MLS EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
Looking at all of the movement in MLS this off-season and two things jump out. The quality of play in the league is going to improve because of, not in spite of expansion. However, that means that there will be many disappointed fans from the more established franchises. I will highlight Seattle’s impact in the Western Conference preview, but the East was the beast in 2008 and while I believe the West will be respectable this year, the top teams in the East should still outclass the rest. Here is my take on how the Eastern Conference will shake out this season: 1. CHICAGO Getting a full season of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Brian McBride should lead to plenty of goals - and if Bakary Soumare continues his development in the back, the Fire will not be conceding many. If Denis Hamlett can keep Wilman Conde happy and Jon Busch healthy the Fire have a solid chance to win their second MLS Cup, and their first since their inaugural season back in 1998. The fact that Chicago did not make any big moves in the off-season shows the confidence in the team they already have, but depth will be an issue. The real key to the Fire’s success will be if Hamlett can get his younger players to shine. Chris Rolfe has already proven himself, but how does he fit in as the third wheel in a Blanco-McBride offense? As for Justin Mapp and Calen Carr, it is time for the promise to become reality if Chicago is to win their second crown. 2. COLUMBUS There is nowhere to go but down for the defending MLS Champions, but they should still stay in the thick of the race for the title. Resigning Guillermo Barros Schelotto was vital, but their inability to hold on to the puppet-master will have some consequences. It helps that Robert Warzycha is very familiar with the Crew after seven years as a player and eight as a coach, including an interim stint in charge in 2005 before Sigi Schmid took over. Following Schmid’s departure, Warzycha has a full cupboard to work with. The club was able to hold on to Defender of the Year Chad Marshall. And while Robbie Rogers, Eddie Gaven and Emmanuel Ekpo are playing above their years – the presence of MLS veteran Pat Noonan will help the club keep an even keel. The only question seems to be at fullback, with Gino Padula and Frankie Hejduk trailing only Schelotto in the age department, Columbus will have to make backup plans – especially now that Hey-dude has worked his way back into Bob Bradley’s 2010 plans. 3. TORONTO They arguably had the best draft, but normally that takes a few years to show a pay-off. However, Trader Mo got John Carver the best playmaker in the history of the league in Dwayne De Rosario and that will pay instant dividends. With De Ro paired with the talented Amado Guevara, Carl Robinson has been relieved of his playmaking responsibilities and can provide a reliable link from the defense to one of the best attacks in MLS. With Danny Dichio, Rohan Ricketts and Argentine newcomer Pablo Vitti available, Toronto will be hard to contain. Chad Barrett will also get a chance to prove his late season heroics were not a fluke, but will be pressed for time when former Hermann-winner O’Brien White gets healthy mid-season. Other than the trade with Dallas for Canadian international Adrian Serioux, the team has not really shored up the back-line following the departures of Tyrone Marshall, Todd Dunivant and Julius James. Goalkeeper Greg Sutton can be suspect in the best of times, and will need a more solid group in front of him if Toronto is to make its post-season debut. 4. NEW YORK It looks to be another season in the shadow of the Cosmos and another year of rebuilding. This time it is on the defensive side as the Red Bulls have held on to much of their promising attack from last year. However, keeping the opposition at bay will be the key to New York's success in 2009. Re-signing Juan Pablo Angel gives the Bulls a focal point to the attack, but it will be the performance of the supporting cast to see if they got it right. Mac Kandji is a star in the making, if given the chance. Dane Richards is one of the most dangerous wingers in MLS, but with Matt Mbuta and Dominic Oduru, he will be pressed for playing time. Jorge Rojas still has to prove he can play in the middle, and Juan Pietrovallo needs to prove he can avoid the referee’s glare or it will be a long season at the Meadowlands. Once his suspension is over, Jon Conway should reclaim his starting spot between the pipes, but the backline needs a lot of work for Red Bulls fans to have any hope of a title. While Alberto Celades has played much of his career as a defensive midfielder, his vision and composure would be a big help in central defense if Juan Carlos Osorio can win his signature. 5. NEW ENGLAND Not a lot of movement in the off-season by New England, but Steve Nicol has such a talented corps of players they do not need much help. If Taylor Twellman and Steve Ralston can remain healthy this season, the Revs will be on track for another post-season appearance. There are some big questions though, not the least of which is what will the Revolution do to fill the giant gap left by the departure of Michael Parkhurst. If they do not get busy soon, and if Costa Rican Gabriel Badilla does not take a huge step up, the Revs might even have to drop midfield monster Jeff Larentowicz to the backline. However, with Shalrie Joseph manning the fort that should not be too dangerous. With Adam Cristman going to Kansas City, that also puts added responsibility on the dynamic duo of Kenny Mansally and Kheli Dube – but again, they should be up for the challenge. Again, the only thing that seems likely to derail the Revs gravy train is a lack of proven depth. There are a lot of promising young players, but the tea leaves seem to say that this might be a lull between the high points at Foxboro. 6. KANSAS CITY The Wizards were better than expected last year, but Claudio Lopez will have to contribute much more if Kansas City is to repeat its playoff performance. When it is all said and done, Curt Onalfo has a great supporting cast, but no showstopper. The Man Behind the Curtain could be Argentine midfielder Santiago Hirsig. Can the former succeed where Carlos Marinelli failed? The addition of Adam Cristman from New England and Abe Thompson from Dallas gives them some big bodies up front and that should allow some freedom for Josh Wolff to roam around. Onalfo will always get an honest effort out of Jimmy Conrad, Davy Arnaud and Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury is one of the most underrated players in the league. If Kevin Hartman can repeat last year’s comeback season, and if Hirsig can grab the steering wheel, than this could be a sweet ride for Wizard fans on their way to Hillcrest Road. However, those are a lot of ‘ifs’. 7. DC UNITED Last season was a very rare off year for the class team of Major League Soccer. However, it is not likely to be the last. DC United is still long in the tooth and heads into another year with a suspect defense and an inconsistent attack. The good news is Christian Gomez is back. The bad news is they got rid of him two years ago because he was not good enough. The man who replaced him was even less effective though, and now that Marcelo Gallardo is back at River Plate, can Gomez relive his glory days as the darling of the Barra Brava? Louis Crayton was an improvement in net, but Tom Soehn needs to look under a lot of rocks at RFK for a few good central defenders. With a home of their own finally on the horizon, United fans have reason to be happy. However, their joy will not mean any more wins this season. Unless DC can shore up their defense, spark their moribund offense and find a leader like the constantly injured Ben Olsen, United’s next title will not come until they have moved to Maryland.