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Chivas USA star Sacha Kljestan has etsbalished himself among the elite midfielders in MLS. ((Bill Kostroun/Associated Press))

David Beckham won't be around for the start of Major League Soccer's 2009 regular season, but there's still plenty of reason to be excited about the new campaign.

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League history

  • The top pro soccer league in the United States and Canada, Major League Soccer was formed in 1993 and the 10-team league played its first season in 1996. MLS expanded to 12 teams in 1998, but subtracted two clubs (Miami and Tampa Bay) at the end of the 2001 season. Seattle officially joins the league this season, bringing the total of MLS teams to 15. The league will expand to 16 teams with the addition of Philadelphia in 2010.

Teams

  • Eastern Conference: Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, D.C. United, Kansas City Wizards, New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC
  • Western Conference: Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders FC

Regular Season

  • The top two teams with the most points in each conference at the end of the season automatically qualify for the playoffs. In addition, the next four teams overall with the highest point totals, regardless of which conference they play in, will also make it to the post-season.

Playoffs

  • The conference semifinals are a two-game series, while the conference finals are one match with the winners advancing to the MLS Cup, the league's championship game. In every round of the playoffs, draws will be broken by two 15-minute periods of extra time, followed by penalty kicks if necessary. The away-goals rule is not used.

KEY DATES FOR 2009 MLS SEASON

  • First game of regular season March 19 (New York Red Bulls at Seattle Sounders FC)
  • Toronto FC's season opener March 21 (at Kansas City Wizards)
  • Toronto FC's home debut April 4 (vs. Seattle Sounders FC)
  • MLS All-Star Game in Utah July 29 (Opponent TBA vs. MLS All-Stars)
  • Toronto FC's home finale Oct. 17 (vs. Real Salt Lake)
  • Toronto FC's last regular-season game Oct. 24 (at New York Red Bulls)
  • Last game of regular season Oct. 25 (New England Revolution at Columbus Crew)
  • MLS Cup Nov. 22 (in Seattle)

There are also many pressing questions that need to be answered.

Toronto FC will be looking to qualify for the playoffs for the first time after making a series of big off-season moves, most notably trading for Dwayne De Rosario. The arrival of the Canadian veteran, along with Argentine forward Pablo Vitti, makes Toronto a strong force in the Eastern Conference, but is it enough to turn it into a playoff contender?

The Columbus Crew romped to the league championship last season - the first in franchise history - and league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto and his teammates are hungry for more success. But coach Sigi Schmid is gone and the Crew didn't make any major roster additions during the winter. Does Columbus have what it takes to repeat as champions?

Beckham will finish out the Italian league season with AC Milan before returning to the Los Angeles Galaxy in July. After missing the playoffs the last two years, the Galaxy are anxious to shed their label of underachievers, but can they do that with Beckham set to miss half of the season?

And while other professional sports leagues in North America are fighting against contraction, MLS is expanding to 15 clubs in 2009 as Seattle Sounders FC joins the fray, led by Swedish veteran Freddie Ljungberg. Can the former Arsenal star help Seattle avoid the first-year curse and scrape into the post-season?

With the regular season set to kick off on March 19, CBCSports.ca provides this preview of the league's seven Eastern Conference teams and the top players to watch on the road to the MLS Cup on Nov. 22 in Seattle.

Also, be sure to read our preview of the Eastern Conference and Toronto FC.

CHIVAS USA

  • 2008 regular season: 12-11-7, 43 points (2nd in Western Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Lost in conference semifinals
  • Key arrivals: Defender Ante Jazic; midfielder Michael Lahoud; forward Eduardo Lillingston
  • Key departures: Defender Claudio Suarez and Alex Zotinca; midfielders Francisco Mendoza and Daniel Paladini; forward Roberto Nurse
  • Outlook: Chivas were hit hard with injury problems last season, but still managed to finish second in the West. They have enough talent to do the same again this year if injuries again pose a problem, even with the loss of influential midfielder Francisco Mendoza. What will be interesting to see is whether Sacha Kljestan, the team's midfield general, will finish the season in MLS. He's been tracked by several European clubs and chances are the American will leave during the summer transfer period. If he does, Chivas will be in trouble, because they don't have ready-made replacement. That being said, Chivas is a solid club, and should challenge for first in the West and could go far in the playoffs if they stay healthy.
  • Difference maker: Sacha Kljestan. The American is one of the best midfielders in the league and has been targeted by several big European clubs, including Celtic.

COLORADO RAPIDS

  • 2008 regular season: 11-14-5, 38 points (4th in Western Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Didn't qualify
  • Key arrivals: Goalkeeper Matt Pickens; defender Ty Harden and Scott Palguta; midfielder Ivan Guerrero; forward Kwame Adjeman-Pamboe
  • Key departures: Goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul; defenders Jose Luis Burciaga Jr.,  Facundo Erpen and Mike Petke; midfielder Christian Gomez; forward Tom McManus
  • Outlook: The Rapids were a mess last season, thanks to clashes between management and coach Fernando Clavijo, compounded by Christian Gomez underperforming on the field. But hope springs eternal for the Rapids in 2009, as both Clavijo and Gomez are gone. New coach Gary Smith is rebuilding the team from the back and it'll be up to Cory Gibbs to marshal the defence. Newcomer Matt Pickens is an experienced goalkeeper who provides a stabilizing presence between the posts. The key for the Rapids will be for Terry Cooke to take a more active playmaking role. Also, forward Conor Casey has to avoid injury and have a breakout season by scoring close to 20 goals.
  • Difference maker: Terry Cooke. The Englishman is renowned for his stellar crossing ability and providing his strikers with excellent service and scoring opportunities.

FC DALLAS

  • 2008 regular season: 8-10-12, 36 points (5th in Western Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Didn't qualify
  • Key arrivals: Defenders Daniel Torres and Steve Purdy; midfielder Dave van den Bergh and David Ferreira
  • Key departures: Defenders Duilio Davino and Adrian Serioux
  • Outlook: An anemic home record in 2008 (a league-worst 5-4-6) resulted in Dallas missing the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. A lack of depth (especially in midfield) also kept Dallas from making the post-season, which is why it was a smart move for the club to trade for Dutch veteran Dave van den Bergh and sign Columbian David Ferreira. It'll be up to Ferreira, alongside Brazilian youngster Andre Rocha, to pull the creative strings in midfield and take some pressure off Kenny Cooper, who bagged 18 goals last season and is the club's only significant scoring threat. Daniel Torres and Steve Purdy are solid defensive additions, but the team still lacks quality depth at the back.
  • Difference maker: Kevin Cooper. The face of t he franchise, Cooper is an explosive and hard-working forward who could get scooped up by a European club in the summer.

HOUSTON DYNAMO

  • 2008 regular season: 13-5-12, 51 points (1st in Western Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Lost in conference semifinals
  • Key arrivals: Goalkeeper Tally Hall; defender Julius James; midfielder Danny Cruz
  • Key departures: Defender Patrick Ianni; midfielder Dwayne De Rosario; forward Nate Jaqua
  • Outlook: Hamstrung by the salary cap, Houston dealt Dwayne De Rosario to Toronto in the off-season, bidding goodbye to one of the most influential players in MLS. The loss of De Rosario can't be overstated, as he was the offensive engine that powered Houston to league titles in 2006 and 2007. With De Rosario gone, it'll be up to youngster Stuart Holden to orchestrate the attack from the centre of midfield. With Bobby Boswell back for another season, Houston doesn't have anything to worry about in defence, but up front is another story, as forward Brian Ching is the team's only legitimate scoring threat. That said, and even with De Rosario gone, Houston is still the best team in the West.
  • Difference maker: Brian Ching. He was often overshadowed by De Rosario, but the American has established himself as one of the best forwards in the league.
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How much of a distraction will the David Beckham-AC Milan saga be for the Los Angeles Galaxy? ((Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press))

LOS ANGELES GALAXY

  • 2008 regular season: 8-13-9, 33 points (6th in Western Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Didn't qualify
  • Key arrivals: Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts; defenders Todd Dunivant, Omar Gonzalez, Leonard Griffin and Tony Sanneh; midfielders Dema Kovalenko and Stefani Miglioranzi; forwards Jovan Kirovski and Mike Magee
  • Key departures: Goalkeeper Steve Cronin; defenders Ante Jazic, Mike Randolph, Troy Roberts and Greg Vanney; midfielders Ely Allen, Joey Franchino, Brandon McDonald, Alvaro Pires and Pete Vagenas
  • Outlook: What would a Los Angeles Galaxy season be without a big Hollywood drama? This year's production stars David Beckham, who extended his loan deal at AC Milan, which means he won't return to the Galaxy until their 18th league game of the season on July 16. Beckham's absence -  and his not-so-subtle hints that MLS doesn't meet his standards - is the last thing the Galaxy need after a dismal 2008 season, and it'll be interesting to see how L.A. locker-room reacts to the Englishman when he returns. Questions also remain about the team's porous defence, which conceded a league-high 62 goals last year. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, defender Todd Dunivant and holding midfielder Dema Kovalenko were brought in to add solidity, but the centre of defence remains an issue.
  • Difference maker: Landon Donovan. The American forward led the league in scoring last season with 20 goals and with Beckham gone, it'll be up to him lead the offensive charge.

REAL SALT LAKE

  • 2008 regular season: 10-10-10, 40 points (3rd in Western Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Lost in conference finals
  • Key arrivals: Defender Jamison Olave, midfielder Ned Grabavoy, forward Jean Alexandre
  • Key departures: Defender Nik Besagno; midfielders Dema Kovalenko and Nathan Sturgis; forwards Kenny Cutler, Fabian Espindola and Kenny Deuchar
  • Outlook: Salt Lake surprised the critics in 2008 by qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in history, bowing out in the conference finals - all of this, despite lacking a genuine goal-scoring forward. Things haven't changed much in the Mormon State in the off-season. Salt Lake boasts solidity and depth in defence and in midfield (even with the loss of Kovalenko), but the Utah club still needs an outright striker to lead the attack. Playmaker Javier Morales is one of the league's most creative players, but he could be even better if he had a quality forward to feed his exquisite passes to. Without a first-rate striker, Salt Lake will rely on the strength of its workman-like midfield to grind out results just like they did last season.
  • Difference maker: Javier Morales. The Argentine playmaker oozes class with his silky smooth dribbling ability and flawless passing skills.

SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES

  • 2008 regular season: 8-13-9, 33 points (7th in Western Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Didn't qualify
  • Key arrivals: Goalkeeper Andrew Weber; defender Chris Leitch; midfielders Bobby Convey and Aki Riihilahti; forwards Quincy Amarikwa, Pablo Campos and Cam Weaver
  • Key departures: Defender James Riley; midfielders Francisco Lima and Ronnie O'Brien; forwards Scott Sealy and Jovan Kirovski
  • Outlook: The Earthquakes registered a league-worst 32 goals in 2008, and scoring will again be a problem this year. San Jose still lacks a quality striker up front, and will instead rely on its stable of experienced midfielders and wingers to provide the goals. The team took a gamble by letting O'Brien go, and with the Irishman gone it'll be up to wingers Darren Huckerby and Arturo Alvarez to conjure up the odd goal and create scoring chances. Newcomer Bobby Convey has a big responsibility in the centre of midfield, as it'll be up to him to orchestrate the attack. For an expansion franchise, San Jose was pretty solid in defence last season, and coach Frank Yallop can expect more of the same in 2009 with Jason Hernandez and Nick Garcia anchoring the back line and standout goalkeeper Joe Cannon between the posts.
  • Difference maker: Darren Huckerby. The English winger made a huge impact in 2008 and was named the league's newcomer of the year. What will he do for an encore?

SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC

  • Key arrivals: Coach Sigi Schmid; goalkeeper Kasey Keller; defender Patrick Ianni; midfielders Brad Evans, and Freddie Ljungberg; forward Nate Jaqua
  • Outlook: Seattle hasn't even kicked a ball, but already the team is a success. More than 20,000 season tickets have been sold (the highest total in the league), the city was awarded the 2009 MLS Cup, the team signed former Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg and it managed to bring coach Sigi Schmid (who led Columbus to the league title last season) to town. But let's not lose sight of the fact that this in an expansion franchise and it will go through serious growing pains in its inaugural season. Seattle will score lots of goals if Ljungberg is at his best and if forward Nate Jaqua plays to his potential. But the team will also concede a lot of goals, and veteran goalkeeper Kasey Keller can expect to see plenty of shots fired his way as the team's makeshift defence struggles in front of him. Difference maker: Freddie Ljungberg. The wily Swede is a terror with the ball at his feet, using his speed and deft touch to take defenders on one-on-one.

PREDICTED FINISH:

  • 1) Houston Dynamo*
  • 2) Real Salt Lake*
  • 3) Chivas USA*
  • 4) Colorado Rapids*
  • 5) FC Dallas
  • 6) Los Angeles Galaxy
  • 7) San Jose Earthquakes
  • 8) Seattle Sounders FC
  • * will make playoffs