The 23rd season of Major League Soccer is underway. Toronto FC entered the season with several key additions to supplement its superstars, but is it enough to retain their crown as the league’s best? Is this the year that the Reds’ rivals, Montreal Impact, finally challenge them in the Eastern Conference? Can the retooled Vancouver Whitecaps finally deliver on the expectations of their fervent fanbase?
After only one matchday, this writer gives his predictions for the season.
The Reds were runaway champions, finishing last season with an MLS-best of 69 points, 12 points ahead of the next best team. Stars Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and captain Michael Bradley led the team, but it was Victor Vázquez who spurred Toronto to victory. The midfield playmaker set up 16 goals during the regular season. With a solid defense and a dominant midfield, Toronto’s squad proved too much for the rest of MLS.
But this season’s squad, still rife with marquee players, differs greatly from last year’s champions. Leaving the club are breakout Canadian star Raheem Edwards, right back Steven Beitashour, and midfielders Benoît Cheyrou and Armando Cooper.
Transferring in are former Dutch right backs Gregory van der Wiel and Auro along with Bilbao product Ager Aketxe. Auro and van der Wiel should be stepping into the defense, with Aketxe joining a packed midfield.
The hangover from last season was evident in the season opener, a 2–0 loss to Columbus Crew. Toronto was lackadaisical on the ball, as if they were expecting to win. The 4-3-1-2 employed by Toronto proved ineffective, especially compared to last season’s success with the 3-5-2.
Jonathan Osorio, however, proved that he deserves a spot in the TFC lineup, putting in an energetic performance at home for the Crew. Aketxe and van der Wiel also had solid debuts.
With all the talent in this squad, they should be respected as the favourites to win the title this year, especially if Greg Vanney returns to a 3-5-2. The depth in this team should help them to make an impact in the CONCACAF Champions League. The Reds already led Mexican side Tigres 2–1 after the first leg of the quarter-final, and despite a loss to them in the second leg, they are advancing to the Champions League.
A lacklustre season for the Impact saw them finish ninth in the East Conference, 11 points away from a playoff spot. Stars Laurent Ciman and Ignacio Piatti, and youngster Ballou Tabla were all that kept Montréal afloat in Patrice Bernier’s final season. Gone is Ciman, who was traded for Jukka Raitala and Raheem Edwards Joining the club are Canadians Samuel Piette and Michael Petrasso, with Saphir Taïder joining on loan. Gone is Tabla, who is now with FC Barcelona.
The Impact opened their season with a 2–1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps. In a lacklustre performance, new right back Petrasso was torn to shreds by ‘Caps phenom Alphonso Davies, who picked up a goal and an assist.
Edwards was unimpressive, as was Piatti. In the dying moments of the match, the Impact were able to grab a goal via Matteo Mancosu, who finished off a brilliant Daniel Lovitz cross at the back post.
Montréal’s defense appeared to be in shambles against the Whitecaps. The loss of Ciman may prove insurmountable this season, leading to a poor defensive record.
The only way the Impact will make the playoffs this season is on the back of an MVP-calibre performance from Piatti. Expect a solid season from Piette, who will be heavily relied upon to protect the backline.
The ‘Caps finished third in the West Conference last season. Buoyed by Yordy Reyna’s dynamic movement and Matías Laba’s tackling ability in a 4-2-3-1, Vancouver counterattacked its way into the playoffs. Despite this success, Whitecaps management decided to rebuild.
Out went fan favourites Laba, David Ousted, Tim Parker, and Jordan Harvey, as well as numerous depth players. In came forwards Kei Kamara and Anthony Blondell; midfielders Felipe Martins, Jordon Mutch, and Efraín Juárez, as well as defender Doneil Henry.
Stefan Marinovic is the starting goalkeeper, while Russell Teibert will act as the midfield anchor. The most exciting of the changes this season is Alphonso Davies’ expanded role. The Canadian was handed a starting opportunity in this year’s home opener and dominated the match until he was substituted.
He tormented the Impact’s Petrasso, assisting Kamara with a driven cross before grabbing a goal shortly after. Davies’ goal, however, came from a poorly placed shot that Impact keeper Evan Bush fumbled into his net.
That 2–1 Whitecaps win against Montreal was classic Carl Robinson-era Vancouver: high-speed counter-attacks stemming from midfield turnovers, only to give up goals late.
Expect the Caps‘ tactics to remain the more or less the same this year. Vancouver should make the playoffs if their defence performs, but don’t expect them to challenge for the title.