The 2015 MLS season was a special one, to say the least. The league beautifully re-branded their image with a sleek new crest in honor of the 20th season, newcomer Sebastian Giovinco put up some eye-popping numbers on his way to winning the Landon Donovan MVP Award, and the debut of Decision Day along with another excellent postseason made last year one for the ages.
Well, classify this under good news: The 2016 MLS season arrives on Sunday with a full slate of matches, and hopefully MLS’ 21st season is every bit as remarkable as the last. Here are my four predictions for the 2016 MLS season:
1. New York City FC will miss the playoffs.
They have names. Oh, they have plenty of names. NYCFC Designated Players David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard provide plenty of offense and technical ability. As do their other talented attackers Kwadwo Poku, Mix Diskerud, Thomas McNamara, Khiry Shelton and Patrick Mullins.
The problem with the NYCFC roster is that the defense and goalkeeping are average at best, and they have no one in the midfield to do the dirty work. When Lampard and Pirlo play together, this is especially an issue. Pirlo played some amazing balls last season, but his effort on the defense side of the ball was laughable and borderline nonexistent, as perfectly summed up by Soccer Morning producer Trevor Hayward’s Photoshop skills:
— Trevor Hayward (@HeyHayward) January 20, 2016
Some of NYCFC’s non-Designated Players will attempt to shoulder the load of running the channels and tracking back defensively, but the roster lacks a true box to box type of central midfielder who can get back behind the ball when needed, link play from defense to offense and also provide some danger in the attacking third. Those kind of midfielders don’t grow on trees, but too much of NYCFC’s payroll is tied up in has-been stars who are content to play a beautiful ball and then stand around.
2. Fabian Castillo and Darlington Nagbe’s numbers will finally match their talent.
It’s not that either of these guys’ numbers were bad last season — Castillo bagged nine goals and nine assists in the regular season while Nagbe tallied five and five — but fans have long salivated over both players’ talent and wondered if and when their production on the scoresheet will equal the talent that oozes off the screen when these guys are put to the eye test.
Toward the end of the last season, Castillo looked downright unstoppable at times, often darting up the left wing at will with the ball seemingly glued to his feet. The end result was generally the same: Castillo in behind the defense, dribbling inside the opponent’s penalty area. The FC Dallas phenom headlined MLSsoccer.com’s 24 Under 24 list for a reason, and appears ready to really breakout in 2016. Go ahead and pencil him in for double digit goals and double-digit assists.
Nagbe also looked marvelous late in the 2015 regular season and in the playoffs, truly blossoming once he was given more freedom in the attack by Portland Timbers manager Caleb Porter. His confidence is also on the rise thanks to adding an MLS Cup title to his trophy case and receiving a recent USMNT call-up. Expect a rejuvenated Nagbe to increase his 2016 numbers to at least 15 combined goals and assists. He’s ready.
3. DC United will miss the playoffs.
Yes, DC United still have Bill Hamid, Chris Rolfe, Fabián Espíndola, Álvaro Saborío and the core of their defense intact, but they lost a couple of key pieces in the off-season. Chris Pontius, a 2012 MLS All-Star and important midfield cog, was traded away to the Philadelphia Union. Perry Kitchen, one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, spurned a big offer to remain in MLS in favor of plying his trade in the Scottish Premiership for Heart of Midlothian FC. Oh yeah, and Hamid is set to miss the first half of the season due to a knee injury.
DC United still possess enough talent to contend for a playoff spot, so don’t expect the fall-off to be all the way to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, but they really struggled to find the back of the net in 2015. Defense was clearly their strong suit. The permanent loss of Kitchen and temporary loss of Hamid will cause this team to leak more goals while probably scoring about the same amount. Look for DC United to slump early in the season without Hamid, and then make a playoff push late in the season that falls just short once their elite ‘keeper returns.
4. The Chicago Fire will not finish last in the Supporters’ Shield standings.
News flash: Bookmakers don’t particularly fancy the Fire to burn down much foliage in the 2016 MLS season. Listed at the longest odds of any team in the league to win the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs at +10000 — or 100 to 1 — at Bovada.lv, the Fire face an uphill battle after massively overhauling their roster in the off-season.
But new manager Veljko Paunovic has worked miracles before, and will have a few familiar faces at his disposal in the attack in David Accam, Gilberto, and Kennedy Igboananike, plus a shiny new weapon at left fullback in rookie Brandon Vincent. Chicago won’t threaten for a playoff spot in 2016, but Paunovic will maximize the roster he has to work with and the Fire will be more competitive than expected. Look for them to finish higher in the Supporters’ Shield table than teams like the Colorado Rapids and the Philadelphia Union, and maybe even above Real Salt Lake and the Houston Dynamo.
Main Photo: Steve Dykes, Getty Images