When you look at the Eastern Conference heading into the 2012 MLS season, on paper it appears to be very balanced. No matter who you think is the favorite to win it all, there is no clear consensus. This is in contrast to the West where, even though MLS Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez will miss most if not all of the 2012 regular season, most observers still feel the LA Galaxy will rule again. We'll talk more about the Galaxy in a future column dealing with the Western Conference.
For today, let's look at some of the questions and stories to follow in 2012 in the Eastern Conference.
Olympics and World Cup qualifying
How will international duty affect Major League Soccer in 2012? Assuming the USA does qualify for the Olympics, between those games and WCQ's, some teams will lose players for a significant number of games. Some clubs, including the Union, could lose several important players to their national teams, be it the USA or other countries. How will DC United deal with the loss of their number one goalkeeper, Bill Hamid, who is in the mix for both Olympic and World Cup qualifying? The same holds true for Chicago's top goalkeeper, Sean Johnson. Those are just two of the many players who could miss significant time because of national team duties. In the case of the Union, Freddy Adu, Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney were all called into the most recent U-23 camp, while Sheanon Williams and Zac MacMath were called for previous camps in preparation for Olympic qualifying in March.
How will the absence of Sebastien Le Toux and Faryd Mondragon affect the Union?
MLS observers are anxious to see how a re-loaded Union roster performs without the club's two All-Star representatives. When you lose your number one goalkeeper and top goal scorer, there's a lot of production to replace. On top of that, both moves were made at the start of preseason camp from seemingly out of nowhere.
The Union, however, appear poised to fill both voids. In 20-year-old Zac MacMath, Philadelphia have their goalkeeper for the future, and that future starts now in 2012. From what we saw of MacMath in 2011, there is every reason to be optimistic.
As for goal scoring, the Union need to score more goals this season if they are to make another step forward. Too many games last year were won on defense. Without Le Toux, the team will rely on a more balanced attack, with the hope that goals will come from players like Danny Mwanga, Lionard Pajoy, Josue Martinez and Jack McInerney, among others.
How much have the weaker teams improved?
On paper, Toronto FC and New England have helped themselves during the offseason, but is it enough to make a serious run at a playoff spot? The Revolution will offer a new look, starting behind the bench with head coach Jay Heaps. While Heaps has made many changes, he did opt to keep both Shalrie Joseph and Matt Reis, two productive vets who are getting up there in terms of playing years. Toronto will begin the year with midseason reinforcements Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans, both of whom impressed last season.
Can the Chicago Fire get back to the playoffs?
This storied franchise has faced some tough times over the past two seasons, missing out on the playoffs each year. If the 2011 season had gone a couple of weeks longer, I think the Fire might have made it to the postseason the way they were playing. Pavel Pardo was a leader after coming over mid-season in 2011 and is back to anchor the midfield. If Dominic Oduro (12 goals) can continue to score and Sebastian Grazzini can stay healthy (five goals and four assists in 11 games played), Chicago could re-emerge as a playoff team.
What about the Red Bulls?
Is New York really going to start the season with two inexperienced goalkeepers in Ryan Meara and Jeremy Vuolo, especially when one looks at the club's recent history of inconsistent goalkeeping? This from a franchise that once had Tim Howard and Tony Meola on board.
Does Luke Rodgers get his work visa approved? It's no secret that the Red Bulls are a much better and more dynamic team when Rodgers is in their lineup, even with the offseason addition of Kenny Cooper from Portland.
Either way, the team won't win unless Thierry Henry repeats his 2011 season … and Rafa Marquez makes sure there is no repeat of last year's mess. The Mexican international struggled on the field, and ended up being suspended at the end of the year for calling out a teammate publicly.
Other Eastern Conference questions to ponder:
While Andres Mendoza had his faults, he did score 13 goals for Columbus last season. Without him, who scores for the Crew?
Can Dwayne De Rosario have another sensational season and repeat his great 2011 numbers of 16 goals and 12 assists?
Will his teammate, Albanian forward Hamdi Salihi, live up to his DP status, or will he be another player who fails to live up to those two pressure-filled letters?
In his second year as a number one goalkeeper, can Houston's Tally Hall get his team back to MLS Cup? How does MLS assist leader Brad Davis respond, coming back from an injury that prevented him from playing in the Cup final vs. LA?
Sporting Kansas City didn't make a bunch of changes for the coming year, but did they need to? DP Omar Bravo isn't back, but forward C.J. Sapong should improve upon his Rookie of the Year season and midfielder Graham Zusi appears ready to make yet another important step in his future.
Can Donovan Ricketts put up elite goalkeeping numbers for the Montreal Impact like he did in his years with the Galaxy? Or will the first-year team struggle to offer the type of defensive support Ricketts became accustomed to in LA?
With the 2012 season less than two weeks away, plenty of questions will soon have answers.