Eight stories to watch in MLS this season

Toronto FC's Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe hold spots in the top 10 of Major League Soccer's list of most popular jerseys. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Nineteen teams begin down the path that leads to the MLS Cup with the start of the 2014 Major League Soccer regular season this weekend.

Sporting Kansas City is looking to repeat as MLS champions, and establish itself as a dynasty franchise. It won’t be easy, though, as the league appears to be more competitive in what is shaping up to be one of the most interesting MLS campaigns in recent memory.

Here are eight storylines to keep an eye on this season.

Playoffs or bust for Toronto FC

“The season doesn’t start for me until TFC plays,” tweeted Alexei Lalas, a former L.A. Galaxy general manager and noted MLS insider. Hyperbole? Maybe. But the fact is what Toronto FC has done this off-season—bringing in Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and others—really is a Bloody Big Deal. The scope of the Reds’ rebuilding project is unprecedented in the history of the league. After seven losing seasons, TFC has been instantly transformed from pretender to contender. Coach Ryan Nelsen has no excuses now—none. The bare minimum is qualifying for the playoffs. Anything less will be rightly seen as a failure.

The Clint Dempsey watch

It’s fair to say that Clint Dempsey underwhelmed in his MLS return after joining the Seattle Sounders last August. He only scored one goal and looked far from his best. Chalk it up to him reacclimatizing himself to the league. That can be excused. But now Dempsey has a full season ahead of him, and after the Sounders spent big money to lure him back to the U.S. from Tottenham, they’ll be expecting a far greater return on their investment. Eddie Johnson has left for D.C. United, which means expectations of Dempsey will be even greater. Last season, Seattle finished fourth in the West and snuck into the playoffs. This year, more will be expected with Dempsey leading the charge.

Can Sporting Kansas City repeat?

This year marks MLS’s 19th season and will see Sporting Kansas City attempt to become the fourth team to win back-to-back league titles. The club had a relatively quiet off-season, with the only major departure being goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who retired after KC beat Real Salt Lake in the 2013 MLS Cup. Coach Peter Vermes has a deep roster, and can call on quality players such as Graham Zusi and Claudio Bieler. That depth will be tested early on: Sporting KC plays five games in the first 15 days of the season and seven games in the opening month as it balances MLS commitments with the CONCACAF Champions League. But all the pieces appear to be there for Kansas City, and this could be the start of a new league dynasty.

Whitecaps try to put off-season behind them

This off-season hasn’t exactly gone smoothly for the Vancouver Whitecaps. After firing coach Martin Rennie, the Whitecaps went after Bob Bradley, but the American turned them down for a job in Norway. There were other PR missteps, too. Star striker Darren Mattocks complained about his lack of playing time in the Jamaican media. Camilo forced a transfer to Mexican club Querétaro even though he was under contract. Then they drafted Andre Lewis even though he appeared to already be the property of the New Cosmos in the NASL. It’ll be interesting to see if after going through all of this the Whitecaps can get it right on the pitch.

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As Di Vaio goes, so goes Montreal

Marco Di Vaio enjoyed a fabulous 2013 MLS season as the Italian bagged 20 goals, accounting for 40 percent of Montreal’s offence, and finished third in the MLS scoring race. Little wonder, then, that he was a finalist for the league’s MVP award. But the former Lazio star went cold down the stretch, scoring just twice in the last eight games of the season as Montreal stumbled over the finish line. Di Vaio and the team imploded further in a first-round playoff loss to Houston. Di Vaio is set to turn 38 this summer, and the pressure will be on him even more this season as the team’s only dangerous scoring threat.

MLS searches for continental glory

After a bit of a layoff, the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League resumes in March with three MLS teams (San Jose, Kansas City and L.A.) set to take on Mexican opposition in the quarter-finals. Teams from Mexico have dominated this tournament since 2008, producing the two finalists every year expect in 2011 (when Salt Lake lost to Monterrey). MLS teams have come closer and closer to claiming the continental championship over the past few seasons. Will this year finally provide the breakthrough?

A new era for Chivas

MLS took control of Chivas USA last month, buying the franchise from former owners Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes. The L.A.-based club has struggled for relevancy since entering the league in 2005 as the “little brother" to parent club C.D. Guadalajara—last year, Chivas posted the second-worst record in MLS and averaged a league-low attendance of 8,366 fans. The Chivas brand concept clearly didn’t work, but the team will continue to use the name as the league looks to sell the club to a new owner. This is the beginning of a new era for the Los Angeles side. But with so much uncertainty surrounding Chivas, it’s hard to expect results will improve this season.

Labour dispute brewing

The league’s collective bargaining agreement expires this year, and shots have already been fired across the bow. At the draft in January, commissioner Don Garber claimed MLS loses $75 to 100 million U.S. a year in a clear attempt at setting the tone for the impending labour negotiations. The message from Garber was clear: The league doesn’t have any money to give to the players. It’s hard to take Garber seriously when clubs are spending big on DPs and the league is so secretive with its rules and how it operates. The players “lost” the last time the CBA was up; this time they’re looking to get paid. This labour dispute will likely play out in public all season—and it won’t be pretty. “It’s going to be nasty,” ESPN reporter Jeff Carlisle said.

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