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Thursday 28 February 2013

MLS 2013 Preview – The Big Questions: Eastern Conference

    While most folks are busy foretelling and projecting just how this season will play out, we – the royal we – here at POV-FS prefer to offer you questions.

    Each offseason MLS clubs undergo radical player overhauls, in part necessitated by the restrictions of the salary cap and roster spots.

    As such, sometimes it can take weeks - or months - before a club’s true nature presents itself. Some clubs will not have their rosters sorted until the midway point and with the nature of playoffs being what they are, it may not matter how things began, only how they end.

    Remember, prediction makes fools of us all; so, on with the questions.

    In this installment: the Eastern Conference.

Chicago Fire

In his second full season as manager, having taken the reigns as interim midway through 2011, Frank Klopas will look to build on the measured success the club has seen under his tenure.

A late season run in 2011 saw them fall just short of the playoffs, but led to a postseason birth in 2012 – their first since 2009 – only to bow out in the preliminary knockout round to eventual finalist, Houston.

The midseason additions of Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald – now with a full preseason under their belts – will be expected to increase their production, especially as speedster, Dominic Oduro, was traded to Columbus for Dilly Duka.

Equally, the renovated central midfield partnership of recently acquired duo, Joel Lindpere and Jeff Larentowicz, will be expected to fortify the middle of the park, a radical overhaul in part due to the retirement of the stoic Pavel Pardo, prompting the transition of captain Logan Pause to outside back.

The fitness of wide midfielder Patrick Nyarko and German centre-back Arne Friedrich, the inconsistency of goalkeeper Sean Johnson and the mercurial Dilly Duka, and the sophomore development of Rookie of the Year winner Austin Berry will all be key variables in how the Fire’s season plays out.

Should MacDonald fail to find the net with regularity, can Rolfe and new options, Maicon Santos and Quincy Amarikwa – each with inconsistencies of their own to correct – provide enough punch to make the difference? And will their back-line stay fit enough to not be troubled by a lack of depth?

Columbus Crew

Manager Robert Warzycha, in his fifth season at the helm, will look for his side to pick up where they left off towards the end of last season, when a strong run down the stretch saw them barely miss out on the playoffs, by dint of conference politics and a single point deficit to Houston.

The midseason surge was precipitated by two key acquisitions, Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta. The hope is that their partnership and impressive production will only be augmented by a proper preseason with the side

Their success prompted the Crew to again look south for reinforcements, a search that resulted in two key incoming players: Brazilian centre-back Glauber and Argentine midfielder Matias Sanchez.

Glauber, and fellow defensive signing Tyson Wahl, will be tasked with stabilizing a back-line that was rocked by injuries last season and has seen the departures of Carlos Mendes, Julius James, and Rich Balchan amongst others.

Much of their fate will rest upon the Arrieta-Higuain axis, the health of captain Chad Marshall, and another stellar year from goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum, who so admirably marshaled in Will Hesmer’s absence that Hesmer was deemed surplus to requirement and subsequently retired – to pursue a life in business. 

Of interest will be how Eddie Gaven’s role plays out, with the veteran and underrated midfielder being granted more space with those high-profile stars drawing attention from opposition defenders.

Paramount will be the health of those essential starters, as largely unproven attacking options and streaky speedster, Dominic Oduro, provide inadequate replacements should any long-term injuries take hold.

Can last year’s back-line personnel issues be resolved? Will Gruenebaum repeat his impressive form? And can Higuain and Arrieta continue their dominant offensive performances now that the opponent has had time to thoroughly scout them?

DC United

Ben Olsen begins his third year as manager of the club, presiding over a side brimming with confidence and ready for the new season.

2012 saw them reach the Conference Finals – where they lost to Houston largely on the strength of a rash of injuries on a tough opening away leg at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Dwayne De Rosario is back from his October knee injury, he will be tasked with running the attack and replacing the contributions of the departed Branko Boskovic, whose assists proved invaluable down the stretch run.

Up front the industrious Lionard Pajoy will be joined in the attack by Casey Townsend formerly of Chivas, while the surprise return of the pesky veteran Carlos Ruiz to MLS and the acquisition of twenty year-old Rafael as a designated player rounds out the battery.

Pajoy is known for his tireless work, but with the departures of Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi, their only strikers to contribute significant goal tallies last season, somebody will have to help the midfield in finding the goals necessary to improve.

Gone too is academy product Andy Najar – sold to Anderlecht in Belgium, but the convalescence of Chris Pontius, who led the team in scoring and the continued development of Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, and Bill Hamid leave the side poised on the verge of something big.

With Emiliano Dudar deemed surplus to requirements, the time has come for Dejan Jakovic to end his irregularity and put in the kind of performance he did for Canada against the US in a recent friendly everyday.

The consolidation of his partnership with Brandon McDonald and Robbie Russell staying fit will shore up the back-line, though, if need be, DC boasts several hard-working role players, proven pieces – Chris Korb, Daniel Woolard - that can fill in spot duty.

United appear ready to take that next step from talented and consistent pretenders – they never lost more than two games in a row and only went twice went three without a win last season - to legitimate contenders.

Can De Rosario and Pontius shoulder the majority of the attack, while the likes of DeLeon and Pajoy improve theirs and Rafael works into his new life? Can Jakovic be relied upon to be an everyday centre-back? And is Carlos Ruiz, and all that he entails, the final piece to the puzzle? 

Houston Dynamo

Dominic Kinnear, the only manager the club has ever known – or needed, returns for his seventh – or ninth, if one counts their prior history as the Earthquakes – season in charge of the perennial contenders.

With very little change to the side that finished runners-up to MLS Cup Champions, the LA Galaxy, there remain few unanswered questions, but the primary concern is: can they score more goals?

Will Bruin, now in his third season, will be expected to increase his production and, if preseason is any indication, he is ready for the challenge – he scored five goals in a game against the U-18 Academy side, from four different providers.

As such, service will be key. Brad Davis is primed as ever, while Oscar Boniek Garcia and Giles Barnes return, with that essential full preseason to coalesce; the Dynamo look ready to tackle several fronts this year.

League, Champions League, and the US Open Cup will provide plenty of challenges and depth beyond the recognized starters, particularly at the back, could be an issue when the fixtures come thick and fast.

Calen Carr’s injury in the cup required reinforcement in the pace department – Omar Cummings, once fit, homegrown Alex Dixon and draft pick Jason Johnson should foot that bill. While Scottish winger Andrew Driver, once acclimated, will be an interesting player to keep an eye on.

Ricardo Clark and Adam Moffat will hold down the middle in front of a back-line marshaled by Bobby Boswell, one a little thin on the flanks. Contributions from youngsters Kofi Sarkodie and Warren Creavalle will be required should the side wish to contend in all competitions.

Kinnear dabbled in the 4-3-3 before returning to his tried and tested 4-4-2 and one cannot be sure which formation will be his first choice.

Continuing their impressive home form at the BBVA Compass Stadium will be paramount as the side hungrily eyes their third MLS Cup, a goal set squarely in their sights.

Is Garcia as dynamic and entertaining as he appeared last season? Can Kinnear’s Dynamo handle battling on three separate fronts? Will Brian Ching inspire his club to another trophy it what will likely be his final season in MLS?

Montreal Impact

New manager Marco Schallibaum, a veteran of the Swiss leagues, has a pretty substantial task ahead of him. Take a side that struggled to find consistency and turn them into a winner, and do it now.

Montreal is built for the present with so many of their key personnel – Alessandro Nesta, Marco Di Vaio, Matteo Ferrari, and Canadian Patrice Bernier – all well into their thirties and the organization’s desire to win is daunting.

Keeping those players, as well as Nelson Rivas, fit, while working in the untested youth will be a challenge as the club embarks on their second season in MLS.

Nesta’s leadership, having failed to live up to his reputation after spending months on the beach prior to his signing midseason, needs to be more apparent and thorough.

Felipe, who is reunited with a former coach, Bernier and Collen Warner will look to continue their solid partnership in the middle, while Andrea Pisanu, on loan from Bologna, will provide even more creativity - his overhead looping strike at the Disney’s tournament was lovely.

In question is how well the American contingent – Davy Arnaud, Justin Mapp, and Andrew Wenger, to name a few – will mesh with the European brain-trust, this will be an interesting story to follow.

The Impact struggled for goals and consistency last season – a losing start and a poor finish, once they were eliminated from playoff contention, marred what was an impressive debut - getting off to a quick start will be integral as the Voyageur’s Cup will clog the schedule at the end of April.

Di Vaio will need to be more far more clinical than he was in his half-season, while other players, particularly midfielders, will need to contribute to the goal tally.

Schallibaum is only on a one-year deal and the front office will not hesitate to pull the trigger if results do not live up to their lofty aspirations.

Will the ageing vanguard stand up to the rigours of an MLS season? Will the linguistic divide in the dressing room prove an insurmountable obstacle? And just how much time – and patience – will the front office give their new coach?

New England Revolution

Second-year manager, Jay Heaps, will hope to continue to slowly progress his rebuild of this organization after a third straight disappointing season of missing the playoffs.

New England made their moves early, securing the services of midfielders Kalifa Cisse and Andy Dorman before the turn of the year. They join a stacked midfield that will provide the coach with plenty of decisions to make.

Gone is Benny Feilhaber, but Lee Nguyen, Juan Toja – hopefully fit from preseason, Clyde Simms, and Kelyn Rowe – to name but a few options – lead the list of returnees, while Chad Barrett returns to MLS as one of a group of forwards.

Jerry Bengston will be expected to shoulder the majority of the goal-scoring duties – a particular weakness of the side in 2012, at least until the injured Sair Sene returns. But the continued development of Diego Fagundez and the aforementioned Rowe will make interesting viewing.  

First-overall draft pick Andrew Farrell looks set to play a role, perhaps even a starting one, at right-back, while Portuguese defender Jose Goncalves will provide some much needed experience to a youthful back four.

Potentially disruptive will be the looming goalkeeping duel between veteran Matt Reis and the incumbent Bobby Shuttleworth, who filled in admirably in spot duty and at the end of the season, with Reis on the sideline.

Just how the old hand views his diminishing role and how the manager deals with marginalizing a former teammate will be a telling aside to the play on the pitch.

Is Heaps the next in a line of former MLS players turned coaches to impress? Are the Revolution ready to move from afterthoughts to threats after years in the doldrums? Is there trouble brewing with an unclear goalkeeping situation?  

New York Red Bull

New York, as usual, endured a lot of offseason change, both in the front office and on the pitch. Out go Hans Backe and Erik Soler, in come Jerome de Bontin, Andy Roxburgh, and, further afield, Gerard Houllier, at the corporate offices in Europe.

Assistant coach, former player, and all-around club man, Mike Petke, was finally announced as manager, after a flurry names rumoured to take the position came and went.

Thierry Henry, both in production and in attitude, will be key; through his tenure we have seen all that the French legend has to offer from his scintillating talent to his pernickety temperament – necessary sides of the same coin.

But with the departure of Kenny Cooper, secondary scoring behind the French talisman will be crucial. Tim Cahill, in his second season – and with that oh-so-essential preseason to adapt – must pick up some of that slack after failing to impress and newcomer Juninho (Pernambucano) will no doubt add something to the attack, at least from dead-balls.

The acquisition of Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave from Salt Lake betrays a more intelligent approach from this rendition of the organization, importing talent and experience from within the league rather than from abroad.

Olave’s partnership with Heath Pearce will provide a stable platform from which to build the side.

Dax McCarty will again play a huge role in the middle of the park – given the addition by subtraction of Rafa Marquez – he should be allowed to form a functional, stable partnership with Cahill, while the continued development of fan-favourites Connor Lade and Brandon Barklage, who played crucial roles last season, is on a good path.

Goalkeepers Ryan Meara and Luis Robles will battle it out for top spot after Robles acquitted himself well in the rookie’s absence due to a hip injury.

New York dropped out of the playoffs at the first hurdle in a whirlwind tilt with DC marred by snow and wayward Roy Miller free-kicks, have the multitude of changes been enough to see them win the trophy that has thus far eluded them?

A little bit of stability and patience with be needed with Petke, does the New York crowd – and the Austrian overlords, for that matter – have that in their locker? Can the team that turns over each year ever find success? And is Henry ready to prove he is the best player in the league?

Philadelphia Union

A tumultuous 2012 began with the departures of Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Califf before Piotr Nowak himself was shown the door, culminated under manager John Hackworth, who returns for his first full season. .

Goal-scoring was a problem, so reinforcements in the form of target-man Conor Casey and the returning Le Toux, were brought in to join the maturing Jack McInerney in attack. Just how Hackworth will mix and match this trio remains to be seen, but regardless, they will provide more bite – and options – than last season.

The development of Michael Farfan as an attacking midfielder could lead to an increase production, especially if the multi-forward system creates pockets for him to operate within, while simultaneously providing him with more options to choose.

At the back, last’s season acquisition of Bakary Soumare will likely payoff with the defender finally fit and integrated into the side, the departure of Carlos Valdes, who returned to his homeland on loan, necessitated the arrival of Pennsylvania native, Jeff Parke, for a homecoming of his own.

The two experienced defenders should form a nice, reliable partnership in the centre of defense, at the expense of Amobi Okugo, who will likely move back into the midfield alongside Brian Carroll, and with Sheanon Williams have three of the four starting positions locked down.

Older imports aside, Philadelphia are still an exceedingly young side, but there comes a time when potential must evolve into production. Roger Torres will be expected to contribute in this his fourth season in the league, especially given the Freddy Adu situation

Adu, what can be said about the former-starlet who has once again burned – or been burned – by another potential employer. He remains on their books, but has not been given a roster number and his future could play a key role, by either freeing up space or by contributing should the whole ordeal be resolved amicably.

On a more pleasant note, Zac MacMath showed glimpses of being a really solid keeper towards the end of last season, after struggling early in the campaign.

Long losing streaks handicapped their season last year; can the experienced reinforcements help the young core, now a year older, be more consistent on the pitch? What awaits poor old Freddy in the next chapter of his career? And just how will Hackworth accommodate his three-headed attack?

Sporting KC

Manager Peter Vermes enters his fourth full season at the helm of Sporting with a job on his hands to rebuild the side that was so impressive last season given several key losses.

Moved on to pastures new have both Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara, two integral parts of the side, to the English Premier League with Wigan Athletic and Norwich City, respectively.

Replacing two such key pieces is never easy but having kept hold of a third player rumoured, at times, to be on his way, means the task of repeating last season’s success, first place in the East after flirting with the Supporter’s Shield, is a little bit easier. 

Graham Zusi, as if not prominent enough in the side, will be expected to handle the majority of the attacking play while new arrival - and designated player - Argentine Claudio Bieler acclimatizes to the league. Benny Feilhaber has been added to help shoulder the burden of creativity in the final third of the pitch.

Sporting, despite all their success, struggled to find the back of the net – when compared to similar sides – instead, relying heavily on their impenetrable defense to see out one-goal results.

CJ Sapong and Teal Bunbury will need to replace the goals lost, especially while Bieler finds his feet.

Gone too is the experience of Julio Cesar, but in his stead, KC has one of the more interesting MLS acquisitions over the past few years with Uri Rosell, formerly of the Barcelona youth academy, perhaps ready to step into those shoes and excel.

In Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, Vermes has at his disposal one of the more solid central defensive pairings, while Jimmy Nielsen will be expected to maintain his own high level and bail his side out when called upon.

The bare minimum for the side will be the playoffs, and with a little luck, either avoiding Houston, who have knocked them out in each of the last two seasons, or steamrolling through them.

Can Sporting overcome the loss of two such important pieces in a league where buying replacements is easier said than done? Can the defense remain as stingy as they have been? And is this the year they make that step from promising regular season hopefuls to serious cup contenders?

Toronto FC

The less said about Toronto FC the better.

Suffice it to say that President Kevin Payne and freshly retired manager Ryan Nelsen have their work cut out for them.

Last season failure was attributed to a poor preseason, but rather than correct those mistakes the club has decided to enter this season even more unprepared than they did last.

The fitness of Danny Koevermans, as the lone, proven MLS scoring striker, will be key, but even that cannot be counted upon until a few months into the season, as he continues to recover from the knee injury that ended his season.

Luis Silva will need to make the jump from rookie to professional quickly as either an attacking midfielder or second striker, while draft pick Kyle Bekker will be called upon to show the poise in the middle of the park that earned him such rave reviews at the Combine and with the Canadian national team.

Breaking news – the signing of Robert Earnshaw brings some much needed hope with the attacking corps so depleted at the moment.

Darren O’Dea will have had time to acclimate to his new environs. The defensive unit of O’Dea, Ashtone Morgan, and Richard Eckersley, with the additions of Danny Califf and Gale Agbossoumonde with Doneil Henry and Logan Emory in reserve, looks solid for the first time in a long while.

Though, the recent injury to Stefan Frei and news that he will not be ready to start the season is yet another setback.

There remains a lot of work to be done on the shores of Lake Ontario, 2013 will not be about results; it will be about rebuilding.

Rebuilding the side, rebuilding the organization’s reputation, but perhaps most importantly, rebuilding the relationship and the trust with the fans.

Will Toronto’s dwindling support endure another horrible season? Will Payne and Nelsen have what it takes to turn around one of the most underachieving clubs the league – hyperbole alert: the world - has ever seen? And how different will this club look come the midway point of the season?

    Watch for the Western Conference version, due out midday on Friday.

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