Eastern Conference Preview

Toronto and Atlanta, the teams to beat in the East

The Eastern Conference should be fun in 2018. Atlanta should be explosive, Toronto still has the quality, and New York still has two good teams.  Here's Brian Sciaretta's conference preview
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 25, 2018
9:50 PM
THE 2018 MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER SEASON is set to kickoff this weekend. Like any other season, predicting this league is very hard and the influx of money only makes it more so.

The top story in the offseason was the number of expensive young South Americans who joined the league. While critics are right that the opportunities are limited for young American players, the quality of the product is probably higher than it has ever been. 

The Eastern Conference is the stronger of the two conferences this year and it has the most compelling storylines. Atlanta's explosive new lineup featuring the player with the highest transfer price ever paid by an MLS team. The Save The Crew movement will be out in full force. Toronto will look to continue its dominance. The Hudson River Derby will be compelling. DC United will open a new stadium. Finally, Brad Friedel will begin his coaching career. 

There is a lot going on in the East and here is ASN's preview and prediction for the Eastern Conference. 

Toronto FC

Predicted Conference finish: First

Last year, Toronto FC put together a roster that was as strong as any other in the history of the league. With high expectations, Greg Vanney’s team did not disappoint winning the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup. Heading into 2018, there is little reason to believe anyone has overpassed Toronto. Yes, Atlanta looks impressive but Toronto is still the king and Sebastian Giovinco is still the best player in the league.

The talent is there but it will come down to motivation and hunger and that shouldn’t be a problem. The only significant loss was Stephen Beitashour but the acquisitions of fullbacks Gregory van der Wiel and Auro should more than make up for it.

There really are no weaknesses on this team with Michael Bradley and Victor Vazquez running the midfield with Jozy Altidore and Giovinco up top in the attack. The addition of Ager Aketxe will only further add to an already domiant midfield. Atlanta will be good but safe money is on Toronto at this point. 

Key losses: Steven Beitashour, Armando Cooper, Beniot Cheyrou
Key additions: Ager Aketxe, Gregory van der Wiel, Auro

Atlanta United

Predicted Conference finish: Second

As the most ambitious expansion team in the modern history of Major League Soccer, Atlanta continued to make a splash this offseason signing Ezequiel Barco to a league-record transfer of over $15 million and adding U.S. international Darlington Nagbe who seems like a good fit for Tata Martino’s system.

But it did come at a price. Yamil Asad left for DC United and he was exceptional in the league in 2017. His departure sets the bar extremely high for Barco. The same can be said with the loss of Carlos Carmona. To break even, Nagbe will have to play well.

But Atlanta United has some impressive young players in its system. Most notably U.S. U-17 winger Andrew Carleton showed moments of explosiveness in the preseason. Will Martino be willing to trust young players and help with their development? Atlanta is already a popular team give how fun it is to watch them play. But if they can take top young Americans, play them, and make them better, then it will only endear the club to American fans throughout the country.

Either way, Atlanta will be a good team this year and could be a contender to win MLS Cup. Offensively it will be explosive. But it will come down to the team’s backline as to just how far it can go.

Key Losses: Yamil Assad, Carlos Carmona, Kenwyne Jones, Tyrone Mears, Anton Walkes
Key additions: Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe, Jose Hernandez, Sal Zizzo, Franco Escoar

New York City FC

Predicted Conference finish: Third

New York City FC lost a lot when winger Jack Harrison left for Manchester City. But Patrick Vieira has done well coaching this team and there is still plenty of talent to go around. On top of it, David Villa is aging well and he should still be dominant yet again.

The additions of Ismael Tajouri and Jesus Medina on the wings should give Vieira plenty to work with. It will also be important to see the continued development of 2017 U-20 winger Jonathan Lewis as well as if Tommy McNamara can return to the form he showed in 2016.

Key losses: Jack Harrison, Andrea Pirlo, Khiry Shelton, RJ Allen
Key additions: Ismael Tajouri, Jesus Medina, Jo Inge Berget, Cedric Hountondji, Saad Abdul-Salaam

Orlando City SC

Predicted Conference finish: Fourth

Orlando City has not made much of an impact since making its MLS debut in 2015. There is no question, however, that the pressure will now be on Jason Kreis in 2018 to make the playoffs for the first time in its history.

This team is going to be very different than in 2017. Kaka retired and Cyle Larin left in a messy transfer saga.

But a slew of newcomers arrived who are established MLS performers. Sacha Kljestan has been one of the best midfielders in the league, Justin Meram is an assist machine and Oriol Rosell is a known commodity in the midfield despite having played in Portugal since 2014. From abroad, teenage Paraguayan Josue Colman arrived as a designated player will also be asked to generate offense.

But there will also key additions in the backline. Mohamed El-Munir, a Libyan international, will take over at left back and Lamine Sane should do well in central defense.

With a dramatically overhauled team, there is plenty of reasons to believe Orlando City will be improved. The additions to the roster are made up of a blend of established MLS winners as well as talented players from abroad. It would also be a welcome sight if young American Cam Lindley can contribute along the way.

The big question will be Dom Dwyer’s ability to consistently finish. If he does, Orlando will be tough to beat.

Key losses: Kaka, Cyle Larin
Key additions: Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, Lamine Sane, Oriol Rosell, Mohamed El-Munir, R.J. Allen, Jose Villarreal

New York Red Bulls

Predicted Conference finish: Fifth

For the second straight offseason, the Red Bulls traded its captain. First it was Dax McCarty in 2017 and in 2018 it was Sacha Kljestan. So there is always a lot of uncertainty with the Red Bulls. But so far the team has been able to succeed and Jesse Marsch has been able to manage ongoing change well.

Once again there are a lot of open questions for the team in 2018. Obviously the big news of the offseason is the addition of Alejandro Romero "Kaku" Gamarra from Argentina. He is a designated player who will be expected to contribute right away. But as former forward Gonzalo Veron indicated, sometimes young and talented South American players take awhile to adjust to MLS. To be successful this season, the Red Bulls need Kaku to have a short learning curve.

Daniel Royer and newcomer Marc Rzatkowski, on loan from Salzburg, should boost the team’s ability to be dangerous from out wide.

Of course in central midfield, Felipe and young U.S. international Tyler Adams will be very competent in this area.

But there are two big areas of concern. The first is in central defense. Aaron Long was strong in his first season after being promoted from Red Bull II but he will need to avoid a sophomore slump. Meanwhile Aurelien Collin has not played like someone who has won MLS defender of the year. Youngsters Tommy Redding and Kevin Politz could step into the backline but perhaps the Red Bulls will find a way to trade for Tim Parker, as has been rumored. If the Red Bulls add Parker, their chances of contending go way up. 

The second big question is Bradley Wright-Phillips. The team continues to rely heavily on him year after year. The Englishman has always delivered but when will he decline? What is the backup if he is gone?

Key losses: Sacha Kljestan, Gonzalo Veron, Mike Grella, Damien Perrinelle, Sal Zizzo.
Key additions: Alejandro Gamarra, Marc Rzatkowski, Carlos Rivas, Tommy Redding, Kevin Politz, Amando Moreno

Chicago Fire

Predicted Conference finish: Sixth

Last season was a huge step in the right direction for the Chicago Fire. After consecutive last-place finishes, it managed a third place in 2018. But its weaknesses were exploited in the postseason as it was quickly bounced from the playoffs in the first round at the hands of the more experienced Red Bulls.

Looking into this season, there is some reason for concern. The club lost David Accam who was one of the best players on the Fire in 2018 and his 14 goals and eight assists will be tough to replace.

A lot is going to have to go right for the Fire in 2018. Nemanja Nikolic was the league’s leading goal scorer in 2018 but it is asking a lot for him to come close to matching his 24 goals last season. Bastian Schweinsteiger brought star power to this team but at 33, will he be able to continue to play at a high level? The same can be asked of Dax McCarty.

But betting on Chicago Fire is to show a lot of faith in head coach Veljko Paunovic. At this point, giving the Serbian the benefit of the doubt makes sense. With a second straight year the core remaining mostly intact, he should be able to find something that works. Also, there is a designated player spot open and the Fire have room to make upgrades during the season.

Key Losses: David Accam, Matt Lampson, Arturo Alvarez, Joao Meira
Key additions: Aleksandar Katai

Columbus Crew SC

Predicted Conference finish: Seventh

Off the field, Columbus will be the sentimental favorite given the club’s uncertainty in Columbus. As one of the league’s original teams as well as the home to many top U.S internationals over the years (Brian McBride, Frankie Hedjuk, Brad Friedel, etc), the spotlight on the team will be huge.

On the field, however, are legitimate concerns about the team’s status heading into 2018. Justin Meram and Ola Kamara scored 31 goals between them in 2017. Now they’re both gone along with Kekuta Manneh.

Newcomer Gyasi Zardes will have to have a huge year but he missed most of 2017 with the Galaxy and seemed off his game with the national team in January. Also, Venezuelan attacker Eduardo Sosa, 21, will also need to score goals in droves. In the midfield, Mike Grella and Ricardo Clark will both need to find the fountain of youth.

Defensively and in goal, this team looks good. Zack Steffen is a rising star in the league and could emerge as the next U.S. national team starting goalkeeper.

Key losses: Ola Kamara, Justin Meram, Kekuta Manneh
Key additions: Gyasi Zardes, Mike Grella, Ricardo Clark, Milton Valenzuela, Eduardo Sosa

DC United

Predicted Conference Finish: Eighth

Last year was a nightmare for DC United which was the worst team in the Eastern Conference. The good news is that the team is improved and will be moving into a brand-new stadium midway through the 2018 season. The bad news is that the team is still not where it needs to be.

It’s only significant loss in the offseason was goalkeeper Bill Hamid. The rest of the departures were older veterans.

The addition of Yamil Asad and Venezuelan international Junior Moreno will significantly boost the midfield and playmaking positions. The 2017 midseason acquisitions of Paul Arriola and Russell Canouse should be fully adjusted into the league and ready to contribute from day one. Ian Harkes will now have a full season under his belt and be able to compete for minutes.

There are still to many concerns for this to be a strong contender for the playoffs. Are Patrick Mullins and Darren Mattocks the type of goal scorers that can carry a team? Is the central defense pairing of Frederic Brillant and Steven Birnbaum enough to finish in the top six?

Then there is simply logistics. DC United will play most of its road games early in the season and then play a lot at home in the second half of the year. There have been a lot of changes to the team, but can Ben Olsen keep his team together for what should be a difficult first few months?

Key losses: Bill Hamid, Lloyd Sam, Sean Franklin, Marcelo Sarvas Patrick Nyarko
Key additions: Yamil Asad, Junior Moreno, Darren Mattocks, Dave Ousted, Frederic Brillant

Montreal Impact

Predicted Conference finish: Ninth

Last year was a disappointing season for Montreal which finished in ninth place. The team made a lot of changes but probably not enough to improve its standing.

Blerim Dzemaili returned to Europe from his loan and Laurent Ciman was traded to LAFC. Also Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla left to play with Barcelona B. But the additions, while decent, will have to exceed expectations for a playoff push. Most notably Algerian international Saphir Taider and Chilean Jeisson Vargas will have to exceed expectations to help the midfield while Canadian Michael Petrasso will need to effectively fill the void of backline departures.

But even if those newcomers work out, goal scouring is a major concern. The Eastern Conference is very strong this year and Montreal probably has not done enough to put itself into likely contention for the playoffs.

Key losses: Laurent Ciman, Blerim Dzemaili, Jean-Yves Tabla, Patrice Bernier, Andres Romero
Key additions: Jeisson Vargas, Michael Petrasso, Saphir Taider.

Philadelphia Union

Predicted conference finish: Tenth

The Philadelphia Union cut a lot of dead weight in the offseason as a bunch of older veterans like Charlie Davies, Oguchi Onyewu, Chris Pontius, and Brian Carroll all left.

But for the club to make any sort of noise this year, an awful lot will have to go right. The only significant upgrade the team made in the offseason was signing David Accam from Chicago. Accam is a very good player but he will need to be consistently strong all season for Philadelphia to have a shot.

There are also a lot of players on Philadelphia that have a history of being streaky. Keegan Rosenberry was exceptional in his rookie year but had a sophomore slump in 2017. He will need to get back to his upward trend. CJ Sapong also will need to be far more consistent with his finishing. Ilsinho and Fafa Picault have the ability to create but both must be consistent throughout the year. Of course, World Cup veteran Alejandro Bedoya must provide leadership and serve as the team’s glue.

But a major goal for Philadelphia should be the development of its young players. The southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey areas are ripe for talent and the Union now have a slew of U.S. youth internationals as homegrown signings. Can this club get the most of its young talent? Last year was disappointing as Derrick Jones saw his development stall and fellow 2017 U-20 World Cup veteran Auston Trusty was not able to become a force in the backline. The same with Josh Yaro who was second overall draft pick in 2016 but has mostly played for the Bethlehem Steel in the USL. 

In the offseason it signed the U.S. U-20 trio of Matthew Real, Anthony Fontana, and Mark McKenzie. The questions is now if these players on the field? The upside could be big – maybe not in 2018 but in the years ahead. If the playoffs look unlikely in 2018, why not look towards 2019 and beyond?

Key losses: Charlie Davies, Oguchi Onyewu, Chris Pontius, Brian Carroll, Maurice Edu, Giliano Wijnaldum
Key additions: David Accam, Matthew Real, Anthony Fontana, Mark McKenzie

New England Revolution

Predicted Conference finish: Eleventh

First year head coach Brad Friedel has his work cut out for him if he is going to return New England back to the playoffs. For one, he is going to have to manage Lee Nguyen well after a ugly offseason where the former U.S. international held out and sought a trade.

In addition, Diego Fagundez and Juan Agudelo are also major projects for Friedel if they are going to return to their level as being among the best in the league.  

Creating competition for minutes will be imperative for Friedel as this core has been together for years but has achieved little recently. Can Krisztian Nemeth slot into the midfield and be a creator the way he did when he was in Kansas City? Can Ecuadorian forward Cristian Penilla (on loan from Pachuca) push Agudelo or Teal Bunbury? That would be remarkably healthy for this team which needs a shake up. 

In MLS, anything is possible but the Revolution should be a long shot to be considered in the mix for the playoffs. For that to happen, the same core of Scott Caldwell, Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, Teal Bunbury, and Diego Fagundez all have to play much better as a unit than they have the past two seasons.

Key losses: Kei Kamara, Benjamin Angoua, Gershon Koffie, Xavier Kouassi

Key additions: Cristian Penilla, Wilfried Zahibo, Gabriel Somi

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