An A to Z of MLS in 2015

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistDecember 29, 2015

An A to Z of MLS in 2015

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    Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

    The last year in Major League Soccer was one of the most successful periods in the league's history. The 2015 regular season was a massive success and bigger names continued to come over to play in North America. 

    The 2015 league campaign almost didn't start on time as the owners and players agreed upon on a collective bargaining agreement two days before the first match kicked off.

    Once the games began, we witnessed plenty of world-class play from stars like Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa and Kei Kamara. As the season progressed, drama began to build in anticipation of what turned out to be the most exciting postseason in league history. 

    Off the pitch, the introduction of Targeted Allocation Money was a big storyline as was the midseason transfers of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. 

    We decided to wrap up the last year in MLS with a complete A to Z guide of the happenings on and off the field during the league's 20th season.

A Is for Atomic Ant

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    Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

    It seems fitting our year in review article begins with a player whose name was in the headlines from the second he joined MLS. 

    Sebastian Giovinco took over MLS in 2015 with 22 goals and 16 assists in 33 regular-season matches for Toronto FC. His high level of performance week in and week out earned him the league's Most Valuable Player award. 

    The Atomic Ant was in almost every weekly highlight reel as well, as he scored plenty of world-class goals, most of which were off free-kicks. 

    Giovinco also helped the Reds earn their first-ever playoff berth, but they crashed out in the knockout round to rival Montreal. 

B Is for Beard

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    Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

    There is no doubt Nat Borchers has the best facial hair in MLS. There is also no doubt that his move to Portland a year ago was the top defensive acquisition of the offseason. 

    The veteran center-back, who spent seven seasons with Real Salt Lake, brought a reliable hand to the Portland back line and formed quite the partnership with Liam Ridgewell.

    The form of Borchers and his Timbers teammates peaked near the end of the regular season and carried over into the playoffs. Portland downed Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver and FC Dallas on its way to MLS Cup, where it knocked off host Columbus 2-1 at Mapfre Stadium. 

    With Borchers set to anchor the back line again in 2016, the Timbers must be seen as a contender to repeat. 

C Is for Canada

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    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

    The 20th season in MLS was far and away the best for the teams based in Canada. Toronto FC, Montreal and Vancouver qualified for the postseason in 2015, and each club set the tone for success in 2016. 

    Toronto once again brought in big names during the offseason with the acquisitions of Giovinco and Jozy Altidore to go along with Michael Bradley. The trio of big names helped the Reds clinch the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. 

    Powered by the midseason transfer of Didier Drogba, the Impact surged into the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference by the end of October. Montreal gave Columbus a run for its money before falling in the Eastern Conference semifinal round. 

    Vancouver flew under the radar on a national level, but it achieved plenty of success in Carl Robinson's second year as manager. With a young successful core in place, the Whitecaps should continue to rise in the Western Conference in 2016. 

    In addition to all the league success in Canada this season, Montreal reached the CONCACAF Champions League final in April. After a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azteca, the Impact gave Club America all they could handle before the Mexican side pulled away and won 5-3 on aggregate. 

D Is for Didier Drogba

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    Midseason big-name additions usually don't work out in MLS, but none of them have had a resume quite like Didier Drogba's. 

    The Chelsea legend joined the Impact after a saga that involved a trade with Chicago for his rights. In September, Drogba found his way into the starting lineup, and he recorded a hat-trick against the Fire at Stade Saputo. 

    The three-goal performance against Chicago sparked one of the best scoring runs of the season. In 11 regular-season matches, Drogba scored 11 times and handed out one assist. 

    Drogba had three two-goal showings for Montreal, and he powered it to a pair of wins in the postseason. 

E Is for Ethan Finlay

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    Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

    It is hard to find a player with a better resume in MLS over the last two years than Ethan Finlay of the Columbus Crew. 

    A year after contributing 11 goals and seven assists in his first full year as a starter, Finlay recorded 12 goals and 13 assists on the wing for the Crew. 

    Finlay joined Giovinco, Benny Feilhaber and Clint Dempsey as the only players to earn at least 10 goals and 10 assists in the regular season. 

    However, Finlay disappeared toward the back end of the postseason, which may drive him to produce even better numbers in 2016 for Gregg Berhalter's side.

F Is for Free Agency

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    John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

    After the 2015 regular season concluded, MLS announced its first class of free agents. 

    Back in March, limited free agency was brought to the league as a part of the new collective bargaining agreement. Players had to be over the age of 28 and have eight years of experience to be considered a free agent right away. 

    On December 14, Sporting Kansas City inked winger Justin Mapp to the first MLS free-agent deal. Corey Ashe and Drew Moor later signed as free agents with Columbus and Toronto respectively. 

    Although free agency has its restraints at the moment, it wouldn't be a major surprise if the next collective bargaining agreement allows more freedom to the players.

G Is for Green and Gold

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    When the dust settled on the 2015 season, green and gold were the dominant colors on the stage for the presentation of the MLS Cup. 

    No one expected the Portland Timbers to win the championship at the start of the regular season, or even at the beginning of the postseason. 

    But thanks to a little bit of luck in the knockout round and a few stellar all-around performances, the Timbers defeated the Columbus Crew 2-1 at Mapfre Stadium to win the title. 

    Portland manager Caleb Porter helped spur the Timbers to their first title in franchise history in October, when he changed formations and let Diego Chara feature in a lone holding-midfield role. Portland immediately benefited from Porter's tactical change and used that as a key turning point in its season. 

H Is for Homegrown Players

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    Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

    The emergence of homegrown players on playoff teams was a key storyline in 2015. 

    The New York Red Bulls benefited from Matt Miazga's breakout season to win their second Supporters' Shield in three years. The 20-year-old center-back saw his international stock rise thanks to his strong year as he earned his first United States men's national team appearance in November. 

    Over in the Western Conference, FC Dallas made history on September 8, when the club started five homegrown players against the Columbus Crew. Three of those playersJesse Gonzalez, Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloawere vital parts of the team's deep playoff run. 

    Bill Hamid, Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes were three other homegrown players who enjoyed plenty of success for their respective teams this season. 

    As the partnership between MLS and USL continues to grow, we will see more homegrown players make an impact like the players mentioned above did over the last 12 months.

I Is for Inside of the Post

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    If you're a Sporting Kansas City fan, you should probably click the next button and move on from this page. 

    Peter Vermes' side fell in a shootout to Portland in the knockout round of the Western Conference playoffs on October 29 at Providence Park. The most dramatic attempt of penalties came with the shootout leveled at five goals each. 

    Sporting KC defender Saad Abdul-Salaam stepped up to the spot and struck his shot off the inside of the left post. The ball then traveled across the face of the goal and bounced off the inside of the right post. 

    Two kicks later, Adam Kwarasey stopped Jon Kempin's penalty to knock Sporting KC out of the postseason. The shootout was one of the top moments of the season and Portland used the momentum gained from the victory to go on and win the MLS Cup.

J Is for Jason Kreis and Jeff Cassar

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    Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

    Jason Kreis and Jeff Cassar are two managers who are not used to failure, but in 2015, both bosses did not meet expectations at their respective clubs. 

    In his first season with NYCFC, Kreis was dealt a rough hand due to the Frank Lampard saga and the questionable transfer strategy put in place by the owners. To add to his misfortune, Kreis failed to put his best 11 out on the pitch each week. If that were the case, Kwadwo Poku would've made a bigger impact on a handful of matches. 

    At Kreis' old club Real Salt Lake, Cassar shot himself in the foot with a tactical switch that never caught on with the players or the fans. Injuries and a lack of proper personnel for the 4-3-3 hurt the Claret and Cobalt's chances of clinching a berth in the postseason.

    After the season, Kreis lost his job while Cassar kept his. If Kreis' former assistant can't bring RSL back into the postseason in 2016, he might be without a job as well. 

K Is for Kei Kamara

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    Kei Kamara made a year-long statement in his return to MLS with the Columbus Crew. 

    The Sierra Leone international, who left Sporting Kansas City for England in 2013, scored a total of 26 goals in the regular season and the playoffs for Gregg Berhalter's side. 

    Most of the chances created by Kamara came through the air. The lanky forward got the best of plenty of defenders thanks to his terrific leaping ability. 

    The number of strikes netted by Kamara was a career high, and all signs are pointing to him thriving once again in 2016 as the Crew chase their first MLS Cup since 2008.

L Is for Lampard

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    The Frank Lampard saga seemed like it would never end in 2015. 

    The former Chelsea midfielder was originally slated to debut for expansion side New York City FC at the start of the year, but due to some intricacies in his contract with City Football Group, the England international didn't make his first MLS appearance until August 1. 

    The 37-year-old found a bit of form in September by scoring three times in four games, but he never really got into a true rhythm in the NYCFC midfield. 

    The good news for NYCFC fans in 2016 is Lampard will be with the club from the start of the regular season, but he's now a year older in a league that keeps getting younger.

M Is for Marsch

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    Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    Across the river from NYCFC at Red Bull Arena, Jesse Marsch made great strides in his first year in charge of the New York Red Bulls. 

    Marsch's appointment wasn't met with much celebration as the Red Bulls removed club hero Mike Petke from the managerial position following the 2014 campaign. 

    But thanks to Marsch's high-energy pressing style of play and the development of young players, the new coach won over the Red Bulls' faithful fans by the time the club lifted the Supporters' Shield on Decision Day. 

    Year one under Marsch was seen as a massive success, but now the expectations will be through the roof in 2016 for the Red Bulls to get a step closer to the MLS Cup.

N Is for Negotiations

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    Daniel Smith/Getty Images

    Before MLS began its 20th season, the owners and players had to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. 

    After a winter of little progress, things heated up with the regular season on the horizon. Then with two days left in the offseason, the two sides brokered a deal in Washington, D.C. 

    There were some doubts that the season would not start on time due to the nature of the talks, but eventually the owners and players agreed to a deal that would benefit both parties. 

    The players were able to get limited free agency and higher minimum salaries out of the agreement, which in the long term could become expanded depending on the next CBA. 

    Hopefully five years from now when a new CBA is discussed, both sides don't wait until the last minute to get something done.

O Is for Orlando City

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    Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

    Orlando City was one of two clubs that raised the bar for expansion franchises in the future. 

    The Lions entered MLS with a roar as they averaged over 30,000 fans for home games at the Citrus Bowl and competed for a playoff position until the final day of the regular season.

    With stars like Kaka and Cyle Larin leading the way, the Lions should be able to capitalize on their success on the pitch in 2016.

    However, Orlando is the one club to keep an eye on at the start of 2016 due to the fluctuation in the front office and coaching staff since the season ended.

    If the Lions don't get off to a fast start in their second year of play in MLS, Adrian Heath could be the first manager fired in 2016.

P Is for Postseason

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    By all accounts, the 2015 postseason was the best MLS has ever seen. 

    The drama started on the first night of the playoffs as the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy combined to score four goals in 22 minutes at CenturyLink Field. Seattle eventually won 3-2 on an Erik Friberg game-winner. The next night in Portland, the Timbers won on a dramatic penalty shootout that saw goalkeepers step to the spot. 

    Seattle was once again a part of the excitement in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal against FC Dallas. Three goals in the final six minutes of regulation sent the match at Toyota Stadium into extra time and penalties, where FC Dallas won 4-2. 

    The final five games of the postseason witnessed a pair of first-minute goals, a wild four-goal affair in Texas and the fastest goal in MLS Cup history. 

    Just like almost everything else to do with the 2015 season, the competition in the playoffs raised the standard for years to come.

Q Is for Questionable Effort

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    Everyone knew what they were getting when Andrea Pirlo agreed to join New York City FC this summer, but the deficiencies in the Italian legend's game were brought to light plenty of times in 2015. 

    Pirlo, who has never been known for his defensive abilities, let the expansion side down on a few occasions with his lackluster effort on defense. 

    The most notable example of Pirlo's questionable effort came against the New England Revolution, when he stood next to the right post as the ball was played in. The midfielder remained supplanted on the post as goalkeeper Josh Saunders unsuccessfully dove for the ball within a few feet of Pirlo. 

    Although Pirlo brought plenty of mastery to the NYCFC attack, he was often criticized for his lack of defense, which is something you need to have in a league like MLS.

R Is for Rookie Record

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    An argument can be made that Cyle Larin was the most successful rookie in league history in 2015. 

    The No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft scored 17 goals in 27 matches for the Lions, and in the process, the Canada international broke the league rookie scoring record previously held by Damani Ralph, who netted 11 tallies in 2003. 

    Larin also became the first rookie to score two hat-tricks in a season, per ESPN's Paul Carr. On top of that, the 20-year-old found the back of the net on two or more occasions four times. 

    Thanks to his tremendous performances up top for the Lions, Larin took home the Rookie of the Year award.

S Is for Suspension

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    Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    It may not have happened in an MLS game, but Clint Dempsey's tearing apart of the referee's book in the U.S. Open Cup on June 16 had ramifications inside the league. 

    Dempsey was suspended three league matches for his acts in the match against the Portland Timbers that was one of the feistiest affairs in American soccer over the last 12 months. 

    The three-game absence caused by the suspension started a spell of seven matches in which the Sounders were without Dempsey. Seattle earned three of a possible 21 points during that span, which also saw the former Tottenham man feature in the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the United States. 

    Consecutive losses to San Jose, Philadelphia and Portland during Dempsey's ban set the wheels in motion for a disastrous spell of form that almost cost the Sounders a playoff berth. 

T Is for Targeted Allocation Money

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    The most important initiative introduced by the league office in 2015 was Targeted Allocation Money, or TAM for short. 

    TAM made its debut in July as the league attempted to strengthen the roster spots just below the designated player threshold.

    The 20 clubs in MLS were originally given $100,000 a year to use over the span of five years, and that money could be combined to bring in a new signing or buy down a player's contract beneath the designated player level. 

    Due to the success of the program, MLS introduced an extension of TAM in December that handed each club an additional $800,000 in TAM to use on signings as well as $125,000 to use on homegrown players.

    It may take a while for us to know the true impact of TAM in the long term, but in the short term, it allowed clubs in MLS to bring in players like Johan Venegas, Anibal Godoy and Gaston Sauro to help improve the quality of play across the league.

U Is for Underwhelming

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    Two of the biggest clubs in MLS failed to live up to the lofty standards they set for themselves each season. 

    The Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy delivered underwhelming seasons despite both qualifying for the postseason. Seattle looked like an average side at best without Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins up top, while the Galaxy lacked strength in goal and defense. 

    The perfect representation of the erratic seasons both clubs had was the first 22 minutes of their knockout-round contest in which four goals found the back of the net. Seattle defeated LA 3-2 in that game and then went on to fall to FC Dallas in the semifinal round. 

    We already know the Galaxy will look different in 2016 without Omar Gonzalez and Juninho, who were both sold before Christmas. And we should expect the same out of the Sounders as they continue to chase the elusive MLS Cup.

V Is for Villafana

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    One day the story of Jorge Villafana's career will be made into a movie. 

    The 26-year-old left-back achieved the ultimate goal in MLS with the Timbers as he hoisted the MLS Cup before moving on to Santos Laguna in Mexico.

    Villafana started his career by winning a reality show called Sueno MLS in 2007. The defender then moved his way up into the first team at Chivas USA and played there until a 2014 trade to Portland. 

    The United States-eligible full-back wasn't a key contributor for the Timbers until the postseason, where he notably shut down some of the top wingers in the league, including Ethan Finlay in the MLS Cup. 

    If he continues to grow his game in Mexico, Villafana should be a prominent member of the USMNT due to the imminent need at the position.

W Is for Wondolowski

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    It doesn't matter if you love or hate Chris Wondolowski, you just have to respect his numbers. 

    Wondolowski scored in double digits for the sixth consecutive season as he recorded 16 goals in 31 matches for the San Jose Earthquakes. The United States international also eclipsed the 100-goal mark for his career with a strike on May 24 against Orlando City. 

    Since 2010, Wondolowski has scored 18, 16, 27, 11, 14 and 16 goals in a season. Regardless of what his output is at the international level, the 32-year-old will go down as one of the best scorers in MLS history. 

    And don't expect him to slow down either as the Earthquakes add more pieces around him for a playoff push in 2016.

X Is for X-Factors in the Playoffs

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    The 2015 postseason saw plenty of role players step into shining roles for their respective clubs. 

    X-factors like Harrison Afful in Columbus, FC Dallas' Victor Ulloa and Portland's Jorge Villafana were just a few of the squad players who shined at the perfect time.

    The majority of the playoff X-factors came from the full-back position, which is usually not known for its depth around the league. Columbus' pair of Afful and Waylon Francis shut down the New York Red Bulls wingers in the Eastern Conference Final, while Villafana and Alvas Powell shined against FC Dallas in the Western Conference Final. 

    The biggest surprise of the postseason may have been the performance of Montreal's Patrice Bernier, who scored twice for the Impact in their three playoff matches.

Y Is for Yankee Stadium

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    Whether you like it or not, you have to agree that Yankee Stadium brought a unique gameday experience to MLS in 2015. 

    The home stadium of expansion side NYCFC, and the MLB's New York Yankees, was criticized as a site for soccer matches because of its narrow pitch and awful sightlines. 

    Despite the skepticism surrounding the venue, NYCFC fans packed the stadium for every home game and provided the sister club of Manchester City with a boisterous home support. 

    Yankee Stadium won't be the permanent home of the club, but for the time being, it is a nice stadium that fits the sport of soccer just fine.

Z Is for Zeroes

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    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

    One of the reasons why the Goalkeeper of the Year award could've gone to three players in 2015 is the impressive numbers put up in the shutouts category. 

    Goalkeeper of the Year finalists David Ousted, Luis Robles and Bill Hamid combined for 30 clean sheets in 2015 with Ousted tying Portland's Adam Kwarasey for the most in the league with 13. 

    In addition to the success of those mentioned above, David Bingham and Stefan Frei posted over 10 shutouts for San Jose and Seattle respectively. 

    The growing depth at the position across the league didn't receive much attention in 2015, but there are plenty of teams that are set for the future in net. 

    Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90

    All statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com.

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