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Major League Soccer is a year away from reaching the 20-season mark, but before it reaches that milestone the league must show improvement in an important 2014 campaign.

When the 20th season of Major League Soccer kicks off a year from now, the nice round number will be met by two fresh expansion teams joining a league that will officially surpass the 20-team mark, hitting lucky 21 with a return to Florida, and the symbolic establishment of an MLS team physically residing in New York for the first time.

Yes, next year will have plenty of convenient storylines and reasons for why the MLS season matters, but what about this year? What about the 19th season of the league’s existence, with 19 teams ready to compete in what feels like the final chapter before MLS hits a new era?

The 2014 MLS season doesn’t have a nice round number or expansion teams to drum up buzz, but it has many of the things MLS has long hoped for. It has title contenders in the New York and LA markets. It boasts three of the best players on the U.S. national team, and a collection of national team players who can actually rival the European-based contingent of Americans. It also boasts encouraging rebuilding jobs in two important markets in Toronto and Washington, D.C. It also has a growing list of markets lining up to join the party, leading to expansion talk from coast to coast.

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MLS has plenty of reasons to celebrate a year before season 20, and fans from Philadelphia to Portland, Seattle to New England, have reason to be excited.

Based on these things it sure does seem like MLS is riding high, and in many ways it is. But don’t pop the champagne yet because as the league prepares for its final year as a teenager, it still has some growing up to do.
PREDICTION TIME
The 2014 Major League Soccer campaign is upon us.

Three months after Sporting Kansas City lifted the MLS Cup, the league is back for its 19th season. The offseason has been rather eventful league-wide, though it's safe to say Toronto FC stole most of the headlines by adding the star power of Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar.

So has TFC done enough to win the MLS Cup? Or is another team poised to take the title? Which players are set to claim the league's individual honors? And who will provide the biggest surprises in MLS this season? Goal USA and Canada editors provide their predictions.

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Take, for example, the league’s pool of coaches, which appears to grow less and less experienced with each passing year as teams vie for players wrapping up their careers rather than coaches with credentials, with the handful of success stories paving the way for a wave of clubs trying to be the next uncover a gem of a young coach like Jason Kreis or Caleb Porter.

Consider that 13 of the league’s 19 head coaches have never coached a pro team other than the one they currently coach. You can make the argument that MLS’s current trend of hiring young coaches is planting the seeds for an American coaching renaissance, but a look at your average MLS match leaves you wondering whether tactics are regressing while the talent pool improves.

Also consider the league’s pool of young players, and we’re talking truly young in soccer terms, from 17 to 21. An age range where MLS still isn’t producing enough pro-ready prospects, or providing enough true development for them. This is an area MLS is working to improve with the help of increased loan opportunities and the looming step of having more MLS clubs establishing their own lower division feeder clubs (which the LA Galaxy will be the first to do this year after launching a USL Pro team). Those are good steps, but the lack of impact academy products suggest the league’s academy system has been slow out of the gate in terms of production, with many of the top Homegrown Players having honed their games on the college level.

Then consider the lack of newly acquired European superstars. Landing American sensations Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley were historic signings, but the type of elite-level foreign signings like David Beckham and Thierry Henry that once seemed likely to occur more often simply haven’t. Yes, Robbie Keane has worked out excellently, and Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar arrive in MLS while still being factors for the national teams of England and Brazil. But what of the Didier Drogbas or Ronaldinhos? Where are the superstars who transcend the sport? A look at the MLS ratings suggests luring that level of star back to MLS is something the league needs to work on.

That too could be addressed in a year, when Orlando City arrives with Kaka, who team officials are quietly confident will make his way to Disney World, and when New York City FC shows up with the backing of the deep-pocketed owners of Manchester City.

Again, 2015 looks so promising, but what about 2014? What does this year have in store for its die-hard MLS fans, and the casual fans the league needs to convert in order to grow?

It has a revamped Seattle team led by Dempsey, who will need a big year to justify the blockbuster deal that brought him. It has an attractive Portland Timbers side that could boast the best team - and fans - in the league in 2014.
U.S. SOCCER LATEST

This season has a headline-making Toronto FC squad filled with the type of names TFC fans could only have dreamed of a year ago thanks to a dramatic makeover the club desperately needed after seven painful seasons of miserable soccer. A team that will be led by Bradley, who will look to justify being given the second-largest contract in MLS history (after Beckham’s) by leading Toronto FC to its first playoff appearance, and beyond.

The 2014 season will feature a revamped Galaxy team led by Keane and Donovan and head coach Bruce Arena, who could cement his status as the best coach in league history by winning a third MLS Cup in four years (and his fifth overall). Throw in Donovan’s quest to become the all-time leading goal scorer in MLS history, and the Galaxy will stand a good chance of making more headlines than any team in the league.

But what of the casual fans? The ones who still haven’t bought into MLS? The ones who still prefer the higher quality of Europe’s top leagues to an MLS that still lags behind in terms of technical quality and star power? Winning them over won’t be easy, and 2014 won’t provide the magic pill to convert the American soccer fans who would rather watch Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo via satellite than Donovan and Dempsey in person.

What can bring MLS closer to those fans in 2014 is improved soccer. That sounds simple enough, but MLS needs better soccer and better players. Signs point to the league’s talent pool gradually improving year by year, but it will be up to the large crop of young MLS coaches to step their game up and get the most out of that improving talent, and it will be up the general managers and technical directors in MLS to take advantage of the loosening purse strings in MLS to go find better talent.

By all accounts, several teams took major steps toward improving their teams, but time will tell just how much better the soccer is in MLS in 2014. If MLS doesn’t really show progress on the field in 2014? The league, and its teams, will need to start considering hiring more experienced coaches, while redoubling efforts to improve player development, because after this coming season, and the end of Major League Soccer’s teen years, making excuses for all of Major League Soccer’s shortcomings by calling MLS a young league will start to ring hollow.

That being said, If the influx of top Americans and promising foreign players live up to their billing, and inexperienced young coaches like Ryan Nelsen and Gregg Berhalter and Carl Robinson and Pablo Mastroeni can prove themselves worthy of the coaching jobs they’ve been given, then MLS could have just the type of year the league needs heading into its milestone 20th season.

Poll of the day

Which team will win the 2014 MLS Cup?

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