MLS Eastern Conference Preview
MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Crew & Revs lead pack of mass rebuilds
April 12, 2021
THE 2021 MLS SEASON will kickoff this weekend and the Eastern Conference remains the toughest to predict. Yes, it is the home of the reigning champions but this conference has seen a ton of overhaul.
The Red Bulls underwent sweeping changes. Atlanta United has a new coaching staff while also being set for the return of Josef Martinez from an ACL injury. Philadelphia won the Supporters Shield but lost two players who were in the league Best XI. DC United, Toronto, and Inter Miami all have new coaches. Orlando City will either have the return of Daryl Dike midseason, or will have a boatload of cash to spend.
There are so many questions but here is how we think each teams lines up at the start of the season and how we think they will finish.
Columbus Crew SC (1)
Key Additions: Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kevin Molino
Key Departures: Fanendo Adi, Emmanuel Boateng
Complacency is the worst enemy of any champion, and the Columbus Crew were far from complacent during their offseason transfer business.
While they lost key depth players, they replaced almost all of them with even better depth pieces. Jordan Hamilton and Krisztian Nemeth had their options declined at the end of the 2020 season, and the Crew brought in Bradley Wright-Phillips, a two-time MLS Golden Boot winner and two-time MLS Best XI member, to support Gyasi Zardes in the goal-scoring department. Likewise, Kevin Molino provides no drop-off in quality at the attacking midfield position for when Lucas Zelarayan inevitably goes down injured or needs a rest.
The Crew also benefit from the East’s major players over the last five years being in the middle of roster turnovers; Philadelphia lost three starters, neither New York team is primed for an outstanding 2021, Toronto is placing a lot of trust in their young players, Orlando needs its new forwards to hit the ground running and Atlanta is entering their first year under Gabriel Heinze. Maybe the New England Revolution flex all their muscles this season if Gil Dias, Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa can all stay healthy, but the gap in talent afterwards is worrisome.The Crew have a challenging start to the season with six of their first 10 games being away from home to top-five opposition in the Eastern Conference, but they’ve got a shiny new stadium to look forward to beating teams in for the rest of the season come July.
New England Revolution (2)
Key Additions: Emmanuel Boateng, Arnor Ingvi Traustason, Wilfrid Kaptoum
Key Departures: Diego Fagundez
The New England Revolution’s run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2020 was exemplary of the squad’s talent when everyone is healthy and Bruce Arena’s playoff pedigree from the technical area. And like the Crew, the Revolution have reloaded their roster ahead of the 2021 season with reinforcements in midfield and veteran winger Emmanuel Boateng.
Last season’s eighth place finish in the East was a bit deceptive of just how good the Revs can be, especially when Carles Gil was out injured for most of last the 2020 season. Both he and Gustavo Bou provided their side with an electric creative pairing capable of exploiting teams in the half-spaces and with interchanging runs up top with Adam Buksa. With the introductions of Arnor Ingvi Traustason and Wilfrid Kaptoum as well, the Revs’ starting lineup will be filled with players either entering or in the middle of their primes.
However, the Revolution never quite figured out a solution to replace or at least compensate for Gil when he went down injured last season. The team’s offensive production took a clear hit without the Spanish winger’s creative spark and while Tajon Buchanan provided a few admirable performances in his place, it seems as though the Canadian is set for a positional rebrand having filled in at right back (and played well) at the end of the season. They have the depth to go far, now it’s just coming up with a Plan B when Plan A isn’t possible.
Philadelphia Union (3)
Key Additions: Stuart Findlay, Leon Flach
Key Departures: Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Raymon Gaddis
Just five months after lifting the club’s first ever trophy in the Supporters Shield, the Philadelphia Union now face the challenge of maintaining their entertaining, energetic style of play without three of their starters from 2020.
Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson are now in Europe and Ray Gaddis is officially retired, which means the Union need two replacements in their back line and one in their midfield diamond. Luckily for Jim Curtin, Jack Elliott provides a more than capable presence at center back to fill McKenzie’s shoes. Stuart Findlay, a defensive acquisition from Kilmarnock, will also provide the extra bit of depth needed for a team working through a passing of the guard in terms of their academy products working into the first team.
Leon Flach has also returned to the United States after spending the last few years in Germany, and he impressed against Saprissa in what Aaronson’s role in the midfield diamond was. Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn and Jack DeVries, among others, will also be looking to break into the starting lineup now that new spots are up for contention. Perhaps we won’t see one of the Union’s several teenage prospects break into the first team in the same capacity that McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson did last season, but we will likely get a taste of what’s to come from this next wave of players.
I don’t think the Union will fall off badly despite the players that have left, but it’s hard to see this young team overcoming the Revs and the Crew for a top two spot in the East.
Orlando City SC (4)
Key Additions: Alexandre Pato, Silvester van der Water
Key Departures: Daryl Dike, Dom Dwyer, Kamal Miller
The Óscar Pareja era at Orlando City got off to an incredible start last season. They reached the MLS is Back final, finished fourth in the East and qualified for the MLS Playoffs for the first time in club history. Now they must do it again or do better, and they’ll most likely have to do it without Daryl Dike who is currently banging in goals in the EFL Championship on loan at Barnsley and garnering attention from some of the top clubs in the Premier League.
Alexandre Pato and Silvester van der Water were brought in to do just that alongside Nani and Mauricio Pereyra, but neither was in especially fine form before signing with Orlando. Pato’s acquisition feels a lot like when they traded for Dom Dwyer, and the Englishman’s career with Orlando ended last year when the club agreed to let his contract expire at the end of the season. Even van der Water had just three goals and four assists in 12 games at Heracles before arriving stateside, and those aren’t exactly the numbers an MLS Cup contender wants from their striker.
Thankfully, Orlando has one of the best man-managers in the league in Pareja, and these types of players are exactly how he’s developed his reputation as a top coach in MLS. Chris Mueller’s leap in quality and efficiency from 2019 to 2020 along with the rise of Dike already speaks to Pareja’s ability to maximize the potential of his players, and that might be what Pato needs to get firing on all cylinders in Orlando.
Atlanta United FC (5)
Key Additions: Marcelino Moreno, Santiago Sosa, Andrew Ibarra
Key Departures: Eric Remedi, Franco Escobar, Jeff Larentowicz
It’s crazy to think that 2020, the fourth season of Atlanta United’s existence in MLS, was rock bottom for the club. After setting an incredibly high bar in their first three years in the league, Frank de Boer’s time in Atlanta ended in a ball of fire as the Dutchman lost his job after the MLS is Back Tournament and essentially set the team up for a 12th-place finish in the East and their first-ever missed playoffs. Now, it’s time for Gabriel Heinze to make amends.
Heinze’s reign over the 2018 MLS Cup champions started with the acquisitions of Marcelino Moreno, Santiago Sosa, Lisandro Lopez and Andrew Ibarra to spark a not-so-subtle return to 2017-2018 Atlanta’s style of play. Josef Martinez also returned to the field for the first time since he tore his ACL last March which will also feel like a new signing for Atlanta and much needed injection of top-quality goal scoring up top. His return automatically makes those around him better, and that will help push the Five Stripes back into a playoff position.
While this team holds the potential to challenge for a top seed soon, there are some reservations I hold against them doing it immediately this season. There are a lot of new players coming into the game day squad along with a whole new system being introduced under Heinze, and it’s not crazy to expect an adjustment period hitting the team at some point this season. There’s also a few players returning that have question marks over themselves: How does Miles Robinson bounce back from a poor 2020 season, and how will his partnership with Anton Walkes develop? Will Ezequiel Barco hit top gear in this new system and with Martinez’s return? Can George Bello and Brooks Lennon become consistently good on either side of the ball as outside backs?
New York City FC (6)
Key Additions: Chris Gloster, Malte Amundsen, Alfredo Morales
Key Departures: Alex Ring, Ronald Matarrita
Ronny Deila’s start to life as NYCFC’s head coach was decent in 2020, but the expectation of MLS Cup will still loom over his and team’s heads.
Long-time NYCFC players Alex Ring and Ronald Matarrita are no longer in the squad, but their departures made room for the youngsters of the team to make their mark. James Sands and Keaton Parks will likely be the dynamic duo working to facilitate possession and pressure behind Maximiliano Moralez in midfield. Both youngsters had relatively solid 2020 season and should Moralez be less injury prone than last season, could help establish one of the most well-rounded midfield trios across the league. Malte Amundsen, a Danish youth international, will most likely fill Matarrita’s shoes at left back this season to plug another hole in the lineup.
Now the question is which of Valentin Castellanos, Heber, Andres Jasson, Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi is going to score the goals this season. Medina’s been terribly inconsistent since he arrived in New York, Tajouri-Shradi isn’t exactly a goal scorer, and this will be Jasson’s first season as a professional. That leaves Castellanos and Heber, tow players who have shown they are capable of scoring goals and being a central focal point in attack, but neither has provided the consistency in the position to warrant immense confidence in either player.
If either striker can find their form this season there is a better chance NYCFC finish higher up on this list, but Moralez’s health issues and their inconsistencies up top don’t bode well for Deila’s team in attack this season.
Toronto FC (7)
Key Additions: N/A
Key Departures: Laurent Ciman, Pablo Piatti
Despite finishing in second place in the East last season and retaining the services of one of the league’s best playmakers in Alejandro Pozuelo, this Toronto FC side could struggle without any reinforcements coming in to provide depth.
Chris Armas and the club have elected to go down the Philadelphia Union route in entrusting their academy prospects with those depth roles. Noble Okello, Jacob Shaffelburg and Ralph Priso-Mbongue all started and held their own against Club Leon in the Concacaf Champions League last week, and there’s plenty more to be excited about in Ayo Akinola when he returns from injury along with the likes of Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Jayden Nelson. There will be plenty of opportunity for these youngsters to step in for the aging Michael Bradley’s and Jozy Altidore’s of the team and throughout fixture congestion in general.
That said, there really is no way to evaluate just how strong Toronto’s depth is outside of their starting lineup. Should Omar Gonzalez or Eriq Zavaleta be out for stretches with injury, what can Armas and Toronto expect from inexperienced players like Julian Dunn-Johnson or Rocco Romeo at center back? Akinola and Liam Fraser are the poster boys of what Toronto hope to make out of their rising group of youngsters, but that type of trust might come with the cost of dropping in the conference standings and fighting for the last one or two playoff spots.
This could be an exciting year for Toronto fans to see local kids get their shots at breaking into the first team, but it could also be a frustrating one with the number of growing pains that are bound to accompany each of their respective breakthroughs.
New York Red Bulls (8)
Key Additions: Andres Reyes, Fabio Roberto Gomes Netto, Cameron Harper
Key Departures: Tim Parker, Marc Rzatkowski
This offseason has been a revolving door of tenured players being shipped out in favor of new blood to reinstate the relentless, high-pressing philosophy that seems to have faded over the last two years from the Red Bulls under Chris Armas.
Up stepped Gerhard Struber to get the job done. Their first year-MLS head coach was bred in the Red Bull organization both as a player and coach, and the hope is that the Austrian will bring this team back to juggernaut it was back in 2018 under Jesse Marsch. Not much has changed in their work within the transfer strategy under Struber – they are still bringing in relatively unknown players in hopes that the team’s system elicits the best quality out of them – but they now have a coach whose ability to man manage as well as Marsch can initiate that resurgence.
Brazilian forward Fabio is one of those unknowns. Brian White and Tom Barlow struggled to produce consistent goal scoring in front of net, and it looks like the hope is that Struber can turn Fabio – who’s never played in the topflight of a domestic league – into one of the league’s most clinical forwards. Andres Reyes, who spent last season on loan at Inter Miami, returned to Atletico Nacional after an average first season in MLS, but his athleticism will be a welcomed edition to the Red Bulls’ defensive depth.
There will also be a lot riding on 17-year-old Caden Clark and 21-year-old Cristian Casseres as they fight for starting spots. Both have shown their capabilities of being a metronomic 10 and industrious eight, respectively, but now it’s time for both to show they can do it across the majority of a full season. It feels like there’s a lot to work on for the Red Bulls, though, and that might cost them a playoff spot in the short run, but their long-term stature may benefit from it.
Chicago Fire FC (9)
Key Additions: Stanislav Ivanov, Jhon Espinoza
Key Departures: Djordje Mihailovic, CJ Sapong, Brandt Bronico
The Fire returned the core of their team from 2020 with Djordje Mihailovic’s trade to CF Montreal being the biggest surprise of their offseason, but the season-long question for Raphael Wicky’s team is will it have been enough?
Ignacio Aliseda, the Fire’s Young Designated Player, looked good in spurts throughout the 2020, but he never quite produced the same consistency in chance creation as Mihailovic did in the final third. Likewise, though Mauricio Pineda was one of the more consistent performers in the team last season, the Fire’s backline were the orchestrators of their or downfalls for most of the season. The beautiful soccer they produced for 70-80 minutes of the game would be undone in those final 10-20 minutes by a series of defensive calamities that ultimately cost them a playoff spot and labeled them as a fragile team when trying to hold out a lead. The expectation for year two is improvement, obviously, but where are they most in need of it?
Personally, a top-tier center back would have been one of the first positions on my shortlist this offseason, especially given the lack of depth beyond Francisco Calvo and Pineda at the position. Instead, Wicky’s gone for more young faces to provide depth in attack and John Espinoza to fight for the right back job with Boris Sekulic. The departure of Mihailovic also places more pressure on Aliseda to be the final third maestro, but there isn’t enough beyond the starting lineup to instill confidence that the Fire can latch onto a playoff spot.
Nashville SC (10)
Key Additions: Rodrigo Piñeiro, CJ Sapong
Key Departures: David Accam, Derrick Jones
Last year’s surprise package in Nashville SC delivered a modified, season-long exhibition in just how effective a defensively sound system can get a team in MLS. Gary Smith might tell you they want to move toward a more expansive style of play, but there’s no point in moving away from a philosophy that has already proven successful.
Their new forward, Rodrigo Piñeiro, will provide competition for Jhonder Cadiz and add more dynamism to an offense conducted by Hany Mukhtar at the 10. Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy provided the experience and know-how in the double pivot to shield Nashville’s defense and initiate their offensive forays in transition. Dave Romney and Walker Zimmerman return to anchor the back line while Alistair Johnston and Daniel Lovitz provide capable legs to lockdown the flanks or push the ball forward on the counter.
To retain their playoff team status, Nashville needs more production from Cadiz and their depth strikers to balance out their gritty defensive work. Mukhtar has the ability to completely shift the momentum of a game on his own, but he’s going to need some help in front of net if Nashville are going earn wins from level score lines or earn a point from a losing position. It’s a big unknown that could see Nashville lose more points than earn them as they did last season, and that’s why they don’t look like a lock for a second consecutive postseason.
Inter Miami CF (11)
Key Additions: Kelvin Leerdam, Joevin Jones, Gregore
Key Departures: Andres Reyes, Wil Trapp, Ben Sweat
Inter Miami entered the 2020 season with the expectation of mirroring 2017 Atlanta United or 2018 Los Angeles FC, but it instead fell flat on its face like 2017 Minnesota United and 2019 FC Cincinnati. Diego Alonso has since been replaced by Gary Neville as head coach of the club, and there’s been a shift from the South American flair that defined Miami’s initial roster to an experienced group of Premier League and MLS veterans.
This year’s headline signings have been experienced Premier League and MLS veterans in Kieran Gibbs, Ryan Shawcross, Joevin Jones and Kelvin Leerdam as opposed to the flashy, young South Americans from last season. Matias Pellegrini and Julian Carranza, two of those signings, will now have to bounce back from poor 2020 campaigns as the likes of homegrowns starlets Felipe Valencia and Edison Azcona enter the first team fray this season. And, while Neville works on introducing players to their new teammates and attempting to rebuild the confidences of others, he still has to do what Alonso couldn’t in getting Miami’s star cast of players to mesh.
Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi and Rodolfo Pizarro on a single MLS roster should a solid core to build around for at least a playoff push, but Miami are yet to find a rhythm between these three and their supporting cast. Lewis Morgan will likely build on his standout 2020 season on the right wing while Jones, Brek Shea and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez help Shawcross adjust to a new backline, but Neville doesn’t have the credentials to prove he’s the guy that finds a way to make this team click. In this case, I will blame the manager for the club’s misfortunes in 2021.
FC Cincinnati (12)
Key Additions: Brenner, Ronald Matarrita, Luciano Acosta
Key Departures: Kendall Waston, Andrew Gutman, Frankie Amaya
FC Cincinnati have pulled off some wild transfers this offseason. They brought former D.C. United playmaker Luciano Acosta back to MLS and plucked a top Brazilian prospect in Brenner from Sao Paulo despite being the worst team in MLS over the last two seasons. The question is, will Jaap Stam know how to get the most out of players that thrive in free-flowing, high chance creating sides in a system that is simply bunkering in until the counter opens.
I doubt it, and it’s simply because transitioning from what they were last season into some facet of a cohesive counterattacking team even with three or four new faces to do so is a difficult task for any manager to take on. Brenner isn’t going to create much on his own and if players like Acosta or even Ronald Matarrita are overburdened with defensive responsibilities, it’s going to be a tough first year in MLS for the 21-year-old. Jürgen Locadia likely being shipped out onto the wing to allow the Brazilian to play in his more natural center forward role might also cancel out any help Brenner would have gotten from the Dutchman if they were partnered together.
You’d expect some sort of improvement after a high-spending window like this one, but Cincinnati’s inability to be average at best in any offensive or defensive category over the last two years really drains the hope of substantial improvement in 2021.
D.C. United (13)
Key Additions: Adrien Perez, Brendan Daniel Hines-Ike, Jovanny Bolivar
Key Departures: N/A
The buzzword around D.C. United is “youth,” both in terms of their new head coach, 38-year-old Hernan Losada, and their current roster.
Moses Nyeman, Kevin Paredes and Griffin Yow made up the trio of homegrown players that received crucial developmental minutes in 2020. Jacob Greene will look to be the next starlet to break into the first team in defense while 19-year-old Venezuelan forward Jovanny Bolivar arrives on the East coast for his first season in MLS. Unfortunately, the excitement surrounding the team stops after you get past that layer.
Despite having a deep midfield with the likes of Julian Gressel, Felipe Martins, Paul Arriola, Yamil Asad, Russell Canouse and Edison Flores, there is a severe lack in depth and quality in attack and defense. Ola Kamara can be a threat on his day, but the 31-year-old forward hasn’t quite reached the heights he hit during his first two years in the league at Columbus in 2016-17. United’s depth at center back with Steven Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Donovan Pines and now Michael DeShields is a decent group, but the lack of identity and consistenty over the last few years has made this team a disaster defensively.
Losada was highly rated during his time in Belgium with Beerschot, so the goal for him this season might just be to instill some sort of philosophy or consistency within the team before they heavily invest in roster changes for 2022.
CF Montréal (14)
Key Additions: Djordje Mihailovic, Joaquin Torres, Bjørn Johnsen
Key Departures: Anthony Jackson-Hamel, Maxi Urruti, Bojan
Last season’s club captain gone? Check. Last season’s head coach gone? Check. Another offseason of roster-wide turnover? Check. Yeah, it doesn’t look great for CF Montreal on paper, and that’s even worse given their recent rebrand to assimilate to the “modern” aesthetic of some MLS teams’ logos.
Thierry Henry stepped down as head coach due to family issues earlier this year, and in stepped Wilfried Nancy, a well-regarded and well-respected personality with the Montreal organization. He won’t have any trouble getting the players to do as he says and molding the locker room how he feels best fit, but it will be tough to actually generate results from this roster. Djordje Mihailovic was a high risk, high reward signing if he can unlock the 22-year-old’s chance-creating abilities at a more consistent rate this season, but that remains to be seen.
Montreal’s savviest piece of business might have been retaining Luis Binks on loan from Bologna for this season. The Englishman started all but five games for Montreal at center back last season, and it seemed like Henry entrusted him the most when it came to keeping the backline tight and attempting to play out of the back.
Up front, Bjorn Johnsen, a 6-foot-5 Norwegian forward, will hopefully provide the team with some sort of salvation from the opportunities Mihailovic and Romell Quioto create in the final third. He does arrive in MLS with a reputation for scoring goals wherever he’s gone, so Johnsen could be a pleasant surprise for Montreal as they look to avoid falling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference after another offseason of immense turnover.