With eight different winners over the course of the last 10 years, Major League Soccer is never an easy competition to predict and that remains true ahead of the 2018 season.
The salary cap, relatively egalitarian distribution of income and the use of a playoff knockout system to determine the champion makes it unlikely that MLS will ever witness the sort of consistent domination certain teams are able to enjoy in other world leagues.
Only DC United, who won three of the first four MLS Cups following the formation of the league in 1996, and LA Galaxy, who won three out of four between 2010 and 2014, have briefly threatened such dominance before drifting back into the pack. Indeed, those two teams finished bottom of their respective Conferences last season.
Teams who operate smartly can, however, enjoy relatively sustained periods of competitiveness. Each of the last two MLS finals have been contested by Toronto and Seattle Sounders. Seattle won in 2016, and last year it was Toronto who lifted their first MLS Cup following one of the most impressive regular season campaigns in the competition’s history.
A good regular season doesn’t always necessarily transfer to the playoffs. Maintaining consistency over the course of a long season can require a different set of attributes to those needed to triumph in knockout football. That is born out by the fact that over the course of the last 15 years, Toronto are one of only three Supporters’ Shield winners – awarded to the team with the best regular-season record – to also lift the MLS Cup.
It is easier to mark out teams as potential Conference winners or qualifiers for the playoffs than it is to say which can be considered the favorites to go all the way and lift the MLS Cup.
Seattle and Toronto will both again be strong contenders in 2018. Seattle have finished in the top four of their Conference in each of their nine seasons in MLS and have the structural stability and on-field talent to at least keep that run going. Toronto, meanwhile, have a solid spine aligned to the star power of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco.
Other challenges are most likely to come from teams who performed well in 2017. Atlanta and Chicago Fire both put together good regular-season campaigns only to fall at the first hurdle in the playoffs. Atlanta did particularly well considering that it was their debut season in MLS, and they have invested well to strengthen their squad for an ever better 2018.
New York City, coached by ex-Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira, will also hope to go further in the playoffs this time around after failing to progress beyond the last eight despite possessing the second best regular-season record in MLS. A contract extension for David Villa and a couple of interesting signings leave them well-positioned to do just that.
New York Red Bulls had their worst regular season campaign in eight years last time out but still showed well in the playoffs, only losing out on away goals to eventual champions Toronto in their Conference semi-final after thrashing Chicago Fire in the knockout round. They are regularly among the top four or five contenders come playoff time.
Colombus Crew and Houston Dynamo were the beaten Conference finalists in the East and West respectively last season but may struggle to replicate those performances this time around as both have lost key attacking players in the off-season. Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps will also seek to build on solid campaigns in 2017.
Los Angeles FC will become the 23rd team in MLS when they join the competition this season. While it is asking a lot for any expansion team to match what Atlanta achieved last year, LAFC have former United States national team coach Bob Bradley at the helm and have brought in the mercurial Mexican forward Carlos Vela as a centrepiece talent.
Across town, LA Galaxy will be seeking to recover from a highly disappointing 2017. Sigi Schmid led them to an MLS Cup triumph in his first spell at the club back in the early 2000s and with the Dos Santos brothers, Jonathan and Giovani, and the newly arrived Ola Kamara, a 18-goal striker for Columbus Crew last season, a playoff place isn’t out of the question.
Among those who similarly failed to make the playoffs last season, Philadelphia Union look to have traded well, with David Accam a good pickup from Chicago Fire, while FC Dallas, New England Revolution and Real Salt Lake will also have sights on an improved 2018.
The truth, however, is that it is always difficult to get a true handle on things in MLS. With a generally fairly even playing field, there is always the potential for a couple of seemingly esoteric signings to have a transformative effect and power a playoff run. Surprises are certain, it will just be necessary to wait and see where they come from.