By: Andy Humphrey, KCOU Sports
After yet another wild and unpredictable offseason, we’re getting closer to the start of the 20th season of Major League Soccer. At least we hope so, due to the uncertainty surrounding the current labor dispute between owners and the players union. Owners want to keep the status quo with the league’s single-entity designation, while players are refusing to budge without being offered free agency. This potential new collective bargaining agreement could create another major turning point in what is already shaping up to be a season that could start a brand new landscape in MLS.
We’re setting up to see a lot of new things in 2015. First of all, the league underwent a massive rebranding, unveiling a new logo, which I’m officially dubbing the “kickstand crest.” The playoff format will expand to 12 teams (6 from each conference) and will now feature two knockout round games per conference. ESPN and FOX are also beginning their new television contracts with the league (although the live streaming of games on ESPN3 will have to wait at least another year). Also, with the signings of Jozy Altidore, Mix Diskerud, Brek Shea and Sacha Kljestan, the league continued its effort to feature as many U.S. national team stars as possible (whether Jurgen Klinsmann likes it or not). Most importantly, two new franchises, New York City FC and Orlando City SC, will begin their inaugural seasons in MLS, while one franchise, Chivas USA, has already exited the league in hopes of revamping itself for a projected return in 2017.
Add to all of that the potential groundbreaking elements coming from a new CBA and you’ve got yourself a pretty exciting and intriguing time to be a fan of MLS. We will assume for now that the labor negotiations will be resolved by the start of the season (which, I know, is quite bold of us) and give you our team-by-team outlook for this upcoming year. Zach Gee will have a preview of the Western Conference next week, and the two of us will give our season standings, awards, and playoff predictions during the week before the season (supposedly) starts.
So with that, let’s dive into the Eastern Conference:
2014 season: 9th in East
Key acquisitions: M Shaun Maloney, F David Accam, F Kennedy Igboananike
Key losses: D Bakary Soumare, D Patrick Ianni, F Juan Luis Anangono
Not only did Chicago set the MLS record for most draws in a season (18), they had more draws than combined wins and losses last year. Hooray for mediocrity! Still, from what we saw from them this offseason, it appears that they’re ready to spend the big bucks to reverse this trend of complacency. They filled all three of their allotted DP slots by getting three international talents in Maloney, Accam, and Igboananike in hopes of bolstering their attack. This could mean good things for a unit that already includes a proven stud like Mike Magee and young talents like Harry Shipp and Quincy Amarikwa.
It gets tricky when talking about the defense. There’s a lot of youth among the players listed as defenders, and that forced the team to throw a few midfielders in the back line as a result. But the youth can be noticed at all other positions, and it’s up to coach Frank Yallop to use it effectively. This upcoming year could turn into yet another rebuilding period, but it could also very well be a surprise team depending on veteran play. We’ve seen teams go from worst to first in this league many times. My guess is that this team won’t, but who knows?
2014 season: 3rd in East; lost in conference semifinal
Key acquisitions: F Kei Kamara, M Kristin Steindorsson, M Cedrick Mabwati
Key losses: F Jairo Arrieta, M Bernardo Anor
This team is in good shape. And in good hands as well. New ownership has revitalized the organization with its recent rebranding, and the new coach, Gregg Berhalter, looked like a veteran MLS coach in just his first season. With every player they lost, they found another through international transfers and discovery signings. Plus, the core group of players is still intact and determined for a deeper playoff run.
The midfield for this squad is loaded. Justin Meram showed how valuable of an asset he is in his breakout 2014 campaign (8 goals, 4 assists, both career-highs). He also has lots of support from younger studs like Wil Trapp and Ethan Finley, as well as seasoned vet Federico Higuain, who no longer has to be relied on as the team’s lone distributor. Add that will a front man in Kei Kamara, who is no stranger to scoring goals in this league, and you might have an attack perfect for any MLS Cup recipe.
2014 season: 1st in East; lost in conference semifinal
Key acquisitions: F Jairo Arrieta, M Michael Farfan
Key losses: GK Joe Willis, M Lewis Neal, M Kyle Porter
Chicago should really ask D.C. United about that whole worst-to-first thing I mentioned earlier. The way D.C. United went from their record-worst 2013 season to tops in the conference was loading the back line with proven league veterans. This certainly helped goalkeeper Bill Hamid on his path to earning 2014 Goalkeeper of the Year honors, but certainly was not the only reason he won. The attack performed well also, with Fabian Espindola leading the way with 11 goals and 9 assists last year. All of the working part of this team fell perfectly into place, making Ben Olsen (2014 Coach of the Year) look like a mastermind.
However, even with all those players, this team still didn’t win MLS Cup, and that’s why I believe the pressure is still on for Olsen to turn this team into a champion once again. United have been plagued by some early-playoff round upsets, including one to last year’s fourth-seeded New York Red Bulls. Coaches in this league can create foolproof plans one year and flame out the next. Now that Olsen has all the championship ingredients, it’s time to turn it into the franchise’s first MLS Cup since 2004.
2014 season: 10th in East
Key acquisitions: D Laurent Ciman, F Dominic Oduro, M Nigel Reo-Coker, GK Eric Kronberg
Key losses: F Marco Di Vaio, D Matteo Ferrari, M Felipe Martins, GK Troy Perkins
This is tough to get a read on. It’s a hard situation for Montreal as they try to rebound from a disappointing 2014 and do it without their beloved goal scorer, Di Vaio. They did make a very nice addition to the back line with Ciman, who comes with loads of experience in the Belgian first division and with the Belgian National Team. He should be a nice anchor to a defense that needs some serious help, and this team run by Frank Klopas does well in transition European talents to the MLS game.
Other than that, I don’t see much potential. I could say that Jack McInerney could return to the form he showed in Philadelphia, but I wouldn’t say it with much conviction. Also, the core players on this squad (Andres Romero, Ignacio Piatti, Justin Mapp, Patrice Bernier) need to step up if they want to keep pace with the rest of the guys in the conference. I could be totally wrong on this team, considering that with the conference realignment and playoff expansion, almost anyone could sneak through the East. But I’ll wait to put money on Montreal for at least one more year.
New England Revolution
2014 season: 2nd in East; lost in MLS Cup final
Key acquisitions: F Juan Agudelo, F Tristan Bowen, M Jeremy Hall
Key losses: F Patrick Mullins, D A.J. Soares, F Dimitry Imbongo
My, oh my, look who’s back! Not only were the Revs able to retain their old friend Agudelo after his debacle overseas, but they also kept many of the guys that brought them all the way to the Cup final last year. I honestly think Lee Nguyen was the most deserving player for MLS MVP last season, but that’s probably not a problem for him. He broke out with 18 goals in 2014 and was just as prolific a distributor, slicing through defenses like butter. Look for him to keep that up in 2015 for both his club and hopefully his country.
It’s incredibly hard to find a flaw in this team. The midfield is stacked (Nguyen, Jermaine Jones, Kelyn Rowe) as well as the back line (Jose Goncalves, Andrew Farrell, Chris Tierney) and the forwards (Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies). It will be interesting to see who replaces A.J. Soares at center back (if it were me, I’d put Farrell there; works every time when I play FIFA at least). If they can adequately solve that problem, look for them to be favorites for the Supporter’s Shield and the MLS Cup once again.
New York City FC
1st season in MLS
Key players: M Frank Lampard (will join team in July… we think), F David Villa, M Mix Diskerud, D George John, F Patrick Mullins, M Ned Grabavoy, D Jason Hernandez, D Andres Mendoza, GK Josh Saunders, GK Ryan Meara
No more waiting, or is there? We sort of got an answer to the whole Frank Lampard mishap and from what we expect, he should be with the team after Manchester City finishes its regular season in May. But even as one of the league’s newcomers, NYCFC has some real potential to make noise in the conference. They could also be a total flop. We just can’t exactly tell until Jason Kreis puts out his eleven on the first day of the season.
There is a good combination of international talent and MLS influence for this new franchise. You don’t know how much you’ll get out of the 33-year-old Villa, but you have young guns in Mullins and rookie Khiry Shelton who could help shoulder that load. The back line has some rock-solid MLS mainstays in John and Hernandez. Kreis was also able to mooch off his old RSL squad, notably Grabavoy, who can be the creative mind in the middle. Ultimately, Kreis knows this league well and has had lots of time to prepare for this first season, so don’t be surprised if it’s a big one.
New York Red Bulls
2014 season: 4th in East; lost conference final
Key acquisitions: M Sacha Kljestan, D Andrew Jean-Baptiste, M Felipe Martins, D Ronald Zubar
Key losses: F Thierry Henry, D Jamison Olave, M Tim Cahill
And so, life without Henry begins. New York may not have anything to replace one of the league’s most prized international icons, but it might still be able to win without it. It certainly helps to bring back last year’s Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips, who tied the record for most goals in a season last year with 27. He already has a nice relationship with winger Lloyd Sam, and we will see how Kljestan can find into this offensive equation.
I really think that Olave’s departure will have a huge impact on this team’s ability to keep the lead. When teams lose reliable center backs such as him, it can really cripple a back line. Just ask Houston after they lost Bobby Boswell. I, personally, think Jean-Baptiste is capable of filling that hole, but we’ll see if the chemistry in the back can develop early and secure RBNY for another playoff run.
Orlando City SC
1st season in MLS
Key players: M Kaka, D/M Amobi Okugo, D Aurelien Collin, M Brek Shea, M/F Pedro Ribeiro, F Martin Paterson, F Bryan Rochez, GK Donovan Ricketts, GK Tally Hall, F Cyle Larin
This will be fun to watch. I literally cannot wait to see this team officially take the field. Not only does this team feature domestic and international prowess, but judging from how this team performed in USL PRO, it might emerge as one of the most supportive fan bases in the league. MLS may whiff on the second New York team strategy that didn’t exactly work so swimmingly in Los Angeles, but they got this one right for sure.
This team has made just as many good expansion moves as NYCFC, only they were a little more quiet. Kaka is obviously a big catch, at least as a ticket-seller, and he may also have some more left in the tank. You will see quite the goalkeeper competition between Ricketts and Hall, as well as guys like Okugo and Shea who are still trying find the prime in their careers. Plus, having the first-overall pick in the SuperDraft (Larin) never hurts, especially when said-pick scored 23 goals in 39 collegiate games at UConn. OCSC may have the winning formula already, with its USL PRO championship-winning core from years past. If they climb near the top of the conference in 2015, can you say “Adrian Heath: Coach of the Year?”
2014 season: 6th in East
Key acquisitions: F C.J. Sapong, D Steven Vitoria
Key losses: D/M Amobi Okugo, F Pedro Ribeiro, GK Zac MacMath (loaned to Colorado)
There was optimism at first, but it quickly shifted as they stumbled out of the gate in the 2014 season. This led to the firing of coach John Hackworth and brought the team to a mediocre level. They did find a way to turn it around towards the end of the season, making it to the U.S. Open Cup final and having a nice August and September, but eventually ran out of gas and couldn’t dig out of the hole they dug themselves.
Now new head coach Jim Curtin has a duty to bring the team back to contention. The loss of Okugo certainly doesn’t help that cause, but the team still has a few veteran guys (Maurice Edu, Sebastian Le Toux, Conor Casey, Andrew Wenger) who can pick up the slack. It’ll also be an eye-catching goalkeeper competition between Algerian international Rais M’Bolhi and last year’s first-overall SuperDraft pick Andre Blake. Even with an expanded playoffs, however, don’t expect that huge of a turnaround from this bunch in 2015.
2014 season: 7th in East
Key acquisitions: F Jozy Altidore, M/F Sebastian Giovinco, M Benoit Cheyrou, F Robbie Findley
Key losses: F Jermain Defoe, F Dominic Oduro, F, Dwayne De Rosario
Well, the first spending experiment didn’t work out so well. Let’s see if another one does! My guess is probably not, but I predicted this team to finish third in the conference last year so I could swing and miss once again. They certainly have the “win now” mentality and aren’t afraid to shell out the big bucks and show it. They certainly don’t have a problem bolstering the attack, but was that really the main thing they should’ve focused on this offseason after allowing 54 goals in 2014?
The main thing this team needs is chemistry. Altidore is obviously searching for some after his big letdown at Sunderland, and the lack of chemistry in Toronto last season led to coach Ryan Nelson’s firing and Defoe’s awkward departure. If this team can effectively use its star power and manage the egos, this team has a massive chance to fulfill the dreams of its wealthy and impatient ownership. However, I’m not quite ready to wager Leiwekean amounts on that taking place.