With 16 teams in two countries, a host of new signings, a management-labour dispute narrowly avoided just days before kick-off and a shiny new club in Philadelphia, the 15th season of Major League Soccer (MLS) is set to get underway. The new campaign kicks off on Thursday with new boys Philadelphia Union taking on last year’s debutants Seattle Sounders on the road in hostile territory. The rest of the league will be in action at the weekend.

Jason Kreis’s Real Salt Lake will be aiming to follow up his side’s fairytale run of last year with back-to-back titles, but it will be no easy ask for the men from the High Rockies as Landon Donovan returns to Los Angeles Galaxy (the side RSL beat in last year’s one-off title decider, the MLS Cup) with confidence high after a successful loan spell in England’s Premier League with Everton. The glamour boys from Hollywood will also have to deal with the loss of David Beckham, whose injured Achilles tendon, sustained while on loan at AC Milan, has been the talk of planet football for weeks.

With Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew and New England Revolution all looking like potential challengers too, FIFA.com takes a look ahead to the new season.

Best in the West
The Galaxy will have some formidable challengers in the Western Conference (the league is separated into East and West). Chivas USA - established in 2004 as another top-flight option for fans in the Los Angeles area - share the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy and will be keen on keeping up the sustained progress they built last year by reaching the play-offs. USA internationals Sacha Kljestan and Jonathan Bornstein will all be aiming at another run into the play-offs this term, and surely hoping to make it past the first round, where they were beaten by Bruce Arena and their cross-town rivals last time out.

Eventual champions Real Salt Lake only just snuck into the play-offs last season, but rode their team ethic and blue-collar style all the way to a first title. They will be hoping to do so again, and might well benefit from the fact that they are likely to have precious few players heading to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ in June, hence keeping their squad consistent.

“I was down in Argentina looking at new players in the close season, but the truth is we can’t afford a lot of the talent down there,” Kreis told FIFA.com after last year’s heroics. “But we have a strong team, a team that sticks together, and we’ll be hoping to improve from last year.”

...We have a strong team, a team that sticks together, and we’ll be hoping to improve from last year.

Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis

Seattle Sounders and their massive fan base will be hoping to avoid a sophomore slump in their second season as an MLS franchise, and with former USA great Kasey Keller between the posts, plus Freddie Ljungberg and Fredy Montero leading the charge in attack, they should be in good shape. Houston Dynamo, who finished second in the West in 2009, will be aiming for more of the same despite the loss of some key midfielders.

Down at the bottom, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas and San Jose Earthquakes will all be keen to get back on track after poor efforts last term that saw all three miss the post-season play-offs.

Beasts of the East
The Eastern Conference will be led by Chicago Fire. The club from the States’ so-called second city boasts former USA striker Brian McBride, but will need to cope with the loss of Mexican stand-out creator Cuauhtemoc Blanco, now with Veracruz south of the border. The Fire were the only side from the Eastern Conference to reach the semi-final round of the play-offs last year. Columbus Crew, who won their first title in 2008, will also be keen on reaching their third-straight play-offs and will be counting on the inspirational leadership of captain Frankie Hejduk and aging Argentine ace Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Rounding out the trio of teams from the East that reached the post-season last year, Steve Nicol’s ultra-consistent New England Revolution will be hoping for more of the same, and banking on the output of long-time striker Taylor Twellman and midfield general Shalrie Joseph in Foxboro.

The rest of the teams from the East will need to buckle down and improve from last year’s poor showings. DC United will once again be relying on the cool head of Bolivian veteran Jaime Moreno, while Toronto FC’s rabid fan base will do their all to drive local Canadian heroes Dwayne De Rosario and Julian De Guzman forward into the upper reaches of the table.

Kansas City Wizards and New York Red Bulls both had disastrous runs last year, and will be eager to right the ship. Kansas City are likely to struggle once again with precious few impact players to speak of, while the men from the Big Apple have a bona fide star in Juan Pablo Angel on offer, and are likely to be bolstered by a pre-season win over Brazilian giants Santos. New side Philadelphia Union join the fray hoping USA fringe players Danny Califf and Michael Orozco can turn on the style from the start.