MLS: The Flat-Footed (Ugly?) East

(UPDATE: This thing kind of rambles…sorry.  The point I had intended to make when I sat down to write the thing is pretty simple: it’s not so much the lack of activity among Eastern Conference teams that worries me; it’s the sneaking suspicion I have that they’re going to come out dull and end 2008 dull and tired.  OK, you can read it now.)

On Monday of this week, I was fairly far along with assigning major significance to an idea contained in a paragraph that Ives Galarcep would insert in today’s piece for ESPN on the new-model DC United (I can see the future sometimes). Here’s that:

“D.C. United heads into its 13th season brimming with confidence over a busy and productive offseason that has the rest of the Eastern Conference looking comatose by comparison. It will be up to Soehn to make all the pieces fit, and to the newcomers to prove that they are better than the long list of former D.C. standouts that departed to make room for them.”

As much as that second sentence bears marking and remembering, it was the first sentence that really struck me. No Eastern Conference club – hell, no Western Conference club when you get down to it – has matched DC United this off-season in terms of ambition or, no less significantly, in actually landing the players they’re chasing. Sure, some clubs have tried (Columbus Crewmaybe) and others are making some noises (Red Bull New York, Chicago Fire), but, unlike them, DC is going into preseason with all the pieces in camp, playing together, and learning one another.

As for behind as New York, Columbus, and Chicago may seem, they’re lapping the remaining three Eastern Conference teams. Toronto FC hasn’t changed much more than Mo Johnston’s job description, the Kansas City Wizards are talking new formation instead of new personnel. Elsewhere, the New England Revolution’s brain-trust appears seized up in a kind of overwhelmed paralysis. (Honduras? Ugh…that’s so 2004.)

All that tallies, but as I tried to take Galarcep’s basic statement – e.g. the idea that DC has been the busiest club – to the next-step idea that struck me on Monday – e.g. that they’re the most prepared club – I couldn’t carry it over the hump, at least not automatically. As much as I believe DC has improved – even to the point that they’re again looking like the club to beat in the East – the measure of the rest of the East’s readiness isn’t how they spazzed in the off-season, so much as what they have left over from 2007. And that took some reading.

Caveats aside, a look at the current rosters suggests the general inactivity won’t wear so well for some clubs. Take Toronto: to put this bluntly, is Ronnie O’Brien still alive? Yeah, they shored up their defense in the SuperDraft, but I’m betting that record goal-less streak last summer that they’ll need more than that to get off the bottom of the combined league table. After them, no club’s set-up spells “Danger” like New England’s. It’s not just the countless games they’ll very likely play (Superliga, CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup), but the one-way traffic out of Gillette that should cause concern; after a grumpy Taylor Twellman and Old Man Ralston (OK, plus some others) they’ll be taking a young, young roster through all that, which is good for energy, but potentially just this side of horrible for quality and mental resilience. To pose the obvious question, what happens when the losses start piling up?

But it’s these two teams above the rest that suggested slipping the word “ugly” into the title to describe how the East might look in 2008. To review: Toronto improved its defense; New England lost some key attacking players – and what does that spell? Batten down the hatches and defend, my buckos! The worrying thing is, the Revolution didn’t lose everything: they kept the parts of the team – Shalrie Joseph, Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst, and, now, Chris Albright – that make them so damnably hard to beat. Add the turf-topped fields in both Toronto and New England and things could get really, really goal-free and dull.

Turn to those other teams – the ones showing some signs of life – and things don’t look much better. Chicago may have lost the joy-crushing Juan Carlos Osorio, but they returned the rugged defensive corps; more to the point, early attempts aside, they have yet to upgrade the attacking side (where, oh, where are you Fabric Pancakes?). As much as my heart bleeds for the Crew’s failed efforts, the hard reality is they’re relying on a pair of rookies to remedy their shortcomings in front of goal; meanwhile, the plus ca change vibe on the defensive end points to still another hard-to-beat, low-scoring side in the East.

Unless I’m missing something, that’s four teams – five if you count DC. It’s asking a lot of Kansas City – or, more to the point, Carlos Marinelli – to turn KC into a collective scoring machine. Sure, they’re talking possession and a 3-5-2 (see above), but the question of who’s going to knock in the goals AEJ (after Eddie Johnson) remains an open question. The answer, at time of writing, looks like Scott Sealy (not bad), Ivan Trujillo, and a buttload of midfielders. On the upside, KC played some open stuff…for the first half of 2007, anyway. It depends in the end, I suppose, on what they can do with the improved possession they anticipate.

This leaves, finally, Red Bull New York. And, here, I’m not wild about the omens. First, there’s my opinion of Osorio – not the best where excitement’s concerned, as I’ve noted before. Against that, though, there’s that eminently beatable defense, which, best-case (well, for us non-Red Bull fans), will keep things entertaining. Unless Eric Brunner is some kind of god, I’m not seeing enough changes to the roster over last year to suggest New York reloaded at the back. At least they still have one of the best forward tandems in Major League Soccer (MLS); between that and the defense, we may yet see some high-scoring games.

So, where does that leave us with the East? By my count, I’m seeing four teams who, at present, lack the personnel for open, attacking soccer (New England, Toronto, Columbus, Chicago); two of them are showing signs of life, the other two….well, let’s move on. Things sound pretty underwhelming out KC way, a situation that leaves them in the long-shot position of hoping that moving the parts around will be sufficient. Finally, there’s New York, where all hope rests on Osorio failing to teach competent defending. Pretty bleak. I’m still holding out for a raft of exciting, new personnel – PRAYING is more like it and I’m not religious – but the season feels awfully close all of the sudden.

The present, and somewhat ominous, bottom line: DC may or may not sweep the East before it, but they’re about the only team I’m expecting to look anything like pretty.


One Response

  1. […] MLS: The Flat-Footed (Ugly?) East […]

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