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New MLS off-season improvement rankings

Dec 28, 2012, 4:42 PM EDT

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In assessing which teams have done the most to improve in MLS through December, there’s no one really close to New York.

The new regime, headed by the brand’s director of football Gerald Hollier, has moved aggressively to improve the team around Thierry Henry, who probably only has one or perhaps two seasons as a premier MLS man.

So on the Red Bulls build. Here is our second ranking of MLS off-season betterment:

1. New York Red Bulls 

Dumping salary (Sebastien Le Toux, Teemu Tainio, Victor Palsson and Jan Gunnar Solli) helped make room for DP Juninho Pernambucano, the creator long missing around Red Bull Arena, someone to get Thierry Henry the ball in the right places. (So Henry doesn’t have to retreat into midfield and do it for himself.) The big move, of course, is capping Marquez backflow by releasing their troublemaking millionaire. In addition to the salary relief, it sheds the drag and the weight of all his drama. Meanwhile, Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola are potential impact men who have been added. Additionally, Tainio’s departure clears room for even more growth from Dax McCarty, one of the most underrated men of 2012 in MLS.

2. Sporting Kansas City

The club’s first major-signing Designated Player, Claudio Lopez, provided precious little return for the DP dollar. Then came Omar Bravo, who did score some goals (including one very important strike) and had his worthwhile moments, even if he never became the front page star and a guy to necessarily build around. Now SKC may be moving even further forward in the DP success equation with Argentine forward Claudio Bieler. Playing in the formation ahead of quasi-U.S. international Benny Feilhaber (just acquired in a trade with New England) and MLS All-Star Graham Zusi gives Kansas City the makings of a stunning attack. Yes, Roger Espinoza’s impending departure hurts. A lot. But officials at Livestrong appear to have found a way to become stronger despite it. Once promising center back Ike Opara, still looking for top professional form, has been for defensive depth.

3. Philadelphia Union

Two big moves make Philadelphia’s off-season strong and intriguing. First came the addition of veteran center back Jeff Parke, who had proven to be such a reliable figure for Seattle over the last two years around CenturyLink Field. But he wanted to be closer to home, and Seattle accommodated. Yes, the Sons of Ben surely still miss their captain, Danny Calliff, who left for Chivas USA in the 2012 Philly shuffle. But if you’re comparing center backs, tit for tat, Parke is the younger and better of the two. The defense fortified, Philly also brought home Le Toux, who has bounced around without much success since leaving Philly two years ago. Now he’s back and (fingers crossed, Philly fans) ready to flourish again at PPL Park, where the Frenchman enjoyed that breakout 2010 All-Star season (14 goals and 11 assists). Union coach John Hackworth, not the tactical restrictor plate that former coach Peter Nowak was, will know how to get the best from Le Toux’s instincts to freelance – most likely at striker alongside young Jack McInerney. There’s also a chance he could partner with Conor Casey, who was taken by the Union during December’s re-entry draft process.

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