The new US football season starts on Thursday. Let our Stateside expert Jason Davis explain Ã¢ÂÂ and start to introduce the teams...
There's nothing quite like the clouds lifting to suddenly give way to glorious sunshine; when Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement on Saturday, any doubt that the new season would start on time melted away.
Game on: Spot the players behind the suits
It's a narrow escape, considering that the word "strike" was being mentioned in harsh tones and with real intent. Players' unions are the norm in American sports, and though the MLS version doesn't have the same strength as its brethren in baseball or American football, the union felt it necessary to make a stand for the kind of rights that players around the world take for granted.
The biggest concerns were guaranteed contracts and the ability to move on after their contract has expired. The latter problem is something unique to MLS; in order to keep salaries down, a player's club controls their rights within the league despite the expiration of their contract or their being cut loose.
That they received enough concessions on both to make a deal happen is a good thing, what with the heads of MLS supporters around the country constantly on the verge of spontaneous combustion over the past three months.
Heads sufficiently cooled, it's time to move forward into the MLS's 15th season.
THE STRUCTUREMLS, now consisting of 16 teams with the addition of expansion newcomers Philadelphia Union, will use a balanced home-and-away schedule for the first time in the leagueÃ¢ÂÂs history.
There will now be 30 games for each club, fighting for the Supporters Shield Ã¢ÂÂ awarded to the league winner Ã¢ÂÂ and the more highly-regarded MLS Cup, awarded to the champion after a subsequent play-off between the top eight teams.
The teams (Western Conference in red, Eastern blue)
As is usually the way with US sports, even though every team plays every other team twice, the league is broken out into two conferences. These are nominally set by geography and thus called the Eastern and Western Conferences.
At the end of the league season the top two teams in each conference make the play-offs, with the remaining four slots going to the clubs with the best point total, regardless of conference.
The play-offs proceed, two-legged, within the conference set-up: the top-seeded West team plays the fourth-seeded West team, while second plays third, before the winners face off to create a Conference champion.
And when each division has a champion, those two fight for the MLS Cup in the big finale at a neutral venue. It's all very Superbowl-esque. Welcome to America.
MEET THE TEAMS: Eastern Conference part 1Last year's Supporters Shield winner and Shield/Cup double winner in 2008, the Columbus Crew, return a strong team led by Argentine maestro Guillermo Barros Schelloto. A mix of age and youth Ã¢ÂÂ longtime US international Frankie Hejduk anchors the defence Ã¢ÂÂ the Crew should be contenders again for the Eastern Conference title.
Last season ended in disappointment when what many thought was the better Crew side fell to eventual Cup champions Real Salt Lake Ã¢ÂÂ yes, that's really their name Ã¢ÂÂ in the first round of the play-offs (Western Conference outfit RSL having switched to the East for the play-offs due to that final-qualifier rule outlined above). Without a clear favorite in the East, this could again be Columbus' year.
Can Columbus repeat their 2008 glory?
Chicago Fire's 2009 also fell short of their aspirations. Loaded for a championship run with the likes of former Fulham (and USA) stalwart Brian McBride, Mexico star Cuahatemoc Blanco and solid Colombian defender Wilman Conde, the Fire also saw their hopes dashed by Real Salt Lake in the Eastern Conference final.
The Fire's squad turnover for 2010 includes the addition of McBride's old Fulham team-mate Collins John but the loss of the aforementioned Blanco. Due to the Mexican's World Cup aspirations (sound familiar?) he signed with a Mexican second division during the MLS off-season and will not return to the Fire. Without Blanco, up-and-coming Guatemalan midfielder Marco Pappa will be forced to shoulder more of the attacking load.
"Where's the Fire?" New coach De los Cobos warms to his task
After losing four MLS Cup finals in six seasons, the New England Revolution used to be considered always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Last year they barely made it to the church. Coached by ex-Liverpool player Steve Nicol, they made the play-offs last season but were a shell of their former selves and went straight out to the Fire.
A ninth consecutive play-off appearance will depend largely on the play of do-it-all man Shalrie Joseph and the side's ability to find the net without league century goalscorer Taylor Twellman, still recovering from concussion and neck problems. A goalscoring juggernaut New England is not.
He ain't heavy: Joseph (part-hidden) carries the team again
Finally for today, DC United is the most decorated club in MLS history, but failed to make the play-offs for the second consecutive season in 2009. A passionate fan base backs the club, which has a tradition (or as much of a tradition as a club can have in 15 years) of playing free-flowing, on-the-floor, Latin-style football.
New head coach Curt Onalfo will be asked to turn around the club's fortunes, and he does have the league's all-time leading goal scorer Jaime Moreno to lean upon. But Moreno's age is showing, and the club will need to contributions from others to make a run. United's bouncing (literally, given the springy stands at RFK Stadium), throbbing ultras of La Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles are getting antsy.
Taking care of business: Moreno tucks away another
Part 2: The rest of the Eastern Conference Ã¢ÂÂ Toronto FC, Kansas City Wizards, New York Red Bulls & Philadelphia Union