Major League Soccer kicks off its 23rd season with 23 teams heading into a campaign filled with more intrigue than any that has come before.
From the one new team — Los Angeles FC — to the five new coaches, and the plethora of high-priced newcomers, there is no shortage of storylines to follow.
There is Toronto FC's quest for a repeat, the LA Galaxy's attempt to return to prominence, and Atlanta United's attempt to go from newcomer to title contender. There is Orlando City's impressive reconstruction project, and the Columbus Crew's attempt to pull off a new look amid the distraction of a potential move out of Ohio.
The league's increase in spending on players gave teams extra allocation money to boost their rosters, and the result is an influx of new talent that should, in theory, boost the level of play across the league. It is also very likely to widen the gap between the league's very best teams and its worst, as it becomes increasingly clear which teams know how to spend on the international market, and which don't have the resources or acumen to land difference-making talent.
This offseason also saw more high-profile veterans changing addresses within the league than ever before. Whether it's Darlington Nagbe, Sacha Kljestan or Benny Feilhaber, it is going to take some time to get used to several players wearing a different uniform.
There are also the youngsters aiming to break through in a league where it's become increasingly more difficult for young players to earn playing time. Young standouts such as Tyler Adams, Justen Glad and Yangel Herrera will look to take the next step toward stardom, while prospects such as Joao Moutinho, Reggie Cannon, Andrew Carleton and Chris Durkin fight to earn minutes.
While these are some of the general themes that will take center stage this season, here is a look at 18 key questions the 2018 season will answer for us:
Will anybody stop Toronto FC? It is going to be difficult for anyone to unseat TFC from its throne, but fellow East teams New York City FC and Atlanta United are the best bets. You can add the LA Galaxy to that list if they succeed in landing Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Can Bob Bradley work his expansion magic again? It was 20 years ago when Bradley led the Chicago Fire to an MLS Cup title, the only time an expansion team has ever won the league crown. Pulling that off in 2018 with LAFC will be much tougher, though Bradley has a starting lineup capable of reaching the playoffs in year one.
Will Jason Kreis turn Orlando City into a winner? Perhaps no team did more to revamp its lineup than the Lions, and it leaves Kreis with no excuse but to qualify for the playoffs. The coach who was once considered a U.S. national team candidate when he was leading an impressive Real Salt Lake during its peak, Kreis has seen his coaching reputation battered by an awful stint at New York City FC, and by his recent struggles with Orlando City. Anything short of the playoffs will add fuel to the idea that Kreis's RSL teams won because of talent and not coaching.
Will anybody play their kids? The lack of minutes for rookies and young prospects has become a hot-button topic in MLS, and this season it doesn't look as though that many teams will find time for their best prospects. The Philadelphia Union should be an exception, but will teams like Atlanta United and NYCFC find minutes for their youngsters?
Which new young designated player will make the biggest impact? The likes of Ezequiel Barco, Alejandro Romero Gamarra, Diego Rossi and Jesus Medina have arrived with plenty of buzz about them being the talents who will lead MLS into a new era. It will be a fun subplot watching them try to outdo each other as they jockey for the title of best young DP.
How will Darlington Nagbe do in his new role? Atlanta United is likely to deploy Nagbe in central midfield after he spent several years working the flanks in Portland. The new role could not only help Atlanta United take its game to a new level, it could showcase Nagbe's strengths in a way we haven't seen enough. A Best XI season is a definite possibility.
Can Giovani Savarese carry his NASL success to MLS? Replacing Caleb Porter is no easy task, but the highly regarded Savarese has a strong Timbers squad to work with as he looks to show his winning ways with the New York Cosmos weren't just a product of coaching the biggest-spending team in the NASL.
Will Jesse Fioranelli's project thrive or fall flat? The San Jose general manager has had his doubters ever since he took over the Earthquakes, and anything less than a return to the playoffs will lend more ammunition to those who don't rate Fiorenelli as an executive. If San Jose falls flat, it just might lead the Earthquakes to shake up their front office next winter if new coach Mikael Stahre cant put the team's many new pieces together into a cohesive team in the wide-open Western Conference.
Can Brad Friedel keep New England from collapsing? The former U.S. national team goalkeeper has never been short on confidence, and he has sounded bullish about what his Revolution can do in his first season as a pro head coach. That isn't keeping some heavy skepticism from hanging over a New England team that looks more likely to wind up near the bottom of the East than in the playoffs.
Will the Galaxy land Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The Galaxy put together one of the more impressive offseasons by addressing several key lineup needs, but Ibrahimovic would be the ultimate cherry on top. Sigi Schmid's team still has enough talent to be a top three team in the West without the Swedish star, but Ibrahimovic would catapult the Galaxy into MLS Cup territory.
Is Anthony Hudson a genius or a fraud? The new Colorado Rapids coach has never been a first-division club coach before, and his vagabond resume leaves you wondering just how good a coach he actually is. There is no denying he has a charming personality, and can organize a team to defend for its life, but is he the coach to take Colorado's patchwork roster and make it a winner?
Will the Crew be saved? It is shaping up to be a long year in Columbus, with the looming threat of a move to Austin, Texas hanging over the team's head, and the club facing life without Ola Kamara and Justin Meram. Gregg Berhalter is going to be faced with the toughest challenge of his coaching career, and even he may be unable to keep the Crew from sliding in 2018 after such a promising 2017.
Is D.C. United going to christen its new stadium with a winning season? It's been a rough stretch of years for D.C., but the moves made since last summer have considerably revamped the roster. This feels like it could be one of those surprisingly good years Ben Olsen has been able to spin during his lengthy stint as head coach.
Will FC Dallas rebound or fall even further? After a stunning collapse that few could have seen coming, FC Dallas limped into the offseason searching for answers. Oscar Pareja's squad responded by signing Santiago Mosquera to boost the attack, and Reto Ziegler to replace Walker Zimmerman. An early exit from the CONCACAF Champions League didn't exactly instill confidence that a turnaround is looming, and now we are left with the reality that if FC Dallas doesn't have a bounce-back season, Pareja could be given the boot.
Is RSL's young core ready to take the next step and make it to the playoffs? One of the most encouraging stories of 2017 was RSL's second-half surge driven by its stable of young talents. Now, after just missing out on the playoffs, RSL enters 2018 with higher expectations. It will be up to players like Jefferson Savarino, Justen Glad and Danilo Acosta to build on the strong seasons they posted last year.
Are the Chicago Fire going to relapse into mediocrity? There is no denying what an impressive turnaround the Fire enjoyed in 2017, but it's also tough to deny that the Fire enter 2018 with a worse roster than it finished with last season. We know the Fire still have resources to add a big-ticket playmaker but until one arrives, reigning MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic could find chances tough to come by, while the Fire will struggle to keep pace with an improved top half in the East.
Do the Seattle Sounders have one more MLS Cup run in them? The answer is no with the current roster, especially after losing Jordan Morris for the season, but Garth Lagerwey has the resources and transfer market acumen to land some difference-makers. The reality is Seattle's nucleus is an aging one, and new weapons will be needed in order for the Sounders to successfully navigate the long road back to the final.
Can David Villa deliver one more monster season for NYCFC? Villa's contributions since arriving in MLS have been spectacular, and while he hasn't showed signs of slowing down, he's 36 now and his torrid scoring pace will have to slow down sometime. If Villa can maintain an MVP-caliber level, then NYCFC has the improved roster to be the team to dethrone TFC. If Villa finally slows down, NYCFC will struggle to replace his impact.