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TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Midfielder Will Johnson has gone from Portland to Toronto FC.Here’s a look at the MLS Eastern Conference, as the league prepares to launch its 21st season on Sunday.


Cream of the crop

Columbus Crew

Columbus suffered the indignity of losing the MLS Cup final to the Portland Timbers on its home field, and its offseason hasn’t gone much better. Namely, star striker Kei Kamara — and his 22 goals and eight assists in the regular season last year — is holding out for a better contract, a scenario that could make or break the Crew’s 2016 season. Most of the team’s key pieces are intact, though, with the biggest losses being reserve forward Jack McInerney and left back Chris Klute (both signed by the Timbers). The midfield of Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani, Federico Higuain, Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram is among the best in MLS. Kamara, however, is the key.

Montreal Impact

Impact fans breathed a sigh of relief when star striker Didier Drogba chose to return for a second season in Canada, despite rumors he would join the coaching staff at Chelsea. He scored 11 goals in 11 regular- season games and one more in the playoffs after his ballyhooed arrival last year, transforming the Impact into a contender in the East. Montreal also, for now, has fended off overseas suitors for Argentine playmaker Ignacio Piatti, who appears ready for another year in MLS. Add defending MLS defender of the year Laurent Ciman, who signed a multiyear extension this offseason, and Montreal is poised for another solid season.

New York Red Bulls

The team-first concept of first-year coach Jesse Marsch translated into the Red Bulls’ second Supporters’ Shield trophy in three seasons last year, despite the departures of stars Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. Reigning goalkeeper of the year Luis Robles and Best XI midfielder Dax McCarty — along with midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who was superb in an attacking role — are back to help New York defend the Shield. But the Red Bulls did lose stellar young center back Matt Miazga to Chelsea.

Toronto FC

Toronto finally qualified for the playoffs last year — for the first time in its MLS existence — but the excitement was over quickly after a knockout round loss to Montreal. Reigning MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco is among the best players in the world, so he’s not a bad piece to build around. U.S. internationals Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are coming off decent years, but TFC’s most important moves may have been in bolstering the roster with quality pieces elsewhere. One of the league’s worst defenses last year looks improved with the addition of Steven Beitashour and Drew Moor, and former Timbers captain Will Johnson comes to his hometown team to add midfield bite and leadership.

Best of the rest

D.C. United

D.C. United didn’t light the world on fire with its conservative, physical style of play last year. D.C. scored 43 goals, the fewest of the six Eastern Conference playoff teams, but allowed only 45, which made them a considerable foe. The team should be a bit more explosive after the additions of former Sounders winger Lamar Neagle, the speedy Patrick Nyarko from the Chicago Fire and crafty midfielder Marcelo Sarvas from the Colorado Rapids.

New England Revolution

Team leader and midfielder Jermaine Jones is out after two seasons with New England in which he led them to the playoffs, including a trip to the 2014 final. The Revs brought in longtime Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Gerson Koffie to help replace the bite and box-to-box capabilities, but he’s probably a level below Jones. New England is, however, plenty explosive with an attacking line led by midfielder Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez, Kellyn Rowe and Juan Agudelo.

Orlando City

It was an entertaining first season of MLS soccer in central Florida in 2015. Brazilian legend Kaka made the headlines, but rookie Cyle Larin stole the show with an MLS-record 17 goals for a first-year player. Now Orlando just has to build around those two big pieces.

Work to do

New York City

Coach Jason Kreis was sacked after his first season leading the expansion team that plays at Yankee Stadium. In comes former Manchester City Reserves coach and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira. Can he make a difference, with aging superstars Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa taking up key spots on the field?

Philadelphia Union

The Union remade their roster after the front-office overhaul that brought in former U.S. national team legend Ernie Stewart, who is reportedly using a Moneyball-type approach to roster building. That means Philly likely is a few years out from reaching Stewart’s vision.

Chicago Fire

The long-disappointing Fire sacked coach and sporting director Frank Yallop after three seasons. Chicago tabbed former Chivas USA executive Nelson Rodriguez as the new general manager and Veljko Paunovic, formerly of the Serbian U-20 national team, as coach. This probably is a year of transition for the Men in Red.

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