Hot for Fire in 2010

STEVEN SANDOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:59 AM ET

While Toronto FC fans have to wait until Saturday for things to get going, Major League Soccer's 2010 campaign begins Thursday night in Seattle, when the Sounders host the expansion Philadelphia Union.

Before the kickoff, here's a look at the Eastern Conference, with the Western Conference primer to come Thursday.

CHICAGO FIRE

PREDICTED FINISH: 1st, East; MLS Cup champion

THE KICKABOUT: Chicago has brought in former El Salvadoran national coach Carlos de los Cobos to add some spice to the bland, scoring-by-committee attack that worked OK in the regular season but brought woe in the playoffs. He brings in El Salvadoran midfielder Julio Martinez to inject life into th offence, and Collins John, the ex-Fulham striker, rejoins his former strike partner, Brian McBride, upfront. John was the most promising trialist at any camp this spring. If the Fire finds 15 more goals throughout its lineup, look out.

THE VERDICT: There never has been any doubt about Chicago's defensive ability; it gets the Fire to the playoffs year after year. Former Real Madrid prospect Krzysztof Krol adds depth to that backline, and appeals to Chicago's ethnic Polish fan base. But the massive upgrade in offence promises to transform the Fire into a real contender for the title.

COLUMBUS CREW

PREDICTED FINISH: 2nd, East

THE KICKABOUT: As the last MLS team involved in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Crew already was at work, losing 5-4 on aggregate in a thrilling quarterfinal to Mexican power Toluca. What that series showed us was that Steven Lenhart is indeed ready to break through as a big-time scorer in MLS.

THE VERDICT: Make no mistake, the Crew were upset in the first round of last year's playoffs, but that is in no way a sign of decline. The nucleus of a team that finished first overall is still intact. The Crew does not have a top-end striker, but with Argentine vet and 2008 MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto coming back for another season and with Chad Marshall, the best defender in the league, anchoring the back line, there's no reason to think the Crew will slide anytime soon.

PHILADELPHIA UNION

PREDICTED FINISH: 3rd, East

THE KICKABOUT: With a low salary cap and a massive talent pool, it's easier for an expansion team to be competitive in MLS than in any other league. Seattle was a contender last season and won the U.S. Open Cup. Chicago won a title in its expansion year. Can the Union do the same?

THE VERDICT: Manager Piotr Nowak has MLS Cups on his resume as both coach and player; and while the team isn't flashy up front, it may already have the best defence on paper in the East. With highly touted American Michael Orozco brought in from the Mexican League and former MLS Defender of the year Danny Califf repatriated from Europe, the Union will be tough in the back -- and defence wins championships.

NEW YORK RED BULLS

PREDICTED FINISH: 4th, East

THE KICKABOUT: What will the Red Bulls be like in 2010, as they christen the new U.S. mecca of soccer, the Red Bull Arena in suburban New Jersey? Will they be like the 2009 edition, which finished as one of the worst teams in MLS history, or more like the team we have seen in preseason -- the Red Bulls have been MLS' best-looking side in the exhibition schedule.

THE VERDICT: The Red Bulls cleaned out the front office, brought in Swedish coach Hans Backe, and have a new midfield general in ex-Toronto FC Carl Robinson. Ex-TFC goalkeeper Greg Sutton is also a Red Bull. And their Designated Player, Juan Pablo Angel, is a lethal goal scorer. This team can't be any worse than last season, and there's pressure to make the playoffs when RBNY finally is getting some headlines in the most important market of all.

NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION

PREDICTED FINISH: 5th East

THE KICKABOUT: Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy was named MLS MVP in 2009, but no one in the league carries his team on his shoulders as does the Revs' Shalrie Joseph. On a team plagued by injuries and depth issues, he willed it into the playoffs. He's the best holding midfielder the league has ever seen, but last year he was called to play forward, defence, wing, everything except goal. The league's best all-round player will need to do it again in 2010.

THE VERDICT: Goalkeeper Matt Reis begins the season on the disabled list. Striker Taylor Twellman is spectacular when healthy -- but he has spent most of the past two seasons on the shelf. How durable can he be? Coach Steve Nicol usually finds a formula to keep this team competitive -- as long as he has Joseph in the starting XI.

KANSAS CITY WIZARDS

PREDICTED FINISH: 6th East

THE KICKABOUT: A new stadium is now in the works, but the Wizards will, for now, still be playing on the shortened field in a minor-league baseball park. Canadian fans will be excited to see how Hamilton, Ont.-born Teal Bunbury, who was the top scorer in the NCAA this season, will adjust to life in the MLS.

THE VERDICT: This team is still horribly short in the skill department, despite the attempts of the front office to bring in esoteric players from Senegal and Moldova. The Wizards have signed a bevy of new charges, including former Arsenal youth prospect Ryan Smith and Chelsea prospect Craig Rocastle in an attempt to shore up the midfield. Like Toronto FC, Kansas City is a guessing game. Unlike Toronto FC, the team actually is looking to plug the holes. One thing K.C. still has is some goal-of-the-week attempts from Davy Arnaud, who is usually good for three or four ridiculous strikes per season.

DC UNITED

PREDICTED FINISH: 7th East

THE KICKABOUT: D.C. United have the most championships in MLS history. The club has won more trophies than any other team in the league. Adding to that trophy case will be the longest of long shots this season. DCU missed the playoffs last season, and this team looks even worse on paper this season. Only Jaime Moreno, the greatest goalscorer in MLS history, jumps out as a threat. But the veteran can't play 90 minutes anymore.

THE VERDICT: How bad will it be in the U.S. capital? DCU can't get a new stadium, and rumours persist of a possible move. And, the team couldn't get the coach it wanted; it had left the chair open for college soccer's most high-profile coach, University of Akron boss Caleb Porter, only to have him turn it down. Staying in the NCAA was better than inheriting this mess.

TORONTO FC

PREDICTED FINISH: 8th East

THE KICKABOUT: While it's difficult to read too much into pre-season, the Reds have been so awful that their performances can't simply be shrugged off. They can't score, have no discipline and can't defend. New coach Preki was brought in to give the sense of discipline, and he sticks with a 4-4-2 system. He was successful at Chivas because he had enough talent to get the few goals he needed to win. He doesn't have that kind of talent in Toronto.

THE VERDICT: This team has cut loose a series of popular veterans, from Carl Robinson to Toronto's own Adrian Serioux. It has brought in some bench depth players and a whole bunch of trialists. It starts the season looking like a raw expansion side, with too many holes to plug.

Bottom line: The worst defence in the league has not been improved and the strikers are a massive worry. Yes, Dwayne De Rosario will contribute some goals. But, other than that, Preki can do only so much. You could put Arsene Wenger in charge of this crew and they still wouldn't score or keep the ball out of their own net. Season 4 could be the most painful one yet for the city's passionate soccer supporters.


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