MLS Eastern Conference Season Preview, Predictions

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by RYAN BRISTER

Is it that time already?

March is here, and with it is Major League Soccer. Entering its 21st season, MLS kicks off with a full slate of games this Sunday.

As teams begin their campaign, we look at all 10 teams in the Eastern Conference, and what they can look forward to in 2016.

Chicago Fire

2015: 8-20-6, 10th in the East

Additions: Brandon Vincent, John Goossens.

Losses: Harry Shipp

Change has come to Chicago in a big way. Frank Yallop was fired at the end of last season, and now general manager Nelson Rodriguez and head coach Veljko Paunovic are running the show. Their biggest maneuver of the offseason raised some eyebrows by selling homegrown product Harry Shipp to Montreal. The Fire received allocation money in return, but it’s a tough sell to an increasingly skeptical fanbase.

The Fire will presumably make use of that allocation money sooner rather than later, but until then they are going forward with a squad that’s very similar to the one that posted the league’s worst record in 2015. They couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend. The signings this offseason, including their SuperDraft pick, focused on the back line. Brandon Vincent has already made an appearance for the USMNT, while international defenders Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira were also brought in.

Glass half full outlook: There is a talented young core in Chicago that might just be enough, with Paunovic’s guidance, to sneak into the playoffs. David Accam made more of an impact than most recent Fire DPs, and Matt Polster proved to be one of the league’s most solid rookies. The departure of Shipp was made possible by management’s confidence in Fernandez’s ability to replace him. Up front, Kennedy Igboananike and Gilberto will have a full season to work together on bringing in more goals. If Chicago finally lands one of the big talents they’ve been linked to in the summer, that’s a potent mixture.

Glass half empty outlook: This is probably not a one-year job for Paunovic and Rodriguez. Even in MLS, where parity is touted, rebuilding generally takes time. The Fire did not radically improve their roster in the offseason, and radical improvement is what they need. It is not enough for the Fire to simply be better than they were last season; they’d have to find nearly 20 more points to make the playoffs in the East. It’s hard to see that coming.

Columbus Crew SC

2015: 15-11-8, lost in MLS Cup to Portland

Additions: Conor Casey, Amro Tarek, Corey Ashe, a hideous away kit

Losses: Chris Klute, Jack McInerney, Emanuel Pogatetz

These are bright times to be a Crew fan. Yes, losing in MLS Cup to Portland—at home no less—stung. But Gregg Berhalter has built a team that, without spending too much money, is as good as any in the league. Kei Kamara returned without much fanfare in 2015, only to score 22 goals in the regular season. Ethan Finlay, Wil Trapp, and Tony Tchani all had strong seasons in midfield, earning them USMNT looks. The fullback pairing of Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful was the best in MLS at bombing forward and firing in crosses.

Kamara flirted with retirement in the offseason, but at 31 he is far from the proverbial cliff. Other key players, like Finlay and Trapp, are still in the upswing of their careers. Berhalter tinkered with the back line last year before finding a combination that worked, and that should only improve with continuity. Columbus is a team that is still very much on the rise.

Glass half full outlook: Crew SC are returning all of the starters from last year’s playoff run. Berhalter had the team running on all cylinders last fall, and hopefully they can pick up where they left off. It’s not a highly priced team, but it might be the best in MLS. Hiccups will happen over the course of an eight-month season, but they won’t keep the Crew from hosting games in November.

Glass half empty outlook: Columbus’ fortunes in 2015 fluctuated along with Wil Trapp’s health. He missed a significant portion of last season due to injury, and they generally suffered without him. Depth in the spine is an area of concern; Trapp, Tchani, Higuain and Kamara would all be very hard to replace. Injuries happen, which is perhaps the only reason not to be optimistic about the Crew.

DC United

2015: 15-13-6, lost to New York in Conference Semifinals

Additions: Lamar Neagle

Losses: Perry Kitchen, Chris Pontius

DC hit a wall last summer that didn’t give. Having finished first in 2014, and set the pace early in 2015, but August came along and the results were not good. Maybe it was Champions League play, or simply their luck running out, but United limped into the playoffs, and went out with a whimper against the Red Bulls.

United has gained a reputation for being frugal while they play out the string at RFK Stadium. Perry Kitchen, perhaps their best outfield player, left in the offseason when DC wouldn’t meet his contract demands. Chris Pontius was replaced with the cheaper (and perhaps better) Lamar Neagle. But there still isn’t a real creative force in this team, and United didn’t make an effort to fix that.

Glass half full outlook: This is not a particularly talented team on paper. But Ben Olsen has a habit of making things work, and producing more than the sum of his parts. DC will not play pretty soccer. But they don’t have to. In a Eastern Conference that remains weaker than the West, United could find their way into the playoffs again.

Glass half empty outlook: United got off to a hot start in 2015, but their record was better than their performances would suggest. They were regularly outshot and outpossessed in matches, and relied heavily on Bill Hamid to keep scoring low. Notably, they had a game in Montreal where they were outshot 22 to one…and won. With Hamid out for much of the early season, and United having lost key outfield players, this could be a long year at RFK.

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