Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Handicapping the MLS offseason: The Eastern Conference, Part I

The Eastern Conference took some guff in 2011. Some rightfully earned, some not. The most egregious perpetrator of the conference's poor rep, however, dragged everyone else down, and that was New York. The Red Bulls were supposed to be LA's counterweight in the East, a team the Galaxy were supposedly going to eye up until the final. That didn't happen. The East didn't have an elite team, or anything close to it, and New York only qualified as the last team in before being dispatched by those very Galaxy a round later.

Elsewhere, the league scuffled through 2011 as a faceless entity to the country at large. Columbus became one of the most nameless playoff teams in league history, SKC played the first half of the year on the road, the Freddy Adu reclamation project barely registered as a blip on the national sports consciousness… all these things contributed to make the East one big jumbled blur. So let's take a look at what these 10 sides need to balance it out again. And in a league like MLS, parity is always just around the bend.

Teal Bunbury is already SKC's future. Is he America's, too?
Sporting Kansas City
How they finished: 13-9-12; 1st in the East; conference finalists
Where they're good: Kansas City's woeful, city-hopping start to 2011 concealed a very fundamental truth about Peter Vermes' bunch: there is a ton (and I mean a ton) of attacking talent here. The front line of the 4-3-3 might as well be a brick wall with quick legs. Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong, Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury are all big and fast, and all are 27 or younger. If KC has the cap sense to not overextend and the front office to continually attract players with any kind of defensive sense, those three will be ripping the guts out of defenses for years. KC was the beneficiary of the San Jose circus this offseason, poaching Bobby Convey and tossing another player a life raft/get out of jail free card. Convey can defend, but he'll most likely slot into the midfield since Omar Bravo is now with Cruz Azul and the back is so loaded. Meanwhile, defenders Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin and Chance Myers were all in the top 30 of the Castrol Index through the regular season. With Graham Zusi holding court in midfield, there are not many weaknesses here. It would be a surprise if, with a full season at the StrongBox, this crew didn't repeat as Eastern Conference champs.

What they need: There's not a lot. SKC would benefit from some attacking depth, although the biggest need this offseason is probably the creative playmaker role Bravo occupied last season. Even Bravo's departure, which is an obvious drawback on the surface, is apparently tied to some beneficial monetary qualifiers that could sweeten the situation down the road. I have no idea what those could be since the league doesn't talk turkey on deals, but we'll have to take Vermes at his word. Meanwhile, this creates an obvious need in supply. Zusi is still here, whipping in crosses and set pieces, but he lacks some of the creative punch Bravo brought, and that could be a weak area teams lean on in 2012. I dare say that no matter who SKC fills into that spot next season, he won't be of Bravo's quality. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. That said, SKC has the quality to shift around some pieces and not make this move sting too much, especially since Vermes' sly post-move quotes make it seem like he really knew what he was doing. But it shouldn't be underestimated.

Degree of difficulty rating: 3

Houston Dynamo
How they finished: 12-9-13; 2nd in the East; MLS Cup runners-up
Where they're good: I'm still not quite sure how they did it, but Houston can call themselves Eastern Conference champs… again. And really, they weren't that far away from taking LA to extra time in the final, where all bets are summarily nixed. I can say all I want about the tactical know-how Dom Kinnear possesses, but there's no coaching a left foot like Brad Davis, who would've won the MVP award if voters took into account the team success tied to that of the individual. If nobody had quite the singular impact on his team that Chris Wondolowski did in the numbers category, then nobody carried his team further than Davis. Including DeRo. Davis did what David Beckham did, did it better than Beckham did, and he did it with a significantly less talented supporting cast (Adam Moffat vs. Landon Donovan/Robbie Keane vs. Brian Ching? Er, right). So it's a shame that he didn't get to outshine the Englishman in the final all because of a balky hamstring. Houston got a break-out year from Will Bruin, who probably only lost the rookie of the year award to Sapong because he missed a chunk of the season with injury. Otherwise, there is some youth to be excited about here. Kofi Sarkodie, Alex Dixon and Josue Soto could all very well have bright futures.

What they need: It's been a strange offseason in Houston. Brian Ching, the face of the franchise, told Montreal he would sooner retire than suit up as an Impact player, and they went out and drafted him anyway. Then Carlo Costly had his option declined, and all the while Dynamo brass have largely stayed pat in lieu of any big splashes. You wonder what they're waiting for with the first year in new digs coming next season. Houston came on strong at the end of the year and through the playoffs, but their goal differential was still a pretty lousy +4, and they couldn't win on the road to save their lives until it mattered. Keep in mind, there were two teams (Chicago, DC) that scored more goals than Houston during the regular season yet didn't make the playoffs. And while Ching was an injury waiting to happen, totally removing him from the equation won't create goals either. Bruin will have a massive load on his shoulders in 2012, which means the Dynamo could definitely use some goal-scoring threats. Poachers, long distance shot-takers, whatever. Of course, the details never seem to matter much in Houston. The results seem to follow regardless.

Degree of difficulty rating: 5

Philadelphia Union
How they finished: 10-8-15; 3rd in the East; conference semifinalists
Where they're good: This was the year of the newcomer for the Union, and not just because they themselves banished bad thoughts of a slow expansion year in 2010. Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, defender Carlos Valdez and midfielder Brian Carroll had instrumental roles in dragging the Union into contention in the East. All three are defensive-minded, so it should come as no surprise that the Union were one of the league's best on the back end. Peter Nowak has that to thank for Philly's sudden emergence as a power player on the hotly contested I-95 corridor. Sebastien Le Toux showed those glimpses of genius that he's known for up top, spraying in goals late in the season like they were going out of style. Freddy Adu had a strange season, but the talent is there for a breakout soon. Adu provided a window into his abilities until it snapped shut when a back injury flared up. Philly can be dangerous if Adu ever comes around and plays to his Gold Cup 2011 standard consistently.

What they need: Le Toux had a nice season, but the numbers are a bit misleading. He bagged almost all of his 11 goals in the second half of the season, and even most of those came in the final third still. Philly could've been a much different team if he'd have come around sooner. It's no secret that Nowak is searching for some depth for the back line, which is strong but painfully short on numbers. Nowak has also talked about providing depth and competition for Le Toux and Danny Mwanga up top. Carlos Ruiz left during the season, and he was never really replaced. Making the assumption that Mwanga will continue his health struggles, I don't see a real strike partner for Le Toux on the roster right now. So aside from finding an actual fullback so they can move Gabriel Farfan back into the midfield, getting some boys who can find the net will be paramount. I'd expect Nowak to look there first when the SuperDraft rolls around. 

Degree of difficulty rating: 5

Columbus Crew
How they finished: 13-13-8; 4th in the East; wild card qualifiers
Where they're good: I dare say that nobody did more with less than Columbus. I say this not to drag down the Crew but rather to laud the job done reasonably well by a group without an all-star and with the worst fan support in the league. Forward Emilio Renteria was undoubtedly the pleasant surprise of the season. He scored eight times in 18 appearances and gave a moribund and, frankly, a boring offense some pep. The Crew were ready to be put out to pasture by the time Eddie Gaven returned from a leg injury in mid-October, but his comparatively steady play in midfield provided a splint for the shattering Crew and allowed them to limp into the postseason. Chad Marshall was tasked with organizing a back line with three new starters. No easy task, especially when you consider he wasn't getting a ton of help from his advanced lines. But he turned in a solid year and will be the backbone for Columbus going forward. It's no secret that Columbus was the beneficiary of a weakened conference. They wouldn't have made the playoffs in the West with their point total, but aye, that's not the point, is it?

What they need: The defense wasn't as leaky as many made it out to be in 2011, but aside from Marshall, it's a forgettable group. Any three of those positions could stand an upgrade in the offseason. I mentioned earlier Columbus' boring attack. That should change in 2012, but it will take somebody from outside the locker room at present. The Crew may not be the worst team in the East, or anywhere close to it, but that won't matter for fan support if you continue churning out no-namers. Crew brass practically had to pay fans to show up last season, partly because the product wasn't stupendous, but mostly because there isn't a franchise player to speak of. Where's the excitement here? Emilio Renteria? Not only would an attacking midfielder with a name address the fan issue, it also fills a sucking void on the depth chart. This isn't easy, but if Schelotto came, so will others.

Degree of difficulty rating: 6

New York Red Bulls
How they finished: 10-8-16; 5th in the East; conference semifinalists
Where they're good: It's so easy to jump right at New York with how badly Hans Backe and this group failed in 2011 that it's just as easy to overlook where this team succeeded. But there were some things to take away. Thierry Henry confirmed that he is, in my mind anyway, the best player in league history. His class is so phenomenally head and shoulders above the defending talent the league has, it's a wonder he's supposedly "over the hill" in European parlance. Luke Rodgers became a sort of flashpoint for haughty English MLS-bashers, giving them a chance to scoff condescendingly and comment how he couldn't hack it in the country's higher levels. But this is an unfair characterization of the striker, who, when healthy, is a bullish goal-getter who can compete with a league that prides itself on being big and brutish. His year was so strong, in fact, that Juan Agudelo played frustratingly little. The USMNT fan in me wants to put the boot to Backe's backside, but he's still young. I don't see it with Tim Ream. I thought he had a mediocre year, nothing fantastic. I tend to grade him on a higher scale since his ceiling was once thought to be so high, but after a pretty disappointing 2011 in more ways than one, I think we'll see Ream fade into the background as a solid but unspectacular role player. But in MLS, he's still got a role to play.

What they need: I'm not pulling any punches with New York today. Taking everything into consideration - hype, talent, Henry - this was the biggest tank job in MLS history. Yes, New York won a playoff game (over a run-ragged Dallas side) but the fact that a small contingent of Red Bulls fans were taking that as some solace is a sad statement on how far expectations plummeted from March to October. Rafa Marquez stumbled through a poor season on the field and an embarrassing one in the locker room, and Backe moved him up to midfield to mitigate the problem. The only issue: Marquez is not a midfielder. Backe justifies the move by saying Stephen Keel worked better as a partner with Tim Ream. Fine. Why, then, must Marquez be on the field at all, shoehorned into an uncomfortable position where he's clearly ill-suited? Ah yes, right, politics. That's why this team failed so badly and really the only thing they need in any supply is a healthier attitude. Why don't I have too much faith in this team being much better in 2012? I'll let the Backe-man close us out with this zinger regarding New York's off-season strategy. 
"It’s probably a lot of rumors, we haven’t decided which direction we’re going."
Ah yes. Right.

Degree of difficulty rating: N/A (The only un-rateable team on the list. It's a split decision; call it a 2 with what they've got, but nobody had such a fractured locker room in 2011, making a proper rating impossible by someone with no knowledge of the current dynamics. So it's probably closer to a 7 or 8, but I'll just leave it somewhere nebulous for now).

Where we've been

Where we're going 
- The Eastern Conference, Part II

- Will Parchman


Jon Alan Schmidt said...

SKC President Robb Heinemann tweeted last month that he had signed a Spanish DP and would be making the announcement in January. Most fans expect him to be an attacking midfielder to provide the kind of offensive creativity that you mentioned. Hopefully the deal with Cruz Azul was such that SKC is now in good position to find (and fund) a second DP, presumably a forward to be a more direct replacement for Bravo.

Will Parchman said...

Should be interesting to see who this mystery hire is. Even if he isn't Bravo's quality, I don't see that as a death sentence for SKC's hopes at winning the East. But I do think New York is worth keeping an eye on. I may just be naive, but I'm continually waiting for their talent to wake up and, if not claim the East, than finally challenge for it year-in and year-out.

Jon Alan Schmidt said...

Agreed on all points.

tom said...

"I tend to grade him on a higher scale since his ceiling was once thought to be so high, but after a pretty disappointing 2011 in more ways than one, I think we'll see Ream fade into the background as a solid but unspectacular role player. But in MLS, he's still got a role to play."

Put that one on the bulletin board under your credibility, Will. Since you've got precious little to say about what the Red Bulls need to do in the offseason, chalk it all up to a one-time snap judgement now set in fast drying concrete. Merry Christmas.