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Checking in on Toronto FC’s Eastern Conference rivals - part one

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Taking a look at how the Reds’ half of MLS is shaping up, Atlanta through Montreal.

MLS: Conference Semifinals-New York Red Bulls at Montreal Impact Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

With less than a month to go until the start of the 2017 MLS season, teams across the league are getting closer to finalizing their rosters for opening day.

With that in mind, we can start to project what the competition for an Eastern Conference spot in next season’s playoffs will look like. Split into two parts for length’s sake, here are the teams set to battle it out with Toronto FC as they bid to return to the MLS Cup final.

Atlanta United

Soccer: Mexican National Team-Paraguay vs Mexico Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The good: Atlanta has been one of, if not the most aggressive expansion team in MLS history, dropping $10 million on two DPs and bringing in a number of other established players both from within MLS and abroad. Miguel Almiron, a 22-year-old attacking midfielder signed from Lanus in Argentina, could be a star while head coach Gerardo Martino has a wealth of experience at the highest level.

They look reasonably balanced, too. Carlos Carmona will provide protection from midfield for a defence that will include the likes of Michael Parkhurst, Greg Garza, Tyrone Mears and our very own (well, until recently) Mark Bloom.

The bad: There is plenty of hype around Atlanta, but a lot of different things need to come together in a short space of time for them to be successful in their first MLS season.

While they have not neglected the defence in terms of personnel, they still look top heavy and will not get first-choice goalkeeper Brad Guzan in the team until late spring. And it’s not like Martino will just set them up to be solid but unspectacular to get a foothold in the league, either; this is a team that will play a high-risk, high-intensity game from the first whistle with a group of players completely new to each other.

Outlook: They’ve got a shot at fifth or sixth based on their talent level, but would benefit from considering that a great success and dialling down expectations a little.

Chicago Fire

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The good: I like the Nemanja Nikolic signing a lot; rather than just rolling the dice on a player someone in the front office has a hunch on (which is the case with too many MLS imports), Chicago found a guy who has scored goals absolutely everywhere he has been. He may not have played in a top European league but he’s not been beating up defences significantly worse than he will face in MLS, either.

On top of that, Dax McCarty and Juninho dramatically improve and solidify the midfield and add the kind of experience and leadership that could turn the miserable culture that surrounded the club last season around.

The bad: I still don’t know how they’re going to defend. The sum of Chicago’s transfer activity in terms of their back five this winter is the signing of veteran Uruguayan goalkeeper Jorge Bava, and this was a team that shipped 58 last season. Furthermore, while the prospect of a 4-2-3-1 with David Accam and Michael de Leeuw supporting Nikolic is a tasty proposition up front, it could leave McCarty and Juninho overrun.

Outlook: They’ll be better but - unless Nikolic takes the league by storm - might still be on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs are concerned.

Columbus Crew

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The good: Columbus is a year removed from the MLS Cup final and should have Federico Higuain back fit after a 2016 dogged by injury. Ola Kamara, meanwhile, has proven a more than worthy replacement for namesake Kei; the Crew netted 50 goals last season, putting them in the region of all but the top two teams in the conference, and should create plenty once again.

New DP Jonathan Mensah, meanwhile, has no shortage of talent and athleticism and is a major addition at centre-back.

The bad: Mensah has all the raw tools you look for in a defender, but Columbus needs him to lead and spread confidence throughout the entire back line; just doing his job as an individual won’t be enough. At age 26, and having not had the club career he might have hoped for thus far, is he up to the task?

Higuain is a concern, too. He was kept out by persistent setbacks last season rather than just one major injury, which makes you wonder just how fit and fresh he is at age 32.

Outlook: If Mensah delivers, they could bounce straight back into the playoffs.

D.C. United

MLS: Chicago Fire at D.C. United Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The good: Ben Olsen’s team flew into last season’s playoffs and a 4-2 flattening at the hands of the Impact in the knockout round is not enough to write that run off going into the new season. After losing 4-1 to TFC in late July, D.C. completely turned it around.

Patrick Mullins was key to that transformation, netting eight times in 14 games after a midseason trade from New York City. Lloyd Sam had landed in the capital less than two weeks earlier and developed a fruitful connection with the striker from the wing.

The bad: D.C. hasn’t really pushed the envelope and got substantially better so far this winter. They struck upon something that worked in the latter half of 2016, but that doesn’t change the fact that their squad is solid rather than spectacular and they will be reliant on a few players having 34-game seasons of the type that they haven’t produced before in their careers.

Outlook: Something worked last year, but my tendency is to judge what I see on paper first and I’m not convinced. They could drop out of the top six.

Montreal Impact

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Montreal Impact at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The good: Didier Drogba established legendary status in Montreal, but his departure is, quite frankly, a weight off the shoulders of Mauro Biello. The Impact looked far, far better with Matteo Mancosu leading the line last season and would not have been such a threat in the Eastern Conference final with Drogba in their starting XI.

Montreal is just a nicely balanced team now, especially going forward. Marco Donadel sits and dictates play in midfield, Hernan Bernardello goes hunting for the ball and Patrice Bernier connects midfield and attack. Ignacio Piatti, of course, sprinkles the stardust while Mancosu occupies defenders and Dominic Oduro makes runs in behind.

The bad: They could do with a new partner for Laurent Ciman at centre-back after shipping 53 goals last season. Depth is also a problem; if any one of Mancosu, Piatti, Ciman or even Bernardello goes down for a period of time, there is a whole lot of nothing waiting to replace them.

That situation will be eased somewhat, at least, by the arrival of Blerim Dzemaili as a DP in the summer, who is also an important signing due to Bernier’s advancing years.

Outlook: Won’t be a high seed but should be back in the playoffs, where no one will want to take on their counter-attacking machine.

New England through to Philadelphia tomorrow.