Duncan has already broken down the Western Conference and I think we can all agree that barring some kind of shock result in the MLS Cup Final the league champion will be coming from that side. With the unbalanced schedule though the winner of the weaker east is likely going to be in with a good chance of getting their hands on the Supporters Shield as the regular season champs.
The east is clearly weaker but it is also a conference that is very wide open. If you were to try and break the conference into tiers I would probably have just two teams in the top level and then three teams in the bottom level. That would leave a middle group of four teams that will all be battling for those playoff spots. It is in that group where I expect Toronto FC will be spending much of the season.
Without any further ado here comes my completely unscientific rankings:
1. Sporting Kansas City: Of all the clubs in the East, KC is probably the strongest from front to back. They were one of the top teams in the East last season but now they have added even more weapons in the form of Dom Dwyer, Jacob Peterson, and Bobby Convey. This is a team that is going to be able to score plenty of goals this season with Teal Bundbury, C.J. Sapong, and Kei Kamara being supported by the talented Graham Zusi. It is a team primed to compete in all three thirds of the field which is what makes them the favourites in the East.
2. Houston Dynamo: Before the year is over the team will be playing in their impressive looking new stadium and they would love nothing more to show it off with an MLS Cup Final there. That is a real possibility for a team that is very similar to the one that lost last years final against the Galaxy. Their strength is clearly the ability to keep opponents off the score sheet. That effort begins with their very good keeper Tally Hall but continues through a back four that is highlighted by Canadian Andre Hainault and Geoff Cameron. The midfield will revolve around Brad Davis this season but it is at forward where questions will be asked. Houston is lacking in real attacking talent other than 33 year old Brian Ching who had a bit of a rough offseason. Will Bruin is probably the best attacker they have now but that lack of fire power is what sees them slip to second in the East.
3. Chicago Fire: This is a team that were close to being competitive last season but did not quite get things together. The good news for the Fire is that this offseason saw them lose very little in terms of contributors while they were able to add talent and depth. The most important thing that they did was strengthen their back line through additions like Arne Friedrich, Rafael Robayo, Austin Berry, and Hunter Jumper. They are a team with talent all over the park highlighted by Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko up top. They are a team that will be able to compete as long as they can stay healthy. Knock out any of their key players and questions will be asked if they have the depth to deal with it.
4. D.C. United: DCU are a team that is front loaded with the likes of reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario, new signing Hamdi Salihi, and youngsters Andy Najar and Nick DeLeon. They are a team that really should not have much difficulty scoring goals but they are also a team that is going to be counting on some young players in key positions. With Bill Hamid, only 21, likely to be the first choice in goal and 20 year old Perry Kitchen being a key fixture in a thin back four they are a team likely to have some ups a downs. Any injuries to a key defender might once again be this clubs undoing but if they stay fit they might just surprise some people in the East.
5. Toronto FC: Toronto are a team that is still under construction and still on the rise. With so much young talent likely to be involved game in and game out there is going to be a lot of pressure on the teams veteran spine. TFC will go as far as Danny Koevermans, Ryan Johnson, Torsten Frings, Julian De Guzman, Miguel Aceval, and Stefan Frei take them. If they want to be a playoff team this year the core needs to stay healthy and youngsters like Ashtone Morgan, Luis Silva, Matt Stinson, and Joao Plata need to make big contributions.
6. New York Red Bulls: This team is living up to the expectations already with the season barely a day old. Every time you look at what the Energy Drinks are doing you just end up scratching your head as Hans Backe just does not make any sense. This season the club cut a number of players that they did not need to and did not add much. They are still waiting to find out if Luke Rodgers will get a visa and be able to come back but that is not the only question mark that they have. The big question for the team is in goal where they are lacking a proven option but things are not much better in the back line where they will rely on Wilman Conde and Rafa Marquez who both come with their own question marks based on last years performances. They will win some games thanks to their attack that will be highlighted by Thierry Henry, Kenny Cooper, and Juan Agudelo is he is ever allowed off the bench.
7. Philadelphia Union: This team has a very strange offseason and are now much worse off because of it. They lost Justin Mapp, Faryd Mondragon, and most notably Sebastian Le Toux. That is three contributors, and two key starters gone, with very little coming in to replace them. That leaves the team with some young players in key positions and a real lack of depth. It also leaves them with very little MLS experience in the attack so scoring goals might just be tough for them. After being one of the East's most exciting teams last year they are in for a much tougher season this time around.
8. Columbus Crew: The Crew were fourth in the East last season and did not lose a ton of players but the ones that they did lose are going to have a big impact. Gone are Robbie Rogers, Andrés Mendoza, and Jeff Cunninghman leaving the team with a real lack of proven MLS scorers. That is going to come back to bite them as they will be counting on a lot from off season signing Milovan Mirošević and the only veteran attacker left with MLS experience Emilio Renteria. A couple injuries are likely to happen to a team over the course of a season but this team is not equipped to deal with them. If they were average last year they are going to be worse this year as other teams in the East have done more to improve.
9. New England Revolution: They had an exciting preseason, they have a promising young coach in Jay Heaps, they are a mess. The Revs ownership continues to not invest in the team and the only reason they have a DP now is because they were basically forced to give Shalrie Joseph a raise if they wanted to keep him. This is a team with a midfield group capable of being among the best in the East led by Joseph, Benny Feilhaber, and Kelyn Rowe. It is everywhere else that the team faces a lot of questions. The biggest of the questions is what will come of Jose Moreno and if he will even come and play for the Revs let alone be the difference maker they need at forward.
10. Montreal Impact: See Toronto FC 2007 and Vancouver Whitecaps 2011 but possibly worse. It is going to be another tough year for a Canadian expansion side in MLS. The Impact got some nice pieces on the team with Patrice Bernier and Davy Arnaud around to hold down the middle of the park. The problem for them is that Ching did not want to stick around and they are lacking any sort of proven scoring threat. The good news is they have a team capable of keeping clean sheets if they can avoid mistakes. So 0-0 draws until the summer window when fans will be hoping for that big DP signing is about all they can expect.