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  • Phil Blacker

Season preview and Predictions - Eastern Conference

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

With the earlier finish to last season it’s been a lengthy wait for the big kick-off in MLS this weekend but there’s plenty to consider ahead of the new campaign. By definition MLS is a league where a lot can change but 2020 in particular already seems to have excelled itself in that respect – and I’m not just talking 2 new teams, new stadiums and star signings. The Red Bulls without Luis Robles in goal or Bradley Wright Phillips up front (I know he barely featured last season but still!), Columbus Crew without Wil Trapp or Federico Higuain, a Piatti-less Montreal, Atlanta minus LGP, Gressel and Nagbe not to mention Zlatan and Rooney moving on to pastures new. But in their place come new names and new opportunities. Trying to predict anything in MLS is often futile but on the eve of its 25th season that can’t stop us trying…

Eastern Conference:

1. Toronto FC

It’s precisely because of some of the seismic changes elsewhere that I’m tipping Toronto to top the East. They’ve kept pretty much everyone they’d have wanted to keep from the team that went all the way to MLS Cup last year, with the possible exception of Nicolas Benezet – and even then his exit to Colorado was necessary to facilitate the arrival of Pablo Piatti from Espanyol who appears a notable upgrade on a DP contract. Once he gets fit a productive creative partnership with Alejandro Pozuelo should follow - the Spaniard was excellent in his first season at the club and there might be even more to follow. Keeping captain Michael Bradley whilst still freeing up his DP spot looks a smart move, even if he’ll be badly missed whilst out injured in the early part of the season. And as always with TFC keeping Jozy Altidore fit will be key. Although Greg Vanney has experienced options in reserve, and strength in depth in almost every position, they still look a better team when Altidore is in it. There’s reason to believe they can maintain the momentum from last season’s play-off charge and if this side hit the front early on there’s every chance they can stay there.

2. New York City FC

This is another squad who have stayed intact from last year and kept change to a minimum – in fact you could argue their first choice starting X1 were all with the club in 2019 when they topped the Eastern Conference. But there has of course been a big change in the dug out with the former Celtic boss Ronny Delia replacing Dome Torrent as coach and in the short term at least that could have a destabilising effect, just as they struggled in the aftermath of Patrick Vieira’s departure. They also have Concacaf Champions League commitments to juggle for the first time having already progressed to the quarter finals – and we’ve seen plenty of sides struggle with that sort of early season workload. It could all mean they’ll be playing catch-up a bit but this is a squad full of quality and goals and they should definitely be contenders again come the end of the campaign.

3. Atlanta United

On paper I’m not as convinced about this Atlanta squad as I was last season. Fernando Meza and Matheus Rossetto have the quality to be excellent replacements in the squad for Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Darlington Nagbe but at this stage it’s replacing proven performers with potential. And just how do you replace the versatility of Julian Gressel who’s been brilliant over their 1st 3 seasons before departing for DC? I think the former Super Draft signing could actually be the biggest miss of all, certainly Josef Martinez will notice his absence with the service Gressel used to provide out wide. That said Pity Martinez and coach Frank De Boer both now have a first year of MLS experience under their belts, their relationship wasn’t always the healthiest last year but if they can find a way to work in harmony, Ezequiel Barco continues his development and the new signings slot in then Atlanta will always be up there – particularly with the aforementioned Josef Martinez proving to be one of the greatest goalscorers in the leagues history. That incredible stadium and atmosphere in Atlanta will play its part too.

4. New England Revolution

They were one of the surprise stories of the 2ndhalf of last season after the remarkable turnaround in fortunes inspired by the arrival of Bruce Arena as both head coach and sporting director, and I’d expect more of the same in 2020 as they try and build on that momentum. One of the MLS originals, it certainly seems the Revs are becoming more relevant again and there should be no reason why they can’t improve once more having made the play-offs last year. Carles Gil was a worthy winner of the MLS newcomer of the year award, with Gustavo Bou not too far behind him in the voting. Although the league now know more about those 2, those 2 now know more about the league and should still be the main threats, supplemented by the addition of Adam Buksa up front. But it’s the know how of Arena that’ll be the fuelling factor behind their charge.

5. Columbus Crew

It’s been a hectic offseason for the Crew, with Caleb Porter’s roster rebuild which began last summer continuing apace – and on the face of it it looks like they’ve done good business. The process of life after club legend Pipa Higuain really began last year when he was sidelined through injury and the arrival of Lucas Zelarayan on a DP contract to fill that role should add genuine quality this term. Porter has also brought in 2 players he knows well from Portland – Darlington Nagbe should be as reliable a signing as they come but Porter will need to coaxe the best out of Fanendo Adi after such a disappointing season with Cincinnati. If Adi gets back to his best though he’s a very viable alternative or addition to Gyasi Zardes up front. I was surprised to see local lad and captain Wil Trapp allowed to leave but the coach obviously feels they have cover in midfield, whilst don’t underestimate the effect of the full-backs being fit again – Milton Valenzuela was a major miss last season when the Crew failed to make the play-offs. I don’t expect them to fall short again.

6. DC United

Times are a changing in the capital as well. It wasn’t long ago the arrival of Wayne Rooney sparked a revival and brought the best out of Luciano Acosta but that initial upsurge wasn’t sustained and both have now departed. A long term injury in pre-season for the excellent Paul Arriola was always going to be untimely but set against that backdrop it could be devastating for their season. On the plus side Edison Flores and particularly Julian Gressel look like impressive additions to help fill the void, Yamil Asad is back and already a proven MLS performer whilst Ola Kamara will score goals if given the service, although they look a little short for back-up up front right now. It will be DC’s defensive strength though that should see them into the play-offs again, Ben Olsen knows how to set up this side to be incredibly hard to beat and with Lucharoo gone I’d expect him to go down that road again, as we saw to a large extent during the 2ndhalf of last season.

7. Orlando City

This is season number 6 for Orlando and still they’ve yet to make the play-offs. It appears the Lions have everything in place for success but somehow they’ve just never managed to put all the pieces together. I reckon this finally could be the year that changes, but it will be close – particularly with a new rival in the sunshine state to contend with. Orlando may just pip Inter Miami, not just for the bragging rights in Florida but to the final play-off spot in my predictions – primarily because of 2 new arrivals. Firstly the coach. Oscar Pareja is back in MLS after a solitary season in Mexico. He worked wonders at Dallas and looks a shrewd replacement for James O’Connor who’s appointment just never quite worked out. He’s also brought in proven Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese who looks the best bet yet to fill what’s long been a problem position for the Lions. Nani still has plenty to offer this side as well and could be important in finally leading them over the play-off line.

8. Inter Miami

This is one prediction that really could come back to bite me – forecasting the fortunes of an expansion side can be perilous with no form book to fall back on. So much depends on how quickly everything and everyone gels. I’m certain with time, the ambitious backing of David Beckham and others, that this team will become contenders – whether that’s this year I’m much less convinced. They’ll surely hit the ground running much better than say Cincinnati last season, but whether they can match the recent expansion exploits of Atlanta and LAFC is much more in doubt. They look to have recruited wisely, combining MLS veterans like Luis Robles and Lee Nguyen with exciting new talent – Roldolfo Pizarro stands out in particular. And in coach Diego Alonso they have a 2 time Concacaf Champions League winning coach capable of moulding this side and this squad together pretty quickly. But MLS can be a steep learning curve and there are plenty of tough teams in the East capable of checking their progress. How they get on is potentially one of the most fascinating sub plots of the season.

9. New York Red Bulls

I don’t think I’ve ever predicted such a low finish for the Red Bulls – they’re nearly always bankers to make the play-offs (and then fall just short in them). But I fear for Chris Armas’ side at the start of what looks like being a season of transition in New Jersey. It will be almost unnerving to see them line up without Luis Robles in goal after his remarkable record of consistency over so many seasons – his presence and leadership will be missed and David Jensen has huge gloves to fill. Kemar Lawrence has, in my opinion, been one of the best left backs in the league in recent seasons so will also be a big miss and despite his injury absences last season, so too will Bradley Wright-Phillips. I’m just not convinced the new arrivals are of the standard or indeed number needed to maintain the standards this side has set. At their best, regardless of personnel, they’re one of the most identifiable and well drilled teams in the league but this season looks set to be a real challenge.

10. Philadelphia Union

The Union over-achieved in the eyes of many last season, finishing 3rd in the East where they remained contenders throughout. I find it difficult to see them being able to maintain those sort of levels and it would be arguably an even greater achievement from coach Jim Curtin if they do. Getting Jamiro Monteiro back on a permanent basis is important and although the departure of Haris Medunjanin is perhaps understandable in the context of needing a more mobile midfield I still feel his tempo setting presence in there will be badly missed. New signings Matej Oravec and Jakob Glesnes promise much but come with the same caveat of so many new European arrivals of perhaps needing time to settle and adjust to the unique demands of this league. On their day the Union could beat anyone but for me others are preferred to fill the play-off positions this time around.

11. Montreal Impact

Another interesting story this season after the appointment of Thierry Henry as head coach. He seems a good fit in so many ways, a great success in MLS at the end of his playing days, with Quebec a natural landing spot for the Frenchmen to find his feet quickly. But the job at the Impact appears a testing one, particularly after the departure of long time talisman Ignacio Piatti. His role was reduced by injuries last season but there’s now a sense of an era ending even if Henry still has plenty of attacking talent at his disposal. It’s at the other end where I envisage the Impact will have issues, losing Victor Cabrera and Daniel Lovitz deprives an already suspect defence of vital experience whilst the coach himself will have plenty to prove after such a short, unsuccessful spell at Monaco – he remains unproven in the role. Add in Champions League commitments having squeezed through to the quarter finals on away goals and it all adds up to a challenging start to his tenure.

12. FC Cincinnati

Cincinnati had something of a nightmare debut season in MLS so the last thing they needed a couple of weeks out from year 2 was the departure of coach Ron Jans who resigned following an investigation into ‘extremely inappropriate comments’. It means Yoann Damet, who stepped in on an interim basis last season before Jans’ appointment, has been asked to steady the ship again in difficult circumstances. The Dutch influence at the club is still being felt though in the form of General Manager Gerard Nijkamp who’s been forced back to the drawing board searching for a new coach. The arrivals of fellow Dutchmen Jurgen Locadia and Siem De Jong, as well as Medunjanin from Philadelphia should ensure whoever comes in has plenty of talent to work with. They’ll have learnt lessons from last season, seem to have done well in getting rid of many of the expansion signings who didn’t work out and have fantastic support in the Queen City but are again starting from a less than stable base and any improvement in position I predict will only be marginal.

13. Chicago Fire FC

To all intents and purposes this years Fire are effectively an expansion side. A new owner late last season in Joey Mansueto who’s taken the team back to Soldier Field, ending their stay in Bridgeview at considerable expense. There’s a new coach in Raphael Wicky, a new sporting director in George Heitz and a new technical director in Sebastian Pelzer – no surprise then the squad is much changed too. There’s certainly a sense of a new era starting after finishing 1 place outside the play-offs last year but I fear it may be too much too soon to enable them to challenge this season. They’ll surely miss the experience of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty, the guile of Nico Gaitan and Aleksandr Katai and the goals of Nemanja Nikolic. 3 new DP’s in Ignacio Aliseda, Robert Beric and Alvaro Medran will provide quality and it’s possible they’ll click early – possible but unlikely and I suspect a season of struggle may await.

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