By Ridge Mahoney
The New York teams finished one-two in the regular season, but the conference’s 2015 MLS Cup representative didn’t make the playoffs and the teams from Eastern Canada lit up the postseason.
Preseason Preview: Western Conference
For 2017, the landscape looks wide open. No teams have changed
head coaches though several are under pressure to rectify disappointments last season, and aggressive scouting and spending by expansion newcomer Atlanta United has jolted the league.
Listed in order of last year’s finish here is how the teams look as the SuperDraft was about to begin on Friday:
New York Red Bulls
MARSCH BACK IN TOWN. The day before the SuperDraft, head coach flew back from meeting Red Bull officials in Europe, supposedly to discuss his taking over as head coach of Red Bull Salzburg. Apparently not, at least not just yet.
In other news, centerback Aurelien Collin signed a new contract which should continue his recovery from a rough spell in Orlando. Thus does a strong spine running from back to front -- Luis Robles, Collin, Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips -- remain intact. The role players are good and the backups reasonably solid. All that remains is the resolve and perhaps a bit of luck to prevail in the playoffs because in MLS that’s really all that matters.
New York City FC
MIDFIELD REBUILD BEGINS. On Wednesday, Panamanian attacking midfielder Miguel Camargo joined NYCFC in a loan deal from Chorillo FC as the team reshapes a midfield shorn of Frank Lampard and four other players from last year.
Camargo scored 12 goals in 32 appearances last year on loan to a Venezuelan club, and got his first international goal against Chile at the Copa America Centenario. If he adapts, both playmaker Andrea Pirlo and striker David Villa are bound for productive seasons again. Still, there needs to be more resiliency to balance out Pirlo’s grace and vision, so an upgrade here is probable.
The only other additions of note so far are goalkeeper Sean Johnson and USL Player of the Year Sean Okoli, who moves east from FC Cincinnati. There’s not much reason, as yet, to think that a potent attack (62 goals) and leaky defense (57) will change significantly, except that the experience gained by many players and head coach Patrick Vieira in their first MLS seasons will produce more consistency.
BIG DREAMS AT BMO. Packed houses for the conference finals second leg and MLS Cup final lit up the city, only for a dreary disappointment to end the championship quest that had come so close.
Otherwise, TFC injected optimism and confidence into the fan base as well as the squad, so naturally anything less than a title is more cause for angst. When you play in front of big crowds in a big city with players making big money, the pressure is also big.
If replacements can be found for the backups who departed – Will Johnson and Mark Bloom, most notably – DPs Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley will enable a lot of victories. Yet give a nod to the work done by Greg Vanney and his staff; along with pushing along several academy products, they amassed a solid squad. The performances of Clint Irwin, Drew Moor, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour – all starters culled from other teams – were impressive enough, but what other team has transformed two former Chivas USA players – Marky Delgado, Eriq Zavaleta – into quality first-teamers?
So a lack of activity to this point isn’t cause for concern. Canada’s stumble in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying last October means those players currently in camp won’t be missing much league action.
FAREWELL TO RFK? Patrick Mullins and Luciano Acosta came through in crucial circumstances, which bodes well for 2017, especially if newcomer Jose Guillermo Ortiz finds the right niche for his talent and versatility. A new stadium is supposed to be ready sometime in 2018 so there’s sure to be a bit of nostalgia for this season at RFK.
Probably only Atlanta’s pursuit of Brad Guzan drew more offseason attention than United’s attempt to sign Ian Harkes to a Homegrown contract. As of Thursday no deal had been done, but if that process drags into the preseason head coach Ben Olsen and his staff will just have to plan for either eventuality; he signs or he doesn’t.
D.C. not only transformed Acosta’s loan into a transfer it retained rights to centerback Steve Birnbaum with a new contract. He figures to be busy with the national team, and so a reliable partner for Bobby Boswell would be nice. Kofi Opare and Sean Franklin are the current candidates but options abound in the draft as well as outside MLS.
One interesting subplot is Lloyd Sam, who arrived in July and racked up three goals and six assists in 13 games. Over a full season he could be a conduit to D.C. perhaps cracking the top two slots in the conference.
SONG REMAINS THE SAME. The nightmare of Ignacio Piatti leaving has yet to become reality and while the best stance in this situation is a variation of “you never know,” a third season in MLS is what Impact fans – and probably more than few around the league, if truth be told – are counting upon. Its painful to watch him tear up your team and a delight when he slices up everybody else.
The starters around him won’t be significantly different, except for the absence of Didier Drogba. One intriguing change will occur when Blerim Dzemaili arrives during the summer. Like midseason sensation Matteo Mancosu, he’ll arrive from Bologna and if he’s anything close to his predecessor in terms of quality and production, the Impact can improve on the fifth-place finish.
Still, a lot of pieces fell right in midfield and up front. In the back, Laurent Ciman and Co. regained their footing in the second half of the season, only to be blown open for seven goals by TFC in the conference finals. Don’t be surprised if one or two additions are made to push the starters and provide alternatives if goal leakage is a problem during the spring.
TAKING IT SLOW. Giliano Wijnaldum is the only significant signing to date; he’s a left back, as is Fabinho, and until preseason games begin – and a few more players come aboard – it’s hard to forecast what Philly can accomplish.
A lot of pieces have been moved around since the team hired former U.S. international Earnie Stewart as sporting director 15 months ago, and is seems that head coach Jim Curtin and technical director Chris Albright are confident in most of what they have. Still, a sixth-place finish indicates there are needs to be addressed; a solid player in each of the three positions would add depth and enable Curtin to avoid overuse of some personnel, which was an issue last year.
The Union did great in the SuperDraft last year by landing iron man Keegan Rosenberry along with centerback Joshua Yaro and midfielder Fabian Herbers. This time around it won’t have three of the first six picks and so a better measure of the coaching staff’s acumen will surface when the 2017 selections are evaluated in midseason.
But no doubt Stewart has helped transform a floundering club into one of real potential. In a dogfight conference the tests will be severe and constant.
New England Revolution
QUIET WINTER. An offseason of inactivity isn’t what Revs fans had in mind when playoff hopes evaporated down the stretch.
DP Xavier Kouassi is expected go full-throttle after missing the entire 2016 season injured, and a strong finish to 2016 by Juan Agudelo has brightened the outlook somewhat. But the failure – so far -- to re-sign Gershon Koffie – is a concern, as is the return of midfielder Daigo Kobayashi at the apparent expense of needs elsewhere.
Speaking of elsewhere is that where one of those many offensive-minded midfielders ends up? And if Agudelo keeps his spot up top what is to be done with Kei Kamara? One other player to watch; keeper Cody Cropper. The incumbent, Bobby Shuttleworth, is capable but not among the league’s elite.
KREIS-V-KAKA? Can a tough-minded head coach and gifted Brazilian star make it all sunny in Florida?
Kaka says he’s leaving the team at the end of the 2017 season; does this help or hinder the work of Jason Kreis to guide the 2015 expansion team into the playoffs? Team founder Phil Rawlins has retreated into the shadows to let principal owner Flavio Augusto Da Silva to run the show, and a stronger Brazilian influence might not jibe with what Kreis has in mind.
Left-sided Brazilian Victor “PC” Giro comes to Orlando after splitting the 2016 NASL season with Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Bay. That’s where Brek Shea likes to roam. PC scored nine NASL goals the past two seasons while playing a variety of positions on the flank.
Cyle Larin scored 14 goals in his second MLS season and former USL star Kevin Molino bagged 11 after missing most of 2015 injured. Kaka scored nine goals and led the team with 10 assists. Offense is not the problem. Many teams conceded more than 50 goals, only the Lions allowed 60. Defender Jose Aja played 10 games after arriving in late July and could be a reliable rock if he stays healthy, but Kreis must infuse communication and coordination into this unit.
ALL CHANGE. A steep drop from 2015 MLS Cup finalist to ninth-place disappointment triggered the signing of a World Cup veteran to replace the team captain, and a few more significant moves.
Two-time World Cup veteran Jonathan Mensah takes over for Michael Parkhurst, now one of the building blocks for Atlanta. Crew SC also brought back Josh Williams, who played his first five pro seasons in Columbus (2010-14) and comes back via the Re-Entry Draft after two years with Toronto FC. Homegrown signing Alex Crognale and returnee Nicolai Naess make up a quartet of centerbacks who will protect a keeper other than Steve Clark, unless he negotiates a new deal after the club declined his option. The 2015 and 2016 seasons were very different in many regards but not in goals allowed: 53 and 58, respectively, are too many.
The role of goalscorer is ably filled by Ola Kamara, though by netting 16 in his first MLS season he did draw some foreign interest, so options should be auditioned as Adam Jahn (five goals in 12 games after arriving via trade from San Jose) sharpens his game. The flanks are well covered by Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram, Harrison Afful is a bad-ass right back, and after an injury-marred season Federico Higuain (four goals and three assists in 20 games) stays on as playmaker. He turns 33 at the end of the regular season.
SIGNS OF LIFE. Juninho? In Chicago? If this is truly a long-term move and not just a stopover en route to L.A., it’s another positive sign for an organization mired in the negative for the past few seasons.
As a conduit between defense and attack, he’s been one of the better performers in MLS during the past decade and at 27 is the prime of his career. He’s arrived on loan from Tijuana and knows well the ways of MLS. He and Arturo Alvarez (nine assists) could be a lot of fun to watch as they unhinge defenses.
Sexy new DP Nemanja Nikolic addresses the need for goals, of which Chicago scored only 42 last year, led by David Accam (9) and Michael De Leeuw (7). In goal, the Sean Johnson Era is over, and to supplement Matt Lampson, the Fire signed 35-year-old Uruguayan Jorge Bava. We shall see.
Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent started a combined 54 games last year, a hefty total for a pair of back-line rookies. They should be much more stable this season.
LET’S GET IT GOING. So much buzz about this team, from its luring of head coach Tata Martino to grabbing MLS veterans -- Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, Jacob Peterson, Zach Loyd -- to signing big-name DPs -- Miguel Almiron, Kenwyne Jones -- as well as a young loanee announced Wednesday: Yamil Asad from Velez Sarsfield.