- Posted by Drew Epperley
- On March 14, 2011
- 2 Comments
- 2011 Eastern Conference, 2011 MLS Previews, 2011 MLS Season, 2011 MLS Season Preview
The 2011 edition of the Eastern Conference in Major League Soccer will certainly be one to watch. For the most part its all about the same as last year, one loaded team at the top and a jumbled mess right below them. As I’ve gone through several preseason previews over the last couple weeks I’ll wrap up things today (and likely tomorrow) with a look at each conference and a final bold prediction post for the season.
Sizing up the eastern conference should be fairly simple this season. We know New York should be the class of the conference while any number of clubs could surprise us all and join the Red Bulls in the post season dance. With the conference getting an extra automatic playoff spot this season, teams will likely battle it out for 2nd and 3rd place this season.
Below is a look at how I see the Eastern Conference panning out in 2011 (ranking in order of finish).
1. New York Red Bulls
X-Factor: Dane Richards – His speed on the wings will likely cause more problems this season than in previous ones. Why? Simple really, he’s got more quality players around him than he has ever had and he’s finally realizing how to play the game properly. That’s scary to think with all that speed.
Biggest Move: Rafa Marquez to the center of the defense. He’s shifted from the defensive midfield to the center back spot along side second-year star Tim Ream. Those two should make for one hell of a one-two punch in the back.
Concerns: Injuries are always a worry and New York is no different. From Juan Agudelo’s groin, to Luke Rodgers’ ongoing recovery, the Red Bulls have to hope their depth and talent can overcome any long term losses. Also, should Thierry Henry not get going early on for the club on offense, things could be a bit dicy for Hans Backe.
Final thoughts: They’re still the cream of the crop in the east, not other way to put it. I believe this club should contend for the Supporter’s Shield trophy this season and as long as the important parties stay healthy for the long haul, then this club could finally be looking at some hardware in 2011.
2. Houston Dynamo
X-Factor: Geoff Cameron – The midfield in Houston has me a bit concerned but it can all go away if Cameron has another strong season. He was out most of last year, which did a number on the Dynamo offensively and defensively. Having him healthy and ready to go is absolutely key for the Dynamo.
Biggest Move: Getting sent to the East. Seriously, this move definitely came at the right time for this bunch considering how deep the West is right now and how wide open the East is.
Concerns: This team gave up a ton of goals last year and for the most part the defense isn’t all that much different. I still wish they could use Cameron in the center of the defense rather than in the midfield. But that would mean they’d need to go out and find a playmaker, which I still believe they absolutely need to do to be a true contender this season. Also, the keeper situation between Tally Hall and Tyler Deric isn’t ideal for a contender.
Final Thoughts: Houston will do well in the East this year, there is no doubt in my mind that they will. The keeper situation isn’t anything great but defensively they will be better with rookie Kofi Sarkodie. Look for them to also improve drastically on offense with the likes of Jason Garey, Dominic Oduro and rookie Will Bruin in the fold to assist Brian Ching out. I see Bruin as a dark-horse Rookie of the Year pick right now.
3. D.C. United
X-Factor: Dax McCarty – This was a big move that was made in the winter by the Black-and-Red and it has to pay out for them. McCarty can centrally help guide this club back to the playoffs this season with his talents and experience.
Biggest Move: Going for Charlie Davies. Its a gamble, sure, but I have a feeling this will likely be the best move made by any club this offseason. Davies is a guy that is out to prove a lot of things to folks, and Ben Olsen’s club should reep the benefits of that.
Concerns: The defense is still a bit of a concern, even with McCarty locking things down in the midfield and rookie Perry Kitchen stepping up. Plus their keeper situation is really shaky, even with veteran Pat Onstad stepping out of retirement to play until their main guys return from injury.
Final Thoughts: D.C. could benefit from how drastically open the conference is. You could easily make the case for them to be near the bottom or as high as I have them. I get it. I think offensively they’ll improve enough to get the club in contention for a playoff spot.
4. Philadelphia Union
X-Factor: Danny Mwanga – I know some will point to Carlos Ruiz or Sebastien Le Toux, or even someone else but for me it comes down to Mwanga. The second-year striker has to step up even more to get this club into the playoff discussion. I see him taking more of the burdon of scoring and creating chances off of Le Toux this season, which has to be a win-win for Union fans.
Biggest Move: Dumping their keepers. Let’s face it, their keeping situation with Brad Knighton and Chris Seitz wasn’t great a season ago but in all fairness they were an expansion club. Fast forward to today and they have a solid veteran keeper from over seas in Faryd Mongradon and rookie Zac MacMath waiting in the wings. An ideal situation for Union fans I believe.
Concerns: The defense is still a bit of a worry to me. I know Union fans will continue to Tweet or email me about this but right now, today, I just don’t see this unit as a top level defense in this league. But saying that, I’m sure Peter Nowak is doing his part to make sure this group is better than last year.
Final Thoughts: I could be reaching on Philadelphia but as you’ll find out tomorrow, they are my darkhorse team out of the East to do well this season. They could fall into a sophomore slump like Seattle did early on but the talent is certainly there on offense to break them out of any rut that they could fall into at any point in the season.
5. Sporting Kansas City
X-Factor: Handling the 10-game roadie – Normally you put a player in this slot but to me it comes down to the entire team and how they handle this 10-game road trip to start the season out. It will either make or break their season, which is a tough spot to be in after a third of the season. At least when it is over they have a beautiful stadium to finally call their own.
Biggest Move: Omar Bravo – Even though this deal was announced sometime last year, I believe getting a guy like Bravo to lead the attack there will be a huge thing for them. Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara will love playing with this guy.
Concerns: Defensively they are still very iffy. I love Jimmy Nielsen in the goal but the guys in front of them don’t get me excited one bit. If anything this is the year that Michael Harrington steps up in a big way to guide this defense, if he can improve his passing game out of the back then KC could be looking at a playoff trip.
Final Thoughts: Like so many clubs in the East, this club could easily contend for a playoff spot if certain things happen or fall into place. Their opening road trip has me the most worried though. I can’t see that trip helping them out for the long haul. Too many times in the past have clubs taken long road trips like that and not come out on a positive note.
6. Columbus Crew
X-Factor: Emmanuel Ekpo – At the end of the day, with all the moves made in Columbus, I look at Ekpo more than anyone else to step up in the midfield. If anyone has actually watched the Crew over the last couple years, you’d know that Ekpo has all the tools and skills to be a special player, I think it’s finally his time to shine.
Biggest Move: All the dumping. Good grief did Robert Warzycha do a lot of house cleaning this winter. Some for the good and some that just left you scratching your head. I’ve said it many times already this winter, either all these moves will make him look like a genius or a total failure.
Concerns: So much youth, and so much inexperience. They do still have the likes of Chad Marshall, Andy Iro, Will Hesmer, Robbie Rogers, Ekpo, Jeff Cunningham, and Emilio Renteria still on board. Still you wonder, who in the midfield will link everything up for them the way Guillermo Barros Schelotto did for them?
Final Thoughts: Just like with the three clubs above them, the Crew have every right to be in the discussion in the East for a playoff spot. They do, in a way I feel they are better than this ranking I’m giving them here but just out of the bits I saw this preseason from them they will struggle at times this season to create chances and finish them. Jeff Cunningham will score a few goals (and become the all-time leading scorer in the league) but they’ll miss that game-changing playmaker that Schelotto was for them.
7. New England Revolution
X-factor: Shalrie Joseph – Whether he is playing or not, Joseph commands a big deal of the discussion in New England right now. Should he be hell bent to prove himself yet again the Revs will certainly be higher than this mark.
Biggest Move: Going French. Adding veteran midfielder Ousmane Dabo and defender Didier Domi certainly are a risk considering their age but sometimes you have to roll the dice in this league. Steve Nicol did that with these moves and both could be interesting to watch.
Concerns: Offensively this club worries me a lot, and not for the reasons you’d usually get from saying that. I’m more worries at the fact that they have a lot of unproven strikers that are young and inexperienced. If they can get a DP striker (they were apparently close to signing one this winter), then this worry could easily go away.
Final Thoughts: The Revs could finish anywhere between 2 and 9 in this conference. That is how open this conference and this team is really. As long as Joseph has his head on straight and their offense finds some life, then they’ll easily finish above this spot. Still their defense is still rather young and you wonder if Matt Reis can make it through a long season without any injuries. I believe Nicol will be coaching for his job this season and we’ll either get his best work yet or just another average club.
8. Chicago Fire
X-factor: Marco Pappa – As Pappa goes, so will this club in 2011. As long as he finds some consistency in his play and gets some help from others around him, the Fire won’t be as low as this ranking.
Biggest Move: Re-tooling the backline with Cory Gibbs, Croatian Josep Mikulic and rookie Jalil Anibaba. Most know I was a huge fan of Anibaba during the SuperDraft too. Still, a rookie taking over a backline will take some time but once this group comes together they should be pretty fun to watch.
Concerns: Offensively they remind me a lot like the Revs. You wonder who exactly will step up and lead the attack for them. Pappa is the clear choice but they need a true striker to come in and be a game changer for them.
Final Thoughts: The team is young and has plenty of talent in spots but for me the wonder is where will the leadership come from out of this bunch? Losing C.J. Brown and Brian McBride will turn out to be bigger losses than Fire fans want to admit. Still, just like others in this conference, this is a club that could easily finish high or down here with their coach getting canned.
9. Toronto FC.
X-factor: Dwayne De Rosario – Fairly obvious pick really. If Toronto can keep DeRo happy then all should be fine in there. I think once Aron Winter’s Dutch style system really takes over DeRo will shine like he never has in this league.
Biggest Move: Management overhaul. Dumping all the failed moves that were made by Mo Johnston and Johnston himself were huge this winter. Bringing in Jurgen Klinnsman and Paul Merinar were equally big too. Winter’s system will take time to come to fruition though, so fans need to be patient there.
Concerns: The slow build will take longer than expected. I’m sure Toronto fans won’t want another playoff-less season but they’ll certainly have to wait it out with this bunch. Winter will tweak and re-tool this roster all year long but for the better. As long as management sticks with it they’ll come out on top in the future, just not in 2011.
Final Thoughts: Who knows, this club could surprise us but I’m not counting on it. Neither should you. Fact is their offense has no bite and their defense still isn’t anything to brag about. Keeping DeRo happy will be a challenge and if they can finally get some production out of DP Julian de Guzman it would go a long way. Still, there are just too many ifs with this squad right now to beg them as even a contender in a weaker conference.