With the 2012 MLS season nearly upon us, it's time to look into our crystal ball and project the next nine months of action. What do we see? Despite plenty of non-playoff teams making vast roster improvements that should lead to as entertaining a season as the league has seen, expect more of the same in terms of final outcome in 2012:
For all the clamoring about league parity, there's one team with a cavalcade of stars positioned to rise above the rest and post the double yet again, and that's the defending champions.
The Galaxy's 2012 ride won't be one without any speed bumps, though. Between David Beckham missing a good chunk of the summer for the Olympics, Robbie Keane missing time for Euro 2012, the team being stretched with CONCACAF Champions League matches on both ends of the season calendar and center back Omar Gonzalez being on the shelf with a torn ACL, Bruce Arena will once again have to showcase his magic touch to bring more silverware back to the Home Depot Center. Fortunately for him, he has one of the league's greatest-ever collections of talent with which to work (Landon Donovan, Beckham, Keane, Edson Buddle, Juninho, Todd Dunivant, A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin make for one heck of a nucleus), and Gonzalez should return before the end of the season.
Even though Los Angeles is the runaway favorite in the West, the Galaxy will be pushed hard by the likes of Seattle and Real Salt Lake. Guiding the ship for the Sounders is Rosales, a true find in the international transfer market and an MVP candidate with five goals and 13 assists last season before he got hurt toward the end of the campaign. Rewarded with a Designated Player contract after proving his worth, the Argentine playmaker has what it takes to be the season-long catalyst for a Seattle team with major aspirations.
Like the discussion for league MVP, there are so many viable candidates. It's hard to pick against San Jose's Chris Wondolowski, who has the most goals in MLS over the last two seasons. Reigning Golden Boot winner Dwayne De Rosario figures to be playing closer to goal in his forward role with D.C. United, too. The usual suspects like Donovan, Fredy Montero and Thierry Henry linger as well. While perhaps more of a dark horse pick, Koevermans' productivity in his brief time in the league last season raised some eyebrows. With eight goals in 10 league games (and two more in CONCACAF Champions League play), he proved to be apt in the air and a lethal poacher in front of the target. With the size and physicality to match up with the toughest of MLS center backs, the lumbering Dutchman could certainly hit the 18-20 goals range.
A stellar preseason confirmed what many thought after Silva was picked by TFC in the MLS SuperDraft -- the UCSB product is a great fit for Toronto's tactical arrangement. Despite Montreal's Andrew Wenger and Vancouver's Darren Mattocks garnering more attention as top draft picks and New England's Kelyn Rowe also looking like a good bet to shine in his first year, Silva's combination of opportunity and potential should make him the top MLS freshman.
With Gonzalez out for the bulk of the year, his throne as top MLS defender is up for grabs. RSL's center backs Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers always merit consideration, and George John will be sure to be in the mix now that he is returning to FC Dallas. With Cameron becoming a fulltime center back, though, it is his prize for the taking. His combination of aerial ability, stout man marking and composure on the ball is a coach's dream, and his recent emergence for the U.S. national team is a testament to his quality.
The obvious candidates are Ferreira and Seattle's Steve Zakuani, who both suffered season-ending injuries early in 2011 and are hot on the comeback trail. At the top of his game, Ferreira, the 2010 league MVP, completely transforms the complexion of the FCD attack. Zakuani has had a larger physical hill to climb and might not be poised for as much production right away. There's also Colorado Rapids forward Conor Casey, who should return a few weeks into the season after tearing his Achilles tendon in July, and D.C. United Designated Player Branko Boskovic, who will be given the keys in central midfield after healing from a torn ACL.
If there's a postseason award MLS needs to institute, it's this. Often times players who end up on the Comeback Player ballot are only there because there's no Improved Player category to recognize their feats. All 2010 finalist Brek Shea came back from was his second season in the league, and the only thing 2011 finalist Dominic Oduro bounced back from last year was a trade that propelled him to new heights. So who is best-positioned to take a step to the next level in 2012? Duka has emerged as one of the top midfielders in the U.S. U-23 player pool and should play a consistent role in the Crew's attack now that Robbie Rogers is off to Leeds United. RSL's 18-year-old midfielder Luis Gil is another one to watch as a youngster poised for a bigger role.
Probably the most intriguing sideplot to watch this season is the integration of the newcomer class. Every year it seems teams get wiser and more prudent when it comes to international signings, and last year's crop of newcomers was perhaps the best the league has ever seen. This year figures to build on that. Between proven strikers Boyd (the Scottish Premier League's all-time leading scorer), Hamdi Salihi and Blas Perez joining the fold and a league's-worth of talent coming from Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America, international player quality continues to rise. Although the goal scorers will get the acclaim, one to keep an eye on is Seattle's Austrian goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who has the task of filling Kasey Keller's legendary gloves and cleats for a title contender.
The tweaked playoff format has five teams from each conference making the postseason. So who do I think will make the cut? After a long season that will undoubtedly have the race for the final spots go down to the wire: