MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Fire Power In The East

Trying to predict what will happen in the 2004 MLS season is a fruitless, futile and taxing endeavor, so like all forms of exercise, I’ll delay that for the time being. Besides, exercise is always better with a group of people to suffer along with you. Thus, Ian Plenderleith, Mark Bushman and Craig Stouffer, along with myself, will shake off the cobwebs and flex our prognosticating muscles Friday. In the meantime, I’ll present today the Eastern Conference outlook for each team.

Without delaying anything, yes, Freddy Adu is 14, and is making his professional debut Saturday against 2003 MLS Cup Champions San Jose. But the fate of DC United won’t reside only on his shoulders. They have a new coach in Peter Nowak, making his professional debut, and will finally turn Bobby Convey loose with Marco Etcheverry’s retirement.

In Chicago, who fell short against the Earthquakes at Home Depot Center, they lose stud defender Carlos Bocanegra and goalkeeper Zach Thornton to overseas assignments, but return the scoring threats that made them the 2nd most lethal in MLS.

Only New England’s offense was more potent–even without Taylor Twellman to close out the season–and they return everyone of significance, though they will look to tighten up a 9th rated defense in front of Adin Brown. He could be the next American goalkeeper to go to Europe, though, which is what happened to Tim Howard, leaving the MetroStars in mid-season.

The MetroStars not only lost Howard to the most powerful team in the world (but didn’t miss a beat there with Jonny Walker), they will have to make do without Clint Mathis, who is making a name for himself now in Germany. However, the center of their midfield could be dynamic with new addition Joselito Vaca.

Columbus decided to get a new defense and bring on three U23 players to a team that finished out of the playoffs, while at the same time donating an American teammate at Fulham for Bocanegra in Brian McBride, though they’ll hope Jeff Cunningham and Edson Buddle will stay healthy long enough to be potent.

That’s a very quick, and incomplete, overview, so for more on each Eastern Conference team–in alphabetical order–here goes:

1. Chicago Fire: The Fire will have no problems putting the ball in the back of the net, and with the exception of goalkeeper, seem to have a pretty solid starting 11. D.J. Countess came in from Dallas to vie for the goalkeeping job after Zach Thornton left for Benfica in Portugal. Countess or Henry Ring will be in net. No matter who it is, the Fire defense will have anchor Jim Curtin and breakout performer Kelly Gray. Curtin was a stalwart in back, being the only field player to start and finish all 30 regular season matches for the Fire. C.J. Brown and Evan Whitfield complete a sturdy, rugged presence in back. Chris Armas anchors the midfield, but it will have to start the season without Jesse Marsch after he underwent offseason surgery. In particular, this team is strong on the flanks–with DaMarcus Beasley, Andy Williams and Justin Mapp–and up top with Ante Razov and Damani Ralph. Mapp has speed to burn on either flank, while Razov and Ralph combined for 25 goals. In sum: Coach Dave Sarachan has a team that came close to winning MLS Cup in 2003 and won the US Open Cup, and from the top down, should be strong contenders out of the Eastern Conference to contend for both cups this season as well. This was a consistent performer that didn’t hit too many valleys in 2003; the Fire did not lose 2 matches in a row all season. The Fire had the best record at home–they return full time to Soldier Field until their home in Bridgeview is ready–and with the enthusiastic BarnBurners providing support, should retain that advantage once more.

2. Columbus Crew: Columbus will be tough to figure out, especially early this season, as the upheaval began almost as soon as the regular season ended with them missing the playoffs. Eleven of their 23 players are new this season, and just seven are left from their 2002 US Open Cup championship team. Maybe they aren’t rebuilding, but any team that finishes last in their conference and misses the playoffs has to do something. So they did. Defenders Robin Fraser (trade) and Chad Marshall (draft) midfielders Manny Lagos and Simon Elliott and goalkeeper Matt Jordan are among the acquisitions, though Marshall is currently out with a separated shoulder. The team also drafted another highly rated defender in Chris Wingert. Forwards Brian McBride and Brian West moved overseas while defender Mike Clark and goalkeeper Tom Presthus retired. The Crew do have potential up top with Jeff Cunningham and Edson Buddle–who combined for 15 goals–should they stay healthy. However, the Buddle/Cunningham combo won’t start healthy, as Buddle is fighting an Achilles injury. Columbus just added Erick Scott from Costa Rica as depth at forward. With more defensive depth, the Crew may be able to push Frankie Hejduk in midfield with Lagos helping out Kyle Martino. David Testo, one of the three U23 players in Columbus, is capable in midfield as well. While Jon Busch was solid in goal, Jordan, who left Denmark club Odense Boldklub, will give him a push. What to make of Columbus: Look for Greg Andrulis needing a bit of time to get this team to gel, but it is probably in the same mix as DC United and the MetroStars–potential with problems, but not pessimism. They would like that other p–playoffs–to be part of the vocabulary this season.

3. DC United: Do I even need to mention that Freddy Adu is on this team? While his development will be key to United’s fortunes this season, he shouldn’t be asked to bear totally the burdens of an anemic offense. New coach Peter Nowak inherits a team that struggled mightily finishing in open play and was horrendous on the set piece. On corners, for instance, United led the league in corners taken, and yet did not convert a single one for a goal in regular season play. Marco Etcheverry is gone, though he deserves a ton of the credit for giving the club their stature early-on in MLS’s existence. Bobby Convey will likely partner centrally with Dema Kovalenko to ignite a sputtering attack that was 8th of 10 teams in goals-scored in 2003, with Ben Olsen and perhaps promising newcomer Josh Gros on the flanks. If Adu gets muscled out of things, who will pick up the slack offensively?  Santino Quaranta could do it with more commitment and health. The team brought back Jaime Moreno and were impressed enough with his preseason play to keep him around. Alecko Eskandarian underachieved in his rookie season and will need to show the form that made him a top draft pick. A-League experience might not be a bad suggestion for the UVA product. Ronald Cerritos scored just once in his 10 matches with the team, and Earnie Stewart never knew his role and underachieved in his first MLS season.   While Hristo Stoitchkov showed flashes on the field, he showed destructive flashes in temperament. United should be thankful he isn’t back. Again, though, DC United should stay in games with a defense–captained by Ryan Nelsen and solid with veterans Brandon Prideaux and Mike Petke–that surrendered the 2nd fewest goals in MLS. Bryan Namoff was an underrated performer and adds flexibility to their defense and midfield. United should also return goalkeeper Nick Rimando, nearly-fully rehabilitated from a crushing knee injury. The final words: Nowak will need several things to happen in order to contend for anything. Among them, Convey will have to step up as a playmaker. United also will need to find legitimate goal-scoring options to take the pressure off of 14-year old phenom Adu. Do you really expect him to start and play all 30 regular season matches? United will also need to convert a set-piece on occasion to contend for anything, and will have to stay solid on defense. As it’s been so far in preseason, United struggled to finish chances, particularly without Adu in the lineup, not a good omen surely.

4. MetroStars: Jonny Walker proved to be a more-than-adequate replacement for Tim Howard, who’s found success defending Manchester United’s nets. An in-form Clint Mathis–not always inspired in the Meadowlands–will certainly be missed, though the mostly-youthful club reached the final of the US Open Cup and has the potential to break out this season. While the club doesn’t have the superstar player, it has solid ones such as Walker and defender Eddie Pope. Players like Eddie Gaven, Mike Magee and Ricardo Clark, though, will still be young, fast and more-seasoned, while Joselito Vaca paired with Amado Guevara in midfield could be dynamic. Guevara in particular will need to be more of a leader on the field. The club lost center back Steve Jolley to Dallas, though they got Tenywa Bonseu to pair up with Pope there. Pope’s severely bruised right thigh, however, could force rookie (and the final pick of the MLS draft) Jeff Parke into action beside Bonseu. Magee and John Wolyniec combined for 12 goals, with some of Wolyniec’s being spectacular. But they shouldn’t be content in their jobs, as the MetroStars signed three forwards in the last month–Jamaican Fabian Taylor, Trinidad forward Cornell Glen and Colombian Sergio Galvan Rey. That’s a clear sign that Bob Bradley is not satisfied with his current options, even after winning La Manga Cup in Spain during their preseason tour there. The analysis: The league probably got rid of OT in part just because of MetroStars matches–of which 13 went beyond 90 minutes. With Bradley at the helm, this is a team that should never be out of any match. Combine strong coaching with a standout goalkeeper, speed and enough of a dynamic midfield presence, look for the MetroStars to make a playoff run.

5. New England: The top-scoring team in MLS lose virtually nothing and should have a healthy Taylor Twellman once more, though why Pat Noonan may not win a starting role despite his 10 goals last season is odd. Joe-Max Moore, when healthy, is likely to start. though the seemingly-ageless defender Carlos Llamosa will be out indefinitely with a left knee ligament strain. That will hurt a defense that was next-to-last in MLS in goals-allowed with 47. Daoude Kante will take Llamosa’s spot in the lineup. Otherwise the defensive back-four remains the same with Rusty Pierce playing central and Joe Franchino and Jay Heaps playing wide. Adin Brown is a huge presence in goal, though he may not last the season if his wish is granted to go play in Europe. Their midfield should be solid, with Jose Cancela and Shalrie Joseph anchoring it centrally; Brian Kamler and Steve Ralston manning the flanks. Pat Noonan, surprisingly, is not assured of a starting role despite scoring 10 goals in his rookie season (another two in the playoffs) and getting looks with the national team. Outlook: This is a veteran–and streaky–team, though they are not old except in the back. They had a stretch of 9 matches in the middle of the season without a win and closed the season by winning 7 of their last 9. With their struggles conceding goals last season, they need to get younger there the way they have in midfield. After all, Llamosa can’t possibly play forever. We all thought Preki could, and the preseason has proven him mortal too.

So what can we conclude? That nothing is conclusive, and even the best of MLS prognosticators don’t want to touch predicting this season with a 10-foot pole. A 30-match summer season, interspersed with the US Open Cup and the odd friendly, is quite a long campaign for anyone, much less for the most-anticipated debut of a player in MLS history. Stay tuned for Mark Bushman’s look at the MLS Western Conference, Ian Plenderleith’s more detailed look at DC United, and then our exercise in prediction futility.

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