Kansas City, KS (SportsNetwork.com) - A pair of traditional Eastern Conference heavyweights will open the 2015 MLS season at Sporting Park on Sunday as Sporting Kansas City plays host to Red Bull New York.
The two clubs have battled for top spot in the East in recent years, but the landscape will change in 2015 with Sporting shifting to the Western Conference and the Red Bulls taking a change of direction in the offseason.
After reaching the Eastern Conference finals and coming to within one goal of reaching MLS Cup last season, the Red Bulls tore up the flight map and started from scratch.
Star player Thierry Henry retired from professional soccer while fellow Designated Player Tim Cahill left the club for Shanghai Shenhua, leaving New York with sizable gaps to fill.
And as if that wasn't enough of an overhaul, fan-favorite head coach Mike Petke was let go after just two seasons at the helm despite guiding the club to the MLS Supporters' Shield in 2013, the franchise's first and only piece of major silverware.
Jesse Marsch was tabbed as the new boss amid a great deal of uproar from Red Bulls fans, and the former Montreal Impact head coach immediately began reshaping the squad to fit his philosophy.
Bradley Wright-Phillips, who tied the single-season scoring record last year with 28 goals, was signed to a DP contract, immediately becoming the face of the team.
The Red Bulls then executed a trade with Montreal that sent Eric Alexander, Ambroise Oyongo, an international player spot and allocation money to the Impact in exchange for Felipe Martins and the top spot in the allocation order.
Marsch leveraged that position to land United States international Sacha Klejstan, a former teammate of his at Chivas USA. Klejstan brings a great deal of international experience to the Red Bulls having made a total of 180 appearances with Belgian side Anderlecht and 46 appearances with the United States national team. The 29-year-old should fill the creative void left by Henry.
The Red Bulls feel confident with their performance at the MLS SuperDraft, as well. Despite making the 18th overall selection, New York secured the services of UCLA midfielder Leo Stolz, a player Marsch rated as one of the most pro- ready talents available.
New York bolstered the attack with the signing of Sal Zizzo from expansion side New York City FC as well as the re-signing of winger Lloyd Sam. The club also added a bit of depth in the center of the park by securing Duke University product Sean Davis as a Homegrown Player.
Sporting did not make wholesale changes in the vein of RBNY, but the club has made adjustments in a bid to return to postseason contention.
Head coach Peter Vermes will need to rely on a few key newcomers to fill big roles in 2015. Luis Marin, a Chile international, is one such newcomer, joining Sporting in the hopes that he can become the solid presence in goal the club missed last season following the departure of Jimmy Nielsen.
Following Nielsen's retirement at the end of the 2013 season, Eric Kronberg, Andy Gruenebaum and Jon Kempin each made multiple appearances in goal for Sporting, with each struggling to provide the type of steadying influence Nielsen gave the team.
Vermes, however, thinks Marin has some of the qualities of his former netminder, and he is hopeful that the Chilean can solidify his place in the team.
"There's no doubt that Luis has strong leadership qualities," Vermes told MLSsoccer.com. "He's very demanding, which is a great quality to have within the team with any player, and especially in that position. He's also a really class guy, so he kind of backs it all up with the way he is off the field, which is great within the locker room. I think it all comes naturally for him. It's great, because I think we've added somebody that has a lot of the same characteristics as Jimmy had from that point of view."
If Marin can be the type of player Vermes hopes he is, he will provide a big boost to the defense, which lost one of its leaders in 2013 MLS Cup MVP Aurelien Collin, who was traded to Orlando City SC in a salary cap move.
The club acquired Jalil Anibaba and Canada international Marcel De Jong to help fill that role, but Collin's departure still leaves questions surrounding the back four, especially with Matt Besler returning from injury.
In midfield the club returns Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber after strong seasons, while it welcomes back Roger Espinoza after a two-year stint with Wigan in England.
Espinoza, along with Zusi and Feilhaber, give Sporting a formidable midfield, while the additions of Bernando Anor and Servando Carrasco give Vermes quality depth in that area.
Sporting will be strong going forward in the midfield, but the big question is who will replace Uri Rosell as the holding midfielder in front of the back four.
The departure of Rosell in midseason certainly had something to do with Sporting's struggles at the end of last season and the club is even weaker up the middle without Collin.
Dom Dwyer certainly made a name for himself last season by scoring 24 goals across all competitions and he could get some help from new signing Krisztian Nemeth, who netted eight goals with six assists for Roda in the Dutch Eredivisie last season.
If Nemeth can effectively partner Dwyer, Sporting has the chance to have a strong one-two punch up top, and one that will be well supported from the likes of Zusi, Espinoza and Feilhaber.