2009 MLS Season Preview, Part One: Eastern Conference
The Eastern Conference appeared to be the dominant conference in MLS last season.
The MLS Cup-winning Columbus Crew came out of the East, as did the losing finalists, Red Bull New York.
Also residing in the East was the traditional power, the New England Revolution.
The Revs have never won an MLS cup, but they are consistently among the best teams in the league thanks to Shalrie Joseph and Taylor Twellman.
Lastly, the most successful side in MLS history makes its home in the Eastern Conference. DC United has won four MLS Cups, four Supporters' Shields, two US Open Cups, and a CONCACAF Champions Cup.
What can we expect out of the East this season?
2008 result: 13-7-10, lost to Columbus in the second round of the playoffs
Key additions: None
Key subtractions: Matt Pickens
Analysis: Chicago fans have another season of Brian McBride and Cuauhtemoc Blanco to enjoy. The Fire also have Chris Rolfe and Justin Mapp to bolster the midfield and should be one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
Working against the Fire is their inactivity in the transfer market. They came up short in their hunt for silverware last season, and have made no major changes to their squad. If their team last season wasn't good enough to win it all, what makes them think that the same squad will fare any better this season?
Chicago also lacks depth at some key positions. There isn't much depth behind Rolfe and McBride up front, and are dangerously thin at back, with only Bakary Soumare and an aging C.J. Brown providing a lot of stability and experience.
2008 result: 17-6-7, 2008 MLS Supporters' Shield, 2008 MLS Cup Champions
Key additions: None
Key subtractions: Brad Evans
Analysis: Columbus is coming off their best season ever, winning the MLS Cup for the first time.
The Crew might just be primed for a repeat, too. They re-signed star midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and were able to keep defender Chad Marshall in MLS despite some overtures from European clubs.
Like Chicago, the Crew didn't make any major changes to their roster. But unlike the Fire, the Crew had a winning formula last season. Barros Schelotto is enough to make any team in MLS a contender, and the Crew have to be excited about their chances this season.
Columbus has a solid mix of youngsters and veterans on their roster. Eddie Gaven, Robbie Rogers and Chad Marshall have been mentored by Schelotto and US International Frankie Hejduk. The squad will definitely be making a return to the postseason in an effort to defend their crown.
2008 result: 11-15-4, no playoff appearance
Key additions: Christian Gomez
Key subtractions: Ivan Guerrero
Analysis: Christian Gomez was a prolific goalscorer for DC during his first stint with the club, and after a disappointing term at Colorado, United is hoping that he can recapture his great form of years past.
DC missed out on the playoffs by just two points in 2008. If not for a seven game winless streak towards the end of the season, they could have competed for the second or third seed in the East.
In order to get Gomez, DC had to give up one of their most experienced defenders, Ivan Guerrero. It remains to be seen whether trading defense for offense is a shrewd move, but DC had to shake something up for the 2009 season.
United's biggest issue this season should be age. They have several talented offensive players in Gomez, Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio. All three players are over 30 years of age, as is midfield staple Ben Olsen. Age could be the reason that DC wore down at the end of 2008, and it may be their undoing in 2009 as well.
Kansas City Wizards
2008 result: 11-10-9, lost to Columbus in the first round of the playoffs
Key additions: Santiago Hirsig
Key subtractions: Kerry Zavagnin (ret.)
Analysis: Kansas City is a tough club to figure out. On paper, they shouldn't have even made the playoffs last season as they coped with the loss of their best striker, Eddie Johnson. In actuality, KC ended up with the fourth-best record in the East and snagged one of two playoff Wild Card spots.
They have a good core of players, including Jimmy Conrad, Jack Jewsbury, Herculez Gomez and Kevin Hartman. But in order to make the leap to the next level and begin contending for MLS Cups once again, Kansas City needs to sign a player that can bring a little creativity and flair to the lineup.
That's where they hope Santiago Hirsig will come in. Hirsig has spent most of his career in the Argentinean top flight and Kansas City signed him in the hopes that he will improve their midfield by a wide margin, much in the same manner that Guillermo Barros Schelotto has helped Columbus.
New England Revolution
2008 result: 12-11-7, lost to Chicago in the first round of the playoffs
Key additions: None
Key subtractions: Michael Parkhurst
Analysis: The window for success in New England may have closed as they stumbled to third place in the East last season. Pat Noonan was gone, and Taylor Twellman and Shalrie Joseph, while still effective, aren't getting any younger. What's more, Twellman may be unhappy in MLS because the league rejected a $2.5 million offer for his services just over a year ago.
In 2009, New England will be forced to rely heavily on Twellman and 34-year-old Steve Ralston, the MLS' all-time assists leader. In back, they've got two-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Matt Reis, which certainly gives the back line loads of confidence. But Reis' best defender, Michael Parkhurst, has left to ply his trade in Scandinavia and the Revs haven't signed a replacement.
For New England to be successful, they will need to remain healthy for the entire season. They can't afford to be without Twellman, Joseph or Ralston for long periods of time.
New York Red Bulls
2008 result: 10-11-9, lost to Columbus in the MLS Cup Final
Key additions: Macoumba Kandji, Khano Smith, Dominic Oduro
Key subtractions: Dave Van Den Bergh
Analysis: New York was easily the surprise team of the 2008 MLS season. After all of their struggles on the road, they won some huge road playoff games en route to their first ever appearance in the MLS Cup Final. In order to repeat that success, they need to get some more consistency out of a lineup that has some talent in it.
Paramount to the club's success is striker Juan Pablo Angel. He spent a lot of time on the injured list in 2008 but still managed to bag 16 goals, including several that were crucial to simply getting New York into the playoffs. He needs to have another big season in order for New York to return to the playoffs.
Angel's supporting cast also has to figure out how to step up more often than they have in the past. Dane Richards is a nice asset to have in the midfield thanks to his pace, and Danny Cepero stepped in nicely at goalkeeper after Jon Conway was suspended for his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The biggest issue facing New York is the departure of Dave Van Den Bergh. They need to find somebody who is capable of supplying the forwards with crosses like Van Den Bergh was.
2008 result: 9-13-8, no playoff appearance
Key additions: Dwayne De Rosario
Key subtractions: Tyrone Marshall
Analysis: Toronto made the best move of the off-season when they acquired Dwayne De Rosario. D-Ro is always one of the best players in the league and is very excited to be suiting up for his hometown club. This move immediately makes Toronto into a contender.
After De Rosario, the club has plenty of talented options to turn to. Marvel Wynne is arguably the best young defender in MLS and has been attracting interest from European clubs thanks to his pace. Amado Guevara is one of the most controversial figures in MLS history, but he's also a very dangerous attacking midfielder.
Toronto started the 2008 season fairly well, but then stumbled in the second half of the season. They went through a streak of only one win in 14 games at one point. Adding De Rosario should help Toronto play at a high level for the entire season instead of just the first eight games.
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