The Eastern Conference was the stronger conference last year for the first time in a few years, and it only got stronger this offseason. Between teams swapping stars, spending TAM/GAM and making team-altering trades, the East got better. There were a lot of moves, so let’s quickly get up to speed on the other side of the standings.
- Adding Ezequiel Barco and Darlington Nagbe: Last season’s darlings of the Eastern Conference continue to get better. They dumped a bunch of that expansion allocation money, $1.65m, to get Darlington Nagbe from Portland to solidify the center of the park. Atlanta then turned Hector Villalba into a TAM player and broke the transfer record to bring in 18 year-old Argentine Ezequiel Barco. Even if he doesn’t pan out, Atlanta put the league on notice with the money they spent on him.
- Retaining their other DPs: There were plenty of teams interested in Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, but Atlanta managed to turn them all away. It takes a strong commitment and plan to reject the money they were reportedly offered for each South American.
- Losing Yamil Asad and Carlos Carmona: Atlanta could have retained Asad, but looking at the contract he received at DC United, it would’ve meant not signing Ezequiel Barco and I can’t disagree with how they evaluated the two. They netted a lot of allocation in the Asad trade, replacing some of what was sent to Portland. Carmona, on the other hand, was transferred to Colo-Colo. He was a bit of an extra with Nagbe and Julian Gressel likely manning the center of the park.
2017 record: 55 points, 15-9-10 (W-L-D); 4th in the East
2018 outlook: For expansion teams year two typically can only get better, but for Atlanta anything less than making the Conference Championship will likely be considered a failure. They added the right pieces and Tata can make magic with anything. The big question is whether the defense can hold up behind their high-powered offense. If it can, we may see an MLS Cup in Atlanta.
- Acquiring Aleksandar Katai: The Fire surprised everyone last year in their worst-to-near first run. They had the Golden Boot winner, Nemanja Nikolic, but they were missing that last piece in the attack, so they went and signed (on loan) the Serbian international. Katai can line up as a striker or winger in the Fire’s system. While he wasn’t terribly successful with Deportivo Alaves, he bagged 23 goals in 37 appearances in his final two years with Red Star Belgrade.
- David Accam traded: A draft day trade for the Fire opened up a DP spot for Katai (if he even needs one in 2018, which is currently unclear), as Accam was sent to Philadelphia for $1.2m in mixed allocation.
- Matt Lampson traded: Another draft day trade for the Fire sent their starting goalkeeper for most of 2017 to Minnesota United. Lampson was sent along with allocation money and the 15th draft pick in exchange for the 5th pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft. Chicago ended up using the pick on Jon Bakero, an incredibly successful playmaker at Wake Forest.
2017 record: 55 points, 16-11-7; 3rd in the East
2018 outlook: Chicago didn’t get worse by bringing Katai in for Accam, but I don’t really know if they got better. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty are a year older and the problems that led to their July and August slump, four points in eight matches, were never really resolved.
- Gyasi Zardes acquired for Ola Kamara: This was the more impactful of the two big trades the Crew made, sending Norwegian stiker Ola Kamara to the Los Angeles Galaxy for Gyasi Zardes and allocation money. The jury is still out on whether Zardes can rediscover the scoring touch he had when partnered with Robbie Keane (he can’t) but Gregg Berhalter hopes to get something out of the speedy winger.
- Justin Meram traded: Orlando City picked up the attacker for a mere $1.05m in allocation money and an international spot. What Columbus will do with the money and international spot is unclear and the turmoil about whether they will leave for Austin is unlikely to help them in landing a player worth spending that money on.
- Austin and/or sale rumors: Not a roster move made by Gregg Berhalter’s side, but the uncertainty about the Crew’s future has impacted their ability to recruit players and retain some of their best talent. The sooner Anthony Precourt resolves this saga, the better for the team on the field.
2017 record: 54 points, 16-12-6; 5th in the East
2018 outlook: Rumors about the team leaving started trickling out as the playoff run started for the Crew and they rode the chaos to the Conference Final, but I don’t think they can do that again. They likely signed Federico Higuain’s replacement, but are relying on Mike Grella and Zardes to replace Meram and Kamara. Berhalter has struck lightning before, but I think the dark cloud from Precourt Sports Ventures dampens the squad and they will miss the playoffs.
- Yamil Asad signed: It was a weird situation that led to Atlanta apparently exercising their purchase option with Velez Sarsfield but unable to agree to terms with the player. Since the option was technically owned by MLS, they traded his MLS rights to DC United, who the signed him to a TAM contract. It took $500,000 in allocation but DC got him. He’ll stay on loan for now, but the option to purchase should still be there. How he fits in to an attack with Zoltan Stieber, Paul Arriola and Luciano Acosta is still to be determined.
- Junior Moreno transfer: The Venezuelan midfielder was signed from Zulia FC. The 24-year old can play as a six or an eight in Ben Olsen’s system. However, United will need to find another international spot as they only had five and were already maxed out.
- Replacing Bill Hamid: After the young American keeper announced he would not re-sign with the only professional team he had ever known, DC had to find a replacement. It seems only fitting that since Hamid looked to Denmark to continue his playing career, DC looked at the Danish keeper David Ousted who was out of contract with Vancouver. Ousted lost his starting spot with the Whitecaps toward the end of last season, but has been arguably a top goalie in MLS for a couple of years, so he should be a great fit.
2017 record: 32 points, 9-20-5; Last in the East
2018 outlook: Great news for DC fans: they can’t get worse. They were tied with the Galaxy for worst in the league in 2017. A new stadium opens this year and ownership spent money adding some “big” names. How they integrate all of their summer signings from last year and the winter additions will be crucial. If Ben Olsen can’t do it promptly will he be out of a job?
- Appointing Remi Garde as head coach: The Frenchman and former Aston Villa boss was named Head Coach and Director of Player Personnel by the Saputos. Garde wasn’t able to do much with Aston Villa in the Premier League, but he did win a couple of trophies while helming Lyon. Garde is bringing with him a few coaches, all with experience at Lyon.
- Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla and Blerim Dzemaili out: Dzemaili, who joined the club midway through last season, returned to Bologna and will not come back to the Canadian side. He tallied seven goals and ten assists in 22 matches with the Impact. Ballou, a top Canadian youth international, was sold to Barcelona “B”. His contract includes €25m release clause that escalates to €75m if he signs an extension.
- Laurent Ciman traded: A fan favorite and top center back, Ciman was traded to expansion side LAFC for former Toronto FC speedster Raheem Edwards and defender Jukka Raitala. It created a small bit of controversy due to some of the personal reasons Ciman had for playing in Montreal. It’s hard to say if the trade made the Impact better, but Garde has a plan.
2017 record: 39 points, 11-17-6; 9th in the East
2018 outlook: Garde doesn’t have a vast history of success, but he might be able to find it in Montreal. The roster isn’t bad and Ignacio Piatti is a great playmaker, but with all the players that were shown the door, including Ciman, is this roster ready to play together? The benefit for Montreal is their style is still a complete unknown and Garde’s experience in England should help them start fast.
- Kei Kamara traded: The Revolution gave up a lot to get the embattled striker from Columbus during the 2016 season. He never really produced as much in New England as they wanted, bagging 19 goals in 52 matches. In 2016 they gave up multiple SuperDraft picks, allocation money, and an international spot. For the 2018 season, the Revs are getting back a 2019 first round pick and a conditional second round pick in 2020.
- Lee Nguyen saga: The playmaker has yet to be traded by the Revs and it isn’t clear if new boss Brad Friedel will move the midfielder before this season or not. Nguyen isn’t holding out and Friedel says he isn’t going anywhere, but it seems likely that something will have to budge.
- Cristian Penilla signing: The forward joins the Revolution on loan for 2018 with an option to buy from Pachuca in Liga MX. Penilla spent last season with Chapecoense in Brazil as one of the new members of the team after their tragic plane crash. The club has flexibility in having him as a DP or a TAM player based on other moves they might desire to make.
2017 record: 45 points, 13-15-6; 7th in the East
2018 outlook: The Revs replaced Jay Heaps with Brad Friedel and I’m not really sure that’s an improvement. It’s his first professional coaching job, although he did coach the US U-19s last year, and it’s not clear how it’ll go. He’s already got a problem with Lee Nguyen, and when your playmaker and coach do not get along, wins are unlikely to come. The club replaced Kei Kamara with a strong scorer, but will it be enough to get back to the playoffs in a crowded East? Probably not.
- Jack Harrison sold: Multiple clubs were after the English winger, mostly from the EFL Championship. Instead of letting him go, Manchester City coughed up the money and purchased him and then immediately loaned him to Middlesbrough. It produced a great comment from Pep Guardiola, as he was asked about the new signing and clearly had no idea who Harrison was.
- Khiry Shelton traded: Shelton was the first draft pick in MLS history for NYCFC and now plays for Sporting Kansas City, to whom he was traded straight for Saad Abdul-Salaam. With a handful of defenders leaving the club, adding a player with the potential and flexibility of Abdul-Salaam will be valuable for Patrick Vieira.
- Youth DP Jesus Medina: The club known for elderly DPs Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard has been trying to get younger; with the Italian legend retiring they added a 20-year old Paraguayan. NYCFC purchased the left-footed attacker from Club Libertad in Paraguay. He likely replaces Jack Harrison role-wise.
2017 record: 57 points, 16-9-9; 2nd in the East
2018 outlook: Vieira is one of the best coaches in MLS and was able to do amazing things with aging DPs who rarely saw the field. This year he’ll get much more from Maxi Moralez, Yangel Herrera, and Jesus Medina. Losing Jack Harrison will hurt for a bit, but if Medina is as good as NYCFC thinks, it won’t be a big loss. They’ll challenge TFC for the top of the East again.
- Bringing in Kaku: Alejandro Romero Gamarra, known as Kaku, ended up signing after months of negotiations on a club-record $6.25m transfer from Huracan. For a long time it was unclear if the deal for the Argentine was ever going to be finalized, but the Red Bulls got the deal done as the pre-season comes to a close. After the turnover on the Red Bulls roster this offseason, getting a player of Kaku’s quality was crucial.
- Sacha Kljestan to Orlando City: In a rather surprising trade, the Red Bulls for a second year in a row moved their incumbent captain to another Eastern Conference team. This time they traded Kljestan and some TAM for Carlos Rivas and Tommy Redding. Rivas never took off with Orlando as a youth DP and Jesse Marsch is hoping the change of scenery helps him and the 20-year old defender Redding.
- Gonzalo Veron and Mike Grella taken in the Re-Entry Draft: Gonzalo Veron became one of the few DPs to swap teams via the RED, although he did not sign with D.C. United and ended up going to Independiate. Mike Grella, an off-the-bench staple for years for the Red Bulls, was selected by the Rapids, who then flipped him to the Crew. With Grella gone, someone else will have to supply the goals off the bench this season.
2017 record: 50 points, 14-12-8; 6th in the East
2018 outlook: Until the Red Bulls signed Kaku, it seemed very likely they would regress into oblivion in 2018. Kaku and Tyler Adams should form a great midfield pairing for Jesse Marsch. No one should be concerned with their starters, but the current bench options leave something to be desired. The Red Bulls should still throw their weight around in the East and make the playoffs, and as we saw last year, if they make the show they’ll make some noise.
Orlando City SC
- Sacha Kljestan in: Just as it was a big deal for NYRB to let Kljestan go, it’s a big deal for Orlando to get him. Carlos Rivas was meant to be a withdrawn striker to partner with Kaka, but it just never worked. Nothing they did ever seemed to really get a good offensive flow, so now with most of the original offense gone (Larin, Kaka, and Rivas), Kljestan will work with Dom Dwyer to build a new attack. Kljestan will most likely pair with Yoshimar Yotun in the midfield to spring Dwyer and kickstart Jason Kreis’ offense. Kljestan will be part of a midfield that also added Justin Meram and Oriol Rosell.
- Cyle Larin’s transfer saga: The Canadian pulled a Camilo and just left the club unilaterally and started training elsewhere. He went on trial, with or without approval, with Besiktas and Orlando was essentially forced to accept the offer on the table. MLS let Orlando keep all of the allocation from the transfer to avoid anymore drama with the situation, which the club then used to acquire Justin Meram.
- Oriol Rossell joins OCSC: The former Sporting Kansas City midfielder is returning to MLS. Sporting Club de Portugal bought him from SKC in 2014 and after multiple seasons of loans, he was sold back to MLS. It took $400k of TAM to FC Dallas for the top allocation spot to acquire the defensive midfielder. Rossell gives Jason Kreis the midfield rock he hasn’t had since managing Kyle Beckerman at Real Salt Lake.
2017 record: 39 points, 10-15-9; 9th in the East
2018 outlook: Last year was not a good season for Orlando City; even after their blockbuster trade to acquire Dom Dwyer, nothing good seemed to happen. Dwyer will have a new group of suppliers around him and no Cyle Larin to share the field with. The offense should gel better, but there are still some big questions. With the new personnel, Kreis should be able to go back to the diamond he used effectively in Salt Lake, but I don’t think Orlando will make their first playoff in 2018.
- David Accam trade: $1.2m in allocation is roughly 75% of what Atlanta United paid for Darlington Nagbe and the Union don’t have an expansion kitty of allocation. The Union have had players with pace but never been able to do much with it. David Accam, if healthy, can do a lot, especially when paired with CJ Sapong. It’s a worthwhile trade if Accam is healthy.
- Roland Alberg out: Alberg was never able to adjust to the playmaking role Jim Curtin wanted him to play, and as a box-to-box mid he was just average. The club decided to move on this winter from the Dutch-born midfielder, though outside of trading for Accam they haven’t really replaced his production. It’ll be interesting to see who takes over the midfield as it appears the Union aren’t finding the #10 they want.
- Veterans declined: The Union have been a side willing to give veterans and former USMNT stars (or potential stars) a shot. It started with Freddy Adu’s comeback, which ended rather quickly, and continued through many other signings. However, the tide has shifted for 2018, with the club declining to bring back Maurice Edu, Oguchi Onyewu, and Charlie Davies.
2017 record: 42 points, 11-14-9; 8th in the East
2018 outlook: Philadelphia was a middling side with little hope of reaching the playoffs in 2017 and that’s what they’ll be again. Maybe with Accam they’ll surprise us, but it’s more likely that they’ll finish around 40 points again and Jim Curtin will see the door.
- Losing Steven Beitashour and Raheem Edwards: Free agency and the expansion draft hit Toronto hard, with their starting RB and one of their best substitutes going to LAFC (who then traded Edwards). Replacing Beitashour was easy, but Edwards will be harder.
- Signing Gregory van der Wiel: Beitashour leaving in free agency meant a new RB and TFC went out and signed Dutch fullback van der Wiel. He hadn’t played much with Caligari or Fenerbahce in the last few years, but was a starter for the early part of his time at Paris Saint-Germain. He should work well in the the wingback system that Greg Vanney likes to use, but his lack of recent playing time leaves a lot of questions.
- Signing Ager Aketxe: Another TAM signing from Spain, Ager Aketxe joins TFC from Athletic Bilbao. Unlike Victor Vazquez, who was 30 when he joined last year, Aketxe is just 24 and is about to enter the prime of his career. The attacking mid spent eight years in the Athletic Bilbao system — four years with the “B” side in the lower divisions and four years with the first team. He appeared 34 times for the first team, only getting one goal and one assist. He’ll be a depth signing, but due to his flexibility to play in the midfield or as a left winger, he should make impact with the Reds.
2017 record: 69 points, 20-5-9; 1st in the East; MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield Winner
2018 outlook: Toronto reloaded. They lost a starter and a role player but they went out and signed more TAM players. It’s safe to say they’ll make the playoffs again and should be favorites to win the Shield. Are they beatable? Yes. Is Michael Bradley a year older? Yes. Is Toronto still the team to beat? Yes. Hopefully they’ll start with a bit of a hangover from being champions and the rest of the league can keep them down the table for a couple of months.