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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.