2014 MLS Season Preview: Eastern Conference Primer
What's that old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it?" Teams in MLS' Eastern Conference abided by that little bit of wisdom in preparing for the 2014 season, in both directions. Teams that were broken took concrete (and sometimes headline-making) steps to fix their problems. Meanwhile, the squads that finished among the elite opted for smaller moves, or almost no moves at all.
Two of the teams with room to stand pat were the same two that flip-flopped at the top of the East table for most of the year: the New York Red Bulls (who won the Supporters' Shield), and Sporting Kansas City (who went on to win MLS Cup). Both boast enough talent to repeat that success in 2014, but the real story is the sea change happening at the opposite end of the table.
Each of the bottom-feeding trio of D.C. United, Toronto FC, and Columbus Crew (which collectively represented three of the bottom four teams in the entire league in 2013) made significant changes, either on the field, off of it, or both.
In 2014, the structure of the East could very well depend on just how quickly those moves can settle in together and start producing winning soccer. If they do, the East will be as wide-open as it's ever been, and the West's best could have the inside track to the Supporters' Shield as East teams beat up on each other.
Here is a breakdown of the MLS Eastern Conference as the 2014 season approaches:
• Michael Bradley (Toronto FC): The East's most noteworthy new addition also happened to be perhaps the biggest story of the entire MLS offseason. The man who has proven to be an integral part of the U.S. national team's better performances is now faced with the challenge of leading a perennial loser to better days.
• Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC): Only slightly less of a big deal than the capture of Bradley, Defoe gives Toronto an international-quality scoring threat to pair with the stability Bradley will bring to the midfield. The big question is how quickly he can adapt to the sometimes-harsh realities of MLS -- in 15 years as a pro, Defoe has only ever played within a 100-mile radius of his hometown of London.
• Julio Cesar (Toronto FC): Frozen out of a QPR side currently playing in the English Championship, Julio Cesar needed games under his belt to build his form before he joins the Brazilian national team for the World Cup (where he will presumably be the starter). That's right, a Brazilian national team player moved to MLS to secure his place in the Seleção squad. Is any other factoid more indicative of how far the league has come?
• Gilberto (Toronto FC): Once a notable addition, the young Brazilian now seems more like an afterthought to Toronto's other blockbuster buys. But let's not forget the 24-year-old DP is capable of some pretty amazing strikes, like this one and this one.
• Maurice Edu (Philadelphia Union): Edu returns after a stint across the pond with Rangers and Stoke City to help solidify a Union midfield that was frustratingly inconsistent in 2013. Under coach John Hackworth, Edu will fit in to a midfield with club captain Brian Carroll and fellow new addition…
• Vincent Nogueira (Philadelphia Union): The Union made a solid pickup in Nogueira, the French midfielder who most recently captained Ligue 1 side Sochaux. At 26, he is just hitting his prime, and will be counted on to provide an attacking influence at the top of the Union's midfield triad.
• Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union): The MLS SuperDraft's No. 1 overall pick isn't guaranteed starts -- for now, that job belongs to Zac MacMath. But you can bet Blake, who is already part of the Jamaican national team set up, will push the inconsistent MacMath as much as any new pro can be expected to.
• Cristian Maidana (Philadelphia Union): A globetrotter who seems to impress everywhere he goes (before leaving after a season), the Union's new DP figures to slot in at one of the winger positions opposite Sebastien Le Toux.
• Giancarlo Gonzalez (Columbus Crew): The Crew had a big hole to fill after trading club icon Chad Marshall to the Seattle Sounders. In Gonzalez, an important part of the Costa Rica national team setup, they may have the man that can anchor the Crew defense in the team's new era, along with U.S. international and fellow newcomer Michael Parkhurst.
• Benji Joya (Chicago Fire): A rising star on the U.S. national youth scene, Joya joined the Fire on a season-long loan from Mexico's Santos Laguna, where the 20-year-old impressed but failed to hold down a regular spot. With a good approach, 2014 could be a breakout campaign for the youngster.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
• Extreme Makeover: Toronto FC edition: Toronto's astonishing show of ambition in the offseason turned heads all over the world of North American soccer. Within a couple weeks, Toronto went from a league laughingstock to a team that has the talent on paper to compete for its first-ever playoff spot….if not more.
The key words there, though, are "on paper." Also key: stability. This isn't the first time Toronto has changed directions as an organization, in fact, it feels like it's about the 50th. The true indicator of whether things have really changed north of the border will be if the new Toronto FC regime is still around in three years, given the time to grow their organization on and off he field in a way previous editions of this team never had a chance to.
• Flip this midfield: Philadelphia Union edition: On their day in 2013, the Union were capable of playing with anyone in the league. But inconsistency plagued the squad, which never managed to win more than two games in a row. The surest way to fix that consistency problem? Start with the nucleus of the team. The additions of Edu and Nogueira may end up pushing club captain Brain Carroll out of the lineup, but if that equals a few extra wins, Union supporters certainly won't mind.
• United raids the scrapheap: Perhaps no team in 2013 was as surprising as D.C. United -- and certainly not in a good way. Ben Olsen's side put together one of the worst seasons in MLS history, with too many tragicomedic elements to recount in full here (my personal favorite, though: The club scored more own goals over the course of the season [four], than an individual player scored actual goals - a few players tied with three).
The club's response to this debacle? Acquire anyone and everyone on the outs with other MLS clubs. Eddie Johnson clashing with the Sounders locker room? Sign him up! Bobby Boswell out of contract at Houston? Bring him back to RFK! The club also acquired MLS vets Davy Arnaud, Sean Franklin, Fabian Espindola, Jeff Parke, and Nana Attakora in the offseason. They might not be the sexiest of pickups, but this massive injection of MLS professionalism may be just what D.C. needs.
• Gregg Berhalter takes the reins in Columbus: The Crew continued the league trend of handing full control of on-field matters to a single man, with former MLS vet and Hammarby coach Berhalter starting a new era as head coach and technical director for new owner Anthony Precourt. Berhalter seems intent on creating a style of play with Columbus that will translate from the first team all the way down to youth ranks, but it remains to be seen just how long that will take to implement, and when it will turn into wins at the MLS level.
• Fire turn to Yallop: Despite the impressive scoring output of 2013 MVP Mike Magee, the Fire missed the playoffs on goal difference. In response, the Fire dumped head coach Frank Klopas and handed the reins to Yallop -- most recently of the San Jose Earthquakes. It could be an inspired move; if there's one MLS coach that knows how to built a team around a poaching finisher like Magee, its Yallop, who coached Chris Wondolowski from obscurity to a near-record goal-scoring season with San Jose a couple seasons ago.
BIGGEST QUESTIONS ENTERING 2014
• Does Sporting KC have the depth to compete on multiple fronts?: Sporting KC got a taste of what it's like to be spread out among multiple competitions last year with their entry into the 2013-2014 CONCACAF Champions League. Now comes the hard part -- jumping right in to the quarterfinals against Mexican power Cruz Azul while still in early-season MLS form. Then, because of their MLS Cup title, they'll start the whole process over again later in the year in the 2014-2015 version of the international tournament. Sporting president Robb Heineman has made no secret of his ambition to win every trophy available to his club, but with no major additions to last years squad and captain and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen off to retirement, one has to wonder whether KC has the depth to get it done.
• Can the Revs take the next step?: For as much as D.C. United surprised observers with their terrible form, the New England Revolution impressed with their heady, confident play under coach Jay Heaps. Young and fearless, the Revs didn't back down from anyone en route to a third-place finish in 2013 and a near-upset of eventual champion Sporting KC in the playoffs. But where do they go from here? Juan Agudelo left for Europe, but his replacement Teal Bunbury, acquired from KC, has looked good in a similar role. Playmaker Kelyn Rowe has another year of experience under his belt, and Japanese midfielder Daigo Kobayashi, acquired in a trade with Vancouver, will provide a veteran, creative presence to right the ship when youth gets the better of the squad. So the Revs have definitely improved -- but is it enough to consistently top East powers old and new?
• Will Thierry Henry sign a new contract?: Other players might be more consistent than Henry on a game-to-game basis, but no player in the league has his international cachet or his penchant for one-off moments of brilliance. It is for that reason speculation about his contract, which is due to expire at the end of this year, will be rampant throughout the season. By the time the 2014 season ends, Henry will be 37 -- high time to call it a career. But if the last couple years are any indication, the man can still play.
• Is this the year to count out the Dynamo?: If there's one thing you can count on nearly every MLS season since Dominic Kinnear took control of the Houston Dynamo, it's that you disregard the men in orange at your peril. Having said that, I will now disregard the men in orange at my peril. Kinnear's balanced, team-oriented philosophy will keep the Dynamo in a lot of games, but while a historically massive talent injection has taken place in the conference, the Dynamo stayed basically the same as they were last season, minus one of their best defenders (Boswell).
• How will Montreal move on?: It's hard to believe now, but the Montreal Impact looked like surefire favorites for MLS Cup when the 2013 season got underway. Marco Di Vaio was scoring goals at an impressive clip, the Alessandro Nesta-led defense did its job, and the team seemed ideally suited to the physical rigors of an MLS season. But maybe they were less prepared for the mental ones. The Impact's 2013 season ended with a slow slide, with the club winning just once in its final eight regular season games and closing its playoff series loss to the Dynamo with an ugly, embarrassing display of petulance. Manager Marco Schällibaum was let go, former Fire coach Frank Klopas took the reins, and Nesta retired and is now a consultant with the technical staff. Whether this new group can coax another burst of energy out of an aging side remains to be seen.
POTENTIAL WORLD CUP CALL-UPS
• Australia: Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls)
• Brazil: Julio Cesar (Toronto FC)
• Costa Rica: Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew), Giancarlo Gonzalez (Columbus Crew), Roy Miller (New York Red Bulls)
• England: Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC)
• Honduras: Jerry Bengtson (New England Revolution), Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo)
• United States: Mike Magee (Chicago Fire), Michael Parkhurst (Columbus Crew), Eddie Johnson (D.C. United), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Maurice Edu (Philadelphia Union), Graham Zusi (Sporting KC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting KC), Matt Besler (Sporting KC), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH (Top 5 make playoffs)
1. Sporting Kansas City
2. New England Revolution
3. Toronto FC
4. New York Red Bulls
5. Philadelphia Union
6. Chicago Fire
7. D.C. United
8. Columbus Crew
9. Houston Dynamo
10. Montreal Impact