MLS Eastern Conference Preview: NYCFC, Atlanta, Philly enter as favorites
February 26, 2020
ANY ATTEMPT to make predictions about MLS is a foolish endeavor, but it takes a special breed of moron to try to prognosticate the Eastern Conference in 2020.
Welcome to Part One of ASN’s Major League Soccer season preview.
2020 finds the East in a state of flux. Many of the powers of recent years are facing the uncertainty of significant roster turnover. In a year where just about every team has clear holes, so much will come down to the success (or lackthereof) of offseason scouting and recruitment efforts and to the ability of club managers to form a cohesive unit. While some clubs stand out at the very top and the bottom of the East, there is a vast, incoherent jumble in the middle.
It is shaping up to be the sort of season with many teams in playoff contention, with few teams having the ability to pull away from the pack and many possessing the ability to stay within earshot of the playoff line.
Key additions: none
Key departures: Ebenezer Ofori
NYCFC are favorites to reprise their role as Eastern Conference champions in 2020. The biggest change for the club is not any player transaction, but a managerial change. NYCFC’s squad is strong, deep, and relatively youthful, but how they will fare under Ronny Deila’s leadership remains unknown. NYCFC lacks a major signing this offseason, but will enjoy the benefits of a full season of Héber, last season’s midseason acquisition. Young players like Keaton Parks, James Sands, and Taty Castellanos should continue to grow in influence. Bonus points if DP signing Alexandru Mitrita kicks it up a notch in his second year in the league.
NYCFC have good depth at most positions. Other than the wild card of a new manager, they’ll need to hope that 32 year old talisman Maxi Moralez holds off the ravages of time for one more year.
2: Atlanta United
Key additions: Matheus Rossetto, Miguel Castro, Fernando Meza
Key departures: Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst
Atlanta’s status in 2020 is uncertain because they have lost reliable mainstays like Gressel and Parkhurst and placed their fate in the hands of volatile players like Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco. With the loss of Nagbe’s connectivity and Gressel’s marauding runs, now more than ever, Atlanta’s attack depends on the Argentine duo. Five Stripes fans don’t quite know what they’ll get.
Atlanta still have the indomitable Josef Martinez and a healthy amount of talent on the roster, but any new season with significant changes to a successful defense and central midfield carries with it a degree of uncertainty and risk.
3: Philadelphia Union
Key additions: Jose Martinez, Jamiro Monteiro (permanent transfer)
Key departures: Auston Trusty, Haris Medjunanin
As a club with frugal habits in the transfer market and an increasing reliance on the fruits of their academy, it comes as no surprise that the Union do not have the largest turnover in the league. Philadelphia did break out its check book to bring back the dynamic Jamiro Monteiro on a permanent deal, a vital move to shore up the midfield.
The Union’s biggest offseason change comes with the departure of their aging regista, Haris Medunjanin. Much of their play was structured around having a slick-passing, deep-lying midfielder to move the ball upfield, which means that replacing him with Jose Martinez may be a straight swap in a lineup graphic, but it means significant changes to how the team plays.
While the Union no longer need to compensate for the defensive shortcomings of Medunjanin, the big question is whether Monteiro and youngster Brenden Aaronson can create offensive opportunities in his absence.
4: New England Revolution
Key additions: Adam Buksa, Alexander Buttner, Kelyn Rowe
Key departures: Jalil Anibaba
The Revolution recovered from a disastrous opening of the season to squeak into the playoffs under the leadership of Bruce Arena. The Revs spent the offseason reinforcing their attack with Polish DP striker Adam Buksa and Dutch left back Alexander Büttner, who should be upgrades on 2019.
The attacking trio of Buksa, Carles Gil, and Gustavo Bou could help the Revolution make some real noise in the East for the first time in a while. Nonetheless, many questions remain. Matt Turner stood on his head in 2019, which masked deficiencies at CB and DM that arguably have not been addressed. Unfortunately for the Revs, carrying three decent DMs is not the same as having one high-end DM. Whether Arena can coax a higher level out of the Revs’ backline or its defensive midfield will be the difference between hosting a playoff game and fighting to get over the line.
5: Toronto FC
Key additions: Pablo Piatti
Key departures: Drew Moor, Nicolas Benezet
Toronto is sticking with a familiar core in 2020, but it is a group that is aging. Players expected to play key positions in the spine like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Omar Gonzalez are prone to both injury and losing a step as all are on the wrong side of 30. If the group holds together for 2020, Toronto will beat this prediction, but what could just as easily happen is that none of the trio reaches 20 starts and TFC struggle.
Toronto have other talent on the roster: Osorio, Laryea, Auro, DeLeon, and Delgado are quality players. TFC will be dependent on star attacker Alejandro Pozuelo to have a huge year and they’ll need at least one of Pablo Piatti and Erickson Gallardo to make significant contributions.
6: Columbus Crew
Key additions: Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan, Vito Wormgoor
Key departures: Federico Higuain, Wil Trapp
The Crew were only saved off the field in 2019, as they limped to a disappointing 10th place finish in the standings. Despite that, expect the Crew to rebound in 2020 after a productive offseason. Darlington Nagbe’s ball security and connectivity will strengthen the midfield and take pressure off the rest of the team on both sides of the ball. Zelarayan, while a different type of player than the venerable Federico Higuain, should be an upgrade given Higuain’s consistent year-over-year decline from 2017.
Don’t forget the return of Milton Valenzuela, a top young left back, who missed all of 2019 with an injury. If he returns to form, he’ll be the equivalent of another significant signing.
Where the Crew could fall short is if they are forced to rely too heavily on depth. What happens if Pedro Santos can’t repeat his 2019 form? What happens if one of the starting CMs misses significant time? The Crew do not yet have clear answers to those questions.
7: D.C. United
Key additions: Edison Flores, Julian Gressel, Yamil Asad
Key departures: Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta, Lucas Rodriguez
D.C.’s list of outgoing players looks a little scarier than it actually is. Luciano Acosta is a talented layer, but D.C. lost much of his production, perhaps, in January 2019 in the aftermath of the dramatic disintegration of his sale to PSG. Acosta’s G+A dropped from 27 in 2018 to a mere 8 in 2019.
Viewed in that light, the acquisition of Edison Flores should be a significant upgrade over the 2019 version of Acosta. Ola Kamara is not a chance creator, but if given service he can bang in goals with the best of them. The additions of Flores, Gressel, and Asad should provide Kamara with plenty of opportunities.
D.C. squad is not deep, and has already suffered a major loss when Paul Arriola tore his ACL. They’ll struggle if any of their current attacking four goes down. If D.C.’s best-in-the-East 38 goals conceded is unsustainable, which seems relatively likely, D.C. will struggle to be true contenders without reinforcements.
8: Orlando City
Key additions: Pedro Gallese, Junior Urso
Key departures: Sacha Kljestan, Will Johnson, Lamine Sane
One day, Orlando City will make the playoffs. Could it be in 2020? In this year’s East, everyone has a chance. Perhaps the biggest change for Orlando is the calming, experienced hand of Oscar Pareja at the tiller. Pareja should bring order and structure to a club whose roster and tactics have been a constant revolving door. That alone should bring in some points.
Additionally, Orlando didn’t lose anybody who played a crucial role in 2019. While some of their offseason signings are speculative and uncertain the likes of Pedro Gallese and Junior Urso are players who can come in and provide needed quality and leadership.
Orlando’s Achilles heel could be its defense. Playoff teams usually need above-average players along the backline and how many Orlando defenders qualify?
Key additions: Josh Sims (loan, again)
Key departures: Luis Robles, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Michael Murillo, Kemar Lawrence
NYRB have survived repeated offseasons in which the club lost a major player, and in many cases didn’t miss a beat. 2020 looks like the year when Cinderella’s carriage turns back into a pumpkin.
It’s not so much that NYRB’s losses are enormous. Robles and Lawrence are tough losses, but Murillo’s form was uneven and BWP was not a major contributor in 2019. The problem is that unlike in years past, the club doesn’t have someone like Tyler Adams or Aaron Long ready to step in and be a significantly above-average player.
NYRB have added a number of players from their USL reserve team, but stockpiling too many useful role players isn’t a replacement for adding a few real difference-makers. Just ask FC Cincinnati.
10: Chicago Fire
Key additions: Robert Beric, Gaston Gimenez, Alvaro Medran, Ignacio Aliseda
Key departures: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic, Aleksandar Katai, Nicolas Gaitan
The Fire have had a tumultuous offseason, to say the least. New ownership taking root, an unpopular new logo, wholesale changes to the front office and managerial staff dangerously late into the offseason.
In spite of such obstacles, the Fire have assembled a surprisingly decent roster, albeit not one that will be favored to make the playoffs. The arrival of Medran and especially Gimenez gives the team a solid base at central midfield following major departures.
It is likely that with so many new players and a new coach, it will take time for the Fire to gel. Look for the Fire to start slow, but pick up steam as the season progresses.
11: FC Cincinnati
Key additions: Haris Medunjanin, Yuya Kubo, Jurgen Locadia, Adrien Regattin, Siem de Jong
Key departures: none
2020 hasn’t been the fresh start that FCC fans might have hoped for. It’s preseason and Cincinnati have already lost their manager, Ron Jans, who resigned after reportedly using racist language in the locker room.
Despite this upheaval, Cincinnati should see modest improvements after their disastrous debut season in MLS. The club turned over a sizable portion of the roster and brought in some creditable talents, enough to lift Cincinnati out of the very bottom of the East.
None of their signings are slam-dunks. Medunjanin is no spring chicken. Locadia is coming off a disappointment of what was going to be his big move to the EPL. But these players are still likely to be an improvement on those they replaced.
If most of their big signings are a hit, and their defense is simply mediocre rather than atrocious, FCC could rise higher in the standings. The playoffs, however, seem far out of reach.
12: Inter Miami
Key additions: Rodolfo Pizarro, Matias Pellegrini, Julian Carranza, Nicolas Figal, Luis Robles, Wil Trapp
Key departures: N/A
Miami has thus far eschewed the strategy of spending on big European names in favor of a collection of young Latin American players and useful MLS veterans.
Despite the lack of big-name stars, Miami has spent major dollars this offseason. Their 2020 headliner is rising Mexican star Rodolfo Pizarro, but there also been significant outlays on a pair of 19 year old Argentine attackers, Matias Pellegrini and Julian Carranza.
Right now, Inter Miami doesn’t have enough above-average starters to truly compete for a playoff spot. With investments in a quality coach and young talent from at home and abroad, Miami has a plan and growth potential, but the club is unlikely to see the fruits of these labors until 2021.
13: Montreal Impact
Key additions: none, except loanees brought back again for 2020
Key departures: Ignacio Piatti, Bacary Sagna, Daniel Lovitz
Montreal’s offseason transaction sheet doesn’t reflect an urgency that one would expect for a club that struggled in 2019. The most intriguing element of the offseason is the installation of Thierry Henry as manager. Henry knows the game at the highest level and in MLS. His first managerial stint at Monaco did not go according to plan, so Montreal represents a chance for him to bounce back.
On the field, Montreal retained the services of Ballou Tabla and Zachary Brault-Guillard (permanently) and Orji Okwonkwo (on loan again). These are good moves, but ones that only bring Montreal back to their sub-playoff par in 2019. The loss of Ignacio Piatti, while the end of an era, does not represent a huge change from his injury-riddled season last year.
Montreal’s acquisitions include Romell Quioto, CPL defender Joel Waterman, and two foreign signings with a very limited professional track record. In a league where the financial reins are being loosened and clubs are making big investments, the Impact haven’t followed suit. 2020 looks to be an early-stage rebuilding year.