20 Storylines to Watch Out for in New MLS Season
The 2014 Major League Soccer season begins on Saturday and with it comes a new list of storylines to follow.
The offseason was quite the busy one with stars like Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe entering the league, while a couple of United States internationals brought their talents back to the States in search of a World Cup roster spot.
Along with the on-pitch headlines that those players will make are some major off-pitch storylines that will be worth watching throughout the season.
With so much going on on and off the pitch in 2014, here is a look at the 20 storylines you need to watch in MLS this season.
How Will the New-Look Toronto FC Look on the Pitch?
One of the most watched teams this season will be Toronto FC, a team that overhauled its roster in order to avoid another disastrous season north of the border.
The Reds brought in stars like Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe as well as midfield maestro Jackson and league veteran Dwayne De Rosario.
Toronto's ownership also acquired goalkeeper Julio Cesar on loan as he looks to crack the Brazil squad for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
With so many new pieces being brought together at once, it will be interesting to see how long it takes the Reds to jell.
It will be also be worth watching how long manager Ryan Nelsen stays in his job if the team begins to struggle.
Will the Rapids Actually Hire a Head Coach?
Entering the 2014 season, the Colorado Rapids are the only team without a head coach.
Oscar Pareja, the manager who led the Rapids to the playoffs last season, left the team for FC Dallas during the offseason and his replacement has yet to be named.
Currently, Pablo Mastroeni, whose official title is special assistant to the technical director, is overseeing the first team, but he has not been appointed as head coach.
The Rapids are a team full of young talent, but if they do not have a true first-team coach, it could cause some disruptions in the camp.
The easy solution to this perplexing situation would be to hand Mastroeni the head coach tag, but based on its offseason, Colorado will continue to take its time to make the decision.
Which New Manager Will Do the Best Job in His First Year?
Speaking of appointing new managers, there are eight head coaches in charge of new clubs entering the 2014 season.
Pareja moved from Colorado to FC Dallas, while Frank Yallop, who was sacked by San Jose during the 2013 season, took over in Chicago.
Chicago's former man in charge, Frank Klopas, is now in Montreal, while Carl Robinson is the other new manager in Canada as he takes over the Whitecaps job from Martin Rennie.
San Jose promoted interim head coach Mark Watson to the full-time job during the offseason, which gives him plenty of familiarity with his club.
Jeff Cassar at Real Salt Lake also has the same amount of familiarity with his club after he was promoted from an assistant position after Jason Kreis left for the NYCFC job.
Wilmer Cabrera will take over the dysfunctional mess at Chivas USA and former LA Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter returns from a spell as manager of Hammarby in Sweden to take over the Columbus Crew gig.
If you were a betting man, it would be wise to put money on Cassar having the most success given how well the system in Salt Lake has worked, but don't count out Yallop, who has won the MLS Cup twice in his managerial career.
Can Chris Wondolowski Return to His 2012 Form?
Chris Wondolowski has been a prolific goalscorer ever since his arrival in San Jose, but last season people were questioning if he lost some of that magic in front of goal.
Wondolowski, who scored 27 goals in 2012, found the back of the net just 11 times in 2013, but starred in the Gold Cup for the United States.
It was later revealed that Wondo played most of the season with a broken foot, which makes his accomplishments from the last 12 months impressive instead of disappointing.
Now that he is fully healthy, the pressure will be on the 31-year-old to propel the Earthquakes back into the playoff chase as he chases a personal goal of making the 23-man squad for the World Cup.
What USMNT Fringe Players Will Impress Enough to Earn a Trip to Brazil?
The first three months of the MLS season will produce an intriguing storyline for fans of the United States men's national team with plenty of fringe players looking to gain form and impress manager Jurgen Klinsmann enough to make the World Cup roster.
Wondolowski is one of many MLSers who will have to be in the form of their life to be named to the squad in May.
Mike Magee, the 2013 league MVP, and Brad Davis are two league veterans that will look to clinch a roster spot, while a few players have come back home in search of playing time.
Michael Parkhurst in Columbus and Philadelphia's Maurice Edu are on the fringe at the moment, but with strong starts, they could find themselves in thick of the roster conversation as well.
Benny Feilhaber, Clarence Goodson, DeAndre Yedlin, Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran are other names to watch as the roster deadline moves closer.
There are also a few goalkeepers that may need to impress just in case one of the top three keepers at the national team level picks up an injury.
If something unfortunate happens to Tim Howard, Brad Guzan or Nick Rimando, the roster spot could come down to a battle between Tally Hall, Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson.
Will Mike Magee Repeat as MVP?
Mike Magee had his best scoring season in 2013 as he lit up the back of the net in the uniforms of the LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire.
Magee scored six goals in his first 10 games for the Galaxy before being shipped off to Chicago in the Robbie Rogers deal.
Once he entered the Windy City, the 2013 MLS MVP scored 15 more goals in 22 appearances.
Now, with all the expectation in the world on his shoulders, Magee will have to replicate his 2013 campaign to give the Fire a chance of making the MLS Cup playoffs.
There is also the extra incentive of a potential World Cup roster spot for Magee if his blistering form extends in to this season.
Will the Galaxy Get Anything out of Robbie Rogers?
The other end of the Chicago-LA trade last season saw the Galaxy receive Robbie Rogers, who played in just 11 games and provided a single assist out of the midfield.
Before he left Columbus for Europe back in 2011, Rogers was one of the better wingers in the league and the Galaxy are hoping that he can finally resurrect his form.
With manager Bruce Arena receiving plenty of criticism during the offseason for dealing away the 2013 MVP, he needs to get the best out of Rogers in 2014.
Rogers does have the skills to become a playmaker in the loaded Galaxy midfield, but whether or not he can regain his form remains to be seen.
Luckily for the Galaxy, they still have plenty of talented midfielders on the depth chart to provide the likes of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane with scoring opportunities.
How Dangerous Can Diego Valeri Be with More Argentinians in Portland?
Diego Valeri was one of the breakout stars last season for the Portland Timbers as they finished atop the regular-season Western Conference standings.
During the offseason, Portland added two more Argentinians to its squad to play alongside their star designated player from the country that has provided the sport with so many talented players.
The marquee name of the two is forward Gaston Fernandez, who should be able to link up with Valeri to create numerous scoring possibilities.
Add in to the mix the clever play of Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara and Will Johnson and you have a potentially deadly attack.
The other player from Argentina to join the Timbers in 2014 is defender Norberto Paparatto, who is expected to help sure up the back line as Portland's quest for MLS Cup continues.
Will Doing Too Little in the Offseason Cost Clubs?
While Toronto, Philadelphia, Seattle and many others were blowing up their rosters, a few clubs stayed put for the most part in the offseason.
Supporters' Shield winners New York, MLS Cup champions Sporting KC and perennial powerhouses Houston and Real Salt Lake all opted to remain consistent with their rosters instead of tearing them to shreds.
The biggest move made by the four clubs was Sporting's trade with Columbus for goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum, who is set to take over for the retired Jimmy Nielsen.
Other than the shake up in the Sporting net, no major moves were made by this collective of successful clubs.
With everyone else around them improving, it will be interesting to see if consistency rules over roster turnover throughout the season.
The team that made the least moves this offseason, Montreal, could pay for its inactivity because it needed to improve in a few aspects of the game.
Will Winning the Supporters' Shield Translate into MLS Cup Success?
With the early postseason exit of the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, the curse of the Supporters' Shield continued.
In four of the last five seasons, the team with the most regular season points has failed to qualify for MLS Cup. Only the 2011 Galaxy did so and they won the whole thing.
In the 19 seasons of the league, only six teams have recorded the double with four of them coming in the first seven years of MLS.
The good news for whoever wins the Supporters Shield this season is that the double has been recorded every three years since 2008.
Is 2014 the Year for a CONCACAF Champions League Breakthrough?
The one trophy that is missing from a MLS trophy case is the one awarded for winning the CONCACAF Champions League.
Last season, LA and Seattle were able to make it to the semifinal round before being eliminated by Monterrey and Santos Laguna.
As the 2014 MLS campaign begins, three clubs remain in the final eight of the 2013-14 Champions League tournament.
Play in the knockout round for Sporting, LA and San Jose will begin the week after the MLS regular season begins.
MLS clubs have always been hurt in the Champions League by a large grouping of fixtures in all competitions at the start of the season, but 2014 could be the year that that excuse is thrown out the window.
Who Will Headline the Next Wave of Designated Players?
Now that we have seen Bradley, Defoe and quite a few other players enter the league during the offseason, it is time to speculate on who will come across the pond during the summer transfer window.
While bringing in big names like those three after the World Cup would give some clubs more attention on all platforms, the trend of bringing older players in for a last hurrah is fading away slowly.
With clubs acquiring players in the prime of their careers, it will be worth watching to see if any MLS clubs take a swoop at a few players that star in Brazil.
If that does happen, it will be yet another step forward for the league that is always looking to progress.
Will Clint Dempsey Figure It out in Seattle?
Seeing Clint Dempsey's form drop this year has not been a welcome sight for fans, especially those of the Seattle Sounders, a club that dished out a record amount of money to bring him in last summer.
Dempsey's form has been horrendous of late and the Sounders need him to improve to have a successful season.
If the captain of the United States men's national team fails to live up to his contract in the first few months of the season, he could be labeled the biggest flop in MLS transfer history.
Luckily, we are months away from labeling Dempsey with that tag, but many in the American camp are concerned about the play of Deuce at the moment.
Can Eddie Johnson Perform Consistently Now That He Has Been Paid?
While we're on the topic of United States players who need to live up to expectations in 2014, let's talk about Eddie Johnson.
Johnson, who demanded to be paid more in Seattle in 2013, moved to D.C. United and got the pay day and designated player tag that he thought he deserved.
Now that he has been paid, Johnson needs to perform on the pitch for a team that is in need of a good season after flatlining last season.
Johnson will be the main forward for D.C. ,and with his World Cup roster spot on the line, he must provide the Black and Red with goals from the start of the season.
The 29-year-old has been criticized in the past for not being consistent enough, but if he answers his critics in 2014, they might finally go away for good.
Who Will Replace Camilo in Vancouver?
The biggest blow of the offseason may have been dealt to the Vancouver Whitecaps, who were involved in a chaotic transfer saga involving 2013 Golden Boot winner Camilo, who moved to Queretaro in Liga MX.
Now that Camilo is gone, the Whitecaps must find a way to score goals and a young trio and a newcomer may be ready to answer the call.
Darren Mattocks, Kekuta Manneh and Omar Salgado, all of whom are Generation Adidas players, will finally get their chance to prove what they can do up front in 2014.
While it would be wise to give veteran Kenny Miller the starting nod up front early in the season, the young trio and on-loan forward Sebastian Fernandez must be given an opportunity to replace Camilo's 22 goals as well.
It is obvious that no single forward on the Vancouver roster will have a Camilo-esque season, but these five players could combine for the same level of production, or even more, to make up for the loss of the Brazilian.
What Will Happen to Chivas USA?
Now that MLS has bought out Chivas USA from Jorge Vergara, the club's future is in limbo.
The club, who was ridiculed for its numerous personnel decisions and lack of attendance in recent years, needs to be reignited with a passion that it lacked during the end of the Vergara era.
All we know right now is that the team is not moving and Nelson Rodriguez has been named club president.
Other than that, a lot is still up in the air about Chivas USA, and hopefully as the season progresses, we will find out more information on what exactly will happen to the club.
All we can hope for right now is that the Goats improve their product on the pitch and become a viable, working asset of the league once again.
How Will LA Galaxy II Affect Player Development?
The other, more successful club in Los Angeles made a landmark announcement in late January with the creation of LA Galaxy II.
LA Galaxy II will play in the USL Pro league and it will give the younger players in the club's system a chance to play on a regular basis.
The Galaxy now have essentially the equivalent of a Triple-A baseball team competing in the league right below MLS in the North American soccer structure.
This gives the Galaxy a major advantage in the player development department and don't be surprised if more clubs take the initiative to create a team like LA Galaxy II in the future if it succeeds in 2014.
Will the Young Revolution Take Another Step Forward?
The most surprising team in the Eastern Conference last season was the New England Revolution, who finished third thanks to a young core led by Juan Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez.
Agudelo may be gone, but Rowe and Fagundez have returned for another season in Foxborough and they have been joined by a few intriguing prospects in Patrick Mullins and Steve Neumann.
The Revs also have a few highly underrated players in defender Jose Goncalves and forward Dimitry Imbongo that can help the club take the next step forward in development.
Jay Heaps' team also added Teal Bunbury to replace Agudelo, and just like last season, they will fly under the radar because of the bigger names in the East stealing all of the headlines.
Despite not gaining a plethora of national attention, expect Heaps and the Revolution to contend for the playoffs once again.
Will This Be Thierry Henry's Last Year in MLS?
Thierry Henry, one of the biggest names to enter the league since the designated player rule was created, is out of contract at the end of the season and no one knows if his deal will be renewed.
According to FOX Soccer's Kyle McCarthy, Henry isn't even thinking about his contract situation as the new season approaches.
If the 36-year-old has another strong season with the Red Bulls, he will certainly have a big decision on his hands at the end of the season, if he does not resolve his contract situation before then.
If the Arsenal legend has a subpar 2014, he could decide to hang up his boots after an illustrious career.
Whether he retires or not, this season may be a good time to appreciate just how good of a footballer Henry is.
Can a New Collective Bargaining Agreement Be Reached Before the End of 2014?
The most intriguing storyline of the 2014 season may come from off of the pitch as the new collective bargaining agreement gets discussed.
The discussions for the new CBA are expected to be intense since the league has grown in more ways than one in the five years that the current agreement has been in place.
While there is no need to concern yourself about a potential work stoppage next season, it is worth noting that both sides (the league and the players' union) will both bring strong arguments to the table on a bevy of topics.
How the CBA is discussed and eventually put into rule will shape what direction the league heads in as it continues to rapidly expand.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
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