MLS: Sizing up the East at the season's midway point

MLS: Sizing up the East at the season's midway point

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MLS: Sizing up the East at the season's midway point

The shift of power from the Western Conference to Eastern Conference started last season in Major League Soccer, and the full switch has occurred in 2018.

Atlanta United is the most dominant side in MLS, while the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC are making charges at the Five Stripes every week.

The Columbus Crew are lurking in fourth place, while an improved New England Revolutuon side sits fifth and, all of a sudden, there’s a three-horse race between improving teams for sixth place.

Sure, Orlando is in miserable form and Toronto FC stinks right now, but there’s still potential for each of the 11 teams to make the playoffs. That’s right, even D.C. United can climb back into the fray with games in hand and a boatload of minutes on the Audi Field grass.

Below is a look at where each Eastern Conference team stands entering the second half of the 2018 campaign.

Atlanta United

Best Player: Josef Martinez

Martinez is going to challenge the single-season scoring record, as he sits at 17 goals following another big day in Wednesday’s game against FC Dallas.

Top Strength: This doesn’t come as any surprise, but Atlanta United’s attack has been its top asset during the 2018 season. The free-flowing attack led by Martinez and Miguel Almiron produced a league high 40 goals in the team’s first 19 games. Everyone in Atlanta’s system is aware of their role, and on their best night, they can overwhelm any opposing defense.

If the Five Stripes win the Supporters’ Shield and move on to MLS Cup, it will be because no one can stop them in the final third.

Top Weakness: If you have to name a weakness for Atlanta right now, it would have to be its defense. The Five Stripes have let in 23 goals, with three coming against FC Dallas on Wednesday.

They’ve given up two or more goals on five occasions, and but they do have five clean sheets, with two coming in the last seven games.

Chicago Fire

Best Player: Aleksandar Katai

Although the Chicago Fire didn’t have the best offseason, Aleksandar Katai has turned into a great find for the front office, as he has eight goals and three assists.

Top Strength: Katai and Nemanja Nikolic form one of the most dangerous attacking combinations in the Eastern Conference.

If the Fire are going to make a continued push for the sixth spot in the East, the attack is going to drive them forward, as is the midfield pairing of Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Top Weakness: The laundry list of injuries hasn’t gotten better yet for the Fire, especially in defense, but after some early-season struggles, they’ve been able to turn things in the right direction.

However, the concession of goals and a minus-four goal difference must get better, especially if goal difference needs to be used in a tiebreak scenario at the end of the season.

Columbus Crew

Best Player: Gyasi Zardes

The U.S. Men’s National Team forward deserves another look when the fall friendlies roll around, as he’s rediscovered his form in Gregg Berhalter’s system with 11 goals, marking his second double-digit scoring season.

Top Strength: Gregg Berhalter’s system is the Crew’s biggest asset. No matter who gets plugged into the formation, Berhalter gets the best out of his players, with Zardes being the leading example of that.

For example, in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake, Berhalter started Eduardo Sosa in the No. 10 role, and the Venezuelan thrived and knocked in a goal.

Top Weakness: Zack Steffen’s injury hasn’t helped the Crew much, but as long as he comes back healthy he should star in net.

As they were last season, the biggest concerns come in defense, where the Crew let in seven goals during their recent five-game winless run.

With Gaston Sauro working his way back to game speed after a long injury layoff and Jonathan Mensah’s play still questionable at times, the Crew need to make sure they can sustain their defensive form for the rest of the season.

D.C. United

Best Player: Darren Mattocks

The success of Darren Mattocks has flown under the radar, as he’s scored a career high of eight goals in 13 games for D.C. United.

Top Strength: It’s hard to identify a strength in a side that’s played most of its games on the road and two fewer contests than anyone in the Eastern Conference.

However, Yamil Asad and Mattocks have produced more than any forward from a year ago, and it’s a welcome sight with a long stretch of home games in the future and Wayne Rooney entering the lineup.

Top Weakness: Full back is the biggest Achilles’ heel in the D.C. squad at the moment with injuries plaguing the Black and Red.

Oniel Fisher and Jalen Robinson started on the defensive flanks in Wednesday’s tie with the LA Galaxy out of necessity.

Improvement at left and right back is vital to D.C.’s success at Audi Field, as it searches for some type of consistency in results.

Montreal Impact

Best Player: Ignacio Piatti

Even when he isn’t putting up strong numbers, Ignacio Piatti is the most dangerous player in the Impact lineup.

The 33-year-old has nine goals and six assists, with four of the tallies coming in the last three games.

Top Strength: While Piatti’s creativity in the final third is obviously the Impact’s top strength, their center-back pairing of Rod Fanni and Victor Cabrera deserve praise, as Remi Garde’s side produced clean sheets in each of their last four wins.

Top Weakness: For as well as the Impact have played recently, they still need a second consistent contributor behind Piatti in attack to emerge.

Jeisson Vargas, Anthony Jackson-Hamel and Raheem Edwards are the only other players on the roster with two goals or more.

In order to be considered a serious contender for a playoff position, the Impact need someone to step up in attack, especially if opponents hone in on stopping Piatti.

New England Revolution

Best Player: Cristian Penilla

The New England Revolution have gotten the most out of their attack, with Cristian Penilla being the driving force with eight goals and five assists.

While Teal Bunbury has found the back of the net on 10 occasions, Penilla is the player who makes the Revolution offense tick.

Top Strength: Bunbury, Penilla and Diego Fagundez turned themselves into a three-headed monster in attack, as they’ve accounted for 23 of the team’s 30 goals.

If they can get more out of Krisztian Nemeth, Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe, the Revs could be unstoppable in certain games.

Top Weakness: If you look up and down the Revs roster, defense looks like the biggest weakness because the front six are solid.

Goalkeeper Matt Turner’s come out of nowhere to thrive in net, but now he has to deal with the pressures of a playoff push for the first time.

How Turner and the center back pairing of Antonio Delamea and Jalil Anibaba hold up could determine where Brad Friedel’s team ends up in the Eastern Conference standings.

New York City FC

Best Player: Ismael Tajouri-Shradi

The easy answer to for New York City FC’s best player is David Villa, but he’s been far from the only star on the team in 2018, as Ismael Tajouri-Shradi’s matched the Spaniard’s goal production with eight strikes, and he has two assists to go along with them.

Top Strength: Developing depth behind Villa has always been a challenge for NYCFC, but it’s seemed to struck gold with Tajouri-Shradi, Jo Inge Berget and Maxi Moralez all contributing in front of the net.

While most of the focus lays on the attack, MLS All-Star Alexander Ring deserves credit once again for his play in front of the back four.

Top Weakness: If any team is equipped to deal with a managerial change in the middle of the season. it’s NYCFC. However, you have to take into account Domenec Torrent’s lack of MLS experience.

Defensively, NYCFC has a solid unit, and the club hasn’t lost in eight games at Yankee Stadium, but its 2-4-3 road mark is keeping it from challenging Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls at the top of the Eastern Conference for now.

New York Red Bulls

Best Player: Bradley Wright-Phillips

No matter how much the New York Red Bulls thrive in other aspects of the game, Bradley Wright-Phillips is still one of the main reasons why Jesse Marsch’s side wins games.

The Englishman is three goals away from his 100th career MLS tally, and given how well he’s played against NYCFC, it’s conceivable the achievement occurs on Sunday.

Top Strength: Enough is already said about Wright-Phillips so it’s time to give the Red Bulls defense their credit.

The unit anchored by Aaron Long and Kemar Lawrence has the best defensive record in MLS, as they’ve conceded 16 goals

It’s unfair that we’ve gone this far without mentioning Tyler Adams, but he’s playing well as he continues to gain outside interest.

Top Weakness: With Wright-Phillips thriving up top and Kaku providing quality out of the No. 10 role, the Red Bulls are just missing goals and assists out of the wing positions.

Daniel Royer and Florian Valot combined for seven goals and five assists, which isn’t a terrible tally, but in order to compete with the Atlantas of the world, they’ll need an uptick in production.

Orlando City

Best Player: Yoshimar Yotun

It’s incredibly difficult to pick out positives for a team that’s lost eight straight games and fired its head coach, but Peru World Cup participant Yoshimar Yotun has been a nice addition to the squad in midfield, and he’s provided three goals and five assists in 10 games.

Top Strength: Back when they won six games in a row, which feels like an eternity ago, the Lions impressed with their attack and rookie Chris Mueller shined alongside Dom Dwyer and Sacha Kljestan.

The attack still needs a reboot to put the Lions back where they need to be in terms of their expectations, but it’s also been the best part of a team with plenty more questions and answers.

Top Weakness: One word comes to mind when thinking about Orlando’s defense: Yikes.

The Lions have the worst defensive record, as they’ve conceded 37 goals and have a league-worst -13 goal differential. Before the Lions can even think of a playoff run under new manager James O’Conner, they need to fix all of their defensive issues.

Philadelphia Union

Best Player: Borek Dockal

After experiencing some early struggles, Borek Dockal has become the playmaker in the No. 10 role the Union were dearly missing.

The Czech Republic international leads the Union with five goals and six assists, and his impact on the attack grows with each game.

Top Strength: The midfield spine of Haris Medunjanin, Alejandro Bedoya and Dockal sets the tone for every Union game, and without them, Jim Curtin’s side would be near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

The midfield trio has also been able to disguise the lack of production from other attacking positions with their creativity in the final third, while also helping the young back line come together.

Top Weakness: The young center backs have struggled at times this season, that was expected with 19-year-olds Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie starting.

The more concerning position on the field is forward, as C.J. Sapong and Cory Burke have four shots and two assists. Sapong, who scored 16 goals in 2017, has one shot on target since May 12.

Toronto FC

Best Player: Jonathan Osorio

In a season where positives have been hard to come by for Toronto FC, Jonathan Osorio is thriving in the middle of the park.

Outside of that, the Reds don’t have much going for them.

Top Strength: Insert shrug emoji here.

At least the Reds still have Sebastian Giovinco to create dangerous plays in the final third.

Top Weakness: You could write a dissertation on Toronto’s struggles and still run out of room to describe the trouble it’s had in 2018.

Even with Giovinco looming in the final third, the Reds don’t look as dangerous as they did in past years.

The defense is in shambles, as only Orlando and San Jose have let in more goals than the Reds.

It’s already been a long season in Ontario and things could get worse before they turn around.

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