The margins are once again razor thin and just about every team has a chance to compete for a place in postseason. Such is the world of parity in American professional sports, not just MLS. Of course this league is much tighter from top to bottom because of smaller and tighter budget restrictions but there are still a handful of clubs in each conference who are clearly a step above the rest.
The Western Conference has been hailed as the superior division and that may be the case during the regular season but Sporting Kansas City is the defending MLS Cup champion. The West is tougher at the top again but the East may be even more competitive. After the top three clubs (and it's even debatable that it's only the top two) it's conceivable that any of the Eastern Conference teams is capable of finishing as high as third or fourth and as low as ninth or tenth.
Early results will be important, particularly for clubs which have kept a semblance of continuity from last year to this season. There aren't any easy games in MLS and predicting the order of finish is difficult as a result. We're going to take our annual crack at it anyway.
This season we're joined by ESPN1000's Fire Weekly host Fred Huebner and Fire television color commentator Kevin Egan in running down the contenders and taking guesses at how things will play out in MLS for 2014. Here's a look at each club in predicted order of finish followed by more stabs at foretelling the future.
1. Portland Timbers - they looked to shore up defensively by adding centerback Norberto Paparatto and have improved the attack with Argentine Gaston Fernandez. They may even be better later in the season when they get Steve Zakuani and Rodney Wallace back from injury. Well coached and entertaining to watch, particularly at home, the Timbers are poised for another big year in Portland. If Diego Valeri can stay fit and Fernandez proves to be another playmaker they can rack up some hardware.
Projected line up - Ricketts; Jewsbury, Paparatto, Kah, Harrington; Chara, Valeri, Johnson; Fernandez, Urruti, Nagbe
2. Los Angeles Galaxy - Not having Landon Donovan for a period this summer due to the World Cup may slow them down for a bit but there's still too much talent here to dismiss them as a serious threat particularly in post season. They've tried to find a strike partner for Robbie Keane in Rob Friend and Samuel but they also have talented youngster Gyasi Zardes ready to step in. Wide play has been one weakness for them over the last few seasons.
Projected line up - Penedo; DeLaGarza, Gonzalez, Leonardo, Dunivant; Ishizaki, Juninho, Sarvas, Donovan; Keane, Friend
3. Seattle Sounders FC - Sigi Schmid will be on the hot seat if this club doesn't have a big regular season followed by some post season success. They'll need Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins to produce on the pitch equivalent to what they're making off of it. Both were underwhelming in MLS play last season. They've got more weapons in Marco Pappa and Kenny Cooper but we'll see if their new mix is an improvement after last year's apparent chemistry issues (cough*Eddie Johnson*cough).
Project line up - Frei; Yedlin, Anibaba, Marshall, Gonzalez; Evans, Alonso, Dempsey, Pappa; Martins, Cooper
4. Real Salt Lake - They continued to chug along and pick up results even though many thought 2013 would be a rebuilding year. They'll be questioned again this year after the departure of Jason Kreis. New coach Jeff Cassar will have much of the same roster to work with. RSL probably won't be as impressive as they were last year with the other teams in the West adding pieces while they stood pat but they'll still be pretty good.
Projected line up - Rimando; Beltran, Borchers, Salcedo, Wingert; Grabavoy, Beckerman, Morales, Gil; Plata, Saborio
5. Vancouver Whitecaps - Losing Camilo was a blow but they've replaced him with two DP's in Matias Laba and Chilean attacking midfielder Pedro Morales. The latter most recently played for Malaga in Spain's La Liga and will make an impact if he can stay healthy. They'll have to tighten up in back in order to stay with the rest of the contenders in the West. They'll also need to find a way to get young midfielder Kekuta Manneh more playing time.
Project line up - Ousted; Beitashour, DeMerit, O'Brien, Harvey; Laba, Reo Coker; Fernandez, Morales, Teibert; Mattocks
6. FC Dallas - Colorado's losses are Dallas' gains with coach Oscar Pareja and more importantly midfielder Hendry Thomas coming over to Texas. They've also added a DP in David Texeira and a speedy winger in Andres Escobar. FC Dallas finished second to last in the West in goals allowed in 2o13 and they'll have to improve significantly to jump into the top five.
Projected line up - Fernandez; Loyd, John, Hedges, Benitez; Escobar, Thomas, Castillo; Diaz, Texeira, Perez
7. San Jose Earthquakes - As long as Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon are playing crash test dummy games with MLS defenders they'll be as annoying as ever. They were mediocre on both sides of the pitch last season and there wasn't much in terms of substantial change added to the side. Center mid Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi was the biggest offseason acquisition. Chris Wondolowski will need to return to 2012 form just to get them close to playoff contention.
Projected line up - Busch; Barklage, Goodson, Bernardez, Stewart; Harris, Cronin, Pierazzi, Salinas; Lenhart, Wondolowski
8. Colorado Rapids - After overachieving last year and managing to land in the playoffs this year may be a rougher go in Colorado. The aforementioned Pareja did an excellent job in molding a relatively young team into a contender and former Rapid Pablo Mastroeni has been tasked with trying to reproduce that success as an "interim coach". Looking at their roster it's going to be tough to do that.
Project line up - Irwin; Sturgis, Wynne, Moor, Klute; Mari, LaBrocca; Brown, Powers, Torres; Buddle
9. Chivas USA - I'm not sure there are sufficient words to describe the mess that this club has been over the last several years. Luckily for their fans a new chapter is on the horizon but they'll have to suffer through this season before new owners finally take charge. They may be better than last year with Wilmer Cabrera at the helm and Argentine Augustin Pelletieri in midfield but there are still holes all over the place. Mauro Rosales may help but he appears to be on his last legs and Bofo Bautista has been running on fumes for about four years now.
Projected line up - Kennedy; Avila, Jean-Baptiste, Bocanegra, Delgado; Rosales, Minda, Pelletieri, McNamara; Torres, Moore
1. Sporting Kansas City - The defending MLS Cup Champions still look to be the most complete team in the Eastern Conference. The same side returns this year with the exception of goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who retired after the season. They're not completely without some questions marks though. After starting 2013 in excellent form Claudio Bieler disappeared during the summer and didn't even dress in some games down the stretch. The other option at forward is Dom Dwyer and he's not exactly going to strike fear into opposing defenses. If they can get more quality out of the lead striker spot they'll finish at or near the top again.
Project line up - Kronberg; Sinovic, Besler, Collin, Myers; Nagamura, Rosell; Sapong, Feilhaber, Zusi; Bieler
2. New York Red Bulls - They won the Supporter's Shield last season but they were only average defensively and that eventually cost them come playoff time as they bowed out 4-3 on aggregate versus Houston. Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill will continue to provide some fireworks but the question will be whether they did enough defensively in the offseason to ensure another trophy this year. They did make some changes by adding centerback Armando Lozano, and fullbacks Richard Eckersley and Bobby Convey. The offense will continue to carry them.
Projected line up - Robles; Kimura, Olave, Armando, Convey; Alexander, McCarty, Cahill, Steele; Henry, Wright-Phillips
3. Toronto FC - If they can stay in the mix through the first four months of the season they will be better in the second half once Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe are fully available and incorporated into the side. There may some struggles before then because they're still questionable in the back. The attack will be dangerous once all of the pieces are in place (Defoe, Gilberto, Dwayne DeRosario, Alvaro Rey, Johnathan Osorio, etc) but it will take some time for this team to gel. Can they withstand what could be a tough start and get everyone to gel quickly enough to make a run in July and August? The talent says yes but reality says that may not be as easy at it sounds.
Projected line up - Cesar/Bendik; Orr, Caldwell, Henry, Morrow; Jackson, Bradley, Osorio, Rey; Gilberto, Defoe
4. New England Revolution - The Revolution seemingly went from dull and plodding to young and dynamic overnight. The addition of Juan Agudelo last season spurred them on to an impressive finish and a playoff spot. They may have overachieved slightly last season but they should still be in the mix for one of the two final postseason berths in the East. Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe can't afford to have the sort of drop off that a lot of young players experience or New England will be on the outside looking in. A top finisher at the 9 spot is still an issue. Saer Sene will figure in at some point but he is out injured to start the season.
Project line up - Shuttleworth; Farrell, Soares, Goncalves, Tierney; Caldwell; Mullins, Nguyen, Rowe, Fagundez; Bunbury
5. Chicago Fire - The Fire need to prove that the run from June to October to end the season wasn't an aberration. It won't be easy with just about all of the non playoff teams from last year making moves that would suggest improvement. They can't rely on Mike Magee to carry the load like he did last season, even with a DP contract, and will need Juan Luis Anangono to step up justifying his DP deal. The defense was revamped and has to be better than it was last season. At some point Benji Joya and Harry Shipp will get a chance to play big roles.
Projected line up - Johnson; Palmer, Soumare, Hurtado, Segares; Larentowicz; Nyarko, Alex, Magee, Duka; Anangono
6. Philadelphia Union - John Hackworth had some money to spend this offseason and he revamped the Union's midfield with three new acquisitions. Philadelphia may have overpaid for Maurice Edu in terms of "MLS value" but he's a quality addition. Vincent Nogueira and Christian Maidana (another DP) are lesser known commodities and there's no guarantee they'll be big impact players. The Union are still lacking a creative type in the middle and Jack McInerney has to prove that he was more than just a hot start last season. Conor Casey continues to be hampered with injuries and shouldn't be counted on to produce over the entire season, even as a part time player.
Projected line-up - MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Berry, Fabinho/Gaddis; Edu, Carroll; Cruz/LeToux, Nogueira, Maidana; McInerney
7. DC United - They played MLS Fantasy Manager this offseason except with real players. A major overhaul was needed after a horrid regular season and they got one. Davy Arnaud, Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola, and Jeff Parke among others are all new additions. They'll be better than they were in 2013 but that's not saying a whole lot. Even if they do improve dramatically it will take some time before a group featuring this many changes can work together as a cohesive unit. There won't be time to experiment in the East with every point a valuable asset. Was it really wise to hand Eddie Johnson a huge DP contract?
Projected line up - Hamid; Franklin, Boswell, Parke, Korb; DeLeon, Kitchen, Arnaud/Jeffrey, Pontius; Silva/Espindola; Johnson
8. Houston Dynamo - It's tough to leave a Dominic Kinnear team out of the playoff picture but they're a squad that struggled mightily at times during the second half of last season and haven't made significant upgrades this year. They're still dangerous with Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia in the side but their biggest additions were Tony Cascio and David Horst as the rest of the East got better.
Projected line up - Hall; Sarkodie, Brunner, Taylor, Ashe; Garcia, Clark, Creavalle, Davis; Barnes; Bruin
9. Columbus Crew - Another team on the bubble between playoff contention and misery. Their biggest offseason moves revolved around changes in central defense where long time star Chad Marshall is gone. Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo Gonzalez are the new central defense pairing but their success will rely on how far Federico Higuain can carry them.
Projected line up - Clark; Barson, Parkhurst, Gonzalez, Francis; Trapp, Viana; Oduro, Higuain, Anor; Arrieta
10. Montreal Impact - They were the toast of MLS after a huge start last season but reality quickly set in during the second half as a slow and old back line collapsed and their midfield was outplayed. Their entire season will fall onto the shoulders of the barely onside Marco Di Vaio once again. If he can't produce in the numbers he did last season it will be a long year for Frank Klopas. Since the Impact are also hard pressed against the cap there wasn't much they could do to upgrade going into 2014. They'll start the year in trouble from the get go with Di Vaio on the suspended list.
Projected line up - Perkins; Camara, Lefevre, Ferrari, Brovsky; Mapp, Bernardello, Bernier, Felipe, Gonzalez; Di Vaio
Supporters Shield winner: Portland
MLS Cup: Portland over Sporting Kansas City
Kevin Egan, Fire color analyst
East: NYRB, SKC, CHI, NE, HOU, TFC, PHL, MTL, DC, CLB
West: PORT, LA, SEA, RSL, COL, VANC, SJ, FCD, CUSA
Supporter's Shield: Portland
MLS Cup: Los Angeles over Chicago
Jeff Krause, Fire Confidential Podcast
East: SKC, NE, NYRB, TFC, CHI, CLB, HOU, DC, PHL, MTL
West: PORT, LA, SEA, RSL, VANC, COL, SJ, FCD, CUSA
Supporter's Shield: Sporting Kansas City
MLS Cup: Portland over New York
Fred Huebner, ESPN1000 Fire Weekly Host
East: SKC, NYRB, CHI, CLB, TFC, HOU, DC, NE, MTL, PHL
West: PORT, SEA, RSL, LA, SJ, VANC, FCD, COL, CUSA
Supporter's Shield: Portland
MLS Cup: Portland over New York
First Kick picks
Seattle 1 Sporting KC 1
DC United 1 Columbus 0
Vancouver 2 New York 2
FC Dallas 1 Montreal 0
Houston 1 New England 1
Portland 2 Philadelphia 0
Los Angeles 1 Real Salt Lake 0
Chivas USA 0 Chicago 1
Fire Confidential fantasy league
You can sign up for the Fire Confidential fantasy league by using the key number 7157-1365.
Fire Weekly debuts on ESPN1000 Saturday morning at 7 am. I'll be jumping on to discuss First Kick so call in and ummm...fire away.
Grant Ward tweeted this morning that he has suffered a fractured 5th metatarsal and will be staying in the UK for a while. The Fire's loan deal with Tottenham had been agreed upon. There is no word yet on how the deal has been affected due to the injury.