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2024 MLS Eastern Conference Preview

2024 MLS Eastern Conference Preview

Unlike Major League Soccer’s Western Conference, the Eastern Conference has started to feature familiar names at the top of the pedestal.

The Columbus Crew won their second East title in 2023, en route to a MLS Cup victory over Los Angeles FC. It marked the Crew’s second East title in the past four seasons and their third in the last nine overall.

However, there will be plenty of challengers in the East this year, such as the Philadelphia Union, FC Cincinnati, Orlando City, and Inter Miami.

Here is a closer look at all 13 of the Eastern Conference clubs heading into the 2024 MLS season:

Atlanta United

Players to Watch: Thiago Almada, Georgios Giakoumakis, Saba Lobjanidze.

Route to Success: Georgios Giakoumakis continuing his impressive form from last season (17 goals in 27 appearances) is precisely what Atlanta United needs for the 2024 season. A prolific goal-scoring run could compensate for the team’s uncertain defense and questionable goalkeeper situation. With Thiago Almada likely absent at the Copa America and Caleb Wiley potentially away for the Summer Olympics, the Five Stripes must establish a solid points lead in a heavily contested Eastern Conference prior to the summer tournaments. The absences of Wiley and Almada will force other players to step up and contribute goals, assists, and defensive support. Look for new players on Atlanta United to make a name for themselves this season if they want to survive the cruel summer. 

Biggest Question: Will Atlanta United manage to keep Thiago Almada throughout the season, or will they need to adapt if he transfers to a European club in the summer? Gonzalo Pineda must maximize points early on, especially given that Atlanta United boasts one of the best rosters in MLS. Failing to position the Peach State team at the top of the conference after the first 11 games could place Pineda in a precarious situation, potentially making him the first coach to find himself under significant pressure this season.

Charlotte FC

Players to Watch: Enzo Copetti, Ashley Westwood, Bill Tuiloma.

Route to Success: Following the departure of their star player, Karol Swiderski, Dean Smith and his Charlotte FC team will need to depend heavily on Enzo Copetti. The focus on attack will likely become more straightforward and, arguably, one-dimensional, aiming to avoid the complexity that has characterized Charlotte FC’s strategies in previous seasons.

Biggest Question: Can Dean Smith get the most of the players he inherits before he is able to recruit players to come down to Charlotte? Smith will likely add bodies in the summer time, but if a rocky start of the season comes, his future could very well be in jeopardy.

Chicago Fire

Players to Watch: Xherdan Shaqiri, Brian Gutierrez, Chris Brady.

Route to Success: For the Chicago Fire to thrive under Frank Klopas, then it is essential that every player fully commits themselves to the system, just as Xherdan Shaqiri has. Klopas, having transitioned from an interim to full-time head coach, owes his promotion to his unique ability to extract the best from Shaqiri. As new players integrate into the team, it’s crucial for the Fire to quickly establish cohesion. Brian Gutierrez, who recently signed a new contract, must transition from a promising prospect to a growing superstar for the Fire if they want to secure their first playoff spot in five years.  

Biggest Question: Can Klopas get the most out of one of the highest-paid players in MLS, Shaqiri? In addition, can winter signing Hugo Cuypers hit the ground running and lead a sometimes, inconsistent attack? We will see what happens.

FC Cincinnati

Players to Watch: Aaron Boupendza, Luciano Acosta, Miles Robinson.

Route to Success: FC Cincinnati will once again rely heavily on reigning MVP winner, Luciano Acosta. Fresh off winning the MVP trophy in 2023, the Argentine will be tasked with an even larger offensive role due to the departures of Brandon Vazquez and Alvaro Barreal. If Acosta hits his stride early and quickly builds chemistry with Aaron Boupendza, FC Cincy’s offense has the potential to be among the league’s best. Additionally, the Queen City’s team secured the offseason’s biggest free agent, Miles Robinson, creating a formidable partnership of Robinson and Miazga. Boasting potentially the best centerback duo in the league, along with having the reigning MVP, FC Cincinnati could easily find themselves contenders in the Supporters’ Shield race.

Biggest Question: The biggest question mark for FC Cincinnati lies in the outside back positions. Following the departures of Alvaro Barreal and Santiago Arias, the question remains: Can any of the new outside backs rise to the occasion and contribute valuable minutes? On a smaller scale, although Boupendza has a history of scoring goals at previous clubs, he must replicate Brandon Vazquez’s knack for finding the back of the net if FC Cincy aims to be a contender for trophies this year.

Columbus Crew

Players to Watch: Cucho Hernández, Darlington Nagbe, Mohammed Farsi 

Route to Success: Surely a team returning almost all its players from an MLS Cup victory should be seen as a favorite in the following year, right? Under Wilfried Nancy, the Crew showcased some of the most exquisite soccer ever witnessed in MLS. Their path to continued success hinges on the same formula: steadfast belief in their leadership and coaching. Despite the Eastern Conference getting stronger this offseason, Nancy’s Crew demonstrated their strength last season by skillfully dismantling LAFC, one of the most talented teams, with the same roster. As long as they maintain their health, Columbus is poised to contend for every trophy they compete for.

Biggest Question: Can Wilfried Nancy find lightning in a bottle once more and have the Columbus Crew play the prettiest soccer MLS has ever seen? Added involvement in CONCACAF Champions Cup action will add more matches to Columbus’ schedule, but overall they should have more than enough to be a contender again.

DC United

Players to Watch: Christian Benteke, Mateusz Klich, Tyler Miller.

Route to Success: Troy Lesesne must maximize the potential of their standout player, Christian Benteke, if D.C. United wants to succeed. Benteke shared with the media that the team’s trip to Saudi Arabia was beneficial for rapidly fostering team chemistry, as they spent an extended period together. This unity is crucial, as D.C. United lacks a league-leading player in any other position besides at striker, requiring each team member to collaboratively contribute to helping the Red and Black make the playoffs in a tough conference.

Biggest Question: Who is going to step up and help Benteke in this offense? Mateusz Klich is a talented playmaker and could be that starring No. 2 for DC United, but others will also need to contribute if they want to avoid a bottom-half finish in the East.

Inter Miami

Players to Watch: Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba.

Route to Success: Inter Miami may have the easiest route to success in the Eastern Conference, but that route can come crumbling down if Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, or any of their other star players suffer an injury. When you employ the best player in the world, your team is destined to be good. Messi certainly will make his teammates better and as long as supporting players like Leo Campana, Robert Taylor, and Julian Gressel can also deliver, this team is a favorite to lift multiple trophies.

Biggest Question: Can Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, and Jordi Alba all stay healthy and play upwards of 40 games this season? All four players are in the final days of their respective careers and will need to be rested throughout a grueling schedule.

CF Montreal

Players to Watch: Kwadwo Opoku, Bryce Duke, Mathieu Choinière.

Route to Success: Montreal’s success this season hinges on whether new head coach Laurent Courtois can replicate the playing style that brought success to his Columbus Crew 2 roster in 2022-23. With a youthful squad boasting potential stars, this could be the breakthrough season where one of Montreal’s players rises to MLS stardom, becoming a household name and driving the team into playoff contention.

Biggest Question: Can Laurent Courtois mirror the success he achieved with Columbus Crew 2? This is Courtois’ biggest job to date as a coach and pressure will certainly be on after a forgettable campaign for CF Montreal in 2023.

Nashville SC

Players to Watch: Hany Mukhtar, Sam Surridge, Walker Zimmerman.

Route to Success: Nashville SC, known for their meticulous approach to minimizing mistakes on the field, often miss out on commanding victories. However, if Hany Mukhtar can replicate his explosive form from two years ago and clinch the MLS Golden Boot again, Nashville could genuinely contend for the Supporters’ Shield. With Sam Surridge having a full preseason with the team, there should be no excuses for a lack of synergy between him and Mukhtar. If both players consistently score and Gary Smith effectively strategizes to keep goals against low, Nashville might secure numerous narrow victories, potentially positioning them near the top of the conference.

Biggest Question: Can Sam Surridge and Hany Mukhtar become a dangerous duo together and could this be the year Walker Zimmerman has a decline in production? All three players are leaders in the squad and will be crucial on whether or not Nashville SC can finally lift a trophy.

New England Revolution

Players to Watch: Carles Gil, DeJuan Jones, Esmir Bajraktarevic.

Route to Success: Carles Gil is the heart and soul of the New England Revolution squad, but he will need help if the Revs want to be consistent throughout 2024. Other DP’s Giacomo Vrioni and Tomás Chancalay, are particularly in need of increasing their output. Vrioni, having had a challenging one-and-a-half years in MLS, must elevate his performance for the team to prosper. The midfield, anchored by the capable Mark Anthony Kaye and Noel Buck, stands as the team’s strong point, offering a solid foundation to bolster a faltering offense.

Biggest Question: Will Caleb Porter find the talent that this Revs team has on this roster and win another trophy before this window with Gil closes?

New York City FC

Players to Watch: Santiago Rodriguez, Talles Magno, Agustin Ojeda

Route to Success: Last season, NYCFC experimented with Talles Magno as their lead striker, a move that ultimately proved unsuccessful. Misutilized in this role, Magno’s goal and assist tally notably declined, culminating in just seven goal contributions for the season. However, this year presents a fresh opportunity with the arrival of Agustin Ojeda, a 19-year-old forward from Racing Club in Argentina. Ojeda’s inclusion allows Magno to return to his more natural winger role, where he poses a greater threat. For NYCFC to achieve success this season, it’s crucial for the trio of South American attackers – Magno, Rodriguez, and Ojeda – to quickly find harmony. Their cohesion will be key to navigating the competitive Eastern Conference and securing a spot in the playoffs.

Biggest Question: Will Nick Cushing finish the season as head coach? Cushing was on the hot seat at several points in 2023, making his return to the club surprising for sure.

New York Red Bulls

Players to Watch: Emil Forsberg, Lewis Morgan, John Tolkin.

Route to Success: The New York Red Bulls have consistently maintained a unique playing style over the years and this season is no exception. Known for their high-pressing approach, the Red Bulls are anticipated to continue this strategy, bolstered by a significantly improved roster compared to last season. Key players have remained, and the offseason has seen the addition of Emil Forsberg and the return of Lewis Morgan to full health. For the Red Bulls to truly excel, Dante Vanzeir must rebound and gel effectively with Forsberg and Morgan. With a virtually revamped attack, the team must focus on efficient goal-scoring. Forsberg’s impressive preseason performances suggests a strong potential for the Red Bulls not just to make the playoffs, but to do so comfortably, without relying on last-minute upsets on Decision Day.

Biggest Question: Can Lewis Morgan and Dante Vanzeir become contributors to take the Red Bulls to the next level? Both are talented players but will have pressure on them to deliver in a crucial first season under Sandro Schwarz.

Orlando City

Players to Watch: Facundo Torres, Nicolas Lodeiro, Duncan McGuire.

Route to Success: Orlando City’s chances in the closely-contested Eastern Conference are bolstered by the retention of Duncan McGuire, the introduction of their new number “No. 10,” Facundo Torres, and the addition of veteran attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro. To emerge as genuine dark horse contenders for MLS Cup, Orlando City must increasingly rely on Torres’ strong attacking third abilities this season. With a capable offense led by two of Europe’s most sought-after prospects, McGuire and Torres, the team is well-equipped to be a formidable goal-scoring force. Strong goalkeeper play and a consistent backline also helps the Lions chances too.

Biggest Question: Can Orlando City take that next step in 2024 after another positive campaign under Oscar Pareja in 2023?

Philadelphia Union

Players to Watch: Andre Blake, Julian Carranza, Kai Wagner.

Route to Success: Welcome to the new chapter of Jim Curtin’s tenure, marked by his exclusive choice of all-black suits. This Philadelphia Union team, no longer content with playing second fiddle, now adopts an attire symbolizing their readiness to dominate opponents. The retainment of Kai Wagner and Alejandro Bedoya are key moves while keeping Julian Carranza and Daniel Gazdag are equally as important. The Union took a step back in 2023, but have everything at their disposal to rebound in 2024.

Biggest Question: Can the success keep coming for the team from Brotherly Love, or will the lack of depth come back and haunt the Union? A stingy backline and clever attack are a great pair and should help Philadelphia compete in every competition.

Toronto FC

Players to Watch: Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Jonathan Osorio.

Route to Success: Toronto FC’s success this season hinges on the performances of their two exceptional Italian superstars, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. These players can electrify MLS, provided they fully commit themselves to the cause. The primary challenge lies in motivating such prolific talents. If John Herdman can successfully inspire them, Toronto FC’s path to the playoffs could be significantly smoother. However, given Herdman’s lack of experience at club level, this could prove to be a demanding task in his debut season.

Biggest Question: Can Herdman control the Italians on his team and make one of them become a true MVP candidate in MLS?

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