We're spending the last week before MLS First Kick with some previews of the 2012 season, as each member of the Black And Red United staff gives his answer to various questions.
Chest Rockwell: I don't think any team in the East has actually improved by as much as we did (if at all). It's safe to say that KC, Houston, and Chicago have all more or less stood still. Montreal looks like they're in for a fairly standard struggle in their expansion season. NYRB has gotten worse defensively thanks to their goalkeeper situation, and Philly lost their best player as well as their captain and goalkeeper. The Revs can't even get players that want to be paid to play soccer to join them. That leaves United with Columbus and Toronto FC looking like the most improved sides, and I think we've made bigger steps forward than either of them.
On paper, a playoff spot seems like the minimum acceptable result for this edition of United. Sure, we haven't actually seen the projected starting 11 on the field together at any point during the preseason, but we have seen all of the parts at some point. Hamdi Salihi has done nothing to give anyone a reason to believe that his strike rate in the Austrian league is a sham, Emiliano Dudar looks like he'll be, at worst, a decent center back, and Robbie Russell is a well-established veteran. Cohesion might cause a slow start to 2012, but by October I think this squad should be good enough to finish 3rd in the East.
Most of the teams in the East also have questions about where their goals will come from, which plays right into United's hands. While our defense may look shaky, remember that its primarily going up against the rest of the Eastern Conference. United will score goals, they will win games, and they will make the playoffs.
AMT: Call me overly optimistic, but I think United will be in the hunt for the Eastern Conference crown come the end of the year - if not right in the thick of it, then at least within sniffing distance. Ultimately, I think the team will secure a play-in-free playoff spot, locking down third place in the East, behind the Sporks and Houston. Yeah, we're going to beat out the Metros this year, putting things in the universe the way they should be.
Martin Shatzer: I see big changes coming to the Eastern Conference this year.
Sooner rather than later, teams are going to figure out how to beat Sporting Kansas City. Their attack is fast. Big deal. There are ways to defend against speed, and the better teams will learn quickly how to do it. As Chest has already noted, the Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls have lost key players and are likely to take a step back. I disagree with him on the Columbus Crew though. I think Robbie Rogers and Andres Mendoza will be bigger losses than some might realize.
You want a bold prediction? Three of those four teams won't make the playoffs.
Instead, we'll see the Chicago Fire, TFC, and the Houston Dynamo - three teams that were playing much better at the end of 2011 than at the beginning, and who have also added some quality talent. And we'll also see our hometown heroes D.C. United. They won't win the East, but they'll come close enough to keep us interested and entertained.