(2013 record in parentheses)
Chicago (14-13-7) : A tiebreaker kept the Fire out of the playoffs, but with Mike Magee crackling up front and fresh additions Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni bolstering the back line, new coach Frank Yallop should be able to restoke things in the Windy City.
Columbus (12-17-5) : A new owner (Anthony Precourt), a new coach (Gregg Berhalter), and new faces inspire optimism that the former champs can get back in contention. Bringing in Giancarlo Gonzalez and Michael Parkhurst to give ballast to the back line is a start.
D.C. United (3-24-7) : As eye-averting as last year’s worst-ever outing was, United still won the US Open Cup on the road in Utah. Now with striker Eddie Johnson on site to pump up the volume of goals and Sean Franklin, Jeff Parke, and Bobby Boswell on hand to shore up the back line, the four-time champs will be back in the conversation.
Houston (14-11-9) : The Dynamo are an autumn perennial — seven playoff appearances in eight years and the conference final last time. If the defense gels and the midfield can handle the workload, coach Dom Kinnear will keep his guys humming well after the leaves fall.
Montreal (14-13-7) : They were the best team around until midsummer, when the wheels fell off, and they were booted out by Houston in the knockout match. If new coach Frank Klopas can squeeze another season out of Marco Di Vaio, his 37-year-old striker, and enlist some midfield help, the Impact could live up to their name.
New England (14-11-9) : Coming off their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Revolution are on the upswing. With teen god Diego Fagundez plus new addition Teal Bunbury up front, Kelyn Rowe doing mixmaster work in the midfield, and Jose Goncalves anchoring the back line, Jay Heaps’s star-spangled guys should contend, assuming that the goalkeeping holds up.
New York (17-9-8) : With Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry providing pop up front, the Red Bulls have the goods to top the conference again. Question is, how much will their CONCACAF Champions League duties wear down the battery in the second half?
Philadelphia (12-12-10) : With Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira expected to amp up the midfield and help out overburdened striker Jack McInerney, the Union are looking to get back into playoff range. UConn keeper Andre Blake, the top SuperDraftee, could start.
Sporting Kansas City (17-10-7) : They did it the hard way, beating Real Salt Lake, 7-6, in a shootout, but that first crown was legit. With Jimmy Nielsen, the league’s top keeper, gone, backup Eric Kronberg will have to stand tall behind an imposing back line for a repeat.
Toronto FC (6-17-11) : They’ve never made the playoffs and weren’t close last time, so ownership laid out a lot of loonies to bring in studs Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, and Gilberto plus Julio Cesar to keep goal. Will that be enough to collect the additional 20-plus points the club likely will need to get to the postseason? Maybe. At least it’s a healthy down payment.
Colorado (14-11-9) : With rookies Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown providing midfield oomph, the young Rapids made some noise last year. Now, can they make a push under former teammate and new coach Pablo Mastroeni, who still has the interim label?
Chivas USA (6-20-8) : Anybody want to buy a soccer club in LA? The league last month bought back Chivas from its Mexican owners, but new coach Wilmer Cabrera can’t be expected to work miracles with a group that gave up more than twice as many goals as it managed last year. Another short season looms.
FC Dallas (11-12-11) : They finished ahead of Chivas last time, but that wasn’t much consolation. Top scorer Blas Perez is back, but with playmaker David Ferreira gone, new man Mauro Diaz must step up, and coach Oscar Pareja needs to figure out how his old club is going to score more goals than it gives up.
Los Angeles (15-11-8) : Dreams of a three-peat vanished in Utah last time, but once Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez rejoin Robbie Keane after their World Cup stints, the Galaxy will be in the chase — as long as the defense avoids late-game implosions.
Portland (14-5-15) : Getting gonged in the conference final by Real Salt Lake was a dispiriting end to a table-topping season, but the Timbers have the goods to get back there with Donovan Ricketts (Goalkeeper of the Year), midfielder Diego Valeri (Newcomer of the Year), and a stingy defense that’s exceptionally tough to crack at home.
Real Salt Lake (16-10-8) : How close can you come to hardware without winning any? RSL finished 1 point behind Portland in the regular-season race, dropped the US Open Cup final at home to New York, and lost the MLS Cup to Sporting Kansas City in a shootout. Jeff Cassar, who’ll step in for departed coach Jason Kreis, still has plenty of talent for another go, starting with keeper Nick Rimando.
San Jose (14-11-9) : They might have missed the playoffs, but the Quakes were rumbling late, losing only twice in their final 14 matches while allowing just 10 goals. With top gun Chris Wondolowski fit and coach Mark Watson in charge for a full season, they figure to be playing in November.
Seattle (15-12-7) : Last season’s late swoon and the playoff loss to Portland stung, and with top scorer Eddie Johnson gone, Clint Dempsey will have to take on the load up front. Of greater concern is the Sounders’ defense, which conceded a worst-ever 42 goals.
Vancouver (13-12-9) : Nobody’s going to make up for the departed Camilo Sanvezzo’s 22 goals, so new coach Carl Robinson will rely on the return of captain Jay DeMerit and the arrival of Steve Beitashour to firm up the back line and a revamped midfield to step up.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.