Every week during the 2009 MLS season, I'll be ranking all 15 MLS clubs based on their performances during the season to that point. MLS is a league with a lot of parity, so you can expect the rankings to change a great deal from week to week.
The formula for the rankings will be part statistical analysis, part subjective observation on my part, and, as always, reader input will be appreciated.
1. Columbus Crew
Until somebody proves otherwise, Columbus is the team to beat in 2009. League MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto returns to the club, as do key defenders Chad Marshall and Frankie Hejduk. Columbus appears to be in great shape for a title defense.
2. Chicago Fire
I wasn't completely sold on the Fire a few weeks ago, but I've had a change of heart. The combination of Blanco and McBride is possibly the best in the entire league. Bakary Soumare also adds quite a bit of pace and athleticism to the back line.
3. Houston Dynamo
Despite losing star playmaker Dwayne De Rosario in the off-season, Houston has proven that they will be a competitor during the 2009 season. They've fared better than any other MLS club in the CONCACAF Champions League. Also, Houston still has Brian Ching, Stuart Holden, and Ricardo Clark on the books.
4. New York Red Bulls
Last season's surprise finalists won't catch anybody unaware this season. The club has a solid core of players, including dangerous scorer Juan Pablo Angel. They also picked up Albert Celades, a Spaniard who has spent significant amounts of time with both Real Madrid and Barcelona. This kind of top-flight experience makes New York a club to be reckoned with.
5. Toronto FC
Toronto made the biggest move of the off-season when they acquired Dwayne De Rosario from Houston. He'll pair with enigmatic talent Amado Guevara in midfield, with Marvel Wynne shoring up the back line. For Toronto to stay near the top of the league, though, the defense will have to come up big.
6. D.C. United
Jaime Moreno may be one of the elder statesmen in MLS, but I still like him. Few clubs can match D.C. for offensive firepower. Their lineup of Moreno, Christian Gomez, Luciano Emilio, and Santino Quaranta give them the potential to put up huge numbers in the scoring column. Of course, they could also surrender tons of goals as well. Will Ivan Guerrero be enough in back?
7. Chivas USA
I love Chivas' midfield. In fact, Sacha Kljestan may be the best player in the league this side of Landon Donovan. If he exits in the summer transfer window, which looks likely, Chivas will plummet. If he stays, he can carry them deep into the playoffs. A lot rides on his shoulders.
8. New England Revolution
For several seasons, New England has been among the league's elite. Now, they've lost Michael Parkhurst and just keep getting older. Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston, Shalrie Joseph, and Matt Reis are all high-mileage players. It's looking like New England's window to win a title with their current stars has finally closed.
9. FC Dallas
I don't care that their defense has been terrible in the pre-season. Kenny Cooper now has Dave Van Den Bergh's service to look forward to, and you can bet Cooper will make the most of it as he tries to break into the regular lineup for the U.S. National Team. Jeff Cunningham gives Dallas an experienced scorer off the bench.
10. San Jose Earthquakes
Their signing of U.S. international midfielder Bobby Convey was a shrewd move that should pay huge dividends. He still has a lot left in the tank and will be eager to succeed after a couple of injury-plagued seasons at Reading. Convey to Huckerby might not give you goosebumps, but it should win San Jose some games.
11. Kansas City Wizards
Kansas City signed their own Argentinian playmaker this off-season, Santiago Hirsig. He won't have the huge impact of Schelotto, but he should prove to be a decent signing. Jimmy Conrad will provide solid play and excellent leadership from the back. If this team can find some offense, they could be 2009's surprise package.
12. Los Angeles Galaxy
David Beckham will be coming back, but only for half the season. Unfortunately, every one of his teammates not named Landon Donovan isn't good enough to take advantage of his fantastic passing. Speaking of Donovan, he'll be playing for his last chance at a decent European contract. He could score 25 goals easily this season.
13. Real Salt Lake
ESPNSoccernet.com has these guys ranked No. 4 in their table. I can't be that optimistic about them until I see them in action in 2009. Yes, they made the playoffs last season. Yes, they've got some definite quality on the roster. But, the 10-10-10 record they sported last season wasn't very impressive. Call me skeptical for now.
14. Seattle Sounders FC
Seattle might have an outside shot at a playoff spot if they can stay healthy. Kasey Keller is still an excellent goalkeeper, Freddie Ljungberg should be intriguing at worst, and Nate Jaqua has the potential to be a homeless man's Brian McBride. He's big enough to win some balls in the box, but he lacks the durability and finishing touch of McBride.
15. Colorado Rapids
Aside from Conor Casey and Pablo Mastroeni, the Rapids don't have anybody who really grabs your attention. And let's face the facts, only one of the two players that I mentioned is capable of scoring more than a goal or two this season. Even if Colorado gets great defensive play, they will struggle dearly to score.