The prize at play for every team. Photo credit to Jeremy Olson -

The Angle

Tiering Up: The FiftyFive.One MLS Prediction Piece

by on 3 March 2017

At long last, we’re just days away from starting off another Major League Soccer season. With transactions done and dusted, the focus now shifts to the games themselves. Looking at each conference, here’s our stab at a ranked MLS prediction.

Is anyone else sick of offseason analysis articles?

There’s only so much one can read (or write) about what could happen with a particular club. Over the last month, I think I’ve written four pieces asking how Minnesota United FC will line up for the MLS season.

Well, the season is here. And the Loons aren’t the only team playing games. Six of us (some FiftyFive.One contributors, some from outside the site) submitted our rankings by conference for the upcoming season. This allowed for any outliers and outlandish predictions to be mitigated. Names are not attached, as some panelists wished to remain anonymous. I will offer up that my votes are the furthest to the left. Meanwhile, assume Wes Burdine’s picks are whichever ones you agree with the least.

The one wrench thrown into our plan came from Matt Doyle, who put out his tiered-rankings 36 hours before we did. However, we aren’t pivoting for two reasons. First, we broke it up by conference for readability. Second and more to the point, as a site that isn’t MLS-hosted, we can be blunt if we think a team sucks.

We’re looking at you, Orlando.

Tiers are broken down by our aggregated ranking. Tier I represents our MLS Cup contenders (1.0-3.0). Next, Tier II are teams that seem firmly in the mix for the postseason (3.01-5.0). Tier III would be those fighting for the last postseason slots (5.01-8.5). Finally, Tier IV are the groups who might not be in the playoff fight, but are still worth one’s attention (8.51-11.0).

Let’s start with the Loons’ side of the league.

Western Conference

Tier IV: Maybe next year

11. San Jose Earthquakes (avg. ranking: 10.33)
10. Houston Dynamo (avg. ranking: 9.67)
9. Minnesota United FC (avg. ranking: 8.67)

And right off the bat, we’ve found the hometown team. While we don’t see Minnesota as the WORST TEAM IN MLS HISTORY™, the Loons are definite underdogs in 2017. Meanwhile, San Jose has an aging core. While first-round pick and Minnesota native Jackson Yueill provides a spark, coach Dom Kinnear seldom lets young players shine. Finally, Houston seems equally behind the curve, with another new coach and a bizarre mix of 30-somethings and young internationals.

Tier III: Redline chasers

8. Vancouver Whitecaps FC (avg. ranking: 6.83)
7. Colorado Rapids (avg. ranking: 6.5)
6. Portland Timbers (avg. ranking: 6.0)
5. Real Salt Lake (avg. ranking: 5.33)

One week ago, Vancouver seemed destined for Tier IV. However, the addition of Fredy Montero has added a viable striker to the fold – something the Caps have lacked since Camilo’s departure. The braintrust sees Colorado taking a serious dive after barely missing both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in 2016.

Meanwhile, Portland is tabbed for a major rebound, a bit closer to their MLS Cup-winning 2015 form. While I don’t agree with this thinking (the Timbers’ defense is beyond shaky), the idea is that Portland’s attack is too potent to miss the postseason. A 4-3 win is worth the same number of points as any other victory.

Real Salt Lake is my boom-or-bust pick for 2017. With longtime creator Javier Morales gone, 22-year-old Slovakian DP Albert Rusnák becomes the focal point. Meanwhile, Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando will be fighting both U.S. national team callups and very serious questions about their age. Two of us had them third in the West; one pessimistic voter marked them for dead last.

Tier II: Postseason planners

4. Sporting Kansas City (avg. ranking: 5.0)
3. Los Angeles Galaxy (avg. ranking: 4.5)

Two of MLS’s most consistent teams over the past five seasons find themselves side-by-side. Sporting Kansas City was seen as one of three teams out West in every voter’s playoff bracket. SKC’s core is well-established, with USMNT regulars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi returning once again. Two more starters seem poised for increased minutes with the Yanks. Benny Feilhaber is back in good graces under reinstalled manager Bruce Arena, while Dom Dwyer recently completed a one-time switch to play internationally with the Stars and Stripes. With a Gold Cup and World Cup Qualifying overlapping with the MLS schedule, SKC might be hit hard by callups.

One of the major storylines this season is the relatively-anonymous Los Angeles Galaxy. Gone are the days of global stars like Beckham, Keane, Gerrard, and Donovan (for now, anyway). In fact, new Designated Player Romain Alessandrini is hardly a known commodity to even the most feverish European football fan. However, an attack led by Giovani dos Santos is nothing to laugh at. If Gyasi Zardes can keep healthy, the two comprise one of the best strike partnerships in MLS.

Tier I: MLS Cup contenders

2. Seattle Sounders FC (avg. ranking: 2.17)
1. FC Dallas (avg. ranking: 1.0)

No surprises at the top out west. It’s a tale of two 2016 seasons for these sides; while FC Dallas was consistently the best team in MLS during the regular season, the sale of Fabian Castillo and ACL injury sustained by Mauro Díaz sideswiped the Hoops’ chances at winning an MLS Cup. Belgian winger Roland Lamah was brought in to replace Castillo and former RSL maestro Morales will start while Díaz works his way back to health. Indeed, FC Dallas seems the safest bet to win the Supporters’ Shield in 2017.

However, one can surely wager that the Toros would trade their 2016 success for Seattle’s title. Their rebound from the brink of elimination in July is well-documented. Now, Nico Lodeiro will remain for an entire year, and Clint Dempsey rejoins the Rave Green. Look for these two sides to duke it out up top all summer long.

Eastern Conference

Tier IV: Maybe next year

11. Orlando City SC (avg. ranking: 9.67)

The Eastern Conference is nearly impossible to predict this year. Aside from one rogue voter, the only concrete choice was Orlando City SC taking up the rear. Jason Kreis begins his first full season at the helm, and it’s tough to see what the plan is. Having traded Kevin Molino to the Loons, the additional funds have yet to be put to use. Meanwhile, Orlando traded the enigmatic Brek Shea for equally frustrating forward Giles Barnes. With Kaká leaving after this season and long-rumored target Javier Hernandez destined to join Los Angeles FC, the Lions are looking toothless these days.

Tier III: Redline chasers

10. Atlanta United FC (avg. ranking: 8.5)
9. Philadelphia Union (avg. ranking: 8.33)
T7. New England Revolution (avg. ranking: 7.5)
T7. Columbus Crew SC (avg. ranking: 7.5)
6. Chicago Fire SC (avg. ranking: 6.67)

For all the talk that the Western Conference is the deeper of the two conferences, this may be surprising: all but two teams were projected to make the playoffs by multiple voters. Tiers II and III house nine of the 11 Eastern Conference sides. This is a textbook example of MLS parity. Therefore, trying to guess which five of these nine will make the postseason is a fool’s errand.

But FiftyFive.One is nothing if not a site for fools to complete errands. Expansion side Atlanta United boasts a versatile, young attack led by Paraguayan dangerman Miguel Almíron. They do seem rather top-heavy, and it’s curious if former Barcelona boss Tata Martino can get everyone on the same page while learning the league for himself. The Union sputtered down the stretch last year, but the likes of Alejandro Bedoya and Chris Pontius will try to hold them in contention. Look for new Bosnian midfielder Haris Medunjanin to help anchor Philadelphia.

Three long-standing franchises close out this tier. New England looks to fight off public turmoil and ride an attack led by Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo, and Kei Kamara. Meanwhile, 2015 runner-up Columbus Crew has a lethal Kamara of its own in Ola and seems poised for a bounce-back year. The braintrust likes the moves that Chicago made, bringing in always-underrated Dax McCarty and Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolić to give Fire fans more hope than they’ve had in recent memory.

Tier II: Postseason planners

T4. New York City FC (avg. ranking: 4.33)
T4. Montreal Impact (avg. ranking: 4.33)
T2. New York Red Bulls (avg. ranking: 4.0)
T2. D.C. United (avg. ranking: 4.0)

Seemingly more sure-fire than the previous four sides, none of these teams quite seem to have what it takes to make an MLS Cup appearance. New York City FC lost Frank Lampard, but David Villa and Andrea Pirlo are back alongside wingers Tommy McNamara and Jack Harrison. Sean Johnson joins to give the Pigeons their best goalkeeper yet. While Didier Drogba has ridden off into the sunset, the lethal Ignacio Piatti returns to lead Montreal. The Impact return much of the core that led them to the brink of MLS Cup, narrowly losing to Canadian counterpart Toronto FC.

Two voters (including yours truly) are far from sold on the New York Red Bulls. The club traded longtime captain McCarty and will look to academy products like Sean Davis to fill the void. Further, Ali Curtis (the architect behind the roster) was ousted, and Jesse Marsch is rumored to be looking at a move to Europe. Can the kids link up with an aging core for one last run? Finally, D.C. United was the hottest team this side of Seattle down the stretch and seems poised to make some noise this year. Luciano Acosta is one to watch, as is rookie midfielder Ian Harkes.

Tier I: MLS Cup Contenders

Image credit to Jeremy Olson:

1. Toronto FC (avg. ranking: 1.17)

At last, we’ve reached the consensus Eastern Conference power. Aside from one squirrelly vote for NYCFC, Toronto seems poised for Eastern dominance. We all know the names by now: Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley are the best (and most expensive) DP trio in the league. Now, the pressure is on for Toronto to take the next step and win the Cup. Anything short of that is a failure.

Odds and ends

Here are my personal takes for key awards. I’m sure this will end well in October.

MLS Cup: FC Dallas
Supporters Shield: Toronto FC
Most Valuable Player: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
Golden BootIgnacio Piatti, Montreal Impact
Goalkeeper of the Year: Nick Rimando, Real Salt Lake
Coach of the Year: Gregg Berhalter, Columbus Crew SC
Rookie of the Year: Ian Harkes, DC United

Breakout Player of the Year: Johan Venegas, Minnesota United FC
Biggest Step Back: Bradley Wright-Phillips, Rasenballsport New Jersey
Surprise Midseason Acquisition: Any Designated Player to Minnesota Iker Casillas

This’ll be a fun year for Minnesota and beyond. Disagree with me on anything in here? Sound off in the comments below!

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