Photo by Kelley L. Cox/ISIphotos.com
With the MLS Eastern Conference as wide open as it was down the stretch last season, a roster tweak in the right direction could be all it takes to separate certain clubs from the pack.
In the opening month of the offseason, no teams did more to augment their rosters than the Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City, two clubs that felt they had what it took to win the conference crown last season before ultimately losing out to the Houston Dynamo.
With SKC adding Bobby Convey to the fold and Philadelphia tapping into the international market to add talent from Costa Rica and Panama, the two teams figure to be very much in the mix yet again in 2012.
Then there's the expansion Montreal Impact, whose calculated roster construction makes it seem like the club won't be a typical expansion pushover in its inaugural MLS year.
While those three clubs have been the most active during the offseason, here is a look at the comings and goings in the entire conference to date:
Not much in the way of headline news has come out of the Windy City, where the Fire's only adds so far have been adding complementary pieces in former Vancouver goalkeeper Jay Nolly and New England forward Kheli Dube.
The club cut ties with Colombian import Cristian Nazarit and former U.S. Under-20 striker Gabriel Ferrari, who is in the process of recovering from ACL reconstruction.
The Fire also lost two players in the re-entry draft, as Baggio Husidic and Jon Conway were both selected in the second phase of the draft.
Chicago did secure the services of forward Orr Barouch, purchasing his rights from Tigres after having him on loan in 2011.
Another offseason, another roster purge by the Crew. Granted, this season's edition is hardly as drastic as last year's, but Designated Player (and the team's leading goal scorer) Andres Mendoza is gone, as is MLS all-time leading goal scorer Jeff Cunningham. Robbie Rogers could very well be the next big name to bolt Crew Stadium, as he is out of contract and has been rumored to be making a move overseas.
Talented left back Josh Gardner was picked in the expansion draft, and midfielders Kevin Burns and Santiago Prim and defender Dejan Rusmir were ushered out of town as well.
The Crew did sign their second-ever Homegrown Player in goalkeeper Matt Lampson, and they brought in former New York Red Bulls defender Carlos Mendes through the re-entry draft to provide cover in the back.
There's a bit of a changing of the guard going on in D.C., with veterans Santino Quaranta, Clyde Simms, Marc Burch and Devon McTavish all gone. Brandon Barklage, Steve Cronin, Joseph Ngwenya and Jed Zayner all had their contract options declined as well, meaning that D.C. has plenty of holes to fill on its roster.
The biggest item to emanate from the bowels of RFK Stadium was the club passing on its option to purchase Charlie Davies' contract from Sochaux and ending his up-and-down tenure with the club.
Veteran defender Robbie Russell was brought in from RSL to stabilize things across the back line, and he is the first of what should be quite a few new faces in the United locker room come 2012.
Aside from purchasing the full rights to midseason midfield pickup Luiz Camargo, Houston has been rather dormant since reaching the MLS Cup final, but that doesn't mean that Dom Kinnear and his staff won't make some noise before the offseason is up.
The first item on the docket is finding a way to re-acquire Brian Ching, whom the club left unprotected for the expansion draft. Despite making threats he would retire if selected, Ching was taken by the Montreal Impact, putting Houston in a position to make a trade if it wants its captain back.
Hunter Freeman never made the impact expected upon his return to MLS and was subjected to the re-entry draft, where he was picked up by Colorado. Carlo Costly had his loan with the club expire without a new deal, and he returned to Atlas in Mexico, leaving room on the club's depth chart at forward.
Homegrown Player Francisco Navas Cobo was also shown the door, as were Jason Garey, Eddie Robinson and third-string goalkeeper Evan Newton.
Montreal hasn't entered the league silently, making a splash by taking Ching with its opening pick of the expansion draft.
From that point, it's seemingly been notable move after notable move for Jesse Marsch and his staff, who have integrated the likes of Donovan Ricketts, Zarek Valentin, Justin Braun, Bryan Arguez, Davy Arnaud and Patrice Bernier into the squad while also having a go at Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka before losing out in the bidding process.
The Impact began the roster-building process with the acquisition of former Inter Milan defender Nelson Rivas and Brazilian midfielder Felipe Martins, as well as NASL holdovers Ian Westlake, Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Hassoun Camara.
With the first pick in the upcoming MLS SuperDraft in tow, Montreal's offseason and roster construction are far from being completed.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
The biggest moves the Revolution made this offseason were swapping out coach Steve Nicol for Jay Heaps and securing captain Shalrie Joseph to a Designated Player deal.
Aside from that, the Revs used the re-entry draft to their advantage, plucking Danleigh Borman, Nate Jaqua and Simms off the scrap heap. Borman and Jaqua have yet to sign with the club, though.
Among the names leaving New England include veteran defender Ryan Cochrane, midfielder Pat Phelan and Dube. 2011 imports Monsef Zerka, Rajko Lekic and Milton Caraglio also look unlikely to return to Gillette Stadium.
NEW YORK RED BULLS
The Red Bulls have been awfully silent for a team accustomed to making the headlines. Perhaps the biggest moves have yet to be made, though. Despite claims from GM Erik Soler that neither Tim Ream nor Thierry Henry would be leaving the club, even for a loan, reports have both players making potential moves to the Premier League.
The Bolton-Ream link won't go away, nor will the buzz about Henry making a return to the Emirates to play for Arsenal on a short-term loan.
As far as the moves that have been made, the Red Bulls signed St. John's centerback Connor Lade to a Homegrown Player deal and cut ties with a number of players, including John Rooney, Chris Albright and Bouna Coundoul.
Plenty of question marks remain, including just who will be in goal considering German goalkeeper Frank Rost hasn't yet been brought back (although the club acknowledged it was in talks with him), and whether Rafa Marquez will return or be sold this winter.
Philadelphia hit the CONCACAF market hard, going after Costa Rican up-and-coming forward Josue Martinez and left back Porfirio Lopez in addition to Panamanian central midfielder Gabriel Gomez.
Philadelphia also managed to secure high-energy midfielder Nizar Khalfan in the waiver draft and signed Jimmy McLoughlin to a Homegrown Player deal.
The biggest losses for the Union came in the midfield, where Justin Mapp and Stefani Miglioranzi have left town, but the recent signings should certainly cover up for those departures.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY
If the Union or Impact haven't had the most newsworthy offseason so far in the conference, then Sporting KC has. The club brought in veterans Paulo Nagamura and Bobby Convey to change the culture of the midfield and re-acquired the services to left back Seth Sinovic after initially losing him in the expansion draft.
In order to get Sinovic back, SKC dealt captain Davy Arnaud to Montreal. Two Designated Player spots on the roster opened up as well, as Omar Bravo returned to Mexico with Cruz Azul, and Jeferson's loan from Vasco de Gama expired. Left winger Ryan Smith, who took a leave of absence from the club early last season, was dealt to Chivas USA.
Aside from trading for Jeremy Hall and signing Bermudan international winger Reggie Lambe, it's been a pretty quiet offseason for the Reds, who did most of their roster shuffling throughout the 2011 season.
The club parted ways with the likes of Javier Martina and Gianluca Zavarise, while losing Borman in the re-entry draft, but manager Aron Winter has a solid core of players who came together late last season in preparation for a run to the club's first postseason berth in 2012.