By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer
Part 1 here
New England Revolution: Last year’s record: 9-17-8, 35 points.
The Good: The Revs had one of the most positive offseasons of any MLS team, getting rid of Benny Feilhaber, who was never a good fit and was quite expensive, and therefore handing the playmaking reins to Lee Nguyen and Juan Toja, which should work a lot better. Andy Dorman and Kalifa Cisse should bulk up the midfield, and Jose Goncalves, Andrew Farrell and Billal Duckett could all be starters for what was a far-too porous defense last season. Will their additions allow AJ Soares to step up and become the star many have been waiting for him to become? Jerry Bengtson has the skill to be among the MLS’s top goalscorers, though he didn’t score much last year.
The Bad: Bengtson aside, the attack is underwhelming, and we’re singling out a guy that scored twice in 13 matches last year. Saer Sene was better than expected last year, but lacks consistency. Diego Fagundez has lots of potential, but is still just 18. Chad Barrett is a black hole of missed chances. And Dimitry Imbongo? Pfft, don’t even get me started. Until the defense actually shuts someone down, it’s hard to be too optimistic.
We’ll say: The Revs will be better, but whether better is enough to actually make the playoffs is hard to say. If Bengtson starts scoring like he should, Nguyen builds upon a strong first year and the defense is somewhat solid, this could be a very pleasing team to watch.
New York Red Bulls. Last year’s record: 16-9-9, 57 points. Lost to DC United in the playoffs.
The Good: The MLS’s perennial nearly men occasionally looked like one of the best teams in the league last year, then predictably self-destructed in a hail of Rafa Marquez-tinged madness in the playoffs. Their solution was virtually rebuilding the entire team, from new head coach Mike Petke to new forwards Fabian Espindola and Josue Martinez to ageless (hopefully for Red Bulls fans) Brazilian midfielder Juninho to defender Jamison Olave. Gone are Marquez, midfield stalwarts Joel Lindpere and Teemu Tainio and “defender” Jan Gunnar Solli. Based on what I saw of the team in Tucson for the Desert Diamond Cup, the new lineup is capable of sweeping, effervescent attacking play, led as always by Thierry Henry. Juninho’s skill in dead-ball situations will cause even the most ardent David Beckham fans to blush. But …
The Bad: New York lost all three matches in Tucson, convincingly. The defense is all out of sorts, no surprise considering it’s a virtually brand-new lineup with probably a keeper who has hardly played, particularly in the MLS (Luis Robles). For all the grace and finesse of Henry, Juninho, Tim Cahill, et al., you can’t say that an offense that isn’t scoring is clicking. It’s hard to see Espindola and Martinez as upgrades over Kenny Cooper and Sebastian LeToux. That’s because they’re not. Over-relying on aging vets who don’t want to play on turf (cough cough, Henry, cough) and then packing the rest of the team with mediocre-at-best filler around the edges is arguably not a recipe for success.
We’ll say: A team with this much talent should make the playoffs, but don’t bet on them to make a run to New York’s first ever MLS Cup.
Philadelphia Union. Last year’s record: 10-18-6, 36 points.
The Good: The further the Union get from Piotr Nowak’s bizarre breaking apart of a playoff team the first half of the season, the better. The return of Sebastian LeToux, for all intents and purposes the face of the team the first two years, should be a plus for both the player and the team. The Union squad is perhaps one of the most potential-laden ones in the MLS. The addition of LeToux, Jeff Parke and Conor Casey adds a wealth of experience to a team that was desperate for it last season. Some of the fringe players that Nowak stuck the squad with are gone, which is good too. The fan base, one of the best in the league, seems to be back on board with manager John Hackworth.
The Bad: For all their potential, if the players don’t start to live up to it, and soon, this could be another playoff-less season, particularly in the ultra-competitive East. The Freddy Adu saga (Hackworth wants him gone, but needs another team to make it happen) could end up disrupting the team somewhat the longer it drags on. Losing defensive leader Carlos Valdes has to hurt. Casey is a talented forward who can’t stay healthy, and in the preseason, he and LeToux haven’t clicked at all. LeToux aside, no one on this team has stepped up to be a star.
We’ll say: The Union are certainly better off than last season, but still look another year away from being a playoff team.
Portland Timbers. Last year’s record: 8-16-10, 34 points.
The Good: After a good first season, hope was high for the Timbers Army, thanks to some high-profile signings, chief among them Kris Boyd, the all-time Scottish Premier League top scorer. Boyd, however, was slow, uncommitted and disappointingly poor with his shooting. The other signings either disappointed or were injured, and the team couldn’t win on the road. So the Timber sank and were among the worst teams in MLS. But head coach John Spencer was fired, and the team brought in highly-regarded Akron coach Caleb Porter, who installed a new system and weeded out some of the chaff (Goodbye Kris Boyd). New signings Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Michael Harrington, Ryan Miller and Mikael Silvestre all should stabilize a team that played naively at times last year. New midfielder Diego Valeri looks like a game-changer. As likeable as Spencer seemed as coach, his tactical approach seemed schizophrenic at times, and Porter’s system is a bit more defined. Forward Jose Adolfo Valencia looks good after missing all of last year through injury. The fans are great, as always.
The Bad: For all the appeal of the new signings, the team has still not fixed the center of the defense, which was quite poor last year. Donovan Ricketts can be great in goal, but he’s also prone to glaring mistakes, something that can also be said for new backup Milos Kocic. The loss of Bright Dike and Brent Richards to injury hurts what is an uncertain forward line. There is a lot more pressure on Darlington Nagbe to take the step up into superstar status, but if it doesn’t happen, the team might struggle to score again. Danny Mwanga has yet to produce in a Timbers jersey.
We’ll say: The West is a little more open than the East, and if the team gels with Porter’s system relatively early, they have a good shot at slipping into the playoffs as a four or five seed.
Real Salt Lake. Last year’s record: 17-11-6, 57 points. Lost to Seattle in the playoffs.
The Good: Despite having to do some heavy salary-dumping in the offseason, RSL still has four of the top players in the MLS at its core – goalkeeper Nick Rimando, midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales and forward Alvaro Saborio. Despite bringing in cheaper options in some positions, if you look at the signings – Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia among them, they could turn out to be very capable replacements. And there is still a lot of solidity in the team in the form of players like Ned Grabavoy and Chris Wingert and Nat Borchers. Manager Jason Kreis is very good at getting his team prepared for matches. In Plata and Robbie Findley, RSL has more speed in attack than they have in a long time.
The Bad: For all the experience left in the squad, its inevitable that more than usual changes will have some sort of effect, at least initially. The result of all the wage-cutting has been the team is less deep than usual as opposed to being poor as a starting 11, which is still very good. But with Saborio inevitably going to be gone for international matches a lot (as might also Rimando and Beckerman depending on the US schedule), the newer forwards will have to perform. With Jamison Olave now in New York, it’s vitally important that Chris Schuler – a potentially very good defender – stays fit, which he didn’t last year. Rimando is starting to get a bit old too.
We’ll say: RSL should make the playoffs, but it’s doubtful they’ll challenge for a No. 1 seed again this year.
San Jose Earthquakes. Last year’s record: 19-6-9, 66 points. Lost in the playoffs to the LA Galaxy.
The Good: The Quakes had an amazing regular season after struggling in 2011, cruising to the Supporter’s Shield trophy and leading the league in goals scored. Chris Wondolowski tied the record for goals in a season, and Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon proved adept at late-game heroics. The defense was also vastly improved, and there is much excitement about the new stadium.
The Bad: It seems weird to have limited to say about such a good team in “The Good” section, but they didn’t sign much quality, winger Simon Dawkins is not returning and they’ll be under pressure to replicate last season’s success while also dealing with Champions League matches. For a team competing on three fronts, you expect signings of a better standard than Dan Gargan, Ty Harden and Bryan Jordan. The team will also miss Ike Opara, Khari Stephenson and Joey Gjertsen, who all contributed at least a little last season. Wondolowski, Lenhart and Gordon could all have very good seasons yet score 15-20 less goals combined than they did in 2012. With Wondo now 30, a move to Europe pretty much has to happen this season, doesn’t it?
We’ll say: San Jose shouldn’t fall out of the playoff picture, but don’t expect another Supporter’s Shield trophy this year.
Seattle Sounders. Last year’s record: 15-8-11, 56 points. Lost in the playoffs to Los Angeles.
The Good: The Sounders have been one of the best teams in the league virtually since coming into the MLS, but face probably their first big test with Fredy Montero curiously returning to play in Colombia. Who emerges as the team’s goalscorer to accompany Eddie Johnson in his absence will probably be what decides whether Seattle is merely a good MLS team or a great team. The Sounders had a ton of trialists in camp, so the roster could change a bit, but they already signed up some veteran leadership in Shalrie Joseph and Djimi Traore. Joseph’s signing probably signals the end of the disappointing Christian Tiffert era as well, which probably won’t hurt too many Sounders fans. In preseason, Mario Martinez, who scored the goal to beat RSL in the playoffs, but seldom played besides, has been outstanding. Will it carry over into the regular season? Having a hopefully healthy Steve Zakuani all season will be a plus as well. Midfielder Mauro Rosales continues to be among the best playmakers in the league.
The Bad: Questions still remain over Zakuani’s health. If he’s back to at or near his previous level this season, he’ll add a speedy dimension that was lacking last year. If he’s not, the team isn’t one of the quicker ones in the league. You can’t discount the loss of Montero, who has been the team’s ex-factor for several years. Unless Sammy Ochoa or David Estrada (or an as-yet unsigned forward) turn into reliable goalscorers this year, opposing defenses will focus on Johnson.
We’ll say: The Sounders will compete for the top spot in the West, but will fall just short unless a goalscorer steps up or Zakuani returns to form.
Sporting Kansas City. Last year’s record: 18-7-9, 63 points. Lost to Houston in the playoffs.
The Good: Last year’s top team in the East has one of the best lineups in the MLS, rarely gives anything away on defense and has some of the best fan support in the league. The loss of midfield dynamo Roger Espinoza should be covered up by the acquisition of Benny Feilhaber. In Teal Bunbury and CJ Sapong, Sporting has two of the best young forward tandems in the MLS, and midfielder Graham Zusi is a burgeoning star in the MLS and on the US National Team. The defense, led by MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Jimmy Nielsen, Defender of the Year Matt Besler and Defender of the Year finalist Aurelien Collin, is probably the best in the MLS. DP signing Claudio Bieler has been prolific in South America and should make up for the loss of Kei Kamara.
The Bad: For all their domination, Sporting didn’t create a ton of chances last year and were disappointing in the playoffs. Bunbury and Sapong are athletic and brimming with potential, but neither has scored double-figure goals yet, and losing their top scorer in Kei Kamara could really hurt, particularly if Bieler doesn’t cope with the physical nature of the MLS. Feilhaber has flattered to deceive (that’s British for “been disappointing) for much of his career, and the leadership of Espinoza will be sorely missed. For all Collin’s skill and quality, he is prone to the rash challenge far too often.
We’ll say: If the new signings bed in well, this team should once again be the top team in the East. It’s pretty imperative that Bieler scores goals, though, if they’re truly going to be among the MLS’s elite.
Toronto FC. Last year’s record: 5-21-8, 23 points.
The Good: The troubled Aron Winter reign ended last summer, and Paul Mariner was dismissed in the offseason after winning even less matches than Winter. With Winter gone, two years of roster insecurity and weirdness are hopefully over. New manager Ryan Nelson was an established veteran star in the MLS and in the English Premier League, and will command the respect of his players. New president/GM Kevin Payne has done a good job cutting the chaff from the roster, even if he’s angered some people in the way he’s done so. In terms of player personnel, Danny Koevermanns is one of the league’s elite strikers when he’s fit, new defensive signings Danny Califf and Gale Agbossoumonde should help solidify the league’s worst defense a few year’s running, and Luis Silva looks like one of the better young players in the MLS. In KC’s Julio Cesar, Toronto have signed an imposing, veteran presence in midfield.
The Bad: For all of Payne’s roster upheaval, this team might be worse than last year’s. Koevermanns has yet to stay fit for a whole season and probably won’t play until a couple months in. Aside from Silva, the attacking corps consists of the likes of the streaky Reggie Lambe, Justin Braun, who didn’t score a single goal last year, and Andrew Wiedeman, who scored two. Nelson has never managed at any level. Torsten Frings, who was considered key to what little hopes of success Toronto had this season, just retired due to recurring injury.
We’ll say: Toronto will be bad this year, but at least the team will be full of young, hungry players doing their best to win. This will certainly be a better defensive team, but they might be one of the weakest offensive teams in league history. There is a possibility of a DP coming in, but Toronto doesn’t seem too concerned with that, and good for them if that’s the case.
Vancouver Whitecaps. Last year’s record: 11-13-10, 43 points. Lost to Los Angeles in the playoffs.
The Good: Last year was a weird one for the Caps, who looked like one of the best teams in the league, then completely fell apart after bringing a few expensive European signings who failed to shine. This year (hopefully for Caps fans) there should be a little more roster stability, and some of Vancouver’s young talent should take a step up. Darren Mattocks, who was probably the league’s best rookie, but didn’t win the award since he played seldom the second half of the season, looks to be one of the league’s best forwards. He said he can score 20 goals, which might be a bit high, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he scored 15. The team has one of the most experienced backlines in the MLS, and in Johnny Leveron, they have a new defender who should be a good MLS player. New signing Daigo Kobayashi has been on fire in preseason in midfield and Nigel Reo-Coker looks like a player cut out perfectly for MLS play.
The Bad: The Caps have 10 (!) forwards on the current roster. How does that even happen? Outside of Mattocks, though, there are a lot of questions about all 10. Kenny Miller is paid a a ton of money and rarely looked like scoring in his first year in the MLS. I thought he’d be gone in the offseason, but if he doesn’t score – and often – he’ll probably be cut loose this summer. Omar Salgado has a lot of potential but has yet to put it together. Camilo has moments of class but disappears from matches often. The rest of the forwards are either rookies or have yet to make an impact in the MLS. There has to be changes here.
We’ll say: I suppose it’s a good thing that everything on “the bad” part of this entry has been about the forwards. The defense seems solid. The midfield looks good. Those two elements should be enough to have the Whitecaps competing for a playoff spot. But if the team is going to make a serious impact in the wide-open West, they need their stable of forwards to do something.