MLS Eastern Conference Preview
The venerable Jaime Moreno returns for yet another title run with DC United.
The signature franchise of Major League Soccer got even stronger this off season with the dumping of malcontent Freddy Adu and two key international signings. Head Coach Peter Nowak resigned to become Bob Bradley’s chief assistant with the US National Team, but his replacement Tom Soehn is very capable. Reigning league MVP Christian Gomez returns as does all time leading goal scorer Jaime Moreno to lead an attack that has been joined by two superb Brazilians: A league (Australia) MVP Fred and Luciano Emilio, who scored three goals in CONCACAF Champions Cup action, and has shown an uncanny knack for proper positioning and finishing. Bryan Namoff, Clyde Sims and Brian Carrol and excellent supporting players in the attack and the defense anchored by Bobby Boswell, Joshua Gros and Facundo Erepen is as good as it gets in MLS. Throw in a finally healthy, battle tested Ben Olsen whose versatility and big game acumen is among the best in MLS history and it’s no wonder why DC United has been since day one of MLS, the showcase franchise of the league. Troy Perkins provides solid goalkeeping, but with the ten men in front of him, any keeper would look good in the DC keeper shirt. Once again in 2007, DC United will be the class of the league.
2. New England
No team has had harder luck through the 12 year history of Major League Soccer than the Revolution. Whether it was putting up with Walter Zenga’s antics, losing top American players to Europe or five near misses at a championship, New England has experienced it all. Last season, the Revolution were oh so close yet again, only to fall short in a penalty kick shootout for the MLS Cup. Super scorer Taylor Twellman reaffirmed his commitment to MLS long term with a new contract. Despite his exclusion for the US World Cup team, Twellman is a goal poacher and finisher unlike any other American born player in the league. Speaking of World Cup snubs, Steve Ralston continues to lead the New England midfield with classy on the ball skills and precision passing. Look for Welsh International Andy Dorman to step into Clint Dempsey’s attacking midfield role without missing a beat. Sharlie Joseph continues to anchor a strong defense from his holding midfield position. Joseph who has attracted the interest of Celtic is unhappy with his current contract. If Joseph leaves New England, Daniel Hernandez a tested MLS veteran will fill in nicely. The backline of Michael Parkhurst, a future US international star, veteran Jay Heaps and Trinidad and Tobago World Cup starter Avery John is as good as it gets in MLS. Matt Reis is the best Goalkeeper in MLS, and he will continue to do an excellent job for the Revolution. The biggest concern about this team is finding an adequate strike partner for Twelllman. Pat Noonan is the incumbent, but he is injury prone and tends to disappear in the bigger matches. If the Revolution don’t find another pure goal scorer up front, they won’t unseat DC United for the Supporters Shield.
Dave Sarachan’s team has the perfect mix of veterans and youth. Chris Armas, entering his 12th MLS season is the glue that holds this team together from the defensive midfield position. Fellow Fire originals CJ Brown and Diego Gutierrez provide veteran leadership to what is an otherwise very young team, especially after letting Nate Jaqua and Zach Thornton go in the off season. Chris Rolfe and Chad Barrett remain capable, competent attacking players with excellent service coming from Justin Mapp and Logan Pause in the midfield. Matt Pickens is solid between the posts, with Jim Curtin anchoring the defense along with CJ Brown. The addition of Cuauhtémoc Blanco could be a boon or a bust. Previous Mexican superstars have performed poorly when bought by MLS, but Blanco unlike Luis Hernandez among others feels as if he has something to prove after being dropped from the Mexican National Team prior to Germany 2006. If anything, Blanco could provide some depth in the attack and help fill up Toyota Park on a regular basis. Chicago will make the playoffs but the US Open Cup which has become a private playground of this club remains the Fire’s best chance of earning silverware this season.
4. Kansas City
Curt Onolfo, a longtime assistant under Bruce Arena with DC United and the US National Team takes over as the new head man in Kansas City. This franchise has had remarkable continuity through the years with basically two head coaches: legendary Ron Newman and under appreciated Bob Gansler. Now with new ownership and a new coach the Wizards are in some ways starting completely anew. Much has been written on this website and others about the poor play of Eddie Johnson, the Kansas City and US National Team Forward. Johnson has an excellent relationship with Onalfo and should return to form this year. Kevin Hartman who has been perhaps the best Goalkeeper in MLS history arrives to stabilize what has been a bad situation since Tony Meola left a few years ago. Kansas City’s back line anchored by US World Cup veteran Jimmy Conrad and Nick Garcia is solid. Keep an eye on left back Jose Burciaga Jr. who is one of the most underrated players in the league. The Wizards midfield is an experienced unit led by Kerry Zavagnin and Sasha Victorine. Will John is a promising young midfielder to keep an eye on. The attack lost Josh Wolff to Bundesligia side 1860 Munich, but up and coming Trinidad International Scott Sealy will effectively replace Wolff. The Wizards have the right combination of players to return to the playoffs this season.
5. Toronto FC
Major League Soccer is more committed than your average North American professional sports league to allowing expansion teams to be competitive. Expansion club Toronto FC has not only sold out season tickets in its state of the art new stadium, but has together a roster that will be able to compete for a playoff birth in its inaugural season. The attacks will feature Alecko Eskandarian, Conor Casey and Edson Buddle. On the surface that lineup of forwards is probably as good as any in MLS aside from DC United, despite Toronto being a new team. The midfield is equally capable featuring former FC Dallas stars Ronnie O’Brien and Richard Mulrooney, along with Jose Cancela the former New England man, and Carl Robinson who has been one of the better players for the Welsh National Team in Euro 2008 qualifying. Again, Toronto could have the best midfield in the league aside from DC United. But the back line is where it becomes obvious that Toronto is an expansion team.
By emphasizing the selection of attacking players coach Mo Johnston has neglected defense almost entirely. The squad lacks quality experienced professionals at the back and Greg Sutton, one of the best goalkeepers from USL (the American second division) will be tested often thanks to the rag tag nature of the defense. Rumors are abound that Johnston will dangle one or more of Toronto’s numerous attacking options as trade bait to acquire a defender. If Johnston is successful in acquiring defensive help, Toronto FC could be a very dangerous team come playoff time.
Sigi Schmid is one of the best teachers American soccer has produced. But this team continues to be too young and too raw to compete for a playoff spot. the addition of Costa Rican Forward Andy Herron, who scored nine times for Chicago last season helps, but the rest of the attacking lineup which includes Kei Kamara, Jacob Thomas, Jason Garey and Joseph Ngwenya are far from impressive. Perhaps US U-20 star Robbie Rogers who has returned stateside from a stint in Holland can help, but Rogers is youngish wing player and may take some time to get fully integrated in the MLS. The Crew midfield is led by Eddie Gaven who has underachieved in his MLS career. Still Gaven scored four goals and added four assists last year to lead the attack. US International Frankie Hedjuk tore his ACL right before the World Cup (a contributing factor to the US’ poor play) and should be fully healthy. Hedjuk however is a rare breed in world soccer: he has in fact had a more productive career with his national team than with his clubs. Robbie Rogers as mentioned above can play on the right side of midfield and Danny O’Rourke should see regular action as well. Duncan Oughton, the capable New Zealand’s who was Columbus go to midfielder in past years has essentially missed two straight seasons with injuries. If Oughton is healthy this season, Columbus could make a serious playoff push, but The defense is solid with veterans Rusty Pearce and Ezra Hendrickson joined by excellent US youth international Chad Marshall. The Goalkeeper situation has been a mess since Johny Walker suffered a career ending injury two years ago. Bill Gaudette is the likely starter.
7. Red Bull New York
Bruce Arena is the best American born coach in the history of soccer. But Arena, much like World Cup Champion Coach Carlos Alberto Parriera, Manchester United heir apparent Carlos Quieroz and respect international coach Bora Milutinovic, did not know what he was getting himself into with this rudderless, lost franchise. While the ownership of Red Bull is a step forward the team is possibly the worst in MLS. The retirement of former French World Cup star Youri Djorkaeff, and the trade of Amado Guevara to Chivas USA left a door open for Claudio Reyna the longtime US captain who was released by Manchester City in January. Reyna was signed under the MLS’ “Beckham Rule” which was supposed to be used by clubs to sign international superstars. It can be argued however that Reyna despite his high salary is an inadequate offensive replacement for Guevara and Djorkaeff. The Red Bulls have trouble scoring goals, and Reyna has essentially played a defensive midfield position (and played it well when healthy) for both Manchester City and Sunderland his last two clubs. The Red Bulls have very little in the attack. John Wolyniec who years ago showed up the Metrostars in an exhibition with the team’s then minor league affiliate on Long Island is the only somewhat accomplished attacker on the team. Josmer Altidore is a future superstar of the US National Team program (in fact some including myself believe he will be better than Freddy Adu), but at just 17 he cannot be forced into a saviors role. Besides, Altidore will be gone while representing the US at the FIFA World Youth Championships right in the middle of the campaign. Perhaps when Mike Magee, a natural midfielder returns from injury in June he can play forward. Journeyman midfielder Demo Kovelenko and Dutch International Dave Van Den Bergh will provide support to Reyna, while the back line could be a disaster. Marvell Wynne, Tim Regan and Todd Dunivant are all players with great potential but cannot yet be relied on to be battle tested against some of the better attacking units in MLS. Tony Meola’s departure opened to door for Ronald Watterhaus who was an average keeper at Manchester City. Considering the high level of goalkeeping in MLS (the only area where MLS stacks up favorably with many European first divisions) he maybe below average for the Red Bulls.
The Best of MLS East
Best Coach: Steve Nicol, New England
Best Passer: Christian Gomez, DCU
Best Finisher: Luciano Emilio, DCU
Best Defender: Bobby Boswell, DCU
Best Tackler: Sharlie Joseph, New England
Best Goalkeeper: Matt Reis, New England
Coming Wednesday: MLS Western Conference Preview with contributions from Michael Haley.