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.

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