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2016 Major League Soccer season preview: Is it Toronto's time?

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2016 Major League Soccer season preview: Is it Toronto's time?

Major League Soccer enters its 21st season on Sunday with all 20 teams playing opening matches.

The Portland Timbers won the club's first MLS Cup last season and should be in the running again. Same goes for MLS Cup runner-up Columbus Crew. Many familiar names should also be in contention once again, but are there other teams that figure to crack the top group?

Here's a quick look at each team and some (pointless) predictions at the bottom.

Eastern Conference

Chicago Fire - Obviously much has been written about them on this site, but the Fire are actually a team drawing some national attention this offseason. The Fire were the first team in league history to trade the top pick in the draft and overhauled the roster. There were no big name additions, but general manager Nelson Rodriguez focused on improving the weakest part of the team in 2015, the defense. A brand new back four will start in the opener. How that unit, led by foreign center backs Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira, comes together and performs will be key for the season. Expect the Fire to be better, but by how much is anyone's guess.

[MORE: Fire enter season with more questions than answers]

Columbus Crew - Columbus finished 2015 hot and made it to MLS Cup. The Crew managed to go through the offseason without losing any core players from that team and even re-signed leading goal scorer Kei Kamara to a Designated Player contract. Ola Kamara was added and could be a nice complement to Kamara up top. The Crew always had attacking talent and the defense came together late last season. There's no reason they can't remain a force.

D.C. United - Losing midfielder Perry Kitchen hurt. Marcelo Sarvas was added to fill his spot, which is still a downgrade, but maybe not a huge one. Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta looks like a major acquisition. Longtime Fire winger Patrick Nyarko could also be a nice addition. United should remain in the mix for the playoffs, but the injury to standout goalkeeper Bill Hamid, out until June at least, and the loss of Kitchen could be killer.

Montreal Impact - The additions of former Fire Homegrown player Harry Shipp and Argentine winger Lucas Ontivero gives the Impact more depth in the attack, but it's all about Didier Drogba. If he stays healthy and dominates like last season the Impact are a contender. If not, this team will struggle to make the playoffs.

New England Revolution - Jermaine Jones was key to the team's success in 2014 and 2015 and now he's gone. They added Gershon Koffie to replace him, but will it be enough? The Revs have plenty of attacking talent, but have struggled defensively. They could be in for a dip in 2016 without Jones.

New York City FC - The DP trio of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard now has a full season together. Villa was the only one who started the year in New York and the only one to produce like a DP. If new coach Patrick Vieira can fit the pieces together in a coherent way they should be tough, but that won't be easy. They should be better this season, likely right around the playoff bubble.

New York Red Bulls - The Red Bulls were arguably the surprise of the 2015 season by winning the Supporters' Shield the year after Thierry Henry retired. Matt Miazga moved to Chelsea, which could be a massive blow. They added Ghanaian Gideon Baah to replace him, but those are big shoes to fill at center back. An influx of seven Homegrown players could make the team fun to watch if those guys develop. It's hard to say they improved in the offseason, but enough of the same pieces are there to think New York is still among the league's best.

Orlando City - The addition of Italian Antonio Nocerino from AC Milan should make the Lions better. How much of an impact will Kaka, who turns 34 in April, have? Can he and reigning Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin lead the offense again? Just based on having that raucous crowd behind them in Orlando and having a year under their belts after the expansion season in 2015, Orlando should be ready to make the playoffs.

Philadelphia Union - The Union are being picked last almost unanimously and it's not hard to see why. The Union overhauled the roster, but this looked more like the kind of rebuild the Fire did in 2014 and 2015, just shuffling names around without real progress or improvement. Fernando Aristeguieta was a big loss and on paper the only notable additions were the trio of top six picks they got in the draft, Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers.

Toronto FC - This should finally be Toronto's year. DPs Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and reigning MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco were able to get Toronto to its first playoff appearance last year, but that was one and done. Toronto tied for the second most goals scored in the league while also being tied for most conceded (58). They improved the defense with solid league veterans Steven Beitashour and Drew Moor as well as getting Will Johnson in midfield and upgrading goalkeeper with Clint Irwin. On paper this is the best team in the East.

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Western Conference

Colorado Rapids - After failing to win even 10 games each of the past two seasons, things have turned sour in Colorado. The Rapids scored a league-worst 33 goals last season, less than a goal per game, but added Shkelzen Gashi. Gashi is 27 years old and led the Swiss League in goals in the 2014-15 season. Asking him to turnaround the league's worst offense by himself might be a bit much, but he should improve the Rapids' attack.

FC Dallas - The Oscar Pareja-led team nearly won the Supporters' Shield while fielding an incredibly young team. Max Urruti and Carlos Lizarazo have been added to address the team's weakness at forward and DP Carlos Gruezo could help stabilize the midfield to allow talented playmakers Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz terrorize MLS defenses again. If all the young players who had success last year can maintain or improve, Dallas could be the best team in the West.

Houston Dynamo - The Dynamo shed 12 players from last year's roster, including long-time star Brad Davis, but even with a lot of new names in it's hard to see Houston taking a big step forward. If Erick Torres can show what he did for Chivas USA, the Dynamo might be improved. Otherwise they could be in for another mediocre season.

LA Galaxy - The team that already had the most big name talent in the league added more in the offseason in Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole and Jelle Van Damme while improving at goalkeeper with Dan Kennedy and getting veteran free agents Mike Magee and Jeff Larentowicz from the Fire. On paper this is the deepest and most experienced team in MLS. That said, the Galaxy had more than enough talent to win a trophy last season and faltered down the stretch. Robbie Keane and Gio dos Santos are arguably the most talented striker pairing in the league, but will the loss of Omar Gonzalez in defense loom large? LA has a wide range of possible outcomes this season from dominant team to complete mess.

Portland Timbers - The defending champs lost key starters Jorge Villafana and Rodney Wallace, but added nice pieces in Chris Klute and Zarek Valentin to replace them. The Timbers were fortunate to get by Sporting Kansas City in a penalty shootout in the first round of the playoffs so things could be very different. However, maybe the confidence of being champs will boost them. Portland will be among the league's best again, but a repeat will be very difficult.

Real Salt Lake - After a run of sustained success, RSL missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Sunny Obayan and DP forward Yura Movsisyan should be improvements. It's hard to bet against RSL given how long they've been good, but stalwarts Kyle Beckerman (33) and Nick Rimando (36) are getting up there. RSL probably sits right around the playoff bubble.

San Jose Earthquakes - Bringing in former standout Simon Dawkins as a DP should help Chris Wondolowski up top. Center back Andres Imperiale also looks like an upgrade. The Quakes avoided any major losses and could be primed to return to the playoffs, but the West is really tough.

Seattle Sounders - Jordan Morris received so much attention in the offseason, but that was before we knew Obafemi Martins was gone. The Sounders still have tons of talent with Clint Dempsey and Paraguay international Nelson Valdez up top with Morris, but Martins was one of the league's best players. Adding Joevin Jones from the Fire should help give the team some much needed speed and width. If the Sounders prove the can overcome the loss of Martins, they'll be among the league's best teams. Even if they can't, there's too much talent here for Seattle to not still be good.

Sporting Kansas City - They were so close to beating Portland in the playoffs last year and still have much of the core back from last year. In addition, solid league veterans Brad Davis and Justin Mapp joined an already strong midfield that features Graham Zusi. They did lose Krisztian Nemeth, who scored MLS Goal of the Year last season, so depth at forward could be a problem. Still, expect SKC to be near the top again.

Vancouver Whitecaps - Masato Kudo could be one of the best acquisitions in the league. The 25-year-old forward has 66 goals in Japan and has even earned some caps to the national team. Him and Costa Rican international Christian Bolanos add to the attack. Meanwhile the Whitecaps conceded the fewest goals in the league last year. If you want an under the radar pick for a strong season, Vancouver isn't a bad choice.

Pointless predictions

Best team in the East: Toronto

Best team in the West: Dallas

League MVP: Sebastian Giovinco (again)

Rookie of the Year: Jordan Morris

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.