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2018 MLS Eastern Conference preview: Toronto FC and their challengers

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The balance of power in MLS remains in the East, but even among the upper crust there’s a clear 1%er hoarding all the talent

The 2018 MLS season is less than 100 hours away, and it’ll get started with a doozy: Toronto FC will host the Columbus Crew at 1pm Saturday. This pits two of the best teams in the league against each other, which seems like a good way to kick the season off. However, the fact that this is just half of the Eastern Conference’s power teams says a lot about how strong the top of the East is. If you’re looking for an MLS Cup favorite, most of them will be discussed in this piece.

Atlanta United

Last year: 15W-10D-9L, +30 (70 for/40 against), 4th place. Eliminated in knockout round.
Likely starters: (4231) - Guzan; Escobar, Larentowicz, Gonzalez Pirez, Garza; McCann, Nagbe; Villalba, Almiron, Barco; Martinez

Losing Yamil Asad and Carlos Carmona means the hellacious ATL press has lost two of its three key cogs (the other, FYI, is Miguel Almiron). Asad makes way for colossally expensive teenager Ezequiel Barco, while Carmona’s replacement is Darlington Nagbe. That is to say, Tata Martino’s high-octane style of play is going to lean heavily on a player who turns 19 next month and a guy who has never produced enough defensively to play as an 8 in a 4231.

Nonetheless, ATL is one of the East’s strongest teams. Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba will terrify defenses all year, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is a Best 11-caliber center back, Greg Garza and Brad Guzan are high-end at their positions, and most teams would kill to have Julian Gressel as their first sub. Franco Escobar is probably an upgrade at right back, and if he isn’t, Sal Zizzo is a viable Plan B.

Prognosis: The Five Stripes are weaker up the gut, and might have to move to 433 to bring Almiron’s work rate into a deeper spot to shore things up. They’re going to be constantly entertaining though, and as Kevin McCauley pointed out they can cover many of their flaws by simply gambling on their attack even more. Few MLS teams have ever been able to say that, but ATL’s cure for losing Carmona is probably just forcing other teams to get into shootouts with them every week. They’ll win those regularly.

Atlanta should get into the playoffs comfortably, and if they have the mental strength to endure a season of wild-ass games (and if Martinez is healthy come autumn), they’re a legit contender.

Columbus Crew SC

Last year: 16W-6D-12L, +4 (53 for/49 against), 5th place, 54 points. Eliminated in conference final.
Likely starters: (4231) - Steffen; Afful, Mensah, Abubakar, Valenzuela; Trapp, Artur; Martinez, Higuain, Santos; Zardes

Gregg Berhalter has made a bunch of changes, but three of their new starters (Lalas Abubakar, Cristian Martinez, and Gyasi Zardes) have MLS experience, and two of them were Columbus players last year. The fact that the Crew are so well-versed in their system will help the new guys get up to speed.

The big story is undoubtedly Zardes, who MLS fans have by and large completely written off. Here’s the thing, though: the total, inexplicable misuse of Zardes as a winger by both LA and the USMNT is no longer a problem. Berhalter understands that the guy that scored 16 goals as a striker is still in there, and it’s just about rebuilding his confidence.

Zardes is not as good as Ola Kamara, but he’s been scoring frequently throughout the preseason. The Crew play a system where a striker who runs the channels and has some speed will get a preposterous number of chances. Zardes doesn’t have to display the technical ability of Dennis Bergkamp to post 15 goals this season, because Columbus will make it easy for him. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself adding him to your fantasy team in a few weeks.

Prognosis: Despite the off-field turmoil surrounding a club that is trying to move to a city that doesn’t seem to want them all that much, Berhalter is going to lead this team to the playoffs with ease, and they’re going to look good doing it. Even starting 19 year old Milton Valenzuela at left back shouldn’t be an issue.

The one potential stumbling block: if U.S. Soccer can’t come to terms with Big-Name Head Coach after the World Cup (and given the flailing mess that the USSF is these days, that’s a real possibility), you can be sure that Berhalter will get serious consideration to take the USMNT job.

New York City FC

Last year: 16W-9D-9L, +13 (56 for/43 against), 2nd place, 57 points. Eliminated in conference semifinals.
Likely starters: (433) - Johnson; Tinnerholm, Chanot, Callens, Matarrita; Herrera, Ring, Moralez; Medina, Villa, Wallace

NYCFC may have lost Jack Harrison, but they’ve immediately replaced him with a Young DP winger in Jesus Medina, and boosted their defense with Anton Tinnerholm (reputedly one of the best defenders from Sweden’s top flight) to boot. Yangel Herrera is back for another year of seasoning before Manchester City promotes him up their ranks.

Their depth pieces are mostly young and improving, with Jonathan Lewis looking like MLS’s best game-changing sub at the moment and youngsters like Ebenezer Ofori and Ismael Tajouri improving the midfield and wings, respectively. Frederic Brillant has been replaced by Cedric Hountondji, though it must be said that the Beninese international is the only natural center back available (Patrick Vieira will probably make do by moving Tinnerholm and/or Ben Sweat into central roles if forced to go deeper).

The Pigeons even have an insurance policy if David Villa, at 36, starts to fall off his Golden Boot contender goalscoring pace. Jo-Inge Berget has seen time in Serie A, the Premier League, and has recent experience in the UEFA Champions League with Malmö. On most MLS teams, a guy with that resume is someone you lead off with. For NYCFC, he’s improved forward depth. This team is good, folks.

Prognosis: New York’s only MLS team will once again make the playoffs by playing stylish, possession-oriented soccer. Villa shows no signs of slowing down, and there are numerous MLS teams that would love to start NYCFC’s B-team front four of Berget, Lewis, Tajouri, and Tommy McNamara.

What holds this team back? Their home venue at Yankee Stadium arguably makes it harder for them to play their style than a stadium that allows for a field stretched to the maximum allowable dimensions would. Maxi Moralez looks like a complimentary piece rather than the Designated Player he is, and the defense (even if Ronald Matarrita is healthy all year) feels like it needs one more piece to make the Pigeons a wholly convincing challenger for TFC.

That said, NYCFC feels like the second best team in MLS as far as the regular season goes. Can they finally figure out how to apply their qualities in knockout round play? Or is this team that is far more likely to pursue a Supporters Shield than an MLS Cup or Open Cup?

Toronto FC

Last year: 20W-9D-5L, +37 (74 for/37 against), 1st place, 69 points. Supporters Shield, MLS Cup champs.
Likely starters: (4312) - Bono; van der Wiel, Moor, Hagglund, Morrow; Delgado, Bradley, Osorio; Vazquez; Giovinco, Altidore

Here’s how far the Reds are ahead of everyone else: while most teams were trying to find 2-3 new starters, they signed an attacking midfielder from a strong club in La Liga (Ager Aketxe) for depth. They signed Gregory van der Wiel, who has 46 caps for the Netherlands and was in Serie A before moving to MLS, without using a Designated Player spot. And they were already arguably the best team in MLS history in 2017.

TFC has shown an ability to win big games playing three different formations (the diamond 442 above, the 352 that was in place for most of last season, and a 3511 when missing one of Sebastian Giovinco or Jozy Altidore). They have no problem playing with a back five late in games either. They’re deep at nearly every position, and the only starter whose age might become a worry as the year goes on (Drew Moor) has two pretty good young center backs vying for minutes just behind him.

There’s not much point beating a dead horse telling you about how this is the best team in MLS. They should be seen as overwhelming favorites to repeat last season’s triple, which was itself unprecedented. So instead, let’s talk about what could possibly derail them. Michael Bradley’s only natural back-up is 20 year old homegrown signing Liam Fraser, who hasn’t broken through for a thin Canadian program at the senior level yet. A significant injury for Bradley would throw the door wide open for the rest of the teams in this piece.

The possibility of Giovinco and Altidore both being injured at the same time also looms, as neither has been extraordinarily durable throughout their respective careers. Tosaint Ricketts is a nice option to have as a third forward, but let’s be generous and call the rest of their depth here “unproven.”

Prognosis: Like I already said, this is the best team in MLS and their expectations should be nothing less than another three trophies. We can talk about NYCFC trying to close the gap in the Shield race, or teams like Atlanta and/or Columbus being a strong playoff threat, but realistically it feels like TFC increased the gap between themselves and the rest.

They may actually be their own biggest worry, if their shrug-worthy performance in the CCL is any indicator. There, a talent-deficient Colorado Rapids side outplayed them for about 125 or so minutes across two legs, and a disinterested Toronto side was about 3 inches from Dominique Badji suddenly throwing things back open when he hit the post at BMO Field during the second leg.

This isn’t the first time TFC has taken on the air of a team that feels irritated that they’re being made to play against a lesser team. Greg Vanney’s challenge this year is to keep this from happening more than a handful of times, and to limit those occasions to the first two-thirds of the season. This is obviously nit-picking, but keeping this group hungry is probably job #1 for the Toronto coaching staff. The talent here will take care of most of the rest.