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Transfer window grades: See how each Premier League team fared

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Over the past week at ProSoccerTalk, we have been analyzing all 20 Premier League teams and the deals they did in the January transfer window.

Now that all the wheeling and dealing is done, PST’s writers gave each team a grade based on their business and you can open up an individual post on each team for an in-depth look at their window activity, by clicking on the team name.

Here they are, let’s open up that old gradebook once again and see who finished top of the class…

Fulham – Grade: A-

New manager René Meulensteen had his work cut out for him entering January and arguably did more to change his side’s fate than any other manager in the Premier League. The acquisition of Mitroglou gives the Cottagers a proven, physically-imposing and skillful striker who looks tailor-made for the Premier League.

In Holtby, they’ve acquired a bright-spirited, creative midfielder who’s hungry to prove himself to both his parent club, Spurs, and his national team, Germany. The lanky William Kvist looks a real find as well while Dempsey provides experience and added depth, even if he looks off the pace so far. Heitinga provides depth to the back line although he’s not the kind of game-changing defender fans would’ve hope to bring in.

Meulensteen showed a keen eye for the future as well, signing Manchester United youngsters Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole. But perhaps the most important move the Dutch manager made was to rid his side of cancers, Adel Taraabt and Dimitar Berbatov. Both players, while talented, looked completely disinterested at Craven Cottage and had to go. Sending the underpeforming Bryan Ruiz out on loan was also a smart decision. Talent-wise, there’s little question Fulham should stay up. Now fans have to hope Meulensteen has assembled the right cast of characters to keep the club in England’s top-flight.

Fulham did the best business of the window, as Mitroglou arrived for big bucks.

Hull City – Grade: A-

Prying Long from The Hawthorns was not easy, as Bruce and the club endured a drawn-out transfer saga.  Hull made a big run at Long last summer and seemed to have an agreement before the deal fell through late. So, half a season later, the Irish international is finally in place on a three-and-a-half year deal.

By then, Jelavic had already been secured – and happily so, it would seem, having found himself down the pecking order of forwards at Goodison Park. Like Long, he was also signed to a three-and-a-half year deal, according to reports.

The pair have already paid dividends, proving to be quite a handful for Tottenham in their weekend debut for Hull (a 1-1 draw). Long (described by Bruce as his “crown jewel”) had the goal. On a feed from Jelavic, no less.

One thing could have helped make the period even more prosperous:  Hull kicked the tires on luring Tom Ince from Blackpool but struggled to ever gain real traction on that one. (That’s the “minus” on the grade, on what could otherwise be called a grand transfer time for Bruce’s boys.)

Sunderland – Grade: A-

Marcos Alonso’s loan from Fiorentina has already made a huge difference. The former Bolton Wanderer has been among Sunderland’s best players in each of his appearances, fitting in perfectly with how Poyet wants to play moving forward.

Long term, the Spaniard may not be the team’s most valuable addition, even if they manage to keep him. That honor could belong to Ignacio , who has been one of South America’s most sought after strikers since he was playing in the Argentine Primera. Sunderland managed to snare him for $4.3 million. Although Jozy Altidore‘s play has improved and Steven Fletcher provides another viable option, Scoccio has the talent to be a starter in the Premier League. It’s just a matter of seeing if he adjusts (and if he can adjust this season).

Add in Ustari as a nice depth acquisition, Bridcutt already starting in central midfield, and the Black Cats finding homes for the likes of Cabral, Ji, Diakite and Graham, and it’s hard to image a more successful window. Everybody wants to see a big signings, but given the moves the Black Cats made this summer, that may not have been in the cards. Instead, Poyet’s brought in three of four key additions while keeping all his core components. That’s a successful window.

Tottenham Hotspur – Grade: A-

The argument could be made that by selling Jermain Defoe to MLS side Toronto FC, another striker should be brought in. But with  Roberto Soldado, the emergence of Emmanuel Adebayor under new manager Tim Sherwood and some talented youths on the up-and-up, a rush buy was not necessary. Letting Lewis Holtby go out on loan in a bid to make the German World Cup side was a good move. Rumors had him wanting a complete transfer away from White Hart Lane but the winger has bags of talent and selling him – or any other of the new boys brought in like Etienne Capoue – would have been a mistake.

The most important move Spurs made this season was to get rid of Andre Villas-Boas and hire Sherwood. The 45-year old is the quintessential player’s manager. He doesn’t over-coach, has a relaxed approach and he afford his players freedom in their style of play. Whether he’s the long-term answer is unclear but in the short-term he’s everything Spurs front office needed to counter-balance the overly-complicated ways imposed by Villas-Boas.

Vincent Tan stumped up the cash to make sure Cardiff bolstered their squad.

In conclusion, Tottenham’s (potential) success this season had little to no bearing on the January transfer window. All the pieces were (and are) in place, it’s now up to Sherwood to make sure they fit snug.

Cardiff City – Grade: B+

It was a really good transfer window for Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Cardiff City, as the team now looks a lot stronger as the squad has been bolstered with some talented youngsters joining.

The likes of Zaha and Fabio, who both joined from Man United, have something to prove and will be key to the Bluebirds survival bid between now and May. Wollf Eikrem, Moller Daehli and Inge Berget are unknown quantities but are rated highly by Solksjaer. So don’t be surprised to see a few of those Scandinavians burst onto the scene. With all of that youth on board, bringing someone like Kenwyne Jones is exactly what Cardiff needed. He scored the winning goal on his debut against Norwich on Saturday, as Solksjaer’s transformation is taking shape already. Terrific window of wheeling and dealing for the young manager. Cardiff won’t be going anywhere without a fight.

Chelsea Grade: B+

It could be argued that selling Mata, and doing so to a fellow Premier League club, was a mistake. But United are not competitors of Chelsea this season and the influence of Mata will only serve to frustrate Chelsea’s true competitors, Arsenal and Manchester City, who have yet to face the Red Devils for a second time. In the future Mata may come to roost but the facts now are that Jose Mourinho wasn’t playing him, already has Oscar, operates in a club flush with cash and made a £14M profit (after three trophies in three years) in selling the Spanish attacker. That profit, however, went directly to the purchase of Matic, who Chelsea previously sent to Benfica as a makeweight for the £25M purchase of David Luiz in 2011, meaning they took a heavy loss in bringing him back to Stamford Bridge. The sprawling Matic will be a huge defensive boost to the holding midfield, and, in time, the 19-year-old Zuoma will blossom into a beasting center-back for the Blues.

Finally, it could be argued that Mourinho failed to address his greatest need, that being for a proven striker. While Fernando Torres or Samuel Eto’o (and to a lesser extent, Demba Ba) could catch fire, The Special One claims that the issue of buying a world-class striker will be addressed in the coming summer (likely in a swap deal of Thibaut Courtois for Diego Costa). If, however, Chelsea fail to win the Premier League this season, Mourinho’s failure to do the business in January could be seen as a major oversight. Only time will tell.

Crystal Palace – Grade: B

If the new Eagles’ boss entered January hoping to make room and bolster, he accomplished both. Finding homes for 12 players, four leaving on permanent moves, Pulis has done his spring cleaning in winter, with the players being brought in all looking like useful parts.

source: Getty Images
Puncheon sealed his permanent move to Palace.

In that way, this wasn’t just shuffling the deck. In Ince and Ledley, Pulis brought in the type of players he didn’t have at his disposal. There’s an upside to Dann that could make him a value buy (assuming that undisclosed fee is reasonably low). Puncheon provides the goals that Cameron Jerome has been unable to find, while Hennessey gives the team depth should anything happen to Julian Speroni. It wasn’t spectacular, but Crystal Palace’s January window was eminently solid. It was the Tony Pulis of transfer windows.

Everton – Grade: B

Everton manager Roberto Martinez checked all the boxes for his side’s needs but many fans felt let down at his failure to purchase a striker. Bringing in the 6′ 8″ Traore on a loan seems a good bit of business but with the sale of Nikica Jelavic to Hull City, the Toffees now boast two true strikers, both of whom are on loan.

The issue won’t be a problem this year but in terms of building for the future feels a bit short-sighted. Had Everton purchased a young striker he could have worked with the likes of Romelu Lukaku, giving him an invaluable experience entering the 2014/15 season. Instead, the Toffees will head into this summer with Arouna Kone, who’s coming off a major knee injury, the seldom-used Apostolos Vellios, and Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas, who can play the role despite not being true strikers.

The addition of McGeady was a welcome one and at £2.5m was good deal financially. The speedy Irishman will patrol the right wing, allowing Mirallas to take up more central roles. McGeady is now the fourth Republic of Ireland midfielder on the Toffees roster and early indications are that he loves the club and fits in well, although his on-field performances haven’t overwhelmed.

The loss of Bryan Oviedo to injury is a tough one for Everton after the Costa Rican made an impact at left-back and left midfield in the first half of the season. The failure to replace him and Johnny Heitinga with another defender could look an oversight although the rise of young John Stones should provide sufficient cover.

Southampton – Grade: B

As we mentioned, Saints didn’t bring anyone in this January, but why would you need to when you have so many young studs rolling off the production line at their renowned academy? Right now they have academy products Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Callum Chambers, James Ward-Prowse, Harrison Reed and Sam Gallagher regularly involved in the first-team squad and are the envy of clubs across the PL.

Many thought Pochettino would bring in another striker to replace Osvaldo, after his remarkable training ground bust-up which saw him banned, but instead 18-year-old Gallagher was put into the first team and has shown he’s good enough to play in the PL. Keeping onto Lallana, Shaw and Lambert was key for stability at St. Mary’s. Now Saints can kick on in the final few months of the season to try and bag their highest-ever finish in the PL.

source: Getty Images
Yohan Cabaye left Newcastle, as the Magpies sold him to PSG for $30 million

Newcastle United – Grade: B-

“Oh my God, they sold their best player and they get a B,” that guy you know from Twitter’s about to say. They do, and the grade would be higher if the Magpies had done more to augment their other holes. Though Cabaye’s departure arguable creates another problem, their ability to work $30 million out of the situation is a huge positive.

The negatives: They’re left hoping a three-man middle of Vurnon Anita, Cheik Tioté, and Moussa Sissoko will work (a reasonable guess); they didn’t get a proven scorer to augment Rémy; and their lack of depth at the back could still see Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa utilized as a full back, when injuries or suspensions arise.

Manchester City – Grade: C+

Perhaps there are some in panic mode after watching Chelsea put an end to Manchester City’s absurdly-heroic and prolific run at the Etihad, It’s very difficult to fault Pellegrini for not adding to his squad and he protected any major perceived want-aways from hurting his depth. Really their only significant move was letting Guidetti get some match time over at Stoke City (which was pretty intelligent considering, again, that the young Swedish player wasn’t about to dent a lineup that’s already rung up more than 100 goals).

That’s the softest C we could offer. Even if City ends up dealing with a gross amount of injuries, it’d be fair to write it off as fate rather than unpreparedness. The squad appears deep enough for two Cup runs — one that only has a single date left — and Europe. How many other squads can say that?

source: AP
That man Mata was United’s club record signing and will be integral if they’re going to make the top 4.

Manchester United – Grade: C+

Getting Mata goes a long way toward a good grade, but United overpaid. Based on this weekend’s loss at Stoke, they also seem willing to move the Spaniard out of his best position, casting Mata as an extremely talented but overpriced player for whom United are unable to carve out a position. Mata may excel wide and justify every pounds spent. He may also leave Red Devils’ fans wondering what $61 million could have done in midfield and defense.

It’s still difficult to argue United haven’t gotten better in the winter window, which it why I’ve given them a passing grade. But given their needs, the Champions League stakes, and their resources, the Red Devils could have done more.

Aston Villa – Grade: C

Aston Villa are not big spenders and were never going to buy big in January, that’s not the clubs philosophy. They needed some extra depth in a few positions and Paul Lambert got that with the loan deals for Ryan Bertrand and Grant Holt. Bertrand has been great at left back, while Holt will add something different to the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann up top.

All in all, a very quite window for Villa. Not much to see here. Now the focus, for yet another season, is on Premier League survival.

Arsenal – Grade: C-

Arsene Wenger had one area to strengthen in the window, and he didn’t get to do it. I get it, it’s tough to find a top striker that’s better than what you have. But let’s be honest, Arsenal haven’t got a lot of options in attack. With Theo Walcott out injured, only Podolski, Bendtner and Giroud can play in the central role. With a hard slog of Champions League, PL and FA Cup matches coming up, they needed more depth. Wenger should have splashed the cash to bring in a top striker. This was the window where they should’ve made a marquee signing. But if a player isn’t available, like Diego Costa, then what can you do?

Bringing in Kallstrom was okay, he will slot in and do a decent job in the absence of Ramsey and Flamini for a few weeks. But I think Arsenal’s fans, and perhaps their manager, expected to do a lot better in this window.

source: Getty Images
Antonio Nocerino, right, has joined West Ham on loan from AC Milan.

West Ham United – Grade: C

Borriello, 31, has seven caps for Italy. No, that’s not exactly Paolo Rossi as Azzurri all-time strikers go, but he’s got something. Having scored once in 11 Roma appearances this year, a change of address can’t hurt, and maybe can find some of the 2008 form, when Borriello flirted with the Italian Serie A scoring leadership.At the very least, he provides some cover for the inconsistent and unreliable Andy Carroll.

Nocerino, 28, has 15 caps for Italy, most prominently as a member of the country’s European Championships team from 2012. While he’s not completely useless, he had become surplus around AC Milan, even more so now Michael Essien’s arrival from Chelsea. It’s fair to ask if a midfielder in such poor from around the San Siro is the man who can help the Hammers dodge relegation?

Norwich City – Grade: C-

Yeah, it’s a pretty low grade for the Canaries, because Chris Hughton has failed to strengthen in the area he needed to. However that might not be his fault as Norwich’s resources are likely to be limited, especially after splashing out over $20 million on van Wolfswinkel and Hooper this summer, and January didn’t have many bargains.

Last year Norwich brought in the likes of Kei Kamara to bolster the strikeforce late in the season and that worked to help keep them up. I do worry for the Canaries this year though, because I just don’t see where the goals are coming from. That, and they are only two points above the relegation zone.

Stoke City – Grade: C-

How you feel about Stoke’s window comes down to Odemwingie and Guidetti. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to say either represents a significant improvement. While each have the talent to have a major impact, recent history and early returns say Stoke’s treading water. Odemwingie is a skilled player who tantalized at West Brom, but in his last 72 Premier League games, he’s scored a Crouch-esque 16 goals. How much of an improvement that represents on Assaidi, Jon Walters, or Arnautovic is debatable, but it’s unlikely to be much.

Guidetti is already making noise about being unhappy with his playing time (he was briefly ill). Perhaps that gets worked out and he can have a major impact over the next four months. More likely: If he’s not getting significant time early, he has one or two other steps before being a relegation-saver.

Stoke failed to meaningfully address any of their issues, but they brought in two guys who could turn probability on its head. Given the cost (just wages, presumably), they’re worth a shot.

source: AP
Liverpool could not clinch the deal for Konoplyanka on deadline day, as the Reds struggled in the window.

Liverpool – Grade: D

It’s not right to toss a huge ‘F’ on the Reds, as the club is in pretty good shape. Their strike force is flying with SAS on cruise control and players like Jordan Henderson have been playing very well, but sometimes you need to take a risk to boost your chances at the Champions League and that time seemed now with no clear giant emerging this season (or better put: no club seizing the opportunities atop the PL). Sure, spending for spending’s sake isn’t a great idea but if the Reds are looking back at this year from a spot outside of Europe or mere points from the top, they’ll look back at a January window and wonder if it was fate… or just laziness.

Swansea City – Grade: D

Two points shy of the relegation zone with 14 league matches to play and the Europa League set to start up, Swansea City are in the muck and did little transfer-wise to give themselves hope of getting out of it. They desperately needed to land players who could contribute straight away and failed to do so.

N’Gog and perhaps Emnes are the only players of the lot who could potentially make an impact in the top flight. The 24-year old N’Gog has Premier League experience with Liverpool and Bolton and although he didn’t exactly light it up, there were matches where the 6’3″ Frenchman showed promise. The 25-year old Emnes scored 24 goals in 141 matches at Championship side Middlesborough, hardly numbers that will have the Jacks thinking the Dutchman can make an impact at the Liberty. Meanwhile Fulton, King and Hanley are all under the age of 20 and are projects for the future.

It was bargain basement shopping by Huw Jenkins. Over time, one or two of these players might pan out but the likelihood any will have a significant impact this spring is extremely low. Making things worse, Jenkins also went ahead and fired manager Michael Laudrup this week (appointing long-time defender Garry Monk as caretaker manager), so things at the South Wales club are, without a doubt, in shambles.

West Bromwich Albion – Grade: D-

It’s a D- rather than an outright F because the Baggies did get some money for Long. The Irishman was always bound to leave, wasn’t he? He came so close to putting the Hawthorns in his rear view mirror last summer, only to see that relocation into Hull collapse at the 11th hour.

With six months to go before he could leave on a free transfer, the Baggies more or less had to move him. When the offer came in over $10 million, there really wasn’t any choice. Now, should management have done more with that money? Of course. Reinforcements anywhere around the ground would have helped, but the gaping hole was at left back, where neither Liam Ridgewell nor Goran Popov have proven capable of holding serve consistently.

Griezmann wins best player award in Spain for last season

SEVILLE, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23:  Antoine Griezmann of Club Atletico de Madrid looks on during the match between Sevilla FC vs Club Atletico de Madrid as part of La Liga at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuanon October 23, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
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VALENCIA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann has won the best player award in the Spanish league for last season.

The Atletico Madrid forward was announced as the winner in a ceremony organized by La Liga in Valencia on Monday. The Frenchman was not at the ceremony.

[ MORE: Ballon d’Or omissions ]

Atletico also had Diego Simeone win the best coach award, Diego Godin earn the best defender award, and Jan Oblak clinch best goalkeeper.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi was selected as the best forward, and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric as the best midfielder.

Team captains voted for the top players in each position, while a data-analysis system generated the best player award.

Barcelona won the Spanish league last season, ahead of Real Madrid and Atletico.

Biggest omissions from the Ballon d’Or shortlist

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (R) is chased by N'Golo Kante of Chelsea (L)  during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

France Football released the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or award given to the world’s best player.

As expected in a EURO year, there are several Portuguese standouts to go with the usual suspects.

There are also some odd omissions.

[ MLS: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s second-leading scorer as the Gunners finished second in the Premier League, and the South American attacker scored three goals as Chile won its second-straight Copa America, this one on American soil. It’s baffling that he’s not on the list.

N'Golo Kante enjoyed a season as the engine of the best story in Premier League history, manning the midfield for Leicester, and followed it up by helping France reach the EURO 2016 final. Pretty good, right?

Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic were key pieces in Barcelona’s run to the La Liga crown despite being limited by the transfer ban. Mascherano followed it up by captaining Argentina to the Copa America Centenario final, while Rakitic starred alongside Ivan Perisic as Croatia won a tricky EURO 2016 group before falling to eventual winners Portugal.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11: Fernando Torres of Club Atletico de Madrid is surrounded by (L-R) Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on January 11, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Mascherano (far left) and Rakitic (second from right) are among several Barcelona players who didn’t make the cut (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images).

Harry Kane may’ve not been a good choice to take corner for England, but he also was one of the best all-around attackers in the world as Tottenham surged into the Top Four of the Premier League.

With four goalkeepers making the cut, it shows that club success is more important than performance. David De Gea‘s season was certainly on the same plane as Buffon, though the latter won the league with Juventus and edged Spain at EURO 2016.

Marcelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and David Silva were also players who succeeded for both club and country and could’ve found their way onto the 30.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Finally, let’s see how I fared in projecting the 30 men back in mid-September:

— I got 24 on the nose, wrongly guessing that Kante, Kane, Alexis, Mascherano, Rakitic, and Olivier Giroud would make the cut. Giroud led Arsenal and France in scoring, but if Alexis wasn’t going to make it the coiffed Frenchman had no hope.

— Of the six I didn’t get, only one brings me great shame: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should’ve been in the first 15 names on any list, not missing the post entirely. Paulo Dybala is a bit of a shocker from the crew, and Koke is a tricky miss. Luka Modric was our No. 31, while Rui Patricio was our 35. Diego Godin was a bad miss.

— What to learn from this: Atletico Madrid was obviously credited for its return to the UCL final, so Godin and Koke prove that carried a bit more weight than Kante and Giroud making the final with France, and Alexis thriving at the Copa America.

Whose historic hiccup was worse: Portland or Columbus?

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 6: Kei Kamara #23 of Columbus Crew and Liam Ridgewell #24 of Portland Timbers go after a ball during the second half of the game at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Timbers won the match 2-1. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
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It’s been less than a year since we discussed who was best suited to return to the MLS Cup Final following Portland’s 2-1 win over Columbus in the 2015 title match.

Now we’re wondering who’s fall was more shameful, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew each missed the playoffs, just over 11 months after contesting the final. That’s never happened before.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

We asked our staff to take a stand on the matter of who flubbed worse: Gregg Berhalter’s Crew or Caleb Porter’s Timbers.

Andy Edwards

Columbus: 2016 was Gregg Berhalter’s third season in charge in Columbus, and in each of his first two years, Crew SC took a gigantic step forward — from non-playoff side to in the playoffs in 2014; from young, naive playoff team to MLS Cup hosts in 2015 — which meant 2016 was supposed to be the culmination of a truly great revolution in Columbus.

They started the season slow, with no wins in their first five games. But they had done the same thing just 12 months earlier and there they were playing for the Cup in December. The Crew looked to be slowly turning this season’s corner when the Kei Kamara/Federico Higuain thing exploded and effectively ended their season in May.

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The big knock on Crew SC last year, at least for me, was that they never seemed to figure out a Plan B — if “hit it long for Kei, he’ll knock it down, and Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram will run onto it and toss the alley-oop back to him inside the six” wasn’t working, you’d already beaten them.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

2016 exposed Berhalter, perhaps more than any player on the roster, because of the elongated nature of those struggles — literally the entire season. Finlay (6 goals, 9 assists) and Meram (5 goals, 13 assists) put up fine numbers once again, but they rang hollow for a losing team going nowhere all season long.

Wil Trapp’s age-23 season was completely wasted — he’s no longer “a young player” — and I’d take a long, hard look at Europe this winter if I were him. The defense has been an unmitigated disaster the last two season (53 and 58 goals conceded), mostly due to the all-out attacking nature of Berhalter’s game plans — hint: defending 2-on-4 against counter-attacks almost never ends well. The “other” Kamara, Ola, actually panning out was the saving grace that kept them within a mile of the playoff race.

Nick Mendola

Portland: Maybe it’s an odd year thing; Portland won the 2015 MLS Cup after claiming the West’s best record in 2013.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Timbers ran out of luck under newly-extended Caleb Porter in his fourth season on the job. This time, no one bailed them out.

Portland came out of nowhere to claim the West’s No. 1 seed in 2013, as Porter engineered an astounding 15 draws including 10 on the road. The tactics and lineup selection helped, but so did the arrivals of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson (pretty important, no?).

The Timbers missed the playoffs by a point in 2014, a 3W-1D end to the season not enough to make up for a horrible start to the season.

The next season saw the Timbers win it all, but not without needing a three-match winning streak to leap ahead of four teams and claim the third-seed (Seattle, LA, and KC all finished two points back). Six games later, they went from almost out to on top of the MLS world.

So what happened this year, with many falling all over ourselves to praise the long-term prospects of a Timbers dynasty? A giant failure. The Timbers failed to win a single road game, tossing aside their strong home field advantage (Portland was 12W-3L-2T at Providence Park).

SANDY, UT - APRIL 19: Head coach Caleb Porter of the Portland Timbers encourages his team during their game against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium April 19, 2014 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

The Timbers scored the second-most penalties in the league this year, with five, so it’s not like fortune avoided them (The Red Bulls didn’t score one).

But, oh, this was ugly.

Portland took three of its the final 12 points available to it. The Timbers lost big in Vancouver and Houston, two non-playoff destinations. In its last 13 games, Portland lost nine and won four.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

The Timbers completed the fewest passes in Major League Soccer, 400 less than the closest competitor and 4,300 behind the league-leading Revs. Portland couldn’t take the ball away, either, with the second-fewest interceptions in the league.

You could even argue that losing 4-1 in Vancouver on Decision Day — a loss to a knocked-out Cascadia Cup rival — makes it worse than Columbus’ season alone. This was awful stuff, albeit schadenfreude for the anti-Porter brigade.

Oh, and they bombed out of a poor CONCACAF Champions League group without a Liga MX or MLS opponent in it.

Alright, so Andy tabbed Columbus and Nick took Portland. Let’s get a tiebreaker in here.

Matt Reed

Every champion has a target on its back but the Timbers managed to essentially bring back all of its key starters from a season ago, despite losing Maxi Urruti. The Timbers were involved in 22 games separated by one goal or less in 2016, with Caleb Porter’s side winning only seven of those contests. Had one more game gone in their favor the Timbers would likely be back in the postseason. 

The case for (and against) every Eastern Conference playoff team

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: Benoit Cheyrou #8 of Toronto FC defends Andrea Pirlo #21 of New York City FC free kick at Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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Of the six teams remaining in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, you could argue there are three distinct pairings.

You have red-hot traditional sides in DC United and the New York Red Bulls; There are the big-name driven, deep squads from Toronto FC and New York City FC, and finally the two relative unknowns truly deserving of “wildcard” status in the Philadelphia Union Montreal Impact.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

Sure the table tends to tell us who’s who in the pecking order. It’s hard to bet against the Red Bulls seeing they haven’t lost since July 3, and Frank Lampard has somehow quietly been a wrecking ball thanks to dynamite performances from captain David Villa and world-class maestro Andrea Pirlo.

But there are reasons those teams may not be the true favorite to advance to the MLS Cup final, just as there are ways to imagine Philly can punch their way through the East. We’re here to give you both.

Philadelphia Union (6)

Why they’ll win: The young unit might be too green to know it isn’t expected to knock off Toronto in Toronto, or a New York team in New York or New Jersey. Chris Pontius and Tranquillo Barnetta add veteran skill and savvy, while Andre Blake is capable of stealing some of the league’s more terrific strikes.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Why they won’t: Their last win was Aug. 27, and we’re supposed to expect the Union to win on the road at Toronto, RBNY, and then either NYCFC or DC. Nah, dog (though it’d be quite a story and we’d be happy to watch it).

Montreal Impact (5)

Why they’ll win: Didier Drogba may not be mentally in it, but he’s still a fierce competitor who can score with the best of them. By the way, the “best of them” definitely includes Ignacio Piatti. The Argentine has been one of the top players in the league this season, and can take over any game (Yes, even three on the bounce).

Why they won’t: The dysfunction and fall-out from Drogba’s benching permeates the room before match against red-hot DC United, and an average road team fails to meet expectations.

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba heads the ball in front of D.C. United midfielder Marcelo Sarvas during the second half of an MLS soccer match Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

DC United (4)

Why they’ll win: A four-match win streak earned most of DC’s starters a well-deserved rest on Decision Day, and there will be a “Why not us?” cry coming from the DC dressing room. Patrick Nyarko has been a lot of fun to watch. Luciano Acosta is legit as well. Bill Hamid is an excellent shot stopper, and the four-time champion Black-and-Red is overdue for a final, having been absent since beating KC in 2004.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Why they won’t: Let’s be honest, most arguments against DC sound quite political. “Well, they can’t win because of the other guys being so good.” DC doesn’t have the firepower of TFC, NYCFC, and RBNY; Would you bet on them beating two of the above, which they likely would have to? (Actually, kinda).

Toronto FC (3)

Why they’ll win: Frankly, this is the best defensive team in the East, with a minimum of three game attacking breakers in Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore. Imports Drew Moor and Clint Irwin aren’t scared of the spotlight, and Will Johnson will be putting on for his city. And they’re good away from BMO Field. This could be TFC’s season, y’all.

Why they won’t: This is Toronto’s 10th season, and happens to be the first one in which it won more matches than it lost. TFC’s debut home match comes on Wednesday evening, and there’s something to be said for experience. While some of its players have plenty, the club does not possess much at all.

New York City FC (2)

Why they’ll win: One of only two teams (Toronto) to finish their road schedule with a .500 record, Patrick Vieira has been able to get the best out of the superstars and the lesser-known members of NYC’s squad. Tactically, we’re not sure there’s another coach in the East with his acumen.

Why they won’t: It’s also Vieira’s first playoffs as a manager, and the whole franchise hasn’t done that dance, either. They have one win in five combined matches against RBNY and TFC.

New York Red Bulls

Why they’ll win: Frankly, as stated above, because they don’t lose. Jesse Marsch hasn’t overseen a loss in three-and-a-half months, has two legit claimants to MVP honors in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, and have been reinforced by one of the deepest Academy production lines in MLS.

Why they won’t: New York won just three road matches all year, even if it managed 7 draws away from Red Bull Arena. On top of that, this is year No. 20 of MLS, and founding members RBNY have zero titles and one final appearance. Those ghosts could come creeping up to the door.