By Ridge Mahoney
The 18th MLS season kicks off this weekend with 18 teams trying to dethrone two-time defending champion Los Angeles. Five teams -- Montreal, New York, Toronto FC, Portland and Chivas USA have new head coaches -- and for the first time in a long time (since 2007) there’s no David Beckham to talk about. Former Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan is notable in absentia, at least until late March, and three MLS representatives (Houston, Seattle and Los Angeles) will also jump right into the Concacaf Champions League next week.
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Here’s a prediction of the conference finishes. The top five teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. The conference winners along with the second- and third-place teams receive byes into the conference semifinals. The regular season, which consists of 34 games per team, concludes in late October.
2. Sporting Kansas City
4. D.C United
7. New York
9. New England
10. Toronto FC
Don’t expect the Dynamo to struggle on the road as it did last year; it should start strongly with a deep and talented roster boasting Brad Davis, Oscar Boniek Garcia, Wiil Bruin, Ricardo Clark and Bobby Boswell. SKC sends out Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, and C.J. Sapong, and has added Benny Feilhaber, but needs time to adapt without Kei Kamara, Roger Espinoza, and Julio Cesar. The Crew’s offseason signings aren’t very sexy but the spine of the team has been re-cast and already in tow are Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain. United and the Fire reached the playoffs last year after absences of a few years, and both are improved enough to finish higher. Chicago’s new midfield features Joel Lindpere, Jeff Larentowicz and Dilly Duka; United has brought in Carlos Ruiz to, hopefully, complement a solid returning group.
Montreal’s attack has added playmaker Andrea Pisanu and Argentine striker Andres Romero to feed on the service of Felipe, one of the youngest members (22) of this old-ish team. New York’s revamped roster -- Juninho, Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola – will take special handling, a huge task for a very determined but inexperienced Coach Mike Petke. Philly tries to rebuild with Sebastian Le Toux and Jeff Parke and still looks thin in a few spots. The Revs were disjointed for much of last season, and while that element should be improved, is there enough talent front to back? Ryan Nelsen gets the short end of the stick in Toronto: with a depleted roster and disgruntled fan base, next year may be the only hope.
1. Los Angeles
2. San Jose
4. Real Salt Lake
6. FC Dallas
8. Chivas USA
The departure of Beckham and early-season hiatus for Donovan will be more than offset at the other end of the field with Omar Gonzalez at centerback and Carlo Cuducini in goal, so the Galaxy reigns again, at least in the regular season. San Jose may not again score 72 goals and win the Supporters’ Shield but it still has Chris Wondolowski, Victor Bernardez, and a great cast of role players utterly devoted to the Book of Frank Yallop. The changes at Seattle and Real Salt Lake haven’t altered their top-tier status; the key for the Sounders could be the health of Steve Zakuani, and with the roster changes RSL is very dependent on Javier Morales (currently injured, again), ex-TFC trickster Joao Plata, and comeback forward Robbie Findley.
Portland underachieved last year and by naming Will Johnson as captain rookie Coach Caleb Porter announced there’s a new sheriff in town. FC Dallas still boasts David Ferreira and Blas Perez and George John yet there are question marks elsewhere. Vancouver fizzled down the stretch last year and getting back to playoffs may depend on newcomers Nigel Reo-Coker and Diago Kobayashi along with forward Darren Mattocks and captain Jay DeMerit. Chivas USA has Juan Agudeo and Dan Kennedy, a new coach in Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, and a redefined Guadalajara identity, but is there a sustainable formula?
The Rapids will entertain with the ball; cover your eyes when the other team has it unless defender Diego Calderon and back-line mates Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor are doing their thing.