Everything you need to know about the 2017 MLS season
Looking for the full skinny on MLS in 2017? Search no further; below you will find all the nuts and bolts of the season ahead.
Expect Cascadia to be strong
The 2016 season will be remembered as the year when the Seattle Sounders finally got over the hump and won their first MLS Cup. While it marked a second straight title for Cascadia following the Portland Timbers' championship in 2015, things were not all rosy in the Pacific Northwest.
A year after winning a championship, Portland pulled off the ignominious feat of missing the playoffs. The most glaring statistic was the Timbers' inability to win a single road game, while the second half of the Vancouver Whitecaps' season was marred by seven defeats, including a four-match losing streak in August that dashed playoff hopes.
Seattle lost very little over the winter; in fact you can say it is better due to the return of striker Clint Dempsey, so the Sounders should be back in the playoff mix. But 2017 should also herald a return to the postseason for Portland and Vancouver.
The Timbers loaded up by adding Argentine midfielder Sebastian Blanco. The former San Lorenzo man will be stationed on the right wing and, together with countryman Diego Valeri, will form a formidable duo.
Vancouver's offseason was relatively quiet until February's signing of former Sounder Fredy Montero. The Colombian striker has a successful goal-scoring track record in MLS -- 25 goals in 63 games with Seattle (2009-12) -- and gives the Whitecaps the striker for whom they have been searching.
The battle of New York
Although the New York Red Bulls have won five of their six meetings with New York City FC, including an absolute 7-0 beatdown last June, there is no denying that NYCFC is on the rise. The club finished second in the Eastern Conference last season and star striker David Villa pulled in MVP honors for the 2016 season.
Head coach Patrick Vieira also made some nice additions over the winter: Alexander Callens brings a young, big body to a back four that has struggled the past two years, while the technically sound Argentine Maxi Moralez is an intriguing addition at the No. 10 spot.
Things were rockier for Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch this offseason. The trade of defensive midfielder Dax McCarty was widely frowned upon by the club's supporters. Marsch is rolling the dice that Sean Davis can fill the void of a player who was the heart and soul of the team. It's a big ask and it could result in 2017 being the season that NYCFC surpasses the Red Bulls in the Big Apple.
Dos Santos has the keys in L.A.
It feels as if Giovani dos Santos has been around forever but, at 27, the Mexico international is just now settling into his prime and now, for the first time in his career, is "The Man". Robbie Keane is gone, as are Landon Donovan and Steven Gerrard. Simply put, the Galaxy now belong to Dos Santos.
In looking at the Galaxy in preseason, one gets the sensation that Dos Santos is comfortable in this leadership position, one example being his warm welcome for new winger Romain Alessandrini when he escorted the Frenchman to a Lakers game last month. L.A.'s defense should be strong and Jermaine Jones will provide the muscle in midfield, leaving Dos Santos to develop the chemistry he needs with Alessandrini.
It's all up to Dos Santos. The Galaxy will go only as far as he can take them.
DP signings focus on potential, not name power
After a banner year in 2015 for designated player signings, including the likes of Villa, Kaka, Gerrard, Dos Santos, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, the years since have seen teams adopt a more low-key approach. Older big names, hailing from clubs on the old continent, have been replaced by up-and-coming players from across the Americas, such as Atlanta United's Miguel Almiron and Houston Dynamo's Alberth Elis.
It's a smart, sound approach. Realistically, a young talent like the 23-year-old Almiron will not stay in MLS the rest of his career but, if he has a few seasons of success playing under a veteran manager like Gerardo "Tata" Martino, the league could reap a handsome reward for the sale of the Paraguayan to a top-five European league -- at the very least more than the $8 million spent to lure Almiron from Argentina.
Houston's dipping into the Central American pool follows a similar principle. Honduran striker Elis never really got a chance to pan out last season in Monterrey, but under new coach Wilmer Cabrera he'll have plenty of chances on loan this season with the Dynamo, who have an option to buy at the end of the season.
Judging by Elis' appearances against MLS opposition with former club Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions League, when he scored a winning goal against Seattle, the 21-year-old striker will do well.
Atlanta and Minnesota join the fray
Since 2007, only one expansion team has reached the playoffs in their inaugural season: Seattle in 2009. Looking to add their names to the list this season are Minnesota United and Atlanta United. Unlike the two most recent expansion franchises -- NYCFC and Orlando City, each of whom splashed the cash to sign big names for year one -- Minnesota and Atlanta and opted for a relatively low-key approach.
Atlanta made the more noise of the two with the additions of the aforementioned Almiron and midfielder Hector Villalba, while also barely missing out on exciting Argentine playmaker Oscar Romero. Their preseason results are creating some buzz, namely for the goals scored in the 4-0 friendly win over Chattanooga. Atlanta is sure to have its issues in defense like any expansion team, but it should be fun watching that midfield counter-attack.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has gone about business in an unassuming manner. There is a nod to the club's NASL days with forward Christian Ramirez and midfielder Miguel Ibarra, but otherwise there is nothing that truly stands out about the roster, despite head coach Adrian Heath's proclamations that attacking midfielder Kevin Molino could become "the best player in the league." The Loons won't be 2005 Chivas USA bad -- 18 points in 32 games -- but they won't be playoff contenders either.
2017 by the numbers
As this season gets underway, Seattle will be looking to not only become the fourth team to become a back-to-back champion, but also the sixth team to reach consecutive MLS Cups.
It will, though, be far more difficult to repeat than their predecessors because of the introduction of new teams in the league: Since David Beckham's title-winning swansong in 2012 with the LA Galaxy, four clubs have joined the league. Needless to say, the more competition, the tougher the road to a championship.
At the other end of the table -- this is for you, Chicago Fire and Houston fans -- there is hope. There is a healthy history of teams rising from Eastern Conference and Western Conference cellars and soaring like a phoenix into the postseason. In all, 10 teams have pulled off that achievement, most recently the Montreal Impact in 2015, a year after finishing last. Then there was the 2001 San Jose Earthquakes, who won MLS Cup a season after a last-place finish.
Meanwhile, what would it take for Atlanta or Minnesota to equal Seattle's feat of reaching the postseason as an expansion franchise? While the league has expanded from 15 to 22 teams since the Sounders' accomplishment in 2009, their record that season provides a blueprint for the new clubs: The Sounders compiled an impressive 7-2-6 record at home and played .500 ball on the road: 5-5-5.
The Most Valuable Player debate was a hot topic last season and there were plenty of reasons why many were shocked by Sebastian Giovinco's exclusion (17 goals, 15 assists) from the finalist list of David Villa (23 goals, four assists), Sacha Kljestan (six goals, 20 assists) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (24 goals, four assists).
These same four players should be back in the mix for top individual honors in 2017 and, with Jozy Altidore also healthy, Giovinco stands to improve both his goals and assists statistics and could reclaim the trophy he won in 2015.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .