By IVES GALARCEP
As worthy a champion and strong a squad as Sporting Kansas City is heading into the 2014 MLS season, you don’t get the sense that the reigning MLS Cup champions are a lock to repeat. Lifting the trophy two years in a row is not going to be an easy task with so many already-stacked teams revamping their rosters for the title chase.
You can make a good case for there being a half-dozen legitimate title contenders heading into the new season. The Portland Timbers made an already-stacked team stronger, the LA Galaxy addressed key needs on a team just a year removed from a repeat of its own. RSL came within a penalty kick of a title and bring back the nucleus of a perennial power and Seattle has reconfigured a strong roster around a core of standouts led by Clint Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso.
As much as picking a champion won’t be easy in 2014, trying to separate the other 13 teams is even more difficult. Several of the worst teams in the league in 2013 underwent drastic offseason makeovers, leaving perennial cellar dwellar Toronto FC looking like a playoff team, and 2013 disaster D.C. United fielding an almost entirely new squad loaded with proven MLS veterans.
Just how do you rank so many teams who are so closely-bunched together? Not easily, but the staff at SBI has put together a preseason SBI MLS Power Rankings that tries to balance things out.
As much as you can almost put the top six in any order, and the bottom 13 in any order this year, we at SBI see things shaking out this way in 2014.
Here are the SBI MLS Preseason Power Rankings, as voted on by our editorial staff:
SBI MLS Power Rankings
1. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (17-10-7)
OUTLOOK- Defending champs lost goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen to retirement, but bring back the rest of their starters and a deep bench more than capable of repeating. If Peter Vermes finds a stable goalkeeper solution, and can manage his depth through multiple competitions, Sporting KC could lift multiple trophies.
2. PORTLAND TIMBERS (14-5-15)
OUTLOOK- Will look to improve on standout 2013 with the additions of Argentines Gaston Fernandez and Norberto Papparato. Watch for Max Urruti to have a breakout year, while Darlington Nagbe looks to continue boosting his game. All the pieces to win a title.
3. LOS ANGELES GALAXY (15-11-8)
OUTLOOK- Addressed needs at forward and winger with some smart pick-ups in forwards Rob Friend and Samuel, as well as Swede Stefan Ishazaki. Gyasi Zardes is poised for a big year, but a lingering question is whether Robbie Rogers is ready to provide an impact. With Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan leading charge, LA capable of third MLS Cup in four years.
4. NEW YORK RED BULLS (17-9-8)
OUTLOOK- Supporters Shield winners bring back most of their 2013 squad, but failed to really address lack of depth. That’s something that could hand the Red Bulls considering age of the starting lineup. Will need big years from Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry to come close to 2013 success, and probably a summer Designated Player signing away from being a genuine MLS Cup contender.
5. REAL SALT LAKE (16-10-8)
OUTLOOK- The Jeff Cassar era begins at Rio Tinto Stadium and while replacing Jason Kreis won’t be easy, having a stacked squad should help the transition. Luis Gil is poised for the type of star season expected of him since he entered the league, but the real pressure is on Alvaro Saborio, Robbie Findley and Olmes Garcia to step up the production in order to stay near the top of these rankings.
6. SEATTLE SOUNDERS (15-12-7)
OUTLOOK- The team had to address two issues after a disappointing 2013: an overloaded salary cap and a locker room that had devolved into an ego-filled mess. A well-orchestrated roster overhaul addressed both needs, leaving the Sounders with a much more well-balanced team, and a fresh start for a team that needed one. New faces Stefan Frei, Chad Marshall, Jalil Anibaba, Gonzalo Pineda, Marco Pappa and Kenny Cooper should provide ample support for a stacked nucleus featuring Dempsey, Alonso, Brad Evans, Obafemi Martins, Lamar Neagle and DeAndre Yedlin. If Dempsey can recapture his mojo, Seattle is more than capable of a title run.
7. TORONTO FC (6-17-11)
OUTLOOK- You can argue that no team had as dramatic a makeover as TFC, which splashed the cash on a roster transformation that has folks in Toronto think playoffs and more. Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley are the marquee pieces to the puzzle, but additions like Julio Cesar, Gilberto, Dwayne DeRosario, Justin Morrow and Bradley Orr make Toronto a good bet to make the playoffs for the first time in team history.
8. PHILADELPHIA UNION (12-12-10)
OUTLOOK- The Union weren’t that far from a playoff berth in 2013, but a young team underwent growing pains and the lack of midfield punch proved costly. Head coach John Hackworth was retained and given a mandate to improve the team and he did just that by adding three quality midfield players in Maurice Edu, Marco Maidana and Vincent Nogueira.
9. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (14-11-9)
OUTLOOK- One of the surprises of 2013, the Revs matured into a dangerous attacking squad with a stingy defense and bright future. With Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen leading the offense, and newly-acquired striker Teal Bunbury stepping in to make up for the loss of Juan Agudelo, the Revs have a very good chance of matching last year’s success, if not exceeding it.
10. HOUSTON DYNAMO (14-11-9)
OUTLOOK- Can you ever count out the Dynamo? Even after a relatively quiet winter, and few significant additions, the Dynamo are still a dangerous team with a nucleus of standouts capable of causing problems in the playoffs. They also boast head coach Dom Kinnear, one of the best coaches in a league filled with inexperienced coaches. Kinnear’s presence, and core featuring Brad Davis, Oscar Boniek Garcia, Will Bruin, Ricardo Clark and Tally Hall, make the Dynamo a team that’s tough to rule out for another run at the playoffs.
11. COLORADO RAPIDS (14-11-9)
OUTLOOK- This is supposed to be Colorado’s year to shine. After taking a young squad to a playoff run in 2013, the Rapids were expected to blossom this season as young standouts like Dillon Powers, Deshorn Brown and Shane O’Neill blossom. So why are the Rapids not even in the Top 10? Oscar Pareja’s departure, and Colorado’s delay in officially naming a replacement, have led to serious questions about whether the Rapids will continue to improve, or take a step back.
12. FC DALLAS (11-12-11)
OUTLOOK- Oscar Pareja takes over for Schellas Hyndman in a change that could provide more of an impact than even the significant roster additions the team made. Forward David Texeira and and Andres Escobar should provide an infusion of attacking quality, and much-needed support for Blas Perez, while the arrival of Hendry Thomas gives the Hoops some sorely-needed steel in the midfield. Questions about George John’s durability, and Mauro Diaz’s ability to be the lead playmaker, keep FC Dallas from being ranked higher by the SBI staff.
13. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES (14-11-9)
OUTLOOK- Mark Watson has been given the head coaching job on a full-time basis in San Jose, but the question heading into the new season is whether the roster tweaks made during the offseason are going to make the team better. Rafael Baca, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour are gone, while Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi is the team’s big winter acquisition, along with newly-acquired German fullback Andres Gorlitz. Having Clarence Goodson for a full season should help, but questions about the lack of quality flank players, and whether Pierazzi is the real deal keep San Jose this far down the list.
14. COLUMBUS CREW (12-17-5)
OUTLOOK- New head coach Gregg Berhalter, and owner Anthony Precourt, have Crew fans excited about the team’s future, and the Crew’s ability to rebuild their defense should make Columbus a contender. Federico Higuain is one of the best attacking players in the league, but questions about his supporting cast, and whether the team can make up for the loss of Eddie Gaven, are what could keep them out of the playoffs in 2014.
15. MONTREAL IMPACT (14-13-7)
OUTLOOK- Frank Klopas inherits a playoff team returning most of its key pieces, so why isn’t his team ranked higher? The way Montreal finished the 2013 season was embarrassing, and raised serious questions about the character of the squad. Montreal ownership clearly placed the blame on Marco Schallibaum, and made few significant roster changes. That could prove costly, though the late addition of Heath Pearce could be a steal. Will that be enough? Probably not, unless Marco DiVaio scores 20+ goals again, and the Impact’s defense improves significantly.
16. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (13-12-9)
OUTLOOK- The Whitecaps are ranked pretty low here, but that’s due in part to the fact the rankings were done before the Vancouver’s late acquisitions of Matias Laba and playmaker Pedro Morales. Losing Golden Boot winner Camilo Sanvezzo was a huge blow, but Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh could thrive with Morales pulling the strings. Jay Demerit’s return will be vital to any chance Vancouver has of making the playoffs.
17. D.C. UNITED (3-24-7)
OUTLOOK- The worst team in the league in 2013 went into the winter intent on transforming the roster, and that’s what Ben Olsen and DCU did. Eddie Johnson, Davy Arnaud, Jeff Parke, Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin and Fabian Espindola give D.C. a nice infusion of proven MLS talent, but whether all the pieces will fit to make an effective puzzle is the question mark. Another question is whether Johnson is ready for the burden of being the team’s leading attacker.
18. CHICAGO FIRE (14-13-7)
OUTLOOK- With Mike Magee around for a full season, and rookie Harrison Shipp looking like a difference maker, the Fire attack should have more pop. The questions remain on the defense after essentially swapping out Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba for Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Lovel Palmer. Adding Matt Watson from Vancouver could help provide some bite to a midfield that needed a bit more, but the lack of an elite-level playmaker or proven second striker still make the Fire a team that could fall behind in a crowded East.
19. CHIVAS USA (6-20-8)
OUTLOOK- There is an uncharacteristically optimistic vibe surrounding Chivas USA after the sale of the club to MLS, meaning the departure of wasteful owner Jorge Vergara. As much as that may be, new head coach Wilmer Cabrera must still deal with a roster that has plenty of flaws. Good additions in Mauro Rosales, Luke Moore and Adolfo Bautista should help the Goats compete, but it’s tough to see them anywhere but in last place.