MLS Eastern Conference preview: Fire, Crew are the teams to beat

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EASTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish

1. CHICAGO FIRE2009 Record: 11-7-12

• Prominent comings and goings: We saw a curious amount of turnover for a league semifinalist, one eliminated only on penalty kicks, in fact. Offensive fulcrum Cuauhtemoc Blanco is gone. So is the league's top left back of the last two years, Gonzalo Segares, defensive utility knife Brandon Prideaux and versatile attacker Chris Rolfe. Plus, manager Denis Hamlett was kicked to the curb, replaced by Salvadoran Carlos de los Cobos, a newbie to MLS.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Players like John Thorrington, Logan Pause, Patrick Nyarko and Tim Ward represent a solid core of MLS middle-class wage earners. Marco Pappa has star potential and you always know what you're going to get from vets like defender Wilman Conde and striker Brian McBride. So the X-factor here is de los Cobos and his ability to piece things together properly. ... Justin Mapp: Remember when he would have been featured in one of these previews?

• The man who matters: Who is Collins John? Is he the up-and-comer who looked like an emerging Dutch force when he hit for 11 goals at Fulham in 2005-06? Or is he the underachiever who shrank beneath the weight of it all during subsequent stops in England, Holland and Belgium? (And why is he on his fifth side since October 2007? Anyone else hear alarm bells?) Once we discover those answers, we'll know a lot more about how far this team can go.

• Bottom line: Replacing Hamlett was a bold move, to say the least, by technical director Frank Klopas. Good or bad, this season's outcome is largely on him.

2. COLUMBUS CREW2009 Record: 13-7-10

• Prominent comings and goings: Newly signed Colombian forward Sergio Herrera is in the sweet spot of his career at age 28 -- and he needs to produce. Otherwise, striker production may be down to Stephen Lenhart, who does manage to turn his absurdly physical, human pinballing ways into goals (but remains fairly limited otherwise).

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Last year Robert Warzycha was the new kid on the MLS managerial block. Now, he's been in charge of his current team for longer than six (six!) fellow Eastern Conference managers. That's why coaches should always rent instead of buy. ... Robbie Rogers is about to begin his fourth year in Columbus. He has 10 goals and nine assists in 59 matches -- ordinary bordering on "just not good enough." It's high time to turn all that potential into production.

• The man who matters: Watching Chad Marshall in 2010 will be interesting. The big center back is clearly still the Minister of Defense at Crew Stadium. But will he suffer from a little emotional slump if he isn't picked for the World Cup team? And will the entire back line suffer if Frankie Hejduk continues the form free fall that cracked him late last year?

• Bottom line:Guillermo Barros Schelotto turns 37 in May, so the Crew simply cannot continue to depend so heavily on their indomitable, wily Argentine attacker. Consider this remarkable statistic: Over the last two years Schelotto has scored or assisted on 49 of the Crews' 101 regular-season and playoff goals. It demonstrates a stinging overreliance, not to mention creating a huge "huh?" over Warzycha's controversial choice to sit the team's heart and soul for last year's playoff opener at Real Salt Lake, a 1-0 loss.

3. TORONTO FC2009 Record: 10-11-9

• Prominent comings and goings:Preki did more with less than any MLS manager over the last couple of years at Chivas USA -- more than anyone this side of New England's Steve Nicol, at least. Now he's in place at BMO Field following the inglorious end to Chris Cummins' interim reign there. Cummins' time in charge was undistinguished, although not particularly terrible until that fateful final day of 2009. With a playoff berth potentially at stake, the club crashed in a 5-0 humiliation to a non-playoff struggler, New York. Who saw that coming? Forward Ali Gerba was sent home from preseason training, apparently having moved into Preki's doghouse. Amado Guevara was never going to be part of the plan. Also, longtime midfield mainstay Carl Robinson is now in New York and defender/midfielder Adrian Serioux has moved to Houston.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Central defense has long been the bugaboo around BMO that never seems to get fixed. Preki will have the side organized and hunting in packs, but question marks centrally in defense remain. ... Think Preki's team won't be physical? TFC saw red in four consecutive preseason matches. Uh, they do call 'em "friendlies" you know? ... Young holding midfielder Amadou Sanyang showed promise in 2009 but frequently lacks discipline. Still, he may be a great central complement for the technically gifted Julian de Guzman.

• The man who matters: De Guzman is a classy passer, no doubt, but he came in too late in 2009 to land with full impact. He'll need to build chemistry on the attack with Dwayne De Rosario, because the roster of quality strikers looks thin.

• Bottom line: Preki knows how to win games in MLS. It won't always be pretty, but the new manager can give fans more of the results they so richly deserve.

4. NEW YORK RED BULLS2009 Record: 5-19-6

• Prominent comings and goings: There were key personnel additions, such as Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere and Costa Rican fullback Roy Miller. They'll be under the direction of new manager Hans Backe, who seems to have a good handle on things so far. But resplendent Red Red Bull Arena is the true star addition, a $200 million beauty that opens amid a resounding chorus of "It's about time!" Red Bull Arena's christening and Philadelphia's debut are, in the big picture, the most significant developments overall in MLS this year.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: The club already looks night-and-day different than the wandering lot that finished last in MLS in 2009. RBNY appeared highly organized in defeating Santos of Brazil 3-1 in a preseason friendly on Saturday. ... Backe has taken a real shining to defender Tim Ream, the 18th pick (second round) in January's MLS draft. Ream and veteran Mike Petke appear to be the first-choice central tandem, with promising second-year man Jeremy Hall set to start on the right and Miller on the left. ... This club hasn't won a road match since months before George W. Bush left office. No kidding.

• The man who matters:Juan Pablo Angel, classy on and off the field, has fought through the franchise dim days: the scourge of Giants Stadium artificial turf and inconsistent service on ragamuffin teams. It's all in front of him now, a fantastic stage and an enhanced supporting cast. He's currently in a fitness race (knee) to play in this week's Red Bull Arena MLS opener but looks otherwise set for a big season.

• Bottom line: Backe seems be establishing a reasonable foundation, but the lack of a winning legacy is difficult to overcome. Plus, there are still questions to answer in goal (Bouna Coundoul? Really?) and elsewhere around the field, where the first-choice selections appear adequate but depth looks perilously thin. Oh, did we mention that swell new arena?

5. D.C. UNITED2009 Record: 9-8-13

• Prominent comings and goings: New manager Curt Onalfo landed on his feet after last season's dismissal from Kansas City, replacing Tom Soehn at RFK. Three newcomers will be counted on heavily: Salvadoran international midfielder Christian Castillo is moving up in class from most of his previous stops; striker Danny Allsopp has been prolific in Australia and in lower English leagues; and Kurt Morsink will push Clyde Simms for time at defensive midfielder.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: One of the most interesting offseason departures was a guy who barely played last year, Danny Szetela. Can somebody remind us why he was always the next big thing? He still may be, but it won't be at D.C. United, which waived him two weeks before the opener. ... Former first-round draft pick Julius James has been a big bust but remains a candidate to start. ... Questions about the franchise's future will steadily gain weight until the stadium issue is resolved, and a resolution appears nowhere in sight. At some point, it could all affect performance. ... Two of the league's best rookies of 2009, Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace, return.

• The man who matters: Hard to believe, but Santino Quaranta is about to enter his 10th MLS season. Healthy and in a better place in his life, he was lively and productive in 2009. Still just 25 years old and with ability to play up front, along the outside or even at attacking midfielder, he is an essential part of the plan at RFK now.

• Bottom line: If ageless wonder Jaime Moreno can stay healthy and Allsopp can score goals, this team will be OK. If not, it could be a long year.

6. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION2009 Record: 11-10-9

• Prominent comings and goings: The departures read like a starting lineup from just a couple of years back. The list includes defenders Jay Heaps and Chris Albright, midfielders Jeff Larentowicz, Steve Ralston and Wells Thompson and well-regarded backup goalkeeper Brad Knighton. Incoming talent includes young Senegalese midfielder Joseph Niouky and veteran American center back Cory Gibbs.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: As if all the personnel flux wasn't enough, goalkeeper Matt Reis will miss significant time after undergoing offseason surgery, and striker Taylor Twellman remains troubled by concussion-related issues. ... Reis, Twellman and Shalrie Joseph are the only starters still around from the Revs' 2007 MLS runner-up side. ... Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes give the Revolution two promising young defenders to align with the experienced Gibbs.

• The man who matters: Stop us if you've heard this before: So much will depend on Joseph. The rangy center midfielder -- the best MLS player to never win an MVP -- was Steve Nicol's do-it-all last year. He supplied invaluable minutes (and goals) at forward when the cupboard looked especially bare up front. But how much more can Joseph do at this point?

• Bottom line: Nicol has a proven record in MLS, so it's hard to completely dismiss the Revs' chances. The back line is young but full of promise. Still, can you lose so much talent and leadership without taking a dent in the record? It could be a tough campaign -- especially if Twellman can't get back on the field.

7. KANSAS CITY WIZARDS2009 Record: 8-13-9

• Prominent comings and goings:Peter Vermes stripped away the "interim" tag and is now officially in the manager's seat. Denmark's Jimmy Nielsen has taken goalkeeper duties from veteran Kevin Hartman.Herculez Gomez has moved his career to Mexico and Roger Espinoza has gone from midfield to left back. Replacing them in midfield will be a trio of newcomer candidates, including English vet Ryan Smith and Moldovan Igor Kostrov.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Between Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud, the Wizards have two guys who can turn matches with big goals. But talk about streaky. Both define the word. ... Vermes was always a confident player. Now he's a confident manager -- but one who needs to ensure that self-assurance doesn't slide into the realm of blind arrogance. To wit, he insists this isn't a rebuilding year. Well, the Wizards didn't make the playoffs in 2009 and struck for just 33 goals, tied for second worst in MLS. They were 10th in goals allowed. So if he ain't rebuilding after all that, what the heck is he doing?

• The man who matters: Hartman remained one of the league's top shot stoppers last year but paid a high price for ineffective communication and decision-making. Bossing the box with authority is Nielson's calling card; his ability to stanch the stream of bad goals for K.C. is critical.

• Bottom line: Jimmy Conrad has to bounce back, landing closer to his 2008 form. Meanwhile, performance at home (4-6-5 last year) simply must improve.


• Prominent comings and goings: Because the club is new, let's just move on ...

• The good, bad and noteworthy: A lot of elements came together nicely last year for Seattle. But remember: The Sounders' experience was more exception than rule for MLS expansion groups. Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake and Toronto all struggled out of the gate, as Philly is likely to do. ...What a nice luxury Peter Nowak has in goal, where heralded youngsters Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton (the former backup at New England) have split time in the preseason. Nowak has not said who will be in goal in the franchise's inaugural match, on Thursday against Seattle, which also kicks off the 2010 MLS season.

• The man who matters: Brazilian midfielder Fred always played a support role at D.C. United, stationed out wide (but tending to drift inside). Now he gets a bigger assignment. He's a good midfield passenger to have around, but it's fair to ask if he's up for the job of driving the bus.

• Bottom line: Fringe U.S. internationals Danny Califf and Michael Orozco, plus MLS vet Shavar Thomas, supply reliable building blocks in the back. Seitz and Knighton represent a good situation in goal for an expansion side. Otherwise, count on Nowak's unit to be tough and fit, and it'll be especially motivated to defend its fortress on the Delaware River once PPL Park opens in June. But where will the goals come from? There's nothing wrong with building from youth -- as long as you expect to take some lumps along the way.