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Can Wizards, or anyone, challenge top two?
by Ridge Mahoney, March 26th, 2008 6:30AM

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[MLS COUNTDOWN] Parity may reign in MLS, at least theoretically, but in the past three seasons D.C. and New England have finished one-two atop the Eastern Conference, in either order. The Revs have reached MLS Cup in each of those seasons, only to lose each time. D.C. - which finished second to the Crew in 2004 yet prevailed in the playoffs to win its fourth championship - hasn't returned to the final despite posting the best regular-season record in two of those three seasons.

In its last season as a Western Conference team, Kansas City finished first and lost to D.C. United, 3-2, in MLS Cup 2004. After two postseason misses, it returned to the playoffs last year and beat Chivas USA in the first round. During the offseason, Chicago lost head coach Juan Carlos Osorio to New York; is either team ready to crack the top two?

Here's the predicted order of finish, along with last year's record and playoff performance - if any - in parentheses.

1. D.C. UNITED (16-7-7, eliminated in first round)
Exclamation points: Luciano Emilio can score goals! Ben Olsen can run all day! Marc Burch was a revelation last season at left back! Clyde Simms is a monster in the middle of midfield!
Question marks: Can Jaime Moreno stay healthy? Can Marcelo Gallardo and Franco Neill stay the course of taxing domestic and international club competitions? Will newcomers Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martinez solidify the central defense? Is the goalkeeping of Zach Wells up to snuff?
Quote: "We are very confident that Marcelo will not only maintain that tradition but create a whole new tradition of his own."
-- D.C. United president Kevin Payne.

2. NEW ENGLAND (14-8-8, MLS Cup finalist):
Exclamation points:
Taylor Twellman has scored 91 goals in six MLS seasons! Matt Reis is a wall in goal! Defender of the Year Michael Parkhurst has no peer! Adam Cristman and Wells Thompson had excellent rookie seasons! Newcomer Chris Albright has won three titles!
Question marks: Will Twellman be resentful of his move abroad being rejected? Can Pat Noonan and James Riley be replaced? How quickly will Honduran midfielder Mauricio Castro adapt to MLS? Just how often might Coach Steve Nicol decide to play four in the back? Who takes over for Steve Ralston, who moves into the middle, on the right side of midfield?
Quote: "Steve's great because he can play anywhere. We're comfortable with him there."
-- Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, on Ralston's move to a central role.

3. KANSAS CITY (11-12-7, eliminated in second round)
Exclamation points: Carlos Marinelli has been annointed as the playmaker! Kevin Hartman is slimmer and fitter! The new training facility is drawing rave reviews!
Question marks: Will Claudio Lopez light up MLS as a DP should? Can the defense that gave up 45 goals last year be tightened in a new system? Will playing at cozy CommunityAmerica Ballpark produce a homefield advantage? How will Coach Curt Onalfo mete out playing time to Lopez, Ivan Trujillo, Eloy Colombano, Scott Sealy and Davy Arnaud?
Quote: "He will make it easy for the next guy just because he's got so much class and experience on and off the ball."
-- Defender Jimmy Conrad, on Lopez.

4. CHICAGO (10-10-10, eliminated in second round)
Exclamation points: Forward Andy Herron is back with the Fire! Chris Rolfe is one of the most skillful attackers in the league! Cuauhtemoc Blanco drew 61 fouls in just 14 games!
Question marks: Is Denis Hamlett suited to be a head coach? Will Wilman Conde put aside his interest in New York? Can Hamlett marshal the talents and tirades of Blanco? Is import Tomaz Frankowski capable of scoring goals consistently in MLS?
Quote: "He is clinical around the box and we feel he will fit in well with our system."
-- Denis Hamlett, on Frankowski.

5. RED BULL NEW YORK (12-11-7, eliminated in first round)
Exclamation points: The pairing of forwards Juan Pablo Angel and Jozy Altidore is the league's best! There's plenty of salary-cap space and allocation money! Coach Juan Carlos Osorio turned Chicago around last year and he can do it in New York!
Question marks: How will Claudio Reyna handle the role of playmaker? Who can Osorio buy to solidify the shaky back line? How much will the midfield bite of Dema Kovalenko and Joe Vide be missed? Who will play right mid until Dane Richards recovers from a knee injury?
Quote: "He's a good, honest man for the team. I think the players are going to see that. He's going to treat everybody the same."
-- Reyna, on Osorio, an assistant coach when they were at Manchester City.

6. TORONTO FC (6-17-7)
Exclamation points: Forwards Danny Dichio and Jeff Cunningham are a handful for any team! Nobody can stop Marvell Wynne! Rookie of the Year Maurice Edu will be even better this year! BMO Field is a madhouse when TFC plays!
Question marks: How will the sharing of power between manager Mo Johnston and head coach John Carver work out? Is their enough depth to replace Wynne and Edu when they play for the U.S.? Can keeper Greg Sutton get the job done consistently?
Quote: "The style that Coach John Carver is bringing in, they understand it, and I think it's going to be a good year for us."
-- Midfielder Maurice Edu


7. COLUMBUS (9-11-10)
Exclamation points: Brian Carroll brings toughness and experience to the holding midfield position! Guillermo Barros Schelotto is amazing with the ball and on set plays! Frankie Hejduk can still terrorize teams as an attacking right back!
Question marks: Can Danny O'Rourke make the transition from holding mid to centerback? Is this the year Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers break into the elite corps among MLS attackers? Can they and Alejandro Moreno finish off enough of Schelotto's serves? Has defender Chad Marshall regained his confidence after two rough seasons?
Quote: "Brian Carroll has come in and supplied what I was looking for in midfield. He's been very solid."
-- Coach Sigi Schmid on the former D.C. United midfielder acquired in a trade.



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