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MLS team previews: Analyzing the Earthquakes, Sounders, Sporting KC, Toronto FC and Whitecaps

In the last of the MLS team preview articles, we examine the San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Sporting KC, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

San Jose Earthquakes

Dominic Kinnear’s first season as Earthquakes manager was somewhat of a success. He managed to keep them in playoff contention for most of the year, and has found a threatening forward partnership to keep them scoring goals: Chris Wondolowski and Quincy Amarikwa. They require a shift to the 4-4-2, but those two are the key for San Jose this season.

There are two main problems with that: Wondo’s advancing age and the amount of support they will receive from the midfield.

They can most likely expect between 10-15 goals for the U.S. international, customary according to his career stats. But it’s hard to know with someone who is 33 and declining, especially in MLS. The latter problem will be their biggest obstacle.

The four-man midfield, likely to consist of players like Fatai Alashe, Anibal Godoy, Simon Dawkins, Matias Perez-Garcia, Marc Pelosi (not for the first 3-4 months) and Tommy Thompson, wouldn’t exactly be considered adept at chance-creating. Alashe is a pure number-six–and a good one at that–and Pelosi, Godoy and Thompson are more box-to-box than anything. In all likelihood, they will get more playing time than Perez-Garcia, who is far and away their top playmaker.

That’s not to say Wondo needs a lot of service–he’s at the point where really doesn’t–but for the overall offense to function at a serviceable rate, you need some sort of attacking production from the midfield.

This doesn’t bode well for San Jose.

The defense is in a better position, though. Marvell Wynne and Shaun Francis hold down the fort well at full-back while Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez will play center-back. David Bingham had a very good campaign last year, solidifying his place as the Quakes’ long-term starter at keeper.

Overall, San Jose have some interesting talent on the roster, but whether or not it will fit well enough will determine their chances at making a serious run at a playoff berth.

Projection: I wouldn’t be hopeful if I were an Earthquakes fan, but, as we’ve said before, anything can happen in MLS.

Seattle Sounders

It was an interesting offseason for the Sounders. They brought in one of the most promising young Americans out there in Jordan Morris, but saw longtime star Obafemi Martins depart for a huge paycheck in China.

The addition of Morris means they will have to play a 4-3-3 formation, with Nelson Valdez and Clint Dempsey joining the Stanford-graduate up top. Valdez takes Martins place as the center-forward, obviously a step down in quality. But Dempsey’s production may make up for it, as he showed when he scored twice in their CONCACAF Champions League match against Club America.

Outside of the front-three, the midfield will look basically the same. Andreas Ivanschitz and Erik Friberg will start along with defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who has a history of long-term injuries; he needs to stay healthy in order for the Sounders to keep the ball out of their goal.

The defense will consist of three familiar faces, alongside one newcomer. Chad Marshall and Brad Evans will start in central defense, while Tyrone Mears and Joevin Jones will play full-back. Jones was traded from the Fire during the 2016 SuperDraft, and will provide more attacking prowess going forward. They will be backed up by Stefan Frei in goal.

Seattle have reasons to be hopeful for 2016, even with the departure of Martins. They don’t have any major weaknesses, and even if one emerges, the Sounders can use their remaining DP slot during the summer transfer window to fix it.

Projection: They will be MLS Cup contenders this season. This may be the year they finally win one for all their supporters.

Sporting Kansas City

Sporting KC came literally within inches of advancing to the Western Conference semi-finals last year; falling to the Timbers after they rung both posts in a penalty shootout. Now the goal is to, first, get back to the playoffs, and, second, advance to more than one round this time.

They only lost one key contributor from last season, but he was a big one. Krisztian Nemeth, who led the team in goals per 90, was transferred to Qatar, opening up a huge hole in their front three's attack. Sporting did manage to acquire two replacements: Brad Davis, the former Dynamo legend, and Justin Mapp, picked up via free-agency.

Either one of those, most likely Mapp, will play alongside Graham Zusi and Dom Dwyer. Davis has one of the best left-foots in the game and is deadly on set piece deliveries, but at 34, he will have to be benched in favor of Mapp at times.

That’s a talented front line, but none of those five holds the title as the best on the team. Benny Feilhaber, a serious MVP candidate for much of last season, gets the honor. His impressive 15 assists ranked first on the club, nine more than second-place Nemeth, and his playmaking ability is as good as anyone in MLS.

Almost all of these players are chance-creators, primarily. Dwyer is the main goal-scorer, and, really, their only goal-scorer. That’s a problem. A team can have as many assist-getters and playmakers as they want, but they need players to finish those crosses and through-balls. Even if Dwyer contributes his usual 10-20 goals, Sporting KC don’t have a plan B.

Sure, Feilhaber will put up a few here and there, and the others will as well. But will that be enough to climb back into Supporters’ Shield contention?

Elsewhere, the defense doesn’t appear to be a problem. Ike Opara and Matt Besler seem likely to hold down the fort in the center, while Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers will play on the left and right. Depth won’t be an issue either, as Saad Abdul-Salaam, Kevin Ellis and Amadou Dia will be available off the bench.

Projection: The finishing of this attack will be a dilemma, but overall, this team appears to be good enough to qualify for at least a middle-tier playoff seed.

Toronto FC

After a highly successful campaign in 2015, Toronto have improved the pieces around Sebastian Giovinco to make this side look like one of the most competitive in the Eastern Conference. They acquired center-back Drew Moor from Colorado to add some experience to central defense, received underrated goalkeeper Clint Irwin in a trade with Moor’s former club, and brought in Steven Beitashour as an upgrade at right-back.

All of these moves will culminate in a new formation: the 4-3-3. After running with a flat 4-4-2 for most of last season, TFC succumbed to peer pressure and will go with the more popular 4-3-3, which provides some good and some bad. The formation provides a more stable midfield and numbers in attack, but it also does something most clubs try to avoid: plays their best player out of position.

Giovinco is, by all accounts, best as a second forward in a two-forward formation. It allows him to roam as he pleases and, perhaps more important, it frees him of any defensive responsibilities. As an inverted winger out on the left in a 4-3-3, the Italian will be tasked with tracking back more often, taking away some of his offensive liberty.

Another issue could be found in the middle, where Michael Bradley, one of the club’s best along with Giovinco, will be asked to do something that he isn’t accustomed to. Bradley will have to play holding midfielder, not exactly fitting his strengths. Moor and fellow center-back Damien Perquis could experience problems when the US-international ventures too far up the field and forces one of them to step up on an attacker, jumbling the defense to the point where they are in danger of conceding.

Before Toronto FC can be considered contenders for trophies, these problems will have to be solved by Greg Vanney and staff. Outside of those, though, the Reds have enough talent to be considered one of the top sides in the Eastern Conference.

Projection: Any team with Sebastian Giovinco on the roster will contend for a playoff spot, no matter what. Don’t bet against TFC challenging for more than that.

Vancouver Whitecaps

The parallels between this team and FC Dallas are uncanny.

Both are built on young talent with young, popular coaches, both had problems with finishing last season, and both will be favored to challenge for an MLS Cup. While many would say it will be Dallas to come through–after all, they almost did last year–but Vancouver could end up being just as good.

They have a great defense, with standout young center-backs Tim Parker and Kendall Waston leading it, and a better offense, which includes star playmaker Pedro Morales and skilled winger Kekuta Manneh.

The Whitecaps’ depth in central midfield is perhaps their best quality. Not only do they have Morales, Manneh, Matias Laba and Russell Teibert starting, they have Cristian Techera, Nicolas Mezquida, Erik Hurtado and Kianz Froese as backups as well. This is a merit every MLS club would love to have, and will be a big reason why they will challenge for a high playoff seed in the Western Conference.

Also, their finishing problems seem to have been fixed, as they acquired veteran target forward Blas Perez from FC Dallas. Perez, a 34-year old Panama national team member, is a big, strong center forward with plenty of MLS knowhow, good for a young side like Vancouver. He will go along very well with starting striker Octavio Rivero.

To go along with Parker and Waston on defense, Canadian national team prospects Sam Adekugbe and Fraser Aird will start at full-back. This is an impressive defense with loads of potential, and some veteran backups in Jordan Harvey and Pa-Modou Kah. They also have the benefit of one of the best keepers in MLS, with David Ousted stopping shots behind them.

This is a really solid team without a major weakness. They can be considered clear title contenders.

Projection: The second seed, or even the first, seems like a reasonable goal for the ambitious Whitecaps.