Just as it was last season, the MLS West appears to be the healthier of the two conferences, containing the past three MLS Cup champions:
Click here for Steve Davis' Eastern Conference preview
2012 WESTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish
1. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
2011 Record: 19-5-10, plus-20 goal difference
• Notable comings and goings: Keeping David Beckham seemed like a long shot when Becks and Co. lifted the MLS Cup last November. But what d'ya know! Beckham and his golden right foot are back. Then the Galaxy held off the EPL wolves who hoped Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan might stamp "permanent move" onto their winter loan agreements. So while these weren't actual offseason acquisitions, it feels a bit like they are. Then in the rich-getting-richer department, Juninho suddenly became available anew; L.A. officials were resigned to the valuable central midfielder capping his loan and moving back to Brazil. Plus, Edson Buddle brought his scoring talents back to Southern California. With promising youngster Kyle Nagazawa (obtained in a trade from Philly) and Brazilian Marcelo Sarvas completing for midfield minutes, this train looks unstoppable. Meanwhile, first-round draft pick Tommy Meyer is challenging for a starting center-back role. To create salary room, the Galaxy shed pricey veteran backup luxuries Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter and Jovan Kirovski, and starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.
• The good, bad and noteworthy: So long as David Beckham remains healthy, there's only one worry with this stacked side: the central defense won't be as strong, and there's no getting around it. Omar Gonzalez, 2011 MLS Defender of the Year, will be out until midseason or longer, recovering from a winter knee injury. The replacement options aren't bad, but none come close to matching the combined effect of Gonzalez's size, skill and anticipation. ... With Ricketts' departure, Josh Saunders is now the clear No. 1 in goal. He's been a great No. 2 for years. Everyone assumes Saunders can handle the additional weight of expectations, but he still must prove it. ... Donovan could miss a major chunk of time with U.S. qualifier duty and potential Olympic competition as well. Beckham may be tapped for Olympic preening, too, but the Galaxy depth is in place to deal with it. .... With all the noise over Beckham, Donovan, Keane, etc., it's easy to forget that trusty Todd Dunivant, the league's top left back in 2011, remains on the job.
• The man who matters: There's so much to choose from here, but who can deny David Beckham's ongoing importance to the side? He'll be 37 soon, although that deep-lying playmaking role not only suits Beckham's skill set, it allows him to control the amount of running required. Besides, even if his legs lose just a wee bit of zip, those signature deadeye set-piece deliveries probably won't.
• Bottom line: The Buddle and Juninho "additions" make Los Angeles the clear and away favorite to repeat. Given Major League Soccer's big playoff structural change (the title match will now be hosted by the contender with the best regular season record), there's a reasonable chance Arena's side will host a second consecutive MLS Cup. Beckham, Keane, Buddle and Donovan may well make up the best attacking foursome yet seen in MLS.
2. SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC
2011 Record: 18-7-9, plus-19 goal difference
• Notable comings and goings: A big February talker was a trade that brought Eddie Johnson (yes, that Eddie Johnson, the former U.S. international recently back from his UK and Mexico wanderings) in exchange for Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle. Otherwise, Kasey Keller is no longer sentinel in Seattle goal; Austrian Michael Gspurning will try to fill those enormous shoes. Also new to the Sounders FC scene: an upgraded version of FieldTurf was recently installed; it's not grass, but it should be an improvement over the old stuff, which sometimes made games at CenturyLink Field more helter-skelter and possession-unfriendly than they needed to be.
• The good, bad and noteworthy: Effectively, Steve Zakuani could be listed under "newcomers," having missed so much of 2011 after that terrible, notorious injury early in the campaign against Colorado. Finishing has been a habitual problem since the club's 2009 MLS debut. Hopes are high that a Johnson-Fredy Montero pairing can squash that particularly bothersome bug. ... The Sounders were undefeated in seven preseason matches, a real confidence boost going into March CONCACAF quarterfinal play. ... Montero is already great form. Coach Sigi Schmid says the DP forward's timing, instinct and work rate are already at top rev. ... Seattle management will open the entire stadium for Cascadia Cup matches, upping the ante around MLS and creating the likelihood of 64,000 green-clad screamers for matches against rivals Portland and Vancouver.
• The man who matters: Fans and some media voices still label Osvaldo Alsonso as "underrated," although it's such a silly thing to say at this point. The Cuban harrier has climbed the ranks in three Sounders' seasons and now is regarded in some circles as the gold standard of MLS midfield ball winners. In addition to the dirty work of harassing, tackling and covering acres of ground, he gets forward to supply enough offense to be considered a threat, at least. Suffice to say, no central midfielder relishes a visit to CenturyLink Field with Alonso on the case.
• Bottom line: If there's an MLS team built to challenge L.A., it's the one headquartered in downtown Seattle. Mauro Rosales, perhaps the biggest surprise in MLS last year for his brilliant work in Seattle's midfield, is back at a more commensurate salary. Montero, Rosales and Alonso bothl have Best XI potential, and the depth is in place to deal with the U.S. Open Cup (Seattle is three-time defending champion) and CONCACAF Champions League.
3. REAL SALT LAKE
2011 Record: 15-11-8, plus-8 goal difference
• Notable comings and goings: The organization was delighted when Enzo Martinez, projected to be a top-10 draft pick, fell all the way to No. 17 at the MLS SuperDraft. Why the central midfielder (a member of the Generation adidas developmental program, whose salary won't count against the team's budget) dropped so far is anybody's guess. Either way, RSL was giddy to get him. The club isn't so happy to see club fixture Andy Williams retire and watch valued fullback Robbie Russell move to D.C. United. Dribbling specialist Arturo Alvarez, who couldn't establish a starting place in his latest MLS stop, left for Portugal.
• The good, bad and noteworthy: Nick Rimando hasn't been around forever, it just seems that way. He's been a starting goalkeeper in MLS since 2000 (with the defunct Miami Fusion). Still, Rimando is just 32, with plenty of good years ahead. Based on a heroic performance last month in Panama for the U.S. national team, he's already in outstanding form. ... Speaking of national team material, no one has benefitted more than RSL's Kyle Beckerman from Jurgen Klinsmann's appointment as coach. Real's captain and midfield enforcer has become a Klinsmann favorite. ... Beckerman, center back Nat Borchers, attacking midfielder Javier Morales and striker Alvaro Saborio all dealt with preseason injuries; that deserves continued monitoring, considering the importance of each player to Real's ambitions.
• The man who matters: This team stands and falls on about five guys, all roughly as important as the other. Between Rimando, Beckerman, Borchers, Morales and center back Jamison Olave, it's hard to finger the absolutely essential ingredient. So perhaps the real key man involved is someone who needs to elbow his way into that group of indispensables: Alvaro Saborio. The Costa Rican international had 11 goals and two assists in 2011, fairly good numbers, especially in an injury-dented season. On the other hand, less-expensive Fabian Espindola produced about the same for Real, albeit in a few more matches. If Saborio, one of RSL's Designated Players, can produce DP-like numbers, RSL becomes a more significant MLS Cup threat.
• Bottom line: Right now, this is more or less the same Real Salt Lake that's been so strong over the last two years. But a couple of injuries could make things look a lot different, as "depth issues" continues to a troubling buzzword around Rio Tinto Stadium.
4. FC DALLAS
2011 Record: 15-12-7, plus-3 goal difference
• Notable comings and goings: Management at (newly renamed) FC Dallas Stadium has fingers crossed that Panamanian striker Blas Perez can be the goal king so dearly and clearly missed over the last few years in North Texas. Another Panamanian newcomer, Carlos Rodriguez, has been unable to unseat Zach Loyd at right back. On the other hand, young Colombian center back Hernán Pertuz had a good preseason; he'll provide cover for George John, who seems determined to move overseas and could do so in the summer. The club traded speedy winger Marvin Chavez, then regretted the choice almost immediately when utility knife Jackson decided to remain in Brazil rather than return for a second season in Dallas.
• The good, bad and noteworthy: David Ferreira made fans nervous during early preseason days, still not fully recovered 10 months after last year's ankle injury. But the 2010 MLS Most Valuable Player gained form as February turned to March, so hope persists that he can rise once again to former levels. ... Kevin Hartman, 37, still looks up for the job. He shared the league lead in shutouts last with 13. Hartman, by the way, has been around for 15 of the 16 previous MLS seasons. ... Dallas' hectic summer in 2011 was the very picture of fixture congestion, with 23 matches over a three-month stretch, or two games a week for about 12 weeks. By October, FCD looked like a tired team. This year, not having CONCACAF Champions League to deal with might be a blessing for Dallas.
• The man who matters: If Ferreira can provide the killer passes like before, and if Perez supplies the 12-14 goals a decent MLS striker should, then the difference between a good and a great offense will be down to Brek Shea. The young U.S. international, now 22 years old, absolutely carried the offense in 2011 after Ferreira's injury with 11 important goals. (He struck in 11 different matches; no stat padding nights are included in that total.) Shea, like the team, did wear down toward the campaign's end, and the club's ability to manage another hot and busy summer for the 22-year-old winger (World Cup qualifiers, Olympics, etc.) looms large.
• Bottom line: Like other challengers to the Galaxy throne, FCD's first 11 looks pretty good -- but quality depth looks a little thin past the salty starters. So much depends on Ferreira's ability to regain the mental edge. His touch and vision are already back, but how quickly will be willing to face the tackles and the clumsy clatterings that are headed his way?
5. COLORADO RAPIDS
2011 Record: 12-9-13, plus-3 goal difference
• Notable comings and goings: The personnel looks pretty similar, but the arrangement won't resemble anything seen lately around Dicks Sports Goods Park. That's because Oscar Pareja is in charge, providing the punctuation mark on one of Major League Soccer's screwiest managerial changes yet. Just 16 months after lifting the 2010 MLS Cup, and despite a 2011 playoff appearance, manager Gary Smith left in a postseason, finger-pointing huff. So in comes Pareja and a new freewheeling 4-3-3, which will play out nothing like Smith's blunt-object 4-4-2. Colombian attacker Jaime Castrillón was added to introduce some artistry and offset the departures of forward Caleb Folan and Macoumba Kandji. Hunter Freeman and Luis Zapata, yet another Colombian introduced through Pareja's extensive connections there, will challenge for the left back role that's been such a pesky problem in Commerce City.
• The good, bad and noteworthy: The hope around DSG Park is that Castrillón, 28, who spent most of his career at Colombia's Independiente Medellín, can pull the offensive strings behind Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. Casey, the Rapids' bull of a forward, won't be full speed by opening day but is progressing nicely, still on the mend from the Achilles rupture that scythed his season after just 14 games last year. Casey's 46 goals in 86 matches for Colorado since 2007 were sorely missed last year, and his return could allow the Cummings-Casey duo to regain its place among most-feared league status.
• The man who matters: Jeff Larentowicz has long tiptoed around the national team's edges, never quite able to push into the regular rotation. But there's never been doubt about his league-level ability; now in his third season in Colorado, Larentowicz stands among the most consistent MLS midfielders, adept at passing and possession while well above average in tackling, tracking and defensive cover. Over the last two seasons, he's made Pablo Mastroeni a better player, providing the running that the 35-year-old former U.S. international no longer has in his legs.
• Bottom line: The team looks solid front to back, starting with dependable Drew Moor and speedy Marvell Wynne at center back. So assuming Castrillón can adjust to Major League Soccer's muscle and tussle style -- and not everyone can -- playoffs are once again within reach, even in the tougher West. So it's really about Pareja and his ability to quickly assess which players can pass muster in a more possession oriented game. It's also about Pareja, in his first head coaching assignment, and his ability to deal with problems that inevitably crop up in any pro team.
6. PORTLAND TIMBERS
2011 Record: 11-14-9, minus-8 goal difference
• Notable comings and goings: Things were fairly stable around Jeld-Wen Field during the offseason, considering the sophomore-year roster turnover more typical for most young clubs (see "Vancouver"). Scottish international Kris Boyd was brought in to be what Kenny Cooper couldn't be in 2011: a consistent goal-getter. Cooper went to New York in a trade. Colombian defender Hayner Mosquera should help improve central defense, perhaps having already taken a starting spot from either Eric Brunner or Futty Danso. New midfielder Franck Songo'o also enjoyed an impressive preseason. One other offseason addition has raised questions about the Timbers' personnel vetting process: promising striker Jose Adolfo Valencia, singed as a DP, landed in Oregon in need of significant knee surgery and may miss the entire 2012 MLS season.
• The good, bad and noteworthy: There's great competition for outside midfield spots in Spencer's 4-4-2, including bids by Songo'o, Eric Alexander, Kalif Alhassan, Sal Zizzo and Darlington Nagbe. The Timbers have an identity, but perhaps not a face in terms of personnel. There's a lot of talent and surely some potential, especially if Boyd can throw down some hard-nosed Scottish finishing. ... So it may be leadership and grit that carries the day around dependably raucous Jeld-Wen, which makes Jack Jewsbury the indispensable man in the Rose City. His All-Star season in 2011 was a terrific comeback story last year. ... Two goals and three assists wasn't awful production last year for Nagbe, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2011 SuperDraft. Still, Nagbe and others would love to see better in his sophomore season.
• The man who matters: Boyd is the Scottish Premier League's all-time leading scorer, with 164 goals in 296 matches for Kilmarnock and Rangers FC. If he can duplicate that strike rate, John Spencer's team becomes a serious playoff threat. "Last year, we played in some games where we created a tremendous amount of chances and never really had that No. 9 who could put the ball in the back of the net," Spencer said. "We have a lot of guys who complement Kris really well and can run the channels and create chances for him."
• Bottom line: Spencer's side hung tough in the playoff hunt last year until the final few weeks, eventually missing out by just four points. That's not bad at all for an expansion team, and that close call has fans in the Rose City excited about 2012. On the other hand, the disappointing 2-9-6 record on the road (fourth worst in MLS last year) simply must improve. The Timbers hit for a league-low 10 goals away from home.
7. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS
2011 Record: 6-18-12, minus-20 goal difference
• Notable comings and goings: The busiest MLS offseason was probably in Vancouver, where new coach Martin Rennie (formerly of the NASL's Carolina Railhawks) was gathering up a wealth of attacking talent to augment the strikers and creators already wearing Whitecaps' colors. In came Darren Mattocks (the second overall draft pick in January), workhorse goal scorer Sebastien Le Toux, former NASL goal producer Etienne Barbara and, most prominent among them, Scottish international Barry Robson, who will join the club in July. Most offseason departures were squad players, with a few exceptions: Jeb Brovsky, Shea Salinas, Greg Janicki and Jonathan Leathers all played significant minutes in the 2011 expansion season.
• The good, bad and noteworthy: With questions about strength in the center of the park, further personnel moves might be ahead. The club already released Lee Nguyen (since signed by New England), picked up in the offseason through a weighted lottery. Even without Nguyen, it will be tough to disperse minutes so that everyone stays happy, while also maintaining an adequate balance of attack and defense. In addition to the exciting newcomers, add these names to the list of figures fighting for minutes in attacking spots: first-choice striker Eric Hassli, creators Davide Chiumiento and Camilo, Omar Salgado, Atiba Harris and Long Tan. Unless Rennie plans to play a couple of them at fullback, something's got to five. At least with Robson, decisions aren't immediately forthcoming; he will complete the 2011-12 English Championship season with promotion-minded Middlesbrough FC. ... The club signed John Thorrington to stabilize central midfield. No question he can get the job done if healthy, but there's the rub; he has been injury prone. And FYI, Thorrington is 32. So is Jay DeMerit. And Robson is 33. "Age" and that artificial turf at BC Place make for a bad combo.
• The man who matters: Watching the Whitecaps could be a true pleasure this year; Rennie's aggressive 4-2-3-1 formation (or 4-3-3) and that delicious assortment of attacking options is sure to produce ample offense. But when it comes to wins and losses, it's going to be about preventing the chances on the other end. And that's where DeMerit comes in. It's up to him to marshal and organize a back line that remains a work in progress. It must do better than 16th among 18 sides, at least; that was last year's place in the league rankings while allowing 1.62 goals a game.
• Bottom line: The Whitecaps' debut season began with promise but soon swooned with the predictable, expansion-side blues. What wasn't so predictable was releasing coach Teitur Thordarson after just a dozen matches. So much for early organizational stability. Rennie seems like a bright, young mind in the game, but there's still a big learning curve, and tough stretches are inevitably ahead. We'll see if the organization has improved patience for its sophomore season.
8. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
2011 Record: 8-12-14, minus-5 goal difference
• Notable comings and goings: San Jose shed almost a $1 million in salary cap budget by trading or releasing André Luiz, Scott Sealy and the brooding Bobby Convey. That gave manager Frank Yallop room to bring in speed (Marvin Chavez, from FC Dallas) and the some of the playmaking that's been conspicuously absent around Buck Shaw (Tressor Moreno). Plus, the Earthquakes were able to bring back Simon Dawkins, who had performed steadily as a two-way midfielder with a real nose for goal during a previous loan agreements with Tottenham Hotspur. The side will miss tough, versatile defender Bobby Burling.
• The good, bad and noteworthy: Buck Shaw Stadium has been the proverbial revolving door in terms of personnel over the last three years. Injuries have played their part, for sure, but the club has also paid a price for the inability of Yallop and general manager John Doyle to identify and secure the right set. ... Count defender Steven Beitashour as one of the underrated figures in MLS, a steady right back now in his third MLS season. ... While the attack is unquestionably improved, not much was done to bolster a defense that was 12th among 18 teams in goals allowed (45 in 34 matches). On the other hand, if U.S. U-23 defender Ike Opara can finally get healthy and stay healthy, it will be like adding a solid defender. Once seen as a rising star, Opara has logged only 19 matches over two years while dealing with broken bones in his foot.
• The man who matters: A fair question to ask: how bad might things have been around this club over the last couple of years but for Chris Wondolowski's fantastic contributions? With 34 goals, no one in MLS has been so productive over the last two campaigns. (Only Dwayne De Rosario is anywhere close, with 31. After that, next closest is Sebastien Le Toux's 25.) Fairly or unfairly, he's on the spot yet again. San Jose looks better in 2012, but someone has to finish the chances, and "Wonder Wondo" must do his share to get this side back in the playoffs.
• Bottom line: This is certainly a make-or-break year for Yallop, who has missed the playoffs in three of his four seasons at Buck Shaw. The same might be said for Doyle, the general manager and orchestrator of so many moves that haven't panned out. With a new stadium now approved, ownership will surely want things pointed in the right direction. At this point, Yallop and Doyle have forfeited the benefit of the doubt; it's on them to prove they can get this job done.
9. CHIVAS USA
2011 Record: 8-14-12, minus-2 goal difference
• Notable comings and goings: The club finished ahead of only expansion Vancouver last year in the West (but behind one other expansion outfit), so perhaps it's no surprise that the Home Depot Center's second tenant was busy in terms of offseason churn. Manager Robin Fraser raised eyebrows when he traded young American striker Justin Braun, and a few more by trading well-regarded U.S. U-23 defender Zarek Valentin. Also out are forward Marcos Mondaini, veteran midfielders Paulo Nagamura and Simon Elliott, defenders Andrew Boyens, Michael Umana and Mariano Trujillo and goalkeeper Zach Thornton. All were regulars at some point over the last two years. Replacement choices include former Kansas City winger Ryan Smith; former Seattle right back James Riley and three key South American signings: Ecuadorean international Oswaldo Minda; fellow Ecuadorean Miller Bolanos (a forward) and Colombian defender John Alexander Valencia.
• The good, bad and noteworthy: For all the guffawing over Juan Pablo Angel and his high profile failure to notch goals for Los Angeles, the veteran Colombian did strike for seven goals in nine Chivas USA matches after his high-profile midseason move from the Galaxy ... Heath Pearce seems set for another season at center back, having moved there last year after establishing his career as a versatile outside back. ... Nick LaBrocca (8 goals, 6 assists) was a breakout MLS midfield force last year. He was, however, fighting for minutes in the Goats midfield during 2012 preseason matches.
• The man who matters: It took some time for goalkeeper Dan Kennedy to find his professional feet. But last year at age 28 he finally nailed down that long-sought MLS starting assignment. Kennedy held up well against regular shellings, keeping the Goats in a few games that might have gotten away otherwise. With so many changes and too many lingering questions, it looks like he'll be busy again in 2012.
• Bottom line: Remember when Chivas USA wasn't a team in flux? No, probably not. Because that's never really happened. The club's Mexican ownership, its second-tenant status at the HDC and ongoing inability to create an identity has turned the Goats into Major League Soccer's perennial mystery team. The new scheduling format (with more intra-conference matches) will do no favors for Chivas USA, which hasn't seen postseason play since 2009. Never mind winning a postseason series; just getting into the playoffs looks like a worthwhile target for Fraser and his crew.