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2018 MLS Eastern Conference preview: Here’s who should expect to struggle

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It doesn’t look like it’ll be a good year to wear dark blue

The 2018 MLS season is nearly upon us. As this is being typed, Toronto and Columbus will kick off the league’s 23rd season in under 114 hours. D.C. United will get underway against Orlando City later that evening. As such, it’s time to run the rule over the league’s 23 clubs and try to sort the wheat from the chaff.

This series will be in six parts, splitting both the Eastern and Western Conferences in half and going from there in three groups: the teams that will struggle, the iffy teams that will straddle the red line, and the genuine front-runners. Right now, we’ll start with the teams that look set to finish near the bottom of the East. After that, we’ll start the whole process over out west.

Without further delay, let’s get to it:

New England Revolution

Last year: 13W-6D-15L, -8 (53 for/61 against), 7th place, 45 points.
Likely starters: (4231) - Cropper; Farrell, Delamea, Dielna, Somi; Zahibo, Caldwell; Bunbury, Rowe, Fagundez; Agudelo

The Bent Musket brings us a start statement about the Revs: despite giving up 61 goals (that’s more than anyone in the East), they’ve made precisely one change to their back four. Swedish-born Syrian left back Gabriel Somi is the only new face, and New England gave up 2+ goals in three different preseason games (including to San Antonio FC of the USL).

Elsewhere, new defensive midfielder Wilfred Zahibo got a red card within 10 minutes of his preseason debut, and that appears to point towards something the Revolution committed to throughout the preseason. Brad Friedel is not going to re-invent the wheel, or even change formation. What he does appear to want to change is to make his team hyper-physical (he’d probably just call it “committed” or “brave”). The Revs apparently want to dive in on tackles and be aggressive in an attempt to get themselves an advantage.

That’s an old-school MLS move, and speaking of old-school, Friedel has responded to Lee Nguyen’s holdout by refusing to grant him a move. Nguyen eventually reported, but was left to build his fitness in New England while the rest of the team finished up camp in warmer climes. Because of that, expect Kelyn Rowe to start the season as their attacking midfielder. There is real depth here, as Krisztian Nemeth and Cristian Penilla will join Nguyen in fighting for time underneath Juan Agudelo (who will finally be regarded as the undisputed starting #9).

Is that enough?

Prognosis: No, it is not. Despite all the talk over the years about how much attacking talent New England has, the only consistent game-breaker has been Nguyen. If he’s unhappy, it’s doubtful that he’ll produce at the near-MVP level he did last year. On top of that, the defense has no standouts, goals will dry up whenever Agudelo is injured (and he usually picks up at least one muscle strain a season), and Friedel has no experience coaching in MLS or any professional club team. Too many things have to go right for this team to sniff the playoffs, much less get in.

Philadelphia Union

Last year: 11W-9D-14L, +3 (50 for/47 against), 8th place, 42 points.
Likely starters: (4231) - Blake; Rosenberry, Elliott, Trusty, Fabinho; Medunjanin, Bedoya; Picault, Fontana, Accam; Sapong

The fact that last year’s Union finished with a positive goal difference is stunning, because last year’s Union was not a good team. That’s not to say they lack for talent, though. CJ Sapong was the best USMNT-eligible goalscorer in MLS last year, while Andre Blake is probably the best goalkeeper in MLS now that Bill Hamid is playing in Denmark. Haris Medunjanin is a sublimely talented passer and set piece taker, and Alejandro Bedoya (like him or not) has been part of the USMNT for years due to his all-around game.

To that group, they’ve added David Accam, who has been MLS’s best left winger not named Ignacio Piatti for the past two years. So what’s the problem? Well, Accam is their entire offseason. Aside from Accam, they promoted Cory Burke from Bethlehem Steel and signed some homegrown players. It looks likely that the Union will sign Czech midfielder Borek Dockal to add to their ranks, but it remains to be seen whether he’s as good as those five or, like Roland Alberg before him, another poor signing for Philly.

As currently built, Philadelphia will field five starters who could get into most MLS teams (Blake, Medunjanin, Bedoya, Accam, and Sapong) and six who are either projects for the future (US under-20 Auston Trusty is one to watch), run-of-the-mill MLS players, or a substantial question mark (Dockal). It’s the kind of roster-building strategy MLS teams began to grow out of a decade ago.

Prognosis: The Union will always play hard, and they’ll occasionally get wins when their star-caliber players all perform on the same day, but this is the team with the least talent in the East. It really does drop off after their five big names, and even those five come with some issues. Sapong, for example, has gone ice cold at times in his career. Medunjanin and Bedoya are very good players, but they’re not exactly rock-solid when it comes to shielding a back four that desperately needs to be shielded.

There are positives about Philly, believe it or not. Their suddenly heavy reliance on homegrown players (we haven’t even talked about Derrick Jones) will make for tough results in 2018, but it should also pay off in 2019 and beyond. But this preview is about 2018, and in 2018 the main thing that will keep them from getting the Wooden Spoon is some worse teams out west.