Commentary

MLS: 2015 Eastern Conference Preview

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

The departures of Houston and Sporting Kansas City to the Western Conference give MLS two expansion teams, in this case, Orlando City SC and New York City FC, arriving in the same season -- and in the same grouping -- since Portland and Vancouver joined as Western teams in 2011.

Big names abound: Kaka, Frank Lampard, David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Shaun Maloney head the incoming foreign brigade, and the New York derbies between the Red Bulls and NYCFC will feature USA internationals Mix Diskerud and Sacha Kljestan going head-to-head.

Six teams in each conference make the playoffs and just about every Eastern team has a shot. Here’s a forecast of how the teams stack up as the league’s 20th season, hopefully, is about to start.

1. NEW ENGLAND. Steady improvement in three seasons under head coach Jay Heaps fell agonizingly short of a title in the MLS Cup final, and thus the Revs should be anxious to atone. The loss of centerback A.J. Soares, named the team’s Defender of the Year and Players’ Player, has moved Andrew Farrell from right back into the middle alongside Jose Goncalves, who like his teammates struggled during an eight-game losing streak but finished the season in excellent form. An already potent attack has added Juan Agudelo, and Diego Fagundez has looked sharp in preseason as he tries to bounce back from a lackluster 2014. Heaps will need to monitor minutes closely for Jermaine Jones and Lee Nguyen and a few other players during a summer crammed with competitions for club and country.

2. COLUMBUS. In the first year of his first MLS head-coaching gig, Gregg Berhalter steered Crew SC in the right direction. Can he and it stay the course in the wake of a 7-3 aggregate playoff thrashing by New England? Four players who started 10 or more games were traded or lost in the Expansion Draft, but a tough core returns. Steve Clark, Ethan Finlay, Waylon Francis, Justin Meram, Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp all proved their worth last year, and Kei Kamara comes back to MLS at 30 with 52 league goals on his ledger. Kristinn Steindorsson and Cedrick Mabwati (summer arrival) are wide midfielders and Hernan Grana is penciled in at right back. Chris Klute was a revelation for the Rapids two years ago.

3. D.C. UNITED. What could be worse than a playoff loss to the Red Bulls? Answer: Stumbling against that rival after an historic 43-point turnaround that snagged an Eastern Conference title. Last year United was fairly solid in all departments, and also got a few breaks, such as the remarkable showing of rookie Steve Birnbaum after an injury ended the season for centerback Jeff Parke, who departed during the winter. To upgrade his roster, Coach of the Year Ben Olsen has signed Finnish midfielder Markus Halsti to bolster the middle and ex-Crew SC forward Jairo Arrieta to add punch up front, and drafted winger Miguel Aguilar. If Bill Hamid and Perry Kitchen miss significant time to play for the U.S., United will need reliable reinforcements.

4. ORLANDO CITY. Kaka is one of the league’s top signings in recent years and demonstrates that OCSC is perhaps following a formula similar to that of Seattle in 2009 when it made the jump to MLS: retain a core of USL players and sign as much talent as possible. Brek Shea is among the league’s more intriguing reclamation projects, defender Aurelien Collin and midfielder Amobi Okugo are proven at this level, and forward Bryan Rochez is another of those young foreign players (in his case, a 20-year-old Honduran) eager to use MLS as a launching pad. Keepers Donovan Ricketts and Tally Hall buttress a roster that gives head coach Adrian Heath a lot to work with.

5. NEW YORK CITY. The players and fans may learn to love Yankee Stadium, and that’s a good thing, since it’s likely that will be this team’s home for this decade. Regardless of circumstance or environment, it would behoove NYCFC to win early, since the backlash of Lampard’s midseason arrival will roil the organization yet again. By then, Villa and Diskerud could be tearing up MLS. The midfield blend, keyed -- at least initially -- by Andrew Jacobson and Ned Grabavoy, will be essential if the attackers are to thrive. Thomas McNamara has skills highly prized by head coach Jason Kreis, who won’t hesitate to make changes if necessary. Keeper Josh Saunders has a short resume as a starter in MLS (59 starts in nine seasons) and there doesn’t appear, as yet, to be sufficient quality at centerback.

6. TORONTO FC. Of all the puzzling teams in MLS, TFC is the most enigmatic, the epitome of spending a lot but not too wisely. The big gamble is the Sporadic Striker, a.k.a Jozy Altidore, yet Italian international Giovinco just might be the perfect melding of busyness and brio. On his good days, French midfielder Benoit Cheyrou can play with anyone. TFC needs about two dozen of those days from him as well as Altidore. The MLS retread crew of Marco Delgado, Robbie Findley and Eric Zavaleta isn’t very inspiring, but the prospect of Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio meshing with Cheyrou and Giovinco certainly is. Why did TFC give up allocation money to get back Daniel Lovitz from NYCFC? Maybe this year we’ll find out.

7. NY RED BULLS. Through no fault of his own, head coach Jesse Marsch is the ogre who replaced Mike Petke, so he and the overseer of that change -- sporting director Ali Curtis – have miles of goodwill ground to make up. Also gone are Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill and Jamison Olave, men of both quality and MLS experience. Kljestan returns to the league after five years with Anderlecht and at 29 is primed for several dominant seasons but just as important is how well Marsch utilizes veterans such as Sal Zizzo and Felipe Martins along with newcomer Ronald Zubar. Keeper Luis Robles will be tested as NYRB refines and tweaks its new elements. Now with his 11th club, can forward Mike Grella find success?

8. MONTREAL. Knocking off Pachuca in the Concacaf Champions League is an historic feat that counts for nothing in the league standings yet it injected a badly needed dose of confidence. A rough first year under head coach Frank Klopas did include advancement out of the CCL group stage, and for Season 2 he’s added an eclectic array. Belgian centerback Laurent Ciman has been impressive in preseason, and there’s a long line of intra-MLS additions that give the team a completely different persona from 2014: Nigel Reo-Coker, Eric Alexander, Bakary Soumare, Dominic Oduro and Danny Toia have all shown flashes of excellence along with stints of struggle. What will the team look like once the glow from Cameron Porter’s incredible stoppage-time strike fades away?

9. PHILADELPHIA. The team with too many goalies in 2014 has decided to go with the guy whose errant kick to an opponent produced a tying goal that cost the Union two points. Rais M’Bolhi wasn’t the only reason Philly stumbled down the stretch and missed postseason play, but he’ll be the center of attention if things start poorly in 2015. Philly is putting a lot of faith in loanees: forward Fernando Aristeguieta showed some goalscoring flair in preseason, and centerback Steven Vitoria is the centerpiece of a back line that is crying out for some stability. The addition of C.J. Sapong gives him a fresh start. A team with Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana, Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux is playoff-caliber, right?

10. CHICAGO. The Fire has jettisoned more than a dozen players from the squad that set a league record last year by tying 18 games. Guess what? The preseason record was 1-0-4. Mike Magee is still recovering from offseason hip surgery and new DP David Accam missed part of preseason because of groin problems, so the other DPs -- forward Kennedy Igboananike and midfielder Maloney -- along with returnees Jeff Larentowicz and Quincy Amarikwa will be under pressure to start the season strongly. Centerback Adailton is part of a rebuilt back line that needs to support Maloney and one of last season’s top rookies, Harry Shipp, if the Fire is going to improve its 2014 goal difference of minus-10 and get more than six wins.
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