Taking a look at the other side of the table, here are my predictions for the standings in the Eastern Conference. Despite not housing as many of the perennial powers in the league, the East is difficult to predict due to how volatile results have been across the board for the teams in the past few years. The rise of teams like Kansas City and New York have only occurred in the last couple of years, while teams like Columbus, Chicago, and DC have all slacked off in that time.
With the amount of player transactions this year, the East is going to be even harder to predict. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make ourselves out to look like imbeciles by trying! As always, feedback is most appreciated. Let me know your thoughts on my predictions in the comments or on Twitter, and if you have predictions of your own, make them known as well!
The schizophrenia continues in Quebec. With the club opting to backtrack on their decision to go “European” in the coaching staff last year, the hiring of Frank Klopas raises big questions about where this team is headed in the near term. Klopas’ time as Chicago’s skipper ended badly, with many fans upset by both player acquisitions and on-field tactics. It’s hard to see how he’ll amount to much more in Montreal with the transactions they’ve made thus far.
Certainly the likes of Marco Di Vaio, Felipe, and Patrice Bernier will go far in continuing the stability of the group, but aging legs across the roster are going to cause major problems down the stretch. Di Vaio, Bernier, Matteo Ferrari, and Nelson Rivas (all core players the past two seasons) are in their 30’s. The player transactions they’ve made don’t necessarily aid in this way either.
A defender from the Superdraft (Eric Miller) and US veteran and oft-injured Heath Pearce aren’t going to be providing enough on the pitch to take over the tasks when weary players are rested. And adding another foreign forward (Santiago Gonzalez) to an already full forward stable does not equate to rest for a 37 year old Di Vaio.
A combination of that schizophrenic management, Klopas’ inept tactical style, and not having the proper pieces in place to fill the gaps of older players is going to cost Montreal this year. While I don’t think they’ll be nearly as bad as Colorado, they will be last in the East.
Greg Berhalter makes his MLS coaching debut in Columbus. And, like any new manager with a clear-cut vision, he kicked things off by what could be considered a wholesale roster remake.
I applaud him for releasing dead weight with players like Matias Sanchez, Glauber, and Konrad Warzycha. The former two were expensive for their performances, and Berhalter needed to jettison them to afford other acquisitions. What rubs me wrong is the trading of both GK Andy Gruenebaum and defender Chad Marshall, both longtime fixtures in the Crew roster. Gruenebaum waited more than half a decade for the chance to become a starting goalie. He did so admirably in 2012, and showed well again in 2013. Kansas City is lucky to have gotten him.
Likewise with Marshall, whom they’ve essentially replaced with Michael Parkhurst. Next to him is Costa Rican international Giancarlo Gonzalez. An able pairing, but one good enough to displace Marshall?
Goalkeeping is now a mixed bag, as it’s a toss up between Crew homegrown keeper Matt Lampson (good, not great) and Brad Stuver whom Columbus received from Seattle. Stuver is unproven in MLS, and the verdict is out on his performance. If there’s one thing this league has proven over the years, it’s that it’s none too kind to young or unproven goalies. Imagine Chris Seitz or Zac MacMath in Philly over the years, and I think that might be what the Crew face in 2014.
My biggest gripe with Columbus is their lack of additions up top. They will continue to rely heavily upon the creativity of Federico Higuain (arguably an intelligent decision) that serves the likes of Jairo Arrieta and Dom Oduro. Neither of the two forwards finished 2013 on a high note in spite of having on par seasons otherwise. And unless Berhalter has somehow coached these guys into a goal-scoring fervor, I highly suspect their offensive threat. Backing them up is most likely the young Ryan Finley and the slightly older Justin Meram. Neither showed well last season, and it’ll take another renaissance to get these bench options going.
Columbus should finish with only a few points separating them from the 8th and 10th spots, but far from a playoff berth.
If one team can be tabbed as a “wholesale remake”, it’s DC. Ben Olsen’s second full year in charge is going to be defined by how many seemingly quality additions he made. Unfortunately for him, the level of remodelling is on the plane of rebuilding. And we know what happens to teams entering true rebuilding years.
What I like: clearing salary space by waiving players like Dwayne De Rosario, Carlos Ruiz, and Lionard Pajoy. I also really like the defensive pickups of Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke, and Superdraft pick Steve Birnbaum. Defense shouldn’t be nearly as much of a concern as last season, especially when they’re still backstopped by USMNT backup keeper Bill Hamid.
The amount of money they’ve freed up allows them to afford guys like Sean Franklin and Eddie Johnson, but here’s where my likes end. Johnson is clearly the type of player seeking the most in return for the minimum. That leads to inconsistent performance throughout a season, as witnessed in Seattle. Moreover, I’m completely unsure of how a partnership between he and Fabian Espindola is ever going to mesh well enough to create the offense needed. To me, it’s a recipe for disaster, on and off the field. EJ’s been called a locker room cancer before, and when you add the feisty and fiery personality of Fabi into it, it’s going to be explosive.
While the midfield isn’t nearly as bad as it was in 2013 (Olsen has done a great job of adding attacking talent in Alex Caskey and replacing midfield leadership with Davy Arnaud), unless they have the true creativity that’s needed from players like Luis Silva or Victor Munoz, I don’t see how the men up top are going to be able to produce. And that compounds the concerns I already mentioned with EJ and Fabi.
What works in their favor is that they have no where else to go but up, finishing the league in dead last and setting a mark for the league’s worst record in 2013. They have a lot to work towards, though, and whether all the pieces they’ve added stick around for more than one season will help decide if DC is still rebuilding next year or simply just consolidating. I have them pegged as bottom feeders in the East; far off from 7th place Houston, but in the pack with #9 and #10 in points, and well ahead of Colorado out West.
Another thing we’re never to doubt: Dom Kinnear making the playoffs. As with Bruce Arena, let me be the detractor. This season is going to be marked by the fall from grace of a couple of the big powers (the other being Seattle). I love ya Dom, but I’m sorry — you’re just not convincing me of another playoff appearance.
Reason being their list of player moves. Firstly, not re-signing Boswell, regardless of his expense, is a big mistake for a team that’s always had a solid depth chart for their back line. They’ve chosen to replace him with David Horst, a player I like in theory, but, as an RSL supporter, know his limitations as well as his history with injuries. Horst is not a guy to be relied upon in a starting role over the course of a season. It’s going to force GK Tally Hall and the rest of the defense to keep their act together. Hall is not known as an organizational keeper, and with the attacking prowess of their wing backs, this could put the whole defense on their heels and not allow them to contribute to the attack like they otherwise would.
The one move I absolutely love is getting Tony Cascio on loan from the Rapids. He’s been lethal in preseason, and that should continue in the regular season. But to think one man on loan (a young player with only couple of seasons under his belt, at that) is going to carry this team, you’re mistaken. Houston still have the likes of Brad Davis, Will Bruin, and Ricardo Clarke stabilizing the squad. But it’s going to take much more effort than last year from all these veterans, especially in the forward unit.
Guys like Giles Barnes and Bruin are going to need to have career years to get into the playoffs against a lot of teams that have vastly improved beyond Houston’s level. This comes down to the simple fact that Houston just may not have done enough in the offseason to keep up with the Jones’. Kinnear and Company don’t make the playoffs, but it’s a tight race for that 5th spot between them, Chicago, and New England.
I completely despised the Frank Yallop pick for manager. I despise his out-dated style and tactics. I despise his past selections of personnel. And I despise Chicago for thinking Yallop is going to be the man that leads them back to the playoffs. He’s not… at least in the first year.
I do have to temper a lot of my animosity towards Yallop. The way he’s remade this roster so far is something that has partially redeemed him in my eyes. Like Berhalter in Columbus, Yallop has lopped off expensive options that have not produced. Bringing in players like Lovel Palmer and Greg Cochrane will give them actual wing back options instead of playing converted center backs on the outside. And from all accounts, the rookie Marco Franco has shown very well and could make a good deal of first team minutes this year. Deepening the goalkeeper position by signing NASL champion Kyle Reynish is another great move.
Getting Benji Joya through the lottery is no credit to Yallop or the FO, but he should be a factor for them going forward. As good of a get as Joya is, it’s the only positive addition to the team that the Fire can’t claim solely as their own doing.
What keeps me from ranking Chicago higher is my lack of faith in Yallop’s tactics with this group. Juan Luis Anangono has been played rarely in preseason, and some Fire supporters question if he’ll be a main cog for the team like he was late last year. Where Yallop chooses to play Mike Magee is another thing that could hinder them tactically. It’s been awhile since Yallop’s had anyone with Magee’s type of offensive acumen. The offseason kerfuffle with Magee’s contract could help make things tough on the field for him, especially if he’s not played in a position that fits his style (in my opinion, wide attacking midfield and not as an out-and-out forward). Magee should still score a boat load of goals. And that’s the other issue: Chicago cannot afford to be overly-dependent on Magee’s scoring to carrying them through. I fear they’ll make that mistake anyway, just as Yallop did in the past with Chris Wondolowski.
In the end, Chicago should not be written off by any team. They’ll compete for a playoff spot. But they’re going to fall just short to teams that have consolidated their positions in the conference. Namely New England.
Jay Heaps is making a name for himself in MLS’ coaching ranks to go alongside others like Jason Kreis, Peter Vermes, and Caleb Porter. He’s augmented his squad from 2013 with quality players that add depth to the roster as well as role players that’ll come in handy down the stretch.
Heaps has cut dead weight like Chad Barrett, cut budget with guys like Juan Toja and Juan Agudelo, and added good talent like Teal Bunbury, Brad Knighton, and Daigo Kobayashi.
Between injuries and poor performances in KC, Bunbury wasn’t impressing much of anybody anymore. His preseason showings with New England were phenomenal, though, and a move to the north east may be what his career needs to be reinvigorated. Preseason is only preseason, but I’m predicting his form continues.
Matt Reis’ retirement hit the team a bit as he’s backstopped the Revs for 10 years. But it opens up the door for two guys wanting an opportunity to be #1: Brad Knighton and Bobby Shuttleworth. No one should be concerned with either of them in net and they should be one of the best tandems in the league.
Kobayashi was not played properly in Vancouver. That much is clear. It’s apparent he has the talent to do well in MLS, and I think Heaps uses him wisely in 2014. They’ll need his type of service as Toja never met expectations, and the potential of having both he and Lee Nguyen on the field simultaneously is going to be a sight to see.
Say what you will about the Kraft family and their commitment to the Revs, but the coaching staff, GM, and other technical personas in the club have been making this squad into an eventual contender. You’ll see the Revs in the playoffs this year for the first time in quite awhile.
A team that I’m crushing on right now is Philadelphia. And I say that in the most esteemed way that a fan of another team can. John Hackworth, like Heaps, is another making his name as a coach. The club’s been serious about shirking the “cheap” moniker some fans have associated with the Union, and this year that spending (albeit modestly) will be seen in results.
Without a doubt, Maurice Edu is the biggest signing. He brings a ton of experience to a team that needs it in the midfield. This might mean Amobi Okugo is again riding the bench, but it gives the young one a reputable mentor in that defensive midfield position.
Shoring up defense, the addition of Austin Berry brings quality young talent centrally. While this still means an opportunity for Okugo to play at center back, it can mean that Sheanon Williams can shift back to his preferable fullback spot. And the talk of the draft, Andre Blake, is expected to come in and compete for a starting role in net with MacMath. It’s exactly what MacMath needs to help elevate his game, and if Blake is as good as everyone says he is, it’s a win-win for the club.
Midfield acquisitions Maidana and Vincent Nogueira are not proven, and I admit to that. But I have high hopes that they do exactly what they were brought in to do, especially Maidana in the effective #10 role. Good service for the strikers is going to be a necessity because I see that forward line being the biggest concern for the team.
Jack McInerney might have a stellar season. He also might flop again with another 20 game drought. What’s for certain is that Conor Casey is not going to be aiding him, at least for the short-term as he nurses his injuries. Beyond that, Philly’s striker core is thin. Aaron Wheeler, Antoine Hoppenot, and Yann Ekra have either performed well at lower levels or have shown flashes of brilliance in MLS, but if they’re the ones relied upon to score goals, expect not much. This should open the door for Sebastien Le Toux to reassert himself as a consistent starting forward, but walking the walk is a different story.
If Philly can get things figured out offensively, I could even rank them higher than #4. If they don’t, expect 1-0 and 2-1 results all season a la 2011. Just enough to get into the playoffs.
Lots of people are high on TFC right now. It’s easy to get orgasmic about a club when they spend $100 million in the offseason. I think that half of the hype is well-founded. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Defoe are going to produce in many ways.
Conversely, lots of people are trying to temper all the hype surrounding Toronto, saying that head coach Ryan Nelson doesn’t have what it takes to play with $150 million of personnel. I happen to also think that this is well-founded. I have zero faith in Nelson knowing what he’s doing.
My view of TFC is a middle ground. The big names they’ve signed are actual known qualities, and that is testament to the work by Tim Bezbatchenko and Tim Leiweke. This isn’t a crew that brings in players like Mista or Maicon Santos that are either flops or streaky. Nor are they bringing in Eric Hassli, Amado Guevara, or Julian de Guzman simply because of their status without a clear way of integrating them into the team dynamic.
Bradley and Defoe are going to be successful not just because of who they are, but because of the players club management has surrounded them with. Players like Jackson, Justin Morrow, Bradley Orr, and even former TFC-er De Rosario are guys picked to work together, instead of just being filler around the stars.
DeRo in particular interests me, primarily because I’m anxious to see how his attacking creativity meshes with Bradley’s preference to play box-to-box and create himself. Having overlapping fullbacks that can actually perform the jobs well is going to aid in this, and even if only half the chances created by all of these players go in the net, TFC could be one of the highest scoring teams in the league.
Time for more tempering: I’ve picked TFC to make the playoffs before; two years ago under Aron Winter. I was proven wrong because of the lack of cohesion as a unit, and because of the injuries to key players. I could be proven wrong again as Nelson could botch tactics and misplay players. I’m taking my chances, though, with a solid third place finish.
The Supporters’ Shield winners are back at the top, albeit not handing in a repeat result. Mike Petke and Company did not go about changing much about their squad, and I have a tough time seeing how they’ve consolidated the existing team into a better position for 2014.
Picking up two defenders (Armando and Richard Eckersley) is going to help the defense a lot. Eckersley has played both centrally and outside in Toronto, but having quality on the flank for NY will help them in two-way play, something they’ve not always had before. Luis Robles locked himself in that #1 GK position, and although he makes his obligatory mistake each game, overall play has been up to par.
Bringing in another TFC player in Bobby Convey will boast additional grit and ball-winning abilities in the midfield. I see Convey as another progression of the Jonny Steele/Dax McCarty type of pickup. And pushing Peguy Luyindula to a central attacking midfield position instead of as a forward takes advantage of all of the guy’s skills while freeing up another striker spot next to Thierry Henry.
But this is where my likes stop. The forward stable is thin. Very thin. Arguably thinner than Philadelphia’s. NYRB’s options at the position include Andre Akpan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and… well, that’s it. Unless Petke is keen on getting all of his goals from 36 year old Henry (who admittedly still has the ability), or having his midfielders step up their scoring tendencies, I don’t see how the offense surpasses that of the last two years. It’s an obvious spot for a mid-season acquisition, but that’s months away.
Their defense is going to carry them, barring any major, long-term injuries. And this’ll result in a very gritty, gutsy performance all season long. NY will grind out results and it’ll get them back near the top. But they’ll ultimately concede their claims to a Shield repeat to last year’s MLS Cup champs.
Like a few others, the reigning MLS Cup champions have not made many moves in the offseason. They’ve brought in three: Sal Zizzo (an able midfield backup), Andy Gruenebaum (a known commodity and challenger for the #1 GK spot), and Superdraft pick Alex Martinez (someone I haven’t heard a great deal about).
By far, letting go of Bunbury was the biggest move, and that pays dividends down the line regarding salary. Jimmy Nielsen’s retirement freed space for the advancement of Eric Kronberg, and the Kronberg/Gruenebaum tandem could be better than the aforementioned Knighton/Shuttleworth one. Nielsen’s coaching gig with with SKC’s affiliate Oklahoma City Energy will assure the continuance of development for the younger guys, too.
Honestly, there was never much to fix in Kansas City. They vied for the Shield in 2013 and won the Cup, too. That was despite seeing Kei Kamara off to England and having Dom Dwyer on loan with Orlando City for most of the year. CJ Sapong, Soony Saad, and Claudio Bieler will still be threatening the goal in some capacity, and service from Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber is still going to be challenging defensive tactics by most teams in the league.
Defensively, it’s the same story. All players are back and looking to make another run. No one’s having issues with the goalkeeping situation, and as long as Uri Rossell is properly healed, defensive midfield should keep progressing as well.
Provided SKC’s tactics haven’t become passe or outdated (and there’s no reason to think they have), they’re going to mimic Portland’s rise out West, albeit on a much higher level. SKC is another power to stay in the league, and the East better be on guard for what’s coming at them.