With the 2017 Major League Soccer season kicking off in exactly one month, as expansion side Minnesota United travel to the Portland Timbers on March 3, ESPN FC asked league contributors Jeff Carlisle, Doug McIntyre, Jason Davis, Graham Parker and Arch Bell which storylines they're most excited about this season.
All eyes on LA Galaxy without Arena
These are interesting times for the LA Galaxy. For the first time since 2008, Bruce Arena will have nothing to do with the club. His attentions are now focused on his new gig in his second go-round with the U.S. men's national team. For that reason, there is even more fascination than normal attached to the Galaxy this season, which leads to plenty of questions.
Will Curt Onalfo be up to the task of replacing Arena on the sideline? Will Pete Vagenas be as much of a wizard with the roster rules as Arena was? And overseeing all of this is team president Chris Klein. Granted, all have been with the organization in one capacity or another for several years now. But clearly, the training wheels are off. Before, Arena was there to provide a steady hand if the team looked about to go sideways. Now it is up to the aforementioned triumvirate to prove they are capable of replacing a legend.
Certainly things are being done differently down in Carson. The appetite for designated players is as big as it ever was, though the players brought in -- like French winger Romain Alessandrini -- require considerably less investment than the DPs of yore, such as Steven Gerrard. The products of the team's academy will get more opportunities, as well, and the entire league will be watching to see how it plays out. -- Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)
Can the Red Bulls bring order from chaos?
No team goes into 2017 with as much uncertainty -- or as much mystery -- as the New York Red Bulls. It's not just that the Red Bulls, probably the best team in MLS throughout the past two regular seasons, traded their heart-and-soul captain Dax McCarty to Eastern Conference rival Chicago in a deal that shook the league to its core. A few days before that, credible reports dropped that coach Jesse Marsch was to take over Austria's Red Bull Salzburg.
It never happened, and Marsch swore up and down that him leaving had never been discussed. But the absence of sporting director Ali Curtis from the public eye ever since has only stoked the speculation that there is something fishy going on at Red Bull Arena. Will the offseason turmoil manifest itself on the field? It could even with Marsch back in New York.
The Red Bulls took a huge gamble in flipping McCarty for $400,000 in allocation funds -- money they have yet to spend. And even if it ends up buying them a shiny and badly needed new defender, there's no guarantee that alone will be enough to end their perpetual playoff misery next fall. As far as sheer drama goes, nothing remains more fascinating than the Red Bulls' out-of-nowhere soap opera. -- Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN)
Can Atlanta United measure up to the hype?
The hype train for Atlanta's 2017 expansion entry into MLS left the station nearly from the moment of the announcement by Don Garber. With Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank backing the side, everything it has done in the buildup to the first campaign has dripped with money and intent.
Season-ticket sales of 27,000-plus guarantee some of the biggest crowds in the league during the club's first season. Manning the sidelines will be former Barcelona and Argentina coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino. The inaugural roster features several U.S. internationals, as well as young talent from South America who promise a swashbuckling approach to winning games in MLS.
With the wait nearly over and the season upon us, the question looms as to whether Atlanta can measure up to the hype the club itself has created. It's extremely difficult to make the playoffs in year one as an MLS expansion franchise. Martino won't find the adjustment to parity-laden, rough-and-tumble soccer in MLS that easy, either, so frustration could be an issue.
If Atlanta United struggle to get points and lag behind the field through the early part of the year, it could test the city's enthusiasm for the new team. -- Jason Davis (@davisjsn)
Homegrown talent as a statement of intent
This is not so much an event to look forward to but something to keep an eye on. The 2022 date that MLS executives are fond of quoting as a benchmark for measuring the league's global stature is looming fast. In 2013, Garber said MLS sought to be on par with the world's top leagues by then. So amid all the narrative about expansion and whether it dilutes the talent pool, it's intriguing to see just how well the teams that have relied on stocking up through their academy systems continue to perform this year.
Certainly the rate at which youth development is reaching critical mass is happening more quickly than the loosened constraints on spending from the last collective bargaining agreement is impacting player recruitment from outside MLS. A quick glance at the newly revealed Targeted and General Allocation Money figures in recent trades gives an honest, even humbling, sense of just how competitive MLS can actually be in that regard -- especially when you look at the eye-watering money being thrown around by Chinese clubs.
There are risks with a youth policy. But 2016 Supporters' Shield winner FC Dallas and the Eastern Conference-winning Red Bulls are both persisting with the strategies that brought them success last year. The fact that New York is relying on homegrown players to replace club captain McCarty looks like a statement of intent. We'll see if that's rewarded or if it catches up with the club. -- Graham Parker (@KidWeil)
A pivotal year for Pareja's Dallas
After crashing out of the 2016 MLS playoffs in the Western Conference semifinals to eventual champions Seattle Sounders, anything shy of winning MLS Cup will be a disappointment for Oscar Pareja's FC Dallas in 2017. Pareja guided the team to last season's best regular-season record and the U.S. Open Cup, but there are much bigger fish to fry this year.
A failure to win MLS Cup would see another season pass by without FC Dallas' much-ballyhooed squad claiming the league's top prize, and questions of whether Pareja can win the big one with the club would likely be asked.
However, should Pareja lead FC Dallas to the Cup promised land and/or make history by becoming the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League, the soft-spoken coach will have made a strong case for the United States national team post once Bruce Arena's second term comes to a close following the 2018 World Cup, assuming the U.S. reaches Russia.
In recent seasons, Pareja's FC Dallas has been rightly lauded by pundits for its attractive style of play and ability to integrate academy products into the first team. Now in 2017, all eyes will be on the Big D to see whether things can all come together in the form of a league championship. -- Arch Bell (@ArchBell)