Major League Soccer 2016 preview – Eastern Conference

Now something to bear in mind – Major League Soccer is perhaps both one of the easiest and most difficult leagues to predict. If the world of MLS were characters from the book Catch-22 it would most likely be Major Major remarkably unremarkable.

That is not necessarily a dig at MLS, more so an observation that as a league it is fairly predictable but also very different from the rest of the characters that make up this fascinating game.

 

There are three reasons for this. Number one, there is no promotion and relegation. Barring a bloody revolt by a certain sect of North American football supporters the three worst teams in MLS will not be relegated to the second division of Canada and the United States – the North American Soccer League. That means that certain terrible teams will be in the first division next year. Some teams may move up, such as Minnesota United FC, but that is only through expansion.

Second, MLS does not have a single table and has unbalanced schedule. As opposed to most other leagues where each team plays every other team twice MLS teams are broken into two conferences: East and West. Geography and limited budgets are the primary reason for this  – The United States is a rather large country and MLS budgets are small – and are certainly good reasons for why the system exists. However, the drawback is that it makes it difficult to determine who is the best team in the league.

Third, MLS is a yo-yo league. Teams that were terrible last season might suddenly become contenders the next season. The league’s salary cap and player acquisition structure is a system that allows to change their fortunes almost immediately. By the same token it also makes predicting what is going to happen each season difficult. But hey, on the plus side – playoffs!

So with that being said let’s look at the Eastern Conference and perhaps it is best to start with the New York Red Bulls. The defending Supporter’s Shield and Eastern Conference Champions lost prized center-back Matt Miazga to Chelsea but picked up eight Homegrown, i.e. Youth Academy,  Players.

Red Bulls Sporting Director Ali Curtis and coach Jesse Marsch have done a splendid job building a squad of seasoned veterans like midfielder Dax McCarty and forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and young promising players such as defender Chris Duvall (15 starts in 2015) and midfielder Sean Davis (14 appearances in 2015). The question now is can they claim their first-ever MLS Cup?

 

While things might be settled in Red Bulls, across the Hudson many things are still very much up in the air for New York City Football Club. After signing Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo much was expected of NYCFC in their inaugural season. But a 10-17-7 record doomed the club and led to the firing of coach Jason Kreis.

While the team has brought in Patrick Vieira as their new coach, questions about this team’s identity and the true intentions of their owners – City Football Group – persist.

On the pitch, the addition of Ronald Mattaria from Alajuelense should help stabilize a young and inexperienced back four. But much of this club’s success depends upon if Lampard, Pirlo, and Villa can work together and help make players like midfielder Federico Bravo and forwards Patrick Mullins and Khiry Shelton better.

They have already elevated the play of Kwadwo Poku (4 goals, 7 assists), last year’s breakout player in MLS. But whether or not this group can move NYCFC up the standings is another matter.

MLS’ other sophomore squad, Orlando City SC, have had their own internal issues. The club demoted Chief Soccer Officer Phil McDonough to General Manager  and added in Armando Carneiro only to see both leave shortly before the preseason started. OCSC President Phil Rawlins has taken over day-to-day management of the club and thus far has made very few changes to a side that nearly made the playoffs in their first season.

The key for Orlando this season is to stay healthy. Injuries decimated Adrian Heath’s side last season and forced the club to mix and match their lineup. Over 22 players started for Orlando last season which was the highest in all of Major League Soccer.

The additions of defender Kevin Alston and midfielder Antonio Nocerino should help ease the pressure off of some of the club’s younger players and give Kaka a chance to breathe. Keep an eye on forward Cyle Larin, whose 17 goals last season set an MLS Rookie record.

 

Despite having the worst jerseys in all of MLS in 2016, Columbus Crew SC may have the best chance at unseating the Portland Timbers for the MLS Cup crown. Coach Gregg Berhalter will once again rely on midfielders Federico Higuain (8 goals, 9 assists), Justin Meram (6 goals, 5 assists) and Ethan Finlay (12 goals, 13 assists) to provide service in for forward Kei Kamara (22 goals, 8 assists).

The club is banking that a fully healthy Wil Trapp and a full season out of defenders Cedrick Mbawati, Gaston Sauro, and Harrison Afful. This team appears to have the depth and the system to make a run not just at the Cup but also the Supporters’ Shield.

Another club with designs on trophies this season is Toronto FC. After finally making the MLS Playoffs for the first time in ten years, Coach Greg Vanney’s side will look to build off of their success and attempt to bring home Canada’s first MLS trophy. The club will once again ride the one man goal machine that Sebastian Giovinco (22 goals, 16 assists). The addition of Canadian Men’s National Team player Will Johnson should complement Giovinco and Michael Bradley in the midfield, giving The Reds balance.

The question now is can the squad get anything out of Jozy Altidore? The United States Mens National Team forward had a terrible 2015 campaign for both club – just 13 goals for Toronto – and country – taken off of the USA roster at the Gold Cup. By all indications Altidore seems to be back in shape this preseason so the hope is that he can finally become one of the top strikers in MLS.

With Giovinco, Johnson, and Bradley Toronto are not lacking in terms of players who can create opportunities for Jozy. At 26, it is sink or swim time for Altidore.

Toronto’s derby-mates in Canada, the Montreal Impact, have their own striker to worry about. Despite setting the league on fire for half a season Didier Drogba appeared to be destined for the Chelsea sideline this winter. But thanks to Major League Soccer’s byzantine roster policies Drogba is back for another season. Or at least he will be back when the Impact go back to Stade Saputo in April and play on a grass field.

 

Considering that Drogba had 11 goals in 11 matches last season it is difficult to think that he will able to keep up that pace at 37. Luckily, he will not have to at Montreal. The Impact brought midfielders Ignacio Piatti (9 goals, 8 assists) and forward Dominic Oduro (8 goals) and just recently added former Chicago Fire midfielder Harry Shipp.

With three other capable goal-scorers at his helm recently promoted Impact coach Mauro Biello should have no shortage in players to call on for a goal. This is a dark horse team to win MLS Cup.

For D.C. United it was another winter of trying to play chess on a limited budget. The club added depth in the midfield by trading for Marcelo Sarvas, Lamar Neagle, and Patrick Nyarko while picking up Boca Juniors midfielder-forward Luciano Acosta on loan. Losing 2014 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Bill Hamid (1.16 Goals Against Average) in preseason to a knee injury hurts this squad’s chances of finishing at the top of the Eastern Conference this season.

The lack of talent coming through their youth academy and management’s reluctance to invest in the on-field product means more years of coach Ben Olsen making the most out of a difficult situation. The march to 2018 and a new soccer-specific stadium continues.

Speaking of clubs playing in cavernous stadiums, the New England Revolution might not have a soccer-specific stadium on the horizon but they still have one of the more entertaining clubs in the league. Based off of his run with the USA in January, midfielder Lee Nguyen appears to be back in his 2015 form.

With Diego Fagundez (6 goals, 4 assists) entering his prime and forwards Juan Agudelo (7 goals) and Charlie Davies (10 goals) firing on all cylinders the Revolution attack is as strong as ever.

New England’s big concern will be in replacing Jermaine Jones. Despite being a bit wild from time-to-time Jones formed a strong partnership with Nguyen and gave him the chance to relax on his defensive responsibilities. Without Jones last New England struggled to maintain possession for large periods and to begin their attacks.

The club did try and replace Jones with Xavier Kouassi of FC Sion this offseason. However Kouassi suffered a season-ending ACL tear in preseason. Although Jones does have a six game suspension looming and he did not leave New England under the best of circumstances, Revolution coach Jay Heaps and general manager Mike Burns might have to bite the bullet and bring him back.

 

Both the Chicago Fire and Philadelphia Union have made sweeping changes to their organization this offseason. Although we mentioned last week that both sides appear to be making strides in the right direction and are providing a breath of fresh in terms of how teams are built in MLS, both sides are rebuilding projects.

That is not necessarily a bad thing-even if they take this season to rebuild MLS history has proven that teams can turn things around rather quickly. If nothing else it will be a great chance for supporters to get to know younger players and to build a rapport with a side as they hopefully rise through the standings.

MLS Eastern Conference projected final standings (top six make the playoffs:) Crew SC, Red Bulls, Impact, Toronto, Orlando, Revolution, D.C. United, NYCFC, Fire, and Union.

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Author Details

Sean Maslin

BPF Columnist, Washington Spirit/D.C. United beat writer and general editor-Prost Amerika, Columnist-Playing for 90. Radio MLS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-mls/id979377624?mt=2

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