It’s been a turbulent road across the pond for the grand old game of soccer, but one season at a time Major League Soccer is becoming a very respectable league, and this season appears set to continue the trend.
The 2016 campaign gets underway this weekend, and there’s been plenty of movement in the off-season to have many of us believe this could be MLS’s most competitive season yet.
Portland Timbers claimed their first MLS Cup back in December with a 2-1 victory over Columbus Crew, but will they be able to defend their title?
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Here’s a few things to keep an eye out for this year…
New York City FC
A lot of eyes will be on the Yankee Stadium this season, as Patrick Vieira takes up his first managerial post.
The franchise enjoyed a steady if unspectacular debut campaign last season, finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference, but all the facilities are in place for an improvement this time around.
With Frank Lampard preparing for a first full season in the States, plus David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, Vieira has a trio of world class players to work with.
Having been linked with the top job at some of Europe’s big clubs, the former midfield hardman will be under plenty of scrutiny this year.
Another of last season’s rookies, Orlando City will be hoping Kaka can lead them to improve on 2015’s seventh place finish.
The Brazilian ace directly contributed to 16 goals in 28 games last term, while Canadian youngster Cyle Larin could be the real star of this year’s MLS after banging in 17 goals in his debut campaign last term. Aged only 20, Larin is set to only get better and better.
The addition of Serie A mainstay Antonio Nocerino from AC Milan is another sign Orlando are looking to become major players sooner rather than later.
Last season’s fifth place Conference finish was the Galaxy’s worst result since 2008, and having been top scorers in the West with 56 goals, it’s clear where the problems lay.
But LA have been quick to address those in the off-season, adding Ashley Cole and Nigel De Jong to their roster, while Steven Gerrard begins his first full campaign.
With Robbie Keane still fit as a fiddle and Giovanni Dos Santos quickly finding his feet at the StubHub Center in the latter half of 2015, the Galaxy are well poised for a strong year.
Toronto’s mid-table finish owed pretty much everything to former Juventus man Sebastian Giovinco, who top scored and produced the most assists last term, directly contributing to 38 of the club’s 58 goals.
A joint-worst defensive record proved their downfall however, but the Canadian side have moved to sort that problem by snapping up Portland’s skipper Will Johnson, as well as experienced defender Drew Moor and highly-rated stopper Clint Irwin, both from Colorado.
With Giovinco – last season’s MVP – scoring them into their first ever play-offs in 2015, Toronto could now be well poised to land their first ever top 10 MLS finish and become serious contenders.
Only twice this century has an MLS Cup winner gone on to successfully defend their title, with the Galaxy doing so in 2011/2012 and Houston Dynamo in 2006/2007.
It won’t be easy with a host of teams making major additions in the off-season, but the Timbers have kept last season’s excellent defence – including ex-Birmingham man Liam Ridgewell – while adding pace to the flanks through Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla.
With Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri combining to form one of the strongest central midfield partnership’s towards the back end of 2015, the Timbers will be incredibly tough to break down.
If Fanendo Adi can replicate last season’s 18-goal form, then Portland have very realistic shot at becoming two-time champions.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.