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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

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

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USA TODAY

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.