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Can the Columbus Crew repeat as MLS champions in 2009? ((Gus Ruelas/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 Western Conference and Toronto FC.

CHICAGO FIRE

  • 2008 regular season: 13-10-7, 46 points (2nd in Eastern Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Lost in conference finals
  • Key arrivals: Midfielder Baggio Husidic
  • Key departures: Defenders Diego Gutierrez and Lider Marmol; midfielder Stephen King; forward Tomasz Frankowski
  • Outlook: The future looks bright in the Windy City. The Fire have great depth at every position, especially in attack where Mexican playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco and veteran U.S. forward Brian McBride will be running the show. The midfield looks just as strong with Justin Mapp, John Thorrington and Chris Rolfe, who is poised to have a breakout campaign. Even with the loss of Gutierrez, Chicago's defence - second in the league in goals-against in 2008 - looks formidable, especially with Bakary Soumare serving as the anchor. If Chicago can improve its home record from last year (7-5-3) and be more consistent (it won just three of its last nine games), the Fire could win the conference title.
  • Difference maker: Cuauhtemoc Blanco. When the Mexican plays to his potential, he is easily the league's most dangerous player.

COLUMBUS CREW

  • 2008 regular season: 17-7-6, 57 points (1st in Eastern Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: MLS Cup champions
  • Key arrivals:  Coach Robert Warzycha
  • Key departures: Coach Sigi Schmid; defender Ezra Hendrickson; midfielders Brad Evans and Stefani Miglioranzi
  • Outlook: Led by veteran Argentine forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the Crew won their first league title in franchise history in 2008. Can they repeat as champions? History isn't on their side: only D.C. United (1996 and 1997) and the Houston Dynamo (2006 and 2007) have lifted back-to-back MLS Cups. What's more, coach Sigi Schmid, the architect behind the Crew's successful title run, left the club to take over at Seattle. But the core of last season's championship team (defenders Frankie Hejduk and Chad Marshall, and midfielder Robbie Rogers) is still intact and Schelotto signed a new contract in the off-season, which means he and the Crew are not going to rest on their laurels.
  • Difference maker: Guillermo Barros Schelotto. He was the league MVP last season and helped the Crew win their first league title. What will he do for an encore?

D.C. UNITED

  • 2008 regular season: 11-15-4, 37 points (6th in Eastern Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Didn't qualify Key arrivals: Goalkeeper Josh Wicks; defender Dejan Jakovic; midfielders Christian Gomez and Rodney Wallace; forward Ange N'Silu
  • Key departures: Goalkeeper Zach Wells; defenders Gonzalo Martinez and Gonzalo Peralta; midfielders Marcelo Gallardo, Ivan Guerrero and Joe Vide
  • Outlook: This could be another long season for soccer fans in the U.S. capital. Despite having the second-worst defence in 2008 (51 goals against), United didn't bolster its back-line in the off-season and will rely on veteran Bryan Namoff to anchor an otherwise inexperienced defence. Goalkeeper Zach Wells's retirement also leaves United without a quality man between the posts. Things look more solid up front, where Gomez returns to a United side loaded with attacking options (forwards Fred and Jaime Moreno, and wingers Luciano Emilio and Santino Quaranta). With Gallardo gone, fellow Argentine Gomez, coming off a miserable year in Colorado, needs to rediscover his old form.
  • Difference maker: Christian Gomez. The former league MVP is one of the most effective playmakers in MLS and can shred defences with his exemplary passing skills.

KANSAS CITY WIZARDS

  • 2008 regular season: 11-10-9, 42 points (4th in Eastern Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Lost in conference semifinals
  • Key arrivals: Defenders Matt Besler and Tyson Wahl; midfielder Santiago Hirsig; forward Adam Cristman
  • Key departures: Midfielders Carlos Marinelli and Kerry Zavagnin; forward Ivan Trujillo
  • Outlook: The Wizards blew hot and cold in 2008 and only sneaked into the playoffs late in the season. Claudio Lopez showed flashes of brilliance at times, but he'll have to do it on a more consistent basis and develop better chemistry with fellow forward Josh Wolff. A lot of pressure will also be resting on the shoulders of Argentine playmaker Santiago Hirsig, who replaced his underperforming countryman Carlos Marinelli. The addition of Hirsig and forward Adam Cristman gives the Wizards attacking depth, which should mean that they will contend in the East.  K.C. does have problems at the back, though: Jimmy Conrad will be called on to hold together a young and inexperienced defence.
  • Difference maker: Jimmy Conrad. One of the best central defenders in MLS, Conrad adds a touch of class and stability to the Wizards' back-line.
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New England Revolution forward Taylor Twellman will try to come back strong in 2009 after having an injury-plagued season last year. ((Fred Beckham/Associated Press))

NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION

  • 2008 regular season: 12-11-7, 43 points (3rd in Eastern Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Lost in conference semifinals
  • Key arrivals: Defender Kevin Alston; midfielders Ryan Maxwell and Michael Videira
  • Key departures: Defender Michael Parkhurst; midfielder Khano Smith; forward Adam Cristman
  • Outlook: After four MLS Cup final appearances in six years, the Revolution's elimination in the first round of the playoffs last season signalled a new era in the franchise's history. New England has been a perennial contender in the East, but 2009 should be a rebuilding season for the Revs. The loss of central defender Michael Parkhurst is big blow for a team that must now rely on Gabriel Badilla to marshal the back-line, and that could be asking too much of the Costa Rican. Midfielder Steve Ralston and forward Taylor Twellman are coming off injury-plagued seasons, so it'll be interesting to see how these two key players respond. Expect coach Steve Nichol to give a lot of playing time to his crop of rookies.
  • Difference maker: Taylor Twellman. The American forward has been one of the most prolific and dangerous scorers in MLS since joining the league in 2002.

NEW YORK RED BULLS

  • 2008 regular season: 10-11-9, 39 points (5th in Eastern Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: MLS Cup finalists
  • Key arrivals: Defenders Alfredo Pacheco and Mike Petke; midfielders Alberto Celades, Jeremy Hall and Khano Smith; forward Dominic Oduro
  • Key departures: Defenders Gabriel Cichero, Diego Jimenez, Chris Leitch and Jeff Parke; midfielders Dave van den Bergh and Mike Magee
  • Outlook: The Red Bulls' play in the attacking third last season often lacked imagination, so the team added some much-needed speed by acquiring  Dominic Oduro, Khano Smith and Jeremy Hall. Oduro will be used up front and serve as a foil for goal-machine Juan Pablo Angel. With Jorge Rojas pulling the creative strings and the addition of former FC Barcelona midfielder Alberto Celades, New York's attack looks pretty potent. It'll be up to newcomers Mike Petke and Alfredo Pacheco to anchor a defence that ranked third-worst in MLS last season. Petke, especially, will have his work cut out, as New York doesn't have another quality centre-back for him to play alongside.
  • Difference maker: Juan Pablo Angel. The Colombian forward is a class act and a dangerous goal scorer who gives defenders all they can handle.

TORONTO FC

  • 2008 regular season: 9-13-8, 35 points (7th in Eastern Conference)
  • 2008 playoffs: Didn't qualify
  • Key arrivals: Goalkeeper Stefan Frei; defender Adrian Serioux and Emmanuel Gomez; midfielders Sam Cronin and Dwayne De Rosario; forwards O'Brian White and Pablo Vitti.
  • Key departures: Defenders Todd Dunivant, Tyrone Marshall and Julius James; forward Jarrod Smith
  • Outlook: Toronto soccer fans are abuzz, thanks to the arrival of playmaking Canadian forward Dwayne De Rosario. The presence of Argentine forward Pablo Vitti, another newcomer, means Toronto has real depth at the forward position for the first time in club history. Depth is also something Toronto has between the posts (expect rookie Stefan Frei to push Greg Sutton) and in midfield, where De Rosario is expected to play alongside the effective duo of Amado Guevara and Carl Robinson. Rookie midfielder Sam Cronin should also get plenty of playing time. Toronto's defence remains an issue. Toronto needed to sign two veteran centre-backs to revitalize what was a leaky back four last season, but thus far has only added Canadian Adrian Serioux, a defensive midfielder by trade. Toronto's lack of defensive depth will hurt the team.
  • Difference maker: Dwayne De Rosario. The native of Toronto's Scarborough district is one of the most versatile and entertaining players to watch in the MLS.

PREDICTED FINISH:

  • 1) Columbus Crew*
  • 2) Chicago Fire*
  • 3) Toronto FC*
  • 4) Kansas City Wizards*
  • 5) New York Red Bulls
  • 6) New England Revolution
  • 7) D.C. United
  • * will make playoffs