MLS 2016 Season Guide: Eastern Conference favorites

Laurent Ciman was mostly brilliant last year for the Montreal Impact, improving the defense from Day 1 and generally functioning as a calming presence for the entire team when he was on the field. My favorite part of his game wasn't his passing or positioning or strength in the box; it was how he single-handedly prevented breakouts, over and over and over again.

This is a relatively subtle and simple play, but it's important:



Even with the pressure from Ciman, Lee Nguyen should have done better. But the point is that Ciman got there and broke Nguyen's rhythm, and he was able to harry one of league's best passers into a rushed, improperly weighted ball that became a turnover. Ciman's understanding of how aggressively and when to transition from back-foot to front-foot defense is easily the best in the league, and it's something I hope that MLS academy directors and USL coaches are teaching to the next crop of Homegrowns on a daily basis.


Compare that play above to this goal from Harry Kane in last year's MLS All-Star Game. Omar Gonzalez is not great in open space, and he actually does a decent job of forcing Kane toward a bad angle. But he retreats, and retreats, and retreats...

GOAL: Harry Kane with a deadly finish from distance

It's not 100-percent fair to compare those two plays since Ciman had structure around him while Gonzalez was defending on an island, but you get the idea. Ciman's ability to make plays in those situations -- even plays that aren't recorded by Opta (Nguyen was actually credited with a completed pass there), or noted on highlight packs, or praised after the final whistle -- allowed the Montreal midfield to take risks they otherwise couldn't.


That was his strength. This was his weakness:

The Impact quite obviously can't afford for a similar run of red cards in this coming season, as the loss of Ciman for any amount of time kills them on both sides of the ball -- they have to play much more conservatively through midfield, and their backline has to stay deeper as a whole. No central defender in the league has as much of an effect on the way his team plays.


Author's Note


This is the 15th in a daily series counting down to to the MLS regular season first kick on March 6. I'm using Paul Carr's tweets (with his blessing) to examine some of the bigger storylines to follow in the upcoming season.