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2012 Eastern Conference preview: Sporting Kansas City has firepower

Click here for Steve Davis' Western Conference preview

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish


2011 Record: 13-9-12, plus-10 goal difference

• Notable comings and goings: Bobby Convey on the left wing for (the departed) Omar Bravo seems like a nifty trade off, since the former U.S. international has the ability to provide some real width at Livestrong Sporting Park. That's assuming Convey finds the happiness and comfort that seemed so elusive at San Jose, where he was sometimes a prickly presence. Veteran midfielder Paulo Nagamura is a defensive midfield specialist who gives Sporting coach Peter Vermes another option in the 4-3-3. Draft pick Dom Dwyer, a tightly packed bundle of striking power, had a good preseason, even netting a hat trick in one February friendly. Beyond Bravo, longtime club fixture Davy Arnaud was SKC's only significant loss -- and his playing time diminished greatly last year due to injury and to Graham Zusi's rise.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Front to back, Vermes has talent and options, although clearly more in the midfield and at forward than in the back. The side's vulnerability is at center back, where there's limited depth behind trusted starters Aurélien Collin and Matt Besler. Even then, Júlio César, who found a home last year as a holding midfielder, could drop back for cover. ... Choices along the front line include Convey, Dwyer, young U.S. international Teal Bunbury, 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong and veteran Kei Kamara; Sapong, Kamara and Bunbury accounted for 23 Kansas City goals last year, 9 apiece for the latter two. That's truly quite a wealth of tasty morsels.

• The man who matters: Graham Zusi has always been something of a 'tweener, which helps explain how he made just nine starts over those first two pro seasons. But when Zusi settled into an advanced, right-sided spot in Vermes' three-man central triangle, things seemed to fall neatly into place. His smooth passing and set-piece ability was a perfect complement to Roger Espinoza's uncompromising tackling in the central areas. For 2012, Zusi's ability to link the back line with all that front-line force will be critical in carrying the day at rocking Livestrong Sporting Park.

• Bottom line: The Eastern Conference looks like a big grab bag, where anything can happen -- except at the top. Last year's Eastern Conference champs got stronger with a couple of clutch additions, and Vermes' side looks like the clear-and-away conference favorite for 2012. Looking at the club, there's little reason to believe last year's steady elevation in quality can't be held and quite possibly improved upon.


2011 Record: 12-9-13, plus-4 goal difference

• Notable comings and goings: The big addition in Houston isn't a player, but rather a place: BBVA Compass Stadium in downtown Houston, the 14th park built (or renovated) expressly for MLS. It opens May 12. As for the men working their new 22,000-seat grounds, talented-but-frequently injured Nathan Sturgis, having failed to firmly establish a role during four previous MLS stops, resides in Houston now. He's just 24, however, so the defender-midfielder is hardly a lost cause, and he could provide some valuable cover for holding midfielder Adam Moffat. ... Speaking of young talent, Macoumba Kandji was once stamped "possible future star" at Red Bull Arena. He was hurt most of last year at Colorado, the result of an injury as he struck goal-gold during MLS Cup 2010. Now Kandji hopes to kick-start his career under highly successful coach Dominic Kinnear. For the first time since 2001 (when the club was still in San Jose), the roster will not include center back Eddie Robinson, who has retired. Also gone are forwards Carlo Costly, defender Hunter Freeman and midfielder Danny Cruz.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: The prolonged, offseason Brian Ching saga was something of a black mark all the way around. Suffice to say, no one covered themselves in glory on this one; Kinnear left his veteran forward, who was desperate to complete his fine career in Houston, unprotected during last year's expansion draft for Montreal. Long story short, Ching is back in Dynamo orange, but the entire episode left plenty of ugly skid marks. ... Geoff Cameron is set once again to play center back, where he shined during two recent U.S. national team appearances. It might not take much more development for the fifth-year pro to stake a claim as top MLS man at that spot. ... Colin Clark and Je-Vaughn Watson are battling for the one midfield spot that seems unsettled, along the right side. Between Kandji, Cam Weaver, Colin Rolfe, Will Bruin and Calen Carr, someone must step up at forward alongside Ching.

• The man who matters: Brad Davis, last year's Major League Soccer assist leader with 16, is nearing full fitness after that highly disappointing quad injury that kept the league MVP candidate sidelined for the final. If Ching can remain healthy as an aiming point for all that deadeye, set piece and left-sided service, Davis will be that much more effective in 2012. Either way, the Dynamo's signature ability to strike on free kicks and corner kicks will continue to be Davis' bread-and-butter delivery device.

• Bottom line: What might have been but for Davis' injury absence in last year's MLS Cup? We'll never know. But he's back, along with all but one starter from last year's 1-0 loss to Los Angeles in the Home Depot Center league finale. Houston was among the league's best sides over the final third of 2012, but Kinnear's men could do themselves a favor and avoid the slow starts that have dogged previous Dynamo versions. It's a big request this year, however, since the Orange plays six on the road (due to ongoing stadium construction) to launch this cornerstone campaign.


2011 Record: 9-9-16, plus-1 goal difference

• Notable comings and goings: Head coach Frank Klopas, having made the critical additions after taking the managerial seat midseason in 2011, mostly added depth in the offseason through players like goalkeeper Jay Nolly (trade from Vancouver) and forward Kheli Dube (released from New England). He did add two-way midfielder Rafael Robayo, yet another Colombian on a growing list of them in MLS. Robayo arrived on a free transfer from Millonarios, where he had been a lineup fixture since 2005. Draft pick Austin Berry could see playing time along the back line. Noteworthy departures included midfielder Baggio Husidic, goalkeeper Jon Conway, forward Diego Chaves and defenders Yamith Cuesta and Josip Mikulic.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Chicago finished last year on a 7-2-1 tear, narrowly missing the playoffs despite the late, heroic chase. ... The telling, summer 2011 additions were longtime Mexican international Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini, both of whom helped stabilize Chicago's central midfield. Grazzini's presence also allowed Marco Pappa to find more room, cutting inside from his exterior spots while defenses paid increasing attention to Grazzini and striker Dominic Oduro. ... Oduro had a breakout year with 12 goals, tied for fifth best in MLS. ... Question marks still dot the back line, where veteran Cory Gibbs and second-year man Jalil Anibaba are the current starting central duo. Gibbs is prone to bad challenges, the kind that MLS has promised to crack down on this year. (But haven't we heard that before?) And the versatile Anibaba remains a work in progress. As such, Klopas hopes to add another center back soon to shore up the position. ... There's still talk of trusty Fire captain Logan Pause, a quiet but underrated presence for all the little things he does in Klopas' midfield, moving to right back, which could further fortify the back line.

• The man who matters: A lot of important people believe in young goalkeeper Sean Johnson, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. under-23 coach Caleb Porter among them. But Johnson must clean up his game a tad, avoiding the bobbles and bloopers that blighted early matches in 2011. His ability to add an element of consistency will say a lot about 2012 Chicago Fire fortunes.

• Bottom line: Toyota Park was raucous place over the final third of 2011, for good reason. The Fire showed enough quality and fight to warrant close inspection this year as an Eastern playoff contender, especially considering how wide open the conference appears after Kansas City. Oduro must keep scoring; His 2011 total (12) was impressive, but considering that he struck just 13 times over the previous five seasons, he must prove last year was no mere anomaly.


2011 Record: 10-8-16, plus-6 goal difference

• Notable comings and goings: Since Kenny Cooper's 18-goal season in 2008, unsuccessful stints in Germany, England and last year in Portland have brought him to Red Bull Arena. He could get significant minutes if Luke Rodgers can't get back into the country; visa issues have prevented the valuable target man from returning so far. Markus Holgersson, from Sweden's top division, is a likely starting center back alongside another newcomer Wilman Conde, who is back for another MLS go-round after some rough times at Mexico's Atlas. They're on the spot at center back because Tim Ream left for Bolton (although Ream, the U.S. international, was swerving all over the road last year in terms of his own 2011 performances). Icelandic U-21 Victor Palsson will challenge for midfield minutes. Replacing German goalkeeper Frank Rost (now retired) for 2012 has proved tougher than it perhaps needed to be. Veteran defender Chris Albright and Carlos Mendes have moved on, as has wildly inconsistent goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Given the eye-popping lack of proven options between the pipes, one cannot discount the possibility that, against all odds, Coundoul will actually be missed. ... Thierry Henry, coming off that power-loan to Arsenal, has lots of good support around him, even if Rodgers can't get his travel troubles sorted out. Cooper has played higher in the formation in preseason matches, allowing Henry to withdraw into the deeper, playmaking spots he prefers. ... Dane Richards' speed and ability to produce width on the right balances Joel Lindpere's tendency to drift inside on the left. Meanwhile, Rafa Marquez, Teemu Tainio, Mehdi Ballouchy, Dax McCarty and Palsson give coach Hans Backe plenty of midfield choices. That's assuming Marquez behaves, remains interested and doesn't set locker room fires by lashing out at teammates, etc. If that sounds easy, see "Marquez, 2011," because apparently it isn't. ... Backe has proclaimed Marquez a midfielder for 2012, despite some trouble in tracking from that position last year. It all leaves the back line a bit barren, given Conde's recent injury struggles and Holgersson's lack of MLS familiarity. Meanwhile, how Backe and RBNY Sporting Director Erik Soler could leave such a wealth of talent to be backstopped by some young, complete unknown, only they could say. Pending an unlikely personnel move, rookie Ryan Meara and second-year pro Jeremy Vuolo are the current contenders in goal. ... Juan Agudelo, 19, would love to play a bigger role; he started just 12 times last year, but did appear in 27 matches. That may be tough, however, as he figures to be involved in U.S. Olympic qualifying, a subsequent London Olympic Games and potentially in U.S. World Cup qualifying.

• The man who matters: The Red Bulls sneaked into last year's playoffs with just 10 wins in 34 matches, lowest total among postseason contenders. Backe's boys almost certainly wouldn't have made the playoffs without 14 goals from Henry, including some choice highlight-makers. Henry will have to create a little more magic this year; the defense looks so iffy that his side will surely need to a win a high-scoring shootout or two along the way.

• Bottom line: It's really hard to say which way things might go around Red Bull Arena. So much depends on chemistry (i.e. Marquez) and the health of a certain Frenchman (Henry). He's 34, and those bothersome heel issues probably aren't in for a drastic improvement. If Henry falls in form or misses time due to injury, a dandy offense suddenly looks more mortal. The quality of midfielders, strikers and creators can match any MLS club this side of Los Angeles. But how the defense and goalkeeping hold up is truly anybody's guess, and "anybody's guess" is never something you want attached to defense in a team preview.


2011 Record: 9-13-12, minus-3 goal difference

• Notable comings and goings: Former Rapid Vienna striker Hamdi Salihi became the club's latest Designated Player with his offseason signing. Robbie Russell, acquired in a trade with Real Salt Lake, should provide back line options. Midfielder Nick DeLeon (a first-round SuperDraft selection) will compete for minutes. His chances improve if Danny Cruz, obtained from Houston in a trade, can't recover quickly from a preseason, bad-tackle-related ankle injury. Veteran Marcelo Saragosa adds bite to the midfield and Maicon Santos should help back up Salihi at striker. Charlie Davies, whose playing time waned through 2011, was excused at the end of his headliner loan spell. Otherwise, familiar faces not returning to RFK include midfielders Santino Quaranta, Brandon Barklage and Clyde Simms and defenders Marc Burch, Jed Zayner and Devon McTavish.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Amazing as it sounds, D.C. United hasn't made the MLS playoffs since 2007, never mind a forgiving system where it's mathematically easier to make than to miss the postseason. United seemed well positioned going into September last year but watched its postseason dreams collapse horrendously, with just one win over the final nine games. What's worse, United's last three matches were at home; Ben Olsen's squad squandered the opportunity by turning up just one draw and along with losses. ... Olsen, just 34, humbly conceded he's still on the front end of a big managerial learning curve. Regardless, the pressure will be on this year. ... Chris Pontius and Branko Boskovic are healthy again after injuries prematurely cut down their 2011 season. Boskovic, in particular, is critical to United's health and wealth this year, as a playmaker operating in conjunction with second forward Dwayne De Rosario ... Andy Najar couldn't quite take the next step after his fantastic 2010 rookie campaign, so his progress this year will be a story to watch.

• The man who matters: No one can say Dwayne De Rosario didn't do his part last year as D.C. tried desperately to punch its way into the playoffs. "De Ro" carried the offense through the summer with 13 goals and 7 assists in just 18 matches. The Canadian legend got a league MVP as reward, plus the DP contract he's always wanted. Now he just has to keep producing, which will be increasingly tough for a 33-year-old whose destruction of defenses depends heavily on those signature explosive bursts.

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• Bottom line: Few would be shocked if Boskovic, De Rosario, Salihi, Najar and Pontius established themselves as the East's top five-fingered attack. Trouble is, that defense isn't nearly so stacked and packed. Not even close, in fact, with a back line that remains a work in progress in front of a young goalkeeper (U.S. under-23 Bill Hamid). Suffice to say, United needs to get back into the playoffs in 2012, or it'll be "back to the drawing board" -- and that's not where this proud franchise wants to be.


2011 Record: 11-8-15, plus-8 goal difference

• Notable comings and goings: No one can blame coach Peter Nowak for the loss of steady, well-liked goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, who requested a release so he could cap the career in his native Colombia. On the other hand, a few gutsy Nowak moves did catch fans and media off guard, like the hot-button decision to trade leading scorer Sébastien Le Toux to Vancouver for allocation money. That money helped get talent such as young Costa Rican international Josue Martinez and Colombian veteran Lionard Pajoy, both of whom will compete with returning youngster Danny Mwanga for time at forward. Also gone are Justin Mapp, Stefani Miglioranzi and Kyle Nakazawa, as a young team got even younger.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Le Toux was among the league's most productive attackers over the last two seasons with 25 goals and 20 assists. In fact, only Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Wondolowski notched more MLS goals over that time. ... Center back Danny Califf had problems with too many fouls and too many cards 2010 but showed marked improvement last year. Looking much more settled alongside Carlos Valdes, Califf wasn't even among the team leaders in cautions (just four bookings all year) and was third in fouls committed (less than one per match on average.) ... Sheanon Williams returns following a breakout year at right back. ... The list of promising young talent hunting for more minutes includes winger Roger Torres, forward Jack McInerney and goalkeeper Zach MacMath. MacMath will almost certainly get them; he is Nowak's top choice in goal at age 20.

• The man who matters: How did Freddy Adu think he did after arriving at PPL Park last August. "I was just OK," he said recently, which is pretty accurate by most accounts. Then again, he didn't have a proper launchpad, having come in at midseason, not fully fit or sharp. So Adu, now 22, is looking for big things in 2012, hoping for a central midfield role but probably looking at time on the outside, with some freedom to tuck inside to create. Adu looked sharp during a recent U.S. U-23 camp and he's almost sure to be an Olympian this summer in London, assuming the United States qualifies. Still, he'll get plenty of chances to impress inside MLS grounds.

• Bottom line: Nowak has made bold moves before, so he's earned some benefit of doubt. Still, when coaches let popular players go (especially with proverbial bad blood spilling during the emotional departures), the heat surely rises. Plus, with a respectable expansion season in 2010 and worthy progress (not to mention a playoff spot) in 2011, Nowak has set the bar high going forward.


2011 Record: 6-13-15, minus-23 goal difference

• Notable comings and goings: Newly signed South American central defenders Geovanny Caicedo and Miguel Aceval had their ups and downs during preseason (which means German veteran Torsten Frings could once again be asked to appear in defense). First-round SuperDraft selection on Aaron Maund is also a central candidate. The club waived or declined options on several familiar MLS faces, including Kyle Davies, Javier Martina, Danleigh Borman, Nathan Sturgis, Andy Iro and Peri Marosevic.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Talk about growing pains. Dutch coach Aron Winter warned upon his arrival last year that a re-imaging process would take time. Yup. All the evidence was there in a bungling defense (a league-worst 59 goals allowed despite heroic goalkeeping from Stefan Frei) and an offense that only found its feet late. Even then, TFC's attack was next-to-last with just 36 goals in 34 matches. ... Backup goalkeeper Milos Kocic proved more than capable last year when well-regarded Stefan Frei was out injured. ... In the up-and-comer department, dynamic and diminutive winger Joao Plata returns after his eye-catching rise from anonymity in 2011. In Frings, Winter finally found the man to stabilize the middle of his 4-3-3. It just came too late in the 2011 season (the former German international was a summer transfer); TFC was all but out of the playoff chase by the time Frings landed at Exhibition Place.

• The man who matters: Danny Koevermans was the other critical summer arrival of 2011. With 8 goals in 10 matches, the Dutch striker clearly can cut it in MLS. If Eric Avila and Julian de Guzman can link and create in the midfield, and with some reasonable wing play from Plata and Ryan Johnson, Koevermans could challenge for the league scoring title. And he might just need to; that defense still looks iffy.

• Bottom line: The Reds were realistically out of the playoff chase with more than a month to go last year, but did make significant progress in later months and even advanced into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. (They meet Los Angeles over two legs starting this week.) With all that, the long-suffering fans at BMO should and will demand better this year, now that Winter has spent a year sorting out MLS and what type player succeeds in this league. No Canadian club has made an MLS playoff appearance as yet. If Winter can find a way to solidify the back line in front of Frei, postseason soccer may finally (finally!) arrive into BMO Field.


2011 Record: 13-13-8, minus-1 goal difference

• Notable comings and goings: The important additions around Crew Stadium are Chilean playmaking midfielder Milovan Mirosevic and Costa Rican forward Olman Vargas. Vargas hopes to improve on Andrés Mendoza's team-leading 13 goals last year. The club declined an option on Mendoza, a pricey striker who never endeared himself to Crew faithful. Veteran MLS defender Carlos Mendes was also added for depth. In addition to Mendoza's departure, the habitually under-productive Robbie Rogers left for Leeds in England and Emmanuel Ekpo, typically exciting but frustratingly inconsistent, went to Norway's Molde on a free transfer. Hard-tackling Dejan Rusmir was waived and defender Josh Gardner was scooped in the expansion draft.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: In the Rogers and Mendoza departures, the crew loses 15 goals and 9 assists that must be replaced, so there's some work ahead for coach Robert Warzycha. But the Crew boss certainly made some believers last year, when he turned over almost the entire roster, remaking the team to reasonable effect with younger legs. ... Rich Balchan, Danny O'Rourke and Tony Tchani are among the candidates to grab hold at defensive midfield, a position that proved difficult to assign last year. In fact, by the end, former attacker Ekpo became the best choice for defensive midfield duties, although certainly an unlikely one. ... Somewhat lost in all the excited chatter over promising young U.S. center backs is this: Chad Marshall, a longtime back line sheriff in Crew yellow, remains one of the toughest of central obstacles in MLS. The two-time MLS Defender of the Year is back for a ninth season in Ohio. ... William Hesmer, the longtime Crew Stadium No. 1, begins 2012 on the injury shelf. So the capable Andy Gruenebaum will keep goal for now.

• The man who matters: It seems like Eddie Gaven has been around forever; this is, after all, his 10th year, having broken in with the old MetroStars back in 2003. But he was so young then that its' easy for forget Gaven is just 25 years old. He's got a mature soccer brain sitting atop a young man's legs. His two-way work was sorely missed last year during a winless September, when Gaven was out injured. Never mind his humble totals (5 goals, 1 assist), Gaven remains a critical cog for Columbus.

• Bottom line: Things looked quite bright through spring and summer of 2011, as the Warzycha makeover hit all the right notes and proved critics wrong. But flaws were exposed over the final 10 matches (a 2-6-1 mark) and in a quick playoff exit to Colorado. The Crew will always be highly organized and tough to break down. But with another offensive makeover, this one centered around injury-prone striker Emilio Renteria, and with several untested MLS elements, it's on the Crew to prove they belong among the East's elite. Again.


2011 Record: 5-16-13, minus-20 goal difference

• Notable comings and goings: Longtime Revolution defender Jay Heaps, after a short spell in the broadcast booth, was the choice to replace the man who had coached him for so long at Gillette Stadium, the venerable Steve Nicol. Heaps' first professional coaching assignment, then, is rebuilding the Revs around guys like defender John Lozano, a Colombian who is set to become the coach's first-choice center back alongside young American A.J. Soares. Fellow Colombian newcomer Fernando Cárdenas will challenge for a spot in midfield or at forward. Clyde Simms, the longtime D.C. United holding midfielder, has moved up the coast to New England. The Revs last week claimed winger Lee Nguyen, a former U.S. national team prospect who didn't make it at attack-stacked Vancouver. Saer Sene looks like the first-choice striker, pending resolution of the complicated, tedious and downright baffling Jose Moreno saga. Moreno signed in the offseason but immediately began making noise about not showing up. As of March 2, he still hasn't reported. Stay tuned. The club declined options on forwards Milton Caraglio and Kheli Dube and defenders Ryan Cochrane and Franco Coria, among others.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Suffice to say, the Moreno mess isn't what Heaps needed as he dove headfirst into such a significant rebuilding assignment. New England finished dead last in the East last year while allowing 58 goals (just one off the bottom in league rankings). ... On the other hand, there are a few elements worth building around, starting with central midfielders Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber. ... Right back Kevin Alston, once on a national team track, still has good years ahead to steer himself out of a swerve. And goalkeeper Matt Reis still has the ability if he can just remain healthy.

• The man who matters: Feilhaber looks like a great fit in the possession oriented, 4-2-3-1 scheme Heaps wants to play, with the fringe U.S. international slotting in at the top of a midfield triangle. Joseph's two-way ability and slashing runs into the penalty area mean trouble for any side focused too exclusively on Feilhaber. (Joseph scored 8 times last year, mostly out of the midfield.) Feilhaber, as good a finisher as he is a provider, had some great moments upon arrival in MLS in the summer of 2011; he'll need quite a few more for the Heaps makeover to arrive safely.

• Bottom line: The midfield looks rock solid with Feilhaber, Simms and Joseph, flanked on one side by promising rookie Kelyn Rowe. But goals may still be hard to come by if Heaps and a revamped front office can't turn up quality central striker. Because right now, it looks like the Revs really don't have one.


2011 Record: NA (Expansion side now in its first year)

• Notable comings and goings: The expansion club is Major League Soccer's fifth new team in four seasons, and third Canadian entry. All players are technically new to the Montreal Impact (or, Impact de Montréal if you prefer) although four are holdovers from the organization's days in the second tier NASL. Montreal is Major League Soccer's 19th club.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Justin Braun showed flashes of brilliance previously at Chivas USA, but not enough of them to convince the Western Conference side he was worth hanging onto. Braun arrived via trade in the winter. ... Speaking of high-profile trades: The Impact claimed Eddie Johnson, the former national teamer returning to MLS, but traded him immediately to Seattle for Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito. Both were role players last year with Seattle. ... U.S. U-23 defender Zarek Valentin made 24 starts as a rookie last year for Chivas USA. ... Andrew Wenger, the league's top pick in January's SuperDraft, has lined up as a midfielder and forward in preseason matches. His availability will be spotty until the summer when he completes classes at Duke, where he was a defensive standout before moving up to the front line. ... Davy Arnaud brings 10 years of MLS experience with him from Kansas City ... The side will play initially at historic Olympic Stadium pending the expansion of Stade Saputo this spring.

• The man who matters: How different the view now looks for Donovan Ricketts. Previously he guarded goal behind the likes of Landon Donovan, David Beckham and 2011 Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez. Ricketts was a key element of Major League Soccer's premier side. Now he is employed by a club that could easily finish bottom of the heap. If Ricketts, the Jamaican international deemed expendable at L.A. due to his high salary and increasingly accomplished backup Josh Saunders, can stretch those long arms in the right direction fast enough and often enough, the days and nights will be slightly brighter around cozy Stade Saputo.

• Bottom line: Expansion clubs don't necessarily have to be terrible in MLS. Portland finished 6th among nine Western Conference sides last year. Philadelphia finished 7th of 8 in the East the year before. Heck, Seattle finished third in the West back in 2009. But there was also Vancouver, which finished dead last in the West last year as expansion first-timers. And that 2009 Sounders squad is the only expansion outfit to make the playoffs since Chicago in 1998. So the odds aren't with Montreal. Then again, playing in the weaker East should help, and ongoing talk of a splashy, midsummer signing will keep things interesting for coach Jesse Marsch and Co., to say the least.