MLS thriving decade after barely hanging on

By Tim Booth

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 7 2012 1:55 p.m. MST

"I think we've been developing a team that's a little bit deeper than last year. Hopefully, that's a good sign," L.A. coach Bruce Arena said. "The only way we're going to be able to tell the potential of this team is when we get into the season (but) I'm optimistic we can put together another good team."

Los Angeles leads a powerful Western Conference where just about everyone got stronger. The top four clubs in terms of points and six of the top seven last season were in the West and 2012 isn't expected to be much different. Seattle said goodbye to Kasey Keller but added former U.S. national team striker Eddie Johnson and retained MLS newcomer of the year Mauro Rosales.

Real Salt Lake retained the squad that reached the Western Conference finals last year. FC Dallas brings back Brek Shea, while both Portland and Vancouver have upgraded entering their sophomore campaigns.

While the West is loaded, the Eastern Conference is muddled. New York has the name talent with Thierry Henry returning for another season and Rafa Marquez trying to bounce back from 2011 disappointment. But the favorite in the East might be Sporting Kansas City, playing its first full season in its home stadium and with emerging stars Teal Bunbury and 2011 rookie of the year C.J. Sapong.

"We have a core group of guys returning from last year that has an understanding of how we want to play, so it's up to those guys to decide how we're going to be week to week," KC coach Peter Vermes said. "They haven't really won anything yet, so I think hunger is something that goes with wanting to win."

MLS has again changed its playoff format. The highest remaining seed will now host the MLS Cup title game instead of having it played at a pre-determined site. The top five teams in each conference will reach the playoffs, with the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds playing for the right to advance to the conference semifinals.

The conference championships will also be a two-leg, home-and-home series rather than a single game as in the past.

AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.

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