By Gino Fuentes (@Gino_Fuentes)
In the first part of our preview for the 2016 Major League Soccer season, we took a look at the Western Conference. Now we’ll turn our attention to the East, which has fallen behind the West over the past decade after dominating during the first 10 years of the league’s existence.
The Columbus Crew were on absolute fire heading into the MLS Cup Final last year and looked borderline unstoppable before falling to the Timbers at the last hurdle. Kei Kamara poured in a total of 26 goals between the regular season and postseason, leading the Crew’s high-powered late-season attack.
With much of last year's side intact, Columbus is one of the favorites to finish atop the Eastern Conference if they can avoid the slow start that kept them from being the #1 seed in the East playoffs last season.
New York Red Bulls
The Crew's biggest competition in the East will be the New York Red Bulls, who exceeded expectations in 2015 and are poised to challenge for the Supporters' Shield again in 2016. New York boasted the league’s highest scoring offense last season and should remain as potent as ever with the Wright-Phillips brothers, LLoyd Sam, Sacha Kljestan and Gonzalo Veron all returning to the squad.
New York's front office and academy might also be the best in the league, with 7 homegrown players joining the squad for 2016. That might be key, with Matt Miazga’s departure to Chelsea over the offseason.
DC United have been one of the most consistent sides in MLS over the past couple of seasons, finishing with more than 50 points the past two years after hitting rock-bottom in 2013. The 2016 edition of the squad remains largely unchanged, aside from the departure of Perry Kitchen. How DC does without star keeper - Bill Hamid, who is recovering from January knee surgery - will be important for them this year.
The Montreal Impact boast what might be the most dominant scoring presence in the league in the person of Didier Drogba, who scored 12 goals in 12 matches after making the move to MLS from Chelsea. The offseason arrivals of Harry Shipp, Lucas Ontivero and draft pick Kyle Fisher should offset the losses of Justin Mapp and Nigel Reo-Coker. Even so, all the change might keep Montreal from challenging for a top spot in the Eastern standings. They should however make the play-in round again and from there, anything is possible.
Toronto FC's offense took off as expected last year with the trio of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco all on board from the start of the season. Their defense was still among the worst in the league though, which made them hugely inconsistent and streaky throughout the year. Toronto's biggest challenge will once again be surviving the summer months when Altidore, Bradley and Giovinco are all likely to be on national team duty.
New York City FC has made significant changes heading into 2016, with Patrick Vieira brought in as the team's new manager. Joining star trio David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard this year will be Boca Juniors youngster Federico Bravo, Frederic Brillant, Ronald Matarrita, Ethan White and top SuperDraft pick Jack Harrison. However, with any change in direction come a few key losses. Angelino and Shay Facey will be missed but expect this team to improve going forward and possibly sneak into the playoffs in what is, by most accounts, a weak Eastern Conference.
Orlando City fell just short of the postseason in their inaugural year due to the same defensive issues that plagued NYCFC. Despite the presence of Kaka and Brek Shea, the rest of the roster was largely anonymous. Antonio Nocerino has been added to the midfield, which will help out in terms of possession and star power but unless Orlando finds a way to allow fewer than 50 goals this year, the Lions will likely fall short of the postseason again.
New England Revolution
The New England Revolution enter 2016 with a couple of significant problems. The Revs went all the way to the Finals in 2014 but last year ended with an explosion of dysfunction that saw Jermaine Jones become a toxic influence in the locker room due a contract dispute and then get suspended for six games following an altercation with an official in the playoffs. Pre-contract signing - Xavier Kouassi has also been lost to torn knee ligaments and will likely miss the season. The one saving grace for the Revs is that their defense looks to be somewhat improved heading into the season but overcoming their problems in the midfield will be key to any success they hope to have.
That leaves us with this season's predicted Eastern Conference bottom-dwellers, Chicago Fire and Philadelphia Union. Both clubs suffered through horrible showings in 2015, particularly Chicago - who were the league’s worst team last year. While the Fire did have what was, by most accounts, one of the better drafts, with the additions of Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell - both of whom should be able to contribute right away. The loss of Harry Shipp to Montreal is going to make it difficult for the Fire to compete despite expected improvement.
Philadelphia looks like it's going to be in for a long season. The Union have made changes at all levels, including the front office, and the losses of Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger will leave huge voids in the team's lineup. While the league won't have any expansion sides this year, the quality of Philly's roster looks very much like that of a first-year team. Most expect the Union to finish at the bottom of the East. Anything more than that, should be commended.
2016 looks to be another exciting year for one the world's fastest growing leagues and with four more cities poised to join MLS by the end of the decade, the future looks very bright for America’s top flight.