Philadelphia, PA – Major League Soccer starts its 17th season Saturday, matching the lifespan of the defunct North American Soccer League.
But while the NASL was speeding out of control toward the end of its life, MLS is poised to continue its growth in 2012 and beyond.
"We feel good that we have momentum," MLS commissioner Don Garber said.
Garber also will not easily forget the "tragedy" of the NASL folding. So he is keeping his foot off the pedal and steering cautiously into the future.
Garber admitted, "I don't think the ghost of NASL will ever leave the office of Major League Soccer. It always seems to hang above the sport.
"Maybe when we've been around longer than they have, it will pass."
Attendance reached an all-time high last season and MLS will add its 19th team and third in Canada, the Montreal Impact, in 2012.
The Impact anticipate over 50,000 fans at their home opener at Olympic Stadium on March 17, and a CONCACAF Champions League match Wednesday between MLS teams Toronto FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy drew more than 47,000 in Toronto.
"When you have a moment like (Wednesday) night, that makes you feel very proud about being in the soccer business," Garber said.
Although those type of crowds cannot be expected on a nightly basis (except in Seattle, perhaps), it's a clear statement that interest in the sport is high.
Expect a 20th team next season, as Garber admitted the league had looked at 19 different spots in New York for a possible return of the Cosmos, the legendary NASL team that featured Pele.
But while attendance is high and interest continues to grow, Garber knows that increasing "our television ratings is a priority."
NASL grew too rapidly, part of what ultimately led to its demise. Garber has a long-term plan, targeting "2022" as the year he wants MLS to be established as "one of the top leagues in the world."
For that to happen, MLS is going to "have to have higher TV ratings," he said.
With the MLS season rapidly approaching, it's time to let Garber deal with the future, and just focus on the upcoming year.
Although predicting any season, even one including the mighty Galaxy and their stable of superstars, is tough, here goes nothing:
1. Sporting Kansas City: K.C. has one of the best collections of young talent in MLS and is ready to take the next step. Graham Zusi is among the top young playmakers and forwards C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury are rising stars. The no- name defense, which includes Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers, is underrated. Mix in Bobby Convey, added via trade, and anything is possible.
2. Red Bull New York: Only the Los Angeles Galaxy have more star power, as the Bulls still feature Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez. But both have yet to get the team to come together, and as a result, the supporting cast has struggled. Juan Agudelo could easily break out, if given a chance by coach Hans Backe. If New York struggles this season, Backe make not make it to midseason.
3. Chicago Fire: Frank Klopas took over as coach after 11 matches last season and deserves full credit for turning the Fire around. Klopas, also the Fire's technical director, took over a team that was 1-4-6 and guided it to an 8-5-10 mark the rest of the season. There are no real stars to mention, but a "team" can go a long way in MLS. The Fire are a dark horse to win MLS Cup.
4. Toronto FC: TFC has not made the playoffs in its first five seasons in MLS, but 2012 will finally change that. Coach Aron Winter enters his second year in charge and has three designated players on board in Julian de Guzman, Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans. In a wide-open Eastern Division, Toronto has more than enough quality to make the regular season memorable.
5. Houston Dynamo: Brian Ching grabbed most of the headlines this offseason in Houston after he was lost in the expansion draft and later reacquired. Houston returns almost intact from last season, when it reached the MLS Cup final. But even with the opening of new BBVA Compass Stadium, the Dynamo will struggle to repeat last season's success. But in the playoffs, anything could happen.
6. D.C. United: D.C. was revived last season after Dwayne De Rosario was added in a trade, as the Canadian international had 13 goals and seven assists in 18 matches to win the MLS Golden Boot and MVP. Coach Ben Olsen made a good amount of changes ahead of his second season, but if De Rosario equals that output in a full season for United, it could end its four-year playoff drought.
7. Columbus Crew: Since winning the MLS Cup title in 2008, the Crew have still been one of the most solid teams in the East. Coach Robert Warzycha has a good collection of underappreciated talent and it would be foolish to write off the Crew this season. But after a second straight offseason of huge losses, namely Andres Mendoza, the Crew need a lot of new - and old - faces to step up.
8. Philadelphia Union: Coach Peter Nowak took a giant gamble when he sent star forward Sebastien Le Toux to Vancouver Whitecaps FC for allocation money. The Union needed the added funds to keep some of their young talent, but who will put the ball in the net? Le Toux combined for 25 goals and 20 assists the last two seasons, meaning he played a part in 45 of their 79 goals.
9. New England Revolution: Jay Heaps will have a good nucleus with midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Shalrie Joseph, who just about any coach in MLS could find a role for, but otherwise there are a lot of questions. The Revs finished tied for the fewest points in MLS last season with expansion Vancouver Whitecaps FC and could be in the mix again this year for the worst record.
10. Montreal Impact: Expansion seasons are rarely kind and although there will be a lot of excitement in Montreal about its new team, expecting anything more than a long, tough season would be foolish. The plus for coach Jesse Marsch is the overall talent level of teams in the East should allow his club a learning curve that is more conducive for some success.
1. Los Angeles Galaxy: Defending champions are the class of MLS, so unless any off-the-field problems surface, there are no reasons this squad cannot produce another Hollywood ending. Beckham, Juninho, and Landon Donovan all return, and former 17-goal scorer Edson Buddle rejoins MLS and L.A. after a European stop. Omar Gonzalez (torn ACL) will be missed, but Galaxy will find a solution.
2. Real Salt Lake: When healthy, there is not a starting 11 in MLS that Real cannot stake up against, even the Galaxy. While RSL lacks the Hollywood appeal of the defending champions, their talents are comparable. Javier Morales missed a big chunk of last season to injury, but now that he's healthy, Real's championship hopes are as well.
3. Seattle Sounders FC: It's strange to put too much on the departure of just one player, but the retirement of goalkeeper Kasey Keller leaves a big void in the Sounders' defense. Michael Gspurning has big shoes to fill and with a huge task ahead in the loaded Western Conference there will be under pressure to perform from the start of the season. Seattle is still loaded, but Keller will be missed.
4. FC Dallas: Dallas finished fourth in the Western Division and overall last year despite losing 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira to a season-ending injury in April. With Ferreira healthy, George John back from a short-term loan to English side West Ham, and emerging American international Brek Shea still on board, coach Schellas Hyndman should have this club back in the MLS Cup title chase.
5. Portland Timbers: Portland finished sixth in the West as an expansion team, so more should be expected of the club this season. The team spent DP money to acquire Scottish forward Kris Boyd, the top scorer in Scottish Premier League, and will need him to be productive. Portland must continue to win at Jeld-Wen Field, but also improve on the road to finish here and earn the last playoff berth.
6. San Jose Earthquakes: Frank Yallop led the Earthquakes to two MLS titles in the franchise's first stint in MLS, but since its return in 2008, the club has struggled to regain past glory. Chris Wondolowski has 34 goals in the last two seasons combined, so Yallop knows where to find the goals. Wins? Well, that's Yallop's challenge again in 2012.
7. Colorado Rapids: The Rapids lifted the MLS Cup two seasons ago, but failed to remain among the league elites last season. Although Colorado qualified for the playoffs, it was just fifth in the West, and starts over this season under new coach Oscar Pareja. Like a few other West teams, they would fare better in the East, but that's just fantasy and reality will set in this year.
8. Vancouver Whitecaps FC: The addition of Sebastien Le Toux, who combined for 25 goals and 20 assists the last two seasons with the Philadelphia Union, will make the offense more dangerous. But even with Le Toux, Eric Hassli and Camilo around, last year's worst offense will not be able to compensate for a suspect defense and a Western Conference-heavy schedule.
9. Chivas USA: Robin Fraser is a better coach than this spot indicates, but he is still trying to build the club in his second season in charge. Living in an enormous shadow of the Los Angeles Galaxy, who share the same home, will haunt the team again this season. Chivas USA has talent and Oswaldo Minda and Miller Bolanos could break out, but the West is brutal.
Sporting Kansas City - Although Peter Vermes may not have the top team in MLS, the unbalanced schedule will allow his club to earn with more points than any Western squads. It's safe to say L.A., Real Salt Lake and Seattle are better, but while they beat up on each other in the West, Sporting will cruise in the East. And remember, the top record gets home-field advantage in the playoffs.
MLS CUP CHAMPION
Sporting Kansas City - Since Kansas City capped a run of five straight titles for Eastern teams in 2000 with its first MLS crown, the West has claimed eight of the last 10 Cups. There is no doubt entering this season the West continues to be more dominant than the East, but come playoff time, it's anybody's game, and home-field advantage in the MLS Cup will be the difference.