(Note: This is the second 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 main problem for the Dynamo in 2015 was their lack of identity. They weren’t able to establish any consistency, directly leading to their eighth-place finish in the Western Conference. Despite a career year from midfielder Ricardo Clark and another ten goal year from forward Will Bruin, Houston failed to get anything going throughout the season.
Much of this can be attributed to their assortment of injuries and international call-ups, but the Dynamo still had their own noticeable problems.
On defense, they eventually did find a backline that works late in the season–DaMarcus Beasley, Raul Rodriguez, David Horst, Sheanon Williams–but Beasley is a couple months of from 34, and can’t be expected to start another 28 matches. His backup, newly-acquired Abdoulie Mansally, is not starting-caliber by any means.
Despite possible struggles at left-back, they have plenty of good center-backs. Jalil Anibaba, Bradley Bourgois, Agus, Sebastien Ibeagha and Ivan Magalhaes all were picked up this offseason, and a couple, including the former Sporting KC man Anibaba, can sporadically play full-back.
Switching to the midfield, the Dynamo experienced a lot of turnover at the position this winter. Luis Garrido, Nathan Sturgis, Alexander Lopez, and, of course, Brad Davis, all departed, opening the door for Cristian Maidana, Andrew Wenger and Collen Warner to enter from Philadelphia and Toronto. Maidana will likely replace Davis as the primary chance creator centrally, while Clark and Giles Barnes will absorb larger roles this season after they combined to score 15 goals in 2015.
They filled their biggest need with the acquisition of Maidana–playmaking–but can’t dodge their biggest problem: identity. What will their playing style be? Who will take the scoring load?
Unless coach Owen Coyle can bring this squad together and establish some continuity, Houston may have to wait another year until they qualify for the playoffs.
Projection: They will certainly compete for a postseason berth, but there is a significant chance they don’t qualify. Then again, Coyle is an established coach who once brought Burnley promotion to the English Premier League. He could do it.
Los Angeles Galaxy
You can’t call anything a "rebuilding year" if the team made the playoffs and will likely do the same the following season. But what the LA Galaxy have done this offseason is the closest you can get.
The Galaxy’s overhaul included the sale of two franchise cornerstones–Juninho and Omar Gonzalez–the customary signings of aging Europeans–Jelle Van Damme, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong–the acquisition of Juninho’s central midfield replacements–Jeff Lawrentowicz and de Jong–and the switching of two prominent attackers’ positions–Gyasi Zardes went to forward while Giovani dos Santos went to the wing.
Those are some significant big-money moves, but the ages of Van Damme, Cole and de Jong are concerns. Each are over 30 and seem to be past their prime, making these signings a bit risky due to injury, form and fitness.
Still, they could very well turn out to be upgrades, and the cheapness of the deals make them less of an uncertainty.
Outside of those positions, the Galaxy have an abundance of talent. Robbie Rogers and A.J. DeLaGarza will start along the backline, and Steven Gerrard will play with de Jong in central midfield. Bruce Arena’s usual 4-4-2 formation will have Sebastian Lletget and dos Santos on the wings, and at forward will be Robbie Keane and Zardes, who will look to up his goal production now that he is playing his old position.
LA also acquired a new goalkeeper. After a disastrous goalkeeping season last year, when incumbent star Jaime Penedo suddenly left the team midseason and 38-year old, mistake-prone goalie Donovan Ricketts replaced him, the Galaxy had no choice but to upgrade. They went to Dan Kennedy in Dallas, who had been effectively usurped as the starter by Jesse Gonzalez.
All of these moves have made this squad one of the most talented in MLS, but now they will have to determine how the pieces fit.
Projection: Almost certainly playoffs, but beyond that, it’s hard to know.
The Impact were led on a late season rampage by Didier Drogba last year, ending up comfortably in the playoffs thanks to the 37-year old’s exploits. But going into 2016, they will have to go on something other than momentum.
Drogba will almost certainly not be available for the maximum 34 games. It just isn’t realistic. But Montreal will have enough talent offensively to keep up production, mostly thanks to the acquisition of Harry Shipp.
Shipp, dealt to the Impact from the Fire during the preseason, showed his best stuff in Chicago at center attacking midfielder, and reports say he will play that position in Quebec. That means they will likely employ a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Drogba as the lone striker and Ignacio Piatti as the other main offensive outlet on the left wing.
They have an abundance of talent in the midfield to go along with the aforementioned stars. Lucas Ontivero, primarily played on the wing, was brought in on loan from Galatasaray of Turkey, and players like Patrice Bernier, Marco Donadel, Kyle Bekker, Johan Venegas, and Andres Romero will fill up the midfield depth chart.
A very deep midfield is likely one of their strongest spots. Their defense, however, can’t be overlooked. Obviously, Laurent Ciman, the 2015 MLS Defender of the Year, will head the backline, but the Impact also have Montreal-native Wandrille Lefèvre in central defense, as well as Ambroise Oyongo and Donny Toia at full-back.
The next step for Montreal is to make sure they have a solid backup for the Ivorian Drogba. Cameron Porter and Dominic Oduro are currently plan B, but neither have even close to the effect that Drogba has. While that’s to be expected, the Impact will live and die on the success and healthiness of their star, so in order for their season not to collapse if he goes down, a capable backup is needed.
But for right now, the Canadian side look on track to challenge for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The midfield, specifically Shipp, is too good for them not to.
Projection: A third seed is probably the max they will get, but don’t be surprised if they are in the running come summer for a higher place.
Two years ago, the Revolution broke out and travelled all the way to the MLS Cup Final, where, of course, they fell to the Galaxy. Going into 2016, they have a similar positive outlook.
The Revs' first order of business was to replace 34-year old center midfielder Jermaine Jones, who has yet to sign a new contract and looks to be on his way out. Xavier Kouassi was signed from Swiss club FC Sion, but he tore his ACL in a SuperLeague game shortly after. That opened the door for perhaps one of the best signings of the entire offseason.
Gershon Koffie was dealt to New England in exchange for Allocation Money from Vancouver, and he looks like a perfect fit in their midfield. The Ghana-international can be considered one of the best young center midfielders, and is up there as one of the best box-to-box players, in the league. He will be allowed to run essentially wherever he wants on the field thanks to the defensive midfield presence of Scott Caldwell, similar to Jones throughout the past two years.
When you add Lee Nguyen to that impressive central midfield, you get one of the most potent in MLS. Nguyen can distribute as well as anybody, and with this kind of support in Koffie and Caldwell, New England look like a solid contender in the East.
The backline will likely consist of Andrew Farrell, Jose Gonçalves, Chris Tierney and London Woodberry, with Sporting CP loanee Sambinha and rookie right-back Jordan McCrary as backup. This is an experienced defense with plenty of attacking power, as Tierney is one of the most offensively-gifted full-backs in MLS.
Projection: Saying they’re a challenger for the Supporters’ Shield is a bit of a stretch, but don’t count them out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
NYCFC, entering as one of the two expansion clubs at the beginning of last season, garnered the attention of many when they signed three world class European stars: David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. They generated tons of buzz and brought in plenty of attention for the league. But they were unable to produce the way they were expected.
Villa managed to score 18 goals and grab eight assists, and goalkeeper Josh Saunders was quietly solid. However, injury problems and effort issues hampered Pirlo and Lampard, who entered the end of the Serie A and Premier League seasons. The midfield was consistently disjointed as a result, and New York would finish 12 points out of a playoff berth.
To try and solve these problems, they went out and traded for the number one overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, midfielder Jack Harrison. The Wake Forest product played central midfield in college, but he will reportedly play on the left in the pros. NYC also acquired Federico Bravo on loan from Boca Juniors and Mikey Lopez as depth in the midfield.
The backline was also an issue, as they gave up tied for the most goals in the league. They have completed a wholesale overhaul of the defense, letting go of Chris Wingert, Angelino, Shay Facey and Jeb Brovsky, while bringing in a series of replacements from across the globe: former Union center-back Ethan White, Ronald Matarrita from Costa Rican club Alajuelense, Frederic Brilliant from Oostende of Belgium, and Diego Martinez from River Plate.
Players like Andoni Iraola, Jefferson Mena and Jason Hernandez remain on the roster, creating a large cluster defensively. New manager Patrick Viera will an interesting decision on his hands about who will start on the backline.
They still have plenty of talent in the first team despite their lack of success. Kwadwo Poku, a midfielder from Ghana, impressed in spurts last season, striker Khiry Shelton earned his first USMNT call-up in January, and Mix Diskerud is due for a good year after a very disappointing campaign in 2015.
NYCFC haven’t done enough to repeal the many problems that ailed them last season. But they have lots of talent on the roster, and a skilled coach like Viera should be able to something with it.
Projection: Playoffs? It’s MLS. You never know.