High expectations for MLS Canadian teams heading into 2016 season

While Canada’s NHL teams have struggled during the 2015-16 season, the three Canadian Major League Soccer teams hope to bring success to the country, as they start their 2016 season with very high expectations. Following a year where all three Canadian teams achieved individual best seasons, here is a review of their offseason and a preview of what’s to come in the 2016 MLS season.

Sebastian Giovinco scores for TFC / Thestar.com

Sebastian Giovinco scores for TFC / Thestar.com

Montreal Impact (2nd best defense in the Eastern Conference in 2015)
In 2015, the Montreal Impact made the headlines for two reasons. At the start of the MLS season, Montreal reached the final of the CONCACAF Champions League. Since the CONCACAF inaugurated its actual format in 2008, Real Salt Lake was the only MLS team to play in the final before Montreal. Later on, in the mid-season transfer window, Montreal landed the international superstar Didier Drogba. Drogba has arguably been the league’s most influential player.

Major roster moves
Justin Mapp and Dilly Duka were major contributors on the wing, but the release of the two players will provide Montreal with space under the salary cap. Montreal has plenty of wingers in their lineup to fill up these departures: “Nacho” Piatti (2015 team MVP), Andres Romero (2014 team MVP), Harry Shipp, Dominic Oduro, Johan Venegas and Lucas Ontivero.

Nigel Reo-Coker was an unhappy veteran last year and terminated his contract on a mutual agreement with the team. Even if his on-field results did not fulfill the club’s expectation, his presence on and off the field will be missed.

Harry Shipp unexpectedly landed in Montreal on Feb. 13. This move surprised every MLS analyst. Shipp was a fan favourite in Chicago, he had the homegrown player status, and was Chicago’s future “key player”. He will be able to take Reo-Coker’s place in the lineup right away.

Lucas Ontivero lands in Montreal on a loan from Galatasaray. After being part of organizations like Real Madrid, Tottenham, Milan and Galatasaray, questions arise about his ability to fit in with a team. The talented 21 year-old attributed his multiple moves to the fact that he was a lonely Argentine. In Montreal, he will be surrounded by three Argentines with Victor Cabrera, Romero and Piatti.

2016 Preview
After a difficult transition from Italy to start the 2015 season, Marco Donadel will have a large role in the team’s success. He will be asked to recuperate and to distribute balls in the midfield.

Aging team Captain Patrice Bernier’s on-field role will reduce throughout the year. Bernier and Drogba, fan favourites, will need a few games to rest during the season.

Laurent Ciman, 2015 MLS Defender of the Year, is back in his role of general. The Belgian native and Cabrera will form one of the East’s best defensive pair as they did to finish the 2015 season.

Mauro Biello, the new official head coach, desires to shift the team’s philosophy from counter-attack to a possession game.

In 2016, Montreal’s weakness will be their central midfield depth. Calum Mallace and Kyle Bekker provide the team with effort, but they are not difference makers.

Ideal Starting Lineup
Bush – Oyongo, Cabrera, Ciman, Camara – Donadel, Shipp, Bernier – Piatti, Drogba, Romero

Toronto FC (Tied for 2nd best offense in the league in 2015)
The 2015 season can be summarized in one word: FINALLY. After eight consecutive years of missing the playoffs, TFC fans were finally rewarded with a playoff qualification. Even though the knockout round turned into a disaster, Toronto fans can finally dream of a brighter future.

Major roster moves
The goaltending position experienced major roster moves during the offseason. With Chris Konopka (option declined) and Joe Bendik (traded to Orlando) out of the picture, Toronto turned to the Colorado Rapids and acquired Clint Irwin.

Even with slightly better statistics than his two predecessors, Irwin would not have changed TFC’s 3-0 loss to Montreal in the playoffs. All three goals were due to major defensive mistakes. Leaving Drogba, Piatti, and Bernier uncovered and giving Piatti a free ball in front of Konopka’s net is asking for elimination. This personnel move will not have a significant impact on improving the worst defensive record of 2015.

Drew Moor might be the most significant acquisition during the offseason. With over 300 MLS games played, Moor will add some leadership and some much needed consistency to TFC’s back line. In 2015, he got paired up with Ciman for the second half of the MLS All-Star Game against Tottenham. If he can develop a good chemistry with Damien Perquis — and both players stay healthy — Toronto could have one of the best pair of central backs.

Will Johnson played only 15 games with Portland last year due to a broken leg. The Canadian international and three time MLS All-Star (2009, 2013 & 2014) is expected to bring some stability between the back line and Michael Bradley. His exact role is still unclear as he typically plays where Benoît Cheyrou and Bradley are currently playing.

2016 Preview
All eyes will be on 2015 MLS Golden Boot, MLS Newcomer of the Year, and MLS MVP winner Sebastian Giovinco. With all his talent and energy, there is no reason why he could not repeat his historical year.

The big question mark remains the back line. With two excellent defenders in Moor and Perquis, Toronto must improve on last year’s defensive record if they want to make a push into the playoffs.

On paper, Head Coach Greg Vanney has in his hands an excellent MLS team. After his first year in Toronto, which wasn’t convincing, he must improve the team’s defensive cohesion to have success, and to keep his job.

In 2016, TFC is arguably one of the top contender in the Eastern Conference and Vanney might be fired if they are not in the top 5 at the midseason mark.

Toronto’s weakness will be their lack of wingers. Their spinal cord is one of the best, but they don’t have support from the flank.

Ideal Starting Lineup
Irwin – Morrow, Moor, Perquis, Beitashour – Johnson, Cheyrou, Osorio, Bradley – Altidore, Giovinco
Vancouver Whitecaps (Tied for best defense in the league in 2015)

In 2015, Head Coach Carl Robinson achieved Vancouver’s goals as he guided the team to capture their first Canadian Championship and to the third rank in MLS. Whitecaps’ fans were disappointed with the ending of the season where the club won one of their last 10 games in all competitions. They got eliminated from the playoffs and the CONCACAF Champions League.

The Whitecaps’ team philosophy is different than the TFC’s spending to buy superstars. They rely on young promising players such as Tim Parker, Matias Laba, Cristian Techera, Kekuta Manneh and Octavio Rivero, and invest in their development.

Major roster moves
The Blas Pérez (in) and Mauro Rosales (out) trade is certainly the highlight of the off season. This trade allows Vancouver to strengthen their offensive depth and add a valuable mentor for Rivero. Pérez and Rivero are both from a Hispanic country and Vancouver hopes to help Pérez teach the promising Rivero.
Masato Kudo’s addition provides an unnecessary depth with a two forward scheme. Rivero, Pérez, Kudo, Manneh and Darren Mattocks will compete for the two starting spots.

Gershon Koffie was a fan favorite in Vancouver. The youngster was respected in the locker room and the community. The now New England Revolution player has been criticized for his inconsistency. The Whitecaps might have wanted to trade this young player before his value drops due to unfulfilled promises.

Cristian Bolaños’ acquisition gives more punch to Vancouver’s right wing. The Costa Rican veteran should bring leadership to the multiple Hispanic young players on the team.

2016 Preview
Following a season below expectation, Team Captain Pedro Morales must bounce back. He is arguably the best passer in MLS, and the Whitecaps need him healthy to be a serious contender.

Vancouver enters the 2016 season packed with talent and young prospects ready to put the Whitecaps at the top of the league.

The only question mark for Vancouver is their right back. After trading Beitashour to Toronto, they do not have a MLS ready replacement.

Ideal Starting Lineup
Outsted – Harvey, Kah, Watson, Smith – Lada, Bolaños, Techera, Morales – Rivero, Pérez.
TFC opened their season on Sunday with a 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, and will now play New York City FC on Sunday. The Impact beat the Whitecaps in Vancouver 3-2 as they shift their focus to Saturday’s game versus Sporting Kansas City. The Impact will host the Red Bulls on Saturday.

Mathieu Mantha 

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