2016 MLS Eastern Conference Preview

After breaking down the Western Conference yesterday, we turn our attention to the Eastern Conference. Can MVP and golden boot winner Sebastian Giovinco possibly be better? Can the Red Bulls get their elusive Cup? Can sophomore sides Orlando City and New York City breakthrough with a playoff appearance. Let's take a look at the 10 teams ready to get the compete in the East in 2016.

Toronto FC

It’s hard to believe that on March 6th at Red Bull Arena, Toronto FC will be kicking off their 10th season in MLS. With all the drama surrounding the club, you’d be forgiven if it felt like longer. Fresh off their best season in franchise history in 2015 culminating in their first ever playoff appearance, TFC followed that up with arguably their 3rd consecutive off-season championship. After another renovation to BMO Field finally providing fans with canopy roofing, this retooled iteration of the Reds has fans in Toronto believing the hype, yet again. 

From the Bloody Big Deal saga till the present day, management has always made known the fact that the squad is still very much a work in progress, but that work in progress has reached a pinnacle. The addition of Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, and Will Johnsons to the already improved lineup has filled some of the most glaring holes in the previous lineup. Gone are the days of high priced European signings and loans to stop gap important positions. Veteran, All-Star MLS experience to compliment one of the most potent attacking set up, led by none other than reigning MLS MVP and golden boot winner Sebatian Giovinco, have all the signs of a team looking to finally make its mark on the league. 

With a solid lineup, and an excellent state of the art facility, the success of the team this season rests squarely on the shoulders of head coach Greg Vanney and his ability to bring players up to their potential. With his first full season as manager in the books and still considered relatively inexperienced, in order for the Reds to succeed, players need to remain healthy and, tactically speaking, players need to be used in positions where they are most effective, something coach Vanney has struggled with. 

Should Greg Vanney get it right and the team plays to their potential, there is no reason why a top 3 finish in the Eastern Conference is out of the question. But hopes of a deep playoff run could be spoiled should this summer’s international tournaments, namely UEFA’s European Cup and the Copa America Centenario, steal important players like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco for long stretches. This, their 10 season in MLS, could be the year fans are rewarded for their support in a big way, or it could be just another heartbreak for TFC.

 - Rob Ditta

Montreal Impact

The Montreal Impact reached unprecedented heights during the 2015 season. After reaching the CONCACAF Champions League final, and eventually falling to Club America, Impact management made one of the biggest signings in MLS history; Didier Drogba. Largely on his back and his goal-a-game strike rate, Drogba dragged the Impact to a 3rd place finish, into the playoffs, and nearly in to the Eastern Conference Final. With all the Drogba drama behind Les Bleus for at least this season, all eyes will be on Montreal to see just how far King Didier can take them in 2016. 

The recent additions of Lucas Ontivero and Harry Shipp make the Impact midfield a very crowded place. On loan from Galatasaray, Ontivero will join fellow Argentine Ignacio Piatta to provide another attacking threat that will complement the already potent attack featuring Drogba and Dominic Oduro. However, it may be the addition of Shipp that does the most for Mauro Biello’s side since losing Dilly Duka. 

After establishing himself as an offensive threat over his previous 2 seasons with the Chicago Fire, Shipp’s ability to set up his teammates as well as score goals himself will only add to the potency of Montreal’s offence. 

The defensive core will remain mostly unchanged. MLS Defender of the Year and Francophone Player of the Year Laurent Ciman will continue to lead one of the strongest backlines in the league. In 2015, largely on the back of Ciman’s abilities, Montreal had the second least goals against in the Eastern Conference, which was one of the many factors that vaulted his team to a 3rd place finish. However, Ciman's downside has always been his recklessness. Having been suspended 5 times for second yellow cards and yellow card accumulation, he will have to manage that aspect of his game to provide better support to his teammates. Honourable mention goes to Marco Donadel who finds himself in a similar situation heading into the new season. 

After a strong pre-season showing now in the books, the Impact will certainly like their chances heading into the regular season. Montreal’s success will depend heavily on how well Drogba can produce and whether Ciman can manage the number of cards and suspensions he gets. But, with the amount of fire power and depth at all positions that Coach Biello has at his disposal, Montreal is poised for yet another top 3 finish in the East, and hopefully a deeper push in the playoffs; music to the ears of Impact supporters. 

 - Rob Ditta

Columbus Crew SC

The 2015 MLS Cup runner-up Columbus Crew SC are coming off one of their most productive and succesful season, and are looking to pick up right where they left off. Consistency has always been the key for the Crew and their lack of roster turnover is a sign that management believes this team should be right back in the thick of things come playoff time.  

After coming stunningly close to capturing just their 2nd MLS Cup, the approach for coach Gregg Berhalter and his men is simple; win. The best way to do that is to keep the production line of Kei Kamara, Ethan Finlay, and Federico Higuain working overtime.  

Kei Kamara's return to MLS was a hugely succesful move fro both him and the Crew Finishing the season tied for the Golden Boot and in the running for league MVP, the biggest question surrounding Kei is, will he be able to produce anywhere similar to his 2015 totals? That may be asking a lot but it's not impossible.  

Also shouldering plenty of the load will be Argentine midfield Federico Higuain, who will have to play a major role once again should the Crew attempt to reach as high as last season. Since joining Columbus in 2012, Higuain has produced at a fairly consistent rate, scoring no less than 5 goals and adding no less than 7 helpers.  

The Black and Gold allowed 53 goals against in 2015, 14 more than the Portland Timbers, who defeated them in MLS Cup. The backline, anchored by Michael Parkhurst, will have to show a significant improvement over last season should the team hope to reach as high as they did. 

The Crew are a solid team heading in to 2016. With Tony Tchani, Justin Meram, and Ethan Finlay peaking at the right time, the addition of Conor Casey to give goal scoring a shot in the arm, and deep reserves at all positions, for Columbus to be successful they will need to simply be consistent. There is no reason why the Crew should not be in the conversation for Supporter’s Shield or MLS Cup. 

 - Rob Ditta

Chicago Fire

Across MLS in 2015, only one team failed to notch at least one point per game. That team also failed to manage even a single road win. That team? The Chicago Fire.

After an abysmal campaign last year in which Chicago finished dead last in the league, the Fire turned over half of their roster, bidding farewell to 2013 MLS Most Valuable Player Mike Magee (LA Galaxy), defensive mainstay Jeff Larentowicz (LA Galaxy), Trinidad and Tobago national Joevin Jones (Seattle Sounders), and rising star Harry Shipp (Montreal Impact). The Fire are likely to further rely on DP midfielder/forward David Accam to fill the gap left by these departures (and Shipp’s in particular).

But Chicago’s departures are counterbalanced by the arrival of a new crop of homegrown players in forward Joey Calistri and midfielder Drew Conner, while incoming general manager Nelson Rodriguez and new head coach Veljko Paunovic seek to restore glory to the once-proud club. The Fire hope that, by combining an infusion of youth with the experience of veteran goalkeeper Sean Johnson and newcomer Michael Harrington, the squad can enjoy short-term success while developing for the future.

Fire fans have some reason for optimism this year, although success may need to come early in the season. Chicago opens with four of its first five matches against Eastern Conference teams that missed last year’s playoffs, before running a gauntlet of 50-point teams in the middle of the season. July looks to provide Chicago’s stiffest challenge in 2016 (home to San Jose before matches against Toronto, Sporting KC, FC Dallas, New England, and New York Red Bulls).

While a playoff spot seems like a reasonable goal, Chicago will doubtless face some growing pains with a new coach, new players, and a new culture. But the team’s future will be better for it.

 - Heath Waddingham

Orlando City SC

Although the Lions missed out on a playoff spot by five points in their inaugural season, Orlando City has good reason for 2016 optimism. The steady production of Kaka (9 goals and 7 assists in 28 games played) and the breakout performance of rookie Cyle Larin (17 goals) helped the squad finish 2015 with wins in 5 of its last 6 games. With 44 points, Orlando City completed its first season 7 points ahead of its expansion brother, NYCFC.

But since the season’s end, chaos seems to have gripped the club’s front office. General manager Paul McDonough left the club in early December, ultimately landing at future expansion side Atlanta United as director of soccer operations. Meanwhile, chief soccer officer Armando Carneiro joined the club from Benfica in early November, only to depart in late December.

Only time will tell whether the effects of Orlando City’s management problems will spill over into the first team. Discipline issues already haunted the team throughout 2015, with the team committing the fourth-most fouls in MLS and receiving 9 red cards over the course of the season.

In a bid to shore up its roster, Orlando City added midfielder Antonio Nocerino, a 30-year-old veteran of the Italian Serie A. Nocerino should provide stabilizing experience for the club, particularly in the event Kaka receives a Brazil call-up in June for the Copa America Centenario. Cyle Larin also stands to miss time with the Canadian national team.

Orlando City will be challenged mid-season, with a stretch from June 25 to August 7 in which the Lions will face seven playoff teams (Toronto, Dallas, New York Red Bulls, Vancouver, Columbus, New England, and Seattle) and only one non-playoff team (Houston). But if the club can bank points early and survive the summer, the playoffs are a realistic destination.

 - Heath Waddingham

New York City FC

NYCFC entered MLS in 2015 with a host of seeming advantages: a fabulously wealthy owner, a direct connection to a top Premier League club, a coach whose last match was an MLS Cup final, and an unquestionably stylish away kit.

One year later, it seems everything has gone wrong. The club’s home field at Yankee Stadium was much maligned for its awkward dimensions. While NYCFC’s ties to Manchester City were beneficial at first—providing head coach Jason Kreis with an opportunity to learn from some of the best coaches in Europe—fans began to revolt when Manchester City pulled rank on its MLS brother, withholding designated player Frank Lampard until July. The expansion side also signed aging midfielder Andrea Pirlo to a designated player deal, a move that justifiably irked Kreis. With so much going wrong, the team compounded its problems by firing Kreis after missing the playoffs in his only season at NYCFC.

And how has NYCFC sought to remedy its issues? By bringing in former Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira, whose prior coaching experience is limited to two years at the helm of the Manchester City Reserves. Historically, European coaches with no prior MLS experience have struggled to adjust to a league known for its physicality and labyrinthine roster rules.

NYCFC retains its most significant asset in David Villa, whose 18 goals and 8 assists placed him near the top of the league in both categories. Meanwhile, midfielder Ned Grabavoy left for Portland in free agency, while defender Chris Wingert was waived, ultimately ending up at Real Salt Lake. On the whole, NYCFC appears to be almost as unbalanced both in terms of age and talent as it was last year, although by acquiring veteran defender Frederic Brillant, NYCFC may have improved its porous back line, which allowed a league-high 58 goals in 2015.

While MLS wackiness can never be ruled out, NYCFC looks set to watch the playoffs from the sidelines again this year and realistically could be out of playoff contention by early September.

 - Heath Waddingham

New York Red Bulls

After winning the Supporters Shield and sweeping three games from their neighbors in the Bronx, the New York Red Bulls’ 2015 season would be considered a huge success by most onlookers. There's still one piece missing from the Red Bulls' mantle. After falling in last season's Eastern Conference Final, the MLS Cup still remains absent in Harrison, New Jersey. 

Expectations are high at Red Bull Arena, with recent success bringing great promise. The team will raise their second Supporters Shield banner in three years on Sunday but it’s the big prize that the Red Bulls are after in 2016. Qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League brings another layer that will need to be navigated. With the quality and depth on this side, they should take it in stride.  

Not much has changed with the roster. The biggest loss is Matt Miazga taking his talents to Stamford Bridge. With Miazga at Chelsea, the Red Bulls replaced him with Ghanaian Gideon Baah. New York also shattered the MLS mold by signing not one, not two, but seven homegrown players. Keep an eye on Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, and Derrick Etitenne. These three could break in to the first team rather quickly. 

The core of the Red Bulls is very strong. Reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Luis Robles and Dax McCarty bring stability to the team's spine and playmakers like Mike Grella and Gonzalo Veron bring an attacking flair. With BWP banging in the goals, this team is one of THE contenders in MLS this season. It’s harsh to say that anything less than an Eastern Conference championship would be a letdown, but that’s how good this team is in my eyes. Columbus and Toronto look to be their main rivals but over the course of the season I see RBNY coming out on top of the heat. This team is going to be a lot of fun to watch, so sit back and enjoy Jesse Marsch's squad in 2016. 

 - Dustyn Richardson

Philadelphia Union

Earnie Stewart has a plan, that much we know. The former United States International, and new Philadelphia Union sporting director has made his presence felt in his short time in Chester. After arrivingfrom AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, Stewart has rebuilt the roster in one short offseason and has managed to infuse some excitement into a fanbase in desperate need of success. 

After losing last year’s US Open Cup Final at home, the Union limped to the finish line of the MLS season, finishing in 9th place in the Eastern Conference. Heading out of Talen Energy Park were Cristian Maidana, Andrew Wenger, Fernando Aristeguieta, Michael Lahoud, Zach Pfeffer, and Conor Casey, just to name a few. The Union didn’t sit idly by as they replaced the departed players with the likes of Chris Pontius, Ilsinho, Walter Restrepo, Anderson Conceicao, and others. 

After suffering through injuries at DC United and never quite reaching his full potential, Chris Pontius has a fresh slate in the City of Brotherly Love and could be an important piece for the Union. Pontius joins an already stout attack alongside striker CJ Sapong and midfielders Sebastien LeToux and Tranquillo Barnetta. The defense will be the biggest question mark starting with former number one overall pick Andre Blake getting a chance to be the starting goalkeeper from day one.  

With an Eastern Conference that could be fairly open from positions four through ten, the Union should compete for a playoff spot. If Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu can help reinforce the back line and provide a link up for a talented front four, Philadelphia can make some noise. Ultimately I think they fall just short of the playoffs but they’re moving in the right direction. With Stewart calling the shots, this team is destined for success in the long term.

 - Dustyn Richardson

DC United

Things can be difficult without your best player. DC United are going find out that fast as their young star goalkeeper Bill Hamid will be out until at least June after undergoing knee surgery. Do United still have the pieces to return to the playoffs in the East? Is maybe a good enough answer?

Diminutive new signing Luciano Acosta, on loan from Boca Juniors, is set to bring a creativity that DC has desperately need in their midfield. With Perry Kitchen off to Europe, United will hope that their new additions in the midfield can gel quickly. Lamar Neagle, Patrick Nyarko, and Marcelo Sarvas are all MLS veterans and once acclimated to the team, should provide stability. 

Bobby Boswell and Steven Birnbaum anchor a defense that should be above average in MLS. The question mark remains between the posts. Can Andrew Dykstra play well enough to keep DC in the race? Will new signing Charlie Horton end up replacing Dykstra before too long? For my money, Horton is the better option, but Ben Olsen may decide to stick with the MLS experience of Dykstra.

If you're looking for a team set to have a down year, I think it's DC United. After making the playoffs in 2015, they face an uphill battle to return to the tournament in 2015. Once Hamid is healthy and ready to contribute, DC can make a late run. In the end, I don't think it's enough.

 - Dustyn Richardson

New England Revolution

The Jermaine Jones saga has ended. As this article was being edited, news broke that Jones had been traded to the Colorado Rapids. New England gets the much ballyhooed allocation money and a 2017 first round pick. Now that Jones is out of the picture, the focus shifts to the 2016 season for the Revolution.

New England's roster has its share of "what might have been" USMNT players with the likes of Teal Bunbury, Juan Agudelo, Charlie Davis, and even Diego Fagundez (for other reasons). Lee Nguyen, a late bloomer to the national team, needs to regain his MVP form of 2014 to help this talented offense. Kelyn Rowe is poised for a breakout year and I personally am really excited to see what 2016 brings for him.

Adding a designated player has long been a goal for the Revs. They went out and signed defender Xavier Kouassi. Set to join MLS in the summer, Kouassi promptly was injured shortly after signing and will likely miss the majority, if not all, of the season. Gershon Koffie is a good addition to help on both sides of the ball. With the likes of Chris Tierney, Andrew Farrell, and Jose Goncalves on the back line, New England looks to be good on defense.

Like DC, New England could be another team poised to see a dip in form from their 2015 season. I don't see too much of a dip from them as they are still a playoff team in my mind. Summer should, hopefully, bring more new faces to New England and this likely determines how good this team will ultimately be, and how far they will ultimately go.

 - Dustyn Richardson