MLS

2014 Eastern Conference preview

Featured photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference could be better this year than it has ever been.

As the talent level rises overall throughout MLS, it has disproportionately increased in the East this year. Toronto has staked its claim to be a superclub by bringing in Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and a host of quality MLS veterans. D.C. United has revamped most of its starting lineup. And Philadelphia Union surprised many by opening its pocketbook to smartly remake its midfield and acquire center back Austin Berry from Chicago in a steal of a trade.

Meanwhile, the top teams haven’t lost much. MLS Cup champs Sporting Kansas City could be to be even better this year. Their only key loss, goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, looks set to be adequately replaced by hometown boy Andy Gruenebaum, while playmaker Benny Feilhaber will try to capitalize on a memorable close to last season to catapult himself into the World Cup picture. New England’s young attackers have another year of experience under their belts, while New York returns most of the pieces of its Supporters Shield squad from last year.

Add to that an always competitive Houston squad and the Mike Magee Show in Chicago, and there will be few easy matches this year in the Eastern Conference.

Here’s a look at how it might all shake out.

Ike Opara and Conor Casey will go at it again this year. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

Ike Opara and Conor Casey will go at it again this year. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

1. Sporting Kansas City

Kansas City should be better than they were last year, when they won the MLS Cup. Nearly every starter returns. The back line is the league’s best. In goal, Kansas City has a capable replacement for the retired Jimmy Nielsen in Andy Gruenebaum.

An improved midfield could be one of the league’s best as well. Benny Feilhaber finally came into his own as the team’s central playmaker during the playoffs, and if he maintains that form during the regular season, he could finally reach the potential observers have always seen in him. Add the underrated Sal Zizzo as a potential upgrade out wide over Jacob Peterson, and an already good midfield led by Graham Zusi and Ori Rosell is even deeper.

For Kansas City, the only thing preventing a repeat should be injuries or a lack of adequate finishing from the forward position. They have plenty of quality players there — Dom Dwyer, Soony Saad, C.J. Sapong and Claudio Bieler — but if they don’t finish adequately, it won’t matter.

Player to watch: Benny Feilhaber. After a full season of Kansas City fitness work, he came into his own in the playoffs. He looks set for a grand second act of his career.

Unanswered question: Will Kansas City’s forwards improve their finishing?

How the Union match up: They could have problems on the left side. They can’t risk Fabinho’s defensive liabilities against Chance Myers and Graham Zusi, so Ray Gaddis will start these games, provided Sheanon Williams is healthy to start on the right. But Gaddis’s weak left foot unbalances the attack and lets KC defenders cheat.

2. New England

New England boasts a dynamic group of attacking midfielders and a back line among the conference’s best, led by 2013 Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves. The arrival of Daigo Kobayashi adds yet another fascinating wrinkle to a midfield that already includes a pair of highlight reel playmakers in Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe, along with teen starlet Diego Fagundez.

Defending Lee Nguyen  is key to stopping New England. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

Defending Lee Nguyen is key to stopping New England. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

But they have questions up top and at the back. Matt Reis has retired. Bobby Shuttleworth and former Union man Brad Knighton are both decent goalkeepers, but neither has yet proved up to the task of locking down a starting job in MLS. One of them has to take the next step if this team is to win the conference.

Perhaps more importantly, someone must score the goals. Jerry Bengston nets plenty for the Honduras national team but seems a square hole in a round peg for the Revs, while Charlie Davies looks like he’ll never approach the quality he showed before that car accident years ago. Teal Bunbury, who the Revs acquired in a trade in February, could be the difference between the Revs winning the conference and missing the playoffs.

Player to watch: Teal Bunbury. Someone has to fill the center forward role and score goals. If he can play as well as he did when he earned his first national team caps, then this is a dangerous team.

Unanswered question: How will Goncalves’ contract dispute affect his on-field performance?

How the Union match up: The Revs can throw a host of attacking midfield options at a team in a style that few teams do. But the Union’s center midfielders can add a lot of support to the back line. Is it enough to neutralize them?

3. Philadelphia
Mo-town Philly's back again. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

Mo-town Philly’s back again. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

The Union made some big moves this offseason and went from a team in trouble to a team with major expectations. The additions of Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, Chaco Maidana and Austin Berry could make this team a winner. Their midfield has gone from one of the conference’s worst to potentially one of its best. The forward corps remains very good. Their center backs should be strong for years to come (if they can retain Amobi Okugo). And they finally have some depth.

But this team won’t mesh immediately. Union manager John Hackworth still has to see how the pieces best fit together. Nogueira could be the engine that makes it all run, but he’s also not a true No. 10 playmaker. How he fits into the team will determine a lot of what they can do. Maidana has shown some creative spark and has played both centrally and on the wing in the past, so if Nogueira isn’t a creator, Maidana could be the No. 10 they need. Either way, by season’s end, this could be one of the league’s best teams. They won’t win a Supporters Shield because it takes time for new teammates to gel, and goalkeeper and left back remain the weak links. That said, the Union could be a legitimate title contender come playoff time.

Player to watch: Vincent Nogueira. He looks like a great signing, but he’s not a true playmaking No. 10. His tendency to sit deeper and roam the field could lead the Union to play him and Edu as a flat center midfield pair with Conor Casey as the target man in a 4-4-1-1, or they could move Maidana centrally and try to figure out the left flank all over again.

Unanswered question: How long will it take for the midfield to mesh, and will a creative playmaker emerge from among their new acquisitions?

How the Union match up: Union intrasquad matches are awesome.

4. New York

New York won the Supporters Shield, crashed out of the playoffs early after an inexplicable Jamison Olave red card, and then did little in the offseason to improve. Richard Eckersley at right back? A nice addition. Bobby Convey? Also solid if he can lock down a starting role. But where is the upgrade at forward to pair with Thierry Henry? How about the adequate center back partner to Olave? Can Peguy Luyindula adequately fill a playmaker role after failing to produce as a forward this year? There is something to be said for consistency, but there were holes on this team that haven’t adequately been filled.

Philly native Bobby Convey was one of the few offseason additions for New York. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Philly native Bobby Convey was one of the few offseason additions for New York. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Still, this is a good team. Thierry Henry remains Thierry Henry. Tim Cahill had a monster year, and Dax McCarty is solid beside him in center midfield. This team needs something more though. A high-priced designated player will probably arrive midseason to change the dynamic as a playmaker, which is why New York is talking up Luyindula in the role. If no big name arrives, this team will find that relying on Cahill and Henry won’t be enough to repeat as conference champs.

Player to watch: Jamison Olave. If he gets hurt again, there’s no depth. They’ll leak goals like a sieve.

Unanswered question: Where is the forward depth behind Thierry Henry? Heck, where is it beside him? Bradley Wright-Phillips? Really?

How the Union match up: Fairly well. McInerney is quicker than the center backs who will mark him. The Red Bulls’ attacking thrust is stronger down the left side, where the Union are better defensively (provided Sebastien Le Toux starts over Danny Cruz). Maurice Edu adds defensive coverage to the central gap that Tim Cahill likes to exploit.

Photo By Earl Gardner

Jonathan Osorio will try to bury some arrows in the Union again this year. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

5. Toronto

Everyone knows about the arrivals of Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar. Add a a pair of Brazilians in striker Gilberto and right midfielder Jackson, left back Justin Morrow, and former MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario, and you’ll see this team can be hugely improved. Bradley can control the pace of a game like nobody else in MLS. The key elements of a good team are there.

What’s missing is a strong defensive spine. Steven Caldwell is a decent center back, but he is no all-star. More significantly, 20-year-old Doneil Henry is set to start beside him, and if you saw Henry play last year, you may remember how Danny Cruz and the Union abused him. Henry looked improved this preseason, but he has yet to show he is a legitimate MLS starter. The trade of Matias Laba to Vancouver removed the defensive shield that could have protected this central pairing. The fullbacks should be OK, but this central vulnerability will likely drop Toronto down the table unless Cesar shows he is still world class, and based on his play at Queens Parks Rangers, he is probably not.

Player to watch: Dwayne De Rosario. How does he fit in? If Toronto can find a way to shoehorn him into a starting lineup that also includes Bradley, Defoe, and Gilberto, this will be an extraordinarily fun team to watch.

Unanswered question: Will Henry or someone else emerge as a solid starting center back?

How the Union match up: Fairly evenly on paper, but Toronto has some wild cards — notably De Rosario — that can change everything.

6. Houston

Houston looked like they had all the pieces last year. Then Will Bruin had trouble finishing, and the center backs started leaking goals. (Andre Hainault was definitely missed.) Oscar Boniek Garcia missed too many games. And so on.

Houston has left Philadelphia behind in the Union's short MLS tenure. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Houston has left Philadelphia behind in the Union’s short MLS tenure. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

The Dynamo have most of the same pieces this year. If they can mesh and Bruin (or a rejuvenated Omar Cummings) can find the net regularly, this team could do great things. In Boniek, Brad Davis, Giles Barnes and Andrew Driver, they have a quality group of attacking midfielders. In Rico Clark and Warren Creavalle (if Creavalle can get healthy), they have solid midfield shields for the back line. Fullbacks Kofi Sarkodie and Corey Ashe add a ton to the attack.

Everything depends upon the finishing and the prevention of that on the other end by a center back corps that has a lot to prove this year. Bobby Boswell is gone, and Jermaine Taylor is simply a decent center back and nothing more. Eric Brunner and David Horst have a lot to prove in the spot next to Taylor. Teams don’t win with weaknesses at center back.

Player to watch: Will Bruin. He had trouble finishing last season. That can’t happen again, particularly considering Houston’s smallish home field is specifically designed to bolster an attack dependent upon a prolific target forward.

Unanswered question: Who scores the goals if Will Bruin doesn’t?

How the Union match up: Potentially fun matchup. Two teams with attacking fullbacks on both flanks and who will alternate between a 4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1 with a bruising target forward.

7. D.C. United

Last year’s disaster yielded this year’s makeover, and United should be a far better team in 2014. The question is when in 2014. United will likely feature seven new starters, including an entirely remade back line and forward tandem. You can’t bring in this many new players and expect them to gel right away. Much like Philadelphia, this team will probably be better later in the season than at the outset.

Photo By Earl Gardner

Despite all the new additions, Chris Pontius must stay healthy for United to succeed. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

Still, it’s the players who remain that are the big question marks. Even with the new additions, so much depends on Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon on the midfield flanks. If Pontius can stay healthy, he has national team quality. Naturally, he’s already nursing a hamstring injury that may sideline him at the season’s start. As for DeLeon, he has to prove that he has the discipline to stay fit and match his rookie year performance. Luis Silva is a wild card here. If he can play well enough to force his way into the starting lineup, he adds another weapon to compliment Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola up top, and that could be what’s needed to make the playoffs in a deep Eastern Conference.

Player to watch: Chris Pontius. He’s already hurt. If he can’t get and stay fit, this team can’t make the playoffs.

Unanswered question: Will Nick DeLeon be fit or fat this year?

How the Union match up: Who cares? It will be fun. There will be fights and cards. And one of the league’s best but overlooked rivalries will be as nasty as ever.

8. Chicago

Mike Magee may have to carry this team again. The back line looks worse than last year, with downgrades at right back and probably center back too, unless Bakary Soumare improves after a full season free of injury. The wide midfielders are decent, but Chicago still has no proven central midfield creator. Magee’s compliment at striker, Juan Luis Anangono, has yet to score regularly in MLS. And it’s still not clear where Chris Rolfe fits into this squad. Ideally, he’d be the creator, but that’s not his forte. Rookie Harrison Shipp could step up, but it’s tough to depend on rookies for anything in MLS, as you never know what you’ll get in the transition from college.

Chicago may have taken a step back by trading Austin Berry to Philadelphia. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Chicago may have taken a step back by trading Austin Berry to Philadelphia. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

But … but … they have Mike Magee. And he’s … Mike Magee. Let’s be honest. Is there anything you think Magee couldn’t do? Scale tall buildings? Stop a silver bullet? Play goalkeeper? This year, every Chicago opponent will key on Magee. Will it matter? If no one else shows they can score, then yes it will. The conference has improved vastly, and Chicago has not kept pace.

Player to watch: Mike Magee. This team isn’t good enough to win regularly unless Magee has another MVP season. The thing is, he just could do it.

Unanswered question: Will defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz adequately shield the back line alone when he has always played best in a 4-2-3-1?

How the Union match up: If they can mark Magee, they match up very well. Right back Lovel Palmer’s minimal attacking from the right flank means Fabinho can start and pressure Chicago in the other direction.

9. Montreal

Montreal’s entire season depends upon a player who will turn 38 years old this season. That isn’t a good sign. As good as Marco Di Vaio has been for Montreal, injuries and time eventually catch up. Montreal doesn’t have another proven goal-scorer on the team. If Di Vaio gets hurt, who will score the goals?

Could this be the year former top draft pick Andrew Wenger breaks out? (Photo: Michael Long)

Could this be the year former top draft pick Andrew Wenger breaks out? (Photo: Michael Long)

Otherwise, a fairly solid midfield is backed by a questionable defense. If trialist Heath Pearce signs and can return to form, that will answer many questions. But if he doesn’t, this back line doesn’t have four proven quality starters. Matteo Ferrari wasn’t as good last year as one might think the Italian center back should have been, and with the retirement of Alessandro Nesta, it’s unclear if there’s a solid replacement beside him.

Player to watch: Andrew Wenger. Marco Di Vaio can’t score every goal, can he? At some point, Wenger needs to get a chance to step up or move on.

Unanswered question: Will Hernan Bernandello and Patrice Bernier be redundant again as holding midfielders, or will they figure each other out?

How the Union match up: It all depends on Di Vaio. He owned the Union last year. If they can mark him, the Union should be able to focus on abusing Montreal’s back line.

10. Columbus

Columbus needed an overhaul, and they got one. But are they better? Eddie Gaven’s retirement hurts a lot. The back line lacks size, and Columbus will be vulnerable on set pieces. The wide players don’t scare many. Forwards Dominic Oduro and Jairo Arrieta have yet to show they can consistently score in MLS for more than one season in a row before teams figure them out.

Sebastien Le Toux and the Union smoked Columbus last year, and it could be another rough year for the rebuilding Crew. (Photo: Michael Long)

Sebastien Le Toux and the Union smoked Columbus last year, and it could be another rough year for the rebuilding Crew. (Photo: Michael Long)

But like Chicago, they have one great player. Federico Higuain is the conference’s best playmaker. He makes everyone around him better. But if Oduro, Arrieta and company don’t hit the net, it won’t mean much. Further, this team has little attacking depth. New coach Gregg Berhalter has been open about this being a rebuilding season, and that is probably what fans will get.

Player to watch: Steve Clark. Berhalter saw enough of the American goalkeeper in Norway to feel confident signing him. If Clark plays as well as advertised, he could save Columbus a lot of points and put himself in the conversation for the national team in the years ahead.

Unanswered question: How well will they defend set pieces when they start only start one player over six feet tall?

How the Union match up: The Union should dominate set pieces against Columbus, who don’t have the size or leaping ability to adequately mark Austin Berry, Amobi Okugo, Conor Casey, and Maurice Edu in the box.

13 Comments

  1. May it be so. I think Mike Bradley is going to do enough to make Toronto finish higher than five, but we’ll see.

  2. Interesting piece DW, this may seem like cherry picking, but where do you see the difference between:
    “Unanswered question: Where is the forward depth behind Thierry Henry? Heck, where is it beside him? Bradley Wright-Phillips? Really?”
    and this on the Union – ” The forward corps remains very good. ”
    I’m not sure our forward corps is as solid. Jack/Casey and a big dropoff to Hopp/Wheeler.
    I think the U have a better season, are a better technical team, but fall just short.Slot them in 6th and move HOU and the others up one.

    • I wouldn’t say a big drop off to Hoppenot and Wheeler. Hoppenot can definitely finish and if the midfield can spring him on a run, he can be very dangerous, especially coming off the bench in the 60th-70th minute.

      • scottymac says:

        Henry/Luyindula/Wright-Phillips is a significantly more accomplished group of forwards than Jack/Casey/Hopp. If you want to argue Wheeler is > than Akpan, sure,ok. Whether its Luyindula or BW-P, either is better than Hopp. Not trying to run Hopp down, but objectively their FWD group, while as thin as ours, is better. Could they have injury concerns? Sure, same as the U with Casey (last year was a personal best in games played btw). I was hoping Clesio would show something and make the team as another FWD (at Keon’s expense). If you’re going to say we’ll get goals from the MFers, RBNY rely on that Tim Cahill guy, who is pretty great. Which is why I don’t think we finish above them. If they are in need of another player, they’ll buy one in the summer.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Luyindula may have a more accomplished career, but he showed last year he could not finish in MLS. Wright-Phillips could be good, but he’s never scored regularly above League 1. You’re comparing those guys to Hoppenot, but you should be comparing them to Casey.

        As for Henry … obviously. He’s Thierry Henry.

      • Scottymac says:

        Two months in, BWP has 5 goals, our ENTIRE corp of forwards has 6. Too thin at forward.

      • Last year in MLS Hoppenot was more accomplished than either of them. I’m not saying he is objectively better but if you factor numbers into determining who is objectively better you can’t say that those two guys are objectively better than Hoppenot

      • Scottymac says:

        Kyle, I was using numbers (objectively I thought) to say Hopp isn’t as accomplished. BWP played 7 games in MLS with a goal and assist. Hopp was in 30/3/2. Luyindola scored once with 7 assists in 8 less matches, that’s more production in MLS. PLs Ligue1 experience is more accomplished than Casey. My point is RBNY had 16 more goals/16 assists than the U, I just don’t see them dropping off under Petke,e ven as much as we want it to happen. Yes, they’re thin,though considering how forward Cahill plays I’m not sure about it. Casey is already out injured. My initial point was just I don’t think we’re so deep up front to score enough to be third. Better for sure, but not jumping past other teams. I expect a lot of 0-0,1-1 results.

      • “RBNY had 16 more goals/16 assists than the U…” They were a better team, and MUCH better in the midfield, so obviously their numbers will be better. If the Union had a better midfield they may have scored 7, 8, 10 maybe 16 more goals, which would make Hop’s, Casey’s and Jack’s numbers better. I know it’s hypothetical, but the numbers don’t always tell the entire story.

  3. Something else to keep in mind, SKC is participating in the CCL right now, and has quarterfinal matches to contend with this month, with perhaps semis and a final to play as well. That might impact the early portion of their season.
    .
    I can’t determine when the 2014-15 edition of the CCL takes place, but so far SKC, DCU, and RBNY are definitely participating, with a good chance that either TFC or Montreal (if they win the Canadian Championship) are in it as well. This could potentially bode well for the Union later this season.

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