2018 MLS Eastern Conference preview

On March 3, MLS will kick off its 23rd season featuring a new team in Los Angeles, a new stadium in DC, and new investments in first-teams and academies across the league that have raised the bar again.


1. Toronto FC

What’s To Like: Pretty much everything. Toronto more or less returns the best team in MLS history and should threaten to win the CONCACAF Champions League.

To replace the one starter they lost in Steven Beitashour, TFC went out and got a World Cup finalist in Gregory van der Wiel. They’ve also got a 24-year-old attacking midfielder coming in from Athletic Bilbao in Ager Aketxe.

This team has been firing on all cylinders for a year. There are no signs of it slowing down.

What’s Not To Like: Defending champions usually struggle. Repeats in MLS are exceedingly rare, and slow starts for the previous year’s winner exceedingly common. The urgency just isn’t there like it is, say, when you lost last year’s final on penalties.

How does Toronto avoid that? For one, the expanding cap has allowed the Reds to keep most all of their championship-winning roster intact – one benefit they have that many former champs haven’t.

People are certainly excited about Gregory van der Wiel, and for good reason, but he’s struggled the last couple of years and is a question mark in a lineup without many of them.

Watchability: Never has TFC been more popular in Toronto, where they are expecting to fill BMO Field night in and night out this season. TSN’s Luke Weilman is the league’s best announcer on either side of the Canadian border, and former Toronto center back Steven Caldwell is solid accompaniment.

But the premium entertainment remains Giovinco, whose every free kick is must-watch television.

Projection: I don’t think TFC is going anywhere. This club feels focused enough to become a dynasty – or at least win the Eastern Conference again trying.


2. Atlanta United

What’s To Like: Smashing the MLS transfer record? Atlanta didn’t have many ways to raise the bar after their debut season, but spending more than $15 million to snatch Argentine starlet Ezequiel Barco was one.

Bringing in Darlington Nagbe for nearly a $1 million from Portland didn’t hurt either. Atlanta is adding to the best offense in the league two of the most talented attackers now in the league.

The club also held onto Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, and if they can keep both healthy, one should win MVP. The offense, if you haven’t gotten the gist, is phenomenal. The defense, with a full year of Brad Guzan in goal, shouldn’t be bad either.

What’s Not To Like: Carlos Carmona, who unexpectedly returned to Chile for family reasons during camp, is a huge loss. It was his tenacity in central midfield, along, to maybe a lesser extent, with Jeff Larentowicz’s, that allowed Atlanta’s attackers to wreck havoc so often last season.

If Atlanta doesn’t bring in a six, they’re in trouble. Nagbe is excellent going forward when lined up in central midfield, but he’s not going to win the ball.

Chris McCann shouldn’t be an everyday starter at this point in his career, and Larentowicz has been lining up at center back thus far in a preseason that has seen Atlanta ship a lot of goals.

If this team doesn’t improve in central midfield, it’s going to be exposed defensively. And how long is Michael Parkhurst – and Michael Parkhurst’s 33-games-a-season health – going to hold up?

Watchability: It’s off the charts. With respect to a bunch of good teams down the years, Atlanta last season was more compelling than anything the league has ever produced.

The support was staggering, and it was only matched by a team that was stacked with young talent, played a million miles an hour, and ran teams off the field week after week. Martinez was scary, and Almiron was mesmerizing.

This year should be no different. The only drawback is that the great Alan Green will not be returning to call games. With Atlanta on national TV 20 times this season, there simply aren’t enough games for him to call to make leaving England worth it. Such is the price of success.

Projection: The defensive midfield situation is a serious concern, but this team is going to score a ton of goals and win a lot of games. It should be a seriously fun year in ATL.


3. New York City FC

What’s To Like: NYCFC has been a surefire winner the from the minute Patrick Vieira set foot Stateside, and last year’s team – which was one of MLS’s best from start to finish – has been improved upon.

That’s largely because Andrea Pirlo’s DP spot is now occupied by 20-year-old Paraguayan playmaker Jesus Medina, who should slide into the lineup in Jack Harrison’s place.

Grabbing Saad Abdul-Salaam from Sporting for Khiry Shelton was an excellent move, as was hanging on – unexpectedly – to Yangel Herrera.

Between Herrera and Alex Ring, plus the likes of Rodney Wallace and Ronald Matarrita, NYC has bite. They don’t overwhelm teams, exactly, but they’re consistent. They’ve been beating the Red Bulls the last two years too.

What’s Not To Like: David Villa’s age. The captain has always been spry, and he’s showed no signs of slowing, but he’s 36 this year and NYC is hugely reliant on him for goals.

Compared to Atlanta and Toronto, and even Chicago last year, NYCFC was playing with finer margins. Their goal difference was good, but it was only one better than Houston’s.

There’s also the fact, down the line, but relevant, that this team has flamed out in the first round of the playoffs each year Vieira has been in charge. That’s a trendline that has to change.

Watchability: The team is good, Joe Tolleson is great, but Yankee Stadium is an absolute killer. Games there are unwatchable. It’s a terrible look for MLS.

Projection: It’ll be another good year for NYCFC, but it’ll be judged by what they do in the postseason.


4. New York Red Bulls

What’s To Like: Jesse Marsch continues to do his thing. The Red Bulls traded their captain again this winter, sending Sacha Kljestan to Orlando, and they may be sending another franchise cornerstone, Felipe, to Vancouver.

No one is untouchable in Harrison, where the system – and, these days, Tyler Adams – are king.

What will the system be this year? It’s anyone’s guess. The high press will be involved, but whether it’s a 3-3-3-1 or a 4-2-2-2, it’s going to be innovative and it’s going to force teams to get creative.

Marsch is an excellent coach, and he’s going to mold a competitive team. He’s going to need Kaku to be worth the wait, but with or without Felipe, the spine of the team is younger and very well might be stronger than it was last season.

What’s Not To Like: Moving on from Kljestan is a big gamble. This is a player who had 37 assists in the last two seasons and 51 in his Red Bulls career. He was really, really good for this team. Without him last year, they couldn’t create any offense.

There’s also this to consider: losing Dax McCarty last year hurt. The Red Bulls were still good, and a mighty tough out in the playoffs, but they weren’t nearly as good as they were in Marsch’s first two seasons.

The Red Bulls should be trying to win now. But it feels like they’ve made lateral moves two winters in a row.

Watchability: The Red Bulls are a fun team to watch, if only because they are tactically more interesting that just about anyone else in MLS, and they reliably play hard.

The broadcast is largely enjoyable, but you do wonder how much better the atmosphere at Red Bull Arena would be if it had 5,000 fewer seats.

Projection: Similar to last year. This is a really well-coached team with some strong characters, and they’ll be in the mix. But it likely isn’t championship material.


5. Orlando City

What’s To Like: This was a tour de force of an offseason for Orlando. They’ve brought in the reigning assist king, a star winger, a championship-winning defensive mid, a Bundesliga center back, the reigning NASL goal king, and a 19-year-old DP playmaker.

No team was more aggressive this winter with TAM than the Lions, and the result is a stacked roster. The Lions have upgraded nearly every position on the field, and finally evened out a roster that was bloated with big, underperforming contracts in 2016 and ’17.

Kljestan and Meram are better players than anyone Orlando started last season with, while Jason Kreis is extremely high on that young DP Jouse Colman. Stefano Pino, who lit up Orlando in the Open Cup last year with Miami, is going to be important to supplement Dom Dwyer.

What’s Not To Like: How is everyone going to fit on the field? A lot will depend on where Kreis decides to line up Kljestan and Coleman. Either way, one will be playing slightly out of position.

Kreis could go with the diamond, which would likely see Kljestan in a wide role, or he could play with two holding midfielders to get more defensive cover with Christian Higuita or Will Johnson in the lineup alongside Uri Rosell.

There’s always pressure in Orlando, and there’s even more pressure right now with the team having missed the playoffs in three straight years. If the Lions get off to a slow start, things could go downhill fast.

One other area to watch: this team has also picked up a ton of muscle injuries in the last year – Dwyer is the latest victim – to the point that it’s likely not merely coincidence. It’s something Kreis has to figure out.

Watchability: Orlando was absolutely rocking when the team opened its new stadium with all of those wins in the spring, and it should be that way again this year. It’s easily a top-five atmosphere in the league.

Orlando has been a tough watch because they’ve been so slow on both sides of the ball in recent years, but that’s going to change this season if they rebuild goes as expected. The broadcast, unfortunately, is one of the league’s worst.

Projection: Kreis hasn’t had a winning season between two clubs since 2013, but this is the team to break that run. Orlando gets to the playoffs for the first team.


6. Columbus Crew

What’s To Like: Gregg Berhalter, who, at this point, is MLS’s hottest coach. Berhalter has been credibly linked with the Galaxy and Timbers in the last two offseasons, but – along with the rest of his team – is in Columbus for at least one more year.

To his credit, Berhalter handled a difficult winter about as well as he could. He had two stars – Ola Kamara and Justin Meram – ask for trades, and his responsiveness to those requests netted him Gyasi Zardes, a ton of allocation money, and a roster full of committed players.

Two of those players Berhalter did very good business to bring in – young Milton Valenzuela as a DP fullback to replace Waylon Francis, and Artur on a permanent, DP deal.

What’s Not To Like: Between Kamara and Meram, the Crew have lost 31 of the 53 goals they scored last season. No matter how big the system is, that’s a ton of production to replace.

You also have to worry – though this will be the least of Crew fans’ concerns – about the competitive effect of relocation. If Anthony Precourt announces he’s taking the team to Austin in September, the season very well might fall apart. We’ve certainly seen that happen in other American sports.

Watchability: MAPFRE is outdated and half-full, and the broadcast is poor. That said – as the last six months have proven – the love for this team in Columbus runs incredibly deep. No one with a heart in American soccer wants them to lose their team.

Projection: The Crew took TFC pretty damn far in the Eastern Conference Final last year before Jozy Altidore won that series. They won’t be that good again this year, but they still have a playoff team.


7. Chicago Fire

What’s To Like: This team underwent a remarkable transformation last year – from a footnote in this decade to a real contender. In the late spring and early summer before Bastian Schweinsteiger’s injury, no team in the league was playing better soccer.

The team did good work to bring Schweinsteiger back for another year, as the team pretty much went how he went last season.

Schweinsteiger was key to a lot of what Chicago did last year, which, at its best, was pretty as hell. They controlled games through possession and moved the ball really well, getting their fullbacks – the great duo of Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent – involved, and getting tap-ins for Nemanja Nikolic.

Veljko Paunovic is a sharp coach, Nelson Rodriguez is a good, aggressive GM, and it’s year three for both of them in Chicago. Moving time.

What’s Not To Like: David Accam’s departure – which was understandable given his history with the club and the money he commanded – does leave a big hole.

Accam might not have been Chicago’s best attacking player last year, but he was certainly their most dangerous. He attracted a lot of attention from defenses and won a handful of games on his own.

Who replaces him? There’s no obvious answer. The club hasn’t yet landed a winger or #10 in the transfer market, and Arturo Alvarez and Michael deLeeuw, good depth last year, are both gone.

There’s also the matter of Schweinsteiger’s health (the chances he plays 30 games seem extremely low), and the eminent regression of Nemanja Nikolic, who scored all 24 of his goals last season from inside the box.

Right now, the Fire are slated to start the season with less talent than they ended last season with. That’s cause for concern.

Watchability: Chicago was a really good passing team with Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty in the lineup last year, and while Toyota Park is rarely full, Dan Kelly is one of the league’s best game-callers.

Projection: The East is better than it was last year, and it looks like Chicago is going to be slightly worse. They’ll be in the hunt for the playoffs, but a cut below where they were in 2017.


8. DC United

What’s To Like: DC, to their credit, have assembled a lot of talent in a pretty short amount of time. The big move was to get Yamil Asad last week, but dating back to last summer, there are plenty of players here who would play big minutes for most every MLS team. That wasn’t the case last year.

There’s bonafide depth in midfield, where a Paul Arriola-Lucho Acosta-Asad line could relegate Zoltan Steiber to the bench. They’re four-deep in central midfield as well, where Ulysses Segura and Junior Moreno will compete with Ian Harkes and Russell Canouse.

David Ousted is a worthy replacement for Bill Hamid in goal.

What’s Not To Like: The decision not to get a proven goalscorer is baffling. DC is heading into the season with Patrick Mullins and Darren Mattocks as their forwards, two players who have never scored double-digit goals in eleven combined seasons.

Mullins is useful – and Mattocks can be too, especially off the bench late in games – but this team is going to need a ton of goals from its midfield.

The defense is a question mark too. I’m not sold on Frederic Brilliant as an everyday starter at center back or Nick DeLeon at right back. This team still needs to go get a DP or two in the summer. The hope is that the huge road-trip to start the year hasn’t taken the team out of contention by then.

Watchability: Olsen’s teams have never played pretty soccer, but for longtime fans of MLS, it’s going to be immensely cool to watch DC open Audi Field in July. The stadium, and the fans that will come with it, will completely change the experience of following the club.

Dave Johnson is a stalwart on the mic. If anyone deserves to work in the new building, it’s him.

Projection: Between “not moribund” and “not one of the East’s best teams,” it’s hard to say. The effect of playing 12 of 14 on the road to open the season will either put DC in a big hole, or set them up perfectly to return to the playoffs.


9. Philadelphia Union

What’s To Like: The Union haven’t had very many good teams in recent years, but they’re always fairly competitive. That’s why Jim Curtin (one playoff game since taking over in 2014) still has his job.

David Accam was the big splash on draft day, and he’s the biggest threat attacker the Union have had since… 2010 Sebastian Le Toux?

That’s a good thing. Also good news is that Austin Trusty appears to be progressing at center back, and Keegan Rosenberry should be a key contributor after his sophomore slump last year.

Including the likes of Alejandro Bedoya and Andre Blake, the Union have a number of players to build around.

What’s Not To Like: The club was linked yesterday to Czech Borek Dockal, which would solve the #10 question, but, until he puts pen to paper, the lack of a playmaker is a primary concern.

As usual, and in the bigger picture, the concern is that the Union are having to compete with less. The roster isn’t absent investment, but Philly isn’t pouring money into their team they way Orlando, Toronto, or Atlanta is and it shows in a lack of depth and proven imported talent. This feels like a very small-market franchise.

Even the big investment has its risks: Accam was incredibly moody in Chicago, and it remains to be seen whether he can carry a team for an entire season and/or get along with everybody in the process.

Watchability: Huge points for JP Dellacamera and Tommy Smyth on the calls, and Talen Energy Stadium is a very fun atmosphere when the team is winning.

The soccer isn’t going to be great, though, and whether the team will win is an open question.

Projection: Not enough firepower. Accam was a big move, but they haven’t invested enough elsewhere to improve an eighth-place team.


10. Montreal Impact

What’s To Like: The Impact badly needed a recharge after last season, and they’re getting one.

Remi Garde is just a few years removed from a good run at Lyon and a cup of coffee in the Premier League, and he’s a coach with a strong record of developing young players at a club where young players have struggled to break in.

Consequently, and necessarily, Montreal will be much, much younger this season. Laruent Ciman and Hernan Bernadello are gone, Patrice Bernier and Hassoun Camara have retired, and a bevy of players 26 and younger have arrived to take their minutes.

Saphir Taider could be one of the best signings of the winter, and Ignacio Piatti is still a top-five player. At the very least, it feels like the Impact are headed in the right direction.

What’s Not To Like: It’s MLS and you never know, but this very well might be a rebuilding year in Montreal. The Impact are thin in a lot of areas, and while Taider is a big signing, losing Blerim Dzemaili was a huge blow.

There’s reason to be excited, but the club has a couple of bad contracts (Dominic Oduro, Mauro Mancosu) it needs to get out of before it can bring in a couple of centerpieces to compete.

Watchability: It’s hard to say, exactly. This is going to be a much different Impact team than Mauro Biello’s teams were.

Stade Saputo might be the league’s most bare-bones arena, and support in Montreal can suffer if the team isn’t winner, but Vic Rauter’s calls on TSN are always an absolute joy.

Projection: They might surprise, and Garde looks like a good hire, but the Impact are most likely a year away.


11. New England Revolution

What’s To Like: The Revs easily could have been a playoff team last season – they finished seventh and underperformed their expected goals total by a huge margin – and there’s still plenty of talent here.

Juan Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, and Diego Fagundez are three very good players, and new manager Brad Friedel should, at the very least, clean up the defense.

What’s Not To Like: The process that led to Friedel’s hiring, for one, and then, pretty much everything else.

Lee Nguyen’s trade request/strike/return to camp means that the Revs’ best player is deeply unsettled, and there have to be questions about the entire locker room as a result.

New England is despised by MLS players, and the club’s handling of the Nguyen situation – in contrast to Columbus’ handling of their players’ trade requests – has only exacerbated that antipathy.

Even outside of Nguyen, it’s been a weak offseason. The Revs have only brought in two potential starters to replace the three they lost, and Friedel is an untested coach who has no established system or style of play.

Watchability: With DC moving into Audi Field, the Revs are in a class of their own in MLS. Gillette is easily now the worst venue in one of the worst locations in the league, and football lines there have only gotten more prevalent in the last several years.

The broadcast is poor, and the team isn’t going to be very good. This franchise is more than any other proof that MLS still has a long way to go.

Projection: The Revs will scratch out some wins, but they’re going to be worse than they were last year and nowhere near the playoffs.

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