The thing about racing is that it only takes a bad turn to lead to disaster.
Perhaps you could say Toronto missing the 2018 playoffs was an anomaly. A year after finishing third in the East, Chicago crashed out of the race. Hey, even the fastest cars with the strongest engines hit the wall or dawdle too long in the pit stop. (Don’t know what to tell you guys, Orlando—y’all drove a golf cart most of the season.)
However, the standings in the East last year may not have been so different from reality. Over the past ten years, Orlando, Chicago, Toronto, New England, and Montreal have missed the playoffs over half of the time (13 total appearances over 41 attempts). Meanwhile, the top teams from last year have made the playoffs 29 times over the last 45 attempts.
I’m not saying that these six teams are a lock to make the playoffs again. I’m just saying that they have good arguments that they’ll stay competitive in 2019 and beyond. Here’s how they’ve retooled to make sure they do so.
2018 Finish Line: 6th in Eastern Conference (15-14-5), 50 pts. 49 goals for, 50 goals against.
Despite a rough start to the season, the Union went on a solid run over the last three months to sneak into the playoffs. It’s probably fair to consider 2018 an overall success—the Union blew through the Red Bulls, Chicago, and Orlando to get to the U.S. Open Cup final before losing 3-0 to Houston. However, lack of a consistent scoring threat left the team toothless—none of their scorers ranked in the Top 25 in goals. The Union wilted to close out the season, losing to NYCFC 3-1 in both the season finale and the knockout round. .
OUT: M Fabian Herbers, D Keegan Rosenberry, M Borek Dockal
IN: F Sergio Santos, D Kai Wagner, M Marco Fabian
Sneaking into the playoffs may not sound like a big step, but the 2018 version of the Union was arguably their best team yet, scoring the highest number of wins (15) and points (50) in their nine-year existence. The promotion of goalkeeper Matt Freese and midfielder Brenden Aaronsen means the Union now have seven homegrown players on their roster. The midfield appeared to be a question mark, but the signing of Mexican international Marco Fabian may be the biggest DP splash in team history. The addition of Sergio Santos also provides a third scoring threat that the Union couldn’t get from David Accam last year.
On paper, this is the most improved team in the East. On paper. Philly already had one of the stronger USL squads
2018 Finish Line: 5th in Eastern Conference (14-11-9), 51 pts. 43 goals for, 45 goals against.
Ownership issues? What, me worry?
Despite a season of attendance worries and threats to split for Austin, the Crew exceeded expectations to make the playoffs. Yes, their 43 goals scored tied them with Orlando for second-lowest in the league, but their trade for Gyasi Zardes paid back in spades (20 goals in 2018 after 15 in the previous three seasons). The Crew almost shocked the Red Bulls in the playoffs, beating New York 1-0 at home before losing 3-0 on the away leg.
OUT: M Cristian Martinez, M Mike Grella, GK Zack Steffen (July 2019)
IN: GK Joe Bendik, M Robinho Barbosa, D Waylon Francis, F J.J. Williams
While not much movement has taken place within the roster, the largest movement was obviously within the front office and coaching staff. Gregg Berhalter departs to coach the U.S. national men’s team, and Caleb Porter moves
The lack of movement may mean that the team is comfortable with its lineup, but the Crew will need to activate its offense by midseason. The 43 goals scored by Columbus was the lowest of all 12 playoff teams, with 44% scored by Zardes. Another scoring threat will be required to take pressure off the midfield of Justin Meram, Federico Higuain, and Pedro Santos, who will all be 30 or older. The anticipated departure of Steffen will require Joe Bendik to step in seamlessly, so if offense hasn’t arrived by then, it’s hard to say if the defense will stay solid to repeat their form. Look for Columbus to be one of the teams to take a step downward.
2018 Finish Line: 4th in Eastern Conference (14-11-9), 51 pts. 60 goals for, 50 goals against.
There probably hasn’t been such a Jekyll-and-Hyde season before like DCU’s 2018 season. With their new home stadium set to open in July, DCU played 12 of their first 14 games on the road, winning only twice. However, the signing of Wayne Rooney and the opening of Audi Field led to an incredible turnaround—DCU went undefeated in their final 10 games (7-0-3) to make the playoffs, only to lose to Columbus in the knockout round.
OUT: F Darren Mattocks, M Yamil Asad, D Nick DeLeon, GK David Ousted
IN: D Leonardo Jara, M Lucas Rodriguez, GK Chris Seitz, F Quincy Amarikwa
The roller-coaster season from 2018 continued in the offseason with the on-again, off-again relationship with midfielder Lucho Acosta. Once thought to be gone to Paris Saint-Germain, Acosta is still with the team and likely looking for a contract signing in 2019. It’s a good thing DCU held onto Acosta and bought the rights to Lucas Rodriguez from Atlanta—the departing Mattocks and Asad had 19 goals last season, so offense will be at a premium. Ousted’s ousting means that this is now goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s team, but the trades for Seitz and Earl Edwards Jr. at least provide depth for backup (or at least a start on the Loudoun United USL team.)
Had it not been for that Zlatan guy in the West, Wayne Rooney probably would have been the Newcomer of the Year. (Admit it—that video of him slide-tackling Will Johnson and setting up a stoppage time game-winner to Acosta’s in your YouTube “Favorites” section.) Still, he’s one of only two experienced forwards on this team’s roster, so can he last 34 games? Where will the goals come from? The midfield tandem with Acosta, Rodriguez, and Paul Arriola should form a strong shield behind Rooney and the newly-signed Amarikwa, but it’s hard to say how much offense can be produced if there’s no help on the horizon. At least the road schedule is less hectic and easier than the grueling trek in 2018—four of the six Western away games are at teams that missed the playoffs last year.
New York City FC
2018 Finish Line: 3rd in Eastern Conference (16-10-8), 56 pts. 59 goals for, 45 goals against.
Say what you will about Yankee Stadium not being a good field for soccer. The constricted dimensions smother an opponent like the summer subway air. The Bronx Boys in Blue lost only twice at home all season (13-2-4), but one of those losses was to Atlanta United in the conference semifinals. Despite Patrick Viera’s departure in June, interim head coach Domènec Torrent kept NYCFC afloat just long enough to earn the permanent role.
OUT: F David Villa, F Jo Inge Berget, M Rodney Wallace, M Tommy McNamara
IN: F Alexandru Mitrita, M Juan Pablo Torres, M Keaton Parks, M Tony Rocha
How do you recover quickly from a heart transplant? David Villa was the soul of NYCFC for four years, scoring 77 goals in only 117 games. Only Robbie Keane scored more goals at a faster clip (83 in 125 games). Villa’s departure for Japan meant that the City Football Group had to dig deeper into their pockets to pony up for Alexandru Mitrita. The striker already has 12 goals after 16 games this season with first-tier Craiova in Romania. The team may not be finished, as Spanish striker Carlitos could join as well. Much of the defense remains the same, which will suit goalkeeper Sean Johnson (10 clean sheets) just fine.
As long as NYCFC plays at Yankee Stadium and adapts to its smaller dimensions, the home wins should continue. However, the departure of Villa and Berget leaves the team without an actual center forward. Maxi Moralez will have to work to become the new face of the club, and if he’s able to dictate play as a true #10, he will likely lead the league in assists. NYCFC does get the benefit of a soft schedule to start the season—only three of their first 12 matches are against 2018 playoff squads. They also face their rivals only twice in the Hudson River Derby this year, which could be a blessing in disguise. They’ve only beaten the Red Bulls four times in 14 contests.
Atlanta United FC
2018 Finish Line: 2nd in Eastern Conference (21-7-6), 69 pts. 70 goals for, 44 goals against. 2018 MLS Cup champions.
The first match of the season was a surprising 4-0 loss to a Houston team that floundered in midseason. No big deal. The “A-Train” dropped points only 12 times in the next 33 games. Despite finishing below the Red Bulls in the standings, there was no stopping Atlanta on their way to a 2-0 victory over Portland in the MLS Cup final. The Five Stripes have scored 140 regular-season goals over two seasons, and 50 of those have been by Josef Martinez. Over that same two-year span, the entire Colorado Rapids team has scored 67.
OUT: D Greg Garza, M Miguel Almiron, M Chris McCann
IN: D/M Brek Shea, M Pity Martinez, D Florentin Pogba
The biggest change is obviously the one at the top, as Gerardo Martino traded his Five Stripes for the Green, Red, and White as the Mexican national team head coach. While Tata’s shoes are arguably hard to fill, bringing in Ajax stalwart Frank De Boer to helm Atlanta was a bold decision. Name recognition is one thing, but De Boer’s winning percentage hasn’t been great outside of the Netherlands (6-2-11 in two very quick stints over the past three years).
Miguel Almiron’s departure for Newcastle is mammoth, but resigning Martinez and pairing him with another Martinez (Pity) only makes the offense stronger. The biggest loss is likely Garza, as the left back spot now goes to either homegrown George Bello or fallen star Brek Shea. However, many of the pieces are still in place, including the extremely-vocal crowd, which definitely contributed to the 11-2-4 home record last year.
Truthfully, this team should have enough energy from 2018 to coast into the playoffs in 2019. However, the same was said about Toronto FC last year, and the deep run into the CONCACAF Champions League depleted Toronto in the regular season. At least this CCL is a knockout-style tournament, but it’s still a lot of travel in the spring if Atlanta wins their way up the bracket.
While Atlanta’s vibrant offense will be bolstered by Pity’s talent, the pressure will now be on Julian Gressel and Tito Villalba to distribute in Almiron’s place. There are plenty of midfielders to pick up the slack if neither get the job done, but those minutes will be hard to distribute—Darlington Nagbe is already rumored to want out. The defense is a year older in the middle and newer on the edges, so it will be interesting to see if the shots at goalkeeper Brad Guzan increase.
All those points of caution shouldn’t matter. It’s Josef Martinez, guys.
New York Red Bulls
2018 Finish Line: 1st in Eastern Conference (22-7-5), 71 pts. 62 goals for, 33 goals against. 2018 Supporters’ Shield champions.
Despite only missing the playoffs once over their 13 years as the Red Bulls, New York has made only one MLS Cup appearance, losing to Columbus in 2008. They lost their head coach Jesse Marsch to a June transfer to RB Leipzig’s coaching staff, but that didn’t crush their spirits. Their +29 goal differential in 2018 was tied for the fifth-best ever in MLS history, thanks largely to Luis Robles’ 14 clean sheets. Still, all that success only produced an insurmountable deficit against Atlanta in the conference finals, losing 3-1 on aggregate.
OUT: M Tyler Adams, D Aurelien Collin, D Hassan Ndam
IN: M Marcus Epps, D Amro Tarek, F Mathias Jorgensen
The offseason was a bit quiet for incoming transactions, but the Red Bull machine managed a big get by signing 18-year-old forward Mathias Jorgensen, who had excelled in the Danish Superliga’s developmental system. The key loss is, of course, the move of Tyler Adams to Red Bull Leipzig in the Bundesliga. While this is an immense developmental move for the 19-year-old, it leaves RBNY empty in the defensive midfielder zone. The natural move is to insert Cristian Casseres Jr., but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the opportunity to promote Andrew Tinari from the Red Bulls II affiliate. Of course, all of the first-team reserves that were cut away can easily be replaced by the USL backups, so there isn’t much movement necessary. That could make the Red Bulls dangerous for years to come.
It could be possible to suggest the only way is down. Chris Armas didn’t have much weight to pull last year as interim head coach, but now the pressure will be on him to produce trophies bigger than a Supporters’ Shield. If the hook is pulled early, don’t be surprised if Red Bulls II coach John Wolyniec gets the promotion.
Bradley Wright-Phillips is showing little signs of rust, blasting his 100th MLS goal for the Red Bulls last season. He has 124 over all competitions in his five years with New York, but he’s also logged a ton of minutes. BWP has played in at least 40 games each of the past four seasons. If he does go down, Jorgensen and local product Brian White will have to be ready to fill the void.
The defense was the best in the league in 2018 (33 goals against) and should still be solid without Adams in the midfield. Re-signing Tim Parker to anchor the back line with 2018 Defender of the Year Aaron Long was key, and goalkeeper Robles should be able to duplicate his performance from last year. If Atlanta is unable to find traction under De Boer, the Red Bulls should be ready to dominate the conference. Again.
That puts a pretty bow on the Eastern Conference previews. There won’t be any quizzes later on, but now you know how the field appears on the starting line. Strap on your seat belts, roll down the window, and enjoy this crazy ride.
Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more preseason coverage and previews of the remaining Western Conference squads.