Major League Soccer’s 20th season is mere weeks away. The young league has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years and promises to take the soccer fans in the country on yet another exciting journey. In our run-up to the new season, The Other Half will preview each and every team of MLS to give our followers a comprehensive idea of what they can expect when the defending champions LA Galaxy take the field against Chicago Fire in the first week of March. As we focus on the Eastern Conference, today we take a look at Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew SC, Montreal Impact, Orlando City SC, and Toronto FC.
New Acquisitions: Jon Busch (GK), Adailton (DF), Eric Gehrig (DF), Joevin Jones (DF), Matt Polster (DF), Michael Stephens (MF), Kingsley Bryce (FW), Shaun Maloney (FW), Guly do Prado (FW), David Accam (FW), Kennedy Igboananike (FW).
Departures: Bakary Soumare (DF), Sanna Nyassi (MF), Logan Pause (MF; retired), Juan Luis Anangono (FW).
After breaking the MLS record for draws in a season in 2014, there was mass upheaval in the Windy City. The club swapped out underachieving DP Juan Luis Anangono for two new African DPs from the Swedish Allsvendskan in Nigerian forward Igboananike (5 goals for AIK Stockholm in 2014) and Ghana national teamer Accam (17 goals for Helsingborgs IF), who add to an already-solid crop of forwards that includes rising star Harry Shipp and former MLS MVP Mike Magee, who will miss the start of the season with injury. On top of those four, the team also landed a third DP in Scottish international Shaun Maloney from Wigan Athletic, who brings plenty of experience to the table. One worry Fire had was goal, since it’s very likely Sean Johnson gets called to the USMNT for the Gold Cup. They responded by bringing back Jon Busch, who had spent the last few seasons backstopping San Jose. As for the men in front of him, the team filled the hole left by the departure of Bakary Soumare by signing Adailton out of Brazilian side Bahia and taking Matt Polster in the SuperDraft, and Eric Gehrig, acquired in a trade with Crew SC, should be an upgrade on Lovel Palmer at right back. If the midfield can provide decent service for the attackers, Chicago should be able to turn some of last season’s draws into victories.
COLUMBUS CREW SC
New Acquisitions: Kei Kamara (FW), Kristinn Steindórsson (MF), Mohammed Saied (MF), Chris Klute (DF), Cedrick Mabwati (FW), DF Hernan Brana (DF), Ben Swanson (HGP MF), Sergio Campbell (DF), Sagi Lev-Ari (FW)
Departures: Eric Gehrig (DF), Bernardo Añor (MF), Josh Williams (DF), Jairo Arrieta (FW)
Gregg Berhalter reached into his Scandinavian pool again after striking gold with Steve Clark and the departed Giancarlo Gonzalez last offseason, bringing in Iceland international Kristinn Steindórsson and Swedish midfielder Mohammed Saied, who join an already impressive midfield that includes USMNT up-and-comer Wil Trapp, rapidly improving Tony Tchani (6 assists in 2014) and Iraqi international Justin Meram. Perhaps most importantly, the Crew managed to keep DP superstar forward Federico Higuain (11 goals, 7 assists) around and added another pair of offensive weapons in Sierra Leone international Kei Kamara, who returns to MLS after a season with Championship side Middlesbrough and DR Congo national teamer Cedrick Mabwati, who will join in midseason. With Eric Gehrig off to Chicago, Crew SC wasted no time replacing him, adding Klute after trading down in the SuperDraft with Colorado and then upgrading on Klute by signing Brana, a former right back at Argentine powerhouse Boca Juniors. Columbus was a big surprise at the end of last MLS season. This year, one could argue they may be one of the best and most complete teams in a weak Eastern Conference.
New Acquisitions: Eric Kronberg (GK), Victor Cabrera (DF), Bakary Soumare (DF), Laurent Ciman (DF), Donny Toia (DF), Marco Donadel (MF), Nigel Reo-Coker (MF), Eric Alexander (MF), Ambroise Oyongo (DF), Romario Williams (FW)
Departures: Marco Di Vaio (FW), Troy Perkins (GK), Heath Pearce (DF), Matteo Ferrari (DF), Futty Danso (DF), Felipe (MF), Karl Ouimette (DF), Krzysztof Krol (DF)
After a forgettable dead-last finish in 2014, Montreal looks to turn the page in 2015. With top scorer Marco Di Vaio (9 goals in 2014) retired, it will be up to Jack McInerney (7 goals after coming over midseason) and top draft pick Romario Williams to lead the Impact’s youth movement up top. They will get quality service from DP Ignacio “Nacho” Piatti, who was one of very few bright spots on the team last year after coming in midseason. What will make or break Le Impact’s season however, will be the back line, which was a mess that gave up more goals than any other team in the East last season. Out is keeper Troy Perkins and defenders Karl Ouimette, Krzysztof Krol, Heath Pearce, Matteo Ferrari, and Futty Danso. In is MLS veteran Bakary Soumare, promising young Donny Toia, Cameroonian national teamer Ambroise Oyongo (who, admittedly, may not play for Impact as he was seemingly irate after being traded while at the African Cup of Nations), and goalkeeper Eric Kronberg, who will hope to win out a preseason keeper battle with Evan Bush. The gem offseason add for Impact, however, is Belgian World Cup center back Laurent Ciman, who will be arriving midseason on a free transfer, and won’t even take up a DP spot. How well the defense holds up will determine if Montreal bounces back to the playoff hunt or toils in irrelevance for a second straight year.
ORLANDO CITY SC
The Lions roared right out of the gate early in their franchise’s existence, signing former Ballon d’Or winner Kaka to a DP contract, making him the highest-paid player in MLS. The winter saw Adrian Heath do more work on his club, signing US national Brek Shea, trading for MLS stars in Amobi Okugo, Tally Hall, and Aurelien Collin, snagging US youth national defender Conor Donovan and Canadian rising star forward Cyle Larin at the SuperDraft. There’s a strong foundation for a franchise in Orlando, but there are still holes that need filling, namely right back and striker. At right back, there’s plenty of promise with Rafael Ramos and Tyler Turner, but will Heath find them MLS ready? Up front, the team has Larin, young Honduran DP Bryan Rochez, Colombian youngster Carlos Rivas, and enigmatic Danny Mwanga, a former first overall pick who has struggled immensely for playing time with Colorado and Portland. Can one of them step up and convert Kaka’s service into goals?
New Acquisitions: Jozy Altidore (FW), Robbie Findley (FW), Marco Delgado (MF/DF), Alex Bono (GK), Clement Simonin (DF), Sebastian Giovinco (MF), Skylar Thomas (DF), Wesley Charpie (DF), Edwin Rivas (FW), Damien Perquis (DF), Eriq Zavaleta (DF)
Departures: Doniel Henry (DF), Jermain Defoe (FW), Jeremy Hall (DF)
The “Bloody Big Deal” of last offseason was a disaster for TFC, and now it’s back to the drawing board. Jermain Defoe was returned to England in a swap with Sunderland that gave the Reds USMNT star Jozy Altidore, who will look to regain his confidence at the club level in MLS after a dreadful stay with the Black Cats. TFC also made a HUGE coup in landing Juventus midfielder Sebastian Giovinco, a player in his prime with 21 caps for Italy and Champions League experience with a big club in Juventus. One question will be what happens to DP forward Gilberto with this signing (as Giovinco makes four DPs for TFC, something that also happened last offseason, leading to the exit of Matias Laba), and that’s likely dependent on the CBA. Toronto’s biggest drawbnacks entering the offseason were at the back. Doniel Henry left to West Ham United, and Steven Caldwell isn’t getting any younger. The team responded by trading away a defender but drafting three in the SuperDraft, but General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko knew it was unlikely they’ll be able to make an impact right away. He responded by signing Polish international Damien Perquis and former Chivas USA man Eriq Zavaleta, who will battle it out with Caldwell and Nick Hagglund for the starting center back spots. This is a big year for TFC. Can they finally live up to the expectations of their fans?
Can they finally break their playoff drought?
Though the East is my forte, that doesn’t mean I ignore the MLS Western Conference. Here are my thoughts: I feel that the West will be tighter than ever this season, despite Colorado being in a rebuilding season and San Jose not fixing their defensive deficiencies. Positions 1-8 can go any way, with Houston, Kansas City, LA, and Salt Lake having combined to win all but 2 of the last 9 MLS Cups, and Dallas and Vancouver utilizing young talent to their advantage. Don’t count out Portland or Seattle, either, as those two teams have won the West in the last 2 years. But keep an eye on Vancouver Whitecaps FC especially. Last season, they only really lacked a goal scorer, and this offseason Carl Robinson hauled Octavio Rivero in from Uruguay. Along with game-changing center back Kendall Waston, World Cup full back Steven Beitashour. and 2014 MLS clean sheet king David Ousted, I believe Whitecaps FC has what it takes to win the West.