The World Cup is over. The European leagues are in the process of taking a deep breath before the long domestic calendar begins. That means for a brief moment, the attention of MLS fans will be firmly focused on North America's top domestic league.
Certainly the prospect of seeing World Cup heroes like the Seattle Sounders' Clint Dempsey and Sporting Kansas City's Matt Besler adds a bit more pep to the summer period. With a little over four months of the regular season done, the form book contains enough pages to identify some storylines to follow until the playoffs begin in October.
1. Seattle controls its Supporters Shield fate -- again
The Sounders seem to be running away with the Supporters Shield race. At present, Seattle is seven points clear of Eastern Conference leading D.C. United, and 10 points up on Western rivals Real Salt Lake. If that thought creates an involuntary twitch or two in Seattle fans, there's good reason. The Sounders were pretty much in the same place last season, only to suffer a monumental collapse that carried into the postseason.
But there are some reasons why Seattle seems better positioned to avoid a repeat of 2013. The fact that the Sounders went 4-1-1 without its World Cup duo of Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin speaks to how deep this side is. Osvaldo Alonso is now inching closer back to full health after dealing with a variety of injuries, and Obafemi Martins is contributing to the attack in ways that go beyond just scoring. Chad Marshall has also been excellent in the back.
Of course, D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City may yet have a part to play in the Supporters Shield race. DCU's turnaround under Ben Olsen has been highly impressive, and SKC, the reigning MLS Cup holders, should benefit significantly from the returns of Besler and Graham Zusi. That said, Seattle has enough depth and quality to grab the trophy that it let slip away last year.
2. Playoff outsiders state their case
The hottest team in the league is...Chivas USA? It's true, the set to be rebranded side has ridden some stout defending along with the goal scoring of Erick "Cubo" Torres Padilla to win four in a row and climb back into the playoff race. The challenge is that there are still a jumble of solid teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps and Colorado Rapids to climb over. Even F.C. Dallas, thanks to the return from injury of playmaker Mauro Diaz, might still have a say in the proceedings.
In the East, parity remains the byword -- as it so often does. At first glance, the mass of struggling teams that includes Columbus, Philadelphia, Chicago and Houston seem incapable of pulling off the kind of sustained surge needed to get them into the playoff places. Except New England, losers of six straight, seem intent on providing hope to the playoff outsiders. New York's inconsistency has done the same. The ensuing weeks will reveal whether Philadelphia's 3-1 win over the Red Bulls on Wednesday points to a turnaround or is a one-off.
3. The wide-open MVP race
The MVP award loves its goal scorers, so New York's Bradley Wright-Phillips (16 goals) and Kansas City's Dom Dwyer (14 goals) will no doubt get some votes. League-leading assist man Thierry Henry could get some consideration as well. But if Chivas continues its surge, it will be difficult to look past Torres' impressive strike rate that has seen him tally 13 times in 18 games. This was a side that was viewed as a complete no-hoper at the start of the campaign, and Torres' goals have provided his side with plenty of inspiration.
Of course, it's tough to look past the Supporters Shield winners, and Martins, with eight goals and six assists, has put together the kind of complete season that has carried Seattle through the difficult summer months. Dempsey's return may see the U.S. international state his own case, but it's expected that Martins' numbers will continue to rise.
A similar case could be made for D.C. United's Fabian Espindola, who has seven goals and eight assists, although it's unclear how much his recent knee injury will hamper his performance the rest of the way.
4. Which arrival - or return - will shift the balance?
MLS has made some big-time acquisitions in recent weeks, with international starts David Villa and Kaka signing with the league, and strong hints indicating that Frank Lampard and Xavi will join them.
There's only one problem. While Xavi has been linked with Seattle, New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls, none of the other players are expected to arrive this season.
That leaves some less-heralded players to have the biggest impact as the second half of the season commences. Portland is hoping the signing of defender Liam Ridgewell will help solidify a defense that frankly has been in shambles for much of the season. In Chicago, the arrival of midfielder Razvan Cocis is being looked at as the catalyst to help turn the Fire's litany of ties into more wins. Sporting Kansas City will be hoping newly signed duo Jorge Claros and Martin Steuble will lead it to another MLS Cup title.
No doubt, every MLS team with a World Cup player on its roster is glad to see its top performers come back, but a pair of midfielders could have the biggest impact. In Salt Lake City, the return of Kyle Beckerman -- as well as goalkeeper Nick Rimando -- should help a RSL side that has been scuffling of late get back to its best. In Toronto, getting Michael Bradley back should provide a bit more balance between defense and attack, which could help TFC avoid the dreaded play-in game come the postseason.
A high-profile departure or two could have the opposite affect. Kansas City is deep, but if Besler decides to head overseas, that will be a significant loss for the reigning MLS Cup holders.
5. The CBA elephant in the room
The league's Collective Bargaining Agreement with the MLS Players Union expires at the end of the year. So far, according to both the league and the MLSPU, there have been no substantial discussions to speak of, but already the battle lines are being drawn. MLSPU Executive Director Bob Foose, in an interview with ESPNFC.com prior to the World Cup, said the union would seek a significant increase in terms of freedom of movement for players.
"A different player movement system is not at all incompatible with the continued growth of the league," said Foose via telephone. "In fact the opposite [is true]. If you look at the other North American leagues, all of them showed explosive growth with the advent of free agency. There are no examples of a league that was taken down in any way shape or form by player movement."
Certainly the players' hand is as strong as it's ever been, with big money contracts being dropped on foreign and domestic players alike, and a new television deal whose yearly revenues are more than triple those of the previous agreement.
But MLS has long been loath to have its teams bidding against each other for players, especially those already within the league. It will no doubt make for some testy negotiations as the current CBA's expiration draws ever closer.