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Columbus likely to rule the Eastern Conference once again

Five of the eight playoff teams came from the East last year, and with ’08 cellar dwellers DC United and Toronto adding Christian Gomez and Dwayne DeRosario, respectively, the conference should only be stronger this time around.

Will anyone be able to catch Columbus? My guess: no. The playoffs are a crap shoot, but Columbus should repeat as Supporters Shield winners.

Meanwhile, which new names will become MLS stars in 2009? Alberto Celades? Santiago Hirsig? Argenis Fernandez? Pablo Vitti? Only one way to find out.

Here’s a quick look at the Eastern Conference (the West preview will be added tomorrow). The teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Like many MLS teams in 2009, the Fire is a squad that will look a lot like last year’s edition. They will have Brain McBride (5 goals in 11 games) for the entire season this summer, but the only addition to the team that ended last year 13-10-7 (2nd in the East) is their second round draft pick.

Cuauhtemoc Blanco still rules the midfield as well as his aching knees allow. Justin Mapp and John Thorington sprint down the wings. Bakary Soumare and Gonzalo Segares anchor a back line supporting reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Jon Busch. See you in the playoffs.

They won the 2008 Supporters Shield. They won the 2008 MLS Cup. They have all their key guys coming back. Expect big things from the Columbus Crew in 2009.

Coach Sigi Schmid has taken off to Seattle, but new boss Robert Warzycha has been with the club since Year 1, and was their top assistant last year, so the transition shouldn’t be jarring.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto was an easy choice as MLS MVP in 2008. Robbie Rogers and Pat Noonan are quality in midfield. MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall and the non-stop Frankie Hejduk star on the back line. Goalkeeper William Hesmer had 10 clean sheets in 2008.

Do the double back to back? Why not?

DC United
Last year was one to forget, as DC missed the playoffs. Now that the Marcelo Gallardo DP project is over, DC hopes the return of former MLS MVP Christian Gomez will also mean a return to MLS glory.

Fred, Santino Quaranta, and Clyde Simms are the other pieces of one of the strongest midfields in MLS. Up front Luciano Emilio had 18 goals in all competitions last year, and he still has Jaime Moreno alongside.

The DC defense was 13th worst last year, and they’ve done little about that. Fans in the nation’s capital will be looking forward to stadium ground-breaking ceremonies, not adding more silverware on the shelf this season.

Kansas City
The Wizards have problems on offense. Last year’s team-leading scorer? Davy Arnaud, with all of 7 goals. For '09, they've brought in another Argentinian to (maybe) put up some big numbers. Midfielder Santiago Hirsig joins his countryman, forward Claudio Lopez (6 goals, 7 assists in ‘08) at CommunityAmerica Ballpark this year.

Josh Wolff is back, too, along with fellow long-term MLSers defender Jimmy Conrad and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. The Wizards ended last year with a surge that lifted them to finish just 1 game over .500, and into the playoffs. 2009 should be another year of scrapping for the last playoff spot.

New England
Costa Rican Argenis Fernandez is the Rev’s shiny new import, joining established stars Taylor Twellman, and Steve Ralston in the New England attack.

Shalrie Joseph still rules the defensive side of midfield.

Matt Reis is one of the best ‘keepers in the league. He'll miss Michael Parkhurst, but still has defenders Chris Albright, and Jay Heaps.

This is a playoff team.

New York
Don’t get caught up in the romance of last year’s playoff run by the Red Bulls, this team was under .500 in the regular season (10-11-9) and have lost one of the better players, Dave van den Bergh.

In 2009, all eyes turn to midfielder Alberto Celades, 33, who has Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys in his closet. With the speedy Dane Richards on the right side, and Designated Player Most Worth The Money Juan Pablo Angel up front, Celades will have some help going forward.

In the back, the Red Bulls are basically the same team that was 12th worst last year, though fan fave Mike Petke’s is back with NY after six years in DC and Colorado.

If you can just barely squeak into the post season, then anything’s possible, right?

How good is Dwayne DeRosario? We’re about to find out. Amado Guevara and Carl Robinson both return in midfield, but it’s DRo’s show and he’s counted on lead Toronto to their first ever playoff appearance.

The other question up front is Pablo Vitti. Can the young Argentinian make a name for himself in MLS? Toronto’s offense was 13th last year, so while Chad Barrett and Danny Dichio return, along with defender Marvell Wynne, it’ll be up to the new faces to create new success.