MLS Eastern Conference preview (cont.)
6. PHILADELPHIA UNION
2011 Record: 11-8-15, plus-8 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: No one can blame coach Peter Nowak for the loss of steady, well-liked goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, who requested a release so he could cap the career in his native Colombia. On the other hand, a few gutsy Nowak moves did catch fans and media off guard, like the hot-button decision to trade leading scorer Sébastien Le Toux to Vancouver for allocation money. That money helped get talent such as young Costa Rican international Josue Martinez and Colombian veteran Lionard Pajoy, both of whom will compete with returning youngster Danny Mwanga for time at forward. Also gone are Justin Mapp, Stefani Miglioranzi and Kyle Nakazawa, as a young team got even younger.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Le Toux was among the league's most productive attackers over the last two seasons with 25 goals and 20 assists. In fact, only Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Wondolowski notched more MLS goals over that time. ... Center back Danny Califf had problems with too many fouls and too many cards 2010 but showed marked improvement last year. Looking much more settled alongside Carlos Valdes, Califf wasn't even among the team leaders in cautions (just four bookings all year) and was third in fouls committed (less than one per match on average.) ... Sheanon Williams returns following a breakout year at right back. ... The list of promising young talent hunting for more minutes includes winger Roger Torres, forward Jack McInerney and goalkeeper Zach MacMath. MacMath will almost certainly get them; he is Nowak's top choice in goal at age 20.
The man who matters: How did Freddy Adu think he did after arriving at PPL Park last August. "I was just OK," he said recently, which is pretty accurate by most accounts. Then again, he didn't have a proper launchpad, having come in at midseason, not fully fit or sharp. So Adu, now 22, is looking for big things in 2012, hoping for a central midfield role but probably looking at time on the outside, with some freedom to tuck inside to create. Adu looked sharp during a recent U.S. U-23 camp and he's almost sure to be an Olympian this summer in London, assuming the United States qualifies. Still, he'll get plenty of chances to impress inside MLS grounds.
Bottom line: Nowak has made bold moves before, so he's earned some benefit of doubt. Still, when coaches let popular players go (especially with proverbial bad blood spilling during the emotional departures), the heat surely rises. Plus, with a respectable expansion season in 2010 and worthy progress (not to mention a playoff spot) in 2011, Nowak has set the bar high going forward.
7. TORONTO FC
2011 Record: 6-13-15, minus-23 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: Newly signed South American central defenders Geovanny Caicedo and Miguel Aceval had their ups and downs during preseason (which means German veteran Torsten Frings could once again be asked to appear in defense). First-round SuperDraft selection on Aaron Maund is also a central candidate. The club waived or declined options on several familiar MLS faces, including Kyle Davies, Javier Martina, Danleigh Borman, Nathan Sturgis, Andy Iro and Peri Marosevic.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Talk about growing pains. Dutch coach Aron Winter warned upon his arrival last year that a re-imaging process would take time. Yup. All the evidence was there in a bungling defense (a league-worst 59 goals allowed despite heroic goalkeeping from Stefan Frei) and an offense that only found its feet late. Even then, TFC's attack was next-to-last with just 36 goals in 34 matches. ... Backup goalkeeper Milos Kocic proved more than capable last year when well-regarded Stefan Frei was out injured. ... In the up-and-comer department, dynamic and diminutive winger Joao Plata returns after his eye-catching rise from anonymity in 2011. In Frings, Winter finally found the man to stabilize the middle of his 4-3-3. It just came too late in the 2011 season (the former German international was a summer transfer); TFC was all but out of the playoff chase by the time Frings landed at Exhibition Place.
The man who matters: Danny Koevermans was the other critical summer arrival of 2011. With 8 goals in 10 matches, the Dutch striker clearly can cut it in MLS. If Eric Avila and Julian de Guzman can link and create in the midfield, and with some reasonable wing play from Plata and Ryan Johnson, Koevermans could challenge for the league scoring title. And he might just need to; that defense still looks iffy.
Bottom line: The Reds were realistically out of the playoff chase with more than a month to go last year, but did make significant progress in later months and even advanced into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. (They meet Los Angeles over two legs starting this week.) With all that, the long-suffering fans at BMO should and will demand better this year, now that Winter has spent a year sorting out MLS and what type player succeeds in this league. No Canadian club has made an MLS playoff appearance as yet. If Winter can find a way to solidify the back line in front of Frei, postseason soccer may finally (finally!) arrive into BMO Field.
8. COLUMBUS CREW
2011 Record: 13-13-8, minus-1 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: The important additions around Crew Stadium are Chilean playmaking midfielder Milovan Mirosevic and Costa Rican forward Olman Vargas. Vargas hopes to improve on Andrés Mendoza's team-leading 13 goals last year. The club declined an option on Mendoza, a pricey striker who never endeared himself to Crew faithful. Veteran MLS defender Carlos Mendes was also added for depth. In addition to Mendoza's departure, the habitually under-productive Robbie Rogers left for Leeds in England and Emmanuel Ekpo, typically exciting but frustratingly inconsistent, went to Norway's Molde on a free transfer. Hard-tackling Dejan Rusmir was waived and defender Josh Gardner was scooped in the expansion draft.
The good, bad and noteworthy: In the Rogers and Mendoza departures, the crew loses 15 goals and 9 assists that must be replaced, so there's some work ahead for coach Robert Warzycha. But the Crew boss certainly made some believers last year, when he turned over almost the entire roster, remaking the team to reasonable effect with younger legs. ... Rich Balchan, Danny O'Rourke and Tony Tchani are among the candidates to grab hold at defensive midfield, a position that proved difficult to assign last year. In fact, by the end, former attacker Ekpo became the best choice for defensive midfield duties, although certainly an unlikely one. ... Somewhat lost in all the excited chatter over promising young U.S. center backs is this: Chad Marshall, a longtime back line sheriff in Crew yellow, remains one of the toughest of central obstacles in MLS. The two-time MLS Defender of the Year is back for a ninth season in Ohio. ... William Hesmer, the longtime Crew Stadium No. 1, begins 2012 on the injury shelf. So the capable Andy Gruenebaum will keep goal for now.
The man who matters: It seems like Eddie Gaven has been around forever; this is, after all, his 10th year, having broken in with the old MetroStars back in 2003. But he was so young then that its' easy for forget Gaven is just 25 years old. He's got a mature soccer brain sitting atop a young man's legs. His two-way work was sorely missed last year during a winless September, when Gaven was out injured. Never mind his humble totals (5 goals, 1 assist), Gaven remains a critical cog for Columbus.
Bottom line: Things looked quite bright through spring and summer of 2011, as the Warzycha makeover hit all the right notes and proved critics wrong. But flaws were exposed over the final 10 matches (a 2-6-1 mark) and in a quick playoff exit to Colorado. The Crew will always be highly organized and tough to break down. But with another offensive makeover, this one centered around injury-prone striker Emilio Renteria, and with several untested MLS elements, it's on the Crew to prove they belong among the East's elite. Again.
9. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
2011 Record: 5-16-13, minus-20 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: Longtime Revolution defender Jay Heaps, after a short spell in the broadcast booth, was the choice to replace the man who had coached him for so long at Gillette Stadium, the venerable Steve Nicol. Heaps' first professional coaching assignment, then, is rebuilding the Revs around guys like defender John Lozano, a Colombian who is set to become the coach's first-choice center back alongside young American A.J. Soares. Fellow Colombian newcomer Fernando Cárdenas will challenge for a spot in midfield or at forward. Clyde Simms, the longtime D.C. United holding midfielder, has moved up the coast to New England. The Revs last week claimed winger Lee Nguyen, a former U.S. national team prospect who didn't make it at attack-stacked Vancouver. Saer Sene looks like the first-choice striker, pending resolution of the complicated, tedious and downright baffling Jose Moreno saga. Moreno signed in the offseason but immediately began making noise about not showing up. As of March 2, he still hasn't reported. Stay tuned. The club declined options on forwards Milton Caraglio and Kheli Dube and defenders Ryan Cochrane and Franco Coria, among others.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Suffice to say, the Moreno mess isn't what Heaps needed as he dove headfirst into such a significant rebuilding assignment. New England finished dead last in the East last year while allowing 58 goals (just one off the bottom in league rankings). ... On the other hand, there are a few elements worth building around, starting with central midfielders Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber. ... Right back Kevin Alston, once on a national team track, still has good years ahead to steer himself out of a swerve. And goalkeeper Matt Reis still has the ability if he can just remain healthy.
The man who matters: Feilhaber looks like a great fit in the possession oriented, 4-2-3-1 scheme Heaps wants to play, with the fringe U.S. international slotting in at the top of a midfield triangle. Joseph's two-way ability and slashing runs into the penalty area mean trouble for any side focused too exclusively on Feilhaber. (Joseph scored 8 times last year, mostly out of the midfield.) Feilhaber, as good a finisher as he is a provider, had some great moments upon arrival in MLS in the summer of 2011; he'll need quite a few more for the Heaps makeover to arrive safely.
Bottom line: The midfield looks rock solid with Feilhaber, Simms and Joseph, flanked on one side by promising rookie Kelyn Rowe. But goals may still be hard to come by if Heaps and a revamped front office can't turn up quality central striker. Because right now, it looks like the Revs really don't have one.
10. MONTREAL IMPACT
2011 Record: NA (Expansion side now in its first year)
Notable comings and goings: The expansion club is Major League Soccer's fifth new team in four seasons, and third Canadian entry. All players are technically new to the Montreal Impact (or, Impact de Montréal if you prefer) although four are holdovers from the organization's days in the second tier NASL. Montreal is Major League Soccer's 19th club.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Justin Braun showed flashes of brilliance previously at Chivas USA, but not enough of them to convince the Western Conference side he was worth hanging onto. Braun arrived via trade in the winter. ... Speaking of high-profile trades: The Impact claimed Eddie Johnson, the former national teamer returning to MLS, but traded him immediately to Seattle for Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito. Both were role players last year with Seattle. ... U.S. U-23 defender Zarek Valentin made 24 starts as a rookie last year for Chivas USA. ... Andrew Wenger, the league's top pick in January's SuperDraft, has lined up as a midfielder and forward in preseason matches. His availability will be spotty until the summer when he completes classes at Duke, where he was a defensive standout before moving up to the front line. ... Davy Arnaud brings 10 years of MLS experience with him from Kansas City ... The side will play initially at historic Olympic Stadium pending the expansion of Stade Saputo this spring.
The man who matters: How different the view now looks for Donovan Ricketts. Previously he guarded goal behind the likes of Landon Donovan, David Beckham and 2011 Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez. Ricketts was a key element of Major League Soccer's premier side. Now he is employed by a club that could easily finish bottom of the heap. If Ricketts, the Jamaican international deemed expendable at L.A. due to his high salary and increasingly accomplished backup Josh Saunders, can stretch those long arms in the right direction fast enough and often enough, the days and nights will be slightly brighter around cozy Stade Saputo.
Bottom line: Expansion clubs don't necessarily have to be terrible in MLS. Portland finished 6th among nine Western Conference sides last year. Philadelphia finished 7th of 8 in the East the year before. Heck, Seattle finished third in the West back in 2009. But there was also Vancouver, which finished dead last in the West last year as expansion first-timers. And that 2009 Sounders squad is the only expansion outfit to make the playoffs since Chicago in 1998. So the odds aren't with Montreal. Then again, playing in the weaker East should help, and ongoing talk of a splashy, midsummer signing will keep things interesting for coach Jesse Marsch and Co., to say the least.