Eastern Conference preview: Firefighters, Kenny Rogers and Bob Dylan

The Eastern Conference wasn’t pretty last year. Each time a team looked like securing first place they invariably slipped up and aided their rivals, who in turn did the same. This makes the East difficult to predict – or competitive, if you’re an optimist.

As it turned out Houston benefited from the mass self-destruction, eventually getting to the MLS Cup final only to lose narrowly to the LA Galaxy. New team Montreal join the East this season and will most likely just enjoy being involved: rarely is much expected of an expansion team in their debut season.

But who are the teams involved, and where do we think they'll finish?

CHICAGO FIRE (6th) Last season, Frank Klopas was a firefighter. Not in the sense that he was punching his players after games, but that he was an interim coach trying to stabilise a team that had only won one of its last 10 games before he took the post. Draw specialists last year, Chicago are now a fast counter-attacking side with a lot of options in midfield. As with any team operating in this way, the back line will need to be solid, putting pressure on former Charlton and Feyenoord defender Cory Gibbs to perform.

Key player: Gibbs might be keeping the goals out, but up the other end Dominic Oduro will need to replicate his form from last season. Earning a first Ghana cap in January, the striker's pace means opposing teams could drop an extra few yards back, potentially hampering Chicago’s tactical plan.

COLUMBUS CREW (4th)Coach Robert Warzycha’s rebuilding job still only seems half-complete, what with four of his starting XI leaving in the off-season. One of that quartet was Anders Mendoza, provider of one of the most awkward moments of last season.

With Jeff Cunningham one goal from equalling the all-time MLS goals record, Columbus were awarded a penalty. As designated penalty-taker Cunningham readied himself, Mendoza stood over the ball, even ignoring his captain's request to leave it for Cunningham.

It was ugly, but it worked – Mendoza scored – and that sums up Columbus. Far from the most aesthetically pleasing side in league, the Crew are more effective than attractive. Provided Chad Marshall stays healthy and Eddie Gaven keeps contributing from midfield, expect to see the Crew make the play-offs once again.

Key player: Having scored a goal every other game for Universidad Catolica in his native Chile, archetypal No.10 Milovan Mirosevic is likely to be the creative lynchpin for the Crew this year and will be an exciting prospect to watch.

DC UNITED (5th)Now Charlie Davies has returned to Sochaux, DC have brought in Rapid Vienna striker Hamdi Salihi as designated player. With MVP Dwayne De Rosario recently agreeing a contract extension, the club have a front pairing that should score goals. Coach Ben Olsen will be aiming to eradicate the defensive frailties that cost DC a play-off spot last season.

Part of his plan involves signing experienced former Real Salt Lake defender Robbie Russell and the imposing Argentine Emiliano Dudar. Having failed to make the play-offs in the last three years, DC now look a solid bet – provided that backline clicks into place.

Key player: Hamdi Salihi. Asked how hef’d handle the pressure, Salihi calmly replied: “OK: this is my job. I know my quality.” His confidence may not be misplaced: a strong pre-season means there’s a degree of excitement building in Washington. Just don’t expect any funny post-match interviews from him.

HOUSTON DYNAMO (3rd)Although Houston have to wait till May for their new stadium – they'll play away games only until it's ready – at least Brian Ching will be around to enjoy it. His return and renegotiated contract has actually helped the club that came so close to winning the MLS Cup last year. Having unsuccessfully tried to woo Kris Boyd, Houston will still see signing a striker as a priority and with few designated player options readily available, it will only spite Houston further if Boyd performs well at Portland.

Key player: Brad Davis. It was cruel that he missed the MLS Cup final after such a fantastic season last year. His can-opener of a left foot will be vital of Houston are to recapture that form. Coach Dominic Kinnear now looks like affording Davis the freedom to roam, making him the main supply-line to Houston’s strikers – so no pressure, Brad...

MONTREAL IMPACT (10th)If there’s a song that best illustrates Montreal’s off-season it’s Kenny Rogers' The Gambler: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em". Deciding to take Brian Ching seemed questionable at the time, especially given the player's vocal displeasure at the move; the club gained little when he eventually sent him back to Texas.

One move that did pay off was taking Eddie Johnson via the allocation process. Gaining Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito in the trade with Seattle represents good business and will set them up well for their inaugural season. The unenviable task for coach Jesse Marsch is to form an understanding among a large, newly-assembled group of players; it may take time.

Key player: Matteo Ferrari is the standout name. A good pedigree in Europe will see him placed squarely at the heart of Montreal’s back line. It’s a strong test of his leadership and mental strength and we’ll learn a lot about him during the early months of the season.

NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (9th)The king is dead; long live the king. Steve Nicol’s departure didn’t befit a man who had done so much for the Revolution and its players, but in Jay Heaps the club have a popular successor.

Heaps cut several players in the off-season, meaning the remodelling of the side is far from finished. Shalrie Joseph is now a designated player and should form a fairly combative central midfield partnership with former DC United man Clyde Simms. Unfortunately for New England fans, it’s about looking towards the future and enduring the present.

Key player: Languid French striker Saer Sene arrived from Bayern Münich II having scored a goal against AC Milan (friendlies count, right?), but former Derby midfielder Benny Feilhaber will be the key component in midfield. His pre-season bicycle kick was nice, but if New England are to make the transition to Heaps style of play, Feilhaber will need to perform.

NEW YORK RED BULLS (2nd)New York still have concerns at the front and back. They enter the season with a young pair of goalkeepers who will need to quickly adapt to the pressures of MLS. Meanwhile, striker Luke Rodgers is still in the UK with visa issues; Red Bulls' record without Rodgers doesn’t make for good reading, so getting him back is vital.

The off-pitch dramas of last season did little to aid moral, and if the club are serious about winning the MLS Cup, they'll need a united and focused locker room is required. On paper a strong side, New York show you why it’s good to remember the game is played on grass and not A4.

Key player: Thierry Henry. The Frenchman may have looked good on the pitch last year, but this season he’ll have to hold together a sometimes volatile dressing room. Rafa Marquez was nothing but trouble last year and for all the Mexican’s perceived quality he didn’t justify his hefty salary. Henry’s form may be good, but he will need to display his leadership qualities and unite the squad if New York are to avoid some of the embarrassing scenes of last season.

PHILADELPHIA UNION (6th) After US women's coach Pia Sundhage’s impromptu press-conference karaoke version of Feelin' Groovy, it'd be nice to see Philadelphia gaffer Piotr Nowak do likewise with Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’. Some of the club’s most loved players have departed the city of brotherly love and there’s a big risk factor for the Union, especially given Sébastien Le Toux’s contributions over the last two seasons.

Admittedly the money from Le Toux’s move has allowed them to secure some important players, but the Frenchman’s stats don’t lie - he was a big player for the club.

Key player: Leonard Pajoy. Harsh, perhaps, as he may not be a direct replacement for Le Toux – but he’s going to need score goals, if only to justify his manager’s decision. It’s a lot to ask of the 30-year-old Colombian, especially given the lack of consistent goalscoring during his career.

SPORTING KANSAS CITY (1st)Sporting have a vibrant young side possessing real potential this season. Omar Bravo may have returned to Mexico with Cruz Azul, but with the acquisition of Bobby Convey and a designated player spot still available, Sporting KC are likely to be the best the East has to offer.

The pain of defeat to Houston last year should aid in motivating the players to reach even higher this time around – and if they maintain their discipline, then who knows how far they might go?

Key player: Jimmy Neilsen. As captain of Sporting KC this season, much of the necessary maturity is likely to come from him. At 34, his experience should make him a good leader and if he can instill a rigid discipline in his younger team-mates, the mistakes of last season may be eradicated.

TORONTO FC (8th)Aron Winter is trying to build something in Toronto. Trouble is, his typically Dutch ideal of a fluid 4-3-3 still hasn’t worked out yet, and after five underachieving seasons the burden of having never reached the play-offs is starting to weigh down on TFC. Mid-season signings Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans had contrasting fortunes, with Frings often so deep that his influence was stifled.

The club have moved on a few defenders, including Englishman Andy Iro, but have also looked to secure former Manchester United product Richard Eckersley after his loan spell last year. Winter has long-term ambitions, and has said he aims to have the club challenging in 2013 – not really want you want to hear if you’ve just bought a season ticket.

Key player: Danny Koevermans. The stereotypical target man, Koevermans is expected to lead the line and play a big role for Toronto this season. An intimidating target up front, he turned in an impressive his goal return for a mid-campaign signing. Now he’s had a full pre-season his potential impact is huge, provided he gets the service and support from those around him. 

Western Conference preview: Pitchside log-cutting, questionable haircuts & the Honey Badger

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