By Ridge Mahoney
As was the case in 2011, five Eastern teams will make the playoffs, but under a revamped format no longer will teams cross over in the postseason for which Houston and Sporting Kansas City are the best bets.
The 2012 season in the Eastern Conference might resemble dual escalators, with one heading down and the other up.
Sporting Kansas City won the regular-season title but lost in the conference final to Houston, and both of those teams seem capable of rising again to the top. New York could go either way but down looks more likely, and so might too be the case for Philly. Goalkeeping questions cloud the prospects for both teams.
Toronto FC and Chicago are hoping to ride encouraging signs to greater heights, and a smidge of improvement last year for a banged-up D.C. United offers hope that better health will mean better results. Columbus has changed a few faces yet still looks solid, and expansion Montreal and New England take on the world with ex-players making their debuts as head coaches.
More intraconference games and an unbalanced schedule will lessen the travel grind for teams on the East Coast; for example, Montreal hosts San Jose, Los Angeles and Seattle but does not travel to play those teams away. L’Impact also opens the season at the Olympic Stadium before moving into a renovated Saputo Stadium June 16.
In the playoffs, the conference champion plays the winner of a one-game, wild-card knockout between the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, and the second- and third-place finishers also meet in a two-game series. The survivors advance to another two-match series to determine who plays in MLS Cup.
1. HOUSTON – As the latest team to get its own place, the Dynamo will open with a six-game road swing while BBVA Compass Stadium is completed. Last year’s strong finish that landed a spot in MLS Cup opposite the Galaxy, tacked onto a fully fit Brad Davis -- who led MLS with 16 assists yet watched the final on crutches -- lends belief Houston can top this bunch. Keeper Tally Hall seems poised to join the league’s elite, and Geoff Cameron is a budding star at centerback. There are concerns up front, where Brian Ching turns 34 in May and another option is needed beyond Will Bruin.
2. SPORTING KANSAS CITY – A regular-season conference title plus the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park in 2011 has everyone connected to SKC salivating about 2012, which could signal the re-birth of Bobby Convey. Consigned to left back during much of his time in San Jose he’ll get first dibs at replacing Omar Bravo at left mid in a potent triangle that also includes keystone Julio Cesar and catalyst Graham Zusi. The front three of Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong (23 goals combined) can make their own goals as well as feast on service. Aurilien Collin anchors a solid defense.
3. COLUMBUS – The Crew may miss the 13 goals scored by Andrés Mendoza but not his selfish attitude. Olman Vargas is first choice to replace him up top, and his fate will depend on the passes provided by another addition, Milovan Mirosevic, as well as Eddie Gaven, now that Robbie Rogers has headed to Leeds. Defenders Chad Marshall and Carlos Mendes (ex-Red Bull) and keeper Will Hesmer offer considerable experience, and younger guys like Dilly Duka, Rich Balchan, Tony Tchani and Ben Speas are eager to prove they belong. All that maturing youth could produce a fast finish.
4. D.C. UNITED – Much of the 2011 season was consumed by “what ifs,” which ranged what the team could do if its impact players were healthy to its ultimate fate, i.e., if it stays in town or leaves. A two-year lease extension at RFK doesn’t solve or change anything but genuine optimism can be found in the preseason goalscoring form of newcomer Hamdi Salihi, whose partnership with Dwayne De Rosario could be among the league’s must-see features. Still, playoffs depend on if Emiliano Dudar can meld with centerback Dejan Jakovic, catalysts Branko Boskovic and Chris Pontius can stay healthy, and the middle is solidified by Perry Kitchen and/or Marcelo Saragosa.
5. PHILADELPHIA – Zac MacMath, with seven-plus games of MLS experience, takes over in goal for Faryd Mondragon, who left after an excellent debut season for his native Colombia. The bigger hole to fill is that of Sebastian Le Toux, shipped off to Vancouver after scoring 25 goals and 20 assists in two seasons. Those figures fall into the laps of newcomers Josue Martinez, Lionard Pajoy and Gabriel Gomez, as well as returnees Roger Torres, the midfield manipulator, and Danny Mwanga, the powerful striker for whom the future is right now, and Freddy Adu, the enigma of American soccer.
6. CHICAGO – This season may hinge on the hinges of German defender Arne Friedrich, whose ouchy knees have limited him to 15 games since 2010, and none in the past 12 months. He can mentor young stud Jalil Anibaba. Midseason additions of Sebastian Grazzini and Pavel Pardo last year revamped the midfield, but trusting the center to Pardo (age 36 in July) and the creaky Friedrich is risky. Offseason signing Rafael Robayo has the wheels and workrate to contribute. If Dominic Oduro can’t match his career-best of 12 goals, much of Marco Pappa’s magic will go to waste unless others step forward.
7. TORONTO FC – Midseason signings Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans certainly strengthened TFC last year, yet still it scratched out only six wins. This time around, Coach Aron Winter has added central defenders Geovanny Caicedo and Miguel Aceval to cut down a league-high 59 goals. The underrated Adrian Cann – who played 12 games before suffering a torn ACL -- resumed training two weeks ago. In Ryan Johnson and Joao Plata, TFC has the hammer and the scalpel, respectively, to set up Koevermans, assuming that central mid Julian da Guzman can maintain the good form he displayed at times in 2011.
8. NEW YORK – A new centerback combination of Markus Holgersson and Wilman Conde (ex-Fire) and confusion in goal, from whence all three 2011 performers have departed, render the Red Bulls in a fuzzy uncertainty. Youngsters Ryan Meara and Jeremy Vuolo took turns in the net during preseason. There should be scoring with Kenny Cooper paired with Thierry Henry up top, and Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards creating chances from the flanks. Visa problems have deprived Luke Rodgers of a proper preseason so his impact is hard to project, as is that of Rafael Marquez, he of the spotty performances and critical comments that rocked an already leaky boat.
9. MONTREAL – A rookie head coach of an expansion team is a blueprint for disaster, right? Maybe not. Jesse Marsch learned his trade playing for D.C. United, Chicago, and Chivas USA under the tutelage of Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley and Dave Sarachan. Marsch has Donovan Ricketts in goal, Bobby Burling and Shavar Thomas and Matteo Ferrari on the back line, Canadian international Patrice Bernier and league veteran Davy Arnaud in midfield, and Justin Braun and Eduardo Sebrango up top. By the time No. 1 SuperDraft pick Andrew Wenger finishes his schoolwork at Duke and joins up full-time, maybe a big name has signed on.
10. NEW ENGLAND – The other ex-MLS-player-turned-rookie head coach, former Rev defender Jay Heaps, has inherited a stylish attack and shabby defense. Stalwarts Shalrie Joseph and Matt Reis offer ability and experience, and USA midfielder Benny Feilhaber joined MLS last season in time to score six goals and register four assists, but the 58 goals allowed last year must be severely reduced. The signing of Colombian defender John Lozano is a start. Rookie Kelyn Rowe lit it up in preseason but he needs to find a spot on the field. Much may depend on whether another Colombian newcomer, forward Fernando Cárdenas, can find the net consistently.