Read Goal.com's comprehensive preview of the Western Conference here.
Sporting Kansas City won't sneak up on a soul this year.
Peter Vermes' side somehow survived a 10-game road trip to start the season, found its rhythm and rose all the way to the top of the conference by the end of the campaign. With many of the influential figures from that run back for this season, the expectations are sky high for the encore performance.
Several teams have positioned themselves as viable challengers heading into this season. Houston won at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park to seal a berth in MLS Cup, while New York thinks it can push last year's debacle to the side. Throw in the likes of Columbus, Chicago, D.C. United and Philadelphia as potential playoff sides and 2012 could see parity once again rule the day in the East.
Projected order of finish:
* – denotes playoff qualifier
1. Sporting Kansas City*
2. New York*
5. D.C. United*
8. Toronto FC
9. New England
* – denotes playoff qualifier
1. Sporting Kansas City*
2. New York*
5. D.C. United*
8. Toronto FC
9. New England
1. Sporting Kansas City
Last season in a sentence: I Believe That We Will Win turned into I Know We Can Win Often Enough as Peter Vermes' side concluded its maiden year at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park with a stunning defeat to Houston in the Eastern Conference final.
Offseason moves: The most notable swap occurred on the left wing with Bobby Convey acquired from San Jose to replace Cruz Azul-bound Omar Bravo. Paulo Nagamura and Michael Thomas constituted the necessary reinforcements in central midfield after Davy Arnaud, Jéferson and Craig Rocastle sought employment elsewhere. Jacob Peterson also arrived to supply depth on the flanks. New deals for Jimmy Nielsen (in November), Seth Sinovic (after a brief detour to Montréal) and Graham Zusi still left plenty of room for a new deal for Matt Besler and a potential Designated Player signing at some stage if required.
Key figure: Zusi emerged from the reserves to shoulder much of the creative burden last season. He earned his international debut and a new deal for his troubles, but the second act often proves more difficult than the first. Sporting will score plenty of goals with its diverse group of options up front, but it can't afford to have Zusi sputter in midfield with Bravo now in Mexico.
The skinny: Maturity will dictate the level of success this season. Poor discipline and shaky management at the end of matches cost Sporting several points over the course of last season. Another year – and, perhaps, Nagamura's influence if he can stay on the field – could make this group all the wiser, while the sting of that disappointing season finale should provide plenty of impetus for a more consistent and levelheaded approach during the regular season.
2. New York
Last season in a sentence: A season filled with embarrassing incidents and staggering failures at every turn ultimately ended with a playoff exit at Los Angeles in the Western Conference semifinals.
Offseason moves: Sporting director Erik Solér once again looked to the Nordic countries for reinforcements as Jonathan Borrajo, Markus Holgersson, Victor Pálsson and Jeremy Vuolo all joined the club from clubs in that part of the world. Comparatively local recruits Kenny Cooper and Wilman Conde ensured the focus also included North America. Carlos Mendes, Tim Ream (courtesy of a lucrative transfer to Bolton Wanderers) and Frank Rost comprised the most significant members of the outgoing traffic, though the Red Bulls also parted ways with several reserves Hans Backe didn't appear to rate or trust very much. Livewire striker Luke Rodgers may find his stay truncated by U.S. immigration officials if he does not receive a work visa in the next couple of weeks.
Key figure: Thierry Henry and Joel Lindpere always loom as influential linchpins, but the most significant pressure to produce will fall upon Holgersson's broad shoulders. New York didn't receive consistent center back play last season from any numbers of players featured in that department. If the hulking Sweden international can offer at least one reliable figure in there in front of an untested goalkeeper (either Vuolo or rookie Ryan Meara barring a late transfer move), then maybe the Red Bulls can muddle through if Conde struggles for fitness or Rafael Márquez slots in there at some point.
The skinny: The final outcome represented far less than the sum of the parts. Backe must address the club's chemistry concerns from last year – Márquez, for one, must assume some of the blame for his antics – and chart a reasonable course for every player in the squad. If this group can strike the right balance in the locker room and find a reliable pair of hands between the sticks, then the results should follow. Cooper, in particular, looks like a tidy acquisition given his preference to drift out to the wide areas and the Red Bulls' preference to play in that part of the park.
Last season in a sentence: This hard-working side rose to the fore during the summer before falling off the pace and slipping out of the postseason without too much fuss.
Offseason moves: Robert Warzycha continues to mold a side in his own image, but he will have to replace four starters from last season ahead of this campaign. Productive regulars Andres Mendoza and Robbie Rogers made way for more workmanlike options, while Josh Gardner and Emmanuel Ekpo located new places of employment without any obvious replacements acquired to fill the void. Milovan Marosevic should provide some much needed creativity between the lines in a withdrawn forward role, while Carlos Mendes and Olman Vargas supply depth at the back and up front. Supplemental draft selection Kirk Urso could start in central midfield on opening day. Looming in the distance: another series of attempts to sign a reliable Designated Player to partner Emilio Renteria.
Key figure: All hopes for this side rest upon Chad Marshall and his ability to marshal one of the league's better back lines. The continued absence of Julius James as he rehabs from offseason shoulder surgery and the selection uncertainty at left back makes the job more difficult, but the former MLS defender of the year possesses the tools to hold together this unsettled group and maintain those high standards.
The skinny: Warzycha has developed a conservative and identifiable style of play during his tenure. There isn't much fuss in the way the Crew prevents opposing teams from playing and transitions quickly down the flanks to create its own opportunities. It isn't always pretty, but it usually is quite effective. If Marshall can stay healthy and Eddie Gaven can string together chances in midfield in tandem with Milosevic (as he drops off the front line) and Dilly Duka, then the Crew should once again find their way into the playoffs without too much trouble.
Last season in a sentence: Geoff Cameron's belated shift to central defense and Brad Davis' consistent brilliance sparked the Dynamo on a run all the way to MLS Cup.
Offseason moves: Brian Ching captured most of the headlines with his temporary excursion to Montréal. It took a couple of months to settle the matter, but all parties finally managed to bring the international incident to a close after Ching took a pay cut and the Dynamo shipped a conditional draft pick to Québec. Most of the other incoming and outgoing movement fell into the peripheral category. Carlo Costly and Danny Cruz led the departing group after Houston opted to reject their contractual options, while trades for Mac Kandji and Nathan Sturgis represent the primary additions to the squad. Another striker remains on the shopping list, though he hasn't arrived as of yet.
Key figure: Davis often operates without a safety net in midfield: the Dynamo's entire creative impetus essentially comes from his magic wand of a left foot. Dominic Kinnear will give him plenty of latitude to float into different areas and find the ball where he pleases. He will have to do so on a regular basis to guarantee plenty of service for a group of strikers – with Ching excepted – that needs more than their fair share of chances to produce the preferred number of goals.
The skinny: Kinnear and his technical staff spent much of the winter fruitlessly searching for established reinforcements up front. The inability to land a top class striker could prove damaging with this particular group looking short of goals from the run of play. A seven-match road trip to start the season will provide an ample test of this side's credentials, but the energy surrounding the move to BBVA Compass Stadium in May and the presence of Cameron (as part of a miserly and physical back four), Davis and Ching should ensure a playoff place by season's end.
5. D.C. United
Last season in a sentence: New arrivals Dwayne De Rosario and Ben Olsen provided a spark as the season progressed, but United missed out on the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season nonetheless.
Offseason moves: United accomplished its primary objective last month when league MVP De Rosario signed a new deal, but the work started well before that point. The addition of three projected starters – center back Emiliano Dudar, right back Robbie Russell and DP striker Hamdi Salihi – plugged the most significant holes in the starting XI. Danny Cruz, Maicon Santos and Marcelo Saragosa should bolster Olsen's previously scant options off the bench. India-bound Santino Quaranta and New England-bound duo Blake Brettschneider and Clyde Simms topped the list of departures.
Key figure: De Rosario will start the season in the spotlight, but Dudar could dictate whether United returns to the postseason. Dejan Jakovic and Brendan McDonald possess enough talent to operate as regular MLS starters, but they did not entirely convince in the heart of the defense last season. If the Swiss league veteran can provide a reliable presence at the back alongside one of those two options, then United should construct the solid defensive platform it requires to permit its front five to flourish.
The skinny: United addressed most of its needs during the close season and cobbled together a side that should challenge for a playoff berth. De Rosario and Salihi will likely produce plenty of goals in tandem, while Branko Boskovic's return to health (and his uncertain contractual status) should spur more creativity from midfield. Goals will flow in the attacking third, but Dudar and company will have to guarantee the previously leaky back line stems the tide just enough to win matches on a regular basis.
Last season in a sentence: A furious late season push under interim boss Frank Klopas ultimately ended just short of the playoffs.
Offseason moves: Millonarios midfielder Rafael Robayo topped the list of close season signings. The once-capped Colombian international should step right into the starting XI, but fellow South American signing Federico Puppo will likely bide his time on the bench as he waits for his chance to impress. Austin Berry, Kheli Dube and Jay Nolly provide further depth on the bench, but now-permanent coach Klopas has also evaluated several defenders during preseason in an attempt to strengthen in that department. Diego Chaves and Cristian Nazarit headlined the group of mostly peripheral figures to make way for fresh options.
Key figure: After flattering to deceive for several years, Dominic Oduro confounded his critics by finishing among the league's top scorers with 12 goals last season. He will face significant pressure to replicate that tally given the dearth of proven predators in the fold and the tactical outlook preferred by his team. Expect opposing teams to set their lines a bit deeper to ensure those chances over the top aren't as prevalent.
The skinny: Klopas has built a side with plenty of midfield choices and fewer options in other areas of the park. The alliance of craft (Robayo, Marco Pappa and Sebastian Grazzini), diligence (Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause) and speed (Oduro and Patrick Nyarko) should make the Fire a potent team on the counter. The success of that particular tactic will depend on whether the back four (presumably with the influential Cory Gibbs fit and ready to feature in short order) can handle its duties and whether Oduro and Nyarko can produce reliably in front of goal.
Last season in a sentence: The second-year side consolidated its first-year progress with a Sébastien Le Toux-inspired playoff berth and a Eastern Conference semifinals exit.
Offseason moves: Le Toux has surprisingly departed for Vancouver in perhaps the most stunning personnel move of the winter. Josué Martínez and Lionard Pajoy arrived to provide the likely replacements up front, while Gabriel Gómez and Porfirio López should settle into starting berths in midfield and defense, respectively. Zac MacMath will step into the massive breach between the sticks after Faryd Mondragón returned to Colombia in January. Plenty of projected reserves came and went with the exits of Justin Mapp and Velko Paunovic headlining that particular batch of moves.
Key figure: Any number of players could feature in this spot given the changes at PPL Park, but MacMath earns the nod here for his unquestioned role as the number one heading into 2012. The 20-year-old goalkeeper experienced a few shaky moments last season before settling down as he received more playing time. He will have to play at a high level to justify Peter Nowak's decision to keep the faith in him instead of acquiring a proven starter to backstop a playoff push.
The skinny: Nowak faced a withering amount of criticism for his choices during the close season. He will need the fresh faces – particularly his group of dynamic and mobile attacking players – to produce quickly to ward off further external pressure. On the whole, it seems like a bridge too far to expect this group to subtract its two best players from the last campaign and replicate the form that secured a playoff berth last season.
8. Toronto FC
Last season in a sentence: Aron Winter brought his beloved 4-3-3, a possession-oriented approach and two proven European producers to Ontario without finding the formula to land the club's first playoff berth.
Offseason moves: It should come as little surprise to see defenders take precedence in the offseason moves. Miguel Aceval and Geovanny Caicedo should both start somewhere along the back line with Andy Iro now plying his trade elsewhere, while Jeremy Hall's November arrival offers some depth at both fullback slots. Director of player development Paul Mariner mined his connections at Ipswich Town to land Bermuda international Reggie Lambe as a speedy option in the wide areas. A raft of reserves – including Nathan Sturgis – also cleared the decks as the Reds sought to boost the overall quality within the squad.
Key figure: Number nines have always assumed a mythical importance for the Reds and this season should prove no different. Danny Koevermans looms as the one reliable goal threat in a squad that will need to score regularly in order to compete. His rate of return (eight goals in 10 MLS matches) exceeded expectations, but can he remain healthy enough through the grind of a full MLS season to match it this year?
The skinny: It takes time to implement the type of approach and system Winter wants to play. TFC showed signs of adopting this cultured, possession-oriented ethos as last season progressed. Work still remains to build upon the success of sealing a quarterfinal berth in the CONCACAF Champions League last fall. It may, however, take one more year for the Reds to accumulate enough strength in depth and in defense to mount a serious playoff push.
9. New England
Last season in a sentence: The Steve Nicol era skidded to its conclusion and prompted sweeping changes on and off the field.
Offseason moves: Nicol's departure marks the most important shift for a club under the ex-Scotland international's care for the past decade. Former defender Jay Heaps assumed control and shifted the side to a short passing game designed to increase possession. Projected starters Kelyn Rowe and Clyde Simms should play a key role in that transition in midfield, while recent imports Jose Moreno and Saër Sène will likely combine to lead the line. John Lozano will partner A.J. Soares in central defense as the Revs attempt to shore up their porous rearguard from a year ago. Heaps culled several players to make room for his new signings, but Shalrie Joseph will return after inking his long-awaited Designated Player pact.
Key figure: The transition to a short passing game should highlight the strengths in Benny Feilhaber's game. He will likely operate in a center-left position and thrive in a setup that will allow him plenty of room to roam. It all looks good on paper, but the U.S. international must receive plenty of support from his teammates in order to ensure he makes it through the season without suffering too many fouls.
The skinny: This particular rebuilding process will require more than just one winter's worth of work. Questions still abound at the back and up front, though the midfield group should hold its own in most matches. At this point, the new beginning represents the most important step forward as the Revs continue to revamp their squad over the next year or so.
Last season in a sentence: Forget every last (and irrelevant) moment of the surprisingly unsuccessful farewell to second division soccer.
Offseason moves: Impact boss Jesse Marsch started with a clean slate and used the expansive brief to build his squad. Davy Arnaud, Josh Gardner, Justin Mapp, Sanna Nyassi and Zarek Valentin arrived in the expansion draft, while Brian Ching (returned to Houston for a conditional draft pick) and James Riley (shipped to Chivas USA in a trade for Justin Braun and Gerson Mayen) were flipped for other assets. Donovan Ricketts arrived in an expansion draft day swap with Los Angeles. Patrice Bernier, Felipe Martins and Nelson Rivas joined the side from European clubs, while Hassoun Camara and Eduardo Sebrango topped the group making the leap from the second division side. Recent acquisitions include ex-Roma defender Matteo Ferrari and former Seattle duo Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle. Further moves for a DP and another forward could follow in the next few months.
Key figure: Ricketts will have to display his best form in order to keep expectant sides out of the net with some regularity this season. The defensive pieces aren't quite in place yet – another central defender seems like a smart addition at some point – so the onus will fall on the Jamaican international to show he deserves his place as one of the league's best keepers. He should have plenty of opportunities to do so.
The skinny: Like most expansion teams, Marsch and his side face a long and hard road toward the playoffs. Some of the pieces for a playoff team are already in place, while others will link up along the way over the next year or two. At the moment, this group appears short at the back and up front. A DP – or any other signing, for that matter – won't solve all of those issues in one fell swoop.
Follow KYLE MCCARTHY on or shoot him an email.