MLS East Preview

MLS East preview: RBNY & Atlanta still strong, but DC United could emerge

The New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United should once again be at the top but DC United also looks ready to contend. But this conference is also bogged down by a bunch of teams that are struggling heading into the season, which should create a top-heavy table. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 26, 2019
7:00 AM
THE 2019 EASTERN CONFERENCE seems to be a good case of haves and have nots. Sure MLS is hard to predict but the bottom part of this conference looks really poor. The only saving grace is that the top two teams also have a lot of questions.

Last year in 2018, the Red Bulls and Atlanta were in a class of their own. But that also showed how quickly MLS can change. In 2017, Toronto had perhaps the best season in league history and nearly was crowned Champions of CONCACAF in 2018. Despite that, they didn’t even make the playoffs.

It doesn’t look as if the Red Bulls will fall off a cliff. That backline is still solid and there are still enough interesting midfielders to replace Tyler Adams. There are actually more reasons to doubt Atlanta because Frank DeBoer will probably want to do something completely different from Tata Martino, Pity Martinez will have a huge bar to meet in order to match the output of Miguel Almiron, and Ezequiel Barco trying to overcome the image of being a bust.

The one take away, however, is to keep an eye on DC United. The club has added nice pieces to a good team that finished 2018 well and will have more continuity than any other team in the Conference. Don’t be surprised if they emerge as the team to beat in 2019.

1st: New York Red Bulls

There are certainly a lot of questions about the Red Bulls heading into this year and plenty of reason for doubt. How does the team recover from the loss of Tyler Adams? Will Bradley Wright-Phillips begin to slow down? How will Chris Armas adjust in his first full season as coach?

But there is also a lot of room for optimism too. Marc Rzatkowski should be ready to handle more of an expanded role. Kaku Gamarra does not seem let down after the Club America transfer fiasco. Omir Fernandez looks like a promising homegrown signing. Danish youth international Mathias Jørgensen is an intriguing signing.

Above it all, however, the Red Bulls have prioritized its fantastic backline with new deals for Aaron Long, Tim Parker, and Kamar Lawrence last fall. That alone should make the Red Bulls a relatively safe bet to finish near the top, at worst.

The Red Bulls didn’t make any high-price additions, but the return of injured players like Kyle Duncan and Florian Valot as well as the promotion for young players like Cristian Cásseres should be interesting.

Key Losses: Tyler Adams
Key Additions: Mathias Jørgensen, Omir Fernandez

2nd: Atlanta United

The defending champions were a phenomenon last year where it drew enormous crowds, played highly entertaining soccer, and cruised through the playoffs.

There is talent on Atlanta but, like the Red Bulls, there are also a lot of questions. Frank De Boer has taken over as head coach for Atlanta and unlike the Red Bulls and Armas, de Boer will not be a continuation of his predecessor.

Miguel Almiron was sold to Newcastle United and he is replaced by Pity Martinez, who was recently named the South American player of the year as he helped River Plate to the Copa Libertadores title. Martinez brings a huge resume but can he replace the productivity of Almiron?

Lost in all the positivity around Atlanta last year was the disappointing season for young designated player Ezequiel Barco who was brought in for a league-record fee from Independiente but was also bogged down in off-field issues. Can de Boer get Barco to live up to his potential?

Atlanta will be under pressure to continue to develop George Bello as the U.S. U-17 left back is one of the top prospects in the United States. With the loss of Greg Garza to Cincinnati, Bello will see more time. Also, what will be the progress of U.S. U-20 attacker Andrew Carleton who showed glimpses of promise in the preseason but struggled for minutes in 2018 and was subject to disciplinary action for off-field issues in the playoffs.

Combined with the aging nature of Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz, Atlanta has both talent and serious questions heading into 2019.

Key Losses: Miguel Almiron, Greg Garza
Key Additions: Pity Martinez, Brek Shea.

3rd: DC United

DC United got off to a poor start in 2018 but finished with a massive run to make the playoffs. This was primarily due to three reasons: 1) The addition of Wayne Rooney, 2) Russell Canouse’s return from injury, 3) The late opening Audi Field which allowed for most of DC United’s games in the second half of the season to be played at home. This year, DC United will have Rooney and Canouse from the start of the season.

But DC United added a lot. Attacking midfielder Lucas Rodriguez joins the team on loan from Estudiantes and right back Leonardo Jara has joined from Boca Juniors. Both Rodriguez, Jara, and established star Luciano Acosta were once teammates at Estudiantes.

DC United had a lot going for it and perhaps we are selling them short at third place.

Key Losses: Yamil Asad, Darren Mattocks, Nick DeLeon
Key Additions: Lucas Rodriguez, Leonardo Jara

4th: Columbus Crew SC

Head coach Gregg Berhalter left to take the national team job and he was replaced by Caleb Porter. Also the club has brought in Tim Bezbatchenko as the sporting director and both Porter and Bezbatchenko have strong Ohio ties.

Last season was a murky time for the Crew whose fans were fighting to save the team’s own existence. With the successful conclusion of that ugly episode, Columbus can now get focused on keeping up its winning program – which advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals last year.

Unfortunately for the Crew, Milton Valenzuela will miss the upcoming season with a torn ACL. But besides Valenzuela, the squad from 2018 remains largely intact.

Winger Robinho Barbosa has joined the team from Brazil's Ceara and Costa Rican veteran left back Waylon Francis has also signed for the Crew. The only other significant addition is U.S. U-20 homegrown signing Aboubacar Keita.

But how will Porter take over a squad used to Berhalter’s system? What will Trapp’s relationship be with his former college coach?

Key Losses: Milton Valenzuela (injured), Mike Grella, Adam Jahn
Key Additions: Robinho Barbosa, Waylon Francis, Aboubacar Keita.

5th: The Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union added some right pieces in the attack but success this year will be dependent on the growth of the team’s backline – especially its two young American central defenders in Mark McKenzie and Austin Trusty. Last year the two U.S. youth internationals were key towards getting Philadelphia to the playoffs. This year, the Union will have to hope both avoid sophomore slumps.

Mexican international Marco Fabian is the key addition to the Union this year and he will take over the attacking role left by the departed Borek Dockal. Forward Sergio Santos will also take over a lot of the attack. Santos arrives on the heels of a nice season for Audax in Chile and will probably outpace the production of the recently departed CJ Sapong, who disappointed in 2018.

Key Losses: Borek Dockal, CJ Sapong, Keegan Rosenberry
Key Additions: Marco Fabian, Kai Wagner, Sergio Santos

6th: New York City FC

New York City FC will enter into a new era as club legend David Villa has left. But Villa is not the only departure as Yangel Herrera and Jo Inge Berget are also not returning to the Bronx.

But above it all, manager Dome Torrent will finally have a full season and a newer squad to put his stamp on things. Last year he struggled replacing Patrick Vieira halfway through the season but this will be his time to be fully judged.

Romanian international Alexandru Mitrita will be key as he will have to replace the production left by Villa. Keaton Parks will also have a lot of responsibilities in helping the midfield control the game.

New York City has some talent but the loss of Herrera and Villa is enormous and there are a lot of question marks about the replacements. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this team fall out of the playoff spots.

Key Losses: David Villa, Yangel Herrera, Jo Inge Berget
Key Additions: Alexandru Mitrita, Keaton Parks, Juan Pablo Torres

7th: Montreal Impact

The East is a bit of a downer this year when compared with seasons past. That could be the opportunity Montreal needs to sneak back into the playoffs.

Ignacio Piatti remains one of the league’s best players and he should be able to elevate his supporting cast to some extent. A lot is going to have to break Montreal’s way. Maxi Urruti will have to score a lot of goals. Harry Novillo will have to impress.

With so many teams at the bottom of the East having serious changes, I’ll predict Montreal sneaks into the playoffs based on the momentum from a nice finish to the 2018 season.

Key Losses: Matteo Mancosu, Alejandro Silva
Key Additions: Maxi Urruti, Harry Novillo, Orji Okwonkwo

8th: Chicago Fire

The Chicago Fire had a terrible offseason that generated a lot of bad headlines. Brandon Vincent retired at the age of 24. Matt Polster left for Rangers. Top homegrown Andrew Gutman won the Hermann Trophy and did not seem interested in signing for Chicago. Everything about the team seemed to be negative.

Expectations are low but there is, strangely, enough talent there to exceed them. A lot will depend on how good Djordje Mihailovic is now that he is fully recovered from his ACL injury. He will have to continue his momentum from the recent U.S. national team camp into the start of the season. Also, can Marcelo help the backline that has been decimated.

It’s tough to predict that Chicago will make the playoffs but it’s not unreasonable to see them feeding off the negative headlines to exceed expectations too.

Key Losses: Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent, Michael de Leeuw
Key Additions: Marcelo, Przemyslaw Frankowski, David Ousted

9th: Toronto FC

Toronto FC was bad last year and during the offseason, it lost Sebastian Giovinco – one of the greatest players in league history. It’s hard to predict anything will get any better.

Toronto isn’t likely to go directly to the basement of the East. The team will likely find another designated player and it has a decent homefield advantage. If Jozy Altidore gets healthy (always a big “if”), then the team will score goals. Can Michael Bradley rediscover the form that helped Toronto to win MLS cup just 14 months ago?

But the key additions of Laurent Ciman, Terrence Boyd, and Nick DeLeon seemed liked they would be nice additions to a team if the year was 2013. All three are not what they used to be.

Everyone is going to have to play better for Toronto this year, as opposed to looking for Giovinco to bail them out. That’s not impossible but it’s hard to be optimistic about the team’s chances.

Key Losses: Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vazquez
Key Additions: Laurent Ciman, Terrence Boyd, Nick DeLeon

10th: New England Revolution

The New England Revolution will be entering into year two under Brad Friedel and things don’t really look all that promising. The roster looks disjointed and uneven.

Defense, in particular, looked very suspect and the team bled goals in 2018 and recently suffered a 6-1 preseason loss to Orlando. Preseason shouldn’t be taken that seriously but that game raised a lot of red flags about the problems from last year not getting corrected. When team’s press, they need good central defenders if the press gets beaten. That’s how the Red Bulls are successful and that’s where New England falls apart.

When the team needed defense, it responded by focusing in on bringing in forwards Carles Gil and Juan Fernando Caicedo. Those forwards could very well be good but it is just not what the team needs.

Here’s to predicting another tough year in New England.

Key Losses:  Kelyn Rowe, Chris Tierney, Claude Dielna
Key Additions: Juan Fernando Caicedo, Carles Gil, Edgar Castillo

11th: Orlando City SC

Last year, Orlando City had the worst defense in the history of MLS. In the offense, the team responded to that concern by signing 32 year old Portuguese winger Nani. Sacha Kljestan’s productivity fell in 2018 and he remains the starting playmaker.

To its credit, Orlando did make a push to bring in young Ecuadorian international Sebastian Mendez to handle the defensive midfield responsibilities. If he can shield the team’s backline, it could be something to build around. It will also be interesting to see how Danny Acosta does at left back. He did not seem like a good fit with Real Salt Lake but could do well with a change of scenery.

If everything clicks, the team should be able to score goals with Nani, Dom Dwyer, and Kljestan. But it is probably going to be a long season.

Key Losses: Joe Bendik, Yoshi Yotun
Key Additions: Nani, Sebastian Mendez, Danny Acosta

12th: FC Cincinnati

The brand new expansion team will be joining the league after previously playing in the USL. The team has not made the splash signings that Atlanta has made but it instead is building from the back forward. Left back Greg Garza and Kendal Waston are known commodities and established in the league. Fanendo Adi has scored well in MLS before but his final season at Portland wasn’t great.

This team won’t make much of a splash in MLS this year but maybe they can find some pieces for a future foundation.

Key Losses: No one
Key Additions: Everyone.

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