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2018 MLS Eastern Conference preview: D.C. United and the rest of the muddled middle

Here’s what we expect from D.C. United’s competition for playoff spots

Our 2018 MLS season preview series continues with a look at the Eastern Conference’s middle tier. This is where we have D.C. United at the moment, along with several teams undergoing what appear to be major changes. Every one of these teams has significant positives going for them, but each team listed below (in alphabetical order, not projected spot in the final standings) comes with at least one red flag.

Chicago Fire

Last year: 16W-7D-11L, +14 (61 for/47 against), 3rd place, 55 points. Eliminated in knockout round.
Likely starters: (4231) - Sanchez; Polster, Kappelhof, Campbell, Vincent; Schweinsteiger, McCarty; Katai, Bakero, Solignac; Nikolic

Chicago appears to have regressed this offseason. Aside from Schweinsteiger and McCarty both getting a year older after their previous teams decided it was time to cut bait before the aging cliff comes, there’s a real issue on the wings. David Accam is in Philadelphia, Michael de Leeuw is going to miss much of the season with a torn ACL from last year, and Arturo Alvarez landed in Houston.

On top of that, Joao Meira has left (though Jonathan Campbell and Grant Lillard might be long-term upgrades at center back), they’re handing the attacking midfield role to rookie Jon Bakero, and they failed to address their glaring goalkeeper problem. There’s also virtually no depth, as youngster Djordje Mihailovic will be out even longer than de Leeuw due to an ACL tear on the final day of the 2017 regular season.

What went right? Nemanja Nikolic is probably going to put up 17+ goals, and Aleksandar Katai (despite the CV of a journeyman) is coming over from La Liga club Alaves to take over their right wing. Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent will continue to get better, and winger Daniel Johnson is going to surprise some people.

Prognosis: Normally a team that regresses like the Fire did this winter is a team that falls out of the playoff pack. However, Chicago might be bailed out by other teams falling off even more than they did, and 2017’s cohort of bad teams not all getting markedly better (spoiler: Orlando and United were the only non-playoff teams to take more than one step forward this winter). Right now, I think they luck into a playoff berth, but the gap between the East’s top 5 and everyone else will look more like a chasm.

D.C. United

Last year: 9W-5D-20L, -29 (31 for/60 against), 11th place, 32 points.
Likely starters: (4141) - Ousted; DeLeon, Brillant, Birnbaum, Kemp; Canouse; Arriola, Segura, Acosta, Asad; Mattocks

Given how 2016 was about United’s ceiling while 2017 was about the (sub-basement) floor, let’s talk ceilings and floors:

I see the ceiling for the Darren Mattocks/Patrick Mullins strike pairing as around 22 goals/10 assists between the two of them. The floor is probably around 9 goals/4 assists. Of course, if United opts for a big-time summer move, we might never find out how they’d do over a full season. I will say that United’s vastly improved midfield, which has improved both in terms of surface-level creativity and as a platform for creative play (Ulises Segura has routinely had the “pass before the pass” throughout preseason), is going to create chances for them.

In goal, I see the ceiling for David Ousted (and/or Steve Clark, since I’m not 100% sure this issue is settled) as top 5 MLS goalkeeper, possibly even an outside shot at a GKotY nomination. The floor is somewhere in the muddled middle. If Clark emerges as the starter, I’d recommend getting into yoga or meditation, because he will produce the spectacular and the bizarre.

The biggest ceiling/floor question mark, though, is undoubtedly Steve Birnbaum. His fall last season was stunning and inexplicable, and United can’t afford for him to have anything less than a strong bounce-back this year. So far in the preseason, he looks to have made progress, but at the same time I’d stop well short of saying he’s been at his best. He’s been alright, but a playoff spot is going to need more than “alright” from him and new partner Frederic Brillant. Right now, I’m more concerned with the defense than I am the attack.

Prognosis: I’ve spent the last month feeling like United is going to be a) much better than 2017 and b) not quite good enough to get themselves into the playoffs. This has crystallized into maybe the most rock-solid feeling about a final standings spot I have for any team in MLS: 8th place, 4 points out of the playoffs. I expect a thrilling late summer/early fall run-in, where United gets hot enough to be in the thick of the playoff race, but that Decision Day road game at Chicago coming on the back of so many at home feels like a gut punch waiting to happen.

Montreal Impact

Last year: 11W-6D-17L, -6 (52 for/58 against), 9th place, 39 points.
Likely starters: (4231) - Bush; Petrasso, Cabrera, Diallo, Raitala; Piette, Taïder; Edwards, Vargas, Piatti; Mancosu

There are six new starters in that projected eleven, while defensive midfielder Samuel Piette only joined late last season. Some are good: Algerian international Saphir Taïder, at just 25 years old, has played over 100 games in Serie A, so he should be another example of owner Joey Saputo’s leveraging the fact that he owns two clubs (his other is Italian club Bologna, where Taïder was previously). Michael Petrasso is an upgrade at right back, Raheem Edwards is a speedy compliment to their attack, and Jeisson Vargas could be a very exciting addition.

However, it seems like there are too many question marks here. Vargas, at 20, may not be ready to be a full-time starter (in fact, Montreal has spent more time in the preseason playing a 433 with draft pick Ken Krolicki, a box-to-box player, starting alongside Taïder with Piette playing deeper). Laurent Ciman has been replaced by Zakaria Diallo, whose experience in Ligue 2 is a big drop-off from a current Belgian international. Putting aside the wonder that is Ignacio Piatti, the other holdovers (Evan Bush, Victor Cabrera, and Matteo Mancosu) are all...fine. The loss of Blerim Dzemaili looms, no matter how good Taïder is.

I also have questions about how this is all supposed to fit together going forward. Piatti often creates for himself; Mancosu and Anthony Jackson-Hamel don’t rack up many assists; Vargas is supposedly more of a goalscorer than creator; Taïder is more goal-scoring midfielder than creative #8; and Edwards is a complimentary piece. Who is supposed to pull the strings here? If Piatti going to have to focus more on assists than goals? It seems like Remi Garde, himself a question mark since he’s never been involved with MLS before, has a lot to sort out.

Prognosis: This feels too much like a work in progress for me to say the Impact gets to the playoffs. There are just too many things that have to go right all at once, much like what we’re looking at here with the Black-and-Red. Piatti and Taïder could haul this group over the red line and into 6th place (like I said above, I see the East being five really strong teams, and then the rest), but I think they’re going to come up short.

New York Red Bulls

Last year: 14W-8D-12L, +6 (53 for/47 against), 6th place, 50 points. Eliminated in the conference semifinals (lol)
Likely starters: (4231) - Robles; Murillo, Collin, Long, Lawrence; Felipe, Adams; Muyl, Kaku, Royer; Wright-Phillips

For the second straight season, the Red Bulls have jettisoned their captain, and in both cases the player a) was in their central midfield and b) went to a conference rival. There’s an argument for NYRB moving players over 30 out the door before they fall off rather than after, but it’s harder to defend when Dax McCarty helps resurrect Chicago, or when Sacha Kljestan is a key piece to Orlando’s rebuild.

The 3331 formation from last season appears to be on the back burner for the time being, with Jesse Marsch returning to the 4231 of past seasons. However, the bigger news is the addition of Argentine under-20 Kaku after an absurdly protracted transfer saga. The 23 year old has a reputation as a winger, but it seems that the Red Bulls will be playing him in Kljestan’s old spot. The pressure is on, as the newcomer has to replace the player who has produced the most key passes in MLS over the past few years.

As for their other moves, there’s a reason to question them. Marc Rzatkowski is this year’s “NYRB gets a player from Red Bull Salzburg on loan” acquisition, none of which have ever panned out before. Carlos Rivas and Tommy Redding came in the exchange that sent Kljestan south, but Rivas is probably never going to be anything other than maddening, and Redding is still not ready for prime time yet.

Prognosis: Last year’s team was worse than 2016’s, and unless Kaku has a Nicolas Lodeiro-level ease with adjustment to MLS, it seems like this year’s team is worse than last year’s. Bradley Wright-Phillips turns 33 in about two weeks, which is not a promising situation for a team that only has one other scoring threat (the underrated Daniel Royer). BWP has shown no signs of getting too old just yet, but we’ve seen plenty of top MLS players have drastic fall-offs that come out of nowhere at this age.

On top of that, with Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar probably heading to the World Cup, a thin defense will be stretched even more than usual during the summer months. Aurelien Collin, who already looks like a declining force, still feels indispensable. What happens during his seemingly inevitable injury absence(s)?

It seems from the outside that the Red Bull organization has overestimated either the players on their roster or Marsch’s ability to make it all work. There’s a Jenga feel to this Red Bulls team, and I’m on record as saying they miss the playoffs. That’s not an expectation based on a dislike for the team, either. Put this roster, coaching staff, and infrastructure in, say, Dallas or KC, and I’d say the same.

Orlando City SC

Last year: 10W-9D-15L, -19 (39 for/58 against), 10th place, 39 points.
Likely starters: (4231) - Bendik; Sutter, Spector, Sane, Toia; Rosell, Yotun; Colman, Kljestan, Meram; Dwyer

The offseason champs did a number on what was the worst team in MLS from May onward last year. The entire attacking midfield corps has been remodeled, and they made two of the biggest defensive signings in the league this winter by signing Werder Bremen center back Lamine Sane and former Sporting Kansas City anchor man Uri Rosell (who has spent the last five years with Portuguese giant Sporting Clube).

Those midfield changes are positives for more than just strict on-field reasons. Kljestan and Justin Meram both joined the Lions from other playoff teams in the East, while Josue Colman (a 19 year old Young DP) fits the sort of progressive mold (i.e. he’s a player that can be developed and sold at a profit) that teams around the MLS are going for these days. It’s smart business for a club that both wants to win ASAP — make no mistake, Jason Kreis enters this season with the hottest seat in the league — and that wants to have a more sustainable future.

Orlando improved their depth as well. Will Johnson and Dillon Powers are probably not going to start this season, unless the preseason rumors of 4231 (Orlando has made every effort to keep their preseason lineups a secret) actually end up being a smokescreen. Draft pick Chris Mueller has drawn rave reviews during the preseason, and highly touted youngsters like Cam Lindley and Pierre da Silva might not see more than 500 minutes between them.

That’s not to say their offseason has been perfect. Dom Dwyer has managed to pull a hamstring and a quad before the season begins, and he’ll be out for the season opener. The only out-and-out striker depth on the team is Stefano Pinho, who has had plenty of NASL success. However, while Christian Ramirez’s success translated when moving up the ranks, there have been several NASL Best XI players who were simply not up to MLS standard (just look at Minnesota’s 2017 roster).

Maybe more alarming is the lack of center back depth. With Jose Aja traded to Vancouver, Orlando’s entire list of center backs is Sane, Spector, and Amro Tarek (who didn’t look good enough for MLS during his time in Columbus in 2016). Rosell played center back in his youth days, and our friends at The Mane Land have indicated that left back Donny Toia is being given some training reps in the middle, but neither of those options is palatable. With Orlando’s years-long tendency towards having more muscular injuries than just about anyone in the league, an injury crisis could sabotage all their good off-field work.

Prognosis: There’s so much talent on this roster that it’s hard to pick against Orlando. Even if Pinho can’t duplicate his NASL success while Dwyer is out in the early going, the chances that will be created for him should be good enough for the Lions to stay afloat through March. Kljestan and Meram are going to torment opposing defenses, and if Colman needs an adjustment period, Mueller can plug in straight away. We haven’t even mentioned Yoshimar Yotun, who is one of the best #8s in MLS.

While there is heavy pressure on Kreis to start the season well, there is also a solid reason to expect him to succeed. On paper, Sane and Spector should be among the best center back pairings in the league, and they’ll be helped by Rosell. The holdovers from last year were good choices (particularly right back Scott Sutter).

If anything, it’s a bit unfair to include Orlando in this middle group. I think they have a solid claim to being one of the East’s five high-end teams. The only reason they’re down here is a nagging sense, between their history with injuries, a tendency towards having too many off-field distractions, and a few rocky seasons for Kreis since he left RSL, that something could go wrong. If they avoid the pitfalls, the Lions have the hallmarks of a playoff team (and one that might make a bit of a run once they’re there).