Houston and Sporting Kansas City stand out as the top sides in a muddled conference with little to separate the other contenders.
The new year left the Eastern Conference with the same old problem: it's hard to get a read on how these similarly situated teams will sort out their pecking order.
Houston and Sporting Kansas City appear a step or two ahead of the pack. Both teams altered their squads in substantive fashion during the close season, but the Dynamo retained more of its core and all of its mental edge after continuing its hex over Sporting after eliminating the club from the postseason in each of the last two seasons.
The margins shrink after the top two sides, though. Returning playoff teams Chicago and D.C. United look stronger than last season, but New York must prove itself again after its offseason upheaval. The rest of the pack – Columbus, Montréal, New England, Philadelphia and Toronto FC – will hope to disrupt the established order and slide into the postseason
2. Sporting Kansas City
4. D.C. United
5. New York
7. New England
10. Toronto FC
Last season in a sentence: Another methodical playoff run ended abruptly with another MLS Cup defeat to Los Angeles.
Offseason moves: Few teams operated as deftly as the Dynamo did during the close season. Proven performers Eric Brunner and Omar Cummings arrived to provide cover for the departure of André Hainault and the injury concerns facing Calen Carr. The recent loan move for Hearts winger Andrew Driver rounded off the movement nicely.
Key figure: Even with the emergence of Will Bruin and the impact of Boniek Garcia, this show still runs through Brad Davis. The veteran midfielder makes this side tick. His service offers a reliable route to goal that few teams can match.
The skinny: Houston has proven its ability to mount lengthy postseason runs with this new crop of players. With the additional depth at Dominic Kinnear's disposal heading into this season and the impeccable home form to buttress the cause, that high standard of success could extend to the regular season.
2. SPORTING KANSAS CITY
Last season in a sentence: A familiar, orange-clad enemy turned regular-season mastery into postseason misery yet again.
Offseason moves: Sporting manager Peter Vermes retooled efficiently after Júlio César, Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara departed. Espinoza's move to Wigan presented a chance to alter the midfield calculus with a trade for Benny Feilhaber. Claudio Bieler joined as a Designated Player to eradicate those concerns about wastefulness in the final third.
Key figure: Vermes likely breathed a sigh of relief when Graham Zusi returned from a trial stint with West Ham United without securing a January move. The U.S. international will receive more creative support with Feilhaber now in the fold, but he still shoulders most of the burden to exploit the opportunities created within this high pressure system.
The skinny: The loss of Espinoza would have crippled more than a few teams. Sporting must prove its ability to exert its will on the game without the influential Honduran international in the fold, but the arrival of Feilhaber allows Vermes to tweak the side as warranted to maintain the lofty standards established over the past two seasons.
Last season in a sentence: The return of a familiar face and a solid spine turned this resolute outfit into a playoff side.
Offseason moves: Chicago coach Frank Klopas acted swiftly to address the lack of diversity in his side's approach last season. Klopas swung favorable deals for Dilly Duka, Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere to increase the available options in midfield and took Maicon Santos in the re-entry process to bolster his forward group. Larentowicz should offer a suitable replacement for the retired Pável Pardo in the middle of the park, while Lindpere's presence renders Álvaro Fernández's move to Qatar all but irrelevant.
Key figure: Most of the Fire's best work last season flowed through Chris Rolfe. His driving runs through midfield sliced open opposing teams and spurred his side into the playoffs. More of the same should ensure another trip to the postseason.
The skinny: In order to tie all of these upgrades together, Chicago must retain its defensive foundation. Arne Friedrich must shepherd Austin Berry through his sophomore season and stay healthy. If the back four can provide a platform for the counter, the Fire should thrive again in 2013.
4. D.C. UNITED
Last season in a sentence: Relief swept through RFK Stadium as the playoff drought finally ended and the stadium search finally turned a corner.
Offseason moves: United tinkered around the edges and took advantage of Chivas USA's generosity for much of the winter. And then Carlos Ruiz arrived to turn this humdrum affair into something far more intriguing. The veteran Guatemalan poacher adds bite and instinct to a forward group in need of both qualities heading into campaign. Fellow arrivals James Riley (a potential starter at right back) and Casey Townsend (a candidate to improve the depth on the front line) should help as well. The exits of Andy Najar and Hamdi Salihi provided plenty of resources to make further improvements during the summer. One of those signings may involve injecting some of the creativity lost when Branko Boškoviç decamped for Austria.
Key figure: The impending return of Dwayne De Rosario bodes well for a second playoff berth on the trot. De Rosario drives this team forward and inserts the necessary bit of proven quality required to navigate through the difficult times.
The skinny: Nothing less than a return to the postseason will suffice for this ambitious outfit. Ruiz's arrival clears up one of the primary concerns (a lack of sharpness from the forwards) and underscores the improved options at Ben Olsen's disposal. Whether this group possesses the tools to challenge for MLS Cup remains uncertain, but another playoff berth appears well within reach.
5. NEW YORK
Last season in a sentence: Chaos reigned once again as this talented team fell short of expectations.
Offseason moves: Sporting director Andy Roxburgh cleared the decks, ended the Rafa Márquez fiasco and reinforced the side with proven MLS talent and one veteran Brazilian playmaker. Juninho Pernambucano ended the ongoing dialogue about creativity in the final third when he signed in December. Fabián Espíndola and Jámison Olave offered further reinforcements to the starting XI, while Eric Alexander and Kosuke Kimura supply necessary alternatives. Every acquisition helps after Kenny Cooper finished off the wholesale changes with his recent move to FC Dallas.
Key figure: Roxburgh handed the reins to interim coach Mike Petke just in time for the start of preseason. Petke must convince a squad filled with veterans to invest in his plans and the club as a whole. It isn't an easy brief. The early signs are positive, but the true test will come when the results start to falter.
The skinny: Talent is never the issue in Harrison. Finding a way to bring the pieces together presents the most difficult challenge. Petke will work tirelessly to find the right formula for the long haul, but he may end up pointing to Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry and telling them to carry this side back to the postseason by the end of the campaign. And both men are more than capable of fulfilling that directive.
Last season in a sentence: The introduction of Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuaín could not stop one of the league's grittier sides from dropping out of the playoff picture.
Offseason moves: Widespread changes in defense revealed the level of displeasure with the efforts in that department in the second half of last season. Sebastián Miranda left the most significant hole when he chose to return to Chile, but the number of departures leaves the Crew with ample concerns about its depth in those areas. In more uplifting news, the Crew imported Matias Sánchez and Agustin Viana in yet another bid to fill the gaping chasm in central midfield, picked up Dominic Oduro in exchange for the discarded Dilly Duka and signed Glauber to partner Chad Marshall in central defense.
Key figure: Marshall looms as the integral figure amid the defensive upheaval. His appearance record remains somewhat of a concern, but his presence in the middle of the back four remains as important as ever to a side that leans on its miserly approach first and foremost.
The skinny: The offseason allowed the Crew a chance to return to its principles. Perhaps this group will lean a bit more on its work in the attacking third with Higuaín around to pull the strings, but a possible return to the playoffs after a one-year absence hinges on the ability to restore that defiant rearguard to its former glory.
7. NEW ENGLAND
Last season in a sentence: New management and fresh ideas created some hope, but a summer swoon reinforced the rebuilding project ahead.
Offseason moves: In a rather noticeable departure from previous operating practices, the Revs sorted out most of their business early in the offseason. The accelerated time frame allowed key contributors Kalifa Cissé, Andy Dorman and Jose Gonçalves plenty of time to adjust to their new surroundings. Top pick Andrew Farrell soon joined them to increase Jay Heaps' defensive options. Benny Feilhaber led the otherwise nondescript list of outgoing transfers.
Key figure: The glut of midfielders at Heaps' disposal should provide Jerry Bengtson with some service into the penalty area. The onus falls on him to make the most of those opportunities and show why he plunders so frequently for his country.
The skinny: The tidy work in the transfer market improved the overall talent level in the squad somewhat significantly. Increased competition for places should aid the efforts to climb the table, but the missing touch of class could prove the difference between a playoff challenge and another season on the fringes.
Last season in a sentence: Life in the top flight unfolded a bit less dramatically than expected as the Impact made a relatively tidy transition to MLS.
Offseason moves: The inevitable swap on the bench – Marco Schällibaum replaced the doomed Jesse Marsch – paved the way for more foreign signings. Loan arrival Andrea Pisanu looks like the pick of the lot after he agreed a loan move from Bologna. His invention could prove particularly useful for a side lacking in natural wide options. None of the outgoing traffic will influence how Schällibaum composes his starting XI.
Key figure: The task ahead of Marco Di Vaio feels like a familiar one. Montreal boasts a greater comparative talent level than Di Vaio's old Bologna sides did to their Serie A peers, but the veteran poacher still looms as the only reliable goal threat for his side. If he starts to show his age, then the Impact will struggle in front of goal.
The skinny: Health and vigor present the two biggest obstacles for Schällibaum in his first season in charge. The experience within the side will help the Swiss manager as he espouses his tactics, but the rigors of an MLS season will take their toll on a side with no fewer than seven players over the age of 30 in the projected starting XI.
Last season in a sentence: Court cases and highly-paid misfits captured much of the attention as the Union sputtered out of the gate and stumbled through a disappointing campaign.
Offseason moves: Union coach John Hackworth addressed his side's desperate need for veteran nous by dipping into the MLS market during the close season. Returning hero Sébastien Le Toux garnered most of the headlines, but the arrivals of Conor Casey and Jeff Parke inject plenty of experience into the mix as well. Hackworth also cut ties with Gabriel Gómez and several squad players in a bid to create room for future arrivals.
Key figure: Le Toux starts his second stint at PPL Park with a point to prove. Last season classed him as an expendable figure in Philadelphia (under the Peter Nowak regime), New York and Vancouver. He must improve his performances to shed that tag and supply the goals required to push the Union up the table.
The skinny: Even with the trio of seasoned figures now in tow, the Union faces too many questions (particularly at fullback and in midfield) and requires too many breaks (growth from Zac MacMath, health for Conor Casey and Bakary Soumare and inspiration from Le Toux) to bank on substantial improvement.
10. TORONTO FC
Last season in a sentence: Same old frustrating story.
Offseason moves: Another regime change ushered Kevin Payne and Ryan Nelsen into power. Nelsen's belated arrival from Queens Park Rangers left the recruitment efforts in a state of disrepair. The mix of Paul Mariner acquisitions (Justin Braun and Danny Califf) and recent signings (Kyle Bekker and Júlio César) barely keeps the basics covered after the likes of Eric Hassli and Ryan Johnson exited shortly after Payne's arrival. Torsten Frings' likely departure exacerbates the concerns for a side that needs to import proven players in short order.
Key figure: In a squad pockmarked with this many concerns, the goalkeeper assumes a particularly influential role. Stefan Frei has experienced this story a time or two before. Nelsen will likely cobble together a decent defensive unit with the pieces he has in place, but Frei must still play his part to help the Reds surprise.
The skinny: Nelsen must work quickly to implement his ideas and keep this campaign from starting off poorly. Even if his approach takes hold, he doesn't possess the necessary pieces to churn out results right now. Only a series of wise signings over the next few months will ensure this team remains competitive.