MLS' Canadian teams are often overlooked by American supporters. The casual American fan rarely gets to watch the franchises north of their border unless they're on local TV or MLS Live. Now supporters should sign up for a subscription, because Canadian clubs are destined to make an impact this season.
Toronto FC will have more interest from fans this season due to the American connection of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. There will also be a lot of pressure for TFC to make the playoffs considering the enormous amount of money ownership spent this winter.
However, before Bradley and Altidore arrived, Toronto was known as the futile team who were an embarrassment year in and year out.
Their humiliation reached a new high after Jermain Defoe wanted out of Toronto despite signing a multi-million-dollar contract just seven months earlier.
TFC managed to swap an unhappy Defoe for a determined Altidore from Sunderland. The U.S. international's struggles in England were well-publicized. He only scored once in 42 Premier League games.
However, during Altidore's tenure, Fabio Borini and Steven Fletcher were Sunderland's highest-scoring strikers with seven Premier League goals apiece.
Sunderland is a team whose sole focus is to survive relegation. That means they'll defend a lot and rarely generate scoring chances. The Black Cats currently rank third-last in shots per game, according to WhoScored.com. In Altidore's first season, the Tyneside club was 17th in attempts, per WhoScored.
This surely won't be the case with TFC. The addition of Sebastian Giovinco will help Altidore score goals. Giovinco's playmaking abilities, speed and technique will not only ensure that the American is one of MLS' best forwards, but it will also ensure that the Italian is contributing in that aspect.
Toronto general manager Tim Bezbatchenko also secured experienced French midfielder Benoit Cheyrou. Head coach Greg Vanney expects the ex-Marseille man to partner Bradley, per MLSSoccer.com's Armen Bedakian:
Giovinco will be in front of those guys, but I think Michael and Benoit are a good combination. Left foot, right foot, they give us a lot of balance, experience and tactical savvy as well. I think they also have a lot of respect for each other and what they’ve been able to accomplish.
Center back Steven Caldwell will have another French-born player, Damien Perquis, playing in the back line with him. Both players will most likely be flanked by Justin Morrow and Mark Bloom with Joe Bendik in goal.
Toronto should be a playoff team, especially with the new postseason format. Bradley finally has a solid midfield partner who gives him extra freedom. The Perquis-Caldwell pairing is a good balance of speed, positioning and awareness. Altidore and Giovinco should also be one of MLS' most lethal partnerships.
The only issue is Bradley being named captain. Caldwell was the skipper before the armband was given to his teammate. He expressed his potential disappointment to the media, relayed by John Molinaro of Sportsnet, if the captaincy changed arms:
I love being captain of this football club. I’ve captained every team I’ve played for since I was 15, so it’s something I relish and enjoy. I think I’m quite good at it. It’s a great honour to be captain of any club. I don’t treat it lightly. I love being captain of Toronto. I hope to stay on.
TSN's Jason DeVos and Kristian Jack believe that the decision will unsettle the dressing room. As expected, Caldwell was disappointed, but wants to move on, as tweeted by Molinaro:
This may not be an issue during the season. Caldwell is a professional and the coaching staff has a close working relationship with Bezbatchenko. In turn, TFC should finally make the playoffs.
Can the Vancouver Whitecaps Make it Three?
The Vancouver Whitecaps have been to the playoffs more than any other Canadian club, qualifying in two of their four MLS seasons. However, the Whitecaps have been eliminated in the wild-card game both times. This year may be different despite being in the loaded Western Conference.
Vancouver's top goalscoring striker in 2014 was Erik Hurtado with just six goals. It was clear that the Whitecaps were lacking a presence up front.
However, just like the previous winter, Carl Robinson and his coaching staff scouted South America for players. They signed Uruguayan forward Octavio Rivero, who is the missing piece the Whitecaps desperately need.
Rivero made his preseason debut against the New England Revolution on February 4. The striker scored a second-half brace in a 2-0 victory.
Even though he's scored just once since his first preseason match, Rivero has shown other qualities. He's a lethal finisher, but he times his runs and executes them to perfection. He's also solid with the ball at his feet and is strong in the air, hence the "Cabeza" (head) in his Twitter handle.
With Pedro Morales, Kekuta Manneh, Mauro Rosales and Nicolas Mezquida supplying Rivero, the Whitecaps will be a dangerous team.
Robinson has also patched up the defense following the departures of Andy O'Brien and Johnny Leveron. The Welshman acquired 22-year-old center-back Diego Rodriguez on loan, along with experienced MLS defender Pa Modou Kah.
Both players will compete to start alongside Kendall Waston. Either defender will be a solid choice. Kah is an MLS veteran, but Rodriguez is quicker, younger and can speak Spanish, Waston's native language.
Robinson has a tough decision to make, but it's a conundrum any coach wants to have.
Vancouver is competing in a stacked conference, but they only needed to add a center-back and a striker. The Whitecaps have addressed both positions. The majority of their squad is returning from last season and the new additions joined the team earlier this winter, so chemistry is strong.
The Whitecaps conceded just 40 goals last season, and goalkeeper David Ousted led MLS in clean sheets in 2014. Now that they have a goalscoring striker, the sky is the limit in 2015.
Can the Montreal Impact Recover from the Chaos and Make the Playoffs?
The Montreal Impact was the worst team in MLS last year. Montreal accumulated just six wins and 28 points in 2014. However, for the first time in franchise history, the club will begin a campaign with the same coach who finished the previous season. OptaJack notes these Impact stats:
Jesse Marsch was fired after one year, as was Marco Schallibaum. Frank Klopas is now the longest-tenured coach since Montreal entered MLS.
However, Klopas' squad has undergone a major makeover. No fewer than 13 players have been acquired and at least 13 have departed the club, per MLSSoccer.com.
Virtually every new player is an upgrade. The defense has been enhanced with Chivas USA's Donny Toia and Chicago Fire's Bakary Soumare via two of the league drafts. Victor Cabrera was acquired on loan from River Plate, Laurent Ciman was signed for free and the New York Red Bulls' Ambroise Oyongo was involved in a trade.
Oyongo was a part of the deal that sent midfielder Felipe and the Impact's spot in the allocation order to the Red Bulls. Midfielder Eric Alexander was also shipped to Montreal.
Oyongo's situation is a bit shady at the moment. The player claims he's a free agent because when he was acquired by New York, he was playing for an amateur team in Cameroon, per the Canadian Press (h/t Sportsnet).
The situation is broken down by Sofiane Benzaza of SB Nation. If Oyongo does not play for the Impact, it would be a significant blow because he's a talented full-back.
Montreal conceded the joint-highest number of goals in the East in 2014. All of these additions, including goalkeeper Eric Kronberg, should help improve the back line.
Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker and the aforementioned Alexander add some defensive grit and drive in midfield. Ignacio Piatti, Andres Romero, Dominic Oduro and Justin Mapp are all fast, technical players who will contribute in the attacking third of the pitch.
Montreal needs a striker after losing Marco Di Vaio. The club is still looking for a big-name forward, but it will surely find one soon.
There was clearly a lot of movement during the winter. A lot of teams bulked up their squads, so it will be tough to make the playoffs, even with 12 teams qualifying this year. OptaJack points out how many players the Impact used in 2014:
However, the Impact showed more ambition compared to last offseason. Montreal might not make the postseason, but it will be difficult to beat the Impact in 2015.
Peter Galindo covers MLS and U.S. soccer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @GalindoPW.