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2013 Eastern Conference preview

Featured photo: Paul Rudderow

Well, it’s season preview time. Opening day is this week, and the Eastern Conference looks as good as it’s ever been.

The conference has four clear tiers. Houston and Kansas City are clearly the class of the conference, with New York possibly forcing their way into that conversation. The next tier is comprised of Chicago and D.C. United, with Columbus as a wild card because they have so many new starters. Philadelphia and Montreal hope to nudge themselves into that second tier, and if things develop as they hope, they very well could. If not, they’ll find themselves hovering just above the league’s lowest caste, where Toronto and New England seem to be considering permanent residency.

Overall, the conference could be as good as the Western Conference. Houston and Kansas City look to be as talented as anyone in MLS, in the same class as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Vancouver. The middle class is where the conferences diverge:  San Jose and Real Salt Lake are better than the Eastern Conference’s second tier but could struggle early as they deal with injuries and losses of key players. The bottom tiers in each conference look about even, though we save special interest for Chivas USA’s ethnocentric approach possibly making them one of the worst teams in MLS history — again.

With some input from PSP writers Eli Pearlman-Storch and Sean Doyle, here is PSP’s conference preview.

Giles Barnes and Houston

Giles Barnes and Houston did plenty of this to Philadelphia in 2012. Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz.

1. Houston Dynamo

Houston gets a full year of Oscar Boniek Garcia and Giles Barnes, and now they add Scottish winger Andrew Driver to the mix. If Driver can regain the form he showed before injuries derailed his career and Barnes can replicate his 2012 highlights more regularly, Houston could be the best team in the league, period. Brad Davis serves the best dead ball in the league, and now he has not just Will Bruin up top but also Omar Cummings looking to regain his best form from Colorado’s championship season.

At the back, Kofi Sarkodie finally emerged as a viable starter at right back last year and made Andrew Hainault expendable, while Corey Ashe is one of the league’s best at left back. Combined with a solid center back combination, good defensive shields in Rico Clark and Adam Moffat, and goalkeeper Tally Hall playing his way into the national team picture, this team has all the pieces, including one of the league’s best coaches. Unlike Kansas City, they have fewer key newcomers to incorporate, so they could be strong from day one.

How Philadelphia Union match up: Better than in the past in some ways, worse in others. The loss of Hainault makes Houston smaller, and Jeff Parke and Conor Casey add bulk, which should help defending Houston’s dangerous set pieces. But Houston’s midfield is now so dangerous.

Kansas City will have to do without Kei Kamara now that he's scoring goals for Norwich in the EPL. Photo: Earl Gardner.

Kansas City will have to do without Kei Kamara now that he’s scoring goals for Norwich in the EPL. Photo: Earl Gardner.

2. Sporting Kansas City

Kansas City lost Kei Kamara and Roger Espinoza to the English Premier League, but the club could be even better this year. Stress that word “could,” however.

This team will function very differently this year with their replacements. Benny Feilhaber isn’t the Tasmanian devil that Espinoza is, but he brings a far-sighted playmaking role that, combined with Graham Zusi and Barcelona product Ori Rosell, could make this 4-3-3 function more like Barcelona and less like the basketball style full-press defense it resembled last season. A key question will be whether defensive midfielder Paulo Nagamura can alone do the dirty work previously handled by two dedicated defensive destroyers.

Up top, striker Claudio Bieler has been touted as a big signing but struggled in his previous forays away from LDU Quito. Still, C.J. Sapong provides good cover. Healthy returns to form from Bobby Convey and Teal Bunbury would help a good deal.

This team has a lot of talent, including one of the league’s best back fives, but they’re also in transition. If the pieces mesh, they could be the best team in the conference. But that takes time.

How the Union match up: Philadelphia can’t always take advantage of Aurelien Colin’s immobility like they did last June because Matt Besler provides cover. But the losses of Espinoza, Julio Cesar and Kamara make this a much less physical team, and we know the Farfans and Sheanon Williams like that.

Thierry Henry will once again key New York this season.

Thierry Henry will once again key New York this season. Photo: Michael Long.

3. New York Red Bulls

Once again, the Red Bulls are one of the league’s most talented teams. Once again, they have to fit the pieces together.

Jamison Olave should improve the back line, but his probable center back partner, Marcus Holgersson, is no more mobile than he was last year. In midfield, Dax McCarty should finally not have to worry about constantly fighting to get into the lineup, but he may have a lot of work to do with 38-year-old Juninho not expected to do much defending. The flanks are ordinary at both tiers but could fare well if Brandon Barklage and Connor Lade can replicate their top form from last year and Heath Pearce can play left back again. New York needs to find an upgrade over Holgersson to prevent the domino effect that happens if Pearce has to slide inside again.

The fun part to watch will be the attacking third. Thierry Henry looks like he hasn’t lost it yet, and with a full training camp under his belt, Tim Cahill could settle in well. Striker Fabian Espindola has to finish his chances this year, however, or people will be questioning the trade of Kenny Cooper. New coach Mike Petke has a New York state of mind and understands MLS better than his Scandinavian predecessors, but his window to win may not be very big, as Henry isn’t getting any younger.

How the Union match up: Potentially quite well. Amobi Okugo may be the league’s most mobile center back, which helps with man-marking Henry. Also, a quick forward pairing of Jack McInerney and Sebastien Le Toux could cause Holgersson trouble.

4. Chicago Fire

Chicago revamped its midfield in the offseason by acquiring center midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere and winger Dilly Duka. They could be a better team because of it.

A healthy Arne Friedrich will be key to Chicago's back line. Photo: Paul Rudderow

A healthy Arne Friedrich will be key to Chicago’s back line. Photo: Paul Rudderow.

The team lacks stars, but their starting lineup is full of players that fit their roles nicely. Sherjill MacDonald is a good target man, and Chris Rolfe played off him very well as a second striker last year. Larentowicz and Lindpere are a hard-nosed, hustling box-to-box tandem, with Lindpere more in the attacking role and Larentowicz playing behind him him, and center backs Austin Berry and Arne Friedrich could be one of the league’s best tandems if Friedrich can stay healthy. The flanks could be solid as well, but they could also end up with the left side producing far better than the right.

The big question will be how the newcomers gel. Duka tantalized and disappointed in Columbus, and there doesn’t seem to be much cover for him in Chicago. The Fire could finish anywhere from third to seventh, and it would not surprise.

How the Union match up: Fairly even.

Photo by Earl Gardner

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid is key to United’s success. Photo: Earl Gardner.

5. D.C. United

As good as D.C. United were last season, they don’t look to have improved in the off-season and may have actually regressed. They lost Andy Najar and Branko Boskovic. Their back line is as pedestrian as ever. And who will score the goals? Their top choices at striker are Union castoffs Carlos Ruiz and Lionard Pajoy, whose departures were cheered by most Union observers.

Still, United’s midfield looks awfully good, with Dwayne De Rosario flanked by Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius and backed by Perry Kitchen. United plays hard, manager Ben Olsen looks to have turned the club around, and if they keep acquiring players from Chivas USA for basically nothing (right back James Riley, forward Casey Townsend), they could … well, actually, there’s no one else good to get, save Dan Kennedy, so scratch that.

Bottom line: United could easily regress this year if they don’t find a good center back to pair with Brandon McDonald or someone better up top. Ruiz will likely net a few goals, but look for United to search for a mid-season designated player at striker to make a contender. Otherwise, they’re just another middle-of-the-pack team.

How the Union match up: Fiercely. Mike Farfan and Perry Kitchen hammer each other constantly. Sheanon Williams and Gabriel Farfan are always in someone’s face. So is McDonald. United’s midfield is better, but the Union forwards and defenders are better overall than United’s. (Of course, that’s counting De Rosario and Pontius as midfielders.)

6. Philadelphia Union

Photo By Earl Gardner

Where Amobi Okugo plays will determine a lot for Philadelphia. Photo: Earl Gardner.

Manager John Hackworth started clearing dead weight in August and added striker Conor Casey and fan favorite Sebastien Le Toux this off-season with hopes of improving an attack that was last in MLS in shots on goal in 2012. At center back, Jeff Parke has replaced Carlos Valdes and should be a solid replacement.

Otherwise, you’ll see the same young team that went 9-12-4 in all competitions under Hackworth last year. Rising stars Sheanon Williams and Amobi Okugo will man the defense’s right side, while converted midfielder Gabriel Farfan will start at left back outside Parke. The league’s youngest starting goalkeeper, Zac MacMath, backs them. Farfan’s twin, Michael, keys the attack from central midfield, while defensive midfielder Brian Carroll shields the back four.

The rest remains undetermined. Hackworth could slide young poacher Jack McInerney into a three-forward attack with Casey and Le Toux or deploy the 4-4-2 diamond he’s shown this preseason. Midfielders Keon Daniel, Danny Cruz, and Roger Torres are in the mix, but Freddy Adu is not after Philadelphia held him out of preseason while trying to sell him. The wild card is center back Bakary Soumare, whose return to form could produce a domino effect that pushes Okugo to midfield and others to the bench.

For the Union to make the playoffs, a few things have to happen. MacMath must make fewer mistakes, or Chris Konopka or Chase Harrison should get a chance to show they can do better. The improved strike corps must produce more chances. The midfield must link better to the strikers. Basically, the young players must keep getting better, and Hackworth has to find the right lineup to get the most out of his talent. None of this is impossible, but it will take time. They’ll probably start slow and improve over the course of the year.

How the Union match up: Pretty good!

Chad Marshall must stay healthy for Columbus to content. Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz.

Chad Marshall must stay healthy for Columbus to content. Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz.

7. Columbus Crew

Columbus went 7-3-1 in games Federico Higuain started last season. Now that they get him for a full season, watch out. Gonzalo’s older brother looks like the league’s best playmaker, and striker Jairo Arrieta had no problem hitting the net once Higuain arrived.

The problem could be the rest of the lineup. Eddie Gaven is good on one wing, but the rest of the starting midfield is comprised largely of foreign imports (Matias Sanchez, Augustin Viana) who are untested in MLS, a situation that was a mixed bag for Columbus last year. On the back line, Chad Marshall continues to be nagged by injuries, and the other three defensive positions are manned by journeymen.

Still, Columbus looked terrific in preseason, albeit sometimes against second-stringers and trialists. This is a team that could be very good or outright mediocre. If Higuain gets hurt again again, expect the latter.

How the Union match up: The jury’s out. Columbus has several new starters, including three who have never played in MLS. We don’t know yet what kind of team they’ll be.

Former Union midfielder Justin Mapp is a key part of Montreal's midfield. Photo: Paul Rudderow.

Former Union midfielder Justin Mapp is a key part of Montreal’s midfield. Photo: Paul Rudderow.

8. Montreal Impact

Having players over age 30 doesn’t make your team old and rickety. But Montreal does old and rickety so well, particularly for such a new team. If they can stay healthy, they could have a good team. They’re potentially strong up the middle with Alessandro Nesta, Matteo Ferrari, Patrice Bernier, Felipe and Marco di Vaio, along with Troy Perkins in goal. But every one of those guys is over 30, save Felipe.

Impact owner Joey Saputo has risked a lot on a win-now approach. He seems to think he’s in Italy seven years ago. He already fired one coach, and the replacement has a one-year deal with an option for a second if he makes the playoffs. Yes, Montreal is a very different market than the others in MLS, arguably the most European city in the league. But it also seems to have one of the most short-sighted owners. Credit to him for wanting to make a splash in a fascinating market, but Montreal’s best players don’t look like they will stay healthy or young enough to make the playoffs. Guys like Andrew Wenger need to play.

How the Union match up: Pretty evenly, in some respects. The key is Philadelphia’s attackers versus Montreal’s back line. Le Toux and McInerney often get by with smartly timed runs, but Montreal’s center backs are as savvy and experienced as they come in MLS. However, Le Toux runs as much in the 90th minute as he does in the 5th. Can Nesta and Ferrari?

9. New England Revolution

Matt Reis and New England will have to get used to this sight in 2013. Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Matt Reis and New England will have to get used to this sight in 2013. Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz.

New England barely fills out their lineup with MLS-quality starters. It’s that bad. Striker Jerry Bengston is exactly the kind of young CONCACAF star MLS needs, and Saer Sene can score, but New England doesn’t have enough talent in midfield to consistently get them the ball in good positions. Yes, Lee Nguyen is a nasty attacking midfielder, but who else is there? Kelvyn Rowe has yet to solidify himself as an automatic starter. Clyde Simms is a nice holding midfielder but nothing to write home about. Andy Dorman has returned from Britain but isn’t the same player he once was. Benny Feilhaber is gone.

The back five is ordinary at best. Chris Tierney must replicate pre-injury form from early 2012. Top pick Andrew Farrell has to perform immediately. And someone needs to win their goalkeeping competition and then actually keep the job. It makes sense that the team with the least engaged front office in MLS will be looking up from the cellar this year. They deserve it.

How the Union match up: Pretty well. The biggest problem is marking Jerry Bengston and taking him out of the game. Otherwise, the Union are roughly even or better throughout most of the field.

Photo By Earl Gardner

Can Danny Califf help solidify Toronto FC’s once porous defense? Photo: Earl Gardner.

10. Toronto FC

Meet the least of the East.

Toronto may have an improved back line with the additions of Danny Califf and Gale Agbossoumonde, but they still don’t have anyone to score goals. Danny Koevermans is out till June with an injury, Justin Braun got hurt in preseason, and promising Luis Silva won’t carry the team. Torsten Frings looks to be on the way out.

Toronto’s latest rebuilding effort could be the one that finally works, but it might not. New general manager Kevin Payne built DC United’s championship teams, but some question whether MLS 2.0 has left him behind. A successful amateur draft that hauled two Canadians with legitimate talent, as well as the bold signing of manager Ryan Nelsen, helps put those questions to rest, and there are some decent players here, like Ireland international Darren O’Dea. But when the wins don’t come right away — and that’s when, not if — more and more fans will come out disguised as empty seats.

How the Union match up: Quite well, just like everyone else does against Toronto.

32 Comments

  1. Andrew 'Calm' Down says:

    Hmmm, I have Columbus winning the East this year.

    • Columbus could finish anywhere from 1st to 8th, and it wouldn’t surprise me. It all depends on how their foreign imports pan out.

  2. I really think this year will be rough at first for the Union, but they will turn it around and really play well towards the end.
    We do have talent, its just really young and locked. And for better or worse, Hackworth seems intent on nursing it and letting it grow through the rough times.
    To me that screams the type of season where we look young and incapable at first, but then slowly turn it around and look good. This seasons ending has the sort of “Look out for the Union next year!” sorta feel to it in all the season ending reviews.

  3. In my dreams the Union finish 4th this year…realistically…7th

  4. My worry isn’t how much we win but that we don’t try. I am a little sick of 1-1 and 0-0 draws and 1-0 losses where we bunker in and loft long hopeful balls down field to someone who has to hold up to get some help allowing 5 or 6 defenders to get behind the ball squandering one of our few chances. I know this sounds rediculous but I would rather lose 2-1 or 3-2 or 3-1 then try for a 1-0 victory every week. This does not develop players it develops security gaurds and nervous goalis afraid to make a mistake instead of playing aggresively to win. How many good teams have the bunker in mentality for a whole season?

    • While I agree that we see way too much of Route 1 football, how much is that simply because our team isn’t at the point yet where they can do anything else?
      HAckworth has pretty much touted possession, pretty football since he started. Apparantly that is how he wants the palyers to play and they train for that all the time.
      So at that point, I think its a matter of not getting to that point yet. I don’t think its a strategic decision at all.

      • I don’t mind passing and running up the middle (route 1) if you go for it. My concern is 9-10 players behind the ball at all times except when we don’t then we give up a goal and lose. thats fine if its 10 minutes left up 2 goals but not as a default strategy. Part of maturing is going out and trying and struggling and working and improving. A strategy to not lose seems to be our MO now and this is not a path forward. This is akin to what we had done at the national team and developmental stages for years. It works but only to a point. I guess I would rather languish with a future than aspire to be mid table every year through gritty defense and counter goals.
        Pretty footbal only comes from trying to be pretty not playing ugly expect pretty to come.

        • The Black Hand says:

          The Route 1 style is playing long balls over the top and hoping that you get to it first. In my opinion, this style of played way too often by poor clubs and does nothing for the development of quality football. I feel that coaches, who promote this gameplay, have no business directing teams beyond recreational soccer leagues. That is not to say that a club should never play long balls over the top. Sometimes that is the perfect counterattack; catching the opponent off guard and sending your man on goal, or leading to an odd man situation. It definitely is effective, when used sparingly, but to rely on this approach as a game plan is welcoming good clubs to dismantle you with composed, intelligent play. The long ball style of play might be one of the biggest factors in American clubs suffering from a developmental deficiency, when compared to the quality of football that is played in other nations. It is a bad habit that is far too easy for poorly structured clubs to fall into. I really hope that the Union have grown out of this game plan. I’m sorry to rant…

  5. RESPCOMMENTATOR says:

    A bit too much emphasis on hard tackling and ball control out of the back, and not enough emphasis on getting the ball in the danger zone, with diag. runs; crosses; and hard work out of the wings. By the time the hard tackling injures Carroll, Farfan, Farfan, Bakary and Okugo, you’re left with Torres creating plays. The whole team can’t be U-17 residency players….

  6. Gk: macmath
    Defense: garfan (L), parke, soumare, williams (r)
    Mid: Carroll, torres (L), daniel, marfan (R)
    Forwards: mcinerney, le toux

    Daniel can pass and score an hes tall good to have him up front. Torres is fast good on the wing. Marfan is right footed and better than cruz and hes kinda fast.

  7. Juninho not Robinho.

  8. Aside from Toronto and maybe New England, I could see any of the other teams in the playoffs. There really is that much parity.

  9. Justin Mapp is not the key to Montreal’s midfield. Heck, half the fanbase want him gone for the mind-numbing decisions he made in key games last season. Down 2-1 to Houston IN HOUSTON they had the ability to tie the game. Mapp and Di Vaio were on a 2v1 break where all Mapp had to do was pass the ball over to Di Vaio, who had nothing but open goal to shoot at, yet he tried a ridiculously low-percentage shot and blew the game. That’s the most glaring decision he made and is stuck in my mind as it ended the Impact’s playoff run.

  10. A guy like Andrew Driver, who Houston signed, is exctly what we need – a fast attacking winger who can actually dribble the ball. IMO, the SPL would be an ideal place for the Union to try to poach a 25-28 YO midfield talent, and the SPL’s salary structure and precarious financial situation make it a reasonable alternative. No problems scouting the teams and no language barrier (although if you heard my Scottish cousins talk, you might rethink that…)

  11. I could see, with a few breaks, the Union recreating their glory days of 2011. And by recreating their glory days I mean they will be a borderline playoff team.

  12. Hack needs to ditch the dead 4-4-2 and go to an attacking 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3). This is the only way he can get his best attacking players on the field (Torres and Marfan in midfield and JackMac, Casey, LeToux at forward). Okugo needs to be on the field at either CB or DCM. I think the second biggest question mark will be what to do with Brian Carroll. Do we keep enough attacking options on the pitch so we don’t sacrifice some midfield offense or does Hack go empty bucket and play for the counter again?

    • The Black Hand says:

      All signs point to the empty bucket and my fear is that will bring empty scoresheets. I agree, a 4-3-3 would seem to get the most out of the players we have. If Hack plays it too conservative, or indecisive, we could dig ourselves into a hole quickly.

  13. Philly Cheese says:

    I know it was only preseason…..and we shouldn’t get overly anxious, but zero goals from our new front three of LeToux, Conners and JacMac had me concerned about finishing capabilities of the projected starting front three. Hoppenot and Hoffman at least found the net during preseason action with limited minutes.

  14. GK: MacMath
    Defense: G. Farfan (L), Soumare, Parke, Williams (R)
    Mids: Carroll (DCM), Okugo (DCM), Torres (OCM)
    Forwards: M. Farfan (L), Casey, Le Toux (R)

    What we are left with are the quality options of J. Mac, Cruz, and Daniel as wingers or potential target men.

    For me this is the best way to create that attacking force that we seem to lack so often. I know many would question my opinion for Torres in such a role, but I feel that is exactly the type of player he is and if put in that situation he will thrive.

  15. Houston
    SKC
    RBNY
    CHI
    DCU
    CREW
    MTL
    PHL
    TFC
    NER

    Maybe 11-17-7 for 40 points. Other teams actively improved, you’d be hard pressed to say the same about the U. Yeah, Le Toux and Casey. A striker who had 5 goals and another trying to recapture pre-injury form. Yes, a developing Jack, but everyone else’s players aged too. Parke for Valdes is a wash. If Soumare sucks than Okugo is on back 4 and nothing improved. What? Torres? Maybe. He’s looked good in preseason against suspect competition. Hack? He’s got the permanent tag but feels so underwhelmingly caretakerish. I’m feeling a whole lot of Andy Reid-esque “I need to put the guys in better position to win” post match pressers. Don’t forget with the unbalanced schedule we play our tougher opponents more on the road. Call em names if you want, but RBNY owned us. If they had any fans they’d chant “there’s no rivalry”. Expect bigger crowds from them. There’s blood in the water, we’re the ones cut.

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  17. PROJECTION: I think the Union are going to over perform their roster this year. On paper, they look young and having an unsettled midfield is never where I want to begin a year. Competition for places is a good thing but no go-to formation makes for missed assignments and lack of shape. On paper, I think we are 7th or 8th in the east but we’ll finish above that.

    On the other side, I expect NYRB to under perform the talent on their roster, in their annual tradition.

    I think we have a realistic chance of putting it all together and making the playoffs in the 4th or 5th seed.

    Houston, SKC, and DCU will distinguish themselves as the top contenders in the conference by midsummer. Chicago may be a nose ahead toward 4th, but with a lower ceiling – consistent but not a contender for the cup. Columbus, NYRB, Montreal, and Philly duke it out in the middle of the pack fighting to make the playoffs but all 4 have boom or bust potential this season and could be dangerous for stretches if they can put it together. That includes the playoffs where anything can happen.

    I am of the belief that NER and TOR are rebuilding projects that won’t contend this year.

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