By Andy Humphrey
In 2013, there were few American professional sports leagues that were more exciting than Major League Soccer. Seriously, could the NFL or the NBA say that over 75% of their teams had a legitimate shot of making the playoffs when they all had three games remaining in the regular season? The previous MLS season showed everything that a sports league wants to provide for its fans: intense drama, elevated gameplay and growth for the future.
The Eastern Conference was no exception. An ongoing debate between Eastern and Western Conference supporters has produced the idea that the West is far and away the stronger division. That may be true as far as playoff races are concerned, but despite the claims of inferiority, the Eastern Conference in 2013 produced the Supporter’s Shield winner (New York Red Bulls), the U.S. Open Cup champion (amazingly, D.C. United), and the MLS Cup champion (Sporting KC). It also featured one of the tightest playoff races in MLS history, with five clubs (New England, Houston, Montreal, Chicago, and Philadelphia) fighting for the final three playoff slots in the last week of the season.
2014 should be no different. Teams that didn’t do so hot last season made up for it in the offseason (hint: Toronto FC did a decent job of that). This will cause some major shuffling in the conference table and maybe a few well deserving teams missing out on the party. Of course, in MLS we’ve grown used to this unpredictability. But that won’t stop me from facing it head-on.
So without further ado, here is my attempt at predicting the 2014 Eastern Conference standings:
1. Sporting Kansas City
2013 season: 2nd in East; MLS Cup champion
Key acquisitions: M Sal Zizzo, GK Andy Gruenebaum
Key losses: GK Jimmy Nielson
Why change much? Sure, they lost their anchor in goal that has kept them in games for many years, but whoever’s playing behind arguably the best back line in the league won’t have too tough of a task. Sporting may have a larger target on their back as the reigning champs, but at least they don’t have the added media pressure from making huge offseason signings as other teams will have. They will once again be the envy of MLS with their experience and leadership, and will contend for the Shield as they usually do.
The depth of this team is second to none. Not only did Claudio Bieler give them the offense boast they were looking for, but young guns like Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer are starting to make impacts as well. They could almost have a completely separate starting XI of reserves and that team would be at least serviceable in MLS. This will prove beneficial when international players like Graham Zusi and Matt Besler leave for a month on World Cup duty.
2. New York Red Bulls
2013 season: 1st in East; Supporter’s Shield winners; lost in conference semifinal
Key acquisitions: M Bobby Convey, D Richard Eckersley
Key losses: F Fabián Espíndola, D Brandon Barklage, D David Carney
The defending Shield winners really turned it up in the last quarter of the 2013 campaign to collect the top spot and the franchise’s first trophy. The big names on this team will keep them in the conversation for a repeat this season. Tim Cahill certainly proved worthy of his DP status, accumulating 12 goals and 6 assists in 27 caps. With a team of powerful veterans like Thierry Henry, Jámison Olave, and Péguy Luyindula, this team will be poised for a playoff run, even though that hasn’t been their strong suit.
One thing that will be interesting is how they will respond to their first-ever appearance in CONCACAF Champions League. They will start group play in the second half of the MLS regular season, and will be required to focus their attention on other duties during a time when the MLS standings will likely become a bit shaky.
3. Toronto FC
2013 season: 9th in East
Key acquisitions: F Jermaine Defoe, M Michael Bradley, GK Júlio César, M Dwayne De Rosario, M Jackson
Key losses: F Robert Earnshaw, M Darel Russell, M Bobby Convey
So you wanna be a contender, do you? Needless to say, Toronto was a big spender this offseason, making moves comparable to the NBA’s Boston Celtics Garnett/Allen trades and MLB’s LA Angels Pujols/Hamilton signings. This always begs the question of whether such moves will result in the team taking the path of either the Celtics (winning a championship) or the Angels (well, the opposite).
Defoe certainly is a monumental get. Consistent goal-scorers can keep many teams afloat in this league. Where was New York before Henry joined? Where was Montreal before Marco Di Vaio came over? Pair that up with a USMNT stud in Bradley and a promising young midfielder in Jonathon Osorio and you’ve got a defense’s worst nightmare
4. D.C. United
2013 season: last in East; U.S. Open Cup Champion
Key acquisitions: F Eddie Johnson, M Davy Arnaud, D Bobby Boswell, D Sean Franklin, F Fabián Espíndola
Key losses: M Dwayne De Rosorio, F Lionard Pajoy, D Daniel Woolard, M Marcelo Saragosa
D.C.’s offseason obviously had to play second-fiddle to Toronto, but they made great steps towards a new foundation and addressed a lot of needs. They were big winners in the Re-Entry Draft, attaining Boswell and Franklin by that medium, and getting a big free agent in EJ, who will attempt to carry an offense that was virtually non-existent last season. They also held on to young assets in midfield, including Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Luis Silva, Kyle Porter and Nick DeLeon.
I know, it seems a little unfair that just because of the big offseason, I put them in a playoff position, and even more odd that it comes after the worst season in MLS history (16 points). I was still reluctant, but in MLS, young hopefuls combined with sure talents can produce successful seasons. Ultimately, it will come down to the leadership of coach Ben Olsen, who will be one of the most scrutinized managers in the league this season.
5. Houston Dynamo
2013 season: 4th in East; lost in conference final
Key acquisitions: D David Horst, M Tony Cascio
Key losses: F Brian Ching, D Bobby Boswell, F Cam Weaver
(Caution: I’m an avid supporter.)
Inconsistency was the story of Houston’s 2013. With injuries and international call-ups, they failed to establish a rhythm and left a lot of points on the table as a result. The core of this team remains (M Brad Davis, M Ricardo Clark, GK Tally Hall, F Will Bruin, M Oscar Boniek Garcia) while a few new faces look to fill needs and add depth. Last year’s big transfer Alex López and fully recovered speedster Omar Cummings will be expected to make larger contributions in 2014.
Even with their stability, I still expect the Dynamo having some trouble this season. They will fluctuate between #2 and #8 as they did last year, but still find a way to sneak into the playoffs as they always do. And it’s no secret what this squad can do in the month of November, reaching the MLS Cup twice in the last three seasons and only coming up a goal short last season. It should also be noted that this is most likely Houston’s final year in the Eastern Conference, with the addition of New York City FC and Orlando City SC to MLS in 2015.
6. New England Revolution
2013 season: 3rd in East; lost in conference semifinal
Key acquisitions: F Charlie Davies, GK Brad Knighton, F Patrick Mullins (SuperDraft)
Key losses: F Juan Agudelo, GK Matt Reis, F Chad Barrett
They turned a lot of heads last season, and they deserved the attention they got. They were also one of the big winners of the 2014 SuperDraft, which adds to the already young group of players they had on the first team in 2013 (this year they have one guy, ONE GUY (Andy Dorman), over the age of 30). Plus, who can’t be excited about Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe, and 2013 MLS Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves?
However, the squad’s inexperience keeps them out of the playoffs in my book. They may catch D.C. United in the race, and injuries could affect any team in my top 5, but sometimes teams that play well for most of the year but don’t have the extra boost that playoff-familiar teams like Sporting, DC, and Houston have expressed in recent years. Give them some time, though.
7. Montreal Impact
2013 season: 5th in East; lost in Knockout Stage
Key acquisitions: F Santiago González, D/M Eric Miller (SuperDraft)
Key losses: M Davy Arnaud, D Alessandro Nesta
A dream start in March and April and complete disarray in October can accurately describe Montreal’s 2013 campaign. They certainly showed that they mean business, riding behind Marco Di Vaio’s 20 goals and a solid midfield that remains mostly intact (Patrice Bernier, Felipe Martins, Andrés Romero, Justin Mapp, Sanna Nyassi). They’ll also give last year’s DP signing Hernán Bernardello a bigger role in midfield.
The train wreck at the end of the season gives me worries about this team’s ability to keep up with other East squads. Di Vaio, 37, may not last much longer and it may be time to start thinking about a more extensive push in youth development, but this team will contend again at the very least.
8. Chicago Fire
2013 season: 6th in East
Key acquisitions: D Patrick Ianni, D Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, D/M Lovel Palmer
Key losses: F Maicon Santos, M Joel Lindpere, M Daniel Paladini, D Jalil Anibaba
So, so close last year, and if only they hadn’t settled for home draws against inferior teams, we would be talking about their playoff experience last season and how they will be driven to get back this year. A full year’s worth of forward Mike Magee will certainly help the cause, along with standout midfielders Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko. Other than that, there isn’t much else that leads me to put faith in this team.
New head coach Frank Yallop will need to light a huge spark under this team if they want to be in the playoff conversation. But, like Montreal, Chicago’s offseason moves didn’t keep up with other teams in the East. They did try to address their needs in the back line, and for good reason. Only Chivas USA (67) and D.C. United (59) gave up more goals than the Fire (52) did in the last regular season. Oh, and goalkeeper Sean Johnson may be summoned to Brazil by Jürgen Klinsmann this summer.
9. Philadelphia Union
2013 season: 7th in East
Key acquisitions: M Maurice Edu, D Ethan White, GK Andre Blake (SuperDraft)
Key losses: M Michael Farfan, M Kléberson, D Jeff Parke
It’s certainly a plus when you can add a USMNT mainstay with experience in the Premier League like Edu. Philadelphia will pair him up with Amobi Okugo and hope to pull off a better second half of the season, which ultimately prevented them from making the playoffs I 2013. If only Jack McInerney could’ve keep the consistency throughout the season, I think we would have seen this team instead of Montreal playing Houston in the Knockout Stage. Once again, I think they fall victim to the congestion at the top of the table.
The move to trade up to the #1 pick in the SuperDraft and take goalkeeper Andre Blake certainly raised some eyebrows in the draft room. This sent a clear message to starter Zac MacMath, who is coming off a disappointing season in net. It will be interesting to see who comes out of training as the better option for manager John Hackworth.
10. Columbus Crew
2013 season: 8th in East
Key acquisitions: D Michael Parkhurst, M Hector Jimenez, M Daniel Paladini
Key losses: M Eddie Gavan, GK Andy Gruenebaum, D Chad Marshall
Out of all the teams that I placed in Andy Humphrey’s Official/Unofficial Eastern Conference Predicted Standings, this team is the one in which I feel least confident about where I placed them. Teams that have appeared to be in rebuilding mode have broken out into top positions before; just ask Real Salt Lake. However, as always, someone has to be last, and this year, I think it’ll be the Crew (sorry, Ohio).
They’re doing everything right, though. They signed homegrown talent and won in the SuperDraft and hired a new coach, Gregg Berhalter, to develop them into a new foundation. Plus, fans can still enjoy the great talent and class of Argentine Federico Higuaín. Let’s be honest; it’ll take something catastrophic to be as bad as D.C. United was last season.