MLS Eastern Conference: Preview and Predictions

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

By RYAN BRISTER

The 2017 Major League Soccer season begins Friday night in Portland. It is a big year for the league, with two teams entering (Atlanta and Minnesota), and a new stadium opening (in Orlando). Some of the most interesting storylines for the league’s 22nd season are in the Eastern Conference.

In recent years, the conference has been the weaker half of MLS, but the gap has narrowed. Atlanta enters as far from your typical expansion team, while other teams made some shrewd off-season moves. Below are team capsules (in predicted order of finish) and then a look into our Crystal Ball.

Toronto

Last year: 14-9-11, third place; lost to Seattle in MLS Cup

Coach: Greg Vanney (third season)

Key additions: Playmaker Victor Vasquez, defender Chris Mavinga

After the best season in TFC’s history, the winter was quiet in Toronto. The club’s highest-profile move was the signing of Vasquez, a Barcelona product who hasn’t had the career his pedigree would suggest.

Beyond the additions, 2017 should see more minutes for youngsters like homegrowns Jay Chapman and Marky Delgado. Will Johnson has gone to sunnier climes, and the squad has lost some depth.

Glass half full: For all the talk about role players, Toronto will go as far as its big names take it. Can Sebastian Giovinco stay healthy for the full season? Will Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore continue to produce when they are away from with the United States national team? If the answers to those questions ares yes, TFC should again be one of the best teams in the league.

Glass half empty: Last year, Toronto moved in fits and starts. It would go on a run that had people tipping the club for the Supporters Shield, and then promptly drop points at home. The back line served TFC well in 2016, but it is aging. Can TFC replicate last year’s success?

NYC

Last year: 15-10-9, second place; lost to Toronto in conference semifinals

Coach: Patrick Vieira (second year)

Key additions: Designated player Maxi Moralez, Finnish international Alexander Ring, Panamanian midfielder Miguel Camargo, Peruvian defender Alexander Callens, goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

NYCFC was busy, but not splashy in the off-season. A squad that once was among MLS’s oldest has been retooled and rejuvenated with an influx of international talent and some promising youngsters. Frank Lampard retired, and his DP slot was filled by Moralez, 30, a playmaker who will sell fewer jerseys but is a net gain of eight years. Question is whether there’s enough ball for him to share with Andrea Pirlo.

City has improved its depth throughout, with signings like Rodney Wallace and USL MVP Sean Okoli. Smart, mature moves under the salary cap; will they be enough to push NYCFC forward?

Glass half full: NYCFC’s first two years in the league were flashy and tumultuous, but the past few months the club has settled down and smartly focused on the business of winning games. Veteran leadership is partnered with younger legs and an improved defense. That’s a recipe for success in MLS.

Glass half empty: Vieira’s task is to blend the new signings and maintain consistency through a long season. It seems there’s a new player for every position; but finding the right mix will take time. Anything less than the playoffs would be considered an epic fail. NYCFC expects more, much more.

Red Bulls

Last year: 16-9-9, first place; lost to Montreal in the conference semifinals

Coach: Jesse Marsch (third year)

Key signings: Panamanian right back Michael Amir Murillo, homegrown defender Aaron Long

Back-to-back strong regular seasons, of course, brought an off-season shakeup at Red Bull Arena, with the departure of Ali Curtis and the elevation of Denis Hamlett from assistant coach to sporting director. While the front office was in flux, on the field things remained relatively static. One notable exception: the captain Dax McCarty was traded to Chicago.

Coach Jesse Marsch

Coach Jesse Marsch

His replacement comes from within — the homegrown midfielder Sean Davis, who played well when McCarty was injured last season. In the back, Long has been promoted from the USL side.

Glass half full: The Red Bulls place a lot of faith in their academy products, and have mostly been rewarded. Alex Muyl stepped into the lineup without a hitch in 2016, and Davis has already shown himself capable at an MLS level. With the dynamic duo of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan in attack, RBNY is a team to fear.

Glass half empty: Perhaps tumult with the Red Bulls should not be a surprise, but it’s still a shock when a winning team trades its captain and changes sporting director. Time marches on. There’s a sense of confidence, but the continued production and health of Kljestan and Wright-Phillips are critical.

DC United

Last year: 11-10-13, fourth place; lost to Montreal in the knockout round

Coach: Ben Olsen (eighth year)

Key additions: Homegrown product Ian Harkes, Jose Guillermo Ortiz on loan from Herediano.

The club has finally broken ground on its new stadium, but for now DC United will play at R.F.K. Stadium this year and in 2018 (or most of it). DC continues to find its way into the playoffs year after year despite frugal ownership that has been bidding its time until the club is ready to move into Audi Field and splash some cash.

Few would call Olsen an attack-minded coach, but down the stretch last year United scored at least two goals in 13 of the final 14 games through the creative presence of Luciano Acosta and the emergence of Patrick Mullins.

Glass half full: Olsen probably has more options at his disposal than in the past; he’s shown a knack for squeezing out the most from limited squads If Mullins (8 goals) can repeat his performance from last season and the defense holds fast, DC could be a contender.

Glass half empty: DC’s Achilles’ heel could be its lack of depth, even for a club that has been frugal. If Mullins and/or Acosta were to miss time, Olsen’s offense would suffer. On the bubble for a playoff berth.

Columbus Crew

Last year: 8-14-12, ninth place; failed to quality for postseason

Coach: Gregg Berhalter (fourth year)

Key additions: Defenders Josh Williams and Jonathan Mensah, midfielder Mohammed Abu

Columbus entered 2016 among the favorites. The club had rising young stars, a deadly striker, and confidence as the defending conference champs. Things changed quickly. Leads were squandered, there were feuds and Kei Kamara was traded to New England. Nothing went the Crew’s way.

The response from Berhalter was to overhaul the side’s shaky defense, decisions made partly out of necessity because of Gaston Sauro’s injury. But he has not panicked, and Berhalter’s approach is expected to again focus on possession in midfield and wingbacks darting up the touchlines to join the attack.

Glass half full: It’s easy to forget that this team is 15 months removed from a trip to MLS Cup.  Much of the talent that got it there — Ethan Finlay, Wil Trapp, Justin Meram — is still around, and Ola Kamara is more than serviceable as a replacement for Kei. With the defense shored up, depth in the midfield should help the Crew rebound and contend in the conference.

Glass half empty: There’s a reason Columbus struggled in 2016. Beyond the locker-room feuds, there was a decline in production from Federico Higuain and instability at the back. Any center back pairing Berhalter puts in place will be new. The team is thin at striker. There are no guarantees in a competitive Eastern Conference.

Chicago Fire

Last year: 7-17-10, 10th place; failed to qualify for postseason

Coach: Veljko Paunovic (second year)

Key additions: Dax McCarty and Juninho in midfield, Serbian striker Nemanja Nikolic

No one expected Paunovic to instantly revive the Fire, but his first year in MLS was a rough ride. The Fire were listless, again finishing at the bottom of the conference. They have now gone four years without a playoff appearance.

Dax McCarty

Dax McCarty

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Chicago obtained veteran talent with MLS experience in the off-season. Young players like David Accam and Matt Polster offer promise. Quietly, the Fire have been producing and promoting a batch of homegrown talent. They may not yet be world-beaters, but the Fire are moving in the right direction.

Glass half full: Turnarounds can be quick in MLS. In 2016, Colorado added a veterans to its roster and shot up in the standings. Chicago could be next. McCarty and Juninho provide immediate stability in the midfield, and with young attacking talent the playoffs are within reach.

Glass half empty: None of the off-season signings address a porous back line and a offensive-minded DP signing from Europe might be the wrong guy in the wrong place. Asking Fire fans for more patience might be a bridge too far.

Atlanta United

Coach: The former Barcelona and Argentina manager Tata Martino

Atlanta has made a lot of noise in the build up to its MLS debut. With 30,000 season-ticket holders, a manager with an impressive international pedigree, and some a talented roster, expectations are high for this expansion team.

Atlanta has pursued a strategy for an evolving MLS. Rather than opting for aging European players, United’s designated players are South Americans all younger than 24.

Glass half full: There is a sense that anything short of the playoffs would be a disappointment. With experience in defense, and young foreign (and even homegrown) talent, United seeks to emulate the expansion success of Chicago.

Glass half empty: United is still an expansion team, and league history suggests there will difficulties, regardless of making the right moves. In the last 15 years, only one expansion team has reached the playoffs. Perspective would be useful in Atlanta as the long season begins against the Red Bulls on Sunday.

Montreal Impact

Last year: 11-11-12, fifth place; lost to Toronto in conference final

Coach: Mauro Biello (third year)

Key additions: Argentine midfielder Adrien Arregui, Blerim Dzemalli (arriving in the summer)

It was hard to make sense of Montreal in 2016. Didier Drogba was a regular source of drama, not the goal-machine that he was when he arrived in MLS. With tensions between him and Biello, the club foundered down the stretch, only to turn it around in the playoffs and come close to making MLS Cup.

The good news for the Impact is that the starting selection that made last year’s playoff run is intact; the bad news is that the lineup was prone to leaking goals. The club didn’t do much to shore up the back line. After winning defender of the year in 2015, Laurent Ciman took a step back last year, losing his temper at inopportune times.

Glass half full: Ignacio Piatti is one of the league’s most underappreciated playmakers, and combined with the speed of Dominic Oduro, the twosome can slice up teams on the counter. The Impact has firepower, but issues on defense.

Glass half empty: Fact is, Montreal was formidable for three and a half playoff games, not so much over the entire regular season. The conference has improved, the Impact have not.

Philadelphia Union

Last year: 11-14-9, sixth place; lost to Toronto in the knockout round

Coach: Jim Curtin (fourth year)

Key additions: Jay Simpson, Oguchi Onyewu

Philadelphia started the 2016 season brightly, but faltered over the summer and made a quick exit from the playoffs. For a team with a veteran roster that left a lot of questions.

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER.

Alejandro Bedoya

It’s unclear if the Union has answered them. The departure of Tranquilo Barnetta has shuffled Roland Alberg into the No. 10 role. He was impressive at times last year, but it is still  a downgrade. The Union’s off-season signings left a lot of people scratching their heads.

Glass half full: The Union seemed to find a combination of players that works well together last year. Now that Alejandro Bedoya has had a full off-season to get comfortable, the Union are capable of returning to the playoffs.

Glass half empty: Onyewu hasn’t played regularly in a couple of years, and yet looks set to be a part of Curtin’s starting back line, at least until Josh Yaro returns from injury. It’s a gamble; and with Maurice Edu’s health also an issue, the Union’s defense is a concern. Curtin will rely on  striker Jay Simpson, who has toiledin England’s lower tiers. It could be a long season along the banks of the Delaware River.

Orlando City

Last year: 9-11-14, eighth place; failed to qualify for postseason

Coach: Jason Kreis (second year)

Key additions: Defenders Jonathan Spector and PC

Two years ago, Orlando was the expansion darling, a squad built organically that was supposed to be ready to compete in MLS. The Lions have had setbacks ever since and expectations have had to be tempered. Entering their third MLS season in a new stadium, the Lions need to start getting results, but there are doubts about this roster.

Kreis craved more flexibility in shaping the team over the winter. Orlando traded its best player, Kevin Molino, for a heaping helping of allocation money, but has not added anyone comparable.

Glass half full: Orlando had no trouble scoring goals last year. Partly, that was because of Molino (11), but Cyle Larin remains with the club and remains a threat. The Lions’ few off-season signings were aimed at bolstering the defense. A shored up defense could point the way to the postseason.

Glass half empty: There is the potential for chilly summer in central Florida. Kaká has said this will be his last year in Orlando and his departure could signal a wider overhaul.

New England Revolution

Last year: 11-14-9, seventh place; failed to qualify for postseason

Coach: Jay Heaps (sixth year)

Key additions: Center backs Antonio Delamea Nlimar and Benjamin Angoua

Frustration is building in New England, and Heaps is on the hot seat (among the fans, if not the front office). A couple years removed from reaching MLS Cup, the Revolution failed to make the playoffs in 2016, and were most inactive in the off-season.

Aside from the back line, this team will look familiar. It’s hard to write off a side that boasts attacking talent like Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez, Juan Agudelo, and Kei Kamara. But even that wasn’t enough to overcome defensive woes last year.

Glass half full: The talent is there, at least in the front six, for the Revs to challenge for a playoff spot. They won’t blow anybody out, but can they produce enough goals and points to get where they need to go? Probably.

Glass half empty: As bright as things are up front, the defense has been a problem. The Revs made belated signings in the off-season, but a new center back pairing always raises questions. Has the roster been improved? Probably not enough to avoid another postseason absence.

The Crystal Ball

Ryan Brister’s predicted order of finish:

  1. Toronto: Absences cost TFC during the regular season last year; the club shouldn’t have those problems this year.
  2. New York City: This year’s NYCFC squad is younger and better than in the club’s first two years.
  3. Red Bulls: Across the river, expect a slight decline after a cautious off-season.
  4. DC United: DC can be easy to overlook, but don’t make that mistake. This is a capable team and dangerous.
  5. Columbus: Coach Gregg Berhalter and his squad are too good to let the disaster of last year repeat.
  6. Chicago: The Fire made a lot of smart moves in the off-season; they will reap the rewards with a return to the playoffs.
  7. Atlanta: United will contend, but probably won’t make the playoffs in Year 1.
  8. Montreal: The Impact were close to MLS Cup last year, but they also weren’t far from missing the playoffs. A tough year is ahead.
  9. Philadelphia: The Union will take a step back after reaching the playoffs last year.
  10. Orlando: A new stadium awaits, but City has deep issues that need to be sorted out before they find success.
  11. New England: All signs point to Coach Jay Heaps’ departure amid another disappointing season.