(Note: This is the first of a series of four MLS team preview articles. Each preview will analyze clubs' strengths and weaknesses as well as their lineup and roster. Five teams will be previewed every day leading up to March 6, going in alphabetical order.)
The Fire will certainly have a different end product than last season, when they finished with just 30 points, but whether or not it’s a significant improvement remains to be seen.
The Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers revamped a backline that gave up 58 goals, tied for the most in MLS. They drafted Brandon Vincent with the fourth-pick in the SuperDraft, which they acquired from NYCFC for the first pick and cash, and signed two European center-backs: Portuguese Joao Meira and Dutchman Johan Kappelhof. Brazil U-20 right-back Rodrigo Ramos or one last year’s holdovers, like Eric Gehrig, will start on the right side.
Chemistry will be an issue for four players who have never played with each other before, but on paper, this looks to be a significant improvement. With a solid keeper in Sean Johnson behind them, the defense seems to be far better than last year’s.
Chicago’s midfield may be a problem, however. Harry Shipp was traded to Montreal, taking away by far their best creator, and they have yet to acquire a winger to play opposite David Accam. Manager Veljko Paunovic wants to employ high-tempo and high-pressure tactics, similar to Supporter’s Shield winners New York Red Bulls, and will now have to search for a new central midfielder.
At forward, it will likely be Gilberto in a 4-2-3-1, or, in a two-forward set, Kennedy Igboannike will start alongside him.
Projection: Playoffs are a possibility–of course, the same can be said for everyone else in MLS–but they need a Shipp replacement before they can even think about the postseason.
Like the Fire, Colorado finished at the bottom of their respective conference. The main concern for them is goal-scoring, as they netted just 33 of them last season.
The Rapids signed designated player Shkëlzen Gashi to help combat this problem. Gashi, who helped the Albanian national team qualify for Euro 2016, has lead the Swiss Super League in scoring each of the last two seasons, and appeared in the UEFA Champions League with FC Basel.
This impressive pedigree is welcomed in Colorado, more so considering he is only 27. But will he and fellow forward Kevin Doyle get the service they need to be productive?
To answer this question, Colorado added Guatemalan winger Marco Pappa from the Seattle Sounders, and traded for the Union’s Zach Pfeffer. Both of these players can provide serviceable distribution to the forwards, and the Rapids still have existing central midfield stalwarts Dillon Powers and Dillon Serna.
The loss of Marcelo Sarvas hurts, but the talent of Gashi should be enough to improve on last season. Even if the midfielders don’t create the chances needed to score an adequate amount of goals, the Rapids will be on the track to improvement in the area.
On defense, Colorado traded former captain center-back Drew Moor to Toronto FC, and let experienced defender Michael Harrington depart for Chicago. They re-signed 10-year MLS veteran Bobby Burling to start in central defense, though, and brought in 23-year old full-back Eric Miller from Montreal.
In another of one of their many questionable offseason decisions, they traded goalkeeper Clint Irwin to Toronto and have trusted Zac MacMath, traded from Philadelphia, to start in goal, at least until the summer. In a blockbuster deal, Colorado reportedly signed Everton's Tim Howard on a pre-contract until after the Premier League season ends. Both will need plenty of support from the backline, which also could include Trinidadian acquisition Mekeil Williams.
The Rapids have the top spot in the allocation order, so they can still add another talented attacker. In the meantime, they will have to make due with what has to be considered the worst offseason of anybody in MLS.
Projection: Unless Gashi turns out to be the next Giovinco, Colorado won’t make the playoffs in the tight Western Conference.
The defending Eastern Conference champions were unable to bring silverware to Columbus, but their talented roster will get another crack at it. Gregg Berhalter and Co. kept almost the entire squad the same, save for a few minor transactions.
The Crew brought in veteran full-back Corey Ashe to back up starters Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, and filled the hole Jack McInerney left at backup striker with the signings of Conor Casey and Ola Kamara. Aside from that, it was a fairly uneventful offseason for Columbus.
They will likely go with the same starting lineup as last year: Steve Clark in goal, Francis and Afful at full-back, Gaston Sauro and Michael Parkhurst at center-back, Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani in defensive midfield, Federico Higuain at attacking midfield, Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram on the wings and Kei Kamara up top.
There really aren’t many weaknesses with this team.
The problem they will face, though, is that they aren’t a new commodity anymore. Clubs have had a few months to look them over, and without much turnover, all the Crew can do is sit and wait until teams take advantage of it.
But they have too much talent to have their season marred by this.
Projection: Barring any unforeseen injuries, Columbus will compete for the top seed in the conference.
It was a promising end to 2015 for D.C. United. Despite getting drubbed 5-0 by Columbus on Decision Day, the Black and Red were almost able to unseat the Red Bulls from their throne atop the Eastern Conference, losing out in the conference semi-finals.
Now, they have had two of the worst possible things happen to them this offseason: star goalkeeper Bill Hamid was lost for four-to-six months due to a knee injury and starting defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen will leave because of contract limbo. Both of these players have national team prospects, and were considered cornerstones for the future.
Now, instead of looking at this season as another shot at a cup, D.C will face questions on a number of topics: What formation will they play? Can Alvaro Saborio keep going at age 33? How will Hamid and Kitchen be replaced?
All these queries have to be answered by Ben Olsen and his staff. While Andrew Dykstra was good as a backup goalie, he may not fit the bill as a starter. In Olsen’s preferred 4-4-2 formation, good center midfielders are needed to offset the inevitable unbalanced central midfield, and Kitchen was a huge part of why they were able to (mostly) do that. Can Markus Halsti and Marcelo Sarvas hold the fort?
Saborio surely isn’t the only capable forward on the roster–Chris Rolfe and Fabian Espindola earned plenty of playing time–but the former RSL man is an integral part of the striking corps, and United need him to produce something. Judging from his current scoring trend, he won’t be producing all that much.
On the other hand, Luciano Acosta, acquired on loan from Boca Juniors, looked very good in DCU’s loss to Queretaro in the CONCACAF Champions League. He can control the ball magnificently in tight spaces, and will sit high up the midfield creating chances. But it has to be noted, no goals came from United in that game. It remains to be seen if Acosta is the solution to their offensive problems.
Whether or not Olsen can get these solved will make or break D.C. United’s season.
Projection: It may not be a playoff year for D.C. The losses of Hamid and Kitchen could very well prove to be insurmountable.
Going into the offseason, FC Dallas had one main concern with their roster: the forward position. David Texeira was the obvious weak link from their successful campaign last year that saw them fall just short of MLS Cup. To resolve this issue, FCD allowed Texeira to walk (he would sign with a Turkish club) and picked up striker Maximiliano Urruti in the re-entry draft. Urruti, an Argentine to go along with Mauro Diaz, isn’t necessarily good enough to start 25 games and produce at a constant rate, though, so there was a need for another forward to go with the former Timbers man.
That’s where Carlos Lizarazo comes in, who Dallas signed loan from Liga MX’s Cruz Azul in February. While he is a virtual unknown coming in, he is rated highly by head coach Oscar Pareja:
"Carlos is a very talented player," said Pareja in a team press release. "He is very technical, very vertical with a powerful shot. He will add something different to our team. He is an intelligent and he can play forward."
If Lizarazo and Urruti manage to sufficiently fill the void Texeira and Blas Perez left, FCD will be set. Fabian Castillo, born in the same Colombian city as Lizarazo, is arguably the best winger in MLS, while Diaz can do things like this in the attacking half. Michael Barrios, Tesho Akindele, Mauro Rosales and Ecuadorian designated player Carlos Gruezo fill out the rest of their deep attacking depth.
Victor Ulloa and Ryan Hollingshead will likely play defensive midfielder, while the backline will be set with MLS Best XI center-back Matt Hedges. Mexico-international Jesse Gonzalez, taking over for the traded Dan Kennedy, will start the season at goalkeeper.
Projection: Expect FC Dallas to contend for the top spot in the Western Conference, and possibly win it for a second straight year.