Three weeks into the Major League Soccer offseason, and we're already a quarter of the way through three-month-and-one-day dead period between the 2012 MLS Cup final and MLS First Kick 2013 on March 2, as announced earlier this week. While the month of December may lack in games on the schedule, it has made for quite the news and headlines off the field so far as some clubs opt to swap and shop via trade, and others sign expensive, fancy, new toys from the international market.
We've already covered at great length (here, here, and here if you missed it) the fluid activity of Sporting Kansas City thus far. The general consensus among Sporting KC fans, media and lookers-on from the national stage is that despite losing midfield machine Roger Espinoza to Wigan Athletic and trading back up fullback Michael Harrington to Portland Timbers, the additions of Benny Feilhaber, Ike Opara and new Designated Player forward Claudio Bieler have made Sporting a better team on the whole.
For purposes of this exercise, we'll say the team that was already proven best in the MLS' Eastern Conference in 2012 is "slightly up" in terms of offseason trend. But the relevant question is this: who's also improved, and have they closed the closed the gap on Sporting or simply just trying to keep pace? It's still early, but a couple of teams have followed the Sporting blueprint and made early strides.
Movin' on Up
Philadelphia Union - They're the big movers for me. After trading away the club's best player before the season, making no real attempt to replace him and a mid-season coaching change, the Union found themselves with an eighth-place finish in the East in 2012. Long story short, it was a disaster. The 2012-13 has gotten off to a much sweeter start for fourth-year MLS club. That best player they traded a year ago, forward Sebastien Le Toux, is back. That alone will galvanize a distraught fanbase and put four-to-six more points in the standings at the end of the season. They're also going to dump a head-case in Freddy Adu on someone's front porch, so cheer up, DOOP-Land, for better times are ahead.
While Le Toux is the marquee arrival by name, centerback Jeff Parke may end up being the overlooked acquisition for Philly. Acquired via trade from Seattle Sounders in December, Parke should form one of the league's best trio of central defenders with Amobi Okugo and Carlos Valdez. Conor Casey is the true wild card of the bunch so far. He could range from zero games played all year to ten goals scored. Couple those signings and the fact that John Hackworth can't possibly gut and destroy this team the way Piotr Nowak did in 2012, and the Union are definitely looking "well upwards."
Montreal Impact - The sophomore MLS side have yet to begin their annual ushering of veteran Italian stars into the league, but we do know it's coming eventually, so they'll improve considerably from a respectable expansion season that saw them miss the playoffs be only eleven points. Montreal haven't actually signed a player yet this offseason. So, there's still the Italians to come for Montreal, and the fact the option to renew Shavar Thomas' contract was declined. "Partir de et vers le haut, L'Impact."
Holdin' Steady for the Moment
New York Red Bulls - Who in the world ever knows with these guys? They're the one who traded Le Toux back to Philly as he was surplus to requirements (Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper combined for 33 goals in 2012). Jan Gunnar Solli was a fun rightback to watch, but they'll replace him quite easily. Bill Gaudette, also gone, started some games in goal late in the season, but so did half the world's journeymen goalkeepers.
Jamison Olave could be the steal of the MLS offseason, or the Red Bulls' expensive cinder block at the bottom of a dirty New Jersey river. Fabian Espindola, the lesser of the two Real Salt Lake South American forward terrors, should supplement Henry and Cooper well, and Kosuke Kimura might even be the straight replacement for Solli. No glaring holes for New York at this point. Except, they'll be needing a new locker room cancer with the departure of Mexican henchman Rafa Marquez. No worries, though, because as is always with the case with New York, they procure drama and disarray in multiple areas. It's nearly Christmas and we still don't know who their coach will be in 2013. They get an "incomplete assessment" for the time being.
Houston Dynamo - This is the one that Sporting KC fans are undoubtedly keeping an eye on. La Naranja haven't actually done anything much this offseason, but their one return from trade, massive centerback Eric Brunner, adds more depth and solidity to a defense that Sporting already can't crack two years running.
Side note: perhaps the most impressive thing about the Dynamo's 2012 season was that when they lost one of the league's very best central defenders in Geoff Cameron to Stoke City, they didn't fall apart, but got stronger and surged up the standings*. They're "never falling off, only biding their time."
* - Could you imagine if Sporting KC sold Matt Besler smack-dab in the middle of the season? Disaster.
D.C. United - Another of the relative inactive bunches so far, DC look as likely as any to again finish right where they did in 2012 - the East's second-best team. Dwayne De Rosario's return from knee injury that cost him the last two months of his season will be like a new signing all over again. United are just as likely to sign no one before March as they are to go hog wild and bring in a dozen new guys. "Predictably unpredictable."
Columbus Crew - A third of their team is gone, but only a couple departed names register to the casual MLS fan, and a couple of hefty salaries have come off the books. If they unearth another Federico Higuain this winter, or even in the summer, they'll push the likes of Chicago and Houston for a playoff spot, of which they only missed out on by a single point in 2012. "The moves are coming."
Chicago Fire - Another club liable to make a big splash either right before or shortly thereafter the season starts. Maybe the best club in recent times integrating new stars into their team on the fly. Alvaro Fernandez, Sherjill MacDonald and Chris Rolfe come to mind. "Crouching tiger."
Slidin' on Down (Further)
New England Revolution - Already a floundering fish in the ever-competitive Eastern Conference, the Revs began the offseason by trading away their best player, Benny Feilhaber, to Sporting KC. That's a no-no for starters. Chad Barrett will not be a useful acquisition, as he's failed to be every stop along his career, and Andy Dorman, age 30, will probably not the same player he was for New England in 2007.
Surely, any great rebuilding project takes time and gutting to start from the ground up. Unfortunately for second-year coach Jay Heaps, I don't think he's even come down from the second floor yet. "Sifting through the wreckage."
Toronto FC - Insert everything to the right of and below "New England Revolution," here. In all seriousness, Toronto might actually be a better team in 2013 than their 23-point (non-)effort of 2012, but will anybody notice? Will the fans still be there to care? Their best move might be to consider a 50-percent reduction in season ticket price for a year or two. Or, maybe they're already one step ahead of me. "Permanently declining."
What do you say? Are Sporting still the obvious front-runners for homefield advantage in the East?