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Issues 2015 Part I: Around the Eastern Conference

With the imminent arrival of the new year, we take a look at some of the biggest questions facing each Eastern Conference team in 2015.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

With turning of the new year, it’s time to look at a few of the biggest issues for the Timbers and around MLS in 2015.  In this series, we’ll look at the biggest issues for the Timbers on and off the field in 2015, as well as take a look around the league at the biggest questions facing other MLS teams and the league as a whole.

The first two installments will look at clubs around MLS. With MLS training camps opening in less than one month, each team around MLS has questions to answer before the season begins. For some, these questions are very discrete – a need to fill a particular position or address a certain weakness. For others, however, the questions are more abstract. The answers, however, will go a long way toward determining each team’s success in 2015 and beyond.

In Part I, we look at the ten teams in the Eastern Conference. In Part II on Tuesday we’ll cast our gaze toward the non-Timbers teams in the West.

Chicago Fire

Key Additions: F Kennedy Igboananike (AIK), F David Accam (Helsingborgs)

Key Departures: M Alex, M Benji Joya, CB Bakary Soumare.

Question: What in the world are they doing?

The Fire jettisoned over half their roster from an unsuccessful 2014 campaign and have thus far made two designated-player signings in Igboananike and Accam up top. Forward, however, was one of the few positions Chicago looked to have some depth in, with Quincy Amarikwa and forward/midfielder Harry Shipp coming off breakout years and 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee returning from injury. While it makes some sense to add a headliner up top to that group, Chicago’s backline roster currently looks like this: Greg Cochrane, freshly-minted homegrown signing Patrick Doody, journeyman Eric Gehrig, Trinidadian signing Joevin Jones, and Lovel Palmer. Palmer, coincidentally, has twice as many MLS starts as the rest of his defensive colleagues combined. So the Fire have that going for them. But committing two designated-player spots and considerable resources when the Fire have questions all over the field seems a bit much.

Columbus Crew

Key Additions: F Kei Kamara (Middlesbrough), M Mohhamed Saeid (Orebro SK), M Kristinn Steindorsson (Halmstads BK).

Key Departures: M Bernardo Anor, RB Josh Williams, F Jairo Arrieta.

Question: Is the devil you know better than the devil you don’t?

2014 was a good year for the Crew, so I think many were surprised to see them part ways with Anor and Williams in favor of intriguing, but far from can’t-miss signings. While neither Anor nor Williams are irreplaceable (with the latter falling out of favor as 2014 went along), they do require replacing, with Williams’ old right-back spot being the biggest hole on the Crew SC roster right now.

D.C. United

Key Additions: TBA.

Key Departures: D Jeff Parke, M Lewis Neal.

Question: Will DCU stand pat or will they jettison Eddie Johnson to try to improve up top?

This is a tricky offseason for D.C. United. Obviously, coming off an Eastern Conference-winning campaign, there isn’t much impetus to make major changes in the Beltway. But the notion that they were a bit of a paper tiger in an Eastern Conference that provided little consistent competition certainly wasn’t undermined by their early playoff exit. So do they stand pat and keep their core intact for a second run against a New England Revolution team that looked markedly better than DCU late in 2014 and a conference full of wild cards, or do they cut cord on Eddie Johnson (the one clear-cut disappointment from 2014) and look to improve up top?

Montreal Impact

Key Additions: M Nigel Reo-Coker, GK Eric Kronberg, CB Bakary Soumare, M Marco Donadel (Verona).

Key Departures: F Marco Di Vaio, CB Mateo Ferrari, D Heath Pearce.

Question: Will the scrap heap be as kind to Montreal as it was to D.C. United?

Montreal is the only team in MLS to have taken advantage of every acquisition mechanism available to them thus far, plucking players in the Chivas USA Dispersal Draft, the Waiver Draft, and rounds one and two of the Re-Entry Draft. Color me skeptical, however, that NRC, Kronberg, and Soumare will do for the Impact what Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, and Fabian Espindola did for D.C. But with holes to fill all over the field, and two designated-player signings reportedly coming this next week, it’s not the worst start for the Impact.

New England Revolution

Key Additions: None.

Key Departures: F Patrick Mullins, CB A.J. Soares.

Question: Can they be consistently good in 2015?

Perhaps no team has as much incentive to stand pat than the Revs. They finished the year as the best team in the East and looked at times like a legitimate challenger to the Western juggernauts. But the Revs’ inconsistency in 2014 (they boasted MLS’s longest winning streak and losing streak last year), as well as their reliance on an oddly breaking out 27-year-old Lee Nguyen, provides some uncertainty. Nonetheless, as long as the Revolution replace Soares, they’ll enter 2015 as the heavy favorite to come out of the East.

New York City FC

Key Additions: All of them.

Key Departures: Not applicable.

Question: Will front-office mechanical difficulties undermine the impressive MLS talent NYCFC has amassed?

NYCFC’s roster doesn’t look like an expansion team’s roster. Forget Frank Lampard and David Villa for the moment. Acquisitions like Jeb Brovsky, Andrew Jacobson, Josh Williams, Ned Grabavoy, Patrick Mullins, Jason Hernandez, Daniel Lovitz, George John, Tommy McNamara, Chris Wingert, and Sebastian Velasquez all suggest this is a team that can compete in year one. But will their front office get in the way? The Frank Lampard fiasco doesn’t bode well for their Manchester-based ownership being truly committed to NYCFC’s competitiveness, leading some to question whether this is another Chivas USA situation in the making. But the real head-scratcher came in the expansion draft. NYCFC reportedly had a deal with Orlando City to ensure NYCFC got to pick two players from Jason Kreis’s old stomping grounds in Salt Lake City. Why, then, did NYCFC take Ned Grabavoy with their first pick when they could have taken their RSL players with their ninth and tenth picks? Finally, Jason Kries’s famous gaffe in the draft of drafts isn’t confidence inspiring. Once the team takes the field, however, it appears poised to make these front-office blunders fade to the background. Then again, there’s also this: NYCFC’s three goalkeepers had a combined three MLS starts in 2013 and 2014.

New York Red Bulls

Key Additions: M Sal Zizzo.

Key Departures: F Thierry Henry, CB Ibrahim Sekagya, CB Jamison Olave, RB Richard Eckersley.

Question: Will Bradley Wright-Phillips continue to produce without Thierry Henry like he did in 2014?

Look, with the year he had, New York had to re-sign BWP. But the ghosts of Luke Rodgers and Kenny Cooper may haunt the signing. Both produced magnificently next to Titi to do next to nothing when they left Henry’s side. In light of the substantial overhaul happening in Harrison (especially if rumors about Tim Cahill’s potential departure prove true), if BWP has a significant drop-off in form, the Red Bulls could find themselves adrift in the changing tides of New York/Jersey-based soccer.

Orlando City SC

Key Additions: All of them.

Key Departures: Not applicable.

Question: Will the Lions’ rolls of the dice pay off?

There’s been nothing conservative about OCSC’s expansion plan. Virtually every major addition they’ve made comes with substantial risk: Are Kaka’s best days behind him (two goals in 19 appearances on loan at Sao Paulo aren’t comforting)? Is Brek Shea a flameout? Will Tally Hall regain his form after an ACL injury? Will Amobi Okugo find a position? Will Honduran young designated player Bryan Rochez produce? Whereas NYCFC filled their roster with proven MLSers, OCSC has stocked their cupboard with high-risk, high-reward question marks. If many of those gambles don’t pay off, it could be a long debut for OCSC and a short MLS coaching tenure for Adrian Heath.

Philadelphia Union

Key Additions: F C.J. Sapong.

Key Departures: CB/DM Amobi Okugo, F Conor Casey.

Question: Do they seriously still have all three of those goalkeepers?

From an acquisitions perspective, it’s been a relatively quiet offseason thus far for the East’s most middling team. To make a run at anything more ambitious than a mid-pack finish in the East, the Union probably need to turn their wastefully stacked goalkeeping stable into assets that can save them from mediocrity. There are certainly some nice pieces on the roster, including Maurice Edu, Vincent Noguiera, Cristian Maidana, Sebastien Le Toux, and Carlos Valdes, but their middling finish and tepid late-season trajectory suggest that’s not enough to become relevant. It’s hard to see them acquiring the right piece(s) to do so, however, with as many resources devoted to goalkeeping as they currently have. And the real concern is as the offseason progresses, the number of MLS teams looking for goalkeeping solutions is rapidly diminishing.

Toronto FC

Key Additions: M Marco Delgado, F Robbie Findley.

Key Departures: CB Doneil Henry, F Jermain Defoe.

Question: When will TFC stop being the Pinky and the Brain of MLS?

Everybody knows by now that TFC has grand ambitions to take over MLS, if perhaps not the world. And yet year-in-and-year-out the Reds are foiled by their own ineptitude. As of the conclusion of 2014, they remain mere lab mice in a larger project to establish a Canadian superclub. Looking back at TFC’s latest crash and burn, however, there are salvageable pieces among the wreckage. Michael Bradley is certainly no slouch. And while Gilberto’s first year in MLS didn’t meet expectations, he doesn’t look as hopeless as the TFC signing disasters of yore. But holes remain across the field, primarily in attacking midfield and across the backline. Instead of trying to be a "bloody big deal," TFC needs to invest its resources in putting productive MLS players (even if they’re not eye-popping names) around Bradley and Gilberto. Also, like "fetch" in "Mean Girls," TFC needs to stop trying too hard to make the next Canadian star happen. Build a competent, deep club and that aspiration will become much more achievable.