MLS gears up for action

The 14th season of Major League Soccer kicks off on 19 March, with Juan Pablo Angel and his New York Red Bulls travelling 3000 miles to take on league new boys, the Seattle Sounders and home-town hero Kasey Keller. Join for a preview tour of USA's top flight.

Focussing first on the east (MLS is split into Western and Eastern Conferences), Columbus Crew will aim to replicate their success of last year, when they won their first MLS crown last year, beating New York in the one-off decider MLS Cup. A founding member of the league, the Ohioan club's history prior to last season had been generally inglorious. However, the arrival of former Boca Juniors star Guillermo Barros Schelotto in 2007 changed their outlook considerably.

"We caught a few breaks last year," USA international and fan favourite Frankie Hejduk recently told "But in many ways we created our own luck. We worked hard and never gave up, and with a player like Guillermo in the team and our great fans, things just turned our way."

The New York Red Bulls, fortunate to reach the MLS Cup last year after sneaking into the post-season play-offs, will need to put in better sustained performances if they want to go one step farther than their runner-up finish in 2008. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio will be counting, once again, on the attacking threat of Colombian striker Angel, who scored 14 goals last year, to bring the good times back to the Big Apple.

Losing finalists in 2005, '06 and '07, the New England Revolution (Based outside of Boston) had a year to forget in 2008. Serious injuries to key players Taylor Twellman and Steve Ralston took a toll in the play-offs, and the Revs went tumbling at the first hurdle to Cuauhtemoc Blanco's Chicago Fire. This year head coach and former Liverpool great Steve Nicol will have the added bonus of recent acquisitions Chris Albright and Costa Rican international Gabriel Badilla to bolster an experienced squad.

Four-time champions DC United, who failed to reach the play-offs last season, are led again by top players Christian Gomez, Luciano Emilio and Fred, but will have to make do with the loss of Marcelo Gallardo, who returned to Argentinian giants River Plate. Chicago Fire will also be looking to build on their run to the conference finals, and the onus will fall on Mexican maestro Blanco and legendary USA striker Brian McBride.

Kansas City Wizards and three-year-old Toronto FC round out the competitors in the East. The Kansans, champions in 2000, pin their hopes on aging Argentinian ace Claudio Lopez, while Toronto (the only Canadian side in MLS until the addition of Vancouver Whitecaps in 2011) will be hoping to entertain their raucous fan base with the likes of Honduran captain Amado Guevara and new arrival Dwayne De Rosario.

Best of the west
MLS's Western Conference will throw one more competitor into the mix this year in the shape of the Seattle Sounders. The team, which played in the old NASL and has been in existence in some form since 1974, will be playing in their first MLS season, and are the first club from the Pacific Northwest. Coached by two-time league coach of the year Sigi Schmid, who led the Crew to silverware last year, their stars include former USA keeper Kasey Keller - returning from abroad for his first stint in MLS - and former Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg, who is still recovering from hip surgery.

One side surely hoping to turn over a new leaf will be LA Galaxy, whose struggles last season were well publicised. New coach Bruce Arena will need to forage ahead without the services of David Beckham after a public tug-of-war left the English star staying in Milan until July. It will put extra pressure of Landon Donovan, just back from a successful loan spell of his own with Bayern Munich.

Twice champions Houston Dynamo will need to soldier on without Dwayne De Rosario, the Canadian playmaker having returned to his roots at Toronto FC. Chivas USA, the other side from Los Angeles, have been quietly going from strength to strength since their founding in 2004, and will be aiming, behind the creativity of Sacha Kljestan, to at least equal their run to the play-offs last year. The third Californian combatant, the San Jose Earthquakes, look likely to struggle again, failing to substantially build on the team that finished last in the Western Conference last season.

Real Salt Lake, under the leadership of coach and former MLS star Jason Kreis, reached the conference finals last year, and will be eager to keep up that kind of form. As for Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, both missed out on the post-season play-offs last season and will be desperate to get things right this time out.