- Keith Hickey

The beginning of  the 2011 Major League Soccer season is just around the corner. With a new season comes all the new expectations, hopes, and pressures associated with it. For example, until mid-April, Toronto fans actually believe they'll make the playoffs! I know, right? Crazy.

Anyway, here's our primer for the 2011 MLS season.

1st Place: Real Salt Lake
2010 Record: 15-4-11 (56 Points, Second Place)
Vital Number: 25. That's the number of regular season games played at Rio Tinto since they last lost a league game, almost two years ago. The Royals have made Sandy, Utah the Gibraltar of Major League Soccer.
Key Players: Alvaro Saborio arrived on loan from FC Sion last year and scored 12 goals in 27 games, enough for RSL to make him their first ever DP in December 2010. Jamison Olave is the reigning MLS defender of the year. Nick Rimando is one of the elite keepers in MLS.
Bottom Line: One of the best teams in MLS (Best defense, tied for second best attack in '10) enters 2011 almost completely intact, the under-producing Robbie Findley the only departure of note. A run at the double is definitely on the cards.

2nd Place: LA Galaxy
2010 Record: 18-7-5 (59 Points, Supporters Shield Winner)
Vital Number: 45. The percentage of the Galaxy's 2010 MLS regular season and post-season goals involving Edson Buddle, who left to join FC Ingolstadt in Germany. Among those were seven game-winning goals.
Key Players: Landon Donovan (14 Goals, 16 Assists in 2010) is the best offensive player in the league. New signing Juan Pablo Angel (13 goals in 2010 for NY) will be trying to get enough out of his 35 year-old legs to replace Buddle. Center-Back Omar Gonzalez is the key to the second-stingiest defense in the league.
Bottom Line: Arguably the best starting line-up in the league, but there's not a lot of experienced depth and several starters are in the twilight of their careers. Should make the playoffs comfortably.

3rd Place: Seattle Sounders
2010 Record: 14-10-6 (48 Points, 6th Place)
Vital Number: 36,173. The Sounders league-leading attendance figures have made Qwest field a difficult place to visit. In 2010, it helped Seattle become the first team in 27 years to retain the US Open Cup, and the Sounders lost just four league games at home all season.
Key Players: Defender James Riley led the Sounders in minutes played (2,418) and contributed 3 assists and a goal last year. Fredy Montero (10 goals, 10 assists in 2010) is the star on offense, while Steve Zakuani (10 goals, 6 assists) is a more than capable secondary threat.
Bottom Line: A good young team should mature into legitimate contenders this year.

4th Place: New York Red Bulls
2010 Record: 15-9-6 (51 Points, 3rd Place)
Vital Number: 14. With the second-fewest goals scored of any team to make the playoffs, and all-time scoring leader Juan Pablo Angel moving to Los Angeles after being released by the club, it falls to number 14, Thierry Henry, to find the back of the net. Given the former Arsenal and Barcelona man's track record, the Red Bulls should finish near the top.
Key Players: Apart from Henry, Estonian international Joel Lindpere (3 goals, 6 assists in 2010) will help drive the attack. Mexican legend Rafael Marquez, a teammate of Henry's at Barcelona, marshals the midfield in front of last year's dark horse rookie award contender Tim Ream.
Bottom Line: Outside shot at their first piece of real silverware. Easy favorites in a weak East.

5th Place: Colorado Rapids
2010 Record: 12-8-10 (46 Points, 7th Place, MLS Cup Champions)
Vital Number: 27. The number of league goals scored by the "C + C Goal Factory" pairing of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings in 2010. The Rapids were tied for second-best offense in 2010.
Key Players: Jeff Larentowicz is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. Very quietly, Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne have become two of the best value-for-money defenders in the league.
Bottom Line: They surprised everyone to win the 2010 MLS Cup, but they're now the team everyone wants to beat. An uphill battle to retain their title.

6th Place: San Jose Earthquakes
2010 Record: 12-8-10 (46 Points, 8th Place)
Vital Number: 9. The league-leading number of game winning goals scored by Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski in 2010.
Key Players: New signing Steven Lenhart (6 goals, 2 assists with Columbus) is a powerful striker who should fit in well with the Quakes, especially midfielder Bobby Convey (10 assists, 1 goal). Goalkeeper Jon Busch won the starting job and conceded just 19 goals in 18 games, recording 7 shutouts.
Bottom Line: If the Quakes can build on Wondolowski's lightning-in-a-bottle form from last year, they should be good enough to make the playoffs.

7th Place: FC Dallas
2010 Record: 12-4-14 (50 Points, 5th Place)
Vital Number: 19. Number of consecutive games without losing last season, from May 27th to October 9th. The longest such streak in the league. Tied for fewest games lost with 4.
Key Players: David Ferreira (8 goals, 13 assists) is the reigning MLS MVP, while the best keeper in MLS history, Kevin Hartman, had a banner year last season, giving up just 12 goals in 20 games, with 9 shutouts. Youngster Brek Shea (5 assists, 4 goals) will be relied on much more this season.
Bottom Line: Question marks were raised about the decisions to let Dax McCarty, Atiba Harris, and Jeff Cunningham leave. Should still make the playoffs, but another run to the final doesn't look likely.

8th Place: Philadelphia Union
2010 Record: 8-15-7 (31 Points, 14th Place)
Vital Number: 2. Number of away wins for Philly last year. Must do better.
Key Players: Sebastien Le Toux (14 goals, 11 assists) was involved in 72% of Philadelphia's goals last year. After switching the starting keeper spot between Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton, the vastly experienced Faryd Mondragon was brought in from Europe. Midfield general Brian Carroll (2 MLS Cups, 4 Supporters' Shields) is a winner wherever he goes.
Bottom Line: Few teams added as much talent in the off-season. With an upgraded defense and midfield, the Union have a shot at the playoffs.

9th Place: Sporting Kansas City
2010 Record: 11-13-6 (39 Points, 9th Place)
Vital Number: 7. The number of points by which the team formerly known as the Wizards missed the playoffs last season
Key Players: Kei Kamara spearheaded offensive efforts in Kansas City last season, scoring 10 goals and racking up 6 assists. Winger Ryan Smith (3 goals, 7 assists) and striker Teal Bunbury (5 goals, 2 assists) had excellent debut seasons.
Bottom Line: The addition of Omar Bravo as a DP should help get KC over the hump and into the playoffs.

10th Place: Chicago Fire
2010 Record: 9-12-9  (36 Points, 10th Place)
Vital Number: 9. The number of games last year in which Chicago were shut out. Losing Brian McBride (6 Goals, 3 assists) won't help.
Key Players: Midfielder Marco Pappa (7 goals, 5 assists) is set for a breakout year. Winger Patrick Nyarko (1 goal, 10 assists) is a potential game changer. Logan Pause (2,258 minutes played, 3 assists) is one of the most consistent defensive midfielders in the league.
Bottom Line: The Fire should be solid at the back, especially with the additions of Jalil Anibaba and Cory Gibbs, but they need to produce more offensively if they want to make the playoffs.

11th Place: Houston Dynamo
2010 Record: 9-15-6 (36 Points, 12th Place)
Vital Number: 14. Number of games in which Houston allowed 2 or more goals.
Key Players: Captain Brian Ching (7 goals, 3 assists) must bounce back after an off year. Brad Davis (5 goals, 12 assists) has become one of the most dangerous wide players in the league. New signing Hunter Freeman will help solidify a defense that gave up 49 goals last season.
Bottom Line: The Dynamo scored plenty last year, but gave up even more. Losing veteran keeper Pat Onstad hurts, but Freeman and draft pick Kofi Sarkodie should ease the pain (and help a playoff push) somewhat.

12th Place: D.C. United
2010 Record: 6-20-4 (22 Points, 16th Place)
Vital Number: -26. D.C.'s 2010 goal difference, the worst in the league.
Key Players: In midfielder Dax McCarty, United have signed a player they can build a team around for a decade. Rookie Perry Kitchen was the engine of a national champion winning side at Akron. Last year's rookie of the year, Andy Najar (5 goals, 1 assist) is one of the highest regarded young players on the continent.
Bottom Line: Ben Olsen's boys might not make the playoffs, but they'll surprise a lot of people.

13th Place: Columbus Crew
2010 Record: 14-8-8 (50 Points, 5th Place)
Vital Number: 10. The number of players who left Columbus during the offseason.
Key Players: Chad Marshall (2,160 minutes played) might be the best central defender in MLS. He'll be vital to the Crew's ambitions this year. Robbie Rogers must improve after a sub-par year (1 goal, 0 assists). Eddie Gaven (3 goals, 5 assists) has very big shoes to fill.
Bottom Line: The Crew have lost a lot of talent. Gone are stalwarts like Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, and Brian Carroll, and important secondary players like Eric Brunner and Steven Lenhart. There's a lot of rebuilding to do in Ohio.

14th Place: Chivas USA
2010 Record: 8-18-4 (28 Points, 15th Place)
Vital Number: 6. Games lost consecutively between May 8th and June 26th, the worst such streak of any team last year.
Key Players: Jimmy Conrad is an experienced defender and natural leader coming into a defense which allowed 45 goals last year. Midfielder Jesus Padilla (6 goals) and striker Justin Braun (9 goals, 3 assists) are rising stars.
Bottom Line: Losing Jonathan Bornstein won't help a poor defense, but the additions of Jimmy Conrad and Zarek Valentin might. Goalkeeping issues still haven't been addressed.

15th Place: Vancouver Whitecaps
2010 Record: N/A (Expansion Team)
Vital Number: 33. Average number of points amassed by expansion teams in MLS.
Key Players: Veterans Jay Demerit (4 2010 FIFA World Cup appearances) and Joe Cannon (1.16 GAA, 6 SO) immediately give Vancouver a solid defensive base to build on. Atiba Harris (4 goals, 2 assists with Dallas) is a dynamic attacking player.
Bottom Line: A few solid bricks in the foundation, but plenty of work remains for the Whitecaps.

16th Place: Toronto FC
2010 Record:  9-13-8 (35 Points, 12th Place)
Vital Number: 55. Percent of TFC's goals involving unsettled captain and Toronto local Dwayne De Rosario.
Key Players: De Rosario (15 goals, 3 assists) is the focal point of the TFC attack. Nick LaBrocca (1 goal, 6 assists) is his main supplier. Stefan Frei (1.32 GAA, 8 SO) is the best young keeper in the league.
Bottom Line: Shedding veterans like Nick Garcia and Chad Barrett (7 goals, 2 assists) won't help TFC improve on it's poor showing last year. Toronto is in rebuilding mode now.

17th Place: Portland Timbers
2010 Record: N/A (Expansion Team)
Vital Number: 24. Number of new players added by the expansion Timbers, more than any other team.
Key Players: Striker Kenny Cooper has had success in MLS before, scoring 40 goals in 90 games with Dallas. Second overall pick Darlington Nagbe was seen by many as the most MLS-ready player in this year's SuperDraft. Rodney Wallace is a promising defender with MLS experience.
Bottom Line: Being the new guy sucks. Portland should treat this season as a learning experience and build for the future.

18th Place: New England Revolution
2010 Record: 9-16-5 (32 Points, 13th Place)
Vital Number: 50. Goals conceded by the Revolution defense, the worst total in the league.
Key Players: Midfielder and captain Shalrie Joseph (4 goals, 5 assists) is the beating heart of the Revolution. Kevin Alston is a good young defender, and made the all-star team  last year. Winger Sainey Nyassi (3 goals, 2 assists) is a promising player.
Bottom Line: The Revolution have weaknesses all over the pitch. Losing talisman Taylor Twellman to injury-caused retirement didn't help last year, and it still hasn't been addressed. A long season looms in Foxboro.
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