2012 Eastern Conference preview: Sporting Kansas City has firepower
Sporting Kansas City has exciting offensive talent but is vulnerable at center back
Houston surprised in 2011 and moves into a new stadium on May 12
Chicago finished the 2011 season on a tear and added Pavel Pardo
Despite the presence of Designated Players Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, the Red Bulls were one of MLS' biggest underachivevers last season. Will a season of retooling have the desired effect?:
EASTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish
1. SPORTING KANSAS CITY
2011 Record: 13-9-12, plus-10 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: Bobby Convey on the left wing for (the departed) Omar Bravo seems like a nifty trade off, since the former U.S. international has the ability to provide some real width at Livestrong Sporting Park. That's assuming Convey finds the happiness and comfort that seemed so elusive at San Jose, where he was sometimes a prickly presence. Veteran midfielder Paulo Nagamura is a defensive midfield specialist who gives Sporting coach Peter Vermes another option in the 4-3-3. Draft pick Dom Dwyer, a tightly packed bundle of striking power, had a good preseason, even netting a hat trick in one February friendly. Beyond Bravo, longtime club fixture Davy Arnaud was SKC's only significant loss -- and his playing time diminished greatly last year due to injury and to Graham Zusi's rise.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Front to back, Vermes has talent and options, although clearly more in the midfield and at forward than in the back. The side's vulnerability is at center back, where there's limited depth behind trusted starters Aurélien Collin and Matt Besler. Even then, Júlio César, who found a home last year as a holding midfielder, could drop back for cover. ... Choices along the front line include Convey, Dwyer, young U.S. international Teal Bunbury, 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong and veteran Kei Kamara; Sapong, Kamara and Bunbury accounted for 23 Kansas City goals last year, 9 apiece for the latter two. That's truly quite a wealth of tasty morsels.
The man who matters: Graham Zusi has always been something of a 'tweener, which helps explain how he made just nine starts over those first two pro seasons. But when Zusi settled into an advanced, right-sided spot in Vermes' three-man central triangle, things seemed to fall neatly into place. His smooth passing and set-piece ability was a perfect complement to Roger Espinoza's uncompromising tackling in the central areas. For 2012, Zusi's ability to link the back line with all that front-line force will be critical in carrying the day at rocking Livestrong Sporting Park.
Bottom line: The Eastern Conference looks like a big grab bag, where anything can happen -- except at the top. Last year's Eastern Conference champs got stronger with a couple of clutch additions, and Vermes' side looks like the clear-and-away conference favorite for 2012. Looking at the club, there's little reason to believe last year's steady elevation in quality can't be held and quite possibly improved upon.
2. HOUSTON DYNAMO
2011 Record: 12-9-13, plus-4 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: The big addition in Houston isn't a player, but rather a place: BBVA Compass Stadium in downtown Houston, the 14th park built (or renovated) expressly for MLS. It opens May 12. As for the men working their new 22,000-seat grounds, talented-but-frequently injured Nathan Sturgis, having failed to firmly establish a role during four previous MLS stops, resides in Houston now. He's just 24, however, so the defender-midfielder is hardly a lost cause, and he could provide some valuable cover for holding midfielder Adam Moffat. ... Speaking of young talent, Macoumba Kandji was once stamped "possible future star" at Red Bull Arena. He was hurt most of last year at Colorado, the result of an injury as he struck goal-gold during MLS Cup 2010. Now Kandji hopes to kick-start his career under highly successful coach Dominic Kinnear. For the first time since 2001 (when the club was still in San Jose), the roster will not include center back Eddie Robinson, who has retired. Also gone are forwards Carlo Costly, defender Hunter Freeman and midfielder Danny Cruz.
The good, bad and noteworthy: The prolonged, offseason Brian Ching saga was something of a black mark all the way around. Suffice to say, no one covered themselves in glory on this one; Kinnear left his veteran forward, who was desperate to complete his fine career in Houston, unprotected during last year's expansion draft for Montreal. Long story short, Ching is back in Dynamo orange, but the entire episode left plenty of ugly skid marks. ... Geoff Cameron is set once again to play center back, where he shined during two recent U.S. national team appearances. It might not take much more development for the fifth-year pro to stake a claim as top MLS man at that spot. ... Colin Clark and Je-Vaughn Watson are battling for the one midfield spot that seems unsettled, along the right side. Between Kandji, Cam Weaver, Colin Rolfe, Will Bruin and Calen Carr, someone must step up at forward alongside Ching.
The man who matters: Brad Davis, last year's Major League Soccer assist leader with 16, is nearing full fitness after that highly disappointing quad injury that kept the league MVP candidate sidelined for the final. If Ching can remain healthy as an aiming point for all that deadeye, set piece and left-sided service, Davis will be that much more effective in 2012. Either way, the Dynamo's signature ability to strike on free kicks and corner kicks will continue to be Davis' bread-and-butter delivery device.
Bottom line: What might have been but for Davis' injury absence in last year's MLS Cup? We'll never know. But he's back, along with all but one starter from last year's 1-0 loss to Los Angeles in the Home Depot Center league finale. Houston was among the league's best sides over the final third of 2012, but Kinnear's men could do themselves a favor and avoid the slow starts that have dogged previous Dynamo versions. It's a big request this year, however, since the Orange plays six on the road (due to ongoing stadium construction) to launch this cornerstone campaign.
3. CHICAGO FIRE
2011 Record: 9-9-16, plus-1 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: Head coach Frank Klopas, having made the critical additions after taking the managerial seat midseason in 2011, mostly added depth in the offseason through players like goalkeeper Jay Nolly (trade from Vancouver) and forward Kheli Dube (released from New England). He did add two-way midfielder Rafael Robayo, yet another Colombian on a growing list of them in MLS. Robayo arrived on a free transfer from Millonarios, where he had been a lineup fixture since 2005. Draft pick Austin Berry could see playing time along the back line. Noteworthy departures included midfielder Baggio Husidic, goalkeeper Jon Conway, forward Diego Chaves and defenders Yamith Cuesta and Josip Mikulic.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Chicago finished last year on a 7-2-1 tear, narrowly missing the playoffs despite the late, heroic chase. ... The telling, summer 2011 additions were longtime Mexican international Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini, both of whom helped stabilize Chicago's central midfield. Grazzini's presence also allowed Marco Pappa to find more room, cutting inside from his exterior spots while defenses paid increasing attention to Grazzini and striker Dominic Oduro. ... Oduro had a breakout year with 12 goals, tied for fifth best in MLS. ... Question marks still dot the back line, where veteran Cory Gibbs and second-year man Jalil Anibaba are the current starting central duo. Gibbs is prone to bad challenges, the kind that MLS has promised to crack down on this year. (But haven't we heard that before?) And the versatile Anibaba remains a work in progress. As such, Klopas hopes to add another center back soon to shore up the position. ... There's still talk of trusty Fire captain Logan Pause, a quiet but underrated presence for all the little things he does in Klopas' midfield, moving to right back, which could further fortify the back line.
The man who matters: A lot of important people believe in young goalkeeper Sean Johnson, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. under-23 coach Caleb Porter among them. But Johnson must clean up his game a tad, avoiding the bobbles and bloopers that blighted early matches in 2011. His ability to add an element of consistency will say a lot about 2012 Chicago Fire fortunes.
Bottom line: Toyota Park was raucous place over the final third of 2011, for good reason. The Fire showed enough quality and fight to warrant close inspection this year as an Eastern playoff contender, especially considering how wide open the conference appears after Kansas City. Oduro must keep scoring; His 2011 total (12) was impressive, but considering that he struck just 13 times over the previous five seasons, he must prove last year was no mere anomaly.
4. NEW YORK RED BULLS
2011 Record: 10-8-16, plus-6 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: Since Kenny Cooper's 18-goal season in 2008, unsuccessful stints in Germany, England and last year in Portland have brought him to Red Bull Arena. He could get significant minutes if Luke Rodgers can't get back into the country; visa issues have prevented the valuable target man from returning so far. Markus Holgersson, from Sweden's top division, is a likely starting center back alongside another newcomer Wilman Conde, who is back for another MLS go-round after some rough times at Mexico's Atlas. They're on the spot at center back because Tim Ream left for Bolton (although Ream, the U.S. international, was swerving all over the road last year in terms of his own 2011 performances). Icelandic U-21 Victor Palsson will challenge for midfield minutes. Replacing German goalkeeper Frank Rost (now retired) for 2012 has proved tougher than it perhaps needed to be. Veteran defender Chris Albright and Carlos Mendes have moved on, as has wildly inconsistent goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Given the eye-popping lack of proven options between the pipes, one cannot discount the possibility that, against all odds, Coundoul will actually be missed. ... Thierry Henry, coming off that power-loan to Arsenal, has lots of good support around him, even if Rodgers can't get his travel troubles sorted out. Cooper has played higher in the formation in preseason matches, allowing Henry to withdraw into the deeper, playmaking spots he prefers. ... Dane Richards' speed and ability to produce width on the right balances Joel Lindpere's tendency to drift inside on the left. Meanwhile, Rafa Marquez, Teemu Tainio, Mehdi Ballouchy, Dax McCarty and Palsson give coach Hans Backe plenty of midfield choices. That's assuming Marquez behaves, remains interested and doesn't set locker room fires by lashing out at teammates, etc. If that sounds easy, see "Marquez, 2011," because apparently it isn't. ... Backe has proclaimed Marquez a midfielder for 2012, despite some trouble in tracking from that position last year. It all leaves the back line a bit barren, given Conde's recent injury struggles and Holgersson's lack of MLS familiarity. Meanwhile, how Backe and RBNY Sporting Director Erik Soler could leave such a wealth of talent to be backstopped by some young, complete unknown, only they could say. Pending an unlikely personnel move, rookie Ryan Meara and second-year pro Jeremy Vuolo are the current contenders in goal. ... Juan Agudelo, 19, would love to play a bigger role; he started just 12 times last year, but did appear in 27 matches. That may be tough, however, as he figures to be involved in U.S. Olympic qualifying, a subsequent London Olympic Games and potentially in U.S. World Cup qualifying.
The man who matters: The Red Bulls sneaked into last year's playoffs with just 10 wins in 34 matches, lowest total among postseason contenders. Backe's boys almost certainly wouldn't have made the playoffs without 14 goals from Henry, including some choice highlight-makers. Henry will have to create a little more magic this year; the defense looks so iffy that his side will surely need to a win a high-scoring shootout or two along the way.
Bottom line: It's really hard to say which way things might go around Red Bull Arena. So much depends on chemistry (i.e. Marquez) and the health of a certain Frenchman (Henry). He's 34, and those bothersome heel issues probably aren't in for a drastic improvement. If Henry falls in form or misses time due to injury, a dandy offense suddenly looks more mortal. The quality of midfielders, strikers and creators can match any MLS club this side of Los Angeles. But how the defense and goalkeeping hold up is truly anybody's guess, and "anybody's guess" is never something you want attached to defense in a team preview.
5. D.C. UNITED
2011 Record: 9-13-12, minus-3 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: Former Rapid Vienna striker Hamdi Salihi became the club's latest Designated Player with his offseason signing. Robbie Russell, acquired in a trade with Real Salt Lake, should provide back line options. Midfielder Nick DeLeon (a first-round SuperDraft selection) will compete for minutes. His chances improve if Danny Cruz, obtained from Houston in a trade, can't recover quickly from a preseason, bad-tackle-related ankle injury. Veteran Marcelo Saragosa adds bite to the midfield and Maicon Santos should help back up Salihi at striker. Charlie Davies, whose playing time waned through 2011, was excused at the end of his headliner loan spell. Otherwise, familiar faces not returning to RFK include midfielders Santino Quaranta, Brandon Barklage and Clyde Simms and defenders Marc Burch, Jed Zayner and Devon McTavish.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Amazing as it sounds, D.C. United hasn't made the MLS playoffs since 2007, never mind a forgiving system where it's mathematically easier to make than to miss the postseason. United seemed well positioned going into September last year but watched its postseason dreams collapse horrendously, with just one win over the final nine games. What's worse, United's last three matches were at home; Ben Olsen's squad squandered the opportunity by turning up just one draw and along with losses. ... Olsen, just 34, humbly conceded he's still on the front end of a big managerial learning curve. Regardless, the pressure will be on this year. ... Chris Pontius and Branko Boskovic are healthy again after injuries prematurely cut down their 2011 season. Boskovic, in particular, is critical to United's health and wealth this year, as a playmaker operating in conjunction with second forward Dwayne De Rosario ... Andy Najar couldn't quite take the next step after his fantastic 2010 rookie campaign, so his progress this year will be a story to watch.
The man who matters: No one can say Dwayne De Rosario didn't do his part last year as D.C. tried desperately to punch its way into the playoffs. "De Ro" carried the offense through the summer with 13 goals and 7 assists in just 18 matches. The Canadian legend got a league MVP as reward, plus the DP contract he's always wanted. Now he just has to keep producing, which will be increasingly tough for a 33-year-old whose destruction of defenses depends heavily on those signature explosive bursts.
Bottom line: Few would be shocked if Boskovic, De Rosario, Salihi, Najar and Pontius established themselves as the East's top five-fingered attack. Trouble is, that defense isn't nearly so stacked and packed. Not even close, in fact, with a back line that remains a work in progress in front of a young goalkeeper (U.S. under-23 Bill Hamid). Suffice to say, United needs to get back into the playoffs in 2012, or it'll be "back to the drawing board" -- and that's not where this proud franchise wants to be.