The Philadelphia Union, D.C. United and Toronto FC missed the MLS playoffs in 2013, but as the 2014 preseason begins, all three prepare to make the most of revamped squads.As the first of Major League Soccer’s 19 teams began converging for preseason training camps this past weekend, we saw the formal end of an extremely busy MLS offseason for three East teams eager to erase the memories of past disappointments.
The Philadelphia Union, D.C. United and Toronto FC all failed to make the playoffs in 2013, and all three have the look of serious playoff contenders after roster overhauls that transformed each of them.
Toronto FC enjoyed the splashiest of the winter spending sprees, spending a reported $100 million on Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, while also adding Brazilian forward Gilberto, former FC Dallas midfielder Jackson Goncalves, former San Jose left back Justin Morrow and Blackburn right back Bradley Orr. Those half-dozen players won’t guarantee the team its first playoff berth in team history, but it should ensure that TFC will have its strongest team ever, and one that should at least compete seriously for a playoff place.
D.C. United has had the busiest offseason in MLS, which was to be expected after becoming the first team in MLS history to only win three games. That season led to an exodus of players, and infusion of sorely needed veteran talent.
Coach Ben Olsen will be hoping vets like Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke and Davy Arnaud can toughen up and help speed up the maturity of United’s young nucleus, while big additions Eddie Johnson and Sean Franklin will be expected to boost the team’s overall attacking and defensive quality.
While D.C. added more veterans, the East makeover that might wind up yielding the best results could be the one pulled off by the Philadelphia Union. The Union came much closer to the playoffs in 2013 than TFC or United, actually winning more matches (12) than the other two teams combined (9). Closing the three-point gap on playoff teams like Montreal, Houston and New England could happen after the team succeeded in a major midfield overhaul.
Maurice Edu will be introduced as the Union’s newest midfielder later this week, where he will join Argentina wing midfielder Cristian Maidana as the biggest pieces of the team’s offseason puzzle. They aren’t the only ones, though. French playmaker Vincent Nogueira is on the verge of signing, and if the Union secure that trio, coach John Hackworth should have the attacking boost his team needed to push its way into a playoff berth.
All three teams have to be feeling good as their preseasons begin, but all three have unanswered questions remaining. In D.C., just who will be the primary playmaker in Olsen’s system? In Toronto, there is a similar question hovering, along with a reasonable question about whether the team’s defense has improved enough to be a serious playoff contender.
The Union head into 2014 with defensive questions as well. Philadelphia had to trade veteran Jeff Parke to pave the way for Edu, and will likely now turn to young central defender Ethan White to partner with Amobi Okugo. Edu’s presence in front of the defense should ease some pressure off the back line, but the Union will need White to go from intriguing prospect to solid starter in order to ensure a successful run to the playoffs.
How realistic are this trio’s chances of breaking through and reaching the postseason? With Montreal having a rather lackluster offseason, snatching a playoff berth is definitely possible, but Philadelphia, TFC and United could all be vying for the same spot unless a team like New England takes a step back, or New York has a collapse like United had in 2013 after posting an impressive 2012.
The spotlight will be on Hackworth, Olsen and Ryan Nelsen as they try to work with all the new pieces, and try to turn losing teams into winners. The investment made by all three teams will mean added pressure on all three, who will head into the new season at the top of the list of coaches most likely to be fired if things don’t go well.
The busy winters should lead to a more competitive race in the East, but talk of the East closing the gap on the West might be a bit premature. Portland is having a strong winter and is looking like a title favorite heading into 2014, and the LA Galaxy look ready to make another championship run after retooling. Seattle had to tinker with its roster, but still looks as strong as any team in the East, and RSL lost Jason Kreis but kept most of the major pieces of an MLS Cup finalist.
No, the East isn’t quite ready to really challenge the west for "Strongest Conference" honors, but the Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC and D.C. United had the kind of offseasons that should make them all considerably better in 2014 than they were in 2013, and will make the MLS preseason one worth watching closely to see just how much better these teams really are.
MORE DETAILS ON THE EDU DEAL
Maurice Edu’s move to the Philadelphia Union was one of the more complicated moves of the winter, but the Union now have the player they feel can push the team back into the playoffs.
Sources tell Goal USA that Edu will be joining the Union on a 12-month loan with a purchase option. By bringing Edu on loan, the Union managed to avoid a conflict with MLS, which wasn’t interested in paying Edu the $1.5 million he was looking for.
Edu chose to return to MLS over options in England, France and Spain. Watford, Blackpool, Sochaux, Nantes and Real Betis were all interested in bringing the U.S. World Cup veteran for the second half of the European season, but Edu picked MLS with the hopes of impressing Jurgen Klinsmann enough for a place on the U.S. World Cup team.
So how is Philadelphia paying for the additions of Edu, Maidana and Nogueira? The loaning of Carlos Valdes to San Lorenzo helped provide the team with the financial support to pull the move off, while having Kleberson’s contract off the books is a major reason the team could afford the moves. For those with short memories, the Union acquired Kleberson for one season in exchange for buying out Freddy Adu’s two-year contract and sending him to Brazilian club Bahia. That move helped move Adu’s guaranteed $600,000 contract in 2014 off the team’s books.
JOHNSON STILL WAITING FOR NEW DEAL
One person watching Edu’s return to MLS closely was Eddie Johnson, who has yet to sign his new deal with D.C. United. Sources tell Goal USA that Johnson was ready to lobby hard for a big-money increase amid word that Edu could potentially secure a seven-figure contract. Now that Edu is arriving via a loan that will require a far smaller financial commitment from the Union and MLS, Johnson will have a slightly tougher argument for a contract beyond the $600,000 a season that is likely the best-case scenario for him from MLS.