Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Handicapping the MLS offseason: The Eastern Conference, Part II

We've reached the end of our MLS offseason rainbow. In lieu of breaking down all 10 East teams, I've decided to forego a look-in on Montreal. We're too close to the expansion draft to be able to break down this team practically, and there's not much to look at until we see how they play together. I will say this: I don't see the Impact escaping a freshman doldrums, but it should be a better year than the one Vancouver experienced in 2011. Not that that's saying a whole heap of a lot.

That's "Mr. Oduro" to you
Chicago Fire
How they finished: 9-9-16; 6th in the East; missed postseason
Where they're good: The Fire were poor for a large stretch of the regular season, but their sojourn to the USOC final brought a touch of redemption to what was otherwise a forgettable year. It would have been infinitely worse had things not perked up around midseason. Fire fans have the Ghanian double to thank for that in Patrick Nyarko and newcomer of the year candidate Dominic Oduro. While Nyarko's nine assists were big, Oduro lashed the Fire on his back over the second half of the season, scoring 12 times to become Chicago's first double-digit goal-getter in seven years. The Fire also tallied the sleeper pick-up of the season's second half in TFC's Dan Gargan (Release the Gargan!!!). He's a halberd-wielding defender with a battle mentality and a gritty approach. Chicago's defense couldn't have been described as solid before, but Gargan applied some spackle and shored things up. Midfielder Sebastian Grazzini provided a spark late with five goals and four assists in 11 games after a July switch, and he'll have fun with a full season to operate. Pavel Pardo was also in that boat, cementing a side that was so much better after the Fourth of July. That should give Chicago fans hope for 2012.

What they need: Before 2010, the Fire were working on a streak in which they had missed the playoffs but once, in 2004. Chicago is now working on a two-year skid without a playoff appearance, though things began trending upward as 2011 drew to a close. So much so that I deigned to choose Chicago as a playoff dark horse, although that ultimately fell flat. The first order of business this offseason should be to shore up Pavel Pardo, who is not under contract for 2012. He's 36, so there's that, but Fire fans had a pleasant experience with the age-challenged Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Pardo is even less of a divisive figure, being named vice-captain by the end of the year. Chicago could also use a partner for Oduro. The Fire struggled to score consistently outside of Oduro's production, and a swoon by him was often deadly in the goal department. And let's not bring up Oduro's past as a player, which is checkered at best. He was tremendous last season but he's not a guy you want to hang the franchise tag on just yet. Chicago was also hurting for a shirt sponsor. After Best Buy yanked their deal, Chicago was left with a solitary "Fire" stripped across the shirt front. Not a terrible thing for aesthetics, but as far as money is concerned, solidifying a buyer will be paramount.

Degree of difficulty rating: 6

DC United
How they finished: 9-13-12; 7th in the East; missed postseason
Where they're good: Do I even need to say it? Voters deemed Dwayne De Rosario the league's most valuable player despite a journeyman season in which he hung his jersey in three different lockers. That DeRo was able to cast aside scuttled plans in Toronto and New York only to scream into the nation's capital with a goal-scoring streak a mile wide was a small miracle in itself. But he did it from the midfield and without playmaker Chris Pontius for a portion of the season. Give the guy his due. He had two hat tricks in the final three months of the season. There should be no question that DeRo held DC from dropping down the ladder even further. The pleasant surprise of the season was rookie Perry Kitchen, who played a team-high 2,726 minutes and was a jack of all trades at the back. The Andy Najar project continues to rumble along. He's as creative as anybody in the league and tallied five goals and six assists, allowing United fans to simultaneously sing and cringe at the prospect of him moving on to a Big Club someday. Brandon McDonald added some punch to a relatively weak defense, and he's a name to keep in mind for 2012.

What they need: This is a team with talent, no doubt, but DC had its problems during the stretch run. Part of that had to do with Ben Olsen's youth revival. The aforementioned Najar and Kitchen joined guys like keeper Bill Hamid and Ethan White as relative professional neophytes being thrown to the wolves. In that sense, there's nothing to be done but wait for the inexorable march of time to do its work. In the meantime, DC could use some reinforcements. Charlie Davies found his way into Olsen's doghouse late last season, starting just two of the final seven regular season matches while DC was still in a playoff fight. DC brass will admit only that negotiations are "ongoing," although its easy to get the sense that wherever Davies lands in 2012, it won't be in DC. It's probably not an ideal fit for either party at this point, either. So getting some attacking help to make up for those lost goals would be a bonus. United went out and signed UEFA CL vet Robbie Russell to patch up the back, but it still could use some work. Santino Quaranta retired and Chris Pontius is working back from a grizzly injury. Pontius was enjoying the best season of his career, so it will be interesting to see how he is post-recovery. The 2012 season could depend on it.

Degree of difficulty rating: 5

Toronto FC
How they finished: 6-13-15; 8th in the East; missed postseason
Where they're good: Statistically speaking, nobody in MLS, Vancouver included, was quite as uniquely bad as Toronto. Nobody was scored on more, and Vancouver only scored one more goal than the paltry 36 Toronto produced to make up a league-worst minus-23 goal differential. But TFC fans are thanking their poutine (they eat that in Toronto too, right?) for Aron Winter. Once thought to be another retread, Winter's 4-3-3 began bearing fruit when the dual DP signing of Danny Koevermans and Torsten Frings sent shockwaves through the league. While Koevermans filled the role of the #9 well (and who better to understand a 4-3-3 coached by a Dutchman than a fellow Dutchman?), Frings' addition allowed Winter to tinker with the lineup and morph it into a 3-4-3 at times with Frings sliding in as a sweeper. As good as Koevermans was, Frings was the pickup of the season. I've always been impressed with the hard-shooting Ryan Johnson, and his addition from RSL added some punch to the lineup for a late-season surge. Of course there was the CCL success. Toronto bounced heavily favored FCD in Dallas to earn a trip to the knockouts and a meeting with LA.

What they need: First and foremost, the team just isn't good enough. Where TFC is good, they are old. Where they are bad, they are miserable. Toronto is not in a position to be picky. Of course with money tied up in a pair of aging DPs this becomes slightly more difficult. The most obvious area of need is the defense, specifically the central defense. Toronto was a spectacularly bad defensive team for most of the year, which wasn't helped by central defenders Dicoy Williams and Adrian Cann both missing the year with injuries. Whether you look at the 6-2 meltdown against Philly (at home), a 5-0 beating by New York or a 4-2 thrashing by SKC, little went right at the back. Winter tried to circumvent the trouble by tinkering with Frings' role in the defense. It only helped to the extent that he can cover up for a few of the back's misgivings but not close to all of them. Andy Iro and Ty Harden are not the answer. It's hard to say who, if anybody, will be able to save this defense in 2012, but TFC will need to improve there drastically for anything to change next season.

Degree of difficulty rating: 8

Oh the hairmanity!
New England Revolution
How they finished: 5-16-13; 9th in the East; missed postseason
Where they're good: This is a relatively hard one. New England is hampered by a disinterested owner, a cavernous stadium that does not fit and a fan base that has largely given up. And we haven't even begun to talk about the on-field product. I don't know why it came as such a shock for some, but Steve Nicol's contract was not renewed, paving the way for native son Jay Heaps to take over. Heaps is an unknown quantity as a coach, so it remains to be seen what tact he'll take. It would almost have to be better by default. The Revs have already done one positive thing and re-signed Shalrie Joseph as a DP. That will help as Benny Feilhaber becomes more comfortable in his role. The Revs are nothing if not stable in goal. Matt Reis holds every goalkeeper record in club history and just re-signed a deal that will presumably take him through the twilight of his career. Teen heartthrob (or something) Diego Fagundez is the future, wonky hair and all. I see little value in placing the onus of a struggling franchise on his slender shoulders, but he can provide some tinder to spark a flame now and then. For a franchise that needs anything to hold onto, that's enough for now.

What they need: A lot. Although the thing that would help the most isn't a player or a coach, but rather a stadium. This has gone around in New England like a dilapidated carrousel, but the Revs need to inject some life into the franchise and a fresh venue is the biggest step. We all know the scenario surrounding Bob Kraft, but ideally they'll be moving soon. In the interim, so much depends on Heaps: how he coaches, the way he interacts with players and how he approaches personnel acquisitions. Until we understand that better, we are working in the dark. Otherwise, some moves have already shaped the Revs' offseason direction. Forward Nate Jaqua and midfielder Clyde Simms were taken in the re-entry draft last week. They have heaps of experience and should add some positives, although neither is a head-turner. Two of the Revs' top three scorers in 2011 were midfielders, so depth up top is crucial. Rajko Lekic and Milton Caraglio, the first DP in Revs history, were the forward pairing of choice late last year and neither is under contract for 2012. Needless to say, tying down both should be an urgent order of business for a franchise looking to catch a ray of sunshine after a gloomy 2011.

Degree of difficulty rating: 9

The full monty:

- Will Parchman


Jay said...

You still giving out difficulty ratings, or did that go out with the wash?

Will Parchman said...

Yes, I am, but I left them off unintentionally. I'll snag those and tack em on here in a minute.

JBS said...

I hate to be the grammar nazi a-hole, but...here I go.

New England's owner is uninterested, not disinterested. And Jay Heaps will try a different tack, not tact.

Will Parchman said...

Fair enough. I don't catch everything.

Jay said...

I think Toronto have an easier time of it next season than you give them credit for. Yeah, the defense is lacking, but once the player acquisition wheel slowed down the whole team started playing better. Hell, they were downright dangerous at the end of the season.

I think if they clean up the back line and work on roster depth they'll be in the playoffs this year, but in part because of the changes to the schedule and playoff qualifications. One, teams in the East only play teams from the West once each, and we've seen for a few years now how dominant the West has been. Two, the top five from each conference go to the playoffs now, so there aren't any West teams sucking away the wildcard spots. Three, and this is important, Toronto will play Montreal and New England at least six times, MAYBE EVEN EIGHT. That's kind of a stupid points bump to be taking.

Will Parchman said...

Could be. But I'd like to see how the wear and tear of a full season settles on the two DPs, who are not exactly spring chickens. It's pretty threadbare behind them, and Frings can only sweep the back's failures under the rug for so long. The talent just isn't there yet. Koevermans and Frings were like a steroid injection to the heart last season. Whether or not that frantic pace carries through the offseason is something I'll be interested to monitor, but I'm not convinced it's a deadbolt lock.

As for the East, you're right. It's a weaker league, especially at the bottom, and the new unbalanced schedule helps TFC as much as anybody. And in that sense, they have a better chance of qualifying for the second season. What that means for their talent and whether or not it helps attract better players, who knows. Most of the West, at full strength, would probably still mop up this team on a good day.

Matt said...

Dude just dropped grammar knowledge on a blog. Blogs have come a long way.

Greg Seltzer said...

We all gramma-tize up in here, not just the staff. Most grammatical readership ever.

Matt said...

You're right. Come to think of it, that's not the first time I've seen some grammar call outs on NSC.

'Tis a civilized bunch, your readers.