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2018 MLS Preview: Eastern Conference

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday we took a look at the changes each Western Conference team made over the course of the offseason and the issues facing each club dealing into 2018.

Now it’s time to take a look at the Eastern Conference, where, unlike the West, there appears to be a relatively clear pecking order heading into 2018.

Toronto FC

The Reds in 2017 were one of the best teams in MLS history. They might be better in 2018.

The only contributors from 2017 who aren’t returning to TFC are starting right back Steve Beitashour, left wingback Raheem Edwards, and reserve winger Armando Cooper. All three contributed to the Reds’ run to the treble, but none were terribly central to Greg Vanney’s historic team. In their place the Reds have brought in former Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel at right back; a high-upside successor at right back from Brazil in Auro; and Ager Aketxe, a TAM-level attacking midfielder from Athletic Bilbao. Like I said: they very well might be better.

There may be a reason somewhere out there why TFC aren’t prohibitive favorites to win the East, take Supporters Shield, and reclaim MLS Cup. You won’t find it here, though.

New York City FC

NYCFC is hoping they’re the reason why the 2018 season will be more than just a coronation for TFC. Although they’ve lost Jack Harrison on a transfer to Manchester City, Frederic Brillant to D.C. United, and Andrea Pirlo to retirement, NYCFC has more than replaced their losses. To start with, Patrick Vieria’s team signed Jesus Medina, a Paraguayan youth international young DP, to take over for Harrison on the wing. In place of Pirlo the Citizens acquired defensive midfielder Ebenezer Ofori from Stuttgart, and they added Jo Inge Berget up top, and Ismael Tajouri from Austria Wien on the opposite wing. On the backline, the Pigeons brought in centerback Cedric Hountondji and Swedish international right back Anton Tinneqholm.

With no fewer than a half-dozen significant additions, it’s fairly likely NYCFC will have some growing pains. But as long as their new acquisitions integrate reasonably well, it’s very possible NYCFC’s 2018 team could be better than that which racked up 57 points in 2017.

Chicago Fire

After a breakout 2017, the Fire have had a little bit of an odd offseason. On one hand, Chicago brought back Bastian Schweinsteiger for 2018, signed high-upside centerback Grant Lillard as a homegrown player, and brought in Serbian winger Aleksandar Katai from Alaves in La Liga. Veljko Paunovic’s side, however, lost one of MLS’s best wingers in David Accam by way of trade to Philadelphia, and did not re-sign Joao Meira, who started 53 games for the Fire at centerback over the course of the last two years.

Although they should have plenty of resources to spend as a result of the Accam trade, the Fire are still very much in need of a 10 and a centerback with mere days before the start of the season. In addition, in an offseason in which much of the rest of MLS has added depth, Chicago may be entering 2018 thinner than they were last season. They helped their cause in central midfield on Wednesday by bringing in Tony Tchani for a bargain-bin acquisition rate, but there remains work for Nelson Rodriguez to do. Of all the teams at the top of the Eastern Conference in 2017, the Fire seem to be the most primed to regress in 2018.

Atlanta United

The Five Stripes brought in the biggest transfer in MLS history, traded for a U.S. Men’s National Team regular, and added two young pieces to their backline. Yes, Atlanta United made arguably the two most-discussed acquisitions of the offseason in signing Ezequiel Barco and trading for Darlington Nagbe. And they kept Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, and Josef Martinez.

So they have quite a bit going for them. But here’s the thing: It’s not altogether clear they’re better.

Although Barco is likely an upgrade (and maybe a big upgrade) for Yamil Asad (who was traded to DC United), Atlanta’s unexpected, but noble transfer of Carlos Carmona to Colo-Colo for family reasons has left a significant hole in defensive midfield, which happens to be the Five Stripes’ thinnest position. Tata Martino’s team may be able to overwhelm enough opponents to stay within striking distance of the Eastern Conference elite until they can replace Carmona. But Atlanta has a bona fide weakness at this point. If their attack fails to fire on all cylinders (and there are an awful lot of magnetic feet for a game played with only one ball), that Achilles heel could bring them back to the pack.

Columbus Crew

The first win of the Crew’s offseason was retaining box-to-box midfielder Artur, who at one time appeared headed back to Sao Paolo after a successful, but injury-shortened debut in 2017. That good work, however, did not portend smooth sailing for Gregg Berhalter this offseason. Early in the winter both Ola Kamara and Justin Meram, two of the Crew’s most productive players in 2016 and 2017, requested trades. Berhalter honored those requests (cc: New England Revolution) and, in return brought Gyasi Zardes and a hefty haul of allocation money to Columbus. Some of that allocation money will likely pay for the acquisition of Milton Valenzuela, a promising young left back acquired from Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina.

The Crew midfield featuring Will Trapp, Artur, Federico Higuain, and Pedro Santos remains one of the better units in MLS. And if positive preseason signs that Bardes may rediscover his form under Berhalter pan out, expect the Columbus attack to be lethal once again. But there are reasonable questions in multiple positions along the Columbus backline, and that could spell trouble if Zardes can’t at least come close to matching Kamara’s goalscoring output.

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls made one of the biggest splashes in MLS this offseason when they brought in attacking midfielder Kaku from Huracan in Argentina’s top flight. Whether as a winger or as an attacking central midfielder, the 23-year-old attacker figures to take over the primary playmaking responsibilities from Sacha Kljestan, whom the Red Bulls sent to Orlando in exchange for Carlos Rivas and centerback Tommy Redding. Kaku is not only younger than Kljestan, but could even be an upgrade form the player who led MLS in assists last season.

Otherwise, the Red Bulls figure to trot out a first-choice lineup that looks relatively similar to 2017. Although Jesse Marsch’s side has added some additional depth in the form of central midfielder Marc Rzatkowski from their sister club in Salzburg, it appears the Red Bulls’ opening day lineup will be similar to that which Marsch led to 50 points and a sixth-place finish in 2017.

New England Revolution

It’s been a bumpy, bumpy road since New England parted ways with Jay Heaps after missing out on the playoffs. The Revs’ new hire, former USMNT goalkeeper, television commentator, and U.S. U-19 coach Brad Friedel was widely panned. The Revs then sent striker Kei Kamara packing in a trade with Vancouver, while starting attacking midfielder Lee Nguyen demanded a trade and failed to report to the first week of training camp. Yikes.

The Revs have made some acquisitions in the midst of their turbulent offseason including central midfielder Wilfried Zahibo and Syrian international left back Gabriel Somi, but none that move the needle in an offseason in which everybody above the Revs in the Eastern Conference pecking order made bigger moves. Oh, and now New England is stuck with a disaffected Nguyen while refusing to trade him.

This is very, very unlikely to end well.

Philadelphia Union

The Union front office is Lucy, the promise of a difference-making attacking central midfielder is the football, and Union fans, sadly, are Charlie Brown. Every single year, it seems like.

In fairness to the Union, just this morning they signed Borek Dockal, a Czech international playmaker who carved out a nice career for Sparta Prague before heading to China last year. He hardly seems like the sorely needed game-breaker, but Dockal could be a useful addition. The Union have some other nice pieces, too. CJ Sapong is coming off a career year. Alejandro Bedoya remains an eminently useful central midfielder. Haris Medunjanin is a good, solid MLS six. And Andrew Blake is one of the best goalkeepers in the league. Moreover, Philadelphia’s acquisition of Accam gives them a player who, when in form, can be top-3 in MLS at his position.

All of that, however, isn’t even close to enough to let the Union aspire to more than — at very most — sneaking in the playoffs. In all likelihood, they’ll fall short of that. Very possibly considerably short of that. Once a promising expansion side, the Union are in danger of becoming a casualty of their own front office’s lack of ambition in a league that is rapidly leaving Jim Curtin’s side in the dust.

Montreal Impact

The Impact are the East’s perennial wild card. Nacho Piatti is still there and as yet shows no signs of becoming any less special. But this offseason saw the departure of Blerim Dzemaili (who quietly had an excellent MLS debut), centerback Laurent Ciman, club legend Patrice Bernier, fullback Ambroise Oyongo (on a maddening free transfer to Montpellier), and promising youngster Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla on a transfer to Barcelona B.

But the Impact haven’t been quiet on the international scene. Central midfielder Saphir Taider, signed from Bologna, could be one of the better signings in MLS this offseason, and young Chilean playmaker Jeisson Vargas adds some intrigue to the attacking midfield. Moreover, adding MLS talent like Jukka Raitala and Raheem Edwards in exchange for Laurent Ciman fills holes at two positions for Remi Garde’s side in exchange for a player that lost a substantial amount of form in 2017.

How it’s all going to work out, though, very much remains to be seen. The Impact have real questions at the striker position and across the backline, which, combined with a talented midfield, only assures that the Impact will reprise their role as Eastern Conference wild card in 2018.

Orlando City

Your 2018 offseason darlings, ladies and gentlemen. And for good reason. The Lions are going for it in the post-Kaka era, acquiring a load of MLS talent in Kljestan from the Red Bulls and Meram from Columbus, and landing Uri Rosell in his return to the league. Jason Kreis’ team also added young Paraguayan playmaker Josue Colman, and reinforced the backline with centerback Lamine Sane from Werder Bremen.

There is, quite simply, substantially more talent in more spots on the field than there was in 2017, even with the Cyle Larin transfer saga ending up with the striker in Turkey. As a result, there really isn’t any reason why Orlando City shouldn’t aspire to make their first playoff appearance in their brief MLS history. That, however, only ramps up the pressure on Kreis, who was fortunate to keep his job after a very poor 2017. A poor start could very easily see Kreis on the way out.

D.C. United

Unlike the West, the bottom of the East from 2017 was active this offseason. They may not have been active quite to the extent that Orlando City was, but the original United are a flat-out more talented team in 2018 than they were in 2017.

Although United lost Bill Hamid in the offseason, either David Ousted or Steve Clark should regain enough form to be an adequate replacement. And the midfield rebuild that started in 2017 with the additions of Paul Arriola, Zoltan Stieber, and Russell Canouse, only accelerated with United acquiring Asad from Atlanta, emerging Venezuelan international Junior Moreno, and winger Ulises Segura from Saprissa. Simply put, Ben Olsen’s team should be significantly better in the middle of the park than they have been in recent years.

Still, United is very thin up top where they turn their lonely eyes to Darren Mattocks as their starting striker. And the backline doesn’t look significantly improved from a 2017 season in which is bled 60 goals. DCU should, therefore, be able to play enough attractive, attacking soccer to pull themselves out of the Eastern Conference cellar. United’s backline and striker situation, however, still make them a likely outsider in the playoff race.