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MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Part Deux

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In this two-part series, Sven87 breaks down TFC's closest competition. We'll look at how each of these teams performed in 2014, what they've done in the off-season, who to look out for, and what lies ahead.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Click here for part 1 of the Eastern Conference Preview

New York City FC

2014 performance:

City had a fantastic 2014 season, tallying 86 points and winning the lea…. oh wait, my bad! For a second there I mistook NYCFC for the team their ownership REALLY cares about. 2015 will, of course, be the first year of play for this expansion franchise.

Notable offseason moves:

Let’s start with the DPs. New York’s star player, David Villa, is but 33 years young. While the Spanish striker may appear to be getting long in the tooth on paper, he still managed to convert 13 goals in 36 matches with Athletico Madrid last season. While he may see a slow start to this campaign, many will be shocked if Villa doesn’t hit double-digits in goals by early October. Joining Villa in NYC midway through the 2015 season COULD be Frank "the Titanic" Lampard (nicknamed for his ability to make it from England to New York City). If Lampard does in fact arrive this season, the ‘adjustment period’ phase may not be as kind to the English central midfielder, as he won’t have the luxury of pre-season training and friendlies to familiarize himself with both his teammates and the league as a whole.

The performance of NYCFC’s midfield will largely be determined by the contributions of USMNT regular Mix Diskerud and former RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy. With Jason Kreis taking the reigns of the expansion side, it came as no surprise when he plucked Grabavoy to provide some much-needed stability to the center of the pitch. With RSL, Grabavoy was often slotted into one of the outside positions in the diamond formation, and considering he factored into 33 matches last season, Kreis evidently thinks highly of the expansion draft pick. Mix Diskerud, on the other hand, has often been a difficult piece to fit into formational puzzles (just ask Jurgen). Looking at NYC’s pre-season play, it seems likely that Kreis will push Diskerud further up-field, and judging by the absolutely stunning goal he converted against the Charleston Battery, he could provide some much needed scoring and playmaking support for David Villa on the attacking end.

Another player picked up in the expansion draft from Kreis’ former side was left back Chris Wingert. Wingert played in 30 games for RSL last season, and his solid defensive play along with the occasional effective cross (3 assists in 2014) will be comforting for both NYC keeper (former Galaxy starter and RSL back-up) Josh Saunders and the club’s supporters. Notable names joining Wingert in the backline include seasoned MLS veteran Jason Hernandez,young center back (and Manchester City-loaned) Shay Facey, and fomer Montreal Impact starter-turned-depth defender Jeb Brovsky.

Villa won’t be alone up front- there are a variety of options that Kreis can choose from to complement the team’s star player. Adam Nemec, brought in from the second tier of Bundesliga, and superdraft pick Khiry Shelton, are two of several secondary striker options that Kreis will likely call on throughout the season.

Key player:

Mix Diskerud. Everyone expects David Villa to be able to find the back of the net if he’s provided with half-decent service- and most of that service will come from Mix. Of course, how far back Kreis allows Mix to go to retrieve the ball has yet to be determined- but if it does find its way onto his foot, more often than not Mix better be able to either beat the opposition keeper or find the team’s only (currently signed) designated player.

Storyline/Prediction for 2015

Many are claiming that New York City FC will be signing another DP over the next couple of months. Some rumors have gone a step further, linking the club to Xavi. Whether or not Xavi does in fact get signed and join the club in the summer (along with… likely… Frank Lampard), most would argue that NYC is lacking the depth, and quite frankly the defence, to contend in their inaugural season. If New York even comes close to a playoff spot, it will be based on quite a few players over-performing, and their stars (Villa and Mix in particular) staying healthy throughout the entire season.

TFC links-

Well, he was there… and then he was gone. Little Danny Lovitz will still be buzzing up and down the side of the pitch in Toronto FC red, thanks to some crafty expansion draft maneuvering by Timmy B and the good people over in the city that never sleeps.

New York Red Bulls (of New Jersey)

2014 performance:

The New York Red Bulls had a mediocre 2014 season (by NYRB standards). Their 4th place finish left them just 2 points shy of Columbus, but only one ahead of Sporting Kansas City- although truth be told, all 5 Eastern Conference playoff teams were comfortably ahead of the 6th place Union. The Red Bulls success in 2014 was due in large part to Thierry Henry’s wonderfully crafted swan song, with the Frenchman tallying 10 goals and 14 assists in his final season. It could be argued that Bradley Wright-Phillips’ record-tying 27 goal output was also a contributing factor- however many would agree that I’ve already covered BWP’s exploits by remarking on Henry’s assist total in 2014. The only way Henry’s final campaign could have been deemed more impressive would have been a victory over the Revolution in the Eastern Conference finals- alas, twas not meant to be, as New England prevailed 4-3 on aggregate to move on to the MLS Cup Final.

Notable offseason moves:

The Red Bulls were a busy team this off-season, shipping out half their roster (15 players) and bringing in just one less player than they got rid of. Among the departed were designated players Thierry Henry (retirement) and Tim Cahill (mutual termination- gone to China to cash in), as well as former TFC starters Richard Eckersley and Bobby Convey, who unsurprisingly both had their options waived by the club. The Red Bulls also traded central defender Jamison Olave to his former club, Real Salt Lake, in exchange for some of that funny money- NYRB management claimed that the Colombian defender who had played 57 games for them over 2 seasons (and scored 4 goals) had to be off-loaded due to salary cap restrictions. One final departing Red Bull, that came as a surprise to many, was coach Mike Petke. The team had appeared to perform decently well under Petke, and while much of that can likely be attributed to Thierry Henry’s influence, many supporters were shocked to see Jesse "Marsch" right in and take charge of the squad just after the ringing in of the new year.

The Red Bulls brought in many new names over the off-season, in an effort to revamp the club and prevent their next-door neghbours, newcomers NYCFC, from stealing their thunder. The new faces include MLS fringe-starter Sal Zizzo (midfielder), troublemaking attacking midfielder Felipe Martins from the Impact, and trusty defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste, whose 2014 season was cut short due to a sports hernia injury. The Red Bulls also picked up perhaps the most MLS-ready superdraft pick in midfielder Leo Stolz from UCLA. The team’s two most intriguing additions, however, would have to be Ronald Zubar and Sacha Kljestan. 29-year old Zubar is a defender who has played in France’s top flight and joins the team from Ligue 2 club AC Ajaccio. Kljestan, an American international, was brought in from Anderlecht in Belgium, and should provide some much-needed support for the Red Bulls attackers (namely Bradley Wright-Phillips). After all, in his best MLS season, Kljestan registered four goals and 13 assists in 25 matches with former MLS side (rest in peace) Chivas USA.

Key player:

As important as Kljestan will be, few doubt the midfielder’s skill any more than they question Bradley Wright Phillips’ ability to keep up his scoring pace without Thierry Henry’s provisions. For that reason, Wright-Phillips is the key player for the New York Red Bulls. If he proves doubters wrong and still manages to score 20+ goals in 2015, his newfound designated player status will have truly been earned, and fans & pundits alike across the league may finally give the Englishman the credit he (may) be due.

Storyline/Prediction for 2015

Losing Thierry Henry and Richard Eckersley (kidding) would be a devastating blow to any MLS side. Compounding those losses with Tim Cahill’s departure may simply prove too crippling for the Red Bulls to get back into playoff contention. Furthermore, should Wright-Phillips miss any games due to injury or suspension, it remains to be seen who else will be able to find the back of the net for the Energy Drinks. Then again, the club may prove me wrong- Kljestan may take matters into his own hands, BWP may stay healthy and prove that his 2014 season was no fluke, and Felipe may continue to piss off opponents with both his mannerisms and his skill… but unless Robles literally steals a few matches for this side, it looks like 2015 may just be a rare difficult season for the New York Red Bulls

TFC links-

Bobby Convey, to be fair, has always been a decent option on the wing… for a last-place team. The poor guy never really caught on in New (Jersey) York, and they waved goodbye to him at last season’s close. And as for Ecks… well, "no ordinary option" was ultimately declined.

Orlando City SC

2014 performance:

Orlando dominated USLPRO in 2014, accumulating 19 wins, 5 draws and only 4 losses to finish the season in first place. They were upset in the league quarterfinals by the Harrisburg City Islanders… but honestly, that’s really not all that relevant to their 2015 preview. It should be noted, however, that Orlando midfielder Kevin Molina led USLPRO in both goals and assists in 2014. He has now scooped up the USL MVP award in two of the last three seasons.

Notable offseason moves:

Orlando made efforts to reinforce their USL side and turn it into a true MLS squad… and they seemed to have done quite well. Their starting eleven for matchday 1 has few weaknesses, and in an effort to save myself time and energy, here are the quick and dirty highlights-

DP striker Bryan Rochez, a phenomenal young (19 year old) Honduran international who also happens to be a lethal finisher. Kaka, first captain in (MLS) team history, slotting in behind him. USLPRO MVP Molino lining up beside Kaka. Two young, dynamic holding midfielders anchoring the club, in Colombian U21 international Cristian Higuita and 23 year old Amobi Okugo (who played a full season for Philadelphia in 2014).

The defense doesn’t have any significant weaknesses either- Aurelien Collin will lead (likely with his knees) a back 4 that includes an Irish international (Sean St. Ledger), an American international (Brek Shea), and 19-year old Rafael Ramos, who spent time developing in Benfica’s club system before making his way across the pond. Ramos and St. Ledger may be unproven in MLS, but with the former’s pace and the latter’s experience, not to mention MLS legendary keeper Donovan Ricketts guarding the goal behind them, Orlando’s line-up is really quite impressive- at least for an expansion side.

Key player:

From the previews / predictions that I’ve seen around the league, roughly 30% are calling for an MVP season from Kaka. As both the team captain and the club’s biggest star, the weight of the world- or at least the weight of the city Mickey Mouse calls home, will be on the Brazilian’s shoulders. Brek Shea at defender is another player to watch- how will he adjust to his new role with the club?

Storyline/Prediction for 2015

Orlando have put together a formidable first team, but the talent drops off rather quickly when you take a look at their bench and reserves. Should the injury bug fly clear of OCSC, there’s no reason why this club shouldn’t be in the battle for one of the last two playoff spots come October. If Kaka has the season that many think he’s still capable of, and Rochez rapidly adjusts to MLS play (and of course if Collin can use his Jedi mind tricks to convince referees to keep the cards in their pocket), Orlando could very well find themselves playing long into the winter months.

Philadelphia Union

2014 performance:

Philadelphia finished one spot out of the playoffs in 2014, missing the 5th place cut-off by a full 7 points. The fact that they won just one of their last seven games likely didn’t help their push for a post-season spot (and this was immediately following a three-game winning streak). Ill-timed injuries to key players including Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux all but sealed the Union’s fate toward the end of the season.

Veteran Le Toux led the charge over the course of the campaign for Philadelphia, racking up 12 goals and 7 assists. Casey’s 8 goals were good for second on the Union, and new 2014 addition Andrew Wenger tallied 6 goals himself while contributing 4 assists. DP midfielder Cristian Maidana had a respectable first season in the MLS, setting up 11 goals to lead the side in assists (in only 26 matches). Former Red Maurice Edu, joining the Union from Stoke on a DP contract at the beginning of the season, was a steady presence as a (mostly) deep-lying midfielder and defender, and still managed to factor into 5 Union goals in his 31 appearances.

Notable offseason moves:

Philadelphia kept most of their squad intact, with the majority of their departing players having only played fringe roles in 2014. The only two significant Union members leaving before the start of the 2015 campaign are last season’s starting keeper Zac MacMath (on loan), and defensive midfielder Amobi Okugo. With a wealth of competent keepers available it was no surprise that the Union loaned young MacMath to the Colorado Rapids. Okugo, who played 31 matches for Philadelphia last season, was up for contract renewal, and evidently the 23-year old was demanding too much for the Union’s taste as they sent him to expansion side Orlando City in exchange for allocation funds and a 2016 draft pick.

The Union also refrained from making any significant splash in terms of player acquisitions over the off-season. With Conor Casey only getting slower (if possible) every passing year, the Union decided to bolster their attack with two notable new faces- CJ Sapong from SKC, whose highest tally was 9 goals scored in 2012, and  Fernando Aristeguieta, a 22-year old Venezuelan international on loan from Ligue 1’s Nantes. Philadelphia also brought in Canadian defender Steven Vitoria on loan from Portugal’s Benfica. While Vitoria has turned down the call in the past to play for the Canadian men’s national team, he still has not shut the door completely, going so far as to claim (more recently) that he would be open to the call to don the red jersey.

Key player:

Aristeguieta. For two reasons- 1) it’ll be fun to hear announcers even attempt to pronounce his name, and 2) because he’s a young, flashy striker, who has scored goals in France’s top tier, and may be the Union’s saving grace when Conor Casey suffers some type of crushing leg injury from collapsing under the weight of his own… okay, that’s low, I’ll refrain from finishing (hopefully not a problem for Aristeguieta in 2015).

Storyline/Prediction for 2015

Too many pieces have to fall into exactly the right place(s) for the Union to contend in 2015. That being said, if Maidana continues to adapt to MLS, management find the ideal role for Edu, and Aristeguieta proves to be the clinical striker they need up front, this COULD be a #5 or 6 playoff team come season end. Without adequate depth, however, the Sons of Ben will likely find themselves without a team to cheer for in the 2015 post-season.

TFC links-

Union striker (those words used together are kinda funny) Conor "Butterbean" Casey played a whopping 58 minutes as a Red after TFC brought him over from the Bundesliga. I think that would currently be good for 10th all-time in minutes played for the club. Another former Red, Maurice Edu, fully exploited the fame and recognition that always come with being crowned MLS Rookie of the Year by leaving Toronto FC in 2008 for Rangers. After a moderately successful stint in Scotland, things had dried up somewhat for the American midfielder during his time with Stoke City, and alas he now finds himself back in the land of opportunity, with plenty of chances ahead to haunt his former Toronto employers (okay, technically MLS was his employer, but you get the point).