Columbus Crew have appointed a new coach as they look to retain the MLS Cup in 2009.

By Paul Gardner
Eastern Conference
As the winners of last year’s MLS Cup, Columbus Crew would no doubt see no real reason for any radical changes, but the departure of coach Sigi Schmid to newcomers Seattle has meant a change at the top, with former Crew and Poland international Robert Warzycha, who had been Schmid’s assistant, taking over. Last year’s key player, the 36-year-old former Argentina striker Guillermo Barros Schelotto, returns.

Beaten in the play-off semi-finals by Columbus last year, Chicago Fire also have little need for change. Coach Denis Hamlett stays and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the mesmerizing Mexican, returns – as does ex-Fulham striker Brian McBride. However, powerful defender Wilman Conde is still looking for a move.

DC United have ditched Argentinian Marcelo Gallardo and defenders Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martinez, but coach Tom Soehn has survived last season’s failures. Christian Gomez, traded last year to Colorado to make way for Gallardo, has returned, but at 34 – and playing alongside Luciano Emilio (30) and Jaime Moreno (35) Gomez – he gives the attack a rather old look.

Claudio Lopez, last year’s major signing, stays at Kansas City Wizards, despite losing his Designated Player status, and is joined by fellow Argentinian Santiago Hirsig (31) from San Lorenzo. More will be expected of injury-prone forward Josh Wolff, while Roger Espinoza, the 22-year-old Honduras international, looks encouraging.

New England Revolution failed to make it four MLS Cup Finals in a row when they were heavily beaten in the play-off quarter-finals by Chicago Fire last year. Coach Steve Nicol has made no dramatic signings, but has bid farewell to steady USA central defender Michael Parkhurst, who is now with Nordsjaelland in Denmark.

New York Red Bulls reached the MLS Cup Final last season, their best-ever performance. Ex-Aston Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel returns but Dutch midfielder Dave Van den Bergh has gone to Dallas. Speedy acquisitions Ghanaian Dominic Oduro, Bermudan Khano Smith, Cameroonian Matthew Mbuta and Macoumba Kandji from Senegal suggest a rapid counter-attacking style this season.

Toronto FC were desperately poor during their first year, 2007, and only marginally better last season. But the tremendous enthusiasm of the fans remains undamaged and the calibre of their players has improved. A major plus for this season is the signing of forward Dwayne De Rosario, a Toronto native, formerly with Houston.

Western Conference
With the departure of Francisco Mendoza to Guadalajara, Chivas USA – who are supposed to be a mostly Mexican side – now include only one Mexican in their squad: defender Claudio Suarez, who is 40. Rising US star Sacha Kljestan returns after training with Scottish Premier League side Celtic during the winter, but Switzerland midfielder Raphael Wicky, who sat out most of his debut season last year with injuries, has retired.

Colorado Rapids failed to make the play-offs last season after Englishman Gary Smith took over in mid-campaign. Smith has been retained and he has hired another Brit, Steve Guppy, to act as his assistant. His most skilful player, Christian Gomez, has been traded to
DC United but captain Pablo Mastroeni, who was thought to be heading to Europe, has decided to stay.

FC Dallas have lost Mexican defender Duilio Davino, who had not been a great success, but they have gained midfielder Dave Van den Bergh from New York. Colombian midfielder David Ferreir (31) joins this season from partner club Atletico Paranaense, while Kenny Cooper, scorer of 18 goals last year and subject of much talk about a move to Europe, is staying. Pablo Ricchetti, an Argentinian midfielder, is the new club captain.

At Houston Dynamo, coach Dominic Kinnear has a full complement of scrappy midfielders but the departure of De Rosario means his side have lost one of the league’s most dangerous attacking players. Also gone is forward Nate Jaqua, who was taken by Seattle in the expansion draft. However, national team striker Brian Ching remains. Dynamo have so far refused to bring in a major star, but they have a Designated Player slot open if they change their mind.

Even without David Beckham, who does not return from Milan until July, Los Angeles Galaxy will be a better team this year. No big names have arrived, but trades within MLS have given the team a meaner, leaner look. Combative veteran Dema Kovalenko, a favourite of coach Bruce Arena, will no doubt ensure a goodly dose of physical contact – and a steady flow of yellow cards. Midfielder Mike Magee has been acquired from New York Red Bulls. If there is to be any sign of the beautiful game for Galaxy, it will have to come from Landon Donovan.

Real Salt Lake made the play-offs for the first time last season with the opening of the new Rio Tinto Stadium buoying the club’s spirits. Argentinian Fabian Espindola has departed but all the key players from last year have been retained, including Argentinian midfielder Javier Morales, Colombian defender Jamison Olave, midfielder Kyle Beckerman and Armenian-born forward Yura Movsisyan.

Last season San Jose Earthquakes were an expansion team, being built up from scratch by coach Frank Yallop. They ended up sharing the worst record in the league with LA Galaxy – with just eight wins in 30 games. The one bright spot was the form of English import Darren Huckerby, who will now have a new attacking partner in Bobby Convey, who returns to MLS from Reading. Up front, Yallop admits to liking a target man and has acquired Cam Weaver, back in the USA after two years in Norway.

Seattle Sounders have sold more than 20,000 season tickets for their debut MLS campaign before any fans have seen a single game, such is the enthusiasm up in the American north west. New coach Sigi Schmid, fresh from last season’s MLS Cup triumph with Columbus, has made the league’s only real big-name signing for this season, bringing in Freddie Ljungberg. Veteran US international goalkeeper Kasey Keller has also signed.

Key dates
Season starts: March 19, 2009
Play-offs start: October 29, 2009
MLS Cup Final: November 22, 2009, Seattle