Predicting how an MLS season will go is often an exercise in setting oneself up for failure and embarrassment. There is usually some low-hanging fruit (e.g. "Columbus will be strong this season" or "Preki will field a combative team"), and then it all goes to hell soon thereafter. Last year, many well-known journalists had New York being a strong side (Soccer by Ives went so far as to use the phrase "could be a legitimate title contender" just before the 2009 season began, and that was not at all seen as going out on a limb at the time). So it goes when your league has more parity than it knows what to do with. With everyone so tightly bunched together, getting your preseason predictions right is less an indicator of being some kind of seer, and more likely a sign that you should have played the lottery that day instead.
So, now that I'm done hedging my bets, here's how I see the Eastern Conference working itself out in 2010:
We'll start at the bottom and work our way up (not that this piece ends with a big surprise).
8. Kansas City Wizards Color me totally unimpressed with the makeover happening in Kansas City. Last season, Peter Vermes took over as interim head coach and lead his team to a 3-6-3 mark over their final 12 games. That's 12 points down the stretch run of the season, when the games count. Over a whole season, that's the kind of scintillating form that San Jose had (30 points in 30 games).
Normally, you'd expect the higher-ups to be underwhelmed by such a showing from an interim coach. However, Vermes was having to answer to himself, and decided that he had done such a good job that he should give himself the full time job. Someone further up the org chart should have put a stop to this, but the Cauldron's loss is the rest of the East's gain. Vermes did get his players to play hard, but they seemed to become slightly less organized when Curt Onalfo was let go. Effort was also not really the problem in KC to begin with, so one wonders what, exactly, Vermes brings to the table.
If the Wizards are lacking in the coaching department, their squad isn't much more impressive. Several players are being tried in new positions, and offseason additions from the Israeli 2nd division (Igor Kostrov) and English Conference (Craig Rocastle) are not exactly intimidating. The Wizards also lost Claudio Lopez, who was not brilliant but did provide a regular dose of attacking class to a team that struggled to score goals.
Essentially, Kansas City has big question marks on every level. Is Jimmy Nielsen a good keeper? Who will partner Jimmy Conrad in central defense? Will the revolving door situations at right and left back ever end? Can Stephane Auvray shield what looks like a flimsy defense? Will anyone aside from Davy Arnaud provide an attacking threat from midfield? Who will emerge as a threat up front? This team has been dying for a striker for what seems like forever, and they'll begin 2010 needing a) Kei Kamara to finally become consistent, b) Zoltan to prove that he's not the pedestrian worker bee that he looked like in 2009, c) rookie Teal Bunbury to hit the ground running, or d) Josh Wolff to reclaim form that he hasn't had in a very long time.
7. New York Red Bulls Last year's Red Bulls team was so obviously terrible that mocking them seemed to border on cruelty. With Juan Pablo Angel in and out of the team due to injury, there were problems on all levels of the team's lineup. Those problems were made much worse by the absurd decision-making of former head coach Juan Carlos Osorio. Just when it seemed like Red Bull/Metrostar history couldn't have gotten worse, the club found a way to embarrass itself once again.
However, those days are past, and as our hated rivals from New Jersey move into what is undeniably a gorgeous new home, they have also undergone a squad makeover. Replacing the nonsensical ideas of Osorio, and clods like Jorge Rojas and Carlos Johnson are new Swedish coach Hans Backe, a highly-touted class of rookies, and reinforcements like Ghanaian-Belgian target man Ibrahim Salou, academy product Juan Agudelo, and Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere. They might not be the Cosmos, but it seems someone is trying to build a sensible team in NY, rather than last year's attempt at building MLS's fastest team without a thought given to technique or soccer IQ.
So, why rank them so low? There are still big problems here. Backe, if he has any success, will be the first European coach with no prior knowledge of MLS to do well in a league that must be confounding to outsiders. Angel may finally be off the concrete "turf" at Giants Stadium, but he's still a guy that you can safely refer to as "injury prone." The defensive additions are all question marks: Is Chris Albright past his injury troubles? For all the talk of rookie Tim Ream's ability on the ball, can he actually defend? Will Roy Miller be just the second Costa Rican defender (after Gonzalo Segares) to actually play well in MLS? A back four with these issues will sit in front of a goal protected by either Bouna Coundoul or Greg Sutton, both of whom are not the kind of guys you want to trust with that vital job. Coundoul is the definition of erratic, while Sutton is simply not up to MLS standards.
Further forward, there are other problems. Carl Robinson will do alright in a defensive midfield role against possession-oriented teams, but speedy teams hitting NY on the break will be trouble. While Lindpere looks the part, Dane Richards is as inconsistent as ever. Worse yet, those two are the beginning and end of the Red Bulls midfield in terms of creativity. It seems that NY wants to play a 442 that emphasizes ball control, but there is little indication that their roster has enough players with touch and intelligence to do well playing that way.
If there's one thing NY has, however, it's forwards. Angel, Salou, and Agudelo will be joined by Mac Kandji (who could become a star if he ever develops the desire and toughness pros need), sleeper rookie Conor Chinn, and old workhorse John Wolyniec. While most of these players have either a question mark over them due to either youth, newness to MLS, or simply being no better than a reserve, it's still forward depth that most MLS teams would kill for going into a season. NY may struggle to keep goals off the board and to control games in midfield, but it looks highly likely that they'll score enough goals to at least avoid being among MLS's dregs.
6. Philadelphia Union I've already gone on at length about the Union, and am still left with lots of questions unanswered. In DC, we all know about Peter Nowak's almost farcical tendency towards keeping his lineups and decisions a secret; even when the team was fully fit and rolling over anyone in their path, Nowak would trot out his "10 players and a goalie" line when asked about the weekend's lineup, as if knowing our predictable lineup gave teams some massive advantage. Now in charge with our new rivals, Nowak seems to have gone one step further. Even something as open to interpretation as preseason lineups were not revealed anywhere on the Union website.
Nowak would probably prefer that ESPN not show their starting team tomorrow night, lest the rest of MLS discover what is plainly obvious: Philly will be tough, hard-working, hard to beat, and short on offense. The Sons of Ben will get to enjoy having a thoroughly "Philly" team that is very unpleasant to play against, but they will probably not be cheering too often due to goals being scored. Nowak has put together a team that is hard-nosed and responsible enough to avoid being among MLS's bottom-feeders, but this will not be a repeat of the expansion success had by Seattle or Chicago.
Defensively, the Union will rely on the experience of Danny Califf to lead the back line and on Stefani Miglioranzi's quiet effectiveness ahead of them. With guys like Shavar Thomas and Michael Orozco in tow, and a team full of hard workers who (mostly) know how to maintain shape and discipline, Philadelphia should be aiming for, at worst, a mid-table defense in terms of conceding goals. Even up front, their likely striker pairing of Sebastien Le Toux and Alejandro Moreno are known first and foremost for their hard work and how difficult they make life for opposing players.
For Philly to be better than this rank, some of their attacking players are really going to have to exceed expectations. Teenagers Roger Torres and Amobi Okubo will have to instantly be among MLS's very best young players, while Fred will have to find the consistency he couldn't find at any point in the past two seasons in DC. They will also need a reliable source of goals. These all seem unlikely, so look for the Union to stay just close enough to the playoff-chasers to believe, but not close enough to actually have a real chance.
5. New England Revolution So the Revs lose their prized assistant coach, best attacking midfielder, a trusted no-holds-barred defender, and are still missing their best striker...and I still think they have a chance? What gives?
Five words: Steve Nicol and Shalrie Joseph. Both are the very best at their jobs in MLS. Nicol was able to get to the playoffs with a team that looked more appropriate for the old MLS Reserve League, while in my book Joseph remains the single most important player to any team in MLS. As long as these two are in place, the Revs will be no worse than somewhere in MLS's murky middle class.
They won't get much higher than that without some help, however. Goalkeeper (and perennial target of scorn at RFK) Matt Reis will miss a large chunk of the season as he recovers from rotator cuff surgery. While his replacement Preston Burpo will not lose you any games, he's also not going to steal you points either. Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes are quality young defenders that will continue to blossom, but the other half of New England's back four is pretty weak. Emmanuel Osei is a goal waiting to happen, while Chris Tierney will be vulnerable to speed at left back. Newcomer Cory Gibbs will probably take one of these two spots for himself, but he struggled mightily last season in Colorado last year.
While the midfield features Joseph and two dangerous wingers in Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally, there are some soft spots. Joseph's partner in central midfield will either be Pat Phelan or Senegalese newcomer Joseph Niouky. Niouky is a total unknown, while Phelan lacks the departed Jeff Larentowicz's tactical nous and confidence on the ball. Larentowicz was no playmaker, but he didn't get rattled when the ball came to him, thus allowing the Revs to keep possession moving smoothly across their team. Phelan has always had the look of someone who would rather be as far away from the ball as possible, which will be a problem for New England if Niouky can't cut it. There is also a lack of midfield depth, as stiffs like Mauricio Castro and Michael Videira may see significant minutes if anyone gets hurt.
Up top, the club is still awaiting the return of Taylor Twellman with baited breath. Until then, they'll have to make do with Kheli Dube and either the constantly injured Edgaras Jankauskas or rookie Zach Schilawski. If Schilawski can't provide the kind of hold-up play required, we could even see Joseph tried up front as often was the case last year due to Jankauskas being only able to play a half (or not at all). Until Twellman comes back, Dube is the main goal threat; considering Dube's streaky nature, this is probably not that comforting to regulars in the Fort.
Ultimately, the Revs will focus on being a tough opponent and hope that they can be ruthless on what chances they do generate. Any team that is slow in defense will be distinctly uncomfortable against New England, but other than that it seems like this team is going to have to grind for every point it gets.
4. DC United I've said repeatedly that I don't see how Onalfo will lead United to the top of the standings, but I've also maintained that we will be far from awful. That leaves us firmly ensconced in MLS's middle class, something that has it's own special way of irritating me. Will we make the playoffs? Will the two or three lucky bounces you need to make the playoffs when you're between 7th and 10th in MLS go our way? The answer to both questions is exactly the same. Personally, I am really uncomfortable with being in another situation where our season hinges on lucky breaks and MLS officiating, but that's where I see us going.
Defensively, we've improved. Troy Perkins will be a big step up from the rotating door of unreliable keepers we've had over the past few years in goal. The back four, once Bryan Namoff returns to full fitness, will have improved as well. Rodney Wallace may be no better in terms of positioning than Marc Burch (and he may foul more often), but his speed and overall athleticism will help mask those flaws. Centrally, it appears Juan Manuel Peña will be signed to provide experience alongside Dejan Jakovic's undoubted potential. There will be questions about Peña's age, but surely he'll be better than last year's solution of playing people out of position or entrusting the raw Julius James to just jump in and fix everything mid-season. There also appears to be defensive depth, though players like Lyle Adams will have to prove themselves before we trumpet that too much. At the very least, it appears the days of moving Clyde Simms back are mercifully over.
As much as I think we've made some improvements to our defensive corps, I think our improved goals against average will be as much due to an overall change in the team from front to back. Guys like Luciano Emilio and Christian Gomez offered very little in the way of defensive effort, allowing our opponents to gain a foothold by possessing the ball in their half. Failure to pressure other teams from the front meant that our back four had to sit deeper to ward off long balls, which gave more space to opposing midfields. As with most things in soccer, what you do wrong in one place has consequences elsewhere. It appears that Onalfo has installed a group that will work harder in the offensive end, allowing our team as a whole to be more compact and thus harder to score on with ease. This change may go unnoticed, but if it's done effectively it will be every bit as important to a successful season as any player acquisition.
Our midfield and attack, however, may have suffered as a result of these moves. Emilio may have been streaky, moody, and something approaching lazy, but he was a sure source of goals. Chris Pontius, who is the most likely person to lead the line in Emilio's stead, did not display razor-sharp finishing skills last year, but he's got good athleticism and technique, and still managed 8 goals in all competitions last season despite spending the large majority of his time in midfield. My feeling on this topic remains unchanged from last season: Pontius may not score as many goals as Emilio, but he'll create many more both via direct assists and by troubling teams with his movement and speed. He opens up options that our attack simply never had with Emilio in place.
That said, opening up new options is only as good as what you do with them. The goalscoring form of Jaime Moreno in preseason is a great cause for cheer, since he will also be this team's creative fulcrum whenever he's on the field. #99 will also be a key figure in terms of playmaking and possession, since Christian Gomez has not really been replaced at all. Santino Quaranta will be coming in off the right wing to play an attacking central role, which has not exactly been met with enthusiasm in these parts. Quaranta is a quality right midfielder, but centrally has shown a lack of consistent decision making with his passes, and that's a vital part of the job. Hopefully, he can either justify the preseason hype from Onalfo and his teammates, or we can find another solution there that would allow us to play Tino on the right (where he belongs).
One other way United intends to augment the attack is to place more emphasis on wide play. With that in mind, the club has brought in livewire Salvadoran winger Cristian Castillo to man the left flank. We may not have the craft up the middle that we once did, but if Castillo can duplicate his form for El Salvador in qualifying, we will have found a new way to go about our business. Stretching teams out is very important, and with guys like Pontius and Danny Allsopp up front, we should be looking to score a fair number of goals via crosses.
The issues at RFK (aside from, er, RFK) will be depth, controlling possession in midfield, and whether key players are able to adapt to new roles. I feel like the answers will be a mixed bag, but that our improved defense will make up for what may be a slightly less dangerous offense. Will it be enough to slip into the playoffs? Let's hope MLS's crossbars and posts are feeling generous to us, and that we aren't victimized by more than our fair share of diabolical refereeing. It's going to be that close.
3. Toronto FC The Reds once again enter the season with a back four that looks pretty flimsy, and a total lack of quality strikers. These situations existed at the end of the 2009 season, and nothing has been done in terms of personnel to change them. Yet, I've got them sitting in third. No, I'm not writing drunk.
My reasoning is their acquisition of Preki as head coach, and what his philosophy will do for what is not a very strong roster. While Toronto's past attempts at dealing with their wasteful strikers have usually consisted of sending people forward more often or hitting even more crosses, Preki will go a different way. Anyone who watched his Chivas USA side last year will know that they started like a house on fire and made the playoffs with ease, despite an injury list that read like Dostoevsky. No matter who he had to trot out, Preki managed to get the result more often than not.
How did this happen? Well, last year's Chivas USA team was a great example of how cautious soccer is easier to succeed with than the risk-taking method most of us prefer. The Goats often fielded teams that looked suited for mid-table in the USL on paper, and had to chop and change constantly due to new players departing injured or returning to fitness. This was accomplished by playing very disciplined soccer, focused on keeping possession, maintaining team shape (especially keeping the midfield and defense in the proverbial "two blocks of four" set up), and capitalizing on things like set plays and opposition mistakes. Preki's teams don't often beat you; rather, they let you beat yourself.
Preki's methods will probably help mask Toronto's obvious defensive deficiencies to some degree, as will the continued development of Nana Attakora. Julian De Guzman and Sam Cronin are tailor-made for Preki's system in central midfield as well. This defensive solidity will be the hallmark of Toronto FC this season. If this group can avoid needless turnovers, you can rest assured that TFC's tendency to hand games over in the late stages will be a thing of the past. Couple that with rabid crowd support, and suddenly Toronto isn't the kind of team good teams will always beat.
Goals will, as ever for TFC, be hard to come by. It appears that, in an effort to bridge that gap, Preki will move Dwayne De Rosario up front. This may seem promising, but De Rosario has chafed at having to play forward before. Preki will have to foster enough team unity, and get good enough results in the early stages, to keep an issue like that from coming to a head. Fortunately for MLS fans in America Junior, Preki got Chivas into the playoffs with more or less the same recipe, though you could argue he had better defenders back in SoCal. In an Eastern conference full of question marks, Preki's negative approach should be enough to give Toronto fans the playoff berth they're dying for.
2. Chicago Fire I'd like to start this by saying I don't think this year's Fire team will be very strong. Much like I think DC might have managed to move up the standings by simply treading water, I think Chicago lands in 2nd by default. Even with the bizarre decision to waive Jon Busch on the eve of the season, and having a new coach (former El Salvador national team boss Carlos De los Cobos) who is totally unfamiliar with MLS, I see no one ready to push the Fire aside here.
Speaking of Busch, goalkeeper is now Chicago's big weak point. Andrew Dykstra has only US Open Cup experience at the professional level, and also went undrafted (he had to earn his way onto the Chicago roster in training camp). His backup is rookie Sean Johnson, a Generation Adidas player out of the University of Central Florida. While there are rumors that De los Cobos wants to bring in El Salvador's #1, Miguel Montes, the Fire will be forging ahead with the least experienced keeper duo in MLS, which could end up undoing a lot of the good that they'll do elsewhere.
Chicago's back four is still going to be strong. Tim Ward finally grew into his potential last year at right back, and Wilman Conde will continue to be among MLS's best center backs. Most MLS teams would be happy to have to choose between CJ Brown and Dasan Robinson for one central spot, and rookie Kwame Watson-Siriboe will provide some depth. Left back is something of a question mark. Krzysztof Krol was brought in on loan before De los Cobos arrived to replace Segares, but the Fire's new coach has indicated that Krol may be too slow for the job. It seems likely that Chicago will either opt to try Robinson out there, or go for the more cavalier Mike Banner if the team really wants to attack with zeal.
Similarly, the midfield is another point of confidence for Chicago fans. The loss of Cuauhtemoc Blanco will be covered by moving to a more direct approach. Chris Rolfe will be missed in his quasi-free role on the right, but De los Cobos has done well to replace him with a player he knows very well: Julio Martinez, who was first choice at right midfield for De los Cobos with los Cuscatlecos. Logan Pause and John Thorrington will provide an intelligent, combative central midfield pairing that will be a great platform for both maintaining possession and fighting to win the ball back. Most importantly, Marco Pappa will probably be the Fire's most threatening midfielder coming in from the left wing, where he's shown a gift for crossing, playing through balls, beating people on the dribble, and even the occasional long-range shot. There's also quality depth: Peter Lowry, Baggio Husidic, and classy rookie Corben Bone will all see time centrally, while Justin Mapp, Patrick Nyarko, and Calen Carr will see plenty of minutes on the flanks.
Chicago's also pretty good up front. Brian McBride is not the player he used to be, but he's still in any debate about the best target man in MLS. He'll be joined by Collins John, who has the talent to have played for Fulham and get 2 caps for the Netherlands. Of course, John was also a free agent after burning many bridges in Europe, so De los Cobos will probably either have a boom or a bust here. If John doesn't work out, Nyarko will give the Fire a dangerous compliment for McBride. Burly Bulgarian Stefan Dimitrov will mostly be used in a substitute's role, though the jury is still out on whether he can be counted as quality depth.
Essentially, Chicago is in the same boat they were in last year. Their roster is stocked with talent. Denis Hamlett couldn't get out of his own way last season, and was largely viewed as the Fire's Achilles heel. If De los Cobos can show the kind of smarts that got El Salvador into 5th in CONCACAF (no small feat for a country that hadn't even made it to the Hexagonal in a long time), the Fire will only have to worry about their goalkeeping situation. In any case, Chicago should be good at everything; whether they'll be able to step beyond being merely "good" is another question.
1. Columbus Crew No shocks here. I've posted my thoughts on Columbus, so I'll keep it brief here. They're strong and deep pretty much everywhere, and are even adept at coping with the games Guillermo Barros Schelotto has to sit out (via a shift to a more direct approach). The only two possible problems for the Crew are a) whether Chad Marshall can stay fit, and b) whether Robert Warzycha can restrain himself from meddling when it's time to leave well enough alone. In my piece on the Crew's CCL quarterfinal against Toluca, I pointed out that Columbus will absolutely need Marshall healthy by the time the playoffs come around. Eric Brunner and Andy Iro are decent options as your 2nd best center back, but starting both will leave the Crew too weak down the middle.
The bigger problem, however, is Warzycha's desire to tinker with what should be an easy-to-pick team. It's not just the bizarre, unfathomable decision to bench Schelotto for a playoff game. It's things like trying Emmanuel Ekpo anywhere but the right wing (where he clearly belongs), or rotating your starting forwards at random times. In the East, this might not become that big of a deal due to the volume of coaches with something to prove (De los Cobos, Onalfo, Backe, and Vermes). However, when you put together a team as solid as Columbus has, you only have so long to win your trophies before the realities of MLS rear their head and force you to start again. There should be strong pressure in Columbus to win things this year, because you never know when guys like Robbie Rogers or Marshall will go abroad, or when Schelotto will retire.