While it feels like just yesterday that Toronto was celebrating its first MLS Cup, the 2018 MLS season is only a few short days away. A lot has happened in what was one of the league’s most active off-seasons in recent memory. With franchise expansion bringing yet another squad into the fray, Los Angeles FC will look to emulate the success that Atlanta United experienced last year in their inaugural campaign. Increased investment throughout the league has bolstered rosters with international newcomers, as Targeted Allocation Money once again played a major role in talent acquisition. Throw in injuries, trades, new stadiums, snazzy new kits and so much more, and it can feel like there has been too much soccer news to process. Well fret not my friend, for below you will find the comprehensive guide to all things important (and some trivial) in anticipation of the 2018 MLS season. Today I will be covering the Eastern Conference, make sure to check in Friday (3/2/18) for my preview of the Western Conference. Clubs will be listed based on my projection of how the table will look by season’s end.
- Toronto FC: Ready to defend their 2017 MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield, the back to back Eastern Conference Champions were not content to simply continue with business as usual. Key off-season additions Gregory van der Wiel and Ager Aketxe will reinforce an already stacked roster. While some regression to the mean is expected this year in a more competitive conference (the club was a full 12 points clear of their nearest competition in 2017), ending atop the table is well within reach. This is a playoff tested, savvy group who (barring serious injuries) have what it takes to roar back into the postseason. Having reached the mountaintop last season, complacency may be this squad’s biggest threat to a repeat; but, if we are considering which club has the best chance to cause some change to the leaderboard…
- Atlanta United: Look no further than the scrappy upstarts of the Peach State. With relatively little preseason hype heading into their debut season, Atlanta shocked the league and not only made the playoffs but looked impressive in the effort as well. This off-season the club has been aggressive in not only proving last season was not a fluke; but rather, breaking through in the postseason. Acquiring Darlington Nagbe in any normal off-season would be considered a victory in its own right. Dropping a league record transfer fee (reportedly upwards of $15 million USD) to snare 18 year old Argentinian phenom puts this squad’s offense squarely among the best in the league. Losing Carlos Carmona is going to hurt efforts on the defensive side, and spending more does not always equate to instant success on the pitch. By season’s end however, there will be few squads capable of running with the offensive firepower Atlanta will be bringing every match.
- NYCFC: With a premature departure in the playoff semifinals, last season did not end the way this squad would have hoped for; but, David Villa and Co. are back mostly in tact to take another run at the Eastern elites. Jesus Medina was a solid off-season pickup, and young contributors like Yangel Herrera should see their roles increase as the coach’s place greater trust in them. The defense may have to carry this squad at times, as the only proven commodity in terms of goal production is the seemingly ageless leg of Villa. Top to bottom though this group’s floor realistically is a playoff berth once more.
- Orlando City SC: If Atlanta gave me pause to state that spending money and making roster changes may not equate to immediate on field results, my sentiments clearly did not reach the ears of the decision makers in Orlando. With a flurry of off-season roster moves, it would probably be prudent for the staffers to hand out name tags until we are a few weeks deep into the season. Key additions like Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, and Josue Colman undoubtedly have upgraded the talent level of this squad. It remains to be seen how long it will take for all these new pieces to come together, and if the sum can be greater than the parts. In a conference where certainty begins to fall off outside of the top 3 squads, 4th seems like a fair prediction based on talent alone for this unit.
- NY Red Bulls: In trading Sacha Kljestan, this squad has made a commitment toward a younger looking roster in 2018. The addition of Kaku and increasing responsibility for Tyler Adams will keep this team competing for a playoff berth. The real question is did all these moves place them in a position to climb the Eastern ladder, or will a low playoff berth remain the ceiling? Player development will be a key narrative to watch as the season progresses.
- Columbus Crew: For a team that made a deep run in the playoffs last season (nearly keeping Toronto out of the finals) there has been little preseason love given to the men from Ohio. While losing attackers Justin Meram and Ola Kamara were via trade will hurt offensively, Gyasi Zardes had shown promise thus far as a part of the replacement plan. Gregg Berhalter has done more with lesser rosters before, and until proven otherwise the smart money is he will get enough out of his team to reach the playoffs once more.
Outside of Playoff
Chicago Fire: Losing David Accam is going to hurt this squad a lot more than most fans realize. That departure coupled with an ever aging Bastian Schweinsteiger and his injury history give me great hesitancy in pegging this team to return to the playoffs.
Montreal Impact: There is reason for optimism coming out of their youth academy, and the acquisition of Saphir Taider at least brings some upgrade to the current roster. The safety valve that is Ignacio Piatti makes the floor for this squad not terribly low, but it is hard to project their ceiling as incredibly high either.
D.C. United: Fans will certainly be enjoying the new digs (Audi Field will be a much needed improvement) but the on field product is perennially an uncertainty. Upgrades across the roster were made; but, a daunting road heavy front half of the season could take the wind out of this squad’s sails before they can find their form.
New England Revolution: Minimal roster change is not necessarily a bad thing, but when you failed to make the playoffs the year before it may not instill the greatest deal of faith in fans/pundits (myself included with the latter). It doesn’t help when your best player, Lee Nguyen, is publicly looking for an exit strategy. This is a team more poised to make noise in their locker room than the postseason.
Philadelphia Union: Adding David Accam is a huge plus for this squad. With a less than stellar 2017 finish though a a lot of unproven young players (especially among the center backs) it is incredibly difficult to know what this team is made of until season’s end.