How the Eastern Conference stacks up so far

Photo: Michael Long

Four games into the MLS season, Philadelphia Union sit in fifth place. If the season ended today, they would make the playoffs.

But does that truly tell the tale of the tape? Of course not.

So how are these teams really faring? What are they missing? What do they need? And how does Philadelphia fit into it all?

PSP has actually watched each of these teams play this year (unlike many commentators who pretend they have but really only parrot what they hear from others), so it’s time to flap some jaws a bit and add context to the Union’s start now that we’re through a whopping 11 percent of the MLS season. Sure, it’s early, but why not? Here’s a look at each team.

1. Montreal Impact

Performance so far: Good defense. Conservative game plan. Opportunistic counterattacking. Great runs from Marco di Vaio. This is a decent team that plays the Italian way: i.e. boring patient, cheating clever, and opportunistic. But if your entire strategy is to sit deep and wait for your opponents to make a mistake, what happens if not enough mistakes happen? Kansas City exposes you.

Missing piece(s): Youth. Alessandro Nesta is already hurt. Sanna Nyassi and Andrew Wenger need to crack the starting lineup.

Outlook: They’ll fall to mid-table. They’re too old, too fragile, and too one-dimensional. Then again, they’re so smart and experienced that they could continue to steal points all season if they stay healthy.

2. Houston Dynamo

Performance so far: Best team in the conference. If they hadn’t been cheated out of a win against Dallas, they would be undefeated.

Missing piece(s): None. Giles Barnes was it. Now he’s the second scorer they needed behind Will Bruin. Imagine if Omar Cummings can return to form.

Outlook: If they stay healthy, they win the conference. They have quality starters at every position, great coaching, and good depth.

3. Sporting Kansas City

Performance so far: Uneven. Kansas City is still meshing after turning over most of their midfield. Benny Feilhaber’s two-assist performance Saturday against Montreal is a good sign.

Missing piece(s): A defensive midfield destroyer. Ori Rosell doesn’t blow you up, but he moves the ball so well. Paulo Nagamura has to be the guy, or KC needs an upgrade.

Outlook: They may have just hit their stride against Montreal, or it could be part of the up-down trend you expect from teams fitting together so many new attacking parts. Either way, they’re the second best team in the conference.

4. Columbus Crew

Performance so far: Not bad, but they’ve been lucky with their schedule. They got Chivas USA before Chelis figured out a proper starting 11, San Jose with major injury problems, and D.C. United trying a new formation.

Missing piece(s): Upgrades at left back and center midfield. New acquisition Agustin Viana looks as underwhelming as Miroslav Mirosevic did in center midfield last year, and Danny O’Rourke is ordinary next to him. Left back Tyson Wahl is a mediocre journeyman.

Outlook: Unless they find someone better to link to Federico Higuain in the attack, it’s mid-table for Columbus.

5. Philadelphia Union

Performance so far: Two ugly wins against lesser teams and two losses against better teams. Utterly lacking in midfield fluidity. The forwards can’t get the ball in decent positions until Antoine Hoppenot and a 4-3-3 show up after the 60th minute. Most of their back line has been good, but goalkeeper Zac MacMath has stopped just half the shots he has faced.

Missing piece(s): Left back, goalkeeper, fixing the midfield jigsaw puzzle. Raymon Gaddis has hurt the Union at left back because of his inability to go left or adequately mark attackers in the box. A healthy Gabriel Farfan’s return to left back or left midfield should help. The Union certainly hope new loanee Kleberson improves something in midfield. In the back, MacMath often looks like a talent not yet confident enough to backstop a winning team.

Outlook: Many pieces are already there, but until manager John Hackworth finds a way to deploy them so that they meet their (perceived) potential, the Union will remain a middling team regularly parking the bus to steal points.

6. New York Red Bulls

Performance so far: New York is a few Roy Miller mental collapses away from a winning record. They’ve played better than the standings show.

Missing piece(s): Center back. Markus Holgersson is not starting quality.

Outlook: This is a good team waiting to happen. Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander look surprisingly good on the flanks. If they can find a good center back to shore up the base, they could make a run at Houston. But right now, they have a huge hole on the defense’s left side. If Heath Pearce plays left back, Holgersson is the weak link. If Pearce plays center back, the weak link is Roy Miller at left back. They should be licking their lips over Bakary Soumare’s availability.

7. Toronto FC

Performance so far: Surprisingly good. Kevin Payne and Ryan Nelsen righted the ship awfully fast with some late imports. Danny Califf has shored up central defense with Darren O’Dea. Last minute British acquisitions John Bostock and Robert Earnshaw are straight quality, and Hogan Ephraim isn’t bad either. The continued emergence of Jonathan Osorio and Luis Silva would give them good supplemental threats in attack.

Missing piece(s): Left back, and the right central attack combination. Regular starting left back Ashtone Morgan went to the bench Saturday, Richard Ecklersley slid over from right to left back, and Eckersley’s replacement, Darel Russel, got burned for two goals that cost Toronto a win over Los Angeles. In central midfield, if Osorio or Silva can earn and flourish in a starting spot next to (or in front of) Terry Dunfield, this team could go places.

Outlook: They’ve been the fourth or fifth best team in the conference so far. Saturday’s match against Los Angeles was so worth watching.

8. D.C. United

Performance so far: Mediocre. Their defense has been porous, and only one MLS goalkeeper has faced more shots than Bill Hamid (24). Fortunately, Hamid has been a goalkeeping highlight reel.

Missing piece(s): A good second holding midfielder next to Perry Kitchen and a better back line overall. It was just a matter of time before John Thorrington got hurt.

Outlook: Not good. Rafael could improve their situation at striker, but he’s just 20 and likely to be inconsistent. Carlos Ruiz is … Carlos Ruiz. And Lio Pajoy is … Lio Pajoy. Union fans should have a unique understanding of United’s problems up top. Now they’ve lost Nick DeLeon to injury for six weeks. If they can’t score or limit shots on goal, their prospects aren’t good.

9. New England Revolution

Performance so far: New England looked so good in their opening win against Chicago, but now everyone realizes how bad Chicago is. Overall, they’ve been ordinary, but bad weather has marred half their games (three goals total for all teams in their four matches).

Missing piece(s): A consistent Kelyn Rowe, a healthy Kalifa Cisse, a productive Juan Toja. Rowe is so creative but can’t seem to lock down a starting spot. Cisse has missed the last three games after impressing against Chicago. Toja shows signs of his quality, but the final product hasn’t been there yet.

Outlook: They could actually be good if Cisse, Toja and Rowe can produce at the level many think they can.

10. Chicago Fire

Performance so far: Terrible. Back line injuries and Sean Johnson’s international duty have decimated the back five. Bad luck and great opposition finishing has made things worse.

Missing piece(s): Healthy regulars. Arne Friedrich and Logan Pause were expected to start on the defense’s right side. Neither has played this season due to injury.

Outlook: Chicago won’t be this bad once they’re healthy.



  1. I disagree that most of our backline “has been good.” Gaddis is a disaster and Williams has not been himself. You also want to point out MacMaths save % but if we do that lets also pin one of those goals squarely on the CBs for being abused by Henry. It’s not fair that a goal can count negatively towards the GK but not the two players who were clearly at fault.

    • The Black Hand says:

      The back line, is the only reason that we have 6 points. Our outside backs have been pressured but a lot of that has to do with our non-existant midfield, not being able to break down plays. That does not let Williams and Gaddis off the hook completely, but it should give them a little defense to critics.

      Thierry Henry has made an illustrious career out of making CB look bad, like he did on the winning goal. The dude is just THAT good, still. Overall, our CB’s have been very, very good.

      MacMath, on the other hand, has been poor. Some bright spots strewn about but, on the whole, he has not been good and deserves all of his criticisms (and then some). We should never be in a position where MacMath HAS to be our goalkeeper. Not fair to the club, the fans or MacMath.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Agreed, re: back line. Well said.

      • I agree, I feel if they can get the midfield sorted the forwards and defense look that much better. But when you have a cluster in positions that cover the majority of the field in between them it’s a recipe for disaster.

  2. Williams is highly overrated in my opinion. Way too hyped up after his first season here, last season he was really poor all season, very inconstant and very easily beaten. Gaddis seems to have an amazing first half and then in the second half swaps himself out with a doppelganger or something because it gets ugly fast.

    Carroll has also been complete trash this season and another player who is just overrated on the team. He’s not a great player, I wouldn’t even say he’s a good player to most MLS standards. He wouldn’t be a starter on just about every single team in the league. Anybody can do his job, sit in the midfield and let the wingbacks go forward.. literally anybody.

    Okugo needs to be pushed to the midfield. He can distribute the ball and it’s his natural position. Offensively and defensively he is better than Carrol. And we have Soumare who is hungry for first team action and may be hard to shop around right now only because he’s injury prone.

    That’s the problem with MLS coaches as compared to world class coaches. If a player has 2 or 3 bad games (below average at least) they would be benched without even second guessing. You don’t need it happen that often in this league really and it’s something I’ve picked up on. We have the depth on this team to make changes and we make all the wrong ones. We don’t address the real issues.

    • Right on, especially regarding Gaddis and Carroll. I don’t think G. Farfan had this many gaffes at LB during his whole tenure playing the position as Gaddis has had this season alone. Lots of talent, but not a left back. I’d put Farfan back for now, and use the soon-to-be-traded Soumare to get a natural one.

      Carroll’s captaincy is a problem that Hackworth won’t admit… it’s keeping him in Okugo’s spot and forced Soumare to the bench (and subsequently out of the club). We’ll never have a midfield capable of good forward distribution with him and Lahoud on the field at the same time. Hopefully Kleberson can be more of a two-way player, since we absolutely need him to be.

      Finally, bench Danny Cruz, permanently. Guy has no business on the field when Keon Daniel, Conor Casey and Roger Torres are riding the bench. Simply mind-blowing.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Good points. I am concerned that Williams may not be as good as he’s been touted. I wouldn’t mind a look at Gaddis on the right, with Williams at left (or Farfan).
      Carroll…don’t even get me started. If one player should be singled out as the greatest contributor, to our possession woes, it would be Carroll. He is a black hole. “Captain” Carroll prevents us from moving forward, in every meaning of the word forward. He is a bench payer.
      As for Hackworth; We have a youth developmental coach, when we need a professional manager. To the Hackworth supporters I ask; What has this guy done to make your club better? I’ll spot you Jeff Parke…

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        Jeff Parke really wanted to come home, regardless of the manager…

      • The Black Hand says:

        Strike that one from the ‘Pro Hackworth’ column. Now the only thing that I can say to Hackworth’s credit is…I got nothin’.

      • He took McInerney off the trading block and put him on the field. There’s that.

  3. Great recap. I wish I’d seen that bit about the Dynamo before I booked my flight to Houston for the July 6 game.

    Any plans on a Western Conference review?

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I’d love to, but I’m not sure I can justify it, considering the purview of this site and the amount of time I have. I don’t follow those clubs as closely, though some are certainly fun to watch. Thanks for the props.

  4. I think Garfan slots back into the LB spot once he’s healthy. Gaddis has the ability to be a good right back, but it’s painfully obvious that he’s not suited to play on the left. This isn’t his fault of course, but something needs to be done. Garfan is at least serviceable at the position.
    In my opinion, the biggest need the Union has had for quite some time is getting a pacey winger on the left. Justin Mapp was the last left winger on the team with speed, but we all know that he preferred to cut inside rather than to push to the endline. I believe outside backs give the team little respect, and as you saw vs. RBNY, they tend to push into the attack way too often. If Ansaldi can at least do one piece of business and get this team a quality left winger, I think this team could make some noise towards the end of the season.

  5. Kenso Josh says:

    I think NY looks like last year- great players, lack of cohesion and leadership.

  6. Kenso Josh says:

    Cahill is a big upgrade in terms of team unity over Marquez, but the fact that Cahill, not coach decides when he plays . . .

  7. I understand people’s criticism of Carroll this year, but I still stand by my opinion that he is still decent and if he was paired with someone else in the middle he would look a lot better. Hopefully kleberson is that person. Gaddis is serviceable at LB( would have liked to see the team bring in a real LB than continue to try and convert players there, but if any one is honest even teams like man. United are wondering who is going to replace Evra at LB when he retires, it’s a problem position for every one) but given that’s who we have I would at least like to see sme one over there helping him, lahoud and an out of position right footed Marfan doesn’t count( I’m not even a fan of Keon because he wants to play in the center) we have a whole slew of midfield problems, the back line I can deal with and the forwards I believe will start scoring if the middle can get sorted. That’s a lot of ifs, but then again I root for the Cubs as well, so I’m an optimist.

  8. LB question — Who was the better Union LB: Garfan or Jordan Harvey?

  9. I love the censorship by PSP. Was I offensive in my post? I really don’t think so at all.

    For a page that is built on opinion of their writers, you really don’t appreciate anybody else inputting theirs.

    • I could be mistaken but I posted a reply and it has since been removed it appears… or maybe I didn’t post it at all? If so then I am sorry for that -_-

      • Dan Walsh says:

        You’re mistaken, as far as I can see. I didn’t delete any comment of yours, and I don’t see any comment of yours that anyone else from PSP deleted either. I see a long comment from you above about Williams being overrated.

        As an aside, plenty of readers can tell you just how open we are to dissenting views. Read through the site, and you can see for yourself.

  10. Scottymac says:

    I think the U are regressing to their predicted finish. I think preseason you had them 6th. I felt they were more the 7-8 spot but the addition of Kleberson makes me dream that all the glories of a 5th place finish could be possible. Any player that can force off one of Cruz, Daniel or Lahoud (or any MLS caliber mid really) is ok with me.

    The Impact matches I’ve seen, old or not, they are a much more complete team than the U-23s we have. Don’t be surprised when we play for a draw at home and drop a 2-nil road result.

    If we played a healthy SKC or COL team, we could be 0-4/1-3. We’ll know by mid-May what impact our new Brazilian can make on the drive for five (drifth for fifth didn’t work).

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