By TRAVIS CLARK
Ready or not, but the Major League Soccer season is back and ready to go this Saturday.
The first three months of the season have shown the Eastern Conference to be the weaker of the two, with Columbus and New York locked at the top on 21 points. Both of those top two teams had issues with injuries and inconsistency, and will hope to bounce back after a three-week break. Because of the break, a jam-packed schedule saw a number of teams forced to cope with fixture congestion and injuries.
It's the bottom four in the conference that have to hit the ground running. Kansas City, New England, D.C. and Philadelphia all sit at 12 points or less, and while the playoffs aren't out of the question, there is no margin for error as the grueling summer months of the season beckon.
Here's a look at how each team stands in the Eastern Conference:
Record: 6-3-2, 1st place
Outlook: At the World Cup break, Columbus is sitting pretty. Injuries and form kept Chad Marshall and Robbie Rogers from making the trip to South Africa, and with a few weeks of rest, will be out to hunt down the Los Angeles Galaxy and secure a third straight Supporters' Shield. A friendly schedule in July, with four our of six games at Crew Stadium, will help ease Columbus back into the fray of league play. CONCACAF Champions League will test their depth once again.
New York Red Bulls
Record: 7-0-5, 2nd place
Outlook: A brand new stadium has helped to jolt last year's laughing stock to life, and with a Designated Player (or two) rumored to be on the way, New York is well-positioned for a run to the playoffs. Questions remain about Juan Pablo Angel's finishing ability, and Tim Ream had a few rookie moments in late May/early June, just a couple of the concerns Hans Backe will look to address once play resumes.
Outlook: Toronto enjoyed a bumpy start to 2010, but looked to be hitting their stride right around the start of the break, last losing on May 1. Dwayne De Rosario has been in his typical all-league form, carrying the offense, as Preki's defensive system continues to take hold — they conceded two goals over their last four league games. De Rosario can't carry the offense by himself for the entire season, and Toronto someone else to step up to push them over the hump into the playoffs.
Record: 3-5-3, 4th place
Outlook: The first three months of Carlos de los Cobos' MLS career has come with mixed reaction. The Fire have logged a number of uneven performances to this point. Andrew Dykstra has yet to impress in goal, leaving the decision to cut Jon Busch lingering, while Collins John and Brian McBride can't seem to flourish when both out on the field together. Considering the talent this team lost after last year — Chris Rolfe, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Busch — it could be worse.
Kansas City Wizards
Record: 3-3-5, 5th place
Outlook: After a bright start, the Wizards faded fast — winners of their first two, Kansas City then proceeded to go winless in eight straight before snapping the streak against Philadelphia in June. Some of Peter Vermes' moves have looked decent: Ryan Smith is one of the best players in the league on the ball, and Jimmy Nielsen might as well be Kevin Hartman, hair and all. But the scoring issues won't go away — the Wizards have to find ways to get the ball in the net in order to change the course of this season.
New England Revolution
Outlook: Injuries and suspensions have been the story so far, and Steve Nicol looked unable to cope with the loss of Shalrie Joseph to a suspension and leave of absence. And while Joseph is back, the absence of Taylor Twellman seems to have no end. There's a lot of pressure on young kids like Zack Schilawski, Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston to deliver some respectable results.
Record: 3-1-8, 7th place
Outlook: The start to 2010 was a nightmare United didn't see coming. With a limited roster, and few attacking options, the club has struggled with everything — from attack to defense. They've scored the fewest goals and conceded the most in MLS. Signs of life were discernible just before the break, as D.C. scored a win over Seattle at Qwest Field, and have managed to put together a decent stretch of results before the break. United have already made a move, adding Branko Bošković from Europe to help give their stagnant offense some help.
Record: 2-1-7, 8th place
Outlook: Rare is it that expansion teams enjoy success in their first year, and the road has been a difficult one for the Union to navigate in the early going. Much of that can be attributed to playing only two games at home. While games at PPL Park will provide an advantage, Philadelphia must cut down on poor defensive mistakes and numerous red cards to improve. Chris Seitz has done just that, no longer shipping goals in on a weekly basis.
What teams are the best in the Eastern Conference? Can D.C. or Philadelphia turn things around? Anyone going to stop Columbus?
Share your thoughts below.