Eastern Conference Preview
Toronto is Tops, with Both New York Teams in the Mix
March 03, 2017
IT'S NO SECRET that making season predictions in MLS is almost guaranteed to make any prognosticator look bad. There is no question that it is a fun challenge, but it takes a minor miracle to predict final standings with any sort of accuracy.
Last year, I got some things very right and other things very, very wrong. I thought Columbus would win the top seed in the Eastern Conference and it finished second to last. I also thought Colorado would finish last in the Western Conference; they came in second.
On the other hand, I thought Toronto would make significant strides last year and it did. I thought FC Dallas would win the Supporters Shield and that happened. I didn’t have New York City FC finishing second in the Eastern Conference but I thought it would make the playoffs for the first time.
So in another attempt at writing a column I know will make me cringe later in the year, here is how I think the Eastern Conference will shape up in the 2017 regular season.
1. Toronto FC
The MLS Cup finalists return almost all of its key players—including Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley—which should make it the team to beat in the league. This team has spent a lot of money and it improved mightily in 2016. This year only the MLS Cup will suffice.
2. New York Red Bulls
The offseason was messy for the Red Bulls as general manager Ali Curtis walked away and team captain Dax McCarty was traded. Still, there is talent and a winning formula in Harrison, N.J.. Jesse Marsch is one of the better coaches in the league and Sacha Kljestan is maybe the best midfielder in MLS. The replacements for McCarty, local products Tyler Adams and Sean Davis, are both very talented.
On the downside, age is an issue with Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, both 31. There is not a lot of depth behind Wright-Phillips and central defense has never really recovered from the loss of Matt Miazga in 2015. If the front office will spend some money, the Red Bulls could push for the Supporters Shield again.
3. D.C. United
A lot has to go right for D.C. United to finish third this year—but I like its chances. The starting XI in the nation’s capital is quite strong. Ian Harkes is an immediate contender for rookie of the year and he plays a position that is an area of desperate need—central midfield. Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum comprise a solid central defense tandem and Patrick Mullins will have to be clinical up top if this team is going to push into the top three.
4. New York City FC
This team desperately wanted to make the playoffs last year after firing Jason Kreis in 2015. While it accomplished that goal, Patrick Vieira’s team was pounded by Toronto in its opening series on a laughable 7-0 aggregate score. The team is younger now and Jack Harrison will be healthy to start the season. That is all positive but defense is still a major question mark. On the attacking side, however, this team can be dangerous.
5. Columbus Crew SC
Last year was a complete disaster for Columbus, a team that was never in the playoff picture despite hosting MLS Cup in 2015 and despite returning many of its key players. Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram are still among the best wing tandems in the league and if Federico Higuain can continue to play at a high level, there's no dobut it has attacking talent But big questions remain: Can Wil Trapp get back on track after being considered one of the top young American players two seasons ago? Is Ola Kamara good enough to be the top goal scorer? The backline is improved significantly with Ghana international John Mensah on board. In MLS, that can cover up a lot.
6. Atlanta United
Atlanta United is coming into MLS with a real purpose and its acquisitions have been remarkable. Tata Martino is one of the most high-profile coaches in league history —although it's worth noting that foreign coaches often struggle in Major League Soccer.
Atlanta's designated players are young and talented: Atlanta reportedly outbid several European suitors to land Miguel Almirón. Héctor Villalba is another impressive signing and he should add intrigue to the team’s attack. Homegrown product Andrew Carleton, 16, is extremely young and will miss time with the U.S. U-17 team this season but he is one of the league’s most promising teenagers.
Behind the glitz and the glamour, Atlanta lacks depth and that can be especially difficult for expansion teams. Michael Parkhurst, the team captain, struggled last year with Columbus and left back Greg Garza has missed most of the past two years with injuries. So the backline has issues right from the start.
It is tough for an expansion team to make the playoffs but this team has a lot more pieces to start with than most other newcomers.
7. Montreal Impact
Montreal came close to making it to MLS Cup last year and a big reason was Ignacio Piatti who established himself as one of the most dangerous and entertaining players in the league. The problem is that this team is old. Designated player Blerim Dzemaili will arrive this summer and he should help but a big test will be if it can get any production out of its younger homegrown players this year.
8. Chicago Fire
After a series of last-place finishes, Chicago is trying to pick up the pieces and move forward. The club hired Cedric Cattenoy from Paris St. Germain to run the academy, and there is now a long-term vision in the Windy City.
The good news is that this team is improved heading into 2017. The bad news is that it will still probably fall short of the playoffs. Dax McCarty is a massive upgrade in midfield and he should provide not just class on the field but also steady leadership. Juninho will only add to the bite in the center of the pitch—where it was desperately needed. Chicago's attack was decent last year and its primary problem was that the forwards were starved for service. That should be alleviated.
Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent both showed promise in rookie seasons last year. The Fire cannot afford either to have a sophomore slump.
Chicago can certainly be competitive this year if it stays healthy and it would be massively important to the league if the Fire can win back fans it has lost in recent years.
9. New England Revolution
A poor end to the 2016 season saw the Revolution fail to qualify for the playoffs. This team will rise and fall with how well central defense and defensive midfield can perform. The attacking components are talented MLS veterans like Kei Koroma, Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, Kellyn Rowe, and Lee Nguyen.
Head coach Jay Heaps will have to hope midfielder Xavier Kouassi will be effective after missing 2016 and he will have his fingers crossed that Ivory Coast international Benjamin Angoua can plug up a backline in desperate need of repair.
10. Orlando City SC
Orlando City SC will move into a new stadium this year and will hope to make strides toward becoming a marquee team in the league. Jason Kreis came in last summer and made a number of mid-season adjustments; he will now have his first full season in Florida to get this team to the playoffs for the first time.
11. Philadelphia Union
Philadelphia made the playoffs for just the second time in its history last year but bowed out quickly after a decisive 3-0 defeat to Toronto in the first round. Things aren't looking much better as the 2017 campagin gets underway.
The 2016 team never really recovered from the midseason loss of Vincent Nogueira. In this offseason, the Union said goodbye to Tranquillo Barnetta, a huge loss, while offseason acquisitions of Jay Simpson and Giliano Wijnaldum are underwhelming at best.
The backline is full of holes and Josh Yaro, after an up and down rookie season, is injured until the summer. Meanwhile, Oguchi Onyewu, who hasn’t played in more than two years, is actually slated to start in central defense. Defensive midfielder Maurice Edu, by the way, is still injured.
Philadelphia faded down the stretch and barely hung on to make it to the postseason. There is nothing to suggest that the club will alter this trajectory in the coming year.