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2011 Eastern Conference preview: Red Bulls, Dynamo teams to beat

With an already loaded roster featuring Thierry Henry, the Red Bulls fortified their squad further with the addition of some new Scandinavian midfield imports in the offseason. With the moves, the Red Bulls appear to be the strong favorite in this season's MLS' Eastern Conference. Elsewhere, it's a time of uncerainty for several teams. D.C. United and Toronto have dynamic new young coaches in Ben Olsen and Aron Winter respectively, while Columbus has gambled by undertaking a radical makeover of the squad that won the 2008 MLS Cup.

Click here for Steve Davis' Western Conference preview

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish

1. NEW YORK RED BULLS2010 Record: 15-9-6, 51 points, plus-9 goal difference

Prominent comings and goings: Norwegian international Jan Gunnar Solli and Finnish international Teemu Tainio are the kind of midlevel European additions that tend to work in MLS (like 2010 Red Bulls revelation Joel Lindpere.) Marcos Paullo (Brazil's Atlético Paranaense) and Luke Rodgers (England's Notts County) add depth at striker. Going the other way, Mike Petke, Seth Stammler, Carey Talley and John Wolyniec all retired. And Jeremy Hall, Luke Sassano, Andrew Boyens, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Conor Chinn and, most notably, Juan Pablo Angel were traded, waived or lost in the re-entry draft.

The good, bad and noteworthy: It looks like significant turnover, but coach Hans Backe retained most starters beyond Angel, including Rookie of the Year finalist Tim Ream. ... Solli and Tainio are versatile enough to play several midfield positions, which means Mexican international Rafa Marquez may plant himself at center back. ... Juan Agudelo's groin injury and the Rodgers' ongoing recovery has Backe's team stretched for strikers during the preseason. ... Rodgers, signed in January, has yet to get into a preseason contest.

The man who matters: We should probably give Thierry Henry a pass for an underwhelming 2010 MLS debut. He wasn't exactly bad; there have certainly been worse designated player signings. But safe to say the Red Bulls had more in mind than two goals and no assists in 11 games. Injuries nicked the famous Frenchman's playing time and performance, quite possibly the result of extended action without a proper break. So 2011 will tell the tale. It's all there for Henry, who has a strong team around him. He just has to stick a few more in the net.

Bottom line: The Red Bulls are everyone's choice to rule the weaker Eastern Conference. Truly, the deck is stacked for the Red Bulls. Backe's boys have every opportunity to carve out a friendly path into the MLS Cup, since they should be able to dodge best from the West until the final.

2. HOUSTON DYNAMO2010 Record: 9-15-6, 33 points, minus-9 GD

Prominent comings and goings: The Dynamo defense was very un-Dynamo-like in 2010. So coach Dominic Kinnear worked aggressively in the offseason to buttress his broken back line. He added Hunter Freeman, a former Red Bull who spent two years at IK Start in Norway. Freeman will compete with first-round draft choice Kofi Sarkodie on the right. Jermaine Taylor, capped 37 times by Jamaica, looks like Bobby Boswell's new central defense partner. Will Bruin, another first round draft pick, had some promising preseason moments at striker. Goalkeeper Pat Onstad, defenders Ryan Cochrane and Adrian Serioux, midfielder Richard Mulrooney and forward Joseph Ngwenya were subtracted in the club's most substantial offseason shuffle since its 2006 relocation to Houston.

The good, bad and noteworthy: Two years ago Houston's tidy defense allowed 29 goals in 30 matches, or fewer than one per game. Last year's total swelled to a hideous 49 as the Dynamo missed the playoffs for the first time. ... Houston was unbeaten in 10 preseason matches (going into two contests this weekend.) Yes, it's preseason. But regaining the competitive edge and stanching the flow of costly defensive mistakes were chief preseason targets. ... Geoff Cameron, so effective at center back two years ago, is set to play centrally in midfield once again.

The man who matters: Brad Davis is the prototype domestic league cornerstone. He may never rise to starter status with the national team, but he's a valuable MLS midfielder and a big spoke in the Dynamo wheel. He has five goals and 12 assists over each of the last two MLS seasons -- how's that for consistency? -- and his dead ball service ranks among the league's best.

Bottom line: There's no question that Houston's defense will be better, even if untested goalkeeper Tally Hall has something to prove. But about that attack: For all his brave ability, striker Brian Ching just can't put together a full, injury-free campaign. He has averaged about 18 starts over the last eight seasons (and he's not getting any younger, now 32). As for his strike partner, Houston has three adequate options (but none to fawn over) in Jason Garey, Dominic Oduro and talented rookie Will Bruin. So, this group's ability to turn up goals will probably determine how far the club goes in its final year as a renter at Robertson Stadium.

3. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION2010 Record: 9-16-5, 32 points, minus-18 GD

Prominent comings and goings: For the surest sign of improvement, examine what the roster makeover did: Several accomplished players have moved in, but there were only a couple of significant departures. That means three, four or perhaps five starters from 2010 are still around but now staring at backup roles, and that indicates a fortified roster. Taylor Twellman officially retired, but he was never a factor in 2010. So the only truly meaningful departures were center backs Cory Gibbs and Emmanuel Osei. Meanwhile, the compelling additions include midfielder Ousmane Dabo, formerly of Italy's Lazio, and defender Didier Domi from Greece's Olympiakos. Both are veteran Frenchmen on the back side of their careers but apparently with something left in the tank. Argentine Franco Coria looks set to pair with rookie A.J. Soares at center back. Another rookie, Ryan Kinne, is pushing Sainey Nyassi for a starting spot along the right in midfield.

The good, bad and noteworthy: As for Soares and Kinne, anyone paying attention knows that Revolution coach Steve Nicol is hardly shy about playing the rookies. ... Brainy and smooth on the ball, Soares reminds some of former Revs trusty center back Michael Parkhurst, who also started as a rookie. ... Until last year, Nicol had taken New England to the playoffs every season since gaining charge in 2002. ... Goalkeeper Matt Reis looks fully recovered from ankle, knee and shoulder surgeries over the last year and a half.

The man who matters: The indomitable Shalrie Joseph is set for another big season -- if only he can behave. No one can question the performance, desire and ability of the Revs' do-all holding midfielder. But Joseph just added a misdemeanor arrest (smack in the middle of preseason) to his litany of violations, suspensions and disciplinary indiscretions. He has a better central partner this year in Dabo, so the sky is the limit once again if only he can properly comport himself.

Bottom line: Nicol and other members of Revolution management are desperate for a high level (probably DP) striker. They were reportedly close over the winter but saw a deal fall through. With Dabo, Domi and others, this year's version is sure to be better in possession. (It would be difficult to be any worse.) How high the Revs can climb probably depends on landing that high-quality goal-getter.

4. D.C. UNITED2010 Record: 6-20-4, 22 points, minus-26 GD

Prominent comings and goings: Former FC Dallas midfielder Dax McCarty is a welcome addition. Joseph Ngwenya was a relatively cheap pickup in the re-entry draft. And the club loves Perry Kitchen, the rookie center back taken No. 3 overall in January's draft. Brazilian midfielder Fred is back for his second run at RFK Stadium. And of course the major offseason hubbub was over former U.S. international Charlie Davies, who hopes to resurrect his career while on loan from France's Sochaux. To make room the club traded or released Danny Allsopp, Juan Manuel Peña and Troy Perkins (all of whom were ballyhooed signings), along with former starters Rodney Wallace, Jordan Graye, Pablo Hernandez, Adam Cristman and Julius James. Jaime Moreno, one of the best players ever to wear an MLS uniform and the league's all-time goals leader, was also waived, the surest sign that it's a new day at D.C. United.

The good, bad and noteworthy: Ben Olsen, United's third coach in three years, is MLS' youngest manager at 33. ... From the "nowhere to go but up" department: last year's club set league records for times shut out (17) and fewest goals (21). The 6-20-4 record established a franchise low and was the sixth worst season (by points) in MLS history. ... This year's team is younger and faster, and there's more competition for starting spots. Santino Quaranta, for instance, is no longer a lineup lock. ... Injuries to goalkeepers Steve Cronin and Bill Hamid dragged assistant coach Pat Onstad temporarily out of retirement. The former Houston Dynamo 'keeper will resume full-time assistant coaching duties pending the younger pair's return.

The man who matters: Sensational rookie Andy Najar provided the singular shining light in a season of darkness in 2010. The live wire 17-year-old midfielder (he turns 18 next week) led his team in goals and assists with five each without ever shirking defensive chores. Creative and clever, last year's MLS Rookie of the Year is truly a star in the making.

Bottom line: Olsen seems to have already restored some order. The Black and Red have this going for them: The East is a grab bag past the heavily favored Red Bulls. The new playoff format ensures three Eastern Conference postseason berths. At this point, United's chances look as good as anyone's.

5. SPORTING KANSAS CITY2010 Record: 11-13-6, 39 points, plus-1 GD

Prominent comings and goings: Mexican international Omar Bravo is the big arrival, set to play wide on the left in a 4-3-3 or as a central creator. Rookie striker C.J. Sapong will compete for time. So will rookie midfielder Konrad Warzycha, the son of Columbus coach Robert Warzycha. Serbian trialist Milos Stojcev appears set to stick around. Departures include Jonathan Leathers, Josh Wolff and Jack Jewsbury. None will be felt more, however, than center back Jimmy Conrad, formerly the face of the franchise but now property of Chivas USA.

The good, bad and noteworthy: It's a brand new day around the club, where a new name (R.I.P. "Kansas City Wizards"), a fancy new logo and a majestic new stadium will reinvent the franchise. SKC's new $200 million Livestrong Sporting Park opens in June. (The club plays its first 10 MLS matches on the road.) ... Hope-boosting stat: Sporting KC was 8-5-3 over its final 16 games last year. ... Fans can be excited about the offense, but the defense in front of goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen looks iffy. The options at center back include Matt Besler, journeyman Shavar Thomas (at his sixth MLS address in eight years) and Julio Cesar. On the right, Michael Harrington remains a top one-on-one defender, but his passing simply has to improve. Left back Roger Espinoza is solid but foul- and yellow card-prone. ... The lingering knee injury to winger Ryan Smith is surely an increasing concern. ... The organization's innovative approach to stadium naming rights (SKC hopes to donate $7.5 million to the nonprofit Livestrong foundation over the six-year agreement) is generating lots of positive industry buzz. The club is believed to be the first in American sports to give away stadium naming rights to charity.

The man who matters: Striker Teal Bunbury, powerful, fast and agile all at once, hit for just five goals in 2011 but is bursting with potential. A dislocated elbow suffered in preseason won't keep the young U.S. international away as long as initially feared, and he should benefit from the defensive attention going Bravo's way.

Bottom line: Like others in the East, too many questions linger to crown Sporting KC as challengers to the Red Bulls' presumed Eastern supremacy. But since everyone else is similarly flawed, coach Peter Vermes' team could claw its way to a playoff spot by feeding off the positive energy from everything going on at a smart, ambitious organization.

6. PHILADELPHIA UNION2010 Record: 8-15-7, 31 points, minus-14 GD

Prominent comings and goings: Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, with time at Galatasaray, FC Cologne and Colombia's national team, was management's solution for an expansion year of goalkeeping woe. The well-traveled Carlos Ruiz (formerly of FC Dallas and Los Angeles) gets a chance to show he's grown up. Newly signed Colombian Carlos Valdés looks set to start at center back. In front of him, fellow newcomer Brian Carroll should bring stability to the center of the park; the American midfielder came via trade with Columbus. Rookie goalkeeper Zac MacMath (the No. 5 overall draft pick) is in a good spot to deputize under Mondragón. Moving on are Alejandro Moreno, Shea Salinas, Chris Seitz, Fred, Brad Knighton, Cristian Arrieta, Eduardo Coudet and Andrew Jacobson, all of whom were starters at some point in Philly's inaugural season.

The good, bad and noteworthy: Danny Mwanga (7 goals, 4 assists) made a strong case for Rookie of the Year. ... Some fans and media got in a twist over Michael Orozco's fiscal release. Fact is, he just wasn't anything special in 2010, so management declined the option to buy his contract from Mexico's San Luis. ... Justin Mapp can have a big year, so long as we see the motivated Mapp of latter 2010, not the drowsy Mapp of his final few months in Chicago.

The man who matters: It's hardly a stretch to say that Sebastien Le Toux, with 14 goals and 11 assists, would have been league MVP favorite last year had Philly sneaked into the playoffs. So now the man left unprotected previously by Seattle has a chance to show that 2010 was no fluke. No one works harder on the field, and defenses will have to pay a lot of attention to Ruiz, so Le Toux seems set for another big season.

Bottom line: Peter Nowak's team finished ahead of two others and just behind New England last year, not too bad for an expansion unit. Now the attack looks stronger (so long as Ruiz behaves). But the defense may still need attention, something coach Peter Nowak is presumably working on. As it is, there doesn't seem to be sufficient improvement on a unit that permitted 49 goals, tied for second-worst in MLS.

7. CHICAGO FIRE2010 Record: 9-12-9, 36 points, minus-1 GD

Prominent comings and goings: Former U.S. international Cory Gibbs, Croatian Josep Mikulic and rookie draftee Jalil Anibaba will be important new elements along a reconstructed back line. (And technical director Frank Klopas may try to sign one more defender still.) A new pair of Uruguayans, Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari, will compete for time at forward. Meanwhile, plenty of familiar faces have moved on, starting with retired stalwarts Brian McBride and C.J. Brown. The club also lost John Thorrington to the expansion draft while Freddie Ljungberg and Wilman Conde joined clubs abroad. Conde, among MLS' top defenders over the last four seasons, even if habitually unhappy, will be missed most of all. The club discovered why seemingly talented forward Collins John changes addresses so often; he was released after striking just three times over 17 games in 2010. Finally, prized attacker Nery Castillo (like Ljungberg) proved to be more sizzle than steak, so he's gone, too.

The good, bad and noteworthy: The 2010 season wasn't pretty. Mexican coach Carlos de los Cobos was handed the car keys -- and promptly drove the team out of the playoffs for just the second time in its 13 years. He surely cannot afford another such season. ... Chicago's curious inability to win at home (a 4-4-7 mark and plus-1 goal difference at Toyota Park) was its primary bugaboo. The defense wasn't horrible, but de los Cobos' men turned up a paltry 14 goals in 15 home matches. ... Sean Johnson was a revelation after winning the starting job in goal. U.S. coach Bob Bradley took note, inviting the 21-year-old to January's national team camp. Now Johnson has to prove he perform while toting the additional weight of expectation.

The man who matters: Guatemalan attacker Marco Pappa has been on the cusp of stardom for two years. Moments of brilliance bracketed last year's 7-goal, 5-assist campaign. Now, at 23, he needs to crank up the consistency meter. Pappa is off to a good start, enjoying a nice preseason while playing centrally or out wide.

Bottom line: There's young talent, and the defense looks strong despite Conde's loss. But who can fill the giant leadership void left by the departures of Brown and McBride, two enormously respected figures. This looks like a team that could go either way, way up or straight over the cliff.

8. COLUMBUS CREW2010 Record: 14-8-8, 50 points, plus-6 GD

Prominent comings and goings: There won't be many familiar faces around. The departed include Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll, Adam Moffat and Gino Padula, all major components of the 2008 MLS championship side. Steven Lenhart, last year's leading scorer is gone, too, as are center back Eric Brunner, forward Jason Garey and midfielder Duncan Oughton. Replacements include Jeff Cunningham, who's making his bid to overtake Jaime Moreno as the league's all-time scoring king where it all started for him, in Columbus. Sebastian Miranda (from Chile's Union Española), draftee Cole Grossman and free agent Julius James could log significant minutes. Serbian midfielder Dejan Rusmir signed after a successful preseason trial.

The good, bad and noteworthy: The Crew won't suffer much for Padula's loss at left fullback; Shaun Francis filled in nicely last year when called upon. ... Eddie Gaven no longer gets much national team mention, having been lapped by several others. Still, he's a solid two-way MLS midfielder and still only 24 years old. (It just seems like he's been around longer since he turned pro at age 16.) ... The team's strongpoint is central defense, where Chad Marshall and Andy Iro form a brawny pairing. ... Big opportunities abound for U.S. U-23 midfielder Dilly Duka and slashing attacker Emmanuel Ekpo, who will get their turns in the Crew midfield.

The man who matters: Any chance of success in 2011 has to start with Emilio Renteria, the club's veteran Venezuelan striker. Renteria had three goals in 19 appearances last year but is sure to play a bigger role this time around; both of last year's starting forwards have moved on.

Bottom line: Coach Robert Warzycha, entering his third year in charge, lamented the lack of tactical options with Schelotto on the field. Now we'll see how that works out for everyone -- because the wily Argentine playmaker could still turn a match in an instant. In the big picture, it was a gamble to dismantle the roster following a season of modest achievement. Columbus did, after all, advance into the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stages (where it was just eliminated by Real Salt Lake). And the Crew did make it to last year's MLS playoffs, falling in the first round to the eventual champs. But dismantle they did. The replacement parts may not be up for the job just yet. It looks like a long year for the men in yellow.

9. TORONTO FC2010 Record: 9-13-8, 35 points, minus-8 GD

Prominent comings and goings: For the second consecutive season, a new coach has remade the roster to his liking. O'Brian White, Joseph Nane, Martin Saric, Maxim Usanov, Nick Garcia, Amadou Sanyang, Chad Barrett and Raivis Hscanovics, all starters at some point last year, are gone. Oh, and the Mista gambit failed miserably, too. The Spanish forward will go down as one of the all-time designated player busts. Former Seattle midfielder Nathan Sturgis plus Dutchmen Nick Soolsma, Javier Martina and Elbekay Bouchiba are the only replacements for now, though more signings surely are on the way.

The good, bad and noteworthy: The team's entire leadership structure was blown up and, for the first time in the team history, Mo Johnston isn't pulling the personnel levers. Jürgen Klinsmann acted as high-profile consultant on the coaching hire as Dutchman Aron Winter took over. ... Winter immediately had to deal with unhappy players. Dwayne De Rosario threatened to hold out for a better deal. Just when that situation seemed settled, center back Adrian Cann walked out, unhappy with his contract. ... Meanwhile, Julian de Guzman, who hasn't sunk to Mista depths but certainly hasn't shown much return on the DP dollar, missed most of the preseason while recovering from offseason knee surgery. The Canadian international remains three to four weeks away from action, according to the club.

The man who matters: De Rosario was a misfit under previous coaching regimes. He was never well suited for the British long ball ways, nor was he enamored by Preki's defend-to-the-end style in 2010. Now he gets a chance to shine as Winter stresses balls on the ground and attacking soccer. De Rosario can play wide left in Winter's preferred 4-3-3 or as a central creator in midfield.

Bottom line: Winter spent his initial preseason kicking the tires on trialists. His bid to plan carefully, build slowly and avoid rash personnel choices is reasonable and understandable given TFC's history of excessive personnel flux. Still, it won't help for 2011. It looks like another long year for some of the league's best fans.

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