Columbus and Chicago enter the season as the league heavyweights, Real Salt Lake and Toronto have been pegged as teams to watch while Los Angeles and D.C. United will try to climb back to some sort of level of respectability.
Galaxy star David Beckham may not be around for the majority of the MLS season, but there will be plenty of sights to see. And plenty of things that won't happen. Here are five of each:
• A Colombian will lead the league in goals. Colombia will produce this season's top goal-scorer -- the only question will be which of the two talented strikers will lead the charge. Fredy Montero set the bar high for countryman Juan Pablo Ángel when the two met on Thursday in Seattle. Montero scored two goals for the Sounders in the season opener and was the first player since Francisco Palencia to record a brace in his MLS debut. Ángel, of course, has proven himself in the league before and needs only to remain healthy to contend for the Golden Boot.
• D.C. United will finish in last place.Christian Gómez is back, but he lost his form a while back. Gómez and Luciano Emilio formed a strong partnership in '07, but two years later, the two players are fighting to recover from poor seasons. D.C. had a terrible regular season but managed to win the U.S. Open Cup. That triumph set United up for failure this year, as it once again will compete in the CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament that sunk D.C.'s regular-season hopes in '08.
• An expansion team will make the playoffs for the first time since '98. Actually, can we stop referring to Chicago's debut squad as an expansion team? The league was a vastly different entity 11 years ago than it is now, as the most recent wave of expansion teams will attest to that. Like Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC and San Jose before them, Seattle entered the league well after it had been established. The Sounders have learned from the previous expansion teams' failures and have pieced together a team that will compete right from the start.
• A Mexican player will score a goal for Chivas USA. Shocking, but a Mexico native didn't score a goal for the Red and White during the '08 MLS season. Jorge Flores scored three goals a year ago, but he was born in Anaheim, thus making him an American. Claudio Suárez, Francisco Mendoza and Roberto Nurse combined for zero goals in 47 games a year ago, but all three are gone. The most likely candidate to collect the goal is Eduardo Lillingston, a career Mexican-league journeyman who stands to see quite a bit of playing time this season, but Chivas also inked another former Mexican league player in Mariano Trujillo.
• An Englishman will win Most Valuable Player. No, not that Englishman. Actually, it will be Darren Huckerby of San Jose, not Beckham. Last season, Huckerby helped turn the Earthquakes' expansion campaign around when he arrived in mid-summer. The former Norwich City legend scored six goals in 14 games and energized a near-dead San Jose attack. Huckerby won't have the element of surprise anymore -- that honor will fall to Cam Weaver. Huckerby will lead one of the league's best midfields as the Quakes will recapture their former glory in large part due to the Nottingham native.
• Adolfo "Bofo" Bautista won't join an MLS team. Despite his recent statements about possibly playing in MLS once his contract runs out following the Clausura '09 season, "Bofo" will likely wind up staying in Mexico. There's no denying Bautista would be a boon for an MLS team's offense and possibly at the gate, but he would require a boatload of cash. Houston and FC Dallas and seem the most likely candidates to pursue him. Each has a Designated Player spot and could market Bautista to its respective area's Latino fans. Still, FC Dallas might be burned from having wasted money on Denílson (a former DP) and DuilioDavino (a max-salary player) before, while Houston would probably be leery of adding a potential locker room cancer to its tight-knit group. Add to that Bautista's desire to play for the Mexican national team (he won't play his way back on to El Tri playing in MLS) and Bautista's future seems destined in Mexico.
• Columbus won't successfully defend its MLS title. Had Sigi Schmid returned, the Crew might have had a chance. But despite most of the pieces from last season's improbable run back and ready to play, the Crew will suffer from Schmid's absence. Robert Warzycha was an outstanding player, but his only previous head-coaching stint was as an interim coach in '05. And while he surely learned quite a bit from Schmid, he may experience some form of coaching growing pains. Add to that Chicago's strength and Columbus seems unlikely to retain its crown.
• Real Salt Lake and New York won't participate in a conference final. Both RSL and New York caught lightning in a bottle during the postseason a year ago. RSL surprised Chivas USA while New York stunned Houston. Neither team was anything more than average at best during the '08 season, and there's no reason to believe either team will contend for a conference title. RSL has a nifty new stadium, a fervent fan base and a decent roster, but asking that club to produce more than 10 wins with heightened expectations is asking too much. New York barely deserved to be in the postseason. The club counts on Ángel and a coach in Juan Carlos Osorio who knows what he's doing, but the East is too strong for New York to contend, and it will be difficult to pull off another run at MLS Cup when the playoffs aren't in sight.
• The L.A. Galaxy won't reach the postseason. Again. It's been three seasons since the Galaxy made the playoffs. The '09 season will see them run that dubious streak to four years. The club has stability in its coaching situation, the league's best player in Landon Donovan and more of a veteran presence than it did in '08. But that will only serve to improve the team from horrendous status to just another run-of-the-mill bad team. Beckham's mid-July arrival won't do the Galaxy any favors, as the team and player will take some time to adjust to one another and will set back some of the work the team had done prior to then. Overall, the Galaxy are on the right path towards rebuilding, but it won't happen in '09.
• Chicago won't walk away empty-handed. The fourth time will be the charm for the Fire. Three times they've knocked on the door of a second MLS Cup final and three times the club has been turned away. In '09, everything will come together. With Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Brian McBride leading the charge, the Fire have the best tandem in the league. In their dynamic duo, Chicago has experience, leadership, talent and everything a team would want from its best players. Add to that a solid batch of supporting players such as BakarySoumare, Gonzalo Segares and Chris Rolfe, and a capable coach in DenisHamlett, and the Fire will finally get past the conference final hurdle and claim their second league title.