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MLS team previews: Examining the Red Bulls, Orlando City, Union, Timbers, and RSL

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In part three of four of MLS team preview articles, we analyze the New York Red Bulls, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls defied the doubters with a dream season in 2015, winning the Supporters’ Shield and solidifying their place among the best. Needless to say, there wasn’t much improvement necessary for NYRB.

But when star center-back Matt Miazga–who at just 20-years old broke onto the scene with his hometown club–departed for Chelsea in late January, a huge hole opened up in central defense.

The other starting defender, Damien Perrinelle, injured his leg during the playoffs and was ruled out for months, meaning it will be Ronald Zubar starting in his place until he comes back. It was a big concern for the Red Bulls that they wouldn't have their favored Perrinelle-Miazga pairing.

Their solution was Gideon Baah, a Ghanaian playing in the Finnish top division with HJK Helsinki. With some help from fellow Black Star Lloyd Sam, NYRB convinced Baah to leave Finland and go to Harrison, New Jersey. He was signed in early February, making sure the Red Bulls had two starting-caliber center-backs.

Outside of that position, coach Jesse Marsch has a lot to work with. MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Luis Robles will start in goal, Sal Zizzo and Kemar Lawrence will play full-back, Dax McCarty, Sacha Klejstan and Felipe in midfield, Sam and Mike Grella on the wings and Bradley Wright-Phillips up top. This is a star-studded team with a proven identity and tactics.

It’s hard to win the Supporters’ Shield two years in a row, though. They will certainly be in contention, but there are too many variables at play (for example, injuries, international call-ups, other competitors) for them to grab the trophy again.

Projection: A high seed in likely, and they will be gunning for an MLS Cup. It just might happen.

Orlando City SC

Orlando actually had a pretty successful season last year considering they were playing their first season in MLS. They accumulated 44 points, staying in the playoff race until the final day. Compared to most expansion clubs, that’s pretty impressive.

Led by former Balloon D’Or winner Kaka and 2015 MLS Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin, the Lions will look to contend once more for a berth in the postseason.

But they will do it with a slightly different-looking, and improved, roster. They acquired the services of former AC Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino and former Toronto FC goalkeeper Joe Bendik, and will see left-back Brek Shea and winger Kevin Molino play more frequently after injuries hampered their 2015 campaigns.

Their main area of concern will be defense. Orlando allowed 56 goals last season, second worst in the league, and may not have made the necessary improvements to fix that.

Right-back Kevin Alston was picked up from New England and will provide solid defense at the back, but his minutes have decreased throughout the past couple of seasons and he hasn’t been the player he was six years ago when he was called up to the US national team. They will stick with Aurelien Collin and Seb Hines in central defense, while Shea will look to bounce back from injury at left-back.

Whether or not this defense improves next season will likely depend on the healthiness of Shea.

The midfield will see Darwin Ceren, who quietly had a breakout season, play alongside Nocerino in defensive midfield behind Kaka. On the wing, Adrian Winter and Molino will support Larin.

Projection: Playoffs are a possibility, barring injury. They will likely stick around for most of the year.

Philadelphia Union

It was complete rebuild for the Union this offseason.

After failures in MLS led them to pour everything into their U.S. Open Cup campaign–in which they lost on penalties to Sporting KC–Philadelphia decided to perform an overhaul of their roster. They used their multitude of high draft picks to take three defenders, Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenbarry and Taylor Washington, and brought in center midfielder Chris Pontius from D.C. United.

In addition to those players, they drafted forward Fabian Herbers, acquired two other midfielders, loaned in a defender and goalkeeper, and let a long list of players go:

  • Cristian Maidana–who finished second in assists last season–and Andrew Wenger were traded to the Dynamo.
  • Midfielder Zach Pfeffer and goalkeeper Zac MacMath were dealt to Colorado.
  • Center-back Ethan White went to NYCFC.
  • Forward Conor Casey, midfielders Fred, Danny Cruz, and Jimmy McLaughlin, and defender Steven Victoria had their options declined.

The Union also appear to have solved their goalkeeper problem. After a carousel of keepers last year consistently fell short, young Jamaican Andre Blake will take the reigns behind an experienced set of defenders.

"All those guys can play and that’s the key thing," Blake told Goal USA about his new defensive teammates. "They can play, they can read the game, they have the knowledge for the game, so it’s going to come down to effective communication."

Outside of the defense, the Union will rely on striker C.J. Sapong for goalscoring. The embattled Virginia-native scored nine goals last season and looks to add to that total going into this year.

Tranquillo Barnetta, Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira will make up the midfield, with Pontius, Sebastien Le Toux and Michael Lahoud in the mix as well.

Projection: The Union have improved since last season, but it would be a surprise if they made the playoffs.

Portland Timbers

Coming off their first MLS Cup, the Timbers were able to survive the post-championship hangover. Although they saw starting left-back Jorge Villafana and winger Rodney Wallace leave, they were able to acquire Chris Klute as Villafana’s replacement and Ned Grabavoy and Jack McInerney as Wallace’s replacements.

Outside of those two, they didn’t make many moves. The Timbers upgraded their backup center-back position, with Jermaine Taylor entering via the re-entry draft, and traded center midfielder Will Johnson to Toronto. Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla will receive more playing time with the departure of Wallace.

Manager Caleb Porter will likely stick with his 4-3-3 formation, employed late last season with great success. Adam Kwarsey will play in goal behind a backline filled veterans: Klute, Nat Borchers, Liam Ridgewell and Alvas Powell.

Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri will align in the midfield. Each provides a different aspect: Chara is one of the best number-sixes in the game, Nagbe is a box-to-box player with dynamic goal-scoring ability, and Valeri is their top distributor to the front three.

That front three will likely consist of Fanendo Adi, Melano and Asprilla, with Adi as the number-nine. He excelled in that role last season, scoring 16 goals, and more than likely will build on that.

Projection: There’s no reason why they shouldn’t contend for a cup again.

Real Salt Lake

Whether or not RSL’s season will be a success will depend on how three players fare in their battle against Father Time. Their three top players, goalkeeper Nick Rimando and midfielders Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman, are 36, 36 and 33.

Their 4-3-3 formation requires the midfielders to do a lot of running, and Morales is their main box-to-box chance creator, so he will have to consistently keep his stamina up in order for him to do what he does best. Beckerman, who is currently in the process of being fazed out by Jurgen Klinsmann on the international scene, has continuously lost speed over the past couple years, meaning his ability to keep up with speedy attackers has been diminished.

Rimando, also a former national team member, has been considered one of the best keepers in MLS for years, and Real Salt Lake rely on his abilities both at shot-stopping and distribution. If he can stave off the injury bug and keep producing despite his advanced age, it would help his defense gain confidence. Of course, he is a goalkeeper, and they can generally play a lot longer than field players.

RSL’s playoff hopes are very dependant on these three guys. Outside of Rimando, Morales and Beckerman, their options are scarce.

Yura Movsisyan and Joao Plata will head the attack along with Morales, and they acquired Chris Wingert to play on the backline with the rotating cast Jamison Olave, Justin Glad, Aaron Mound, Demar Phillips and Tony Beltran. This defense isn’t one of the better ones, but it isn’t the worst either.

The Claret and Cobalt have some interesting pieces, but the problem is age. Until they find younger and better replacements, they will have to rely on three players with an average age in the mid-30s.

Projection: RSL will have a tough task trying to make the playoffs in the talented Western Conference, but if they can establish some consistency, it isn’t out of the question.