And so the season begins.
With it comes endless hope, especially for a team that came close to winning a league title. A couple of extra seconds of focus from Tony Tchani or a single moment of recognition from Steve Clark that he needed to ignore his instructions and clear the ball the hell out of there...and it all could have been different. Right?
On the flip side, a few seconds here or a single decision there and Columbus Crew SC may not have even been playing for the MLS Cup trophy.
The margins are that slim; slimmer in this league than in just about any in the world, because anyone can beat anyone and chances are good that the difference between hosting a playoff game and missing the postseason all together will come down to a handful points — read: just a handful of mistakes (or good decisions) throughout the season.
Even with so many teams included in the postseason, every game matters, starting with Game 1.
Which brings us to Sunday and an MLS Cup rematch. Both Columbus and the Portland Timbers will look an awful lot like they did back in December in MLS Cup. Crew SC will virtually be the same, while the Timbers have to replace a few pieces (which may be more important than some think) but with the core intact.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on when the two teams who ended last season meet to start this one, and considerations of how it fits into the bigger picture of the campaign ahead.
How much do we know?
It's strange to think that two teams will play just three months after they last met, with largely unchanged rosters, and yet a new season means a clean slate and a question of how much do we really know what to expect?
Anyone who understands statistics can tell you that a single season is nothing more than a random sampling of a much larger continual timeline when we talk about statistics, numbers and even results. While we certainly have a foundation for our expectations, small things can shift that greater picture.
How much will Sunday look like the last Sunday these two sides met? How much will 2016 look like 2015? How much do we really know? Because MLS always proves to us that just when we think we've figured something out, we gain an understanding of just how dumb we really are.
A steady starting XI
We saw last year that Gregg Berhalter is loathe to change things up. No team in the league had more continuity week to week in its starting lineup, and with all of the MLS Cup starters back, it wouldn't appear that much will change in Berhalter's personnel choices.
That said, last year's season opener featured three starters who did not factor by the end of the year — Kristinn Steindorsson, Hernan Grana and Emmanual Pogatetz. Of the three subs, two are no longer with the team.
Who will those players be in 2016? Will Justin Meram be a Crew SC player by the end of the season? Will one of the newcomers show they are impact choices? Will one of a deeper striker corps force Berhalter to consider more time in a two-striker formation?
Even with so much familiarity going into the year, there are still a couple of questions.
Waylon Francis may or may not start in Game 1 after getting a little banged up during the week (though he's not on the officialy injury report). That may open the door for newcomer Corey Ashe to start. Hector Jimenez garnered plenty of preseason favor from GB. Does he get a chance to start at left back or left mid? There had been some question about Meram, especially with the impact that Cedrick Mabwati made off the bench late last season. What is Cedrick's role now and into the future?
Really, though, any more than two changes on Sunday — one potentially forced by injury — should be considered pretty shocking.
What we know about Portland
Caleb Porter really seemed to figure things out the last month or so of the 2015 regular season, and he rode that to MLS Cup. The 4-2-3-1 went out the window in favor of a 4-3-3 with Diego Chara roaming as a lone defensive midfielder and Darlington Nagbe getting the ball on his foot deeper with room to push forward and see the field in front of him.
Don't expect this to change now. Although Porter spent a couple of seasons trying to figure out how to adjust to MLS life and get the most out of his team, he's far too good a soccer mind to do anything but stick with what worked.
That means the danger men will be Nagbe and Diego Valeri (who, one would think, will be fully healthy at the start of the season and that much more dangerous) and Fernando Adi. The knock on Adi last season — and something I talked about last year — was his inconsistency. He'd score in droves for a game or two and then disappear for a few weeks. But toward the end of the season he seemed to shake that reputation. Whether it was just about something finally clicking or about the way things rounded into form around him, he was always visible. MLSSoccer.com's Matt Doyle believes Adi is going to wreck the league this season.
Federico Higuain will be key to dragging Chara around the field, and in doing so forcing Nagbe and/or Valeri to do more defensive work. The best way to limit those guys is to not let them play the game they want. When they do get the ball, it will be up to Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani to disrupt them in the midfield and allow Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro to focus their attention on Adi.
What we don't know about Portland
The Timbers lost two players from their MLS Cup starting XI, plus Will Johnson, who was on the bench for the game. Johnson's absence probably won't be felt much, at least short term, considering he hadn't had a great year and the shift to a 3-man midfield means he doesn't need to be physically replaced on the field.
The other two departures, though, leave room to wonder about how they will play out on the field.
Jorge Villafana is gone from left back, and considering he helped make Ethan Finlay a non-factor in MLS Cup and was one of the best Portland players on the night, certainly that's a void needing to be filled. The question is exactly how the Timbers will do that. Chris Klute is now in a green uniform, but is hurt and a question mark to start the season. That's in addition to the fact that while Klute once seemed like a bright, young American fullback, the shine has come off and CCSC even deemed him not integral to its plans. And if Klute's not healthy? It could be Liam Ridgewell sliding out from center back, though his fitness is a question right now as well. Andy Thoma and Zarek Valentin are others that could be considered.
Regardless, the point is obvious — if Finlay wants to atone for some lackluster late-postseason showings, he can start by exploiting a left-back position in flux for Portland.
The other question will be on the wings. Rodney Wallace was, for my money, very underrated and could be sorely missed by this Timbers team. PTFC are bolstering its wing corps, but it won't change the picture for Sunday. Dairon Asprilla and Lucas Melano were both with the team last year, and both had their ups and downs, with Asprilla ultimately finding a substitute role. Now he'll be starting. He picked up an allegedly small ankle injury in the team's final preseason game, but appears expected to start. He's athletic and fast, if slightly unproven as a consistent threat in MLS. On the left side is Melano, who flashed a lot of talent but virtually zero finishing last season. Of course, many remember him for a fantastic playoff goal. Still, he'll need to prove he can put it in the back of the net consistently. He is a dangerous chance creator though, and will tend to cut in on the attack rather than stretch the field, which is more of Asprilla's job on the right. It could lead to positioning that skews to the right side for Portland.
Columbus will have to watch for that potential overload, defend against it, and try to move the ball out quickly to get Finaly or Afful into space on the opposite side of the field.
Potential space plus question mark at left back means Finlay and Afful could be the key to getting Crew SC's attack clicking right out of the gates.
Starting on the right foot
(This subheader only became a pun once I went back and wrote the last line of the above section, but I'll take it)
There are two ways this season can go. The Black & Gold can learn from last season, feed off the motivation of coming so close and turn that all into the ultimate success. Or the club can come back down to earth, even with a similar level of performance, as things won't fall quite the same way and the team will take a step back.
It's a long season. What happens in Week 1 may look very different than what happens in Week 34. But this is where it starts.
Take it all with a grain of salt, but enjoy. The new MLS season is here.