Atlanta and Minnesota join the fun this year and theres plenty more besides. Our expert writers look ahead to what could be MLSs biggest and best season

Im most looking forward to

Seeing Fredy Montero back in the league. The man has a knack for spectacular goals. GP

Seeing how Atlanta United fare. Expansion sides have entered MLS with bluster and hype before, but no debutant has been so complete before theyve even kicked a ball. Atlanta have big-name players, a big-name head coach, a brand new stadium and a $60m training facility. Theyre for real. GR

Seeing Tata Martinos plan for Atlanta United. After our interview, the ex-Argentina and Barcelona manager seems eager to show the league what he can do with his fast and furious system. Hes expecting playoffs, but only time will tell. LME

Teams attempting to repeat their playoff feats are rare in MLS. A year after contesting the MLS Cup final, both Portland and Columbus missed out last season. That does not, however, feel like a sustainable pattern in the current climate. Im looking forward to a league where sustained periods of success are possible and we get to see how that changes fan culture. This years league could be an example of that. DR

Im least looking forward to

Well, seeing as its looming large, another chastening experience for MLS teams in Concacaf Champions League play. That and more non-developments announced as updates in the endless Beckham-to-Miami project. GP

More Concacaf Champions League games fragmenting the MLS season. Its bad enough that the international soccer calendar breaks up the MLS fixture schedule without the CCL piling on top. Its an ill-defined competition that brings nothing to North American soccer. Its time a new solution was found to stop MLS clubs from playing so many meaningless games. GR

Atrocious refereeing. Last season was probably the worst I have seen since I started reporting on the league and thats saying something. Lets hope the officiating tightened up this time around. LME

Complaints about the distances travelled by MLS teams. Theyre like belly buttons: everyone has one and none are really that interesting. Canada and the United States, if youre just tuning in, are large countries. Los Angeles, for instance, is quite the flight from Montreal. But planes are comfortable and teams and players know about these things, so there is no need for a wide-eyed player to pull a Steven Gerrard and discover the concept of distance again this year. DR

The new expansion teams, Atlanta and Minnesota, will

Probably have diverging fortunes. Minnesota will be hype-free, but organized and hard to beat under Adrian Heath, though it may take them time to be a sustained goal threat. Atlanta will either hit the ground running for a Seattle-style spectacular entry into the league, or they may have a more Orlando-style debut season, where they never quite add up to the sum of their parts. Depends on how quickly Tata Martino adapts to the idiosyncrasies of MLS. GP

Mark the implementation of MLS 3.0. The introduction of the two new franchises moves the league into the third phase of its history, with Atlanta United representing MLSs renewed move into big-time markets and Minnesota United reflecting the grassroots approach. The contrast between the two underlines a wider approach from MLS. They are the illustration of variety. GR

Minnesota
Minnesota United join their fellow United, Atlanta, in the league this season. Photograph: Glen Stubbe/AP

Both qualify for the playoffs. I mean, why not? if we are judging it based on last season, its really a testament if you dont make it. In the East, Philadelphia grabbed sixth spot with an 11-9-14 record and in the West, Real Salt Lake grabbed the last spot even though they had not won a single game since August. The playoffs are in October. Go figure. LME

MLS expansion teams do not have a particularly glorious history to this point, none of them have ever been very good in year one but Atlanta and Minnesota both look decent enough. Atlanta is stocked with attacking talent while Minnesota appears to be going for a bit more solidity. Past experience has trained MLS fans to bet against expansion teams making the playoffs, but it wouldnt be hugely surprising if one of these teams pulled it off. DR

The MVP will be

Sebastian Giovinco looked a touch piqued by being overlooked last season. He wont leave anything to chance this year. GP

Sebastian Giovinco. How could I predict that it will be anyone else? The Italian is the best player in the history of the league, and going on his pre-season performances he is only likely to get even better. The Atomic Ant wont be finished until he has carried Toronto FC all the way to the MLS Cup. He came pretty close last year. GR

Jordan Morris. Last years rookie of the year scored 12 goals in 34 appearances for the current MLS champions in 2016 and I think this time around, hes going to blow up. Morris is the perfect example of an MLS player. Hes versatile, diverse, hard-working and now that he has a better chemistry with Nicols Lodeiro, another contender, its a no-brainer. Also, dont sleep on Gio Dos Santos. LME

MVP awards invariably go to offensive players because the world is an unfair place. In which case, consider this a protest prediction for FC Dallass Matt Hedges. Some reasons for this: hes a solid defender on a good team that might finally break through this year. Moreover, as the league shifts from spending almost exclusively on marquee forwards to valuing defenders, one hopes that logic might influence the MVP race. It wont, but one can hope. DR

The top goalscorer will be

NYC FC look stronger this year, and can spread the workload around the attack. And Rodney Wallace may prove to be a telling addition for them. So David Villa. GP

Jordan Morris. The rookie scored when it really mattered as the Sounders went on to lift MLS Cup last year. He scored in both legs of the Western Conference finals, also netting more game-winners than any rookie in the leagues history. If Morris can add regular-season consistency to his game he will be the most potent striker in MLS. GR

Giovani Dos Santos. No Gerrard, no Keane, no problem. Now that the Mexican star has been able to experience a full season in Los Angeles, he will enter 2017 knowing full well what to expect. Last year, Gio scored 15 goals and 13 assists in 30 appearances for the Galaxy. Ill say he doubles at least one of those stats this time around. LME

Giovani
Giovani dos Santos can pick up where Robbie Keane left off. Photograph: Jae C. Hong/AP

Sebastian Giovinco. For reasons that remain a mystery, Giovinco was not the leagues MVP last season. He was, however, MLSs best player, and can be expected to continue where he left off last season. While the leagues other scoring luminaries David Villa, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Ignacio Piatti will soon have to deal with the effects of aging, the Atomic Ant is still in his prime. DR

MLS referees are

Watching TV? Video replay experiments have been under way and MLS wont be shy about adding more gimmickry (they love their cans of spray). Im predicting psychics as seventh officials, second-guessing the un-American intentions behind every dive. GP

Poor, just like referees are all over the world. Gripes over the standard of officiating in North American soccer are legitimate. Some of the decisions made in 2016 were at best truly baffling, and at worst dangerous. But refereeing is enduring something of a crisis worldwide. Its not MLS that is suffering from a lack of top-class whistlers and flaggers. GR

Going to have their work cut out if they learned nothing from last season. As I said earlier, last year was a catastrophe. It cant get worse, can it? Can it? LME

An endless source of entertainment, but their impact is generally overstated. The league is rumoured to be after any official looking for a post-Premier League career. [Have fun in Saudi Arabia, Mark Clattenburg.] Even without foreign help to solve Mark Geigers regular brainfreezes, the fate of the league hardly hinges on PROs famous wobbles. Everything will be fine; everyone will whine about officials. It was ever thus. DR

Whats missing from MLS?

Apart from psychics as assistant referees, I do have a wish that Adidas werent the sole providers of the kits, for a little more variety in that regard. Though having seen what teams picked for themselves in the 90s, maybe uniform triple stripes is not so bad. And Id like to see the playoffs adjusted to a round-robin format giving home-field advantage throughout to the best regular-season finisher. GP

OK, Ill say it: promotion and relegation. Its baffling that this has become such a taboo subject in MLS. Sure, the benefits of a closed circuit are obvious, but lack of relegation means teams near the bottom of the table get quickly forgotten. Mobility between tiers would energise the doldrums of MLS. GR

MLS is the most diverse sports league in North America but I want to see a bigger female influence. Lets encourage more female coaches, refs, staff members to take part in the league. Adding to that, I think there should be a stronger relationship between the league and NWSL. So happy that Lifetime has picked them up for coverage. LME

Animosity. Rivalry weeks, while thrilling in concept, usually serve to demonstrate how some pairs are far more contrived than others. With time, however, the sort of enjoyable hatred and embrace of villainy that makes soccer so enjoyable may catch up with the league. For now, fans are left hoping that the few genuinely great rivalries compensate for all the rest. DR

Eastern Conference winners

NYC FC though Im not putting another flameout in the playoffs past them. And the Red Bulls and Toronto should be competitive again. GP

New York City FC. The revamp job conducted by Patrick Vieira at New York City FC last season caught many by surprise. Despite his lack of MLS experience, the former Arsenal midfielder turned the Bronx outfit into one of best sides in the league, finishing just three points off top spot in the East. Now, with the Red Bulls in something of a transition, NYC FC would appear to be best equipped to top the conference this year. GR

NYC FC. Now that Vieira knows the league and more importantly, how to play at Yankee Stadium better, the blue side of New York should be a stronger unit. Coming second in the East last year was a great achievement and they should now know what it takes to make a good play-off run. Moralez was a genius move and a stronger defensive unit coupled with a healthy David Villa should see them take the conference. LME

For the defense is overrated camp, I give you this years New York City FC. Much like last years team and the one before that, it is fielding a question mark at goalkeeper [this year hell be called Sean Johnson] and whoever is around in central defense. In other words, NYC FCs losses will be ugly but they may be able to outscore enough opponents to improve on last years early playoff exit. DR

Western Conference winners

Dallas. Last year was the year the promising young team were meant to come good, and in winning the Supporters Shield and US Open Cup they largely did so. Theyve made some good off-season signings and continue to churn out great young homegrown players. The Conference should be theirs to lose again. GP

Michael
Michael Barrios and FC Dallas can win in the West. Photograph: Tony Gutierrez/AP

FC Dallas Comfortably the most consistent side in the West last season, FC Dallas have managed to keep the core of their team together over the winter. Zach Lloyd has left for Atlanta, with Fabian Castillo off to Turkey, but other than that the Texans remain the same, also making the shrewd addition of Javier Morales to fill-in for the injured Mauro Diaz. Oscar Parejas side once again look to be in good shape. GR

LA Galaxy. I think this is the season when the Galaxy wake up. No Keane or Gerrard, to me, is an advantage as this club now belongs to Gio Dos Santos and LA fans will love Romain Alessandrini. It all depends on head coach Curt Onalfo, but given the fact that he is not a newcomer to the teams philosophy (he coached the reserves) he should do enough to take them to the top of the West. LME

The Seattle Sounders won last years MLS Cup with key players injured [see: Dempsey, Clint] and less youth and depth than the current iteration. They will probably punish me for this prediction by getting off to an awful start, but that is basically The Seattle Way. MLSs contrived parity never bodes well for repeat winners, but this could be the team to do it. That or theyll make me look like a fool. DR

MLS champions

Lets say Dallas finally go through a playoff series without a fatal 10-minute lapse in concentration, and they deliver the trophy their talent deserves. GP

Toronto FC. While Giovinco was undoubtedly the star of Toronto FCs 2016 season, it was Jozy Altidore who pushed them all the way to the championship game. Arguably for the first time, the US international found his groove in Canada, scoring in every play-off game in the run-up to MLS Cup. With Altidore in top form, supported by Giovinco and Michael Bradley, as well as an improving defence, TFC appear to be perfectly built for knockout football, as they demonstrated last year. GR

NYC FC. Yes, Im a New Yorker. Yes, I am a founding member. So sue me. The squad looks great, we have a Peruvian (Alexander Callens) and players like loanees Yangel Herrera and Miguel Camargo are going to be key unsung heroes in the middle – an area often abused by the opposition last year. Bring it. LME

Im already regretting both of my picks, and will go with NYC FC just for the fun of it. The league could use a good villain a role for which Patrick Vieiras team is suited and NYC FC would be the most fun team to go all the way if only because they are uniquely unequipped to play solid playoff soccer. Having now predicted that, they will probably ship five goals in every playoff match for the next decade. DR

Who will surprise us?

Vancouver werent as bad a team as the standings suggested last year they just got chronically unlucky with injuries at the start of the year and never recovered. Theyve got injuries to start this year again, but Yordy Reyna may be like a new signing when he gets back from injury in the summer, and in the meantime Montero is very much the natural goalscorer they lacked last year. Anyone looking past Vancouver because of last year could be in for a surprise. GP

The Chicago Fire. For so long the running joke of MLS, the Fire have enjoyed a strong off-season, making arguably the statement signing of the winter by poaching Dax McCarty from the Red Bulls. They have also added Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic, who has scored 112 goals in his last five seasons in Hungary and Poland, and proven MLS performer Juninho. Finally, the pieces are in place for Chicago to have a good year. GR

Maxi Moralez. The 30-year-old attacking midfielder from Argentina was one of the smartest acquisitions by any team in the off-season. In my opinion, NYC FC have their own Giovinco. Dont believe me? Youll be eating your words in October. Also, my paisano Yordy Reyna is going to light it up for Vancouver. Youve been warned. LME

With apologies to the citys fine residents, Chicago has put out one of Major League Soccers more appalling sides in recent years. The club has regularly been atop the league allocation order only for big names to go anywhere else. This year, with Juninho and Dax McCarty, the Fire has the ghost of successful MLS midfields past, and that might be enough for a marked improvement. The bar for this team is punishingly low, but those two geezers should be able to easily jump over it. DR

And finally why should we care?

Because David Beckhams honor is at stake Because Colorado Rapids vs Minnesota United Because its statistically likely that your village has put a cheeky expansion bid in Because Guardian writers children need to eat. GP

Because MLS has never been more interesting. With Atlanta United joining the league, and LAFC joining next year, the spread of top-class talent and marquee franchises has never been greater. New York and LA were once the only places that would register on the global soccer radar. This season is the greatest illustration yet that that is no longer the case. GR

Any mightier-than-thou comments from European fans need to remember something. Yes, this isnt the Premier League or La Liga, but MLS is getting better year after year and Tata Martinos arrival is another sign that if they cant compete with China when it comes to player transfers, theyll up the ante with better tacticians and youth development. A smart move that will pay off in the next few years. LME

Unless youre Andrea Pirlo, MLS is no longer a retirement league. This years squads are loaded with young talent that can actually excite and surprise viewers. Moreover, theres enough volatility to keep things exciting. MLS historical antipathy towards super-teams means that most matches are of some consequence and few are forgone conclusions. What has in the past been criticized as a recipe for mediocre boredom may finally produce a uniquely exciting, if not excellent, league season. DR

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/mar/03/mls-season-2017-soccer-predictions

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