Commentary

MLS Eastern Conference preview

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

As the third decade of play in MLS commences, in the battle between conferences Eastern teams are playing catchup.

Not since Columbus captured the 2008 title has a current Eastern team lifted the MLS Cup. Three times in the past decade a former Eastern team now in the Western half of the league went all the way: Houston in 2006 and 2007 and Sporting Kansas City in 2013.

Despite winning their second Supporters’ Shield in the last three seasons. the New York Red Bulls stumbled in the playoffs. Crew SC collapsed at home in the championship game. New England, which lost the 2014 final to the Galaxy in overtime, is anxious to bounce back.

Here’s how the 10 Eastern Conference teams line up as they set sail on the 2016 voyage:
 
1. COLUMBUS. In the new era of TAM, teams may be too quick to acquire new players rather than reward their proven contributors, but not so Crew SC.

Upgraded to a Designated Player contract is striker Kei Kamara, who takes his place alongside playmaker Gonzalo Higuain on the club’s DP list. Kamara netted 22 goals during the regular season, and tacked on four more in a playoff run that took the Crew to its second MLS Cup final appearance.

Kamara scored three goals in Crew SC’s four preseason games at the Desert Diamond Cup, during which it failed to beat any MLS foes. It also didn’t pitch any shutouts, which has to be a concern after it conceded 53 goals last year and after falling behind, 2-0, at home early in the 2015 MLS Cup final couldn’t catch up.

The late-season addition of defender Gaston Sauro certainly tightened up the back line and Crew SC needs a long run of solid games from him alongside Michael Parkhurst to challenge for the regular-season conference title.

Columbus changed very little during the offseason and with the success of 2015 under the belts of its younger players -- Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani, Ethan Finlay, Mohammed Saied, Cedric Mabwati -- it can again go deep in the playoffs.

MLS 2016: Rosters
WEEK 1: Schedule
 
2. NY RED BULLS. At the team’s Media Day this week head coach Jesse Marsch said the days of sticking to the same lineup are done. Seven players started at least 27 games and that number doesn’t include defender Matt Miazga, who played so well in the second half of the season he debuted for the U.S. national team and signed a transfer deal with Chelsea.

While winning the Supporters’ Shield last year (18-10-6 record) and posting the best goal difference (19) the Red Bulls secured a spot in the Concacaf Champions League, which will add four group games to its standard commitments of 34 league matches and the U.S. Open Cup.

“We know the players believe that this is a necessary process for us to have success this year in all three competitions,” Marsch said. “We don't want to be, come October, feel like guys' legs are heavy and it's been a long season and we want them to be fresh and ready to go and sharp and healthy at the most important time of the year.”

The Red Bulls may also need to vary their tempo on both sides of the ball. They tend to attack at pace and play high pressure to win the ball back. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan logged eight goals and 14 assists in his return season, and he can orchestrate buildups to complement speed threats Bradley Wright-Phillips (17 goals, 7 assists) and Lloyd Sam (10 goals, 7 assists). It might behoove Marsch to occasionally rest Dax McCarty, who started in all 39 of his appearances, including playoffs and the Open Cup.

Midseason DP signing Gonzalo Veron (one goal and one assist in 13 games) could be a key member of a more varied NYRB attack. Ghanaian defender Gideon Baah has the inside track to claim Miazga’s spot but there are several candidates.
 
3. TORONTO FC. Defensive upgrades shaped the offseason for TFC, one of three teams to co-lead the league by conceding 58 goals. It acquired Will Johnson to buttress central midfield in front of a rearguard strengthened by the acquisitions of Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour and Clint Irwin.

There’s more than a strengthened defense in play. In that quartet of players are 30 years of MLS experience, which should mitigate the errors and mistakes that produced a .500 record (15-15-4) despite the attacking exploits of MVP Sebastian Giovinco (22 goals, 16 assists), striker Jozy Altidore (13 goals), and midfielder Michael Bradley (5 goals, 6 assists).

TFC started off preseason by beating the Galaxy but failed to beat MLS opposition the rest of the way. Head coach Greg Vanney didn’t push his prime players and worked diligently to instill the defensive resiliency and consistency his team lacked at crucial times.

As it did last year, TFC will start the season with eight road games. By the time it plays at a larger, renovated BMO Field May 7, its fans will have a good idea of whether this year’s version is leaner and meaner and no so reliant on its DPs and other veterans such as midfield linchpin Benoit Cheyrou.
 
4. D.C. UNITED. Squandered chances in the first leg and the shock of conceding an early goal at home (as was well as a wasted penalty kick) ushered United out of the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals via a 3-1 aggregate against Queretaro.

Burrowing below the disappointing result uncovers a few promising elements. Newcomer Luciano Acosta offers the guile and quickness that can break open MLS defenses. The pace of winger Patrick Nyarko -- who won a penalty kick that Chris Rolfe failed to convert – as well as that of Lamar Neagle helps address a need for speed. There are increased midfield options in veteran Marcelo Sarvas, USL graduate Rob Vincent and Generation Adidas signing Julian Buescher, whose rocket of a shot into the Queretaro net lifted the mood somewhat at RFK.

On the downside, the prospect of missing Bill Hamid (knee surgery) for at least the first half of the season is troubling, as is the glaring hole left by the departure of midfielder Perry Kitchen, whose long search for a European club finally ended in Scotland with Hearts. Sarvas, et al can take up Kitchen’s spot, but Andrew Dykstra, though capable, is no Hamid.
 
5. MONTREAL. After the wild roller-coaster ride that was 2015, the Impact’s route for this season looks rather normal. No long preseason trips to Mexico in preparation of the Concacaf Champions League and the presence of Didier Drogba from the start (at least on grass) provides a much more stable foundation, though the midfield has changed.

Montreal acquired Harry Shipp in a trade with Chicago and signed Lucas Ontivero on loan from Galatasaray to replace Dilly Duka and Justin Mapp, whose contracts were allowed to expire. Shipp struck up a potent partnership with Dominic Oduro in preseason; he set up two goals for Oduro in a 4-1 defeat of D.C. United and they clicked again for a goal that earned a 1-1 tie with Toronto, which the Impact had thrashed, 3-0, in the knockout round in last year’s playoffs.

Over-dependence on Drogba is a concern after he lit up MLS with 11 goals in as many regular-season games and scored another in the playoffs, but he’s not the only weapon. Ignacio Piatti (nine goals, eight assists) is reliable and Oduro (eight goals), though streaky, is a pest whether he plays up top or out wide.

Centerback Laurent Ciman captured Defender of the Year honors in his inaugural MLS season and with more consistent performances along the back line Montreal can perhaps push higher in the standings. But it will need alternatives for the times Drogba is stifled or too fatigued to hit top gear.
 
6. NEW ENGLAND. Lady Luck showed her dark side just a few days into preseason when newly acquired midfielder Xavier Kouassi, signed as a Designated Player, suffered a torn ACL in his right knee. He had been penciled in as a replacement for Jermaine Jones but instead will be sidelined at least until August. He could miss the entire season.

Kouassi’s injury prompted a trade with Vancouver to acquire Gerson Koffie, 24. He will provide cover for holding mid Scott Caldwell, whose solid play the past two seasons has been rewarded with a new contract. Caldwell turns 25 this month, so if the Revs aren’t better without Jones, they are certainly younger in that position.

Elsewhere, the Revs are pretty much the same as they were last season, yet in its second year the centerback partnership of Jose Goncalves and Andrew Farrell, moved into the middle from right back, is expected to improve. They started 26 games together in 2015 and given the Revs’ penchant to attack with abandon, their reactions to counters and long balls over the top are essential to success.

By scoring three preseason goals as New England rolled to the Desert Diamond Cup crown, Teal Bunbury edged into the picture alongside Charlie Davies and Juan Agudelo among target strikers. The attacking ranks are already overcrowded, and while depth is a great thing, for the right offer head coach Jay Heaps might choose to transfer or trade one of his offensive weapons.
 
7. ORLANDO CITY. The team’s biggest offseason signing, midfielder Antonio Nocerino, as of Thursday had yet to arrive in the U.S. to formally complete his transfer from AC Milan. So head coach Adrian Heath could only speak of him in generalities rather than specifics, but the benefits of re-uniting a 30-year-old Italian international with former Milan teammate Kaka didn’t need to be detailed.

“He can play virtually anywhere across the midfield and that’s what he’s done,” said Heath. “He’s got two good feet, he can play inside, he can play outside, so he’s going to be invaluable for us.”

Kaka set up four goals for Seb Hines in a 6-1 demolition of Brazilian club Esporte Club Bahia on Saturday to conclude OCSC’s preseason schedule. A 2-1 win over TFC last week marked an important milestone in the comeback of attacker Kevin Molino, who played only seven games in 2015 before a torn ACL sidelined him. The former USL Player of the Year set up Kaka’s first goal with a nice pass and won a penalty kick the Brazilian converted for the winner.

Only three teams conceded more than the 56 goals it allowed last year, so OCSC has cut loose keeper Tally Hall and replaced him with Joe Bendik (from TFC), and instilled Brek Shea at left back. Plans to move into a new stadium this year have been scrapped and all games will be played at the Florida Citrus Bowl, in which the Lions averaged 32,847 (second-best in MLS) fans per game.
 
8. NEW YORK CITY FC. Frank Lampard yukking it up on “Men in Blazers.” Andrea Pirlo profiled in the New York Times Style Magazine. David Villa featured in Men’s Fitness. Head coach Patrick Vieira meeting baseball legend Joe Torre.

Off the field, New York City FC certainly generated its share of publicity during preseason.
On the field it tangled with the likes of FC Cincinnati, Reykjavik FC (Iceland), and HB Koge (Denmark) as well as MLS rivals such as Montreal, which it defeated, 1-0, on a goal by Patrick Mullins. Its preseason results were mixed as Vieira worked to meld such disparate elements as Costa Rican left back Ronald Mattarita, French centerback Frederic Brilliant (early front-runner for best-named Newcomer of the Year), and two Argentines: midfielder Federico Bravo and defender Diego Martinez. Right back Shannon Gomez, 19, joined the club this week on loan from W Connection following some impressive preseason showings.

No. 1 SuperDraft pick Jack Harrison missed the entire preseason with a pelvic injury that kept him out of the MLS Player Combine. Vieira must also contend with the fitness of Lampard, who didn’t play in any preseason games – he did participate in a scrimmage against a college team -- and is dealing with a calf injury. His status for the season opener against Chicago isn’t known.

The known quantities – Pirlo, Villa, Mix Diskerud, Andrew Jacobson – look good on paper. But Vieira has a fleet of new players to mix and match with Khiry Shelton, Kwadwo Poku, Ethan White, Jason Hernandez, et al. It figures to be a lengthy and difficult process.
 
9. CHICAGO. No team entered the offseason more desperate than the Fire, which compiled a league-low 30 points while winning just eight of 34 games and conceding 15 goals more than it scored. Extreme measures have ensued.

The hiring of former Philly midfielder Veljko Paunovic, whose only coaching experience is of Serbia’s youth teams, triggered the departure of more than a dozen players, only a few of which have been replaced by MLS veterans. Defender Michael Harrington and midfielder Nick LaBrocca signed as free agents and Arturo Alvarez returned from stints in Portugal and Hungary, but there are unfamiliar faces everywhere.

SuperDraft pick Brandon Vincent has slid into the left-back slot vacated by the trade of Joevin Jones to Seattle. Foreign newcomers Joao Meira (Portuguese defender), Johan Kappelhoff (Dutch defender) and John Goossens (Dutch midfielder) will play key roles on this revamped team.

Goossens scored his first Fire goal in a 3-2 defeat of Vancouver at the Simple Invitational, which Chicago won by subsequently beating Minnesota United, 4-0, and the host Timbers, 2-0. The centerback pairing of Kapelhoff and Meira held up reasonably well, Matt Polster cut a commanding presence in the middle, and chipping in with goals were Gilberto and ex-DP Kennedy Igboananike, and Homegrown signing Joey Calistri.

There’s a vesper of hope in the Windy City.

10. PHILADELPHIA. In addition to its three SuperDraft picks taken in the first six selections, Philly has brought in Brazilian centerback Anderson Conceicao to shore up the back line. Another college product, defender Ken Tribbett (Drexel), was described as the “revelation” of preseason by head coach Jim Curtin and played enough minutes to earn a slot on the game-day roster for the season opener Sunday at FC Dallas.

Another Brazilian, Ilsinho, and Chris Pontius (formerly of D.C. United) have been acquired to compensate for the loss of Cristian Maidana, the team’s assist leader (15) who was traded to Houston. They will also supplement Swiss playmaker Tranquillo Barnetta, bothered by injuries after arriving in late July (one goal, three assists in 11 games) and questionable for the opener because of tendinitis in his knee.

Maurice Edu, projected to play in midfield rather than central defense, sat out the entire preseason because of what Curtin described as “stress reaction” in his leg, which is not related to a sports-hernia surgery performed in mid-October.

Several sharp saves by Andre Blake in the team’s final preseason match, a 1-0 defeat of Toronto FC last Saturday, reminded everyone of his solid finish to the 2015 season that included a club-record 10 saves in a 1-1 tie with the Revs. Yet John McCarthy staved off the Red Bulls several times in a 0-0 tie that bolstered his stock.

It’s too soon to tell if Philly can challenge teams like New England for a playoff spot but the health of Edu and Tranquilla are critical.

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4 comments about "MLS Eastern Conference preview".
  1. beautiful game, March 3, 2016 at 5:04 p.m.

    NYRB Veron brought nothing to the table in 2015...can't make things happen for an Argentine player, and that's saying something about the RB scouting.

  2. Eric Schmitt, March 3, 2016 at 5:29 p.m.

    *Fredrico* Higuain plays for Columbus. His more well-known brother Gonzalo plays for Napoli.

  3. beautiful game, March 4, 2016 at 11:13 a.m.

    NYRB DP Sacha Kljestan is a total disappointment...he goes through the motions and delivers little, if anything. he's not worth the DP label and its salary.

  4. Fire Paul Gardner Now, March 7, 2016 at 11:19 a.m.

    1. He is not a DP and 2. Seems like you didn't watch a single RBNY game last year. He started off slow but by the end of the year he was the best player on the team - a team that won the SS shield by the way.

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