2019 MLS Eastern Conference Preview
Red Bulls, Atlanta, and everyone else?
In any other league, you’d take a peek at how 2018 went and expect much of the same; Throw some league legends leaving the East -- David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco -- and you’d consider whether some records might be broken by the returning Top Two.
But this is Major League Soccer, where no power is permanent. Here’s a quick way to keep you up to speed, in reverse order of 2018 finish.
FC Cincinnati -- Manager Alan Koch brings a deep midfield and defense into MLS, hoping that Emmanuel Ledesma and Fanendo Adi can combine to get enough goals to surprise the league.
Star player: Ledesma. Yes, that Ledesma. He’s a wizard, but moving from USL to MLS will take some acclimation.
Realistic expectation: Miss the playoffs but use a rowdy stadium and signs of progress to scare plenty of people along the way.
Orlando City SC -- This team is going to look massively different, as former Burnley player James O’Connor gets a full season to do what worked for him as a USL manager at Louisville City.
Star player: Nani. It’s difficult to imagine him not having an incredible amount of success in attack.
Realistic expectation: Find consistency and chemistry, challenge for a playoff spot.
Chicago Fire -- Possibly adding Nicolas Gaitan to a crew of creators which includes Djordje Mihailovic should give Veljko Paunovic a chance to succeed, but can the Fire defend their own area?
Star player: Bastian Schweinsteiger. Whenever he plays, Chicago is simply the best version of itself.
Realistic expectation: Compete for a playoff spot, but likely fall just short.
Toronto FC -- An absolute mess made more remarkable by the fact that arguably the same unit destroyed MLS in 2017. A healthy Jozy Altidore may be more important than many thought, but he’s not quite healthy now, is he?
Star player: Jonathan Osorio. Yes, really. Until we know that Jonathan Pozuelo is coming through the door or that Altidore’s fit enough to dominate, count on the hometown midfielder to continue as a leader after a 10-goal season.
Realistic expectation: Altidore stays healthy, Terrence Boyd feasts off his rebounds, and Toronto gets back into the Top Six.
New England Revolution -- The are a lot of ifs for Brad Friedel’s men, who have to hope that Edgar Castillo’s resurgent 2018 was not a one-off, and that Carles Gil is ready to bring consistent performances from Spain.
Star player: Gil. It’s going to have to be.
Realistic expectation: The opposite of last season; A slow start will eventually turn into some young pieces finding positive roles.
Montreal Impact -- Remi Garde turned the Quebecois side into a good group of competitors down the stretch, and will hope either Orji Okwonkwo or Maxi Urruti finds the form to feast on the wizardry of Saphir Taider and Ignacio Piatti.
Star player: Piatti. He’s among the most overlooked superstars in MLS history.
Realistic expectation: A playoff spot and hopes for lightning in a MLS Cup Playoffs bottle.
Philadelphia Union -- This is by far Philly’s best chance to make a run in its history, from Andre Blake at the back to new playmaker Marco Fabian.
Star player: Fabian. Will he be patient enough with the Union to allow them to gel? Because he’s got the gifts to dominate the East.
Realistic expectation: A home first round playoff game.
Columbus Crew SC -- Caleb Porter’s back in Ohio, hoping to burnish his reputation by producing more consistent success than the brutal highs and lows of his tenure in Portland. Remember: Gregg Berhalter consistently out-performed the club’s budget.
Star player: Gyasi Zardes. Forget your USMNT impression of him; In MLS, he just scores goals.
Realistic expectation: A fight for the final playoff spot.
DC United -- Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta get a full season together, and DC fans will rightly be dreaming of the postseason.
Star player: Acosta. Rooney’s a star and an engine, but Acosta’s the one who nearly had Paris Saint-Germain on his shirt this winter.
Realistic expectation: Multiple home playoff games.
New York City FC -- Dome Torrent has not yet replicated Patrick Vieira’s success and lost David Villa to Vissel Kobe; Will an offseason of preparation and Alexandru Mitrita and Keaton Parks be the right additions to keep up playoff spirit?
Star player: Maxi Moralez. At his best, he’s MVP caliber good.
Realistic expectation: A home playoff game.
Atlanta United -- There are questions here; Miguel Almiron is already showing the Premier League how fortunate Atlanta was to have a player of his elite quality, and Frank de Boer is implementing a season quite different than Tata Martino. But Atlanta won it all in Year Two, and has a gifted squad.
Star player: Josef Martinez. It’s reasonable to think the answer will be Pity Martinez by the end of the season, but you’re not the star player when the MLS single season goal record holder is returning for another season and committed to Georgia.
Realistic expectation: Compete for the Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup, and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
New York Red Bulls -- The only question here is not how good Tyler Adams was, rather how difficult it will be to find someone to do what he did so well at a functional level. RBNY should again be one of the best teams in the league.
Star player: Kaku. A playmaker of the highest order.
Realistic expectation: Compete for every bit of hardware they want while blooding the next wave of Red Bulls through their prolific set-up.