Before last season started, the consensus was that despite the structures put in place to force parity in the league, the balance of power continued to reside in the West. Looking at the final outcome, with San Jose topping the Supporters Shield standings and LA Galaxy lifting MLS Cup, you may think, "business as usual".
But while the uneven conference schedule possibly allowed the better positioned Eastern sides to rack up points a little easier than their Western rivals (New York for example, had a record points year without ever really looking dominant, en route to a third place finish), there was genuine quality in the East - and regular season champions Sporting KC even managed to end Seattle's US Open Cup dominance in a long night at the stadium-formerly-known-as-Livestrong-Park. Sporting built on a successful debut year at their new home, though they lost out to Houston Dynamo in the playoffs. The Dynamo, coached by playoff specialist Dom Kinnear, opened their new BBVA Compass stadium, and began to build a fortress reputation of their own as they went unbeaten there for a run that stretched through the playoffs, as Kinnear once again saw his men peak at the right time to win the Eastern Conference title from a 5th place regular season finish.
Looking at this year, the loss of Espinoza, and (temporarily at least) Kamara to the Premier League are potentially big losses for Sporting, whatever allocation money can do for them - but Peter Vermes has built a team with great spirit and organization who should go close again. The likes of New York and Chicago have made eye-catching trades that look top heavy on the first XI's (so let's see where injuries leave them), while Kinnear has brought in more speed at Houston without a lot of turnover. If they maintain their home form, I'd expect them to finish higher this year. D.C. United look like an enigmatic prospect this season - with Payne gone and Olsen entrenched, they've never been more the latter's team, but a more experienced squad needs to prove they can kick on now. Their fans will also be hoping rumors of progress on a custom stadium reach fruition.
Of the other teams, Ryan Nelsen looks to have quite the untangling task on his hands at Toronto before we truly talk of building, and Philadelphia have made some solid trades in the off-season, but are perhaps still a little early in the Hackworth reign to assess. Montreal and Columbus will be hoping that the momentum of the second half of 2012 continues, though the former must bed in a new coach to a side who began to find their shape and style as the expansion year went on. But if they do so, and add some variety to their play through the middle, they may join the Crew as the best equipped to crack last year's top five.
Predictions? That's what we have guest commentators for... Our regular cast of fan reps, bloggers, podcasters and beat writers join us to add their opinions on their teams, and of course we hope you'll chip in with your own predictions in our comments section.
All listed kick-offs are Eastern Time.
Last Season: 4th (57 pts); eliminated at home by Houston Dynamo in Wild Card game
Players in: F Maicon Santos (12/7/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 1); M Joel Lindpere (1/4/13 - trade from New York); M Jeff Larentowicz (1/16/13 - trade from Colorado); M Brendan King (1/31/13 - free); M Dilly Duka (2/4/13 - trade from Columbus)
Players out: GK Jay Nolly (12/3/12 - option declined); M Pável Pardo (1/19/13 - retired); F Guillermo Franco (1/21/13 - option declined); M Álvaro Fernández (1/25/13 - loaned to Al-Rayyan); F Federico Puppo (1/26/13 - loaned to LDU Quito); F Dominic Oduro (2/4/13 - trade to Columbus); D Tony Walls (2/22/13 - waived)
Coach: Frank Klopas (took over in middle of 2011 season; starting second full season)
Opening game: LA Galaxy (A), Sunday March 3rd, 5pm (ET) (Univision)
Guardian view: Frank Klopas fared better than some of his rivals with his midterm reshuffle last year, after starting the season with the speed of Oduro and Nyarko ahead of a midfield spearheaded by playmaker Sebastian Grazzini. By midseason Grazzini was on his way out though and with defenses finding answers to Chicago's approach, by sitting deep to counter the front two's speed, Klopas began to change the angle and scope of the attack (a decision he could partly afford to make after rookie Austin Berry had a sterling year alongside Arne Friedrich in defense). Sherjill MacDonald came in up front, and hometown favorite Chris Rolfe returned to the team. There was also the addition of Alvaro Fernandez from Seattle, though perhaps the less said about that, the better. From a strong defensive base, the Fire enjoyed a strong Fall run and picked up the results that took them to the playoffs, though they had rather sputtered out by the time the Dynamo dumped them out in the wild card game on Halloween.
Still the bones are there for another push on this year. Chicago's midfield is likely to be stronger again, with the additions of the experienced Larentowicz and Lindpere. If Klopas can finally get the best out of Dilly Duka, the trade that sent Oduro to Columbus might be a shrewd one. It all points to a stronger base to attack from, but a question still remains about where the goals will come from. Maicon Santos started strongly for D.C. last season, but rather fell away. It may be asking a lot for him to contribute straight away. A lot depends on MacDonald finding the net more regularly in his first full season.
Dan Martin, Whiskey Brothers Aught Five, Chicago:
There's been a fair amount of movement in the Fire ranks this off-season, but in a close-to-final analysis I have trouble seeing it all as anything less than a net positive. Departures have cut dead weight (Alvaro Fernandez) and salary (Pavel Pardo) and trades have brought in needed reinforcements without sacrificing more than what seems a bare minimum of important parts. Acquiring proven MLS talent in Joel Lindpere and Jeff Larentowicz plus young talent that can immediately contribute in Dilly Duka, all in exchange for a total bill of Dominic Oduro and some assorted draft picks/international spots seems like great business.
In the draft, even with only a second-round pick Frank Klopas and company seem to have hit on a winner in former Cameroonian U-20 winger Yazid Atouba, who has impressed in preseason with 2 goals and boundless energy. Good depth has been ensured via the pickups of MLS journeyman forward Maicon Santos and midfielder Brendan King's return to Illinois from the Norwegian leagues. Several Fire veterans have stepped up to help with depth and/or challenge for a starting spot, as well.
These new additions have made for some entertaining preseason matches and the group shows improvement each time as the players get to know their teammates' habits – the squad has jelled right before the eyes of fans. I see the Fire as definitely improved since last season's first kick. There are some lingering concerns (defensive depth and the ever-present worries about goal production being the top worries), but if those can be dealt with I feel confident in predicting a top-two finish in the Eastern Conference.
Last Season: 6th (52 pts)
Players in: M Wil Trapp (12/13/12 - Homegrown); D Tyson Wahl (1/3/13 - free); D Chad Barson (1/10/13 - Homegrown); F Ryan Finley (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); D Gláuber (1/22/13 - Discovery); D/M Agustín Viana (1/28/13 - Discovery); F Dominic Oduro (2/4/13 - trade from Chicago); M Matías Sánchez (2/8/13 - Discovery); D Drew Beckie (2/15/13 - SuperDraft)
Players out: M Cole Grossman (11/19/12 - option declined); F Olman Vargas (11/19/12 - option declined); D Nemanja Vukovic (11/19/12 - option declined); D Rich Balchan (11/28/12 - option declined); D Julius James (11/28/12 - option declined); D Sebastián Miranda (11/28/12 - option declined); M Chris Birchall (11/28/12 - option declined); F Tommy Heinemann (11/28/12 - option declined); GK William Hesmer (11/28/12 - option declined); D Carlos Mendes (12/11/12 - signed with NY Cosmos); M Dilly Duka (2/4/13 - trade to Chicago)
Coach: Robert Warzycha (5th full season since taking over from Sigi Schmid in 2009)
Opening game: Chivas USA (A), Sat March 2nd, 10.30pm
Guardian view: Another team who had a season of two halves. The first was pretty tough viewing for Columbus fans, for whom the team's efficiency in converting their (limited) chances was pretty poor consolation for a very cautious approach. Perhaps the sight of the Crew cut adrift in the standings moved Warzycha to change the tempo in the summer, and the arrival of Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta transformed a season that could easily have been totally derailed by the tragic death of young midfielder Kirk Urso. Higuain's set piece prowess and the pair's goals suddenly turned the Crew into dangerous playoff contenders in the fall, only for them to finally run out of steam on the final stretch. A disappointing loss to D.C. did for their hopes, but the team definitely began to take shape in the final months of the season.
In the off-season Warzycha's discovery signings were intriguing. He brought in the big Brazilian Glauber to shore up the defense with some experience, as well as the much traveled Agustín Viana in midfield, and the Estudiantes midfielder Matias Sanchez. They also added the speed of striker Ryan Finley in the SuperDraft. Finley has pitched straight in to score in pre-season. He's not the only one - the Crew have been in goalscoring form in scrimmages and at the pre-season Disney Pro tournament in Orlando. A 4-0 win over Philadelphia was followed by a 5-2 scrimmage victory over Sporting KC. Never wise to read too much into pre-season form (New England went undefeated last year), but with the height they can throw at Higuain's set pieces, it's easy to see one potent weapon the Crew have going into the season. If the number 33 stays fit, they could improve their position this season.
Ben Hoelzel, Crew Union, Columbus Crew:
Something has been spotted around Crewville that we haven't seen in these parts for a long time: Optimism.
Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta joined the club late last season and set MLS on fire. I fully expect this duo to be one of the best attacking pairs in the league this year.
The midfield has gotten a complete make-over in the offseason. The most impressive signing was getting Matias Sanchez from Estudiantes to be a true holding midfielder that can play box to box. Then international journeyman Agustin Viana was brought in to play defensive midfielder (can also be deployed in the backline). To join the ever impressive Eddie Gaven on the flanks, the Crew made a deal to bring speed demon Dominic Oduro to Columbus. It may take some time for the new signing to gel together, but there is loads of potential.
Aside from goalkeeper Andy Gruenenbaum's breakout season, the normally stout Crew defense was less than impressive in 2012. However, Josh Williams had breakout year and Chad Marshall appears healthy and fit. Tyson Wahl will be shoring up the flank, and the Crew found themselves a big Brazilian in Glauber, signed from Rapid Bucuresti. With all the new signings, the guys listed above make for a fantastic starting XI fully capable of pushing for a top spot in the Eastern Conference. However, the bench is not very deep. A few injuries could put the boys in Yellow back in the basement.
Last Season: 2nd (58 pts); lost 4-2 (agg) to Houston Dynamo in Eastern Conference final
Players in: M John Thorrington (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Rafael (1/9/13 - loan from Bahia); F Michael Seaton (1/14/13 - Homegrown); M/F Syamsir Alam (1/25/13 - loan from CS Visé); F Casey Townsend (1/25/14 - trade from Chivas USA); D James Riley (2/14/13 - trade from Chivas USA); F Carlos Ruiz (2/20/13 - allocation)
Players out: M Branko Boskovic (11/21/12 - contract terminated); D Mike Chabala (12/3/12 - option declined); D Emiliano Dudar (12/3/12 - option declined); F Maicon Santos (12/3/12 - option declined); M Stephen King (12/3/12 - option declined); F Long Tan (1/25/13 - waived); M/D Andy Najar (1/30/13 - transfer to Anderlecht)
Coach: Ben Olsen (took over from Curt Onalfo in August 2010; third full season
Opening game: Houston (A), Sat March 2nd, 8pm (NBCSN)
Guardian view: This looks like a bellwether year for Ben Olsen's team. Now in his third full season, Olsen has got his side playing in his image - they run hard, compete for every ball and the late-season forced absence of De Rosario through injury, far from derailing the team, encouraged other leaders to step up. Chris Pontius barged his way to the fringes of the national team, Perry Kitchen continued to mature, and Nick DeLeon played with the forcefulness of a player way beyond his rookie year, as D.C. eased past New York in trying circumstances in the playoffs, before injuries caught up with them.
Now the question is, can they kick on? This year the young core of the side has been kept together, and the likes of DeLeon and Kitchen will have another year's worth of experience to draw on - while the late intriguing addition of Carlos Ruiz and that of John Thorington have a wealth of experience to stabilize the side. The loss of Najar to Anderlecht has been addressed with the solid addition of James Riley (surplus to requirements at the "Chivas Mexico" project) at right back, and Branko Boskovic's failure to light up the league has seen him eased out. Designated players falling short have represented the last elusive piece of the jigsaw for the recent D.C. teams and the addition of 20 year old Brazilian, Rafael, on loan for a year as a young designated player, is the latest to attempt to break the pattern, while there was another intriguing addition with Indonesian Syamsir Alam turning up as an attacking midfielder on loan from Belgian team C.S. Visé. You'd think D.C. would kick on again this year - the question mark may be defense, where Dudar was a serviceable option - he, as well as Najar, are gone and if there's cap room Olsen may want to make a move in that area of the field.
The other move fans want to see is to a new stadium. The new ownership are said to be targetting Buzzard's Point for a 20-24k capacity complex that would finally replace the 52 year old RFK Stadium. For now though, with long-time face of the franchise, Kevin Payne gone to Toronto, Olsen has an opportunity to further define this era of the club as his. Can he do it? As we say, a bellwether year.
Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles:
Two big roster moves have shaken up the look and feel of the team: Andy Najar was sold in the offseason to RSC Anderlecht, where he will no doubt continue his development, and United brought in Carlos Ruiz, a former villain around DC.
The largest shortcoming was the lack of production from whatever forward DC United played that wasn't named DeRo. Josh Wolff retired to become a full time assistant coach with the club, Maicon Santos moved on to Chicago, and Hamdi Salihi's contract was bought out. But United brought in young Brazilian forward, Raphael, Casey Townsend was acquired due to the meltdown at Chivas USA to fill that void in the attack along with Lionard Pajoy and Ruiz.
The midfield is largely unchanged with the exception of veteran John Thorrington, but the starting four of Nick DeLeon, Marcelo Saragosa, Perry Kitchen and Chris Pontius is expected to carry the load. The defense will miss Najar's ability, but addition of James Riley (also from the Chivas USA firesale) will add depth and competition at right back.
A third place finish in the Eastern Conference is a reasonable expectation.
Last Season: 5th (53pts); lost 3-1 to LA Galaxy in MLS Cup final
Players in: D Eric Brunner (12/3/12 - trade from Portland); F Omar Cummings (12/23/12 - trade from Colorado); F Jason Johnson (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); F Bryan Salazar (2/14/13 - Homegrown); M Andrew Driver (2/20/13 - loan from Heart of Midlothian)
Players out: M Colin Clark (12/3/12 - out of contract); D Andre Hainault (1/10/13 - out of contract); M Josue Soto (1/24/13 - waived); M Je-Vaughn Watson (2/19/13 - trade to FC Dallas); Macoumba Kandji
Coach: Dominic Kinnear (Since Dec 2005, starting 8th full season)
Opening game: Sat Mar 2nd, 8pm (NBCSN)
Guardian view: Yet another MLS Cup appearance in 2012 gave further proof, if it were needed, that Dominic Kinnear knows how to build a team that peaks for the playoffs. By the time they rolled round, the pre-season furore over Brian Ching seemed a distant memory, and the team had settled into an unbeaten run in their new downtown stadium, as well as being the latest unlikely practitioners of a 4-3-3. The formation was adopted in the summer upon the return of Ricardo Clark and the addition of new designated player, Oscar Boniek Garcia, and it promptly kicked the Dynamo into a run of form that was enough to see them into the playoffs. As Brad Davis told me a couple of weeks ago, the move was a surprise, even to his players:
"If anybody knows Dominic Kinnear, he's a 4-4-2 guy and cannot stand to stray away from it...He came up to me and said (mutters) 'I can't believe I'm doing this.' — he was genuinely upset that we had to change from a 4-4-2! But to be totally honest you have to give credit to him because we had the personnel to play in a 4-3-3, and we had guys in that position that were very dangerous and for him to see what he had as a group and stray away (from 4-4-2) is part of being a great coach."
The Dynamo tended to revert to 4-4-2 as the season wound down and looking at their minimal personnel change this off-season it'll be interesting to see how they line up from the start of the season. Kandji is gone - his pace and skill threatened on the left of a forward three, but he never quite convinced on the defensive side. But Kinnear has replaced him with more pace, Omar Cummings arrives from Colorado and the draft pick Jason Johnson caught the eye with his speed at the Combine. Last week's arrival of Andrew Driver gives another option in a midfield, and if his loan works out he'll be out of contract with Hearts in June. With the core of the side staying together the new players should integrate easily enough, but as Dynamo fans will tell you, even if they don't, it's how they finish the season that counts. The Dynamo should be thereabouts again.
Stephen Eastepp, Dynamo Theory, Houston:
The great thing about being the runner up to the MLS Cup is you don't have to go back to the drawing board in the offseason and rebuild. The starting XI in the MLS Cup will all be back for the Houston Dynamo in 2013, so Dominic Kinnear and company spent their time off making a few key acquisitions to improve the areas.
Houston said goodbye to a few players in Macoumba Kandji, Andre Hainualt, and Je-Vaughn Watson, but added guys that are expected to be upgrades.
The Dynamo acquired Omar Cummings in a trade with Colorado to address their need for speed and scoring alongside Will Bruin. Cummings will surely benefit from having Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia getting him the ball, and most expect him to regain his 2010 form when he scored 14 goals for the Rapids.
Eric Brunner was brought in as depth for the defense, and it appears that Mike Chabala's return to Houston is imminent.
Houston's midfield was bolstered with the addition of English born winger Andrew Driver. Driver, who spent his career in Scotland with Hearts, brings support on both sides of the field. Giles Barnes could be the surprise of the season and challenge for a starting spot as he appears to be rounding into form after his first full preseason with the club.
With Houston addressing nearly every need with a quality acquisition, there is no reason to believe the club couldn't get right back to the MLS Cup in 2013, following a 2nd place finish in the East. This time, they'll be looking to get past that final hurdle and claim that elusive third star.
Last Season: 7th (42 pts)
Players in: M Andrea Pisanu (1/4/13 - loan from Bologna); F Andrés Romero (2/7/13 - loan from Tombense)
Players out: GK Greg Sutton (10/26/12 - retirement); M Evan James (11/19/12 - option declined); D Shavar Thomas (12/3/12 - option declined); D Josh Gardner (12/5/12 - traded to Sporting KC); M Lamar Neagle (1/27/13 - trade to Seattle)
Coach: Marco Schällibaum (replaced Jesse Marsch in off-season)
Opening game: Seattle (A), Sat March 2nd, 10.30pm
Guardian view: Understandably, the Impact came out like an expansion team last year. Their 4-4-2 was a real-politik formation of a group of freshly assembled sporting strangers, as Jesse Marsch worked out what to do with his new group of players. It didn't help that the season was rather staccato: big "event" days early on (as the team awaited the completion of their Stade Saputo refurbishments) saw them attract a record Montreal crowd to the Olympic Stadium for their "home" opener and a similarly large crowd for the appearance of the LA Galaxy and David Beckham. Yet results were mixed, and a poor temporary turf at the Olympic Stadium didn't help impressions. Then, just as the team began to come together in early summer, the signings of veteran Italians Di Vaio and Nesta came with doubts as to how they'd integrate into an emerging team. Thankfully for Impact fans, the midfield had found their feet in a 4-2-3-1 with Bernier pulling strings through the middle, and the Impact had a winning summer (winning five in a row at one stage). Others overhauled them on the run-in as they ran out of fixtures, but this was a good first year in MLS.
Not good enough for the owners it seemed... Marsch left a few days after a public statement of confidence, and the appointment of new Swiss coach Marco Schällibaum took most MLS watchers by surprise. Schällibaum hasn't changed much immediately - according to Bernier he's been concentrating on giving the Impact some more variety of approach play (defenses having rather figure out their play through the middle towards the end of the year), while on the personnel side, the main additions have been the loan moves for Bologna's Andrea Pisanu and the Tombense forward Andrés Romero. Pisanu has had an early, er, impact pre-season - scoring an opportunistic overhead kick against D.C. United , but it's hard to call how this Montreal side will do. They'll have more experience as a unit, but Schällibaum's ability to balance continuity with some necessary variation in their approach will decide how the team do this year. If he pulls it off, the Impact have the personnel to make a playoff run.
Sofiane Benzaza, Mount Royal Soccer, Montreal:
It was not the most exciting off-season for the Montreal Impact. The biggest ''trade'' or arrival would be new head coach, Marco Schällibaum. The biggest playing change was the arrival of Andrea Pisanu on-loan from Bologna FC, though the Italian midfielder has been playing in Serie B and C lately. Lamar Neagle left for Seattle, again, and Andres Romero also joins the club on loan.
Pre-season has been business as usual scheduling wise but the biggest challenge was for Schällibaum to implement his system and vision. All of this while getting players in shape and learning the ins and outs of a MLS league that he is discovering.
Playoffs is the only measure of success for the club and organization. But with the movements of other clubs in the Eastern Conference, making it to the playoffs just got harder. I will put the Montreal Impact in the 5th and final position in the East, hence making it to the playoffs via the wild card.
Any small hiccups will definitively see the Impact not make the playoffs.
Last Season: 9th (35 pts)
Players in: M Andy Dorman (11/15/12 - Right of first refusal signing on free transfer from Crystal Palace); M Kalifa Cissé (11/19/12 - Discovery signing on free transfer from Bristol City); F Chad Barrett (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); D Hunter Freeman (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); M Scott Caldwell (12/21/12 - Homegrown); D José Gonçalves (01/04/13 - loan from FC Sion); D Andrew Farrell (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); F Matt Horth (1/25/13 - free); D Bilal Duckett (2/11/13 - free)
Players out: F Blake Brettschneider (11/19/12 - option declined); D Flo Lechner (11/19/12 - option declined); M Alec Purdie (11/19/12 - option declined); M Michael Roach (11/19/12 - option declined); M Fernando Cárdenas (11/30/12 - option declined); M Blair Gavin (11/30/12 - option declined); GK Tim Murray (11/30/12 - option declined); M Benny Feilhaber (12/11/12 - traded to Sporting KC)
Coach: Jay Heaps (took over from Steve Nicol in November 2011; second full season)
Opening game: Chicago (A), Sat March 9th, 7.30pm
Guardian view: A poor season for the Revs, that was all the more frustrating for the signs of progress under Jay Heaps to be offset by an inability to hold onto a lead. Perhaps the most egregious example was the home game against Chivas USA in August, where the Revs contrived to tie a game they'd led by 3-0 after 21 minutes. Adding salt to the wound was the return of the former face of the team, Shalrie Joseph, to score twice against his former side. Yet few were prepared to be critical of Jay Heaps - the consensus was that he'd inherited a side in dire need of an overhaul, both personnel wise and culturally. And he could point to positives. The draft pick Kelyn Rowe contributed regularly on the supply side, mid-season Honduran signing Jerry Bengtson hit the ground running (and seemed to bring the best out of the slightly patchy Saer Sene), while Lee Nguyen was always capable of the spectacular.
Like D.C., New England are laboring in a less than ideal home stadium situation - rattling around Gillette Field, while fans await the announcement of a new stadium that's been expected in the "next 90 days" for a matter of years now. Their fans have been alternately mutinous and resigned, but supportive of Heaps. They did get a boost at the SuperDraft, when the Revs traded for the number one pick and took promising defender Andrew Farrell. They also offloaded the under-performing Benny Feilhaber to Sporting KC (a move that may be good for both club and player) and loaned the Portuguese defender José Gonçalves from Swiss club FC Sion. It's still very much a work in progress, but if Bengtson can replicate his international form, then all else being equal the Revs should increase their points tally this season.
The Revs have had a surprisingly fruitful off-season in terms of player acquisition. The oft-maligned General Manager Mike Burns got right down to business signing Andy Dorman, Kalifa Cisse and trading the underwhelming Benny Feilhaber all before the calendar turned to 2013. The sense of urgency continued as Burns aggressively traded for the top pick in order to draft the impressive Andrew Farrell.
What was a very bare cupboard has been restocked quite impressively this off-season. What is still uncertain, however, is whether or not Jay Heaps is the right chef to make something out of all these interesting ingredients. He was often at a loss for ideas if his original game plan did not succeed last season and with so many options to chose from the pressure will be on the former Revs all-star.
If Heaps can find the right tactical balance, the Revs could challenge for the play-offs while playing one of the more pleasing styles in the MLS.
Last Season: 3rd (57 pts); lost 2-1 (agg) to D.C. United in Eastern Conference semi-final
Players in: D Kosuke Kimura (12/3/12 - trade from Portland); D Jámison Olave (12/3/12 - trade from Real Salt Lake); F Fabián Espíndola (12/3/12 - trade from Real Salt Lake); F Josué Martínez (12/6/12 - trade from Philadelphia); GK Santiago Castano (12/11/12 - Homegrown); F Amando Moreno (12/11/12 - Homegrown); M Juninho Pernambucano (12/17/12 - free transfer from Vasco da Gama); M Rubén Izquierdo (2/8/13 - free); M Eric Alexander (2/11/13 - trade from Portland); M Jonny Steele (2/20/13 - first right of refusal from Real Salt Lake); M Ian Christianson (2/22/13 - SuperDraft); M Michael Bustamante (2/22/13 - Supplemental Draft)
Players out: F Jose Angulo (11/19/12 - option declined); F Jhonny Arteaga (11/19/12 - option declined); F Corey Hertzog (11/19/12 - option declined); M Jan Gunnar Solli (11/19/12 - option declined); M Teemu Tainio (11/19/12 - option declined); D Jonathan Borrajo (11/19/12 - option declined); D Stephen Keel (11/19/12 - option declined); D Tyler Ruthven (11/19/12 - option declined); GK Bill Gaudette (11/19/12 - option declined); GK Jeremy Vuolo (11/19/12 - option declined); F/M Sébastien Le Toux (12/6/12 - traded to Philadelphia); D Rafa Márquez (12/13/12 - released); M Victor Pálsson (1/4/13 - contract terminated); M Joel Lindpere (1/4/13 - trade to Chicago); D Wilman Conde (1/23/13 - contract terminated); F Kenny Cooper (2/4/13 - trade to FC Dallas)
Coach: Mike Petke (replaced Hans Backe in off-season; first season)
Opening game: Portland (A), Sun March 3rd, 7.30pm (ESPN2)
Guardian view: All change at the Red Bulls again, though what was drifting into a really problematic off-season has arguably taken a turn for the better with Mike Petke landing the head coaching job full time. New Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh turned to the local man after a "worldwide search" didn't produce a suitable candidate (though Paulo Sousa was heavily linked with the post and resigned from his previous position at Hungarian club Videoton before falling off the radar - possibly due to visa issues). Petke's appointment was a popular move with the New York faithful, and the further appointment of former cult striker John Wolyniec ("The Staten Island Ronaldo") as reserve team coach has further changed the face of a Red Bulls front office that had seemed to suffer from a permanent cultural cringe when it came to local talent. The further addition of one of the most able MLS assistant coaches, Robin Fraser, will help organize a defense that has been consistently creaky.
Whether Petke can translate his passion for the team to the latest roster incumbents will be quite a test. Petke inherits a side that was heavily stacked to win last year under Hans Backe. Instead the team crashed out at the conference semi-final stage for the third successive year and many of the veterans of that side followed Backe out of the door. Some will be missed. Kenny Cooper's 18 goals will be hard to replace, and the likes of Solli, Tainio, and Lindpere had all made key contributions to the Red Bulls midfield at times. Less missed will be Rafa Marquez, the unpopular designated player, whose final competitive act as a Red Bull was a repeat of the previous season's season-ending red card. In their place, the RSL pair of Espindola and Olave are very good players on their day, and the dead ball prowess of Juninho will surely add to highlight reels throughout the season, however suspect his pace is. The ex-Portland players Kimura and Alexander may add squad depth, but the big challenge for Petke is getting such a disparate collection of talent to adopt his desired competitive streak, while the goodwill of the home crowd still outweighs the trigger happy instincts of the higher ups. Looking at the changes you'd have to think it's a rebuilding year, but you suspect that that might not be good enough for Petke to keep his mandate. Somehow he has to conjure a standout year if it's not to be all change yet again at the under-performing club.
Dan Dickinson, Sports editor, Gothamist, New York:
New York off-seasons tend to be lively, but this one was a full-blown frenzy. The bloodletting of coaching staff and players was incredible: Hans Backe booted after three disappointing seasons; ten depth players axed in one swipe of Gerard Houllier's hand; Joel Lindpere and Kenny Cooper shed due to salary cap concerns; Rafa Marquez finally released so he could go get injured in Mexico instead. In their place step some headliners from Salt Lake, a few workhorses from Portland, and at head coach, the much beloved Mike Petke. For the time being, only 11 of NY's 20 players played with the club last season.
All the changes have made the five preseason games fairly pivotal data points towards what 2013 might look like. There've been good results - battling back (as Petke promised to inspire the team to do) against RSL and Malmo, winning convincingly over Columbus. Just as fans were getting confident, in come bad results against New England and Seattle, the sort that the more depressed part of NY's fan base have come to expect. NY has all of one game left before trotting off to Portland for First Kick; with no real insight into what the starting XI might look like or a standard formation, the first few weeks may be an exercise in improvisation until the team starts to gel. PREDICTED FINISH: 2nd
Last Season: 8th (36 pts)
Players in: F/M Sébastien Le Toux (12/6/12 - trade from New York); D Jeff Parke (12/7/12 - trade from Seattle); F Conor Casey (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Aaron Wheeler (1/19/13 - transfer from KooTeePee); D Damani Richards (1/19/13 - free); M Alex Mendoza (1/24/13 - free)
Players out: M Gabriel Gomez (11/19/12 - option declined); D Porfirio Lopez (11/19/12 - option declined); F Krystian Witkowski (11/19/12 - option declined); GK Chase Harrison (12/3/12 - option declined); M Zach Pfeffer (12/4/12 - loaned to Hoffenheim); F Josué Martínez (12/6/12 - traded to New York); D Damani Richards (2/20/13- waived); M Alex Mendoza (2/20/13 - waived)
Coach: John Hackworth (replaced Peter Nowak in June 2012; starting first full season)
Opening game: Sporting KC (H), Sat March 2nd 4pm (FIRST KICK)
Guardian view: It was a little tough to get a read on John Hackworth's first period in charge, since he inherited so much baggage from the departing Peter Nowak. Nowak had apparently alienated players and fanbase alike with his abrasive style - trading both club captain Danny Califf and iconic striker Sebastian Le Toux, and alienating designated player Freddie Adu (the latter, in fairness, has not proven to be a player that it is difficult to alienate). The team were struggling for results and dispirited, while the luster from the expansion project was clearly beginning to fade for fans. Enter Hackworth, who initially enjoyed the traditional bounce of a more congenial locker room presence replacing a disciplinarian, but whose team never really looked like catching the playoff contenders as they played out the season as the remnants of Nowak's team.
Hackworth certainly tried to seize the day in the off-season — going as far as writing directly to fans to explain the situation with Adu ("the elephant in the room") and to confirm he wasn't in the coach's plans. He also began to trade for MLS experience - bringing back Le Toux from New York, and moving for Conor Casey from Colorado and Jeff Parke from Seattle. He also brought in Damani Richards to fill the problem left back spot and brought in another forward, Aaron Wheeler, from the marvellously named KooTeePee in Finland. Actually Richards was swiftly on his way again - waived on closer inspection by Hackworth's team - a slight puzzler, given that Hackworth had singled him out in one of his fan communications. The team may well continue to monitor him via the USL Pro route though, should he wind up in an affiliate squad.
There's still a feeling that the squad looks light compared to others in the league, and looking at the more notable additions from within MLS, some have suggested that Hackworth has assembled a competitive first XI for the 2010 season, but if the youngsters such as Farfan, Hoppenot, MacMath and McInerney continue to thrive, the former US youth team coach may end up striking the perfect balance between youth and experience, aka the MLS model citizen's way. It may be next season before they really blossom though. And Adu has to go.
Dan Walsh, Philly Soccer Page, Philadelphia:
You don't usually rebuild an expansion team after two and a half years. But after Peter Nowak's spectacular demolition of Philadelphia Union's roster and subsequent firing last June, the Union are doing just that as they enter their fourth season. Manager John Hackworth started clearing dead weight in August and added striker Conor Casey and fan favorite Sebastien Le Toux this off-season with hopes of improving an attack that was last in MLS in shots on goal in 2012. At center back, Jeff Parke has replaced Carlos Valdes and should match his production.
Otherwise, you'll see the same young team that went 9-12-4 in all competitions under Hackworth last year. Rising stars Sheanon Williams and Amobi Okugo man the defense's right side, while converted midfielder Gabriel Farfan starts at left back outside Parke. The league's youngest starting goalkeeper, Zac MacMath, backs them. Farfan's twin, Michael, keys the attack from central midfield, while defensive midfielder Brian Carroll shields the back four. The rest remains undetermined. Hackworth could slide young poacher Jack McInerney into a three-forward attack with Casey and Le Toux or deploy the 4-4-2 diamond he's shown this preseason. Midfielders Keon Daniel, Danny Cruz, and Roger Torres are in the mix, but Freddy Adu is not after Philadelphia held him out of preseason while trying to sell him.
After a chaotic 2012, Hackworth wants a smoother 2013. If MacMath settles in and the improved strike corps produces more chances, the Union should compete for a playoff spot. Prediction: 6th.
Last Season: 1st (63 pts); lost 2-1 (agg) to Houston Dynamo in Eastern Conference semi-final
Players in: D Josh Gardner (12/5/12 - trade from Montreal); M Benny Feilhaber (12/11/12 - trade from New England); D Ike Opara (12/12/12 - trade from San Jose); D Yann Songo'o (12/13/12); F Claudio Bieler (12/18/12 - transfer from LDU Quito); M Mikey Lopez (1/17/13 - SuperDraft)
Players out: M Júlio César (11/19/12 - option declined); D Cyprian Hedrick (11/19/12 - option declined); D Neven Markovic (11/19/12 - option declined); D/M Konrad Warzycha (11/19/12 - option declined); D Michael Harrington (12/3/12 - traded to Portland); D Korede Aiyegbuse (12/3/12 - option declined); M Luke Sassano (12/3/12 - option declined); M Roger Espinoza (1/4/12 - transfer to Wigan Athletic)
Coach: Peter Vermes
Opening game: Philadelphia (A), Sat March 2nd 4pm (FIRST KICK)
Guardian view: Remember the Wizards? It seems such a long time ago that the Kansas City franchise was one of the limping afterthoughts of the league. Their brand new stadium gave focus to the revived Sporting KC in 2011 and the Sporting team carried that into 2012 - winning their first seven games. Despite being briefly reeled in at the top of the East in the wake of that run, Sporting were always favorites to top the standings and duly did so at the end of a year that saw midfielder's Zusi and Espinoza further burnish their reputation on the international scene (Espinoza having a great Olympics for Honduras, and Zusi cracking the national team for the first part of Concacaf qualifying). The trophy that had been missing amid all this buzz was won in the summer when Sporting ended Seattle's long US Open Cup run on penalties.
But Sporting didn't have it all their own way. Peter Vermes told me the Cup win owed much to the lessons learned from the playoff loss to Houston the previous year, but when the two sides met again, the same thing happened, as the Eastern Conference winners were knocked out by the wild card team. Espinoza left for Wigan in the off-season, closely followed by Kei Kamara heading to Norwich on loan. The team did bring in New England misfit Benny Feilhaber - perhaps Vermes can work his magic with getting his talent back on track, as he had once done with Kamara. He'll need to - the midfield has also lost César and while Claudio Bieler should add goals (he scored 20 in 36 games for LDU Quite last season), he'll need a platform to score them from. One intriguing subplot may be the form of Bobby Convey, another misfit when he arrived from San Jose last year, and who is only now freeing himself of the injuries that plagued his first year. If he and Feilhaber play to their potential, and C.J. Sapong combines well with Bieler, Sporting could yet again be the team to beat, even before Vermes dips into the allocation money his outgoing players have raised, and may further raise.
Mike Kuhn, Editor, Down the Byline, Sporting Kansas City:
Sporting Kansas City come into the season having a few replacements on their roster to make and potentially more to come. KC has lost at least two starters and potentially three by the time May rolls around but it's hard to see where they'll miss a lot. Sporting is bringing back the back line that was one of the best in MLS history, but the defensive midfield is where the real depth was lost - Roger Espinoza moving to the EPL and Julio Cesar moving to Toronto has left a hole in the midfield. Oriol Rosell seems the logical candidate to fill in for Cesar in the deep lying midfield position, and while he's a different player he seems to have been providing many of the things KC is losing in Cesar. Benny Feilhaber was brought in and he'll replace Espinoza although in a different role. KC will be providing more possession through the middle with Feilhaber that they didn't have last year.
Up top Kansas City has brought in new designated player, Claudio Bieler to help KC to get over some of the scoring woes they had last year. He finally got off the mark in preseason in the team's season finale against Toronto. Even more will be expected of Bieler after the loan move that sent Kei Kamara to Norwich. Those expectations will only group if Kamara's move becomes permanent. Support from a healthy Bobby Convey and Graham Zusi will give KC the width they're wanting, and CJ Sapong should be able to provide assistance up top for KC.
KC's lost some key components but have looked to replace them with other parts. The key for KC will be the return or replacement of Kamara depending on how the rest of his loan goes through the beginning of May.
Last Season: 10th (23 pts)
Players in: F Justin Braun (12/3/12 - trade from Real Salt Lake); GK Joe Bendik (12/12/12 - trade from Portland); D Danny Califf (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); D Gale Agbossoumonde (12/20/12 - weighted lottery); M Júlio César (1/15/2013 - free); M Kyle Bekker (1/17/13 - SuperDraft)
Players out: D Adrian Cann (11/15/12 - option declined); D Ty Harden (11/15/12 - option declined); D Dicoy Williams (11/15/12 - option declined); M Oscar Cordon (11/15/12 - option declined); F Nicholas Lindsay (11/15/12 - option declined); F Keith Makubuya (11/15/12 - option declined); M Aaron Maund (12/3/12 - traded to Real Salt Lake); M Eric Avila (12/3/12 - out of contract); F Ryan Johnson (12/12/12 - trade to Portland); GK Milos Kocic (12/12/12 - trade to Portland); F Joao Plata (1/30/13 - trade to Real Salt Lake); F Eric Hassli (2/4/13 - trade to FC Dallas)
Coach: Ryan Nelsen (replaced Paul Mariner in off-season; first season)
Opening game: Vancouver (A), Sat March 2nd 6.30pm (TSN, RDS2)
Guardian view: The soap opera that is Toronto FC headed into bleak territory in 2011, as the team lost their first nine games. The win against Philadelphia that broke the streak was not enough to save Aron Winter's job and his mooted "three year project" was cut short, with the team attempting a total football style they were ill-geared for. Defensive lapses and injuries were the story of a season that had few bright spots. The team did make their way past LA Galaxy in the season opening doubleheader in the Concacaf Champions League quarter final, but thereafter the two sides fortunes diverged, as the Galaxy took the scenic route to MLS Cup while Toronto limped along under Paul Mariner, losing Danny Koevermans to injury along the way, to end the season with another epic winless streak.
The off-season arrival of proto-typical franchise builder Kevin Payne as club president initially seemed to be a rare prudent move for Toronto, but after initially expressing support for Mariner, Payne dismayed many fans by firing him and announcing first-time coach Ryan Nelsen as his replacement - amid confusion as to when Nelsen would actually be able to take up his duties. Hardly a move for stability. Toronto, and Payne, then played out an active SuperDraft - trading the number one pick, and racking up other trades on a busy day in Indianapolis. When the smoke had cleared they'd drafted the talented Canadian midfielder Kyle Bekker and done nothing to dispel the sense of theater that rather dogs their every move. Of other players in, Danny Califf and Justin Braun might reasonably believe they have points to prove, while César is a useful addition in midfield. The attack remains a definite work in progress — Eric Hassli asked for and got his move away (to Dallas) while the forward line will also be without Ryan Johnson (gone to Portland) and Joao Plata (RSL) - a lot rests on the young shoulders of Luis Silva. At time of writing there's a question mark over whether Torsten Frings will be back this season. Familiar turmoil, but Nelsen is in place, and may yet prove to be the inspiring leader of men Payne believes him to be. That said, exceeding last season's modest points total might be the sum total of Toronto's realistic ambition this year.
Duncan Fletcher, Waking the Red, Toronto:
If I were to grade TFC's preseason so far, I'd have to give it an incomplete. It's been another tumultuous period, with yet another reboot launched, Kevin Payne brought in as president and General Manager and setting out to change the culture of the club. The first part of that task, the purge, has gone well. Paul Mariner was fired as coach, ballsily replaced by Ryan Nelsen, a rookie coach who was still playing for QPR for an unspecified time (thankfully only to the end of January). Eric Hassli is the highest profile player to be lost so far, but all together 14 players from last year's squad have left the club. That created some much needed cap space, and the 1st overall SuperDraft pick was traded to 4th, then 10th, then 16th for allocation money. A fairly successful purge, then TFC fans sat back and waited for the rebuild to start, the allocation used to bring in players to be a part of the new culture. And they waited. And they waited. At the time of writing, Danny Califf remains the biggest name brought in, Justin Braun remains the only healthy striker and the squad sits at a lowly 21 players. It was always going to be a rough season, the lack of action so far will only make it harder for TFC to catch up to the rest of MLS. I'll be optimistic for no good reason and guess at 9th in the East.