2018 MLS Eastern Conference preview

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.

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