2009 MLS Preview: Eastern Conference

1 - Columbus
Warzycha takes over top job at top team

One might forgive fans of the Columbus Crew if they feel somewhat aggrieved despite celebrating their first MLS Cup triumph just four months ago.

Head coach Sigi Schmid, who in three seasons transformed the Crew from bottom-feeder to top dog, bolted for Seattle, and in effect took midfielder Brad Evans with him. In return the Crew got only $25,000 as compensation to free Schmid from a non-compete clause in his contract, and $75,000 in allocation money.

The Crew also started the season as the opponent in home openers for Houston, Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA in three of its first four games.

Every team goes through spates of injuries in preseason, but Pat Noonan wrenched his back moving stuff at his house, and minor injuries delayed Adam Moffat's recovery from the ACL tear that sidelined him last May.

Not surprising, then, that Robert Warzycha isn't sleeping so well.

"It has not been easy, to be honest with you," says the former Crew midfielder who served as an assistant for three different head coaches before taking over. "I know one thing, I can't sleep from 10 to eight like I used to. I keep waking up at five o'clock in the morning, and wondering why. That comes with the job, I guess."

His job is keeping the Crew on top, and most of the championship components are still in place. Though it lost Schmid, Crew management upgraded dual MVP (regular season and MLS Cup) winner Guillermo Barros Schelotto to Designated Player status and re-signed Defender of the Year Chad Marshall to a new contract after he went on trial in Germany.

"This is a team that did a lot of good things last year but that's no guarantee for this year," says forward Alejandro Moreno, an eight-year veteran who set a career mark with nine goals and won his third MLS Cup, all with different teams. "We all appreciate what Sigi did for us and for the club, but this is another chance to step on the field with another coach and show the kind of players we have on the field and in the locker room."

Danny O'Rourke endured some rough outings last year while moving from holding mid to center back, but by midseason he and Marshall were among the best tandems in the league. Frankie Hejduk buzzes up and down the right side, Gino Padula hits accurate balls from his left-back position.

Moffat should be ready by April to rejoin Brian Carroll in midfield, yet Emmanuel Ekpo played 17 games (seven starts) last year and gained valuable experience with Nigeria at the Olympic Games. He can either play in the middle or out wide, which might occasionally slide Eddie Gaven into the middle.

While Warzycha admits the Crew won't be surprising anybody, as it did last year, he believes there's ample room for flexibility and creativity within his system. The focal point may be Schelotto, who led MLS with 19 assists, but he is just one component.

"I think teams figured out how we play, with the analysis and things like ProZone, but obviously there are individual abilities on the field,"  Warzycha says. "The players are not computers. Even if teams have watched us, somebody, each game, would step up and do something special, and they did not catch this on the videotape.

"Some of the things we did in the final against New York were unbelievable, some of the goals Alejandro scored were different. You cannot always figure these things out."

Last Season
Record:  17-7-6 (57 points). Finish: 1st in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: MLS Cup champion.

Eric Brunner (Miami FC), Alex Grendi (Univ. of Pennsylvania).

2 - Chicago
Banking on pair of aging stars, strong defense

Although few Americans can match Brian McBride's illustrious career - three World Cups, more than a 100 goals in MLS and English Premier League play - he has yet to win a league title. And time is running out.

McBride turns 37 in June. He returned from Fulham in the middle of the 2008 season and scored six goals in 14 games, including the Chicago Fire's lone goal in a 2-1 semifinal loss to eventual champion Columbus. The defeat marked the third time in four years that the Fire came one game short of reaching MLS Cup.

Chicago's other big star is the Mexican Cuauhtemoc Blanco, whose first two seasons of dazzling play and crowd-drawing earned him a raise to nearly $3 million a year, placing him behind only David Beckham among the league's top earners. (McBride is earning $385,000.)

Blanco turned 36 in January. Nevertheless, Coach Denis Hamlett is confident the pair of oldsters will deliver. From McBride, he hails leadership.

"It's huge for us having McBride here from the get-go," Hamlett told the Sports Network. "I think he's been instrumental in terms of how our preseason has gone. He has set the tone in terms of how he goes about business every day."

As for Blanco, who has 11 goals and 18 assists in 41 regular-season games since arriving in the middle of the 2007 season, Hamlett believes his teammates can make even better use of his clever passing.

"This year our guys have to understand a little bit more what his strengths are," Hamlett added. "His ability is to make the final pass. If he has the ball, you just make sure you pay attention because he will find you. He is such a threat with both feet, he can make those passes."

Expected to inject youthful vigor into the Fire attack is 22-year-old Patrick Nyarko, the Ghanaian out of Virginia Tech who played only nine games his rookie year while struggling to adjust and coping with injury. But he enjoyed a strong preseason and looks set to complement McBride on the frontline while Chris Rolfe, 26, who led the team with nine goals and had seven assists, penetrates from the midfield.

Aside from Nyarko seeing more field time, the Fire won't differ much from last season, with Justin Mapp attacking from the left and John Thorrington expected to follow up on his first productive season since joining the Fire in 2005.

During the preseason, while Rolfe was recovering from illness, Marco Pappa made a case for himself. The 21-year-old Guatemalan, on a one-and-a-half year loan from Municipal since the middle of last season, played in six games in 2008.

Logan Pause is the defensive midfielder who ensures that Blanco can focus on the attack, and behind Pause is a defense that gave up only 33 goals last season, second lowest in the league behind Houston's 32.

At the center of that defense are two of the league's best: Colombian Wilman Conde and the giant Bakary Soumare.  They are flanked on the left by Gonzalo Segares, a Costa Rican international, and Brandon Prideaux, who upped his game after being picked up on waivers from D.C. United before the 2008 season. Jon Busch was named 2008 Goalkeeper of the year.

Last Season
Record:  13-10-7 (46 points).
Finish: 2nd in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: reached semifinals.

Baggio Husidic (UIC), Stefan Dimitrov (Concordia, N.Y.).

3 - New York
Surprise finalist 'strengthened' all-around

Coach Juan Carlos Osorio's success with the New York Red Bulls recalls how Napoleon assessed the virtues of candidates for General. After listening to his advisors list their attributes, Napoleon would respond with, "That's all very well, but is he lucky?"

Osorio, so often seen scribbling frantically into a notebook on the sideline, was hailed my some media as a master tactician for guiding a sub-.500 team to the 2008 MLS Cup. His coaching peers were less impressed, asking what was so masterful about bunkering down and counterattacking. And they were quick to attribute the Red Bulls' runner-up finish to plain luck.

The Red Bulls, who won just one of their last six regular-season games, qualified for the postseason because neither Colorado nor D.C. United won their final regular-season games. (D.C. United hit the framework three times in their loss and Colorado allowed a 90th-minute goal.)

In the playoffs came a 4-1 aggregate win over two-time defending champion Houston and a 1-0 semifinal victory of Real Salt Lake, three of whose 24 shots hit the woodwork.

Luck? If so, the Red Bulls (née MetroStars) were overdue.

For however impressive their resumes, previous coaches Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Bora Milutinovic, Carlos Quieroz and World Cup winner Carlos Alberto Parreira failed to reach MLS Cup.

Colombian-American Osorio arrived with little head-coaching experience: half a season with the Chicago and a short stint at Colombia's Millonarios.

Fortune didn't smile on Osorio at the outset. Early in the season, hot young striker Jozy Altidore moved to Spain and injury-plagued DP Claudio Reyna retired. Osorio's foreign signings made little impact. And goalkeeper Jon Conway and defender Jeff Parke were suspended for using a banned over-the-counter drug.

When goalkeeper Danny Cepero not only proved a capable replacement for Conway, but scored a 80-yard goal in a clutch 3-1 win over the Crew, it signaled that fortunes had turned.

At MLS Cup 2008, the Bulls responded to the accusations of playing defensive-minded soccer by taking the game to the Columbus Crew and dominating first-half play before eventually falling, 3-1, to a team that in the regular season accumulated 57 points compared to the Bulls' 39.

After the 2008 season, Soccer America rated the league's top players by position. Only three Red Bulls appeared among the 80 players: Juan Pablo Angel, named No. 1 striker; Dave van den Bergh, the No. 1 left midfielder and Mike Magee, No. 8 on the forwards' depth chart.

Van den Bergh has moved to FC Dallas and Magee to Los Angeles. The Colombian Angel was re-signed as a Designated Player and at $1.8 million. With 33 in 47 games, Angel, 33, is MLS's leading scorer over the last two seasons.

The Red Bulls' biggest signing is former Barcelona and Real Madrid veteran Albert Celades, who will play at defensive midfield or on the backline, which is bolstered by Mike Petke, who spent the first five years (1998-2002) of his MLS career with the MetroStars, Salvadoran left back Alfredo Pacheco and Costa Rican right back Carlos Johnson.

Khano Smith, the 27-year-old Bermudan who arrives from New England, is set to replace van den Bergh on the right wing opposite Dane Richards. Van den bergh's  trade delivered speedy forward Dominic Oduro.

A key to the Red Bulls' attack is the rejuvenation of Venezuelan Jorge Rojas, who lost his starting spot by last year's playoff run.

"We strengthened the team in every position," Osorio said. "We have a well-balanced team, a better team in my opinion."

Last Season
Record:  10-11-9 (39 points).
Finish: 5th in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: MLS Cup runner-up.

Albert Celades (Real Zaragoza), Carlos Johnson (Bryne), Alfredo Pacheco (FAS), Dominic Oduro (FC Dallas), Mike Petke (Colorado Rapids), Khano Smith (New England Revolution), Jeremy Hall (Univ. of Maryland), Nick Zimmerman (James Madison Univ.), Alec Dufty (Univ. of Evansville).

4 - New England
Revs start season with pieces unsettled

For the first time in recent memories, New England went into preseason not as an MLS Cup finalist, and strange indeed did it feel to those involved.

"It's no fun, full stop. You want to be there. I didn't even want to watch it," said head coach Steve Nicol of the Columbus-New York meeting in last year's final, the first one since 2004 that didn't include the Revs.

Nicol, though, hasn't sensed any extra motivation in his players this year as he goes about replacing defensive linchpin Michael Parkhurst and midfielder Khano Smith

 "No different than normal," he said of the team's mood a few days before New England opened the season opener at San Jose. "I think personnel has changed, I hope personality-wise as far as the team's concerned we haven't. Parkhurst was obviously a big part for us, and to get as safe and secure as we were with him it's going to take collaboration from a lot of players, not just one player coming in and doing the same job."

Injuries to Taylor Twellman (neck), Steve Ralston (quadriceps), Gabriel Badilla (back) and Mauricio Castro (hamstring) impaired the team's preseason preparations, which caused some concern about how the team would perform early in the season.

"We're still looking to add pieces," says Chris Albright. "I don't think you'll see our full group until a few weeks into the season. Last year, we asked the young guys to do a lot, and those guys are a year older and they know what it takes to win and lose in this league."

The team's young Gambians, Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi started a combined 29 games. Amaechi Igwe, Chris Tierney, Kheli Dube and Pat Phelan all earned at least a handful of starts last year.

The 2008 Revs scored 40 goals and conceded 43 to mark only the second time since Nicol arrived in 2002 they had finished with a minus goal differential. Twellman missed nearly half the season (16 games) and Ralston played in just 21 of 30, and still they led the team with eight goals apiece.

Though Parkhurst is gone, New England retains much strength down the middle, with Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz anchoring central midfield behind Ralston and Twellman and keeper Matt Reis returning in goal.

Yet the shift to a 4-4-2 radically alters the responsibilities of the flank players. Coordination between Albright and Nyassi on the right and whoever lines up on the left will be critical to the Revs this season.

"I'm looking forward to going up and down and doing what I do well," says Albright, who was traded out of a four-man back line by Los Angeles to the Revs in 2007. "That's where your advantage is in a 4-4-2, out wide.

"We played 4-4-2 about seven or eight times last year out of the 40 games we played, and not everybody understood their role in that formation. I think being able to train with it and play it every game, players will understand their roles a lot better and ultimately make us better."

Heaps played all along the back line last year as the team toggled between three-man and four-man systems in league and international play this year. He's penciled in to play centrally with a defender to be determined: rookies Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes, 2008 SuperDraft first-round pick Rob Valentino, or a new acquisition are all possibilities.

 "We're in a position where we're going to be solid but for a while we're going to have to play a couple of young guys," says Nicol.

Last Season
Record:  12-11-7 (43 points).
Finish: 3rd in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: reached quarterfinals.

Mike Videira (Hamliton Academical), Kevin Alston (Indiana Univ.), Darrius Barnes (Duke Univ.), Zach Simmons (Univ. of Massachusetts).

5 - Kansas city
Wizards believe minor changes enough

One characteristic of MLS is, despite its financial strictures and byzantine player mechanisms, it does pay its players on time. Not a big deal, you think? Think again.

Such is not the case in many countries, such as Argentina, where aside from Boca Juniors and River Plate, and a few other clubs, missed payrolls aren't unusual. Out of one such dispute came midfielder Santiago Hirsig, who will direct the attack for Kansas City this season after leaving San Lorenzo.

"We felt that we needed to get stronger in the midfield still," said technical director Peter Vermes of the Wizards, who parted ways with another Argentine midfielder, the talented but oft-injured Carlos Marinelli, during the offseason. "We needed someone who could play a couple of positions. He can play in the middle or on the right."

Hirsig shares that aspect with Davy Arnaud, who moved into a central playmaking role last season to good effect. He's also played out wide, so with Arnaud and another creative influence, Roger Espinoza, on the other flank, and Claudio Lopez playing up top with Josh Wolff, Wizards head coach Curt Onalfo can unleash more weapons than most teams.

"Santiago has this playmaker label attached to his name, but I think he's more of a box-to-box guy," says defender Jimmy Conrad, a member of the Wizards since 2003. "He gets up and down, he's a good runner, he makes good passes. One of the criticisms about our game last year or in general has been our possession. He knows when to slow it down or speed up the tempo.

"One thing that jumps out at me that's different than past preseasons is we have a set lineup. Last preseason, we started out in a 3-5-2 and we've obviously changed a lot since then."

Last year Kansas City scored just 37 goals, third worst in MLS, and among the top scorers was Conrad with six. That tied him with Lopez for second place behind Wolff, who netted seven. Lopez accepted a restructured contract, and will earn $180,000 this season, a steep cut from his Designated Player salary of $720,000 in 2008.

Kansas City won't have striker Adam Cristman, acquired from New England in a trade, for much of the spring. Hobbled by a toe injury during 2008, he suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his left foot during preseason and will be sidelined until May at least.

Aside from Hirsig, the only newcomer given a real shot to crack the starting lineup is ex-Notre Dame defender Matt Besler, who vied in preseason with Aaron Holbein for the slot alongside Conrad. There's some offensive depth with forward Abe Thompson and attacker Herculez Gomez; Scottish midfielder Kevin Souter played some very impressive games in his first MLS season, and rookie Graham Zusi appears capable of contributing if need be.

"What I like about both of our rookies, Besler and Zusi, is they have very high soccer IQs," says Conrad. "You don't have to tell them something 3,000 times. You tell them once and they adapt."

Kansas City will play one more season at CommunityAmerica Ballpark as construction continues for its own facility, scheduled for completion in time for the 2010 season. "That will be exciting, no doubt," says Onalfo, whose team compiled a 9-2-4 record at home last year. "We have a pretty good atmosphere where we are now but nothing beats having your own stadium, obviously. But it's our job regardless of who we play and where we play to get results."

Last Season
Record:  11-10-9 (42 points).
Finish: 4th in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: reached quarterfinals.

Santiago Hirsig (San Lorenzo), Adam Cristman (New England Revolution), Matt Besler (Univ. of Notre Dame), Graham Zusi (Univ. of Maryland).

6 - DC United
A return to glory days or dark years?

In MLS's 13-year history, D.C. United has won four titles, finished runner-up once, and although the last crown came in 2004, it was regular-season champ in 2006 and 2007 - while playing some darn good soccer.

Then came a surprisingly awful 2008. D.C. United entered the season the favorite, but didn't even reach the playoffs. The pessimists among D.C. United fans are surely recalling the 2000 season, which opened a dark chapter after the club's glorious beginning.

Under Coach Bruce Arena, D.C. United won the league's first two titles, led by the brilliant playmaker Marco Etcheverry, in 1996 and 1997. It finished runner-up in Year 3, and lifted its third title, in 1999, with Coach Thomas Rongen using mostly the same stars who won the first two.

But then, just when dynasty seemed an OK word to throw around, came the dark years. In four seasons, from 2000 to 2003, D.C. United reeled off losing records.

So was 2008 an aberration, or the beginning of another slide?

D.C. United management didn't blame the coach for United losing half its games so Tom Soehn returns for a third year. On the road, United compiled a pathetic of 2-11-2 record.

It could be that Soehn's squad was stretched too thin as it competed in the Concacaf Champions League, the SuperLiga and the U.S. Open Cup, which it won. Those competitions added 17 competitive games to D.C. United's calendar. MLS Cup 2008 finalists New York and Columbus didn't face such a burden. And in 2009, D.C. United will be spared the SuperLiga obligation, and will participate in the CCL again, as Open Cup winners.

Brazilian Emilio Luciano slumped early in the season and finished with 11 goals, compared to the league-leading 20 he scored in his first MLS season, in 2007. But he scored 18 goals in 41 total games in all competitions. Another Brazilian, left midfielder Fred, was slowed by injuries in 2008 after a stellar debut season in 2007.

In 2009, Luciano is reunited with Argentine playmaker Christian Gomez, who had been sent to Colorado to make room for Argentine World Cup veteran Marcelo Gallardo.

"It's great, it's like he never left in the locker room," Clyde Simms, Gomez's midfield deputy, told MLSnet.com. "On the field, he's the same player I remember two years ago. He's great with the ball and his awareness is unbelievable."

Gomez, now 34, was a key to D.C. United's title run in 2004 after he was acquired in midseason and was league MVP in 2006. Gallardo, earning $1.9 million, showed just flashes of brilliance while playing only 15 games because of injuries.

He left at the season's end, as did two other disappointing 2008 foreign signings, Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martinez - a pair of defenders on a team that conceded 51 goals, second worst in the league behind the Los Angeles Galaxy's 62.

To bolster the backline, United signed 6-foot-2 central back Dejan Jakovic, who has one Canadian cap and played for Canada's U-23 team in Olympic qualifying. He arrives from Red Star Belgrade, where he played three games in the 2008.

Perhaps the most intriguing player to watch will be 35-year-old Jaime Moreno, who enters his 14th season as the league's all-time leading scorer and was part of all four D.C. United championship teams, as well as the lean years.

Last Season
Record:  11-15-4 (37 points).
Finish: 6th in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: Did not qualify.

Andrew Jacobsen (Lorient), Dejan Jakovic (Red Star Belgrade), Ange N'Silu (Le Mont-sur-Lausanne), Christian Gomez (Colorado Rapids), Josh Wicks (Los Angeles Galaxy), Anthony Peters (West Virginia Wesleyan Univ.), Chris Pontius (UC Santa Barbara), Rodney Wallace (Univ. of Maryland), Brandon Barklage (Saint Louis Univ.), Milos Kocic (Loyola, Md.).

7 - Toronto FC
TFC eyes first playoff spot in third season

Heading into this second season as an MLS head coach, John Carver feels a lot better about where his team is headed compared to 12 months ago, which was nowhere.

"This time last year I didn't have a clue who would be starting, so it shows how much progress we have made," said Carver a few days before the season opener at Kansas City. Adding a dynamic playmaker like Dwayne De Rosario simplifies the process of selecting a lineup, yet more progress will be needed if TFC is to reach the playoffs, though it won nine games in 2008, three more than it did in its debut season.

Carver believes that the playoffs are an achievable goal. "Once you get in there," says Carver of New York's amazing three-game run to the title game, "anything can happen."

One could say the same when De Rosario is on the ball, and his unorthodox flicks and mazy bursts on the dribble grace TFC with additional attacking elements to those of Amado Guevara and Rohan Ricketts. Carver's greatest task may be finding sufficient support, and veteran Carl Robinson, who turns 33 this year, may not be able to fill all the gaps left by his pell-mell midfield mates.

Might that mean a one-forward alignment, with rookie Sam Cronin assisting Robinson, Ricketts or Guevara occasionally on the bench? No doubt Carver will tinker with those possibilities as well as others during a long season that will again include Concacaf Champions League qualifying matches.

"Dwayne is a fantastic player, but he's one piece of the jigsaw," said Robinson, a Welsh international who declined offers in England to stay with TFC. "There's a lot of pressure on him coming in because people will be expecting him to score 20 goals but the players won't. We know he's a match-winner, he can turn games that are tight for us ... we know he brings quality to the table and adds to the quality we already have."

Though he isn't projected to start many games, Carver and director of soccer Mo Johnston also persuaded striker Danny Dichio, who turns 35 in October, to supplement Chad Barrett and newcomer Pablo Vitti.

Barrett scored four goals in 13 games after arriving from Chicago in the deal that sent Brian McBride's rights the other way, and Vitti, 23, is a former Argentina U-20 international who comes to MLS from Ukrainian club Chernomorets Odessa, where he'd been on loan from Independiente Sante Fe.

"I am a technical player," says Vitti, who scored for Independiente in a friendly against TFC at BMO Field last year. "I always try to play well with the ball on the ground. I will have to adapt a bit to the league and what the team demands of me. I am not use to such a physical style but my time in Ukraine was the same so I don't think I will have problems, I will just need to try and adapt."

Radical turnover and upheaval - nine players missed a league match because of international callups - marked the team's 2008 season, yet TFC compiled 35 points as compared to its debut season total of 25. Another 10-point jump would land it in the playoffs; that's optimistic but doable, since defender Adrian Serioux is expected to strengthen the back as Vitti and De Rosario power up the attack.

Carver says simply, "We've got to kick on now."

Last Season
Record:  9-13-8 (25 points) Finish: 7th in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: did not qualify.

Pablo Vitti (Chernomorets Odessa), Emmanuel Gomez (Samger), Amadou Sanyang (Real de Banjul), Dwayne De Rosario (Houston Dynamo), Adrian Serioux (FC Dallas), Sam Cronin (Wake Forest Univ.), O'Brian White (Univ. of Connecticut), Stefan Frei (Univ. of California).

(This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)    

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