It's time, once again, to stick my neck out where it doesn't belong and fire up the trusty old Prognostication Engine. We'll begin our journey through the MLS Season-to-Come with a look at the Eastern Conference . . .
Last year, the East was a dominant force, claiming five of the eight playoff spots. Then the fifth-placed side in the East, the Red Bulls, displaced to the Western half of the playoff bracket, managed to take all comers and advance to MLS Cup. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the West, but probably an indication of a trend that looks likely to continue this year.
First, let's get the obvious out of the way. The Parity Police pretty much guarantee that things are going to be close, and if anybody, and I do mean anybody, suffers a couple of keys injuries, they may be left foundering by the wayside. With that said, there are three teams with strong, settled defenses, but there are only two that boast measurably deeper rosters than the rest, Chicago and Columbus. But who gets the nod between the two?
1. Chicago Fire - Burn, Baby Burn!
Chicago's defense gets them the nod over the Crew. Sure they've got a couple of aging vets leading the attack, but these were never guys that relied upon speed. Besides, they've got a cadre of young, quick attackers to field around them. Pair that with as solid a defense as MLS can boast, and you've got my pre-season favorites not just for the East, but probably the whole shebang as well. Fingers crossed, United fans, that such predictions fell Chicago much as they did DC last year.
2. Columbus Crew - Crewzin!
The returning champs have lost a decent young midfielder and their coach, but return much the same crew (punnery alert!) that raided the league trophy cabinet last year. That said, I think they're more vulnerable to injury than the Fire are. Similarly, I don't think their attack or defense are quite as strong as Chicago. Add in the fact that they won't be sneaking up on anybody this year, and 2009 may prove a tougher nut to crack than 2008. Still, they are a solid side, back to front, and should have enough about them to easily qualify for the playoffs.
Way to step out on a limb, big guy!
Alright, so I don't think I'd get much argument on the top two. Perhaps some might put the Crew above the Fire, but I think those two are clearly the class of the East. But where to go behind them? It's pretty much a crap-shoot, as the remaining five teams all have questions surrounding vital areas of the team. Will KC find any consistent scoring? How much will the loss of Parkhurst and Twellers' continuing injury troubles rock the Revs? Can TFC, NY, and DC keep the goals out long enough to score a few of their own? With those troubling issues in mind, I'll nominate the teams that have the most settled defenses to win out over the long haul.
3. Kansas City Wizards - How Thin is Too Thin?
There are two big questions that need to be addressed if KC are going to maintain this lofty perch. #1: Can they remain healthy? KC look really thin and/or really young in a lot of places, so a few key injuries might impact them more than other sides. #2: Can they find the goals? KC needs consistent scoring to boost them from playoff scrapper to comfortable qualification.
4. New England Revolution - I'm Givin' Her All She's Got, Captain!
Yes, the loss of Parkhurst will have a big impact. Yes, Twellman's injury woes will be a handicap. But Twellman is always injured, and the Revs do have some guys that might step into the Parkhurstian void. I'm not claiming they're going to be a dominant force as in years past, but Nicol, in true "Scotty" fashion, always manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat and keep the old wreck rolling on dental floss, bubblegum, and little to no financial backing.
The final three all look to be in the same, slowly leaking old barge. All can boast a nice array of attacking weaponry, but start to look more and more a shambles as you progress towards the back line. Sure, they'll make things exciting with lots of goals, but more than their fair share will be goals against. Can any of them find the solidity to make a sustained playoff run? Probably all of them can. But far be it from me to pick which one. So I'll just stick my finger in the wind and go with . . .
5. Toronto FC - Home, Sweet Home! (Eh?)
The Liverpool wannabes are still scrambling to fill the defensive void, but even if they can't, they'll still boast the benefit of some strong home cooking and a dynamic attacking midfield to boot. I do wonder if the sentiment of the support might finally turn at Fortress BMO if TFC can't manage to make a sustained playoff push this year. Maybe Liverpool might not be the most apt comparison. How about Newcastle?
6. DC United - United They Fall?
Yes, yes. Perhaps there's a little bit of homer-ism going on here by keeping United out of the basement, but I'm going to do a little bit of extended prognostication. United will struggle mightily in the early going, shipping goals in mind-boggling numbers and causing major FO shakeups. But the summer will bring the acquisition of a stabilizing presence on the back line. Never too far out of the picture, United rallies, even closing on a playoff position, before the CONCACRAP Champions' League rears its ugly mug and age catches up with them.
7. New York Red Bulls - Tinker Toys?
Osorio's rep as a tinkerman continues with a massive off-season revamp of last year's surprise MLS Cup finalists. The trouble is, I'm not certain that the changes will pay off. Yes, they've brought in some foreign vets, but we saw how well that worked out for DC last year, didn't we? Similarly, they've added speed, but what about speed at the back? Oh, there will be goals. I'm just not certain that Osorio is going to be liking which net the majority end up in.
Okay, so that's the way I see the East. What do you think? Got a beef with my lineup? Want to share your own? Feel free. That's what the comments are for, people!
Tomorrow, we'll head West, for a look at how the mighty Prognostication Engine predicts things will pan out.
No, that was most definitely not a Gold Rush pun. Honestly!