Featured / MLS

2012 Eastern Conference preview

Photo: Earl Gardner

Everyone else has season previews. Why not us?

But this is a Philly site. Forget the Western Conference. We’re keeping it simple and focused. And guessing at the order of finish.

1) Sporting Kansas City

In the Eastern Conference, there is Kansas City — and everyone else. The club is clearly the class of the conference, playing an adventurous and attacking brand of soccer that should only improve with the additions of defensive midfielder Paulo Nagamura and left winger Bobby Convey, each of whom was often the best player on their last teams (Chivas USA and San Jose, respectively). Coach Peter Vermes wants to deploy Convey as an attacker on the left side, which has historically been his best position, regardless of misguided efforts to make him a left back.

With Graham Zusi emerging as the team’s key playmaker and second year forward CJ Sapong looking primed to be a 10-goal scorer, the team has a lot of firepower. (That’s not even mentioning Teal Bunbury, the more hyped of the team’s young pair of strikers.) Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen is among the league’s best, and the back line has improved dramatically last season after it was basically remade almost from scratch. The team’s biggest question is whether they can stay healthy. Right now, the injured list includes Zusi and midfielder Julio Cesar, a key defensive shield for the back line.

Philly ties: Bobby Convey is a Philly native who started in the 2006 World Cup. He also has a serious Philly attitude. Got to like that.

How they match up with Philadelphia Union: Kansas City has a wealth of attackers, and the talent on the wings to pin back the Union’s fullbacks with more defensive responsibilities, particularly in the Convey-Sheanon Williams matchup. That could cut out a vital part of the Union attack.

2) Chicago Fire

Chicago finished last season 7-2-1 after signing central midfielders Pável Pardo and Sebastián Grazzini in mid-season, and those moves helped turn speedsters Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko into world-beaters up top. Now extrapolate over a full season and add German international Arne Friedrich, who was just signed this week, to a decent but not great back line, and you could have a really good team here.

The big question marks are how much Pardo, 35, and Friedrich, who hasn’t played regularly in months due to injury, have left in the tank. If the answer is “plenty,” then this will be a tough team to beat. They have good midfield depth and a promising young goalie in U-23 international Sean Johnson.

Philly ties: Starting right back Dan Gargan played at Chestnut Hill Prep and FC Delco. He’s also famous among Union fans due to his drunken friends taunting Union fans and starting a fight in the stands in a 2010 game against Toronto while Gargan was playing for the Reds. It’s always entertaining when Philly fans face … Philly fans.

Union matchup: Chicago’s fast forwards could give the Union a lot of trouble, because Danny Califf isn’t known for his speed. On the flip side, Chicago’s fullbacks are pretty ordinary, so the Union have to like the prospects for their attacking fullbacks.

3) Houston Dynamo

Is Brad Davis healthy, fit and playing at 100 percent? That will determine how good Houston is. This is a team built for heading in crosses, but without the pinpoint service of Davis, who was injured in last fall’s playoffs, that team construction is wasted. They don’t have much speed up top, where Brian Ching will return as a target forward fixture but has had trouble staying healthy for years now. Will Bruin is the No. 2 forward, but without a speedster to stretch defenses, they’re dependent on the dead ball service and crosses of Davis onto the heads of a tall defense and forward crew.

Three of their four midfield spots are top of the line, with Luis Camargo and Adam Moffat forming a potentially ideal creator-destroyer partnership in the center, and the back four will challenge Philly to be the league’s best grouping. And this is probably the best coached team in the league.

Union matchup: The Union have trouble with tall teams due to their own lack of height at forward and center back, and that was clearly on display in last year’s playoffs, when Houston dominated Philadelphia in the air.

4) DC United

DC has a good young coach and an attacking quintet that could be one of the league’s most exciting, if they stay healthy. Dwayne De Rosario now gets paired up top with an Albanian poacher (Hamdi Salihi) who scored goals in Europe by the boatload. Andy Najar will just continue to get better on the right flank, and Chris Pontius was showing signs of emerging as a top player before getting injured last year. The key will be Montenegro international Branko Boskovic, a proven playmaker who looks good when healthy but can’t seem to stay off the injured list.

Behind them, Perry Kitchen will move up to his more natural holding midfielder position, which could be an improvement over the departed Clyde Simms, while Robbie Russell is an upgrade at right back. Brandon McDonald is a solid center back, but all eyes will be on new signing Emilano Dudar. If he can lock down the other spot, this could be a very good team. But that back line must be better than it was last year, because young goalkeeper Bill Hamid is still — well, young.

Philly ties: LaSalle alum and former Union player Ryan Richter is fighting for a roster spot.

Union matchup: The Union might like the midfield matchups, if only because it’s not yet clear that Pontius and Boskovic have the required fitness to keep up with all the midfielders Peter Nowak can cycle through. But that might be irrelevant come game time. These teams look pretty even.

5) Toronto FC

Coach Aron Winter looks like he has the horses to play his preferred 4-3-3. Danny Koevermans scored 136 goals in the Dutch league, and then he netted eight in 10 games for Toronto after signing last year. Is there any reason to think this will suddenly stop? Behind him, Julian de Guzman is finally playing good soccer now that he’s freed up from playmaking duties, and Torsten Frings has turned into the spine around which this team is built, whether playing center midfield or sweeper. And how much fun is 5-2 jitterbug Joao Plata?

Center back remains a major sore spot, however, and the presence of two young and talented fullbacks may not offset that. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei faced tons of shots last season, and it could happen again. Still, a 2-2 draw in Champions League play before nearly 50,000 fans against Los Angeles bodes well for Toronto.

Union matchup: The Union matchup fairly well against Toronto. Plata may be quick, but so is Williams. The teams look even at center mid, so the wild card is just how good or bad those Toronto center backs are.

6) New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls are a worse team with Rafa Marquez on the field, and not just because he’s a locker room cancer. Deploying him in midfield means the team has two defensive-minded center mids in Marquez and Finnish cleanup man Teemu Tainio, and at this point in their careers, Tainio appears the better player. The result is a lack of a central playmaker, the same problem the Red Bulls identified last year when they (briefly) acquired Dwayne De Rosario. And that is the second biggest reason why this team won’t finish atop the table.

The biggest reason is goalkeeper. How this team can bring in two guys with so little experience to backstop an outfield full of so much talent is mind-boggling. Have you heard of Ryan Meara or Jeremy Vuolo? Me neither. Considering this is one of the league’s best teams along the flanks (fullbacks Jan Gunnar Solli and Roy Miller, outside midfielders Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere), it almost seems a waste. Thierry Henry is still as good as it gets when it comes to strikers in MLS, provided he stays healthy, but Kenny Cooper isn’t the linchpin that Luke Rodgers has been. Last year, Rodgers produced the kind of hold-up play and passing that keyed Henry’s great play. Center back has been upgraded, but it’s almost not worth spending the money on all these players if you’re not going to put a good goalie behind them. If they could just exchange Marquez for a good goalkeeper, this would be one of the top two teams in the conference.

Philly ties: Penn State Corey Hertzog remains an afterthought on the roster, unable to break through with all the big-name forwards present. However talented he may be, he sits no higher than fifth on the depth chart at forward, pending Rodgers sorting out his visa situation.

Union matchup: Harder to say this year because of the Red Bulls’ additions at center back. Dane Richards is trouble on the right wing, and stopping him will be key. Henry is a challenge, but Carlos Valdes is the sort of mobile center back who matches up well with him.

7) Philadelphia Union

The Union progressed too rapidly as a team last year, so the club ditched their best player to right the team’s progress.

OK, jokes aside, this team could finish anywhere from second to eighth, and no matter where they finished, you couldn’t be surprised. The secrecy surrounding the team means that, outside of the Orlando friendly, few have seen the Union play this preseason. That matters, because their season hinges on a forward corps full of question marks. The back four are solid, with Porfilio Lopez expected to slide in seamlessly at left back. The midfield looks improved, with Gabriel Gomez the key addition and young talents like Michael and Gabriel Farfan, Keon Daniel, Roger Torres and (hopefully) Freddy Adu expected to continue their progress.

But unless the strikers show they can score regularly in MLS, this team will be playing a lot of scoreless draws and 1-0 road losses. You would think that the team’s 20-year-old starting goalkeeper would be the biggest question mark, but he’s not. (Though he certainly has to prove himself over the course of the season.) For two years, most of the goals and assists came from one man, Sebastien Le Toux, and he now plays for Vancouver. Danny Mwanga has to step up, and so do his compatriots. If they do, this could be a very good team that finishes as high as second in the conference. If they don’t, Union fans are in for a long and potentially boring season as they watch game after game without goals.

8) Columbus Crew

Columbus could have a really good midfield with newly signed Chilean international Milosvan Mirosevic in a key central role, flanked by Eddie Gaven and Rutgers product Dilly Duka and backed by Tony Tchani. But outside of center back Chad Marshall and goalkeeper Will Hesmer, Columbus looks thoroughly ordinary and boring, a team still rebuilding after a few years atop the conference. Hesmer is starting the season injured as well. Too bad.

Union matchup: In the past, Columbus matched up well with the Union because of their huge size at center back, but Marshall’s new partner, Carlos Mendes, doesn’t have the same presence, despite being underrated while with the Red Bulls.

9) New England

Benny Feilhaber is primed to shine this year. He’s in a position where he’ll be deployed as a traditional No. 10, and with Shalrie Joseph and Clyde Simms set to sit behind him as holding midfielders, it should free him to lead New England’s attack. Rookie Kelyn Rowe has impressed in preseason with his technique as an outside midfielder, and the speedy Sainey Nyassi mans the other side. This group has the potential to be very, very good.

The major problem is that the team doesn’t appear to have a forward capable of scoring 10 goals, with Once Caldas striker Jose Moreno backing out of a contract last minute. If they can acquire a solid goal-scorer, Columbus can do some interesting things, but with the club remaining an afterthought for owner Robert Kraft, don’t expect much. Goalkeeper Matt Reis is often hurt, and the defense is ordinary. The team’s performance will be too.

Philly ties: UPDATE: Jeremiah White just signed Friday with New England. If the Haverford-schooled winger still had the juice he did in Denmark after going several months between teams, this could be one of the league’s best midfields and result in a better finish for New England.

Union matchup: The Union match up well with New England. Their quick fullbacks should be able to contain Rowe, and the Union’s abundance of good defensive midfielders should neutralize the Feilhaber-Joseph partnership. With the Revolution lacking top striker talent, Sheanon Williams will be freed up for even more runs.

10) Montreal

Montreal’s most well-known player may be the one they just let go, Brian Ching. With that fiasco out of the way, they can now focus on soccer, but the talent pool looks pretty thin in places. Center back Nelson Rivas already injured and there’s talk that coach Jesse Marsch must turn to career left back Tyson Wahl to man the middle in his place. Newly signed Matteo Ferrari, a former Italy international, only joined up a week ago, and Union fans who remember 2010 can attest to the value of center back chemistry. Right back Zarek Valentin has promise, and journeyman Josh Gardner played well last season after being converted to the left. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts may be one of the league’s best backstops, but if he faces machine gun fire in goal because the back line is porous, there’s only so much he can do.

Further up field, the team lacks many attacking options outside forward Justin Braun. Top draft pick Andrew Wenger is finishing school at Duke and isn’t expected to join the club full-time till after he graduates. The midfield has some talent, led by Quebec native Patrice Bernier, who spent much of his career in Europe, and former Kansas City stalwart Davy Arnaud. However, most of Montreal’s midfielders have either been maddeningly inconsistent (Justin Mapp, Sanna Nyassi) or have yet to prove they’ll make good on their youthful promise (Collen Warner, Bryan Arguez). The acquisitions of Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle from Seattle help, but this team has a lot of gelling to do.

Philly ties: Zarek Valentin and Andrew Wenger both hail from the Lancaster County area, and Justin Mapp played in Philadelphia the last two years.

Union matchup: Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf have shown in the past they can shut down Braun by bodying him up and pushing him out. Sheanon Williams can outrun Josh Gardner any day of the week. Montreal lacks a strong attack, which should free up the Union’s fullbacks to attack more. If Rivas is hurt, Montreal may have trouble defending strong forwards like Lionard Pajoy and Danny Mwanga.


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