Major League Soccer
Eastern Conf. Preview: Crew, Toronto FC Top Picks
February 29, 2016
MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER will begin its third decade on Sunday when the New York Red Bulls host Toronto FC at 1:30pm ET. Here is a look at the Eastern Conference—including my predictions for the final standings when all is said and done in 2016.
1. Columbus Crew SC
After coming up short in MLS Cup last year, Gregg Berhalter and the Crew are in excellent shape to push for a Supporters’ Shield and another deep run in the playoffs. All key players are returning, including Michael Parkhurst, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay, Tony Tchani, Federico Higuain, and leading scorer Kei Kamara. And while Kamara carried the team in 2015, Crew SC has added depth at forward since.
“The cohesiveness isn’t perfectly there but the guys have made good strides,” Berhalter said. “The new guys have integrated nicely into the team and we’re getting there. We’re making progress and we’re happy with that. We’re ready for the season to start. Preseason is in the books and we’re excited about the first game.”An added bonus is that Wil Trapp, after missing three months last season, should factor far more regularly, and the Crew should get a full campaign out of Gaston Sauro as well.
Last year the Crew were a top offensive team but struggled defensively until making some midseason moves, most importantly the addition of Harrison Afful, which helped right the ship. This year the offense will return the major weapons while the defense should be strong from the start.
2. Toronto FC
Toronto FC last year was essentially The Sebastian Giovinco Show. The diminutive Italian attacker was perhaps the best player the league has ever seen; the problem was his supporting cast, specifically on defense. The team conceded 58 goals in the 2015 regular season—by far the worst among all playoff teams.
Toronto made several important offseason additions to its backline, picking up defenders Drew Moor and Steve Beitashour along with goalkeeper Clint Irwin. That alone will help this group win more games. And in the preseason, defense was a big priority for head coach Greg Vanney.
"We want to be a nice solid defensive team," Vanney said. "Make sure we understand what all of our roles are defensively. We'll [then] start to add in all of our attacking but we know we have good pieces in attack and we'll develop those pieces as we go along."
In the midfield, the recently acquired Will Johnson will help take some of the pressure off workhorse Michael Bradley.
One major concern, however, is the seeming lack of a true defensive midfielder—a key position for a team trying to correct its defensive woes. Johnson and Bradley don’t quite fit at that spot, nor does Benoit Cheyrou. Will the young Marco Delgado be able to assume that responsibility on a full-time basis?
Toronto’s X-factor this year, though, will be the production of Jozy Altidore, who struggled with injuries in 2015. If he can stay healthy and play up to his talent level, stopping him and Giovinco will be very difficult for Eastern and Western Conference defenses alike.
3. New York Red Bulls
Jesse Marsch led the Red Bulls to the best record in the league in 2015 but the team could not parlay that success into an MLS Cup appearance, falling to Columbus in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This year’s team is very similar: The central-midfield partnership of Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty should again be among the best in the league, and Bradley Wright-Phillips should again score a lot of goals. Expect second-year player Sean Davis to see increased minutes, and sporting director Ali Curtis added more young talent to the mix in the form of Tyler Adams and two Georgetown University stars, Alex Muyl and Brandon Allen.
Still, there are questions. Will Mike Grella be able to reproduce his surprising strong showing of 2015? Will Marsch find a way to finally get high-priced acquisition Gonzalo Veron into the mix. The Argentine has been terrific in the preseason and recently scored a hat trick in a preseason win over Jacksonville. After scoring a league best 63 goals in 2015, the Red Bulls should be in fine form against in the ability to score.
And above all, with Matt Miazga off to Chelsea and Damien Perinelle still recovering from a knee injury he suffered in last year’s playoffs, what will the center of defense look like?
That will determine where the Red Bulls finish.
4. Montreal Impact
Perhaps no team in the history of MLS has had a more bipolar two-year stretch than the 2014-15 Montreal Impact. In 2014, the team was the worst in the league but at the start of 2015 Montreal made a miracle run to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League. At the start of the regular season, the Impact once again looked like a bottom-feeder. Then it signed Didier Drogba and was unstoppable at the end of the regular season. After that, the club fell to Columbus in a very winnable series.
To top it all off, Montreal looked in deep trouble again when Drogba contemplated retirement—but the Ivory Coast international changed his mind, returned to Quebec, and all is right again.
Or is it?
When Drogba announced his return, Impact owner Joey Saputo couldn’t guarantee the legendary forward would complete the season in MLS. For now, we will base this prediction as if he is, but a major priority for Montreal will also be to build for the future as this team has always been tough to figure out.
“But there’s only one Didier Drogba, whether it’s for his talent or for what he can bring to the table,” Saputo said. “We caught lightning in a bottle with Didier, and it’s important for us to start planning the post-Didier era in Montreal. He’s got one more year in his contract, and it’s important to start putting a group together and start looking at how we’ll replace the player in the future.”
Drogba may not put up the same gaudy numbers he did last year, but he should continue to produce. Laurent Ciman is the best defender in the league, and Harry Shipp will be a welcome addition in the midfield to go along with Patrice Bernier and Ignacio Piatti. But will he offset the losses of Dilly Duka and Justin Mapp?
5. New England Revolution
The end of the 2015 season was ugly for New England, which was eliminated by a D.C. United team that struggled mightily down the stretch.
Most of the Revs’ core will return, but Jermaine Jones’s situation remains up in the air. If he does come back, Jones would miss time not only with his looming six-game suspension but also through national team call-ups; at 34, is he even worth the trouble?
Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe and Juan Agudelo are all part of a strong attack boosted by Diego Fagundez’s rebound from a 2014 slump. The backline, meanwhile, looks steady with Jose Goncalves, London Woodberry, Andrew Farrell, and Chris Tierney.
The preseason concluded on an optimistic note as the Revolution won the Desert Diamond Cup with a 1-0 win over Columbus. Tournament MVP Bunbury hopes that this points to a positive season in 2016.
“The ultimate goal is an MLS Cup championship, but also we want to win the Supporters’ Shield,” Bunbury said. “We want to win every game, we want to be a force to be reckoned with at home games in front of our fans, we want to go on the road and get results as well. This year, I want us to more so kind of focus on building throughout the season and not having maybe a stretch in the summer where we’re not as sharp or not as strong. I think this year consistency is going to be a huge thing for us.”
But Jay Heaps’ team appears to lack the necessary depth to weather an MLS season. The season-ending injury of newly signed designated player Xavier Kouassi doesn’t help.
6. New York City FC
The inaugural season for NYCFC was a disaster, beginning with the late arrival of Frank Lampard that seemed to confirm concerns that the club was acting as a minor-league side for Manchester City. Andrea Pirlo looked lost in the MLS game when he arrived, and Mix Diskerud was not the dominant midfielder many expected from a U.S. national team regular team. Compounding matters, head coach Jason Kreis was abruptly fired after the season and replaced by French icon Patrick Vieira—despite the fact that foreign coaches have by and large struggled mightily in this league.
So where does that leave the club in 2016? Like Montreal, NYCFC is very difficult to read. David Villa could be even better with more talent around him, while Lampard, 37, and Pirlo, 36, are enigmas. Will a full season in MLS showcase their tremendous talent or will they show their age?. How those three designated players can fit into one cohesive system, moreover, remains to be seen.
Diskerud, however, is optimistic.
“It's a group that has been together for a while now,” Diskerud said. “We been together for almost a month in Florida—at least some of the guys. We've been finding combinations on the field and actually off the field we spend a lot of time together. That's important with a lot of new players coming in. It feels good. It's our second year here and we're finding each other. It's looking very good, to be honest."
Behind the aging stars is a group of young players who could make this team interesting: top draft choice Jack Harrison, Boca Juniors loanee Federico Bravo and, once again, Kwadwo Poku.
7. Orlando City SC
The offseason was not kind to Orlando City’s front office, which saw former Benfica academy director Armando Carneiro quit after two months and general manager Paul McDonough leave for Atlanta United.
Orlando had some nice moments in 2015, most via Brazilian legend Kaka or rookie of the year Cyle Larin. To make a playoff push in 2016, Larin will have to avoid a sophomore slump, the central defense will need to shore things up, and Orlando will have to avoid the foolish red cards that plagued it in its inaugural year.
8. Philadelphia Union
The Union made one of the league's biggest offseason acquisitions, luring AZ Alkmaar sporting director Earnie Stewart to a similar role Philadelphia. The former U.S. international did well to select Georgetown defenders Josh Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry at the MLS draft; both should be ready to contribute early.
A big concern for Philadelphia was its paltry 42 goals scored in 2015 which was the lowest in the Eastern Conference. To fix this, Stewart has kept busy in the foreign market as well. The addition of Dutch attacking midfielder Roland Alberg from the Eredivisie is particularly interesting, as he is someone Stewart is familiar with and should know how to use. Ilsinho from Shakhtar Donetsk is another talented player who should go straight into the Starting XI.
There is a solid veteran core on the Union right now, with Maurice Edu, C.J. Sapong, and the recently acquired Chris Pontius, but there is little margin for error. The team will be looking to right the ship, establish a solid core, and look for success down the road.
9. D.C. United
D.C. United started off the 2015 season in strong fashion only to tumble down the stretch, limp into the playoffs, get past New England, and then fall easily to the Red Bulls. Things were particularly bad on the road where it won just two of its final 15 games outside the dilapidated RFK Stadium.
As bad as the team was at the end of last season, it is likely to be worse in 2016. Standout keeper Bill Hamid is out injured and won’t return until the second half of the season, while Perry Kitchen left to find a club in Europe—an endeavor that proved unsuccessful. Age is factor too: Last season’s leading scorer, Chris Rolfe, turned 33 in the offseason, and recent addition Marcelo Sarvas is 34.
Acquiring Luciano Acosta on loan from Boca Juniors looks promising, though, and Lamar Neagle could add an offensive spark as well. Despite these new arrivals D.C. does not look like a factor in 2016.
10. Chicago Fire
After two disastrous seasons, head coach Frank Yallop was put out of his misery and fired toward the end of last season. Chicago ownership then made bold choices over the winter in an attempt to right the ship.
New head coach Veljko Paunovic will be coaching his first professional team after having won the U-20 World Cup with Serbia, and the general manager, longtime U.S. Soccer executive Nelson Rodriguez, is new as well.
Paunovic is unproven and simply does not have a lot to work with at the moment—especially after the team traded popular midfielder Harry Shipp. But Ghanaian David Accam is a top-notch attacker, U.S. U-23 defensive midfielder Matt Polster should build off of his strong rookie season, and goalkeeper Sean Johnson is still one of the best in the league. The team selected two defenders in the draft, Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell, and if either or both can prove to be MLS-level talents, Fire's backline will begin to move in the right direction.
Chicago has momentum heading into its season opener against New York City. It recently completed a 3-0-0 record in the 2016 Simple Invitational, which included a 2-0 road win over reigning MLS Cup Champions Portland. Paunovic has shown with Serbia that he can connect with young players and the initial signs are that Fire players are buying into his system.
“Pauno has a very good style and system and it showed tonight,” said Polster. "As long as we believe in the system and trust Pauno, I think we’ll be all right.”
If this group can make the playoffs, it would be quite the achievement. But the name of the game in Chicago these days is "patience."
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.