Can Sporting KC repeat as MLS Cup Champions or will Houston Dynamo regain their place as the best team in the East? As Major League Soccer prepares to lift the curtain on another season, TSN.ca presents the first of our five part season preview, taking a look at the American based teams in the Eastern Conference.
It was a tough 2013 for the Toyota Park faithful, as the Fire followed-up their first playoff season in three years with their lowest-ever finish in 15 MLS seasons.
The disappointing finish was due in large part to a disastrous start that saw the Fire go 2-7-1 over their first 10 games. A strong May and an unbeaten home record from late July onward were not enough to salvage the season.
A turnaround for the Fire could well depend on their last line of defence. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson, 24, posted a save percentage of 70, which was fifth-best among MLS keepers that started at least 20 games. The American national will need to be stellar again to get the Fire back into the MLS Cup conversation.
The Fire are going to California for their 2014 season opener, crossing conferences to meet Chivas USA. They meet up with the Impact on Apr. 12 for their first Canadian visit of the campaign.
Who's In?: F Giuseppe Gentile (waiver draft), D Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (trade with Seattle), D Patrick Ianni (trade with Seattle), M Benji Joya (weighted lottery), D/M Lovel Palmer (trade with Real Salt Lake), GK Kyle Reynish (free agent).
Who's Out?: D Jalil Anibaba (trade with Seattle), M Corben Bone (option declined), D Shaun Francis (free agent), M Joel Lindpere (option declined), M Daniel Paladini (trade with Columbus), M Arévalo Rios (option declined), F Maicon Santos (option declined), GK Paolo Tornaghi (waived), D Michael Videira (option declined), D Wells Thompson (free agent).
SuperDraft: D Marco Franco (1-13).
A year after missing the MLS Cup playoffs by a single point, 2013 was a disappointment in the Ohio capital. The Crew dropped to eighth in the East, missing the playoffs once more.
Six losses in seven mid-summer games would be the Crew's undoing, despite strong seasons from Argentine striker Federico Higuain and team goal-scoring leader Dominic Oduro.
The Crew have shuffled the deck in net, sending Andy Gruenebaum to KC and hoping that one of Matt Lampson or new acquisitions Steve Clark or Brad Stuver can carry the load.
Columbus visits the minnows of the 2013 MLS season – D.C. United – to open their 2014 campaign. They get a return date with their Eastern rivals from Toronto in their first Canadian visit on May 31.
Who's In?: GK Steve Clark (trade with Seattle), D Waylon Francis (discovery), D Giancarlo Gonzalez (transfer from Valerenga), M Hector Jimenez (trade with LA Galaxy), M Daniel Paladini (trade with Chicago), D Michael Parkhurst (rights acquired from New England), GK Brad Stuver (waiver draft).
Who's Out?: D Drew Beckie (option declined), M Eddie Gaven (retired), D Glauber (option declined), GK Andy Gruenebaum (trade with Kansas City), F Aaron Horton (waived), D Kyle Hyland (option declined), D Chad Marshall (trade with Seattle), D/M Danny O'Rourke (option declined), M Matías Sanchez (waived), M Konrad Warzycha (option declined), GK Daniel Withrow (waived).
SuperDraft: D Ben Sweat (1-14).
Fans in the U.S. capital would probably be best served to forget that 2013 ever happened.
A season removed from the third-best record in the League, United dropped to dead last in the table, posting an all-time MLS low of just three wins for a season.
The off-season overhaul was of particular note to Canada's MLS clubs as United acquired Montreal Impact captain Davy Arnaud via trade. A week later, though, D.C. sent one of its premier players back home, leaving Dwayne De Rosario unprotected in the MLS Re-Entry Draft, allowing him to be snatched up by Toronto FC.
If Arnaud and Portland acquisition Eddie Johnson can reignite the United offence and if Chris Pontius can rediscover his scoring form, 2013 may prove to be an aberration. But a season that poor is a tough one to wipe clean from a fan-base's memory.
D.C. opens at home on Mar. 8 against the Columbus Crew. They'll face a rejuvenated Toronto FC in front of an undoubtedly-raucous BMO Field crowd in the team's home opener on Mar. 22.
Who's In?: M Davy Arnaud (trade with Montreal), D Nana Attakora (re-entry stage 2), D Bobby Boswell (Re-entry stage 1), F Conor Doyle (transfer from Derby County), F Fabian Espindola (Re-entry stage 2), D Christian Fernandez (free agent), F Christiano Francois (waiver draft), D Sean Franklin (re-entry stage 1), F Eddie Johnson (trade with Seattle), D Jeff Parke (trade with Philadelphia).
Who's Out?: M/F Syamsir Alam (option declined), M Dwayne De Rosario (option declined), F Christiano Francois (loaned to Richmond), D Dennis Iapichino (out of contract), D Dejan Jakovic (transfer to Shimizu S-Pulse), M Collin Martin (loaned to Richmond), F Lionard Pajoy (option declined), D James Riley (option declined), F Carlos Ruiz (option declined), M Marcelo Saragosa (option declined), M John Thorrington (option declined), D Ethan White (trade with Philadelphia), GK Joe Willis (loaned to Richmond), D Daniel Woolard (option declined).
SuperDraft: D Steve Birnbaum (1-2).
Houston's run had to come to an end at some point.
After two straight trips to the MLS Cup – both defeats at the hands of the Los Angeles Galaxy – the Dynamo's season was once again derailed by the eventual Champs. This time it was Sporting Kansas City who took their aggregate Conference Final 2-1 at Sporting Park.
That said, the Dynamo did what they do best once again and saved their best play for when it mattered most. A fourth-place showing helped show that they belonged with the best in the East and their playoff moxie once again came through for them.
All-time leading scorer Brian Ching called it a career after the season, meaning Will Bruin can likely take full-time ownership of the “face of the franchise” mantle. With New York City FC on the way in 2015, this season could well be Houston's last in the Eastern Conference. Will they give the Conference one more run for its money?
The Dynamo open at home on Mar. 8 against the team that forced them into the 2013 MLS Cup Knockout Round game by virtue of goal-differential, the New England Revolution. Their first Canadian test comes later in March, in Vancouver on the 29th.
Who's In?: M Tony Cascio (loan from Colorado), D David Horst (trade with Portland).
Who's Out?: D Bobby Boswell (out of contract), F Calen Carr (out of contract), D Mike Chabala (option declined), F Brian Ching (retired), M Alex Dixon (option declined), F Cam Weaver (option declined).
SuperDraft: D A.J. Cochran (1-16).
Sporting Kansas City
Sporting got off to a roaring start in 2013, losing just one of its first six matches and that a surprising upset at the hands of Toronto FC in the latter's home opener. They would pick up that pace once more to finish the season by winning six of eight (6-1-1) and coming within one point of the Supporters' Shield.
While they narrowly missed one piece of hardware, the League's most rabid fan-base was rewarded with the franchise's second ever MLS Cup after a thrilling penalty-kick victory over Real Salt Lake in the Final.
One of the faces of that triumph has left KC, as goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen has hung up his gloves.
Losing arguably the league's premier keeper hurts, but the addition of Columbus' Andy Gruenebaum might salve that loss.
The team will also be hoping for even greater leadership out of sophomore striker Dom Dwyer, midfielder and team MVP Graham Zusi and DP Claudio Bieler, who led the team in goals with 10 in 2013.
Kansas City opens on the road in Seattle on Mar. 8 and make their first trip to Canada with a May 10 date with the Impact at Stade Saputo.
Who's In?: GK Andy Gruenebaum (trade with Columbus), M Sal Zizzo (trade with Portland).
Who's Out?: F Teal Bunbury (traded to New England), D Kyle Miller (waived), GK Jimmy Nielsen (retired), D Brendan Ruiz (waived).
SuperDraft: F Adnan Gabelic (2-38).
New England Revolution
Something had to give eventually at Foxborough.
After two straight years in the MLS basement, the Revs finally got back to good in 2013, racking up 14 wins (the same total as their prior two seasons, combined) and qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The difference-makers for the Revs were the young, dynamic offensive pairing of Kelyn Rowe, in just his second MLS season, and Diego Fagundez, a then-18-year-old Uruguayan somehow in his third. If those two can click once more, then the upward trend should prove to be more than just a one-year aberration.
The permanent addition of Charlie Davies should also help the Revs depth up front.
The Revs open up with a visit to the Houston Dynamo on Mar. 8 but don't hit a Canadian pitch until May 3 when they visit Toronto FC.
Who's In?: F Teal Bunbury (trade from Sporting KC), F Charlie Davies (transfer from Randers), M Paolo DelPiccolo (waiver draft), GK Brad Knighton (trade with Vancouver), M Daigo Kobayashi (rights acquired from Vancouver), D Jossimar Sanchez (Supplemental Draft).
Who's Out?: F Juan Agudelo (out of contract), F Chad Barrett (option declined), D Bilal Duckett (waived), M Ryan Guy (option declined), F Matt Horth (waived), M Gabe Latigue (waived), D Tyler Polak (option declined), GK Matt Reis (retired), M Clyde Simms (option declined), M Juan Toja (option declined).
SuperDraft: F Steve Neumann (1-4), F Patrick Mullins (1-11).
New York Red Bulls
A nearly-winless March was cause for concern for the Red Bulls in 2013, but things turned out alright in the end.
Two huge streaks – seven unbeaten in April and May and eight unbeaten to finish the season – propelled the Red Bulls to their first Supporters' Shield in a tight race with Kansas City.
Sadly, an Omar Cummings extra-time marker stunned Red Bull Arena and sent the Houston Dynamo on to the Eastern Final instead of the Bulls. The playoff result has to come as a sting, especially since it was Cummings who struck in injury time in the first leg to salvage a draw.
The Bulls were clearly concerned about their back end in the off-season, bringing in Spanish full-back Armando Lozano and acquiring Richard Eckersley from Toronto via trade. Will a better D be key to a better finish?
The Red Bulls season starts on Canadian soil as they will be forced to begin their campaign in front of a boisterous BC Place crowd in the Vancouver Whitecaps opener on Mar. 8.
Who's In?: D Armando (free transfer), M Bobby Convey (trade with Toronto), D Richard Eckersley (trade with Toronto).
Who's Out?: D Brandon Barklage (option declined), D David Carney (option declined), F Fabián Espíndola (option declined), GK Kevin Hartman (retired), D Markus Holgersson (contract terminated), D Heath Pearce (out of contract).
SuperDraft: D Chris Duvall (2-22).
The Union finished just three points out of the MLS Cup playoffs and maybe locking down the last 10 minutes of their final three games – all of which saw them concede an equalizer or winner – might have been that difference.
Jack McInerney – seventh in league scoring – certainly did his part scoring late ones of his own in two of the three, but time would run out on the Union. McInerney was excellent early in the season and clearly turned it on again at the season's end.
The Union are hoping they've found him some help, but will a return to the States prove a jump-starter for Maurice Edu? The 27-year-old has seen little of the pitch over two years with Premier League side Stoke City and it has led to fewer appearances with the U.S. national side as a result.
The Union's season begins with a tall task, the team being handed the reigning Western table-topping Portland Timbers on the road to start the season. Philly will hit Canada for the first time on Apr. 26 when they visit Montreal.
Who's In?: M Corben Bone (re-entry stage 1), M Maurice Edu (loan from Stoke City), GK Brian Holt (free), M Cristian Maidana (free transfer), M Vincent Nogueira (transfer from Sochaux), D Ethan White (trade with Philadelphia).
Who's Out?: D Chris Albright (retired), F Don Anding (waived), M Michael Farfan (transfer to Cruz Azul), M Greg Jordan (waived), M Kleberson (waived), GK Oka Nikolov (waived), D Jeff Parke (trade with D.C. United), D Mikaël Silvestre (contract terminated).
SuperDraft: GK Andre Blake (1-1), MF Pedro Ribeiro (1-15).