Major League Soccer's 18th season begins on Saturday, and so the time has come to offer some predictions for the coming year.
Several MLS franchises have made wholesale changes to their rosters, so accurately predicting where everyone will finish is difficult, but we'll take a shot at it anyway. Below are predictions for conference standings as well as individual award winners for the 2013 campaign:
1.) Sporting Kansas City: SKC has finished at the summit of the conference each of the last two seasons and still has the talent up and down the roster to do it again in 2013. Sporting lost some players in the offseason with forward Kei Kamara going on loan to Norwich City and Roger Espinosa moving to Wigan, but the club still has C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury, who combined to score 14 goals last season. Add in Designated Player Claudio Bieler up top, standout defenders Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, and Jimmy Nielsen in goal, and Kansas City is still the class of the conference.
2.) D.C. United: The league's most successful franchise made the playoffs for the first time since 2007 last season behind an outstanding year from talisman Dwayne De Rosario, who scored seven goals and added 12 assists. De Rosario missed the final seven regular season matches last year, but should be ready to go when D.C. takes on the Houston Dynamo on Saturday. Forward Lionard Pajoy should thrive in his first full season under coach Ben Olsen, and assuming De Rosario stays healthy, United should have no trouble reaching the postseason again.
3.) Red Bull New York: It's a new era for the Red Bulls heading into 2013 with Mike Petke taking the reins of a team that is loaded with talent. Forward Kenny Cooper was traded to FC Dallas, but the Red Bulls pulled off a huge trade in the offseason for Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave from Real Salt Lake. Olave instantly makes the defensive unit stronger, while Espindola paired with Thierry Henry up top is extremely dangerous. Petke should be able to get his players on the same page fairly quickly, resulting in another playoff berth.
4.) Houston Dynamo: Houston has been the Eastern Conference's representative in the MLS Cup Final each of the past two seasons. Unfortunately, they lost to a better Los Angeles Galaxy side. Forward Will Bruin scored 12 goals last year and is a star in the making. He should get close to the 20-goal plateau this season while receiving fantastic service from standout midfielders Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis. The Dynamo's backline is solid as ever with veterans Bobby Boswell and Corey Ashe, and goalkeeper Tally Hall is also excellent. Houston has a tendency to start slowly, however, which will land it out of the top-three places in the standings.
5.) Philadelphia Union: On paper, the Philadelphia Union have significantly upgraded their team by bringing back fan favorite Sebastien Le Toux and adding veteran Conor Casey to the forward ranks, while youngster Jack McInerney is set for another solid season under coach John Hackworth. Midfielder Michael Farfan should flourish in the middle of the field without having to worry about getting Freddy Adu the ball. The Union lost former captain Carlos Valdes, who went on loan to Colombia, but gained hometown man Jeff Parke in a trade with Seattle. Bakary Soumare should be healthy and ready to fill in for Valdes on a permanent basis in central defense. Hackworth's challenge this season will be figuring out what to do with Le Toux, Casey and McInerney up top. It's unlikely that all three will play at the same time, but two out of three isn't bad and should help Philadelphia back to the postseason.
6.) Chicago Fire: The Fire looked poised to claim one of the top spots in the East last year, but things went south at the end of the season as they closed the season with one win in their last five contests and slipped to fourth place. The midfield is the biggest question this time around as Alvaro Fernandez was loaned out and veteran Pavel Pardo retired. Fernandez was instrumental in Chicago's surge toward the end of the season as he scored two goals with one assist in 13 games, while Pardo was also a key piece, having started 27 games. Chicago is strong up top with Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald. The pair combined for 12 goals with seven assists, but inconsistency could end up costing the Fire a playoff spot.
7.) Columbus Crew: Columbus missed the postseason for the first time in five years last season, finishing one point behind fifth-place Houston. The Crew will be pleased to have forward Federico Higuain for a full season alongside Jairo Arrieta and Eddie Gaven, but the Crew scored just 44 goals in the 34 matches last year and will need to step up the goal-scoring pace if they want to return to the postseason.
8.) Montreal Impact: New coach Marco Schallibaum will be expected to guide the Impact to the postseason after a promising first season in MLS. They have some good pieces in veteran scorer Marco Di Vaio and second-year forward Andrew Wenger. Midfielder Patrice Bernier could be a star in the making, but Montreal needs to learn how to win on the road after posting a 2-12-3 record away from Saputo Stadium last term.
9.) New England Revolution: Second-year coach Jay Heaps has a tough task on his hands in continuing to rebuild what once was a powerhouse franchise. Forwards Jerry Bengston and Saer Sene have promising futures as do midfielder Kelyn Rowe and defender Andrew Farrell, the No. 1 overall SuperDraft selection. Farrell could be in the starting 11 fairly quickly and could be a front-runner for MLS Rookie of the Year, but the Revolution simply aren't good enough to challenge for a playoff spot yet.
10.) Toronto FC: Where to start with Toronto FC ... The team hasn't made the playoffs in its six-year history and seems to change coaches and rosters every offseason. This offseason was no different as new club president Kevin Payne hired former Queens Park Rangers defender Ryan Nelsen as head coach. The club brought in Justin Braun to play up top as well as defenders Danny Califf and Gale Agbossoumonde to fix a leaky defense that allowed a league-high 62 goals last campaign. Nelsen will have to figure out a way to get all the new pieces to jell, and even if he does, the postseason is out of reach for Toronto.
1.) San Jose Earthquakes: San Jose ran away with the Supporter's Shield last season, finishing with 66 points behind a stellar season from Chris Wondolowski, who tied Roy Lassiter's single-season record for goals with 27. The man known as "Wondo" won't put up those gaudy numbers again this season, but he won't need to with help from forwards Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart. San Jose will need Gordon and Lenhart to contribute in the postseason, but the Quakes should be the class of the conference again.
2.) Los Angeles Galaxy: The two-time defending champions made a bit of a splash after the season when David Beckham walked away from the team, but even without Beckham, the other two of the three superstars are still around in Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. Questions lingered about when or if Donovan would return to soccer after he announced he was taking a break, but with the U.S. legend back in the fold, L.A. should have a chance for a three-peat once the playoffs roll around.
3.) Seattle Sounders FC: The Sounders lost their biggest offensive force this offseason when Fredy Montero was loaned to Colombian club Millonarios, but Eddie Johnson and David Estrada appear ready to step in for Montero and carry the Sounders offense. Osvaldo Alonso will anchor what is arguably the best midfield in the league along with Steve Zakuani, Christian Tiffert, Brad Evans, Mauro Rosales and newly acquired Lamar Neagle. Seattle's defense is still solid and Michael Gspurning is fantastic in the net.
4.) Real Salt Lake: Real Salt Lake will have a decidedly different look in 2013 after losing Espindola and Olave, but bringing back forward Robbie Findley, who enjoyed a successful three-year stint with the Claret and Cobalt from 2007-10, should help fill Espindola's void. Findley will be paired with Alvaro Saborio, who tallied 17 goals. Coach Jason Kreis must figure out how to fill the sizable shoes of the departed Olave along the backline and the club will need to be better at home this time around as they won just 11 of 17 games at Rio Tinto Stadium last season.
5.) Vancouver Whitecaps FC: Vancouver made the playoffs last season in just its second season in the league thanks to a rising superstar in forward Darren Mattocks. He played in 21 games last term and scored seven times and added one assist in the regular season and scored the club's lone playoff goal against Los Angeles. Mattocks is only 23 and seemed to get better as the season wore on last time out. He will need to continue to score for Vancouver to make it two straight trips to the postseason.
6.) FC Dallas: Dallas's hopes for a postseason spot last season were dashed when the club endured a brutal 13-game winless run from the middle of April to July. They have bolstered their attack by bringing back hometown man Kenny Cooper and trading for Eric Hassli. Cooper established himself as one of the top strikers in MLS in his first stint with FC Dallas from 2006-09, scoring 40 goals in 90 matches for Dallas, including 18 in the 2008 season, There is reason for optimism in Dallas, but making the playoffs in West is tough and Dallas may just miss out by a few points.
7.) Portland Timbers: After a forgettable 2012 season, Portland took a gamble and hired University of Akron and U.S. under-23 head coach Caleb Porter. He had an outstanding record of 119-18-17 during his seven-year tenure with the Zips, but came under a bit of scrutiny after his U.S. squad failed to qualify for last summer's Olympic Games in London. The Timbers have added Designated Player Diego Valeri and forward Ryan Johnson and have the talent to reach the postseason, but everything hinges on how Porter handles his first MLS gig.
8.) Colorado Rapids: The Rapids turned over a new leaf this offseason by jettisoning many of the players on their 2010 MLS Cup-winning team. Forwards Omar Cummings and Conor Casey are gone as well as midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. Second-year head coach Oscar Pareja will need to rely on former Galaxy star Edson Buddle for offense, but Buddle had knee surgery in June last season and scored just three goals.
9.) Chivas USA: Chivas has not made the playoffs in three years and has not finished higher than eighth place in the Western Conference over that span. Coach Robin Fraser was replaced by Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, and the club has made an effort to honor a link to its parent club, Mexico's Chivas de Guadalajara, by trying to fill the roster with players who have Hispanic heritage. It's an interesting master plan to say the least, but it doesn't do a lot for this year's version of the Goats, who are in transition and will need a massive season to make the playoffs.
Golden Boot: Chris Wondolowski (San Jose) - Wondo probably won't put up 27 goals like he did last year, but he's still the league's most proficient scorer. He could be pushed a bit by Henry or De Rosario, but should come out on top somewhere in the 18- to 23-goal range.
Coach of the Year: Jason Kreis (Real Salt Lake) - Kreis has quite the challenge ahead of him after losing club mainstays in Espindola and Olave, but the former Salt Lake star proved he knew how to handle a locker room and became MLS' youngest Cup-winning coach when RSL won the MLS Cup title in 2009. Despite losing some veteran presence, Kreis will figure it out and lead his team to another postseason berth.
Goalkeeper of the Year: Michael Gspurning (Seattle) - Gspurning had a stellar season last year in replacing the legendary Kasey Keller in the Seattle net. He anchored a strong Seattle defense and finished his first year in MLS with a league-best 0.73 goals against average.
Defender of the Year: Jamison Olave (Red Bull New York) - Olave has a change of scenery to get acclimated with after being dealt from Real Salt Lake to Red Bull New York, but that shouldn't adversely affect his performance and he can reclaim the award he won with RSL back in 2010.
Rookie of the Year: Andrew Farrell (New England) - Farrell will have high expectations to live up to as the No. 1 selection in this year's SuperDraft, but he offers New England some versatility with his ability to play wide or centrally along the backline. He may not be in the starting 11 right off the bat, but give the Louisville product a few weeks to get comfortable with MLS and he should be well on his way to stardom.