5 Dark-Horse Contenders to Watch During the 2016 MLS Season

Peter Galindo@@GalindoPWFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2016

5 Dark-Horse Contenders to Watch During the 2016 MLS Season

0 of 5

    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    The 2016 MLS season begins on March 6, headlined by the MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers hosting the Columbus Crew in a rematch of December's final.

    Both sides will surely contend for the championship. However, MLS' parity usually produces a couple of surprise playoff teams.

    We will analyze five dark-horse contenders in this slideshow. It consists of teams that missed the 2015 playoffs and underwent significant change to the front office, coaching staff or squad during the offseason.

    Here are five clubs that can make a run in the postseason.

5. Orlando City SC

1 of 5

    Phil Rawlins (left) and Flavio Augusto da Silva
    Phil Rawlins (left) and Flavio Augusto da SilvaKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Orlando City SC's offseason was arguably the most hectic in MLS. 

    It began with general manager Paul McDonough departing the club for Atlanta United. Chief soccer officer Armando Carneiro followed suit just months after he joined Orlando from Benfica. Founder and president Phil Rawlins is now serving as interim GM.

    When the front office undergoes this much turnover in a short period, it usually spells trouble. However, Orlando is still in good shape heading into the new season.

    The Lions acquired goalkeeper Joe Bendik from Toronto FC, who will be the team's starter. By all accounts, the 26-year-old has impressed his head coach, Adrian Heath.

    The team signed ex-AC Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino to add depth in the center of the pitch. He is not a flashy player, but Nocerino provides experience for a young midfield.

    Orlando's squad has depth in quality, especially up front. If Cyle Larin replicates his fantastic rookie season and if the team stays healthy, it can easily eclipse the 44 points it earned last season.

4. San Jose Earthquakes

2 of 5

    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    The San Jose Earthquakes narrowly missed the playoffs last year after a strong push at the end of the season. Now that the squad is settled, the Earthquakes have a great chance to qualify for the 2016 postseason.

    San Jose earned 21 of its 47 points in its final 12 games. Quincy Amarikwa, Marc Pelosi and Anibal Godoy were the main catalysts behind the rejuvenated Earthquakes side.

    Amarikwa recorded six goals and four assists in 17 appearances following his move from the Chicago Fire last June. The 28-year-old was involved in just 14 goals in his final 46 matches with Chicago.

    Pelosi and Godoy were spectacular as well. Perhaps their best performance as a duo was against the LA Galaxy on August 29. San Jose won 1-0, but it was the two Quakes midfielders who nullified the threats of Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos that night.

    However, Pelosi will be out for three to four months after undergoing a procedure on his knee. MLS Rookie of the Year finalist Fatai Alashe is a fine replacement, though.

    The 22-year-old was ruled out for four to six weeks back in January, so he'll be battling to be fit in time for the season opener on March 6.

    If Alashe is ready, then the Quakes should be able to usurp one of the top-six teams in the Western Conference from last year.

3. Philadelphia Union

3 of 5

    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    No MLS team has a longer playoff drought than the Philadelphia Union. Toronto FC previously held that record of futility before qualifying for the postseason in 2015.

    Philadelphia hired Earnie Stewart as its sporting director to help turn the club around. Stewart quickly went to work to revamp the roster and signed nine players and either declined to re-sign or traded 15 others.

    Cristian Maidana was the marquee departure. The 29-year-old playmaker was one of the Union's most productive players before going to the Houston Dynamo in a trade.

    However, Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Taylor Washington were smart picks in the SuperDraft. All three provide depth for the back line.

    The team also signed center back Anderson Conceicao on a loan deal from Tombense in Brazil. The addition of Conceicao allows Maurice Edu to move back into the heart of midfield, which is huge for the Union. 

    Chris Pontius will boost Philadelphia's attack, and trialist Ilsinho has been turning heads, which could lead to a spot on the roster.

    According to Kevin Kinkead of the PhillyVoice.com, the Union are looking to sign a striker as a designated player. If Philadelphia gets a consistent scorer, which it lacked last season, it can definitely compete for a playoff spot.

2. Chicago Fire

4 of 5

    Veljko Paunovic
    Veljko PaunovicTroy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

    The Chicago Fire finished with the worst record in MLS last season. That led to wholesale changes both on and off the pitch this winter.

    Chicago hired Nelson Rodriguez as general manager. He appointed Veljko Paunovic as head coach, the man who led Serbia to U20 World Cup glory last year.

    The Fire have made some shrewd player acquisitions thus far. Chicago drafted Brandon Vincent and signed Dutch center back Johan Kappelhof to address the team's defensive concerns.

    However, the Fire's decision to trade homegrown star Harry Shipp to the Montreal Impact was a curious move. The 24-year-old is the crown jewel of the academy and was likely going to play in his preferred No. 10 role this season.

    Paunovic eventually confirmed that Shipp didn't fit into the team's plans, per Guillermo Rivera of Fire ConfidentialRivera also reported that Chicago may replace the American with Groningen forward Michael de Leeuw.

    The Fire's revamped back line, coupled with goalkeeper Sean Johnson and the electric David Accam up front should allow Chicago to move up the Eastern Conference standings.

1. Real Salt Lake

5 of 5

    Yura Movsisyan
    Yura MovsisyanElaine Thompson/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Real Salt Lake's 2015 season was incredibly disappointing. A shake-up in the front office, injuries and international call-ups derailed its campaign, but RSL is poised to recover in 2016.

    The return of Yura Movsisyan is a welcome boost for an attack that struggled in 2015. The Armenian scored eight goals in 26 appearances in his final campaign with RSL.

    Movsisyan, Javier Morales, Juan Manuel Martinez and Joao Plata provide speed, technique and clinical finishing. They've already gelled in preseason, too.

    Now that head coach Jeff Cassar has a stronger and more consistent attack, RSL will be a serious threat in the Western Conference.

    Jamison Olave will likely start beside Aaron Maund at center back. RSL conceded just 11 goals in 10 games when Olave and Maund started together. Tony Beltran, Demar Phillips and Chris Wingert are all potential options at full-back.

    Consistency was an issue at the back for the Claret and Cobalt in 2015. This should not be an issue anymore, which is why RSL is set to surprise in 2016.