, Jordan McCrary is a decent enough player to log some minutes right away. The wild card rookie is Michael Gamble, an oft-injured yet talented attacking player.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: With two players on the way to Virginia this fall, Revs fans eager to keep an eye on potential homegrown signing Aaron James. A tidy central midfielder, there should be opportunity for him to play ACC soccer right away.
Bold Prediction: Agudelo returns to the status of U.S. national team regular, while Lee Nguyen is continually overlooked by Jurgen Klinsmann. Jermaine Jones finally agrees to return to the Revolution after Copa America Centenario.
Nuts and Bolts: Patrick Vieira is now in charge of the
Manchester City farm team, and he’ll look to improve on a disappointing campaign. Cleaning things up defensively will be critical, while who the heck knows what the midfield will look like. No team has the same marquee names in the league that can match David Villa, Frank Lampard, Pirlo and Poku.
Best Player Under 21: Jack Harrison crosses the line by default.
Impact Rookie: Jack Harrison, literally the only rookie on the roster.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Claudio Reyna said during the offseason that the team won’t sign a homegrown player until at least 2018. That will likely be when they sign his son Gio.
Bold Prediction: USMNT fans will finally realize that Mix Diskerud isn’t that good. A season-ending injury to David Villa opens the door for Patrick Mullins to score 20 goals. People remember that Mehdi Ballouchy still exists. Oh, and NYCFC makes the playoffs.
New York Red Bulls
Nuts and Bolts: After controversially parting ways with Mike Petke ahead of the 2015 season, the Red Bulls emerged as the best regular season team under first-year head coach Jessie Marsch. Loftier goals are ahead for New York in year two of the Marsch revolution, though replacing Matt Miazga (sold to Chelsea, in case you didn’t notice) is a big task. Outside of Miazga, the core of last year’s roster is still in place, boosted by a couple of new additions.
Best Player Under 21: New York did an impressive job signing every homegrown player it could from college, then cut one (Mael Corboz) before the season started. None of those players quite have the potential and promise as 16-year-old Tyler Adams. Honorable mention goes to Derrick Etienne.
Impact Rookie: Etienne should see some minutes despite the logjam in midfield, as he has the talent to seize the opportunity and never look back.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Georgetown’s Arun Basuljevic, and it’s not even close. Seriously Red Bulls, can’t believe you didn’t sign him.
Bold Prediction: Adams plays significant minutes this season before transferring abroad to a Red Bulls-affiliated club. Red Bulls plays NYCFC in the playoffs, much to the delight of Don Garber.
Nuts and Bolts: No team in MLS manages to simultaneously baffle and impress quite like Orlando City. For every notable addition of a promising young player, they go out and add a player like Antonio Nocerino, an aging Euro vet who hasn’t played a soccer game since 2011. Whatever they need to do to keep Kaka happy. The Brazilian midfielder remains one of the league’s best on paper, and he’ll continue to create chances for Cyle Larin, a young and talented Canadian forward every USMNT wishes was American.
Best Player Under 21: Orlando likely holds the league mark for youngest average age, as 11 players on its current roster are 21 or under. The best of the lot could end up being Tommy Redding, who has a huge chance to break out this season.
Impact Rookie: Facing an uphill battle for minutes, Richie Laryea is too good to sit on the bench for the whole season. After getting his feet wet for Orlando City B, he claws his way into the MLS matchday squad and scores a few goals by season’s end.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: North Carolina gets next crack at Nathaniel Adamolekun, a Jamaican youth national team forward who should terrorize ACC defenses for the next year or two.
Bold Prediction: Ahead of a critical matchup for a spot in the playoffs, Kaka gets kidnapped by Brazilian tourists at Disney World and misses the game. Laryea earns the start in the No. 10 spot, scoring two goals and setting up hometown buddy Cyle Larin for another pair as Orlando gets over the line.
Nuts and Bolts: In a more or less wide open Eastern Conference, the Union has made a number of moves to bolster the team up front, while more or less hitting up college soccer for new defenders (Keegan Rosenberry, Josh Yaro, Taylor Washington). Whether or not the defense will be good enough remains to be seen. C.J. Sapong signed a new deal and is the team’s first choice forward, while Sebastian Le Toux, newcomers Chris Pontius and Ilsinho look to set things up and create enough chances to contend.
Best Player Under 21: Josh Yaro doesn’t hit 22 until after the season is over, and wins this award more or less by default. He’ll need to show he can handle central defense in MLS, as some doubt he is tall enough to play CB.
Impact Rookie: On a team that lacks scoring options, Fabian Herbers’ German efficiency will see him come within double-digits in goals. Right back Keegan Rosenberry quickly becomes one of the best attacking outside backs in MLS.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Who knows if he qualifies as a homegrown player or not, but former Union Academy and current Maryland forward Sebastian Elney has the build, athleticism and just enough of a scoring touch to garner this distinction.
Bold Prediction: Andre Blake finally makes it difficult to joke about Philadelphia’s goalkeeping situation. In the weak East, Philly battles its way to the sixth and final playoff spot, losing by four goals in the play-in match.
Nuts and Bolts: The defending MLS Cup Champions bring back a solid core of its roster looking to defend the league title. Fanendo Adi, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri are all proven commodities who will make the Timbers both dangerous to the option and exciting to watch.
Best Player Under 21: Starting right back Alvas Powell easily runs away with this nod.
Impact Rookie: The Timbers inked a trio of draft picks this past week, though each faces an uphill battle for playing time. Ben Polk seems like he could inject something from one of the wide spots, whether in the form of scoring or creating goals. Expect to see him spend some time with the USL team too.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Who knows if he’ll ever end up signing with Portland, but Adrian Villegas remains the most promising player in the Timbers Academy, ranked No. 18 in the class of 2018.
Bold Prediction: Nagbe’s absences national team duty impedes Portland’s regular season accomplishments. But it’s for good reason, as Nagbe leads the USMNT to Copa America glory, scoring five goals in an upset win over Brazil in the final.
Real Salt Lake
Nuts and Bolts: RSL has turned to a familiar face to jump back into the race in a stacked Western Conference, adding Yura Movsisyan to the fold in the offseason. He’ll join familiar faces in the spine like Nick Rimando, Jamison Olave, Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman as they look to rekindle the finish to the 2009 season.
Best Player Under 21: Possessing a surprising amount of young talent, RSL’s most recent signing could be its best on the books. Danilo Acosta has the skill and ability to play as an outside back and could end up seeing some time sooner rather than later.
Impact Rookie: Pace and physicality are two traits that make it easier to transition from college to MLS, and it’s what midfielder Omar Holness has in spades. Capable of shunting out wide in a 4-3-3 or deployed centrally, the first round draft pick should make his presence felt in 2016.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Guessing which players actually qualify as homegrowns can be a tricky prospect, but UCLA stud Jose Hernandez surely has to be on the team’s radar. He grabbed Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors last fall, and while there are flaws to his game, he could being a nice replacement for Javi Morales down the road.
Bold Prediction: Jeff Cassar gets the sack midseason, and former U.S. U17 MNT head coach Richie Williams takes over. RSL still doesn’t make the playoffs. Yura disappoints but still scores 15 goals.
San Jose Earthquakes
Nuts and Bolts: Dominic Kinnear is a successful MLS coach, and it shouldn’t be long before this franchise can put a product out on the field that the fans can respond to in one way or another. However, the roster is lacking excitement and the youth movement has not even come close to taking over. Kinnear is going to have to milk this cow for all its worth in 2016 to keep the Earthquakes in the race for any hardware.
Best Player Under 21: Tommy Thompson #freeTommyThompson
Impact Rookie: The Earthquakes went after a goalkeeper in the MLS SuperDraft, which was a curious decision considering David Bingham and the players in the academy. However, Andrew Tarbell might be the man of the moment given the value this staff placed on his acquisition during the offseason.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Georgetown goalkeeper James Marcinkowski is the top prospect in the San Jose Earthquakes Academy at the moment. There is potential in the current U16 group for a couple of professional prospects to emerge from that pool.
Bold Prediction: The San Jose Earthquakes rely on the return of Mark Sherrod to the roster and become the most direct team in MLS. The clear ideology leads to a successful season for the Bay Area franchise.
Nuts and Bolts: Jordan Morris has arrived and there is finally some sunlight in the Pacific Northwest. The star of the Sounders might only have a right foot, but that’s probably enough to be the leading scorer in the league within the next three years.
Best Player Under 21: Jordan Morris
Impact Rookie: Jordan Morris
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Jordan Morris? (Seyi Adekoya)
Bold Prediction: Jordan Morris takes over Clint Dempsey’s locker by March because his new puppy needs extra space to sleep during the games. Ozzie Alonso and Dempsey share a locker while the Sounders win another U.S. Open Cup.
Nuts and Bolts: Sporting Kansas City added MLS veteran Brad Davis in the offseason in a move that they hope will send this team to some hardware in 2016.
Best Player Under 21: Daniel Salloi is the only player under the age of 21 on the roster. The former Academy player is back with Sporting KC after spending a gap year in Europe. If the Hungarian international picked up some maturity in Europe, he might be able to contribute to this group in 2016.
Impact Rookie: Faik Hajderovic is the most exciting player in the running for this consideration in the Sporting KC system. However, Sporting has not signed any of the rookies to a contract as of March 2.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Will Little, the 2016 graduate, has been playing with the team’s USL side in the preseason. He is a forward in the mold of Dom Dwyer.
Bold Prediction: The experienced Sporting KC roster does well at the early stages of the season, but the squad struggles with the soul-crushing heat in the summer and falls off the map for three months while Dom Dwyer goes on a yoga retreat.
Nuts and Bolts: Can Sebastian Giovinco carry a ragtag team of misfits to an MLS Cup? Toronto FC is hoping to find out this season as all of the chips are on the table for the boys in red to succeed after so many seasons of failure.
Best Player Under 21: Marky Delgado is the obvious choice from the Toronto roster. Delgado has done well when given minutes and could be in line for more opportunities in 2016.
Impact Rookie: Tsubasa Endoh is the only rookie signed to a deal as of March 2. The former Maryland midfielder is a crafty player who could make a difference off the bench.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Ayo Akinola
Bold Prediction: Jozy Altidore asks for a trade in June when Giovinco begins to refer to him as the boy who can’t dribble. Meanwhile, Toronto FC enjoys a stellar regular season, but crashes out in the early rounds of the playoffs in an otherwise forgettable season.
Nuts and Bolts: The Whitecaps are young and fast, and the blend of newcomers and returners will continue that theme in 2016. Can the Whitecaps rely on a gifted midfield to help break through the riffraff in MLS in 2016 and bring glory to Canada?
Best Player Under 21: Kekuta Manneh
Impact Rookie: Cole Seiler takes this honor based on Carl Robinson’s previous success with defenders coming out of college.
Top Unsigned Homegrown Player: Gloire Amanda
Bold Prediction: Alphonso Davies is the future of this franchise and will make his MLS debut in 2016 before he turns 16 years old. The Whitecaps make it to the Western Conference championship, but they miss out on the MLS Cup.