Since I somehow managed to pick last year's MLS Cup winner (okay - I admit tabbing LA to win it wasn't exactly stepping out on a limb), I'm taking another crack at 2013 MLS season predictions. I had the Fire finishing third in the Eastern Conference and they actually did finish tied on points with New York for the three spot but lost out on the strength of the goals for tie-breaker. Never mind that I missed two of the five playoff participants in the West, that was clearly due to injury and bad luck. Anyhow - here's another dart thrown in the general direction of 2013.....
1. Seattle - This one may not be a popular selection around these parts (actually most parts come to think of it) but the Sounders are reloading after sending Fredy Montero off to join Rafael Robayo at Millonarios. If the deal for Obafemi Martins is indeed finalized, a pairing with Eddie Johnson up front and Mauro Rosales creating has the potential to be quite potent. There are questions in back however, which could keep them out of the top spot. Bonus prediction:Shalrie Joseph will be a bust.
2. Los Angeles - While Landon Donovan is off exploring his sensitive side the Galaxy are set to start the season without two of their biggest stars. Becks is gone but LA is sure to replace him with another big name talent sometime this summer. Robbie Keane will keep them in the thick of things until Donovan gets back and another DP is added to the mix in July. Bruce Arena knows how to win in MLS and there's no reason to believe he won't figure something out again.
3. Real Salt Lake - They're in a bit of flux after cutting lose several key veterans due to budget constraints but they're a good organization with solid leadership in Jason Kreis. The big gamble will be on a host of young players being pressed into starting roles and delivering. Of course much hinges on the health of Javier Morales. RSL will need more reinforcements to be a real Cup contender like they have been over the last 3 seasons.
4. San Jose Earthquakes - The ridiculous amount of late game heroics and just plain good fortune won't be replicated this season. Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart will both be hard pressed to score in double digits again. Chris Wondolowski will keep scoring but it won't be 27. They are also shaky defensively. I'll be happy to never hear a Goonies reference again.
5. Portland Timbers - The addition of playmaker Diego Valeri and the underrated Ryan Johnson makes the Timbers a tough team to face, especially at home. On the downside they also struggle on defense and Donovan Ricketts needs to have a bounce back season. They should be fun to watch.
6. Vancouver Whitecaps - They snuck into the playoffs last season with an unimpressive 11-13-10 mark and that won't be good enough this year. Coach Martin Rennie knew it and he replaced older expensive players with younger, quicker additions. This is another team that could be fun to watch although I'm not sold on Nigel Reo-Coker.
7. FC Dallas - Having David Ferreira back for a full season could make a huge difference if he's back in 2011 form. They've added Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli to go along with Blas Perez so there are plenty of attacking options. Ditching Kevin Hartman in favor of Chris Seitz may backfire and they're not very deep in several positions.
8. Colorado Rapids - Another team that jettisoned several veteran players in questionable moves. If Martin Rivero comes back healthy and Pablo Mastroeni (yeah he's still playing) has stumbled onto a formula that takes his body back in time 6 years the Rapids may challenge for a playoff spot.
9. Chivas USA - I'm not so sure it's a good thing when the most entertaining aspect of your club is your coach. This has all the markings of an idea that either ends up working remarkably well or crumbling into an absolute disaster. I think I know which way I'm leaning.
1. Houston Dynamo - You have to give Dominic Kinnear credit, this team always seems to find a way to win especially at playoff time. Despite finishing fifth in the East last season they managed to advance to a second straight MLS Cup Final. I think they'll be stronger in the regular season this year with Oscar Boniek-Garcia and Ricardo Clark on the team for the entire campaign. If Omar Cummings can recapture his form they'll be tough to beat.
2. Sporting Kansas City - Losing Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara will hurt their ability to play the high press as effectively as they did last season en route to a 7-0-0 start. If Kamara's loan is extended past June they'll need to replace him in order to stay at the same level that they have been over the last two years. The new additions are questions in my mind. Claudio Bieler has been underwhelming in preseason and Benny Feilhaber is still living on the reputation of his Gold Cup winning goal in 2007. They will still be good....just not as good as they were in 2012.
3. Chicago Fire - The additions of two quality central midfielders in Joel Lindpere and Jeff Larentowicz make the Fire stronger in the middle of the pitch than they were last year. The question again will be scoring. After Chris Rolfe the Fire don't have any one player seemingly capable of hitting the double digit mark in goals. If they can add that elusive big time #9 in July they will be a serious challenger down the stretch. Without one they will be entertaining but not quite good enough to really be considered a Cup contender.
4. DC United - They finished the 2012 season on a strong run without the services of Dwayne DeRosario. Chris Pontius and Nick Deleon are solid outside midfielders but there are plenty of question marks. Is there defense good enough? Will the young Brazilian DP, Rafael be more than a project? John Thorrington and Carlos Ruiz are the big offseason moves...seriously. I believe DC overachieved down the stretch and will come back down a notch.
5. New York Red Bulls - As long as Thierry Henry can keep scoring they will be dangerous. They dumped a lot of dead weight in the offseason but they're still on shaky ground. Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola arrived from RSL and Olave will be a huge improvement over either Rafa Marquez or Wilman Conde in central defense if he is healthy. Tim Cahill has been rather unimpressive since coming over from Everton and it's questionable how effective a 38 year old Juninho will be. Goalkeeper is also still a sore spot. Mike Petke is an upgrade over Hans Backe but that's not exactly high praise.
6. Columbus Crew - They almost snuck into the playoffs on the backs of an incredible run of form by Federico Higuain. Once the older brother of Gonzalo cooled off it was actually Jairo Arrieta that was their best player though. The combo of Higuain, Arrieta, and Dominic Oduro may provide a few sparks to keep them in the hunt but they don't have enough to compete with the other contenders in the East.
7. Philadelphia Union - Bringing back Sebastien LeToux will make the Sons of Ben happy but this is another side that doesn't have quite enough to get into the playoffs. There is some good young talent on the squad but true difference makers are lacking. We'll see if Conor Casey has anything left.
8. New England Revolution - How the mighty have fallen. They'll have Jerry Bengston from the start of the season which will help but he seems to save his best performances for Honduras. Youngster Diego Fagundez will finally get a chance to earn some minutes but the Revs will be as interesting as watching a soccer game in Gillette Stadium.
9. Montreal Impact - The Azzurri, um I mean Montreal has some pieces but the apparent meddling from owner Joey Saputo has resulted in some highly dubious transactions. They've assembled a mostly veteran team that isn't considered a contender by many and will need a thorough overhaul at some point in the near future.
10. Toronto FC - Well....at least their coach showed up in time for the start of the regular season.
Houston over Seattle
Once again this season both conferences are up for grabs. The salary budgets and roster limitations in MLS ensures that the difference between the top five in each conference and the non-playoff teams is pretty slim. One or two shrewd additions at midseason can change the fortunes of a club and suddenly bounce them into contention.
New Supporter's Shield
While I'm leaning toward Seattle claiming the Supporter's Shield this season it should be noted that the shield itself will be different this year. The Independent Supporter's Council of the United States and Canada (ISC) came together this winter to finalize a brand spanking new design of the award. Check out all the details with pics here.
Fire v Galaxy Live Chat
Join me, Jeff Crandall, and Steve Piggott on Sunday over at Chicago-Fire.com for a live chat during the opening match. The chat will also be co-hosted by the Galaxy at their official site.