The Champions League kickoff to the 2012 Toronto FC campaign is now just a bit under two weeks away and fast on its heels of course is the kickoff to the MLS regular season. Putting aside the Champions League for a moment (much more on these games to come in this space in the days ahead) I thought that it might be a good idea to take a brief look ahead at the League campaign and how the changes to the League schedule and changes to the other clubs in the conference are going to have an impact on the outcome of the season and on TFC’s chances of making the playoffs.

The Unbalanced Schedule

With the Impact becoming the 19th team in MLS this year and with the League not willing to add additional games they decided to go to an unbalanced thirty four game schedule. What that means in comparison to say the 2011 campaign is much less travelling and less than half of the trips to the west coast. Trips spanning thousands of miles and countless hours in the air the club made last year will be cancelled to be replaced this year by additional matches closer to home. TFC will only have to make three trips out to the Pacific time-zone this season in MLS play facing Seattle, Salt Lake City and the LA Galaxy respectively.

The Reds will only face each Western conference team once this year for a total of nine matches and if they play away in 2012 they will face the same clubs at home in 2013 and vice versa. The remaining twenty five matches are against the nine Eastern Conference clubs. Seven of those clubs will play TFC three times and two of them will face the Reds twice. Those clubs that have the additional home match against conference opponents this year will have two away matches against the opponents in the next season they play each other three times. How the Conference opponents that only face each other twice this season (in TFC’s case that would be New England and New York) are handled the year after is something unclear so far.

Every club in the East will roughly benefit the same amount from this change as TFC will which means that the relatively large spread between the top and the bottom of the Eastern Conference we saw in 2011 should tighten up a good bit in 2012 all other things being equal. But perhaps what is most important from a TFC perspective is that they will have more games against clubs in what has been in recent years the far weaker conference.  Having to face Seattle, Colorado, LA, Dallas and RSL only once this season can’t be looked at as anything but a positive. And on top of that the Reds have three league matches against an expansion team (a club the Reds have played six times by the way in cup competition without a loss!) and not the usual two.

The Eastern Conference

Below is a very brief look ahead at each of the nine other Eastern Conference clubs TFC will be facing this season and how they might look in 2012:

Chicago Fire

Last year: 9-9-16, sixth in East (11th in MLS), missed MLS playoffs

Frank Klopas took over as interim coach at the end of May finding a team as poor as the Fire have ever been. If they are the same outfit that came within four points of sneaking into the playoffs last season in spite of a horrible start to the 2011 campaign they might be there come October. Like TFC they have brought in some relatively inexpensive South American help and Mexican star Pavel Pardo who will be relied upon to create. Whether they have the depth to make a deep run remains to be seen.

Columbus Crew

Last year: 13-13-8, fourth in East (ninth in MLS), reached MLS Cup wild-card game.

Robert Warzycha did a creditable job in 2011 as coach continuing a relatively consistent run for the club dating back to when they secured the MLS Cup back in 2008. I for one think it will be a huge surprise if they don’t take a step backwards this season. Midfield spark plug Robbie Rogers is now playing in England and leading scorer from 2011 Andrés Mendoza is gone. The club might struggle scoring goals this season and in creating any more interest in a market obsessed with college sports. Not signing at least one designated player to lead the line might come back to haunt them. Hesmer and Marshall will have to exceed even their high standards for the Crew to not stumble this year.

D.C. United

Last year: 9-13-12, seventh in East (13th in MLS), missed the playoffs.

DeRo is still not a DP even though he is clocking dollars well above the non DP maximum contract going forward. Whether that is enough to motivate him the way the trades and controversy apparently did in 2011 remains to be seen. And relying upon another former TFC player in Maicon Santos to replace the goals of the departed Charlie Davies looks to be a bit of a gamble as well. Midfielders Andy Najar and Chris Pontius who to me always looked threatening and creative are in my opinion going to be just as important as DeRo when it comes to how well DC United will do in 2012.

Houston Dynamo

Last year: 12-9-13, second in East (seventh in MLS), reached MLS Cup final.

It’s probably fair to say that they might get the “New Stadium” bump when their new ground opens in May. Taking a page from MLS 2.0 they are building a stadium downtown that should do wonders for a club that got to the Cup Final last year at least when it comes to visibility in the community and in attendance. A healthy Brad Davis is key to Houston repeating their 2011 success with their awesome late season run however relying upon Brian Ching and Will Bruin to score goals might mean even more draws that they had last season. Where are the goals going to come from in Houston on a consistent basis in 2012? Good question.

Montreal Impact

Last year: Finished a poor seventh in NASL.

Who knows. Will they be Seattle competitive out of the box? Will they be Portland or Philly, who did themselves proud as expansion sides in year one? Or will they be TFC circa 2007-2008 and stink? I think Portland circa  2011 and surprise a few teams on the way to a decent expansion might be a bit closer to the truth. They will be decent at the back with Rivas and Valentin leading the line. Canadian International Patrice Bernier might be the face of the club and keeper Donovan Ricketts can steal games all by himself. NCAA star and top draft pick Andrew Wenger is by all accounts a versatile young player with tons of upside. And they have fan favourite Eddy Sebrango coming back to hopefully bring some leadership to Jesse Marsh’s side.

On the flip side they have Joey Saputo, who as an owner often makes Roman Abramovich look like a pargon of patience and he might wade in and shake things up if things are not going to plan early enough. Rumours abound that Saputo Stadium and its expansion are well behind schedule as well and that tickets are not selling as well as has been hoped so far. They will still finish ahead of abject New England, anything else is a wild ass guess. I can’t wait for April 7th. See you in La Belle Provence.

New England Revolution

Last year: 5-16-13, ninth in East (17th in MLS), missed the playoffs.

Steve Nicol ran out of options and out of time in new England in 2011 and he has left the club as manager to be replaced by a former colour commentator, former player and former banking executive rolled into one in Jay Heaps. The parsimonious Kraft family have anted up some DP cash to keep Shalrie Joseph happy but building around a well worn thirty three year old defensive midfielder with not much else around him might not be the best allocation of resources. When one of your biggest off season signings is DC United castoff Clyde Simms (three goals in 187 games played!) me thinks it will be another season of increasing irrelevance in Boston. It’s long past the time for the Kraft’s to build the Revs a stadium or sell them to someone who will or will move the club. They are MLS 1.0 at its very worst.

New York Red Bulls

Last year: 10-8-16, fifth in East (10th in MLS), reached MLS Cup quarterfinals.

Coach Hans Backe and the Red Bulls management need to remember that their bread and butter is MLS and not silly mid season friendly tournament in Europe. And they need to remind a certain idiot (Rafa Márquez) to be a professional and earn his wages. Thierry Henry’s Winter stint in North London with Arsenal might energize him to take the next step upwards that he can still pull off with the talent he still has remaining. Losing Tim Ream to Bolton in the off season might be a huge problem come the dog days of summer. And somehow they need to find a way to fill their building which they still can’t consistently do. The Red Bulls might either be very good or very mediocre.

Philadelphia Union

Last year: 11-8-15, third in East (eighth in MLS), reached MLS Cup quarterfinals.

Two steps forward and one step back perhaps? 2011 standouts Faryd Mondragon is gone back home to Mexico and Sebastien Le Toux is gone to Vancouver. Relying upon Freddy Adu to finally carry a team is going to be the key to their success. And whether the phenom/journeyman/returning hero can live up to expectations remains to be seen. Relying upon a goalkeeping tandem with eight total MLS games of experience and a younger side than either the 2010 or 2011 teams is going to be a challenge as well. I for one think they will not be as good as they were in 2011. Playoffs might be a real challenge.

Sporting Kansas City

Last year: 13-9-12, first in East (fifth in MLS), reached MLS Cup semi final.

A good young side in a fortress of a new park saw these ex-“Wizards” almost make it to the Cup Final last season. Peter Vermes needs to find a way to transition more of his talented kids into the starting XI if the 2011 success is to continue. The departure of veteran midfielders Omar Bravo and Davy Arnaud will put the onus on SKC’s talented strikers in Bunbury, Sapong and Kamara to perhaps create a bit more for themselves rather than rely upon the service from a much less polished midfield and they won’t have so many home games down the stretch that they did in 2011 either perhaps a small step back in 2012?.


What do you think about the changes to the schedule and to how the Eastern Conference is shaping up? Your comments are always welcome and appreciated in this space.


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