Kei Kamara's loan to Norwich City is good news for D.C. United, as is the possibility that he might be transferred there permanently if he does well. - Jamie Squire
What's the rest of the Eastern Conference doing to prepare for 2013? Are they adding big players? Did they lose someone really good? We're keeping an eye on the rest of MLS to keep D.C. United fans in the loop, starting with the Eastern Conference.
As much as we may think otherwise, the offseason is not solely about D.C. United. Like it or not, our glorious heroes will have to share the fields of MLS with the unwashed heathens that make up the rest of the league. Yes, even the lowly New York Red Bulls are allowed to stand on the same field as United. It's an injustice, but then without enemies to slay we would never be quite sure how honorable and dignified United is compared to the craven hordes that comprise the rest of the soccer world.
With that contempt-filled acknowledgment of our peers in mind, it's time to take a look at what the other teams in MLS are doing as the preseason progresses. There's a lot going on out there, and it's better to stay up on it as it happens than find yourself with a ton of questions on opening day about where such-and-such plays now or who the hell that guy is.
We'll start in the East, as that's where our direct competition for playoff spots is. The preseason favorite for most pundits right now appears to be Sporting Kansas City, but if you follow me on Twitter you know I don't think this is a reasonable position. You know this because I won't shut up about it.
Before the season, I'll go into great detail about why I think KC is actually worse than they were last year. For now, we'll talk about just one of the reasons: KC announced a couple of days ago that Kei Kamara - who led them in goals in 2012 - will spend the first two months of the MLS season on loan with Norwich City, who also have the option to buy his contract if he impresses.
Kamara is a big loss for Sporting. His combination of size, speed, and direct style of play perfectly fit the game Peter Vermes wants to play. Further, Kamara is a huge figure in their ornate, Louis XIV-inspired locker room. His personality will be hard to replace if he leaves permanently, and he also served as a mentor to the player who will likely fill his shoes on the wing (CJ Sapong).
Another hot favorite is the Houston Dynamo, but they are also losing a tall, African-born winger/forward. Macoumba Kandji is off to Kalloni Lekopedio of the Greek 2nd division (hope those checks clear, Mac!).
Now, on one hand, losing an inconsistent player like Kandji isn't that big of a deal. In a vacuum, he's an erratic and injury-prone player who can probably be replaced in terms of general quality.
Kandji's departure is an issue, though, because it robs Houston of the 433 option they used at times with success last season. Kandji was the one player truly comfortable playing the left forward position, and other options are injured (Calen Carr, who tore his ACL) or are better elsewhere (Giles Barnes and Omar Cummings).
That's good news for United, because Dominic Kinnear showed time and again what he could do simply lining Kandji up against Robbie Russell and playing long balls for the two of them to chase. Sure, Russell probably isn't going to start over Chris Korb, but the 6'4" Kandji would have presented Korb a problem too given his tendency to hit the ground under even minimal contact.
There was a trade within the Eastern Conference recently that should be noted: Dominic Oduro leaves the Chicago Fire for the Columbus Crew, with Dilly Duka going the other way. Both players have some qualities that make them interesting players, but both have been dogged by on-field flaws (Oduro's finishing, Duka's inability to turn skill into production) and off-field issues.
For the Crew, Oduro will contend with Justin Meram for a starting wide midfield job, with Eddie Gaven playing on either the left if it's Oduro or on the right if it's Meram. He may also see his fair share of games playing up front, especially since Jairo Arrieta appears to be a frequent selection for Costa Rica during qualifying. Essentially, Oduro is a rough replacement for the waived Emilio Renteria. It's a reasonable move for the Crew, who could use a bit more speed anyway.
Duka going to Chicago is a bit harder to figure out. The recent decision to loan Alvaro Fernandez to Qatari side Al-Rayyan - a move likely pushed by Fernandez - left the Fire in need of a wide midfielder, especially since they plan to play Joel Lindpere in the middle. However, Duka's lack of production combined with his merely adequate defensive work makes him a hard sell compared to guys like Wells Thompson (a flawed player, but he does put in the work defensively) or even central players capable of lining up wide like Dan Paladini or Alex.
The real reason that Chicago would agree to take on Duka and his comically outsized cap hit ($110,000 base/$243,000 guaranteed) is that the deal also got them the MLS rights to Robbie Rogers. The former USMNT left winger is currently a free agent. Adding Rogers, mentality questions aside, would make this deal a steal for Chicago. As it is now, however, it looks like the Crew came out pretty strongly ahead.
Speaking of the yellow football team, they have also recently added Brazilian center back Glauber as well as Uruguayan-American left back/defensive midfielder Agustin Viana. The Crew will always be a defense-first team under Robert Warzycha, and the move does address two problematic positions for Columbus.
Glauber - who has played in several European first divisions, both elite (Germany and England) and not (Romania) - will be expected to give Chad Marshall a partner who is more than merely competent. At 6'3", he and the 6'4" Marshall may be the biggest center back pairing in MLS. However, it'll be just as important that both stay healthy, as injuries in that spot have hurt the Crew time and again.
Viana gives Columbus a left back, which is clear progress considering they went through much of last year without one. Natural center back Josh Williams never looked comfortable out wide, while their attempted conversion of Bernardo Anor never really got off the ground due to a torn ACL for the natural winger. Time will tell if Viana is actually any good, but at the very least his signing points out that Warzycha does in fact understand that sometimes it's best to actually get a left back to play left back.
Finally we come to the ongoing circus that is Toronto FC. Kevin Payne left United to fix TFC, and is figuring out just how much there is to do. A few days ago, he told the press of his disappointment with how several Toronto players arrived for camp out of shape. How out of shape? Payne referred to some as "not even close to being fit" and also noted that none of the rest of the players seemed bothered by the fact that their teammates had let them down with an offseason that apparently consisted of Tim Horton's doughnuts, poutine, and sitting around watching reruns of The Real Housewives of Winnipeg.
That's what KP signed up for, though: Turning around a club where mismanagement has not just lead to bad players being on the team, but just as crucially has fostered a culture of losing. Standards are so low that it takes a club executive to call people out for being unfit, rather than there being the kind of intense competitor that actually suits up for the club who would call out his teammates to their faces.
Furthering Payne's dilemma, TFC's salary cap is a mess due to the presence of three Designated Players as well as two more guys - Darren O'Dea and Richard Eckersley - at the high end of the non-DP pay scale. Two of those DPs (Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans) are coming off of major surgery as well, with Koevermans out until at least June and Frings simply an unknown following hip surgery.
In other words, this season for Toronto appears to be less about worst-to-first and more about simply stopping the bleeding. Sad as it seems, that would qualify as big progress for the Reds. Of course, if the rumors are true and they're pursuing Freddy Adu, the days of the TFC Circus may still have some life yet.
Thoughts on these moves or who our biggest competition will be in 2013? Let us know in the comments.