2011 Eastern Conference preview: Red Bulls, Dynamo teams to beat
With Thierry Henry now acclimated, Red Bulls are favored in the East
Newly moved to the East, the Dynamo look set to rebound from 2010
Toronto and Columbus both radically overhauled their rosters after last season
With an already loaded roster featuring Thierry Henry, the Red Bulls fortified their squad further with the addition of some new Scandinavian midfield imports in the offseason. With the moves, the Red Bulls appear to be the strong favorite in this season's MLS' Eastern Conference. Elsewhere, it's a time of uncerainty for several teams. D.C. United and Toronto have dynamic new young coaches in Ben Olsen and Aron Winter respectively, while Columbus has gambled by undertaking a radical makeover of the squad that won the 2008 MLS Cup.
EASTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish
1. NEW YORK RED BULLS
2010 Record: 15-9-6, 51 points, plus-9 goal difference
Prominent comings and goings: Norwegian international Jan Gunnar Solli and Finnish international Teemu Tainio are the kind of midlevel European additions that tend to work in MLS (like 2010 Red Bulls revelation Joel Lindpere.) Marcos Paullo (Brazil's Atlético Paranaense) and Luke Rodgers (England's Notts County) add depth at striker. Going the other way, Mike Petke, Seth Stammler, Carey Talley and John Wolyniec all retired. And Jeremy Hall, Luke Sassano, Andrew Boyens, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Conor Chinn and, most notably, Juan Pablo Angel were traded, waived or lost in the re-entry draft.
The good, bad and noteworthy: It looks like significant turnover, but coach Hans Backe retained most starters beyond Angel, including Rookie of the Year finalist Tim Ream. ... Solli and Tainio are versatile enough to play several midfield positions, which means Mexican international Rafa Marquez may plant himself at center back. ... Juan Agudelo's groin injury and the Rodgers' ongoing recovery has Backe's team stretched for strikers during the preseason. ... Rodgers, signed in January, has yet to get into a preseason contest.
The man who matters: We should probably give Thierry Henry a pass for an underwhelming 2010 MLS debut. He wasn't exactly bad; there have certainly been worse designated player signings. But safe to say the Red Bulls had more in mind than two goals and no assists in 11 games. Injuries nicked the famous Frenchman's playing time and performance, quite possibly the result of extended action without a proper break. So 2011 will tell the tale. It's all there for Henry, who has a strong team around him. He just has to stick a few more in the net.
Bottom line: The Red Bulls are everyone's choice to rule the weaker Eastern Conference. Truly, the deck is stacked for the Red Bulls. Backe's boys have every opportunity to carve out a friendly path into the MLS Cup, since they should be able to dodge best from the West until the final.
2. HOUSTON DYNAMO
2010 Record: 9-15-6, 33 points, minus-9 GD
Prominent comings and goings: The Dynamo defense was very un-Dynamo-like in 2010. So coach Dominic Kinnear worked aggressively in the offseason to buttress his broken back line. He added Hunter Freeman, a former Red Bull who spent two years at IK Start in Norway. Freeman will compete with first-round draft choice Kofi Sarkodie on the right. Jermaine Taylor, capped 37 times by Jamaica, looks like Bobby Boswell's new central defense partner. Will Bruin, another first round draft pick, had some promising preseason moments at striker. Goalkeeper Pat Onstad, defenders Ryan Cochrane and Adrian Serioux, midfielder Richard Mulrooney and forward Joseph Ngwenya were subtracted in the club's most substantial offseason shuffle since its 2006 relocation to Houston.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Two years ago Houston's tidy defense allowed 29 goals in 30 matches, or fewer than one per game. Last year's total swelled to a hideous 49 as the Dynamo missed the playoffs for the first time. ... Houston was unbeaten in 10 preseason matches (going into two contests this weekend.) Yes, it's preseason. But regaining the competitive edge and stanching the flow of costly defensive mistakes were chief preseason targets. ... Geoff Cameron, so effective at center back two years ago, is set to play centrally in midfield once again.
The man who matters: Brad Davis is the prototype domestic league cornerstone. He may never rise to starter status with the national team, but he's a valuable MLS midfielder and a big spoke in the Dynamo wheel. He has five goals and 12 assists over each of the last two MLS seasons -- how's that for consistency? -- and his dead ball service ranks among the league's best.
Bottom line: There's no question that Houston's defense will be better, even if untested goalkeeper Tally Hall has something to prove. But about that attack: For all his brave ability, striker Brian Ching just can't put together a full, injury-free campaign. He has averaged about 18 starts over the last eight seasons (and he's not getting any younger, now 32). As for his strike partner, Houston has three adequate options (but none to fawn over) in Jason Garey, Dominic Oduro and talented rookie Will Bruin. So, this group's ability to turn up goals will probably determine how far the club goes in its final year as a renter at Robertson Stadium.
3. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
2010 Record: 9-16-5, 32 points, minus-18 GD
Prominent comings and goings: For the surest sign of improvement, examine what the roster makeover did: Several accomplished players have moved in, but there were only a couple of significant departures. That means three, four or perhaps five starters from 2010 are still around but now staring at backup roles, and that indicates a fortified roster. Taylor Twellman officially retired, but he was never a factor in 2010. So the only truly meaningful departures were center backs Cory Gibbs and Emmanuel Osei. Meanwhile, the compelling additions include midfielder Ousmane Dabo, formerly of Italy's Lazio, and defender Didier Domi from Greece's Olympiakos. Both are veteran Frenchmen on the back side of their careers but apparently with something left in the tank. Argentine Franco Coria looks set to pair with rookie A.J. Soares at center back. Another rookie, Ryan Kinne, is pushing Sainey Nyassi for a starting spot along the right in midfield.
The good, bad and noteworthy: As for Soares and Kinne, anyone paying attention knows that Revolution coach Steve Nicol is hardly shy about playing the rookies. ... Brainy and smooth on the ball, Soares reminds some of former Revs trusty center back Michael Parkhurst, who also started as a rookie. ... Until last year, Nicol had taken New England to the playoffs every season since gaining charge in 2002. ... Goalkeeper Matt Reis looks fully recovered from ankle, knee and shoulder surgeries over the last year and a half.
The man who matters: The indomitable Shalrie Joseph is set for another big season -- if only he can behave. No one can question the performance, desire and ability of the Revs' do-all holding midfielder. But Joseph just added a misdemeanor arrest (smack in the middle of preseason) to his litany of violations, suspensions and disciplinary indiscretions. He has a better central partner this year in Dabo, so the sky is the limit once again if only he can properly comport himself.
Bottom line: Nicol and other members of Revolution management are desperate for a high level (probably DP) striker. They were reportedly close over the winter but saw a deal fall through. With Dabo, Domi and others, this year's version is sure to be better in possession. (It would be difficult to be any worse.) How high the Revs can climb probably depends on landing that high-quality goal-getter.
4. D.C. UNITED
2010 Record: 6-20-4, 22 points, minus-26 GD
Prominent comings and goings: Former FC Dallas midfielder Dax McCarty is a welcome addition. Joseph Ngwenya was a relatively cheap pickup in the re-entry draft. And the club loves Perry Kitchen, the rookie center back taken No. 3 overall in January's draft. Brazilian midfielder Fred is back for his second run at RFK Stadium. And of course the major offseason hubbub was over former U.S. international Charlie Davies, who hopes to resurrect his career while on loan from France's Sochaux. To make room the club traded or released Danny Allsopp, Juan Manuel Peña and Troy Perkins (all of whom were ballyhooed signings), along with former starters Rodney Wallace, Jordan Graye, Pablo Hernandez, Adam Cristman and Julius James. Jaime Moreno, one of the best players ever to wear an MLS uniform and the league's all-time goals leader, was also waived, the surest sign that it's a new day at D.C. United.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Ben Olsen, United's third coach in three years, is MLS' youngest manager at 33. ... From the "nowhere to go but up" department: last year's club set league records for times shut out (17) and fewest goals (21). The 6-20-4 record established a franchise low and was the sixth worst season (by points) in MLS history. ... This year's team is younger and faster, and there's more competition for starting spots. Santino Quaranta, for instance, is no longer a lineup lock. ... Injuries to goalkeepers Steve Cronin and Bill Hamid dragged assistant coach Pat Onstad temporarily out of retirement. The former Houston Dynamo 'keeper will resume full-time assistant coaching duties pending the younger pair's return.
The man who matters: Sensational rookie Andy Najar provided the singular shining light in a season of darkness in 2010. The live wire 17-year-old midfielder (he turns 18 next week) led his team in goals and assists with five each without ever shirking defensive chores. Creative and clever, last year's MLS Rookie of the Year is truly a star in the making.
Bottom line: Olsen seems to have already restored some order. The Black and Red have this going for them: The East is a grab bag past the heavily favored Red Bulls. The new playoff format ensures three Eastern Conference postseason berths. At this point, United's chances look as good as anyone's.