With Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake set to play for the MLS Cup, a half-dozen other title contenders are already working to address team needs.As we approach the week leading up to the 2013 MLS Cup, all but two of Major League Soccer’s 19 teams have already put the recent season on the shelf and begun making plans for how to close the gap on finalists Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake.
Whether it is cutting dead weight from the roster or heading to South America to start scouting (as the Portland Timbers did Friday), the teams that came closest to challenging Sporting KC and RSL are all fully aware that standing pat isn’t an option.
In the cases of teams that didn’t make the playoffs, or those that barely did, the list of improvements that need to be made can be lengthy. But for a select group of teams that can be called legitimate title contenders, the upcoming winter will likely make or break their chances of being one of the teams playing in the MLS Cup a year from now.
Here is a closer look at the what the six best teams not playing in the MLS Cup final will be focusing on as the offseason gets into full swing:
NEW YORK RED BULLS
For a team that posted the best regular season record in the league, the Red Bulls sure did have some flaws. Consistent wing play, a true playmaking midfield threat and a reliable forward partner for Thierry Henry were all need areas. Juninho was supposed to be the team’s playmaker, but that experiment failed. Fabian Espindola was supposed to replace Kenny Cooper as Henry’s preferred strike partner, but he never quite got settled. As for wingers, Lloyd Sam showed some promise and Jonny Steele overachieved playing out of position, but the Red Bulls always felt like a team that needed more consistency on the flanks.
The real question in New York is whether the Red Bulls have the money to make the necessary upgrades on the wings, at forward and at attacking midfielder. Rumblings out of New York suggest the team is strapped for cash and may be limited in the number of moves the club can make. If that is the case, Red Bulls fans hoping for a third designated player to join the team may be sorely disappointed.
For a first-year reconstruction project under Caleb Porter, the Timbers exceeded all expectations and were probably closer to being a true title contender than any other team on this list. That doesn’t mean there aren’t clear positions to strengthen.
Topping the team’s shopping list is a target forward capable of carrying the scoring load. Ryan Johnson had some good stretches but wasn’t the star forward the team needed. Maximiliano Urruti showed quality as well late in the year, but look for the Timbers to shop for a big-ticket striker. Portland can also use a skilled center back capable of providing a good passing option, like how Matt Besler plays for Sporting KC. Finding one of those is easier said than done, but the Timbers have the resources to do so.
The ugly playoff loss to Portland provided an emphatic ending to a late-season collapse that exposed the Sounders as a flawed team in need of a roster shakeup. There is plenty of talent to work with but some areas of concern. Much like the Red Bulls, Seattle need a playmaker to replace the out-of-favor Mauro Rosales, and the team can use an upgrade at center back.
Money could be a problem, though. The team has a lot of salary cap space tied up by Clint Dempsey, newly minted designated player Osvaldo Alonso and Obafemi Martins, who might have to be sent packing to give the team some flexibility to make necessary improvements. There are also the matters of paying Lamar Neagle a deserved raise and offloading Shalrie Joseph’s contract, which won’t be easy.
How will Seattle make it all work? Trading away Eddie Johnson should help, as will parting ways with Rosales, but those moves alone may not be enough to give the Sounders the necessary wiggle room to hit the market and improve the team sufficiently.
When the Galaxy signed Omar Gonzalez to a new contract making him a designated player, it became clear there would be no more high-profile stars on the way to LA. The trio of Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Gonzalez is still as good as any in the league, but the team never did make up for the departures of David Beckham and Mike Magee.
So how will the team find a third attacking star without much salary cap room to work with? LA basically needs its youngsters to grow up fast. Jose Villarreal has the potential to be a star, while Gyasi Zardes showed real promise as a rookie. Anyone hoping for the arrival of international market upgrades will have to keep waiting because, barring some shrewd maneuvering from Bruce Arena, the Galaxy will need Villarreal, Zardes and Robbie Rogers to really step it up in 2014 if the Galaxy will have any chance at regaining the title they lost this year.
Just a year removed from consecutive MLS Cup appearances, the Dynamo probably don't need a complete overhaul, but could certainly use some star power. If the team is serious about signing a designated player, then a forward or attacking midfielder would make the most sense for a team that went through some painfully long stretches without a goal in 2013.
The Dynamo need a reliable forward, something Will Bruin and Omar Cummings didn't provide in 2013. Houston has toyed with the prospect of a designated player before, but signing a big-name striker should be at the top of the Dynamo's wish list. Some central midfield depth could help as well for a team that should have the salary cap wiggle room to make some additions.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
The shopping list for the Revs consist of one big need: forward. They lost Juan Agudelo, and with Saer Sene suffering a major injury late in the 2013 season, New England need to hit the international market and find a gem like it found with MLS Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves.
Second on the Revs' wish list is a defensive midfielder. The team lacked a physical presence there late in the year, and it needs to find the right midfielder to take control in the middle of the park.