There's no artful way to put it: D.C. United had a pretty quiet offseason. Signing Markus Halsti - he of the very recent UEFA Champions League appearances and a spot in the 2014 Allsvenskan Best 11 - is probably not being talked up enough, but that's about it as far as major moves. United seems confident that the draft went unexpectedly well, but even they're not pretending that Miguel Aguilar and Dan Metzger are going to be instant starters. Jairo Arrieta has been brought in, but no reasonable person is listing him in the Black-and-Red's best possible starting line-up. He's a good depth forward in MLS, and that's what his job is at RFK Stadium.
Compared to the chaos swirling in the Eastern Conference, it's almost like United made an intentional statement in favor of stability. However, fans are right to be cautious about that caution. It's not like the 2013 season is a distant memory, and that's a disaster that happened after United was inactive after the success of 2012. United finished 3rd in the overall MLS table that year, too. It's a little to eerily similar to feel comfortable.
Of course, when we look deeper the differences start to become clear. United let Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi depart without ever replacing them, for example. Letting those players go made some sense: Boskovic was homesick, and the fact that Salihi didn't quite fit the system while making a lot of money made keeping him problematic. However, you can't expect to let players that contributed a combined 8 goals and 7 assists walk while replacing them with Marcos Sanchez and a well-past-his-prime Carlos Ruiz. Boskovic in particular was missed, as United's ability to score from set pieces virtually vanished due to poor service.
Coming into this season, things are different. The 2012 team had Chris Pontius at his very best, for example, while we barely saw him in 2014. Of players who are no longer with the club, the man with the most minutes played is Christian, who left before the halfway point in 2014. If you'd prefer to use appearances as a metric here, Lewis Neal is the leader. He's a bigger loss, no doubt, but if things go to plan his role on the team may well end up falling to Davy Arnaud. As much as we all love Neal's contributions to the team, that's an improvement.
In other words, a second 2013 seems pretty unlikely. United hasn't lost as much value as we saw heading into 2013, and the incoming players are better (yes, that's a guess with Halsti, but better than Sanchez? Pretty sure the dude will clear that bar).
So with that fear out of the way, what do we make of a conservative offseason plan for United when compared to the circus in the East? Everyone's adding attacking players, after all:
New England Revolution - Juan Agudelo
Columbus Crew - Kei Kamara, Mohammed Saeid, Kristinn Steindorsson, and Cedrick (who will arrive mid-season)
New York Red Bulls - Sacha Kljestan and Felipe
Philadelphia Union - CJ Sapong (and possibly draft pick Dzenan Catic)
Toronto FC - Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, Benoit Cheyrou, and Robbie Findley
Chicago Fire - Shaun Maloney, David Accam, Kennedy Igboananike, and Guly do Prado
Montreal Impact - Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker, and Eric Alexander
And that leaves out Kaka joining Orlando City - who yesterday put four goals past FC Dallas - and David Villa with NYCFC. Clearly, the teams in the East were not satisfied with their firepower last year. The focus with virtually every team has been to either upgrade their existing options or add new players to an already productive group. TFC isn't surprising anyone here, but when was the last time Chicago did something even remotely like signing three Designated Players in one offseason?
It's perfectly reasonable to see all those potentially big names come into your conference and think "And our response was to add a guy who scores roughly once every 272 minutes in MLS and a rookie winger?" Even when you throw in the potential of a healthy and in-form Pontius, it might feel like United has been left behind.
I would ask you to consider the other end of the field before you start feeling too nervous. United's back four is intact, and Bill Hamid didn't transfer to some club with millions to throw around. No one allowed fewer goals than United last season, and the only potential change to the starting lineup is if Halsti wins Arnaud's job in central midfield. This team's strength was in keeping teams to one or fewer goals, and that strength hasn't been hurt much.
Sure, it'd be nice to have another fullback, and I doubt we can really replace Jeff Parke with our defensive trialists without having some issue (Rauwshan McKenzie isn't as good as Parke, while Sean St. Ledger will almost certainly ask for more money than is reasonable for a second-choice player), but the top of the defensive corps is unchanged. Steve Birnbaum and Taylor Kemp should keep improving as they gain experience; Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin don't look like they're anywhere close to being too old to compete. Bill Hamid is Bill friggin' Hamid. Teams are still going to find us really hard to beat.
With that in mind, we need to consider what's going on with the other defenses in the East. There's been just as much of a commotion, but by and large the players coming in don't seem to me like guys that will make it harder for United to score goals in conference matches. It gets clearer when you look at each team individually, so here goes:
Chicago lost Bakary Soumare to the Re-Entry Draft, which to be blunt is addition by subtraction. Soumare has been well below starting quality since he returned to MLS from France. Left back Gonzalo Segares was released and opted to retire. This was already a team that was using Jeff Larentowicz at center back last year because they didn't have anyone else capable of doing the job, too. Chicago needed to add to their defensive group rather than scramble to replace departures.
Frank Yallop has brought in Eric Gehrig, who is decent enough but would not start on your average playoff team. The job Segares used to hold will be filled by either Greg Cochrane - who looked like a reasonable back-up last year - and Joevin Jones, a young Trinidadian wingback who failed three MLS trials in recent years before getting a deal with the Fire. In central defense they've brought in Adailton, who has now played for six clubs since 2010. Unless Homegrown signing Patrick Doody and first round pick Matt Polster (who was considered a big reach on draft day) are ready to play respectably immediately, it looks like the Fire are no better - and possibly worse - at the back than the group that wasn't good enough in 2014.
In Columbus most of the old gang is in place defensively. I'm of the opinion that Michael Parkhurst and Waylon Francis are both slightly overrated, but they're still good defenders. It remains to be seen if Emmanuel Pogatetz is actually much better than Tyson Wahl; if not, the Crew have two depth guys fighting for a starting role, which isn't great for them.
The real issue is at right back, where they've added newcomer Hernan Grana. On paper, Grana is an improvement over the revolving door Gregg Berhalter had at the position last year, but plenty of MLS teams have won on paper and lost on grass/turf. They've also brought in Chris Klute, but it's kind of an odd move. If they want Klute to play right back, what they have is a guy who is incapable of playing as a starter in that role in MLS. Klute is a great left back, but he's never looked even sort of comfortable on the right. If Grana doesn't turn out to be a good signing, Columbus will have failed to improve.
Montreal has actually gotten better, but let's be honest: They almost couldn't avoid improving their dreadful, mistake-prone defense. Laurent Ciman was good enough to make the Belgian World Cup squad, so it seems reasonable to expect him to be a big upgrade at center back over Matteo Ferrari. They've also signed Victor Cabrera on loan from River Plate, but at 21 I doubt there are big expectations on him this year. Soumare left Chicago for Montreal, and all I can say about that is that he'd have fit right in last year for the Impact.
In other words, Ciman is the only improvement here. This is still a team that will likely give Krzysztof Krol ten or more starts in 2015. In fact, their biggest move may have been acquiring Enzo Concina, who United fans largely credited with the improved organization the team showed last year. Of course, that was done based on precious little evidence; it could well have been Amos Magee, or Ben Olsen (who spent last December shadowing experienced Bundesliga coach Lucien Favre). Still, the signs point to Concina being a good coach, and that's something in very short supply at Stade Saputo.
It's tempting to see New England add Juan Agudelo to their potent attack and think "Ugh, guess we better hope to finish second." However, the Revs have - for the time being, at least - lost AJ Soares, who thought he had a deal with Hellas Verona in Italy until Rafa Marquez ruined everything. Soares may still land in Italy or somewhere else in Europe thanks to his having an Italian passport, but the Revs do still hold his MLS rights.
If he's gone, then Jay Heaps has done little to replace him. Andrew Farrell has always been thought of as a future center back who is biding his time at right back, but the fact is that his limited minutes in the middle have thus far been unimpressive. Stephen McCarthy is still there, but I doubt any serious contender would be comfortable giving him more than five or six starts a season. Most likely, Heaps will move Farrell inside and give the right back job to Kevin Alston, Darrius Barnes, or Jeremy Hall. None of those three are starters on top-tier teams, though, so it seems safe to say New England has regressed. They'd better hope Bobby Shuttleworth's late-season burst of form was a permanent step up in quality rather than simply a player getting hot for a few weeks.
NYCFC could have a strong back four, but it's going to require a lot of question marks all having positive answers. Are George John's troublesome knees actually healed up? Can Andres Mendoza - an Ecuadoran who has never been capped - transition to MLS? Do guys like Chris Wingert and Jason Hernandez still have gas in the tank? The only guy I'd bet the rent on starting and performing reasonably well is Josh Williams, and it's hard to say whether he'll be at right back (where he's better) or center back. If this team starts Jeb Brovsky or Kwame Watson-Siriboe regularly, they're going to need Jason Kreis and his coaches to have worked some magic with those two. They also have three back-up quality goalkeepers but no starters in Josh Saunders, Ryan Meara, and Akira Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald probably has the highest ceiling of that trio, and he hasn't played a minute in MLS.
Next up are the Metros, who have once again showed their aggressive disdain for things like "stability" and "having a proven winner as your head coach." Jamison Olave has returned to RSL, and promising Homegrown center back Matt Miazga may well be on trial with one of Red Bull's other clubs. They've kept second-choice CB Damien Perrinelle, and may re-sign both Ibrahim Sekagya (as a player/coach) and Armando, but that still means that all they've done is keep their weakest defenders around.
That motley crew has been supplemented by French journeyman Ronald Zubar - who may actually be better at right back - and Andrew Jean-Baptiste. AJB has bags of potential, but it was telling that no one wanted him after Chivas USA went under. He was out there and available to any MLS team for about six weeks before NYRB moved for him. Basically what I'm getting at is that the Red Bulls may be great in the midfield, but any attacks at their central defense are going to cause threats. It's a bit like they saw the 2014 Portland Timbers and thought "We don't have their attacking depth, but let's try that anyway!"
Orlando City has what sounds like some very promising parts, but I have my doubts about how they fit together. Aurelien Collin has played both preseason games at left-center back despite being very right-footed. His partner will likely be a Brazilian (Gustavo or soon-to-be-signed Paulo Andre), but that means a guy who badly needs verbal guidance will be playing alongside someone who is new to MLS and who doesn't speak the language. I'm not saying it won't work, but it seems iffy at best.
The fullback positions are more troublesome at this point. Head coach Adrian Heath seems to want to use Brek Shea at left back. Shea will be fearsome going forward, but he's bad at some very fundamental stuff at that spot (e.g. focus, positional sense, awareness, and 1v1 defending). On the right, it looks like they're also choosing attacking ability over defensive solidity. Youngster Rafael Ramos looked good going forward against United a few days ago, but United's best attacks all came on his side and mostly involved him being caught in two minds. They just signed Eric Avila, but he's never looked comfortable as a right back in MLS. If that sounds flimsy, don't forget that Donovan Ricketts will be playing at least a third of the season in goal thanks to Tally Hall's torn ACL last year. Amobi Okugo is going to have to be an All-Star in defensive midfield to shield what looks like a weak defensive group.
Up in Philly, Carlos Valdes is once again going on loan elsewhere after another drawn-out, confusing saga. The good news for Union fans is that Jim Curtin seemed to understand that converting a career striker to central defense is a) not a good plan for a team in need of instant help and b) is something that takes longer than two months. The bad news is that no replacements have come in; they don't even have the "maybe this signing works, maybe it doesn't" issue. This is a team that opted to keep Fabinho. Look forward to seeing them decide whether to leave a hole in defensive midfield or central defense, as they don't have the means to clone Maurice Edu.
Plus, you know, the whole goalkeeper situation. Stay gold, Union.
Speaking of teams that never learn, Toronto FC! Actually, that's not fair. Believe it or not, the Reds may have finally gotten the message about having good defenders being somewhat important. They've signed Real Betis captain and Polish international Damien Perquis to partner Steven Caldwell at center back, which means they can sprinkle Nick Hagglund in rather than rely on him as a full-time starter.
Caldwell's old legs are probably not something they can bank on all year, but they still appear to have made a real step towards being able to competently defend. That's a first for this club, so we should recognize that. They look unbalanced in the midfield - it looks like Michael Bradley will be misused yet again, and they don't have enough runners in their starting eleven to cover for Sebastian Giovinco - but that's a better problem to have than their past issues (which I'll sum up as "We simply cannot get the basics of defending right").
In other words, no one in the East can be as sure of their ability to defend as United is right now. Most of the teams appear to have regressed, and the teams that didn't are still rolling the dice on a newcomer or two fulfilling the promise of their resumes. The teams that did improve were previously so bad that they've still got work to do to actually establish themselves as being consistently solid at the back.
United did end up standing pat, but this time around I'm comfortable with it. When you're surrounded by chaos like the Black-and-Red are in the East, stability sounds pretty damn good. It seems completely reasonable to expect United to be similarly hard to score on this season, even with fixture congestion. Being a strong defensive team is not exactly a path towards being loved by the neutrals, but it is a path towards being a consistently winning club. If you show me an MLS team that has been a winner for several years running, I'll show you a team that keeps the ball out of the back of the net. United looks like they're in a position to be the best team at that side of things in the Eastern Conference, and that's a good place to be.