Last year I wrote an 8,000 word preview on the off-season transactions of the 18 MLS teams not named Chicago Fire. This year, I’m planning on doing all 19 and in the same format as I did last year: East, Midwest, West, but in the reverse order this time. The season is upon us, let’s see how well or poorly the teams fared this off-season. Chicago
IN: Jeff Larentowicz, Joel Lindpere, Maicon Santos, Dilly Duka, Brendan King, Quincy Amarikwa OUT: Dan Gargan, Cory Gibbs, Dominic Oduro, Pavel Pardo, Alvaro Fernandez, Guillermo Franco, Federico Puppo, Jay Nolly, Tony Walls
Minutes Starting XI Returning: 8/11 Minutes Gameday 18 Returning: 11/18
Chicago looked prime to make a run for the Eastern Conference title last season before running out of gas with a month left to go. Many of the pieces that didn't click last season are gone or on loan far, far away from the club. Federico Puppo and Rafael Robayo didn't adapt the the league well enough to be effective, Alvaro Fernandez did the hard work yet couldn't put away the easy chances, Dominic Oduro didn't want to know his role, Dan Gargan became superfluous to Frank Klopas' plans, and Pavel Pardo and Cory Gibbs rode off into the sunset to the tranquil lands of retirement reminiscing on when they were younger and their knees didn't hurt in the morning. The Fire frees up a quarter of a million dollars on Pardo's retirement alone and adds more salary cap space after eliminating over another half million from Gargan, Gibbs, Oduro, Puppo, and Robayo. (Fire defenders are paid very well. Five defensive players were paid $160K+ in 2012. Austin Berry made $44K.)
Of course quality had to be brought in with all that extra cabbage laying around. Joel Lindpere, Jeff Larentowicz, Maicon Santos, and Dilly Duka were all brought in from other teams to shore up positions that the outgoing loanees couldn't. The Lindpere trade will add an attacking midfielder that also shows some grit and defensive hustle. I'm not sure if Lindpere will play solely as an attacking player or as a box-to-box type, but he has the ability to do both. Jeff Larentowicz is a more mobile defensive midfielder than Logan Pause and will also threaten with long range efforts. Dilly Duka will plug in at left midfield and has impressed Klopas this off-season so far. Maicon Santos and Quincy Amarikwa will add attacking depth behind Sherjill MacDonald and Chris Rolfe.
IN: Dominic Oduro, Tyson Wahl, Agustin Viana, Drew Beckie, Matias Sanchez, Wil Trapp, Chad Barso, Ryan Finley, Glauber OUT: Will Hesmer, Carlos Mendes, Dilly Duka, Tommy Heinemann, Chris Birchall, Sebastian Miranda, Julius James, Nemanja Vukovic, Rich Balchan, Olman Vargas, Cole Grossman
Minutes Starting XI Returning: 8/11 Minutes Gameday 18 Returning: 11/18
An interesting case of rebuilding for Columbus here as only a couple known names are brought in (Oduro, Wahl) and some contributors from last season are shipped out (Birchall, Miranda, Vukovic). Robert Warzycha is clearly building the team around the dynamic attacking duo of Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain as well as Columbus mainstays Chad Marshall and Eddie Gaven. Warzycha looks to tweak where his squad was weakest - the middle of the midfield - by bringing in Matias Sanchez and Agustin Viana. A veteran of the Argentinian Primera league, the 25-year old Sanchez will pair with fellow newcomer Viana coming from the Uruguayan Primera Division. The Crew's draft picks, Ryan Finley and Drew Beckie, will likely add depth to the forward position and fullback position respectively.
Outgoing are some overpriced an underutilized players. Will Hesmer played very little in 2012 after Andy Grueuenbaum took over the starting goalkeeper spot so his $170K goes out the door with him. Columbus paid Julius James $100K for 714 minutes of work, 3rd top minutes earner Sebastian Miranda $133K, and Olman Vargas $170K for 667 minutes and all will be gone. The Crew weren't pressed for salary cap space, but they weren't exactly using the money they were spending wisely either for a club that was average in goals scored and goals allowed. Warzycha seems to have the goal scoring problem fixed, but has to hope his new signings will solve the goals allowed problem.
IN: Eric Brunner, Omar Cummings, Jason Johnson, Andrew Driver OUT: Colin Clark, Andre Hainault, Macouba Kandji, Colin Rolfe, Josue Soto, Je-Vaughn Watson
Minutes Starting XI Returning: 9/11 Minutes Gameday 18 Returning: 13/18
Houston maintains the large marjority of its back to back MLS Cup finalist lineup. The loss of Canadian fullback Andre Hainault puts a little damper on the off-season, but Houston hasn't really lost anything they couldn't afford to give up. In fact, they have added salary cap room to an already low payroll with the subtractions of Hainault at $150K, Colin Clark at $105K and Geoff Cameron at $230K. That's a large amount of room opened up for a team that already has a lot of room to work with. Mac Kandji ($135K) performed admirably when called upon in Dominic Kinnear's 4-3-3 but it appears as though Kinnear wants to go back to his 4-4-2 and will not need the Senegalese striker any longer.
The Dynamo bring in modest additions in the form of Eric Brunner who was deemed surplus in a leaky Portland backline and Omar Cummings who was much less effective in Colorado in 2012 than years past. Kinnear has a way of trading within the league and revitalizing players' careers and if he can get Cummings going again and linked up with Will Bruin, Houston will have a lethal strike tandem. Jason Johnson will wear orange on the bench as the Jamaican speedster forward was selected 13th in the first round of the SuperDraft. Andrew Driver joins Houston on loan from Hearts of Midlothian and will back up Brad Davis on the left flank. Driver, 25, had a history of injury problems that seem to be behind him.
IN: Benny Feilhaber, Ike Opara, Claudio Bieler, Josh Gardner, Yann Songo'o, Mikey Lopez OUT: Roger Espinoza, Kei Kamara (loan), Julio Cesar, Cyprian Hedrick, Neven Markovic, Luke Sassano, Korede Aiyegbuse, Michael Harrington, Konrad Warzycha
Minutes Starting XI Returning: 8/11 Minutes Gameday 18 Returning: 14/18
Sporting Kansas City retains a large portion of their lineup that won the Eastern Conference last year while adding a couple new players that will need to step up. Benny Feilhaber joins the Kansas City club in a trade from New England who will likely be asked to step in the role left occupied by the Roger Espinoza transfer to Wigan Athletic. Claudio Bieler will replace Kei Kamara who is on loan to Norwich will may possibly not return. Bieler played for LDU Quito in the top Ecuadorian league who registered 20 goals in 34 games last season. Sporting also bring in a pair of centerbacks that will provide depth in the form of Ike Opara and Yann Songo'o, who is the brother of former Portland midfielder Franck Songo'o. Peter Vermes is really living large with the talented Opara as a backup depth option at centerback.
As already mentioned, the main losses are Kamara and Espinoza and Vermes seems to have found replacements for them. Julio Cesar held the midfield well with Espinoza and his departure may take away some bite from the Sporting midfield, but not a lot of net talent left the club so it would be difficult to think of this team as much worse than it was last year.
In fact, it may be better since the squad knows the Vermes system of play and will have another year to perfect it. What may bring Sporting down is the seemingly inevitable losses of Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, widely regarded as one of the best attacking midfielders and centerbacks in the league respectively. Yet what made the team so good last year was defense, and not just defenders and defensive midfielders, but team defense where once the ball was lost, a complete commitment was made to drop back and pressure the ball immediately. (a certain local pub team can learn from this) The defense was suffocating allowing some absurd number of 300 minutes without a shot on goal or something like that; I don't have the exact stat for it. That happened at the beginning of the season when Sporting won all of their first eight games. They cooled down after a while, sure, but they practically coasted to the playoffs where they were soundly beaten by an unstoppable Houston team.
And I still expect Houston to remain largely unstoppable. I love this team so much on paper. Brad Davis is still one of the most dangerous midfielders in the league and he will have help on the opposite flank from Oscar Boniek Garcia who will be one of the most dangerous midfielders in the league also. They will be serving up Will Bruin who is one of the most dangerous forwards in the league. See where I'm going here? Tally Hall is one of the be- ok, you know what I mean. From where I stand, Houston is a runaway favorite to win the East for me. The only thing I can see holding them back is Dominic Kinnear's patience to get the team peaking at the end of the season instead of Kansas City last year who had the throttle wide open throughout the year. I fully expect another Houston vs. Kansas City Eastern Conference final.
That's not to say that there can be a team to spoil the party. As we know once a team gets hot enough to get in the playoffs there could be no stopping until they win the Cup. Can Columbus be that team? In a word: maybe. A lot of questions still have yet to be answered regarding their holding midfield tandem. Also, just how good will Dominic Oduro be on the wing? We have already seen some of it in 2011 when he had some time out wide in Chicago and seemed to do decently well getting behind defenses. But how will his defensive work rate help the Crew? Will his sloppy first touches give possession away too easily? Can he cross worth a damn? Columbus are very top heavy with Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain and will lean heavily upon them to outscore the competition. Columbus has the pieces to finish no lower than sixth, but I'm not sure if they can finish any higher than sixth either.
However, Chicago almost certainly will. The midfield is robust, the defense is mostly strong, and the attack can produce goals if it clicks. That "if" my biggest concern, though. Sherjill MacDonald is a great setup, postup player for the Fire and will likely have at least seven or eight assists if he stays healthy, but also less than 10 goals. Chris Rolfe will be on the end of many of those assists as he can find those sneaky spaces in defenses and put "slapshots" in the back of the net with both feet. Yet a lot relies on Rolfe's health which can be a concern. Chicago may be able to find goals all over the midfield as all four midfielders are capable of setting up and scoring, but you need your star striker to finish consistently and that's reason to worry if he's often injured. What the top teams in the league have are at least two effective and consistent scorers on their roster yet the Fire don't even have two double digit goal scorers in eight fucking seasons. The league's best teams score buckets of goals and Frank Klopas needs to find a way to put the ball in the net early and often.
Especially early since the defense seems so mistake prone, which is frustrating considering the talent level. Easy mistakes shouldn't be happening like they were last year with Arne fucking Friedrich, the MLS Rookie of the Year, a USMNT goalkeeper, and one of the club's legendary leftbacks. Concentration and communication at the back must be better for this team to finish higher than fourth in the East like they did last year. The mobility of Jeff Larentowicz will help shield the defense, but taking away the second holding midfielder concerns me a little. I know, I need to be a brave little toaster and deal with it, but there's something about one defensive midfielder in front of a mistake prone backline that makes me tense. If the defense can learn from last season's mistakes and Arne Friedrich can stay healthy for at least 2/3rds of the season, the Fire should be fine and improve upon the fourth best goals against total from last year.
And shut the fuck up about Logan Pause already. He's going to be fine at rightback.
Weekend Matches: Philadelphia vs. Sporting Kansas City Houston vs. D.C. United Chivas USA vs. Columbus Los Angeles vs. Chicago