The 2016 Major League Soccer season: Six storylines to follow
The 2015 MLS season has now been consigned to the record books, and what a campaign it was. It witnessed an MVP season from Sebastian Giovinco, the rise of modest-spending clubs, a record attendance mark, plenty of drama in the postseason, and a stellar run to the MLS Cup crown by the Portland Timbers.
But now is the time for the league and its fans to look ahead and, with that in mind, here are the storylines to follow in 2016.
1. Will the wave of big names continue?
The 2015 season was notable for the number of stars that joined MLS. Giovinco, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba, Giovani dos Santos, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard all arrived, while the reverse migration of U.S. national team players from Europe also continued with Jozy Altidore signing with Toronto FC.
The incoming stars' fortunes were decidedly mixed. Drogba and Giovinco were outstanding. Lampard and Gerrard found the going more difficult. The extent to which this trend will continue is uncertain. Carlos Vela and Ashley Cole are rumored to be on the move, but pen hasn't been put to paper just yet.
The 2015 season was also notable for the success of teams like FC Dallas and Supporters' Shield winners the New York Red Bulls -- teams that didn't break the bank with their signings. It will be interesting to see how the success of these teams influences the direction that others take to revamp their rosters.
MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER
- McIntyre: Cole not in L.A. for the beaches
- Rapids add Conor Doyle from D.C. United
- Altidore seeks to make 2016 his best year
- Parkhurst: Road to MLS Cup starts now
- McBride: Miazga to Chelsea a positive
- FC TV: Fernando Torres moving to MLS?
- Transfers: Latest MLS player moves
2. Can Portland repeat?
Timbers manager Caleb Porter has already set a target of repeating as champions, and it's not an impossible task, since it's been done before by the D.C. United teams of the late 1990s, the Houston Dynamo sides of the mid-2000s and, more recently, the LA Galaxy teams at the start of the current decade.
But the rules and structure of MLS work against the formation of dynasties. The salary cap goes up five percent each year, but player salaries go up a standard 10 percent per annum. That makes it difficult for teams to build on the rosters they already have.
According to SI.com, Portland has sold left-back Jorge Villafana to Liga MX side Santos Laguna for a fee in the high six figures. That should help keep the core of the side together. Other teams aren't standing still however, which brings us to...
3. Can the titans retool?
In 2014, when the LA Galaxy hoisted MLS Cup and the Seattle Sounders won the Supporters' Shield, there was every reason to think that both teams would continue to duke it out for league supremacy.
Instead, a year later they were meeting in the knockout round of the playoffs due to some uneven play in the latter half of the season. Injuries and an aging roster doomed Seattle, while the Galaxy lacked balance between attack and defense after the midseason arrivals of Gerrard and dos Santos.
Yet there are plenty of reasons to think that both sides will rebound. Galaxy's head coach and general manager Bruce Arena is a master at manipulating the league's roster rules, while Seattle GM Garth Lagerwey has previously shown his ability to construct a championship roster.
The increase in Targeted Allocation Money --more on that below -- will no doubt help both sides and there is considerable quality on both rosters as well. Whether that is enough to leapfrog the likes of Dallas, Vancouver and reigning MLS Cup champions Portland will be well worth watching.
4. What will the first year of free agency (and more TAM) bring?
The players' signature gain in this year's collective bargaining agreement was a limited form of free agency. There is a cap on the percentage a free agent's salary can increase, and the percentage depends on how much said player is currently making.
Yet for the first time, a select group of players will have say in where they end up and teams will be in a position to bid -- with the aforementioned limitations -- on their services. Already, Sporting Kansas City minority owner Robb Heineman has begun a Twitter-based recruiting push for Justin Mapp and former league MVP Mike Magee.
Of course, public lobbying is one thing, reality is another, and you can bet the MLS Players Union will be carefully watching how many free agents are signed and for how much.
Factoring into the offseason machinations of teams will be the amount of Targeted Allocation Money (or TAM) that gets pumped into the system. The system was announced in the middle of last season, and it gave clubs $500,000 to buy down the salaries of those players over the Designated Player threshold.
MLS announced Tuesday that an additional $800,000 will be added for 2016 and another $800,000 in 2017. The task of building teams - and getting things right - has never been tougher for team executives.
Ten years ago, MLS was practically begging for expansion teams to join the league. Now there is no shortage of candidates.
Atlanta United, Minnesota United, and Los Angeles FC are all slated to join within the next three years. The news that David Beckham's group has finally found a site for a stadium has cemented their status as the league's 24th team. But MLS isn't stopping there, announcing last weekend that it intends to expand to 28 teams.
That is great news for Sacramento, who has checked all the boxes in terms of its fan base, investors and stadium plans. But that still leaves plenty of cities jockeying for position, including Detroit, St. Louis, San Diego and San Antonio.
6. A new wave of coaches and GMs
All the head coaching and general manager positions are filled, but there will be plenty of eyes on them to see how they fare. Patrick Vieira has taken the head coaching reins at New York City FC, and he'll need plenty of help from the front office -- one that didn't distinguish itself last season -- to get up to speed.
Nelson Rodriguez is the new GM in Chicago, and he appointed former Serbia Under-20 manager Veljko Paunovic as the new head coach, who has a bit of a head start on Vieira since he spent a season in Philadelphia as a player.
Speaking of Philadelphia, Earnie Stewart will officially begin life as the Union's sporting director at the start of the year.
One move that flew a bit under the radar was Orlando City's appointment of Armando Carneiro as the Chief Soccer Officer. Carneiro boasts an impressive resume from his time as the general director of Portuguese side Benfica, but has almost no knowledge of MLS.
Regardless, it's certain that the offseason won't lack for intrigue.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.