A quick glance down who's in and out at each Western Conference club, suggests that there's a lot of turnover, and it may be a little while before a clear picture of the conference emerges. Certainly guessing at front runners is a little more complicated than last year, when a stacked LA side appeared to have gotten stronger, if anything, in the off-season. Yes, they'd lost Omar Gonzalez to injury, but how much could they miss one defender? A whole lot it seemed, as the Galaxy spent the first half of the year falling down the rabbit hole created by the absence of Gonzalez, and the second half of the year quietly climbing out of it. So quietly that Bruce Arena could claim with some justification that nobody had noticed his side were the form team in the league from the sumer onwards. By the time they had noticed, Robbie Keane was plundering goals through the play-offs and the Galaxy had back-to-back titles. Oh and then Beckham left.
Of the teams they beat to get there, Seattle and San Jose have been among the more stable sides for turnover this off-season, suggesting at first glance their respective coaches are pretty happy with their squads. Though on closer inspection, a Seattle side built round Fredy Montero will now proceed without Montero, after another playoff disappointment, while San Jose have drafted in some defensive reinforcements with Champions League play in mind. The third team LA beat, , have had a fair amount of players in and out, as Martin Rennie retunes a team that rather went off the boil in the second half of the season. Rennie's team is clearly his now, and this will be a key year for him. The same goes for Oscar Pareja at Colorado, who finally tilts the balance of his personnel towards his way of playing, after occasional first year culture clashes.
Two new coaches have arrived at their respective teams with a bang - Jose Luis Sanchez Sola has been checking birth certificates at Chivas, while Caleb Porter arrives at Portland with a mandate to reinvent a team that struggled again on the road in 2012.
Reinvention of a sort at , too, as the team Jason Kreis built finally loses some of its foundational members, after a strangely subdued season for one that turned out to bring a record points haul. Finally FC Dallas, now without Brek Shea, have added Eric Hassli and Kenny Cooper to their strike force. Hopefully for their fans Hassli does not end this season with the bottom team in the league, as he has done for the past two.
And those fans and others have their say and their predictions below, as we go to some of our regular cast of fan reps, bloggers, podcasters and beat writers to assess their team's chances this year, along with my take on where each team has made changes and what we can expect of them.
Team by team preview
All listed kick-offs are Eastern Time
Last Season: 9th (30 pts)
Players in: M Carlos Alvarez (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); M Eric Avila (1/22/13 - trade from Colorado); D Steve Purdy (2/14/13 - free); D Carlos Borja (2/14/13 - free); M Edgar Mejia (2/22/13 - loan from Chivas Guadalajara); F Giovani Casillas (2/22/13 - loan from Chivas Guadalajara); D Mario de Luna (2/22/13 - loan from Chivas Guadalajara); D Joaquín Velázquez (2/26/13 - loan from Chivas Guadalajara); D Walter Vílchez (2/26/13 - discovery signing)
Players out: F Juan Pablo Ángel (12/3/12 - out of contract); M Peter Vagenas (12/3/12 - out of contract); D Danny Califf (12/3/12 - option declined); F Alejandro Moreno (12/3/12 - option declined); M Nick LaBrocca (1/22/13 - trade to Colorado); F Casey Townsend (1/25/13 - trade to D.C. United); M Ben Zemanski (2/13/13 - trade to Portland); D James Riley (2/14/13 - trade to D.C. United); M Paolo Cardozo (2/14/13 - option declined); M Ryan Smith (2/14/13 - option declined); D John Valencia (2/14/13 - option declined); F Cesar Romero (2/14/13 - waived); M Shalrie Joseph (2/19/13 - traded to Seattle)
Coach: Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, aka "Chelis"; (replaced Robin Fraser in off-season)
Opening game: Columbus Crew (H), Sat March 2nd, 10.30pm
Guardian view: There appears to be very little middle ground here - either Chelis is the "Special One" his rather bullish public proclamations would suggest, or Chivas will be picking up the pieces for some time to come. The new ownership regime at Chivas wasted little time in letting Robin Fraser go, after the horribly isolated incumbent head coach had endured a dismal run in at the end of last season. Fraser soon pitched up again as an assistant at New York, while several of the players he'd brought to the club now found themselves following him through the exit, as new head coach Chelis embarked on a roster purge that saw veteran players like Danny Califf, James Riley, and most remarkably perhaps, Shalrie Joseph out of the door to make way for a Mexican-centric revolution. Chelis was adamant that the main issue was a bloated wage bill needing to be trimmed to give him room to manoeuvre, and that may explain the rather lop-sided deals in favor of the clubs taking players off his hands (Joseph's move to Seattle seemed particularly remarkable in that regard).
As a coach at Puebla, Chelis made his name as a motivator of middling players to punch above their weight. He'll need all his famed motivational powers at a dispirited Chivas, though early signs are that the players who remain are responding. Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy has survived the cull so far (though it seems there have been a couple of near misses on the trade front) and has spoken of the enthusiasm the new coach has generated. Having moved Joseph off the wage bill though, Chelis was quick to turn to a trusted source for reinforcements. Three Chivas de Guadalajara players arrived on loan at the end of last week, including midfielder Edgar Mejia and 19 year old forward Giovani Casillas. And a further two veteran defenders, including another parent club loan arrived as this preview was being finished. The forward depth still looks very thin though, which suggests an intriguing litmus test for the coach's man-management prowess — can he persuade Juan Agudelo to deliver more consistently on his promise and score the goals Chivas needs? If he doesn't, then Chelis could be rummaging through the remainder bins at parent club Chivas de Guadalajara before too long, in search of more firepower. He's not worried though -, "In October, call me please and tell me the talent of this team." As for Chivas USA's last abortive attempt to build a team round players of Mexican heritage:
"In 2005, the owners have this idea, but don't give it to Chelis. Now they have the Mexican players, the American Latino players and Chelis."
it won't be dull...
Alicia Ratterree, , Chivas USA:
Chivas USA have had perhaps the most news-filled offseason of any MLS team. Owner Jorge Vergara assumed full control of the club, , then went back into the shadows. The club hired Jose Luis Sanchez Sola (aka "Chelís") as their new head coach, and he will likely be the most quotable coach in the league this season. As for the roster itself, there has been considerable turnover, as expected, but what has been controversial has been the assumed policy taken by the club. Every player brought in so far has been Latino (although it must be said that many of these players are American), while most of the players who have left the club one way or another are non-Latino. Is Chivas USA trying to corner an untapped market on and off the field, or something more sinister? Either way, it has dominated conversations during the preseason.
As for performance, that is difficult to say what will happen. The majority of players brought in this season do not have MLS experience, and that usually does not work well in the league. Of those who do have MLS experience, most have not really done much to this point. Chelís already seems to have rubbed off on his players, and they seem to genuinely think highly of him, but it is unclear if the team can realistically compete. Certainly, the best case scenario would be for this to be a multi-year project, but it is unclear if this club has the patience to see something like that through. If made the playoffs this season, it would be a terrific achievement, but more realistic would be if the club could make its way out of the basement for 2013. I'll go with 7th place.
Last Season: 7th (37 pts)
Players in: M/F Atiba Harris (12/3/12 - trade from Vancouver); M Eric Avila (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Edson Buddle (12/14/12 - trade from LA Galaxy); M Nathan Sturgis (12/23/12 - trade from Houston); D Diego Calderón (1/3/12 - transfer from LDU Quito); F Kevin Harbottle (1/17/12 - free transfer from Universidad Católica); D DeShorn Brown (1/17/12 - SuperDraft); M Dillon Powers (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); M Dillon Serna (1/18/12 - Homegrown); M Nick LaBrocca (1/22/13 - trade from Chivas USA); F Charles Eloundou (1/25/13 - weighted lottery); GK Clint Irwin (2/21/13 - free); D Korey Kindle (2/21/13 - SuperDraft)
Players out: F Conor Casey (11/16/12 - option declined); M Edu (11/16/12); GK Ian Joyce (11/16/12 - option declined); D Tyrone Marshall (11/16/12 - out of contract); M Joseph Nane (11/16/12 - option declined); D Scott Palguta (11/16/12 - out of contract); D Tyson Wahl (11/16/12 - option declined); D Luis Zapata (11/16/12 - option declined); D Hunter Freeman (12/3/12 - option declined); F Omar Cummings (12/23/12 - trade to Houston); M Jeff Larentowicz (1/16/13 - trade to Chicago); M Eric Avila (1/22/13 - trade to Chivas USA)
Coach: Oscar Pareja (took over from Gary Smith after 2011 season; second full season)
Opening game: (A), Sat March 2nd, 8.30pm
Guardian view: The Rapids endured some rather rough teething problems in 2012, as Oscar Pareja started his overhaul of a quintessential physical 4-4-2 side into one capable of playing a more fluid passing game. Such changes of systems and mindsets can be a treacherous proposition in MLS, as Aron Winter found at Toronto last season - as the disparity between his desired style and available personnel proved too much. For Pareja, the ghost of Smith's side (and their unlikely Cup in 2010) hung over his first year, and while the Rapids had their moments, they failed to convince consistently. The peculiarities of the playoffs meant that their season technically stayed alive longer than the team had any real right to expect, and from summer onwards, most fans' eyes were on the winter overhaul.
And quite an off-season it has been. The face of the Smith era, Conor Casey, was sent to Philadelphia, while other stalwarts of that side, Omar Cummings and Jeff Larentowicz, were also traded. It's Pareja's team now, and it throws up some interesting questions:
How will Hendry Thomas, who arrived near the end of the 2012 season, bed in with Mastroeni at the base of that midfield? Have the side gone too far in the opposite direction from the old physical Rapids? The center back pairing of new signing Diego Calderon and Drew Moor may fit with Pareja's technical style, but they might get pushed around by some of the bigger teams out there. Can Edson Buddle, coming off a mediocre season at LA, recapture his 2010 form? And can the likes of Cascio build on their rookie form to give him the assists he needs?
Buddle might be the key to providing a cutting edge to some pretty approach play and they need him to start scoring early. The Rapids have had a lot of turnover this off-season and that suggests another period of initial adjustment, but they won't want to be cut adrift in the meantime, after the mediocre way last season played out. If Pareja can make it work, the Rapids should become a more consistently entertaining team to watch, and a more consistent team to play for.
Todd Haggerty, :
Aside from Drew Moor. I have no idea who will be in the first 11 for the Rapids as a complete overhaul of the roster poses more questions than answers. Out are Conor Casey, Jeff Larentowicz and Omar Cummings and incoming are, among many others, Edson Buddle, Nick LaBrocca and Atiba Harris. Additionally, Pablo Mastroeni is back after missing most of last season. Pre-season games have demonstrated the lack of familiarity on the team as they shipped a ton of goals and didn't score many either. The cause hasn't been helped by injuries to Martin Rivero, Matt Pickens and Edson Buddle. With so many new and unknown players supporters are both excited and terrified, which is a new feeling after the doldrums of the past few seasons.
Given the squad turnover, injuries to Buddle and Rivero and the lack of clarity at both fullback positions the Rapids appear primed for repeat of last season —missing the playoffs. This is a big year for Bravo as he now has the coach and type of players he wants for the style of play. The question is how patient will the supporters be come July and August? At least it'll be interesting to watch.
Last Season: 6th (39 pts)
Players in: M Peter Luccin (12/10/12 - free); D Stephen Keel (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Pipico (12/18/12 - transfer from Vasco da Gama); F/M Bradlee Baladez (12/19/12 - Homegrown); D London Woodberry (1/9/13 - Homegrown); GK Raúl Fernández (1/10/13 - free); D Walker Zimmerman (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); F Eric Hassli (2/4/13 - trade from Toronto); F Kenny Cooper (2/4/13 - trade from New York); M Je-Vaughn Watson (2/19/13 - trade from Houston); D Michel (2/19/13 - free)
Players out: M Bryan Leyva (11/7/12 - option declined); M Bruno Guarda (11/7/12 - option declined); F Ruben Luna (11/7/12 - option declined); F Matías Jara (11/7/12 - option declined); GK Kevin Hartman (12/3/12 - out of contract); M Julian de Guzman (12/3/12 - out of contract); F Scott Sealy (12/3/12 - option declined); D Moises Hernandez (1/3/13 - loan to Saprissa); M Ricardo Villar (1/23/13 - waived); M James Marcelin (1/23/13 - waived); M Brek Shea (1/31/13 - transfer to Stoke City); F Pipico (2/4/13 - waived)
Coach: Schellas Hyndman (took over from Steve Morrow in June 2008; starting 5th full season)
Opening game: Colorado (H), Sat March 2nd, 8.30pm
Guardian view: The rumblings around Brek Shea set the tone for a rather fractious season last year, as the frustrated young player sat out games through injury and suspension, while the Dallas team labored, with or without him. Just as crucially the team seemed to be in a holding pattern waiting for 2010 MVP David Ferreira to return from injury and rescue their season. Ferreira did come back, and Dallas made a late run, only to capitulate in their playoff challenge with 5th place Vancouver looking very vulnerable on the run-in. It was that sort of season.
Shea has gone to Stoke now and Schellas Hyndman wasted no team spending the allocation money to bring in a serious looking frontline of Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli - the former a victim of the cap at New York, the latter vocally agitating his way away from Toronto. Cooper got 18 goals last season, alongside Thierry Henry. If that version of Cooper shows up in Dallas (rather than the 2011 version), Hassli starts knocking in the wonder goals, Blas Perez builds on his first season and Ferreira hits full throttle, this should be a much more dangerous Dallas side going forward. Draftee Walker Zimmerman was a highly touted prospect before skipping the Combine - he may get a chance to impress in defense, while Hyndman will be hoping that at the very least there's no drop-off in goal without veteran Kevin Hartman, having signed the Peruvian national team goalkeeper Raul Fernandez. It's a lot of turnover, but the experience of the key new players and the technical staff continuity, should see this Dallas side consolidate to do better this year. Of the teams who finished outside the playoffs last season, Dallas are perhaps the nearest to a reliable bet to break into them this year (the variables are somewhat wilder when it comes to predicting how all the changes at Portland pan out).
Gina Zippilli, , Dallas:
The off-season started kind of rocky and has been slowly getting better. Straight away we lost Kevin Hartman and were kind of confused as to why a player who'd done so much for the club was going now, then came the one we'd been sort of expecting when Brek (Shea) went. But then the day after we lost him we picked up Hassli and Cooper. I think it's a fantastic swap. Hassli's had a rough go in MLS so far and has been with terrible teams. He seems really excited to be here. He was quoted saying he just wants to "shut his mouth and work" and that he's "F-ing excited" to be here. Hopefully we'll jeep up the track record of improving the fortunes of players who come from Toronto. And Kenny Cooper, I just about hit the roof in excitement when I heard he was coming back to Dallas.
Last season Perez was good but it felt like he was never here, always in Panama for qualifiers. But now we've gone from one good striker to three good strikers, so I'm going to say that with the supply they'll get and their finishing, 3rd place looks a realistic target — certainly nothing less than the playoffs.
Last Season: 4th (54 pts); Won MLS Cup, beating Houston Dynamo 3-1 in final
Players in: D Oscar Sorto (12/11/12 - Homegrown); M Colin Clark (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Gyasi Zardes (12/20/12 - Homegrown); GK Carlo Cudicini (12/31/12 - free); M Juninho (1/16/13 - transfer from São Paulo)
Players out: D Andrew Boyens (12/3/12 - option declined); D Bryan Jordan (12/3/12 - option declined); M Kyle Nakazawa (12/3/12 - option declined); F Pat Noonan (12/3/12 - option declined); F Chad Barrett (12/3/12 - option declined); M Christian Wilhelmsson (12/3/12 - option declined); M David Beckham (12/3/12 - option declined); F Edson Buddle (12/14/12 - trade to Colorado); GK Josh Saunders (2/22/13 - contract lapsed)
Coach: Bruce Arena (took over from Ruud Gullit in August 2008; starting 5th full season)
Opening game: Chicago Fire (H), Sun March 3rd, 5pm (Univision)
Guardian view: Last season I predicted the Galaxy would repeat as champions and they duly did, but in such a contrary fashion that even those who'd backed them looked foolish. The season opening loss to Toronto in the Champions League was a result that would look worse and worse in the weeks that followed, as Toronto looked, well, worse and worse. The undefeated home record from 2011 didn't even last a game, as RSL turned them over in the season opener, and even a lightweight New England put three past the Galaxy at home. The most common explanation given was that Omar Gonzalez's off-season loss to injury, while on loan at Nuremburg, had irreperably damaged the Galaxy's defense. And there was a lot to that, as a succession of center backs tried and failed to plug the gap, as the galaxy leaked goals and points into the summer. But the Galaxy rallied, largely in the wake of a come-from-behind win at Real Salt Lake, and as the form team of the second half of the season, rode their comeback all the way to a repeat MLS Cup.
Exit David Beckham, and temporarily at least, Landon Donovan. How will the Galaxy shape up. Defensively at least, they're looking OK. Gonzalez, the MLS Cup MVP proved his worth on his comeback from injury as the defense steadied and rookie Tommy Meyer began to steady as a decent central option, as the team went deeper into the playoffs. And the experience of Carlo Cudicini will be a real boon in goal. The picture's a little less clear elsewhere. Juninho is finally a permanent signing after repeat loan spells, but there's a question mark over his creativity/industry ratio. The former was less important than the latter when the side was built around giving Beckham's passes and Donovan's runs the space to stretch defenses. With Edson Buddle shuffled out of the forward line and Wilhelmsson ultimately proving a bust on the wing, there's a lot of weight on the shoulders of Robbie Keane up front, since other than Mike Magee (who's less a leader of the line than someone who thrives on space opened up by defenders marking players they consider more dangerous), and the exciting, but raw, young homegrown striker Gyassi Zardes, the Galaxy look a little short of firepower going in to this season. Donovan's return will help, and who knows whether Kaka or Lampard will indeed materialize at the Home Depot Center in the summer, but there's another Champions League quarter final to be dealt before any of that. let's see what tone that sets for the season.
Josie Becker, Editor, , Los Angeles:
The biggest story this offseason was known a week before MLS Cup, the departure of David Beckham. While the haven't filled the DP hole that he left, they were able to purchase Juninho from Sao Paulo, bring him to LA on a permanent status after years of loans. Given that the Galaxy have won MLS Cup two years in a row, this offseason was less about addition and more about preventing subtraction.
Not that there won't be big changes in the lineup come first kick. Juninho and Sarvas are likely to start in the central midfield after sharing the spot next to Beckham. Landon Donovan isn't returning to the team until late March, taking extended time off to clear his head. Certainly he's earned the break, but there's a new face on the outside when he gets back; Colin Clark was brought in through the re-entry draft from Houston. The Galaxy also allowed their starting goalkeeper Josh Saunders walk, bringing in Carlo Cudicini from Tottenham Hotspur. LA hopes the keeper, approaching over the hill status, can do a good Edwin van der Sar impression.
Expectations aren't likely to lower after winning the league two years in a row, Galaxy fans expect a third straight. Four championships brings them level with D.C. United as most successful in MLS, now time to do something that hasn't been done in MLS. A feat only achieved by Huddersfield Town, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool over in England. Prediction: 2nd in West.
Last Season: 8th (34 pts)
Players in: D Michael Harrington (12/3/12 - trade from Sporting KC); M Will Johnson (12/3/12 - trade from Real Salt Lake); F Ryan Johnson (12/12/12 - trade from Toronto); GK Milos Kocic (12/12/12 - trade from Toronto); D/M Mobi Fehr (12/18/12 - weighted lottery); M Steven Evans (1/8/13 - Homegrown); M Diego Valeri (1/10/13 - loan from Lanús); D Ryan Miller (1/21/13 - transfer from Halmstads); D Dylan Tucker-Gangnes (2/6/13 - SuperDraft); M Ben Zemanski (2/13/12 - trade from Chivas USA); M Michael Nanchoff (2/13/12 - trade from Vancouver); D Mikaël Silvestre (2/20/13 - first right of refusal from Seattle)
Players out: M Freddie Braun (11/19/12 - option declined); M Charles Renken (11/19/12 - option declined); D Ian Hogg (11/19/12 - option declined);D Kosuke Kimura (12/3/12 - traded to New York); D Eric Brunner (12/3/12 - traded to Houston); M Lovel Palmer (12/3/12 - option declined); D Steve Purdy (12/3/12 - option declined); D Steve Smith (12/6/12 - option declined); GK Joe Bendik (12/12/12 - trade to Toronto); F Robbie Findley (1/16/13 - rights traded to RSL); F Mike Fucito (1/17/13 - trade to San Jose); F Kris Boyd (2/1/13 - contract terminated); M Eric Alexander (2/11/13 - trade to New York)
Coach: Caleb Porter (took over from interim coach Gavin Wilkinson during 2012 off-season; starting first full season)
Opening game: New York (H), Sun March 3rd, 7.30pm (ESPN2)
Guardian view: One or two changes then... Caleb Porter may have insisted he wasn't thinking about this job until after he'd finished his final college season with Akron, but this has been a transformation long in the planning. When John Spencer failed to get Portland adding road form to the form they'd established in their expansion season, he was cut loose and the Timbers limped along under Director of football Gavin Wilkinson, waiting for Porter to arrive. A forgettable season was only enlivened by a Cascadia Cup win over their two playoff bound neighbors, Seattle and Vancouver.
So finally Porter is here, and he has wasted no time in shipping players out. Kris Boyd, the face of the Timbers second year failures, ends a miserable designated player tenure, while the likes of Eric Alexande and Kosuke Kimura have found themselves traded to New York. Of those coming in, Will Johnson looks a fascinating addition. A victim of RSL's cap problems, he may also be the type of player who'll thrive having something to prove at Portland, as Jack Jewsbury did before him, and the same may go for Ryan Johnson up top. And while a lot of eyes are on Diego Valeri, the Argentinian international midfielder on loan from Lanús, or the former Manchester United defender Mikael Silvestre, perhaps the most intriguing development will be following whether Porter can find a convincing role for his former Akron protege Darlington Nagbe, whose occasional spectacular goals have tended to punctuate periods of going missing in games. When I spoke to Nagbe last week he said that Porter hadn't spoken to him specifically about expectations, but that he expected to be used up front in a 4-4-2 or wide in a 4-3-3.
So Portland may be better going forward this year. But it's how they do without the ball that might determine their fate, particularly on the road when playing largely on the counter. Looking at the turnover of defensive players, and seeing who's ready to start, it's hard to say whether the Sporting KC signing Michael Harrington, the return of Ryan Miller to MLS, and an ageing Silvestre represent a net gain.
Roger Anthony, , Portland:
For the Portland Timbers, it's Expansion Time again. After a promising first year, the 2012 team crashed out of contention before the end of May, which at least allowed them to focus on capturing the Cascadia Cup. Hired in August, new coach Caleb Porter did the classy thing, seeing through his 2012 commitments to the University of Akron squad. But by not arriving in Portland until December, Porter got a late start on cleaning up the mess he walked into. Thus, as Opening Night approaches, the club heads into the 2013 campaign with above-average levels of roster chaos and square peg/round hole experimentation. Porter's system is based on possession and attacking speed that manifests itself as defensive pressure. So it's ironic that the key to the 2013 season may be the slowest man on the roster: Barring any pesky visa issues, CB Mikael Silvestre, now 35, will bring know-how honed during 12 years with Man U and Arsenal. In pre-season with the Timbers, he's occasionally looked slow – but he's always looked like he was in charge. If he can do that consistently, the Timbers can take a big step forward. How big? In 2012, the Western Conference settled into three tiers, with Seattle and LA slightly ahead of everyone, and Portland, Chivas and Colorado looking frankly uncompetitive. Thus far, Porter has seemed both professorial and persuasive. But that's a big hole to climb out of. Put Portland down for sixth in the West.
Real Salt Lake
Last Season: 2nd (57 pts); eliminated by (1-0 agg) in Western conference semi-final
Players in: M Cole Grossman (11/19/12 - waiver draft); M Aaron Maund (12/3/12 - trade from Toronto FC); M Lovel Palmer (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Robbie Findley (1/16/13 - rights traded from Portland); M John Stertzer (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); F Joao Plata (1/30/13 - trade from Toronto); F Devon Sandoval (2/19/13 - SuperDraft); F Olmes García (2/21/13 - transfer from Deportivo Quindío); GK Josh Saunders (2/22/13); M Khari Stephenson (2/22/13 - free)
Players out: M Nico Muñiz (11/19/12 - option declined); GK Kyle Reynish (12/3/12 - option declined); M Jonny Steele (12/3/12 - option declined); F Paulo Jr. (12/3/12 - option declined); F Emiliano Bonfigli (12/3/12 - option declined); F Justin Braun (12/3/12 - traded to Toronto); D Jámison Olave (12/3/12 - traded to New York); F Fabián Espíndola (12/3/12 - traded to New York); M Will Johnson (12/3/12 - traded to Portland)
Coach: Jason Kreis (took over from John Ellinger in May 2007; starting 6th full season)
Opening game: San Jose (A), Sun March 3rd, 10pm
Guardian view: Real Salt Lake just about kept the core of Jason Kreis's first successful RSL team for one more season last year, and duly racked up a record points total for themselves, but it came at a cost. The squeeze of the cap on a group of players who'd been steadily earning pay rises with their performances left RSL short of serviceable depth and it showed in a dependence on the first 13 or 14 players. This year the cap pressure has found its way into the first eleven, and Olave and Espindola have been traded to New York, while Will Johnson has gone to Portland. Speaking to Jason Kreis and captain Kyle Beckerman last week, both suggested these choices were the lesser of several evils, since whether through injury or international absences the side had played without these players before and had been able to adapt, so the reasoning ran that important as they were, they were perhaps the least indispensable of their comparably-salaried peers.
Despite Olave's departure in particular, Kreis has focussed most of the off-season on shoring up the midfield and attack. Despite their regular season performance last year, RSL gave the impression of having to grind out a lot of results - missing pace over the top to stretch defenses and open games up and relying on competitiveness in the center of the park. In turn that made goals hard to come by, and they went out of the playoffs without scoring. So the speed of Robbie Findley will be a welcome addition, and it will be interesting to see if Joao Plata has landed at the right MLS club this time, after not sticking at Toronto. It may well be though, that given the stage in their building cycle the team finds themselves in, that the most significant arrival up front will be young Colombian striker Olmes Garcia on a five year contract - not so much for what he might do immediately, but for what he represents as one for the future. For all that many of the familiar RSL starting line up are still there, Kreis is in rebuilding mode.
Denzel Eslinger, :
Well when Mario Martinez hit what was probably the best goal of the 2012 MLS playoffs, it ended the RSL season, but it did more than that. While Garth Lagerwey may call the changes RSL 2.0, I won't go that far (oh and RSL 2.0 came when Jason was hired) but I will say that the off season saw a good number of changes for Real Salt Lake. With no allocation money to speak of and a roster that was 1 million over the salary cap, change had to happen. Gone are big names like Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola, and Will Johnson. Some of the bigger names coming in are, Lovel Palmer, Robbie Findley, Joao Plata, Olmes Garcia, Josh Saunders, and Khari Stephenson), the moves were meant to get cheaper and to create competition at every position; it looks like that has been accomplished.
How will this new version of RSL do? With 5 of their first 7 on the road, they will face an uphill challenge, but they should still contend for one of the top 3 spots in the Western Conference. The preseason showed me that many of the new faces are hungry and aggressive, but can they play the defense first style of Jason Kreis?
San Jose Earthquakes
Last Season: 1st (66 pts); won Supporters Shield; eliminated in Western conference semi-final by LA Galaxy (3-2 agg)
Players in: D Dan Gargan (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); D Ty Harden (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); D Bryan Jordan (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Mike Fucito (1/17/13 - trade from Portland); D Peter McGlynn (2/15/13 - Supplemental Draft); D Nana Attakora (2/22/13 - transfer from FC Haka)
Players out: D Tim Ward (11/28/12 - option declined); D/M Joey Gjertsen (11/28/12 - option declined); M Khari Stephenson (11/28/12 - option declined); D Ike Opara (12/12/12 - trade to Sporting KC)
Coach: Frank Yallop (named first coach of revived franchise in Nov 2007; starting 6th full season)
Opening game: Real Salt Lake (H), Sun March 3rd, 10pm
Guardian view: The Goonies surprised a lot of people last year. The story is familiar by now: Wondo's record-tying goal run, "The Bash Brothers" Gordon and Lenhart, the last minute goals... but the general boisterous irreverence that surrounded the team also hid some quality approach play by the Spurs loanee Dawkins and the FC Dallas pick up Chavez. That's not to mention the free kicks and general solid defensive play of Victor Bernardez and breakout seasons from his fellow defenders Morrow and Beitashour. Despite the cartoon image and the physical directness of their play at times, the Earthquakes that won the Supporters Shield were far from a one-dimensional side.
That said, there was a reason they were defined by their potency up top. Knowing that Gordon and Lenhart would win more than their fair share of first balls and that any such ball was likely to fall to the deadly Wondolowski, was one thing, stopping that happening was another. Whether Wondoloski scores as many again is doubtful though, and there must be a question as to whether Gordon can contribute as much again after another year throwing his battered frame around. The roster is fairly stable - a few veteran defensive reinforcements arriving, including Nana Attakora returning from Finland for a second stint with the 'Quakes, while Ike Opara, left exposed in the wake of Bernardez's injury in the playoff second leg against LA, has gone to Sporting KC. No Dawkins — he's at Aston Villa now — but Mike Fucito joins the attack from Portland. Judging by Wondolowski and Lenhart's relaxed demeanour at MLS media day last week, the team spirit off the field remains undiluted, but rather more questionable is whether there are enough reinforcements to support the side through an additional Champions League campaign, with the team already carrying a lot of injuries into the season. Noone will be looking forward to playing them, but they're maybe a little less likely to pick up the injury time goals points and that took them to the Supporters Shield.
Lisa Erickson, , San Jose:
The have had a busy off season. They released Midfielders: Khari Stephenson (RSL) and Joey Gjertsen; Defenders: Ike Opara (SKC), Tim Ward, and Jacob Hustedt (trial with TFC). Finally, Simon Dawkins wasn't loaned or sold to the Quakes by Tottenham Hotspur, instead was given to Aston Villa.
As for replacements, they brought in Forward Mike Fucito (Portland) and Defenders: Ty Harden (TFC), Dan Gargan (Chicago), Nana Attakora (returning from Finland), Peter McGlynn (college draft) and perhaps Bryan Jordan (LA). Quakes fans are waiting to see if John Bostock (another Tottenham midfielder) will be loaned to the club for the remaining four months of his contract.
The main story about the Quakes, however, is who is recovering from injury. Mehdi Ballouchy probably won't be ready until mid-year, Steven Beitashour will miss at least the first month, Marvin Chavez is out until April/May, Alan Gordon might be out until May, Steven Lenhart and Jason Hernandez will have slow starts and might not be full 90 minutes until mid-march or later and Marcus Tracy won't be ready for a while.
This means that San Jose will have a tough spring with most of their starters not at 100%. I don't expect the Earthquakes to fight for the Supporters' Shield; however, I do believe they will make the playoffs (4th in the West), will contend for the MLS Cup if they stay healthy (bubble wrap and band-aids for all!) and finally make it out of the group stage in CONCACAF Champions League.
Last Season: 3rd (56 pts); eliminated by LA Galaxy (4-2 agg) in Western conference final
Players in: D DeAndre Yedlin (01/11/13 - Homegrown); F Eriq Zavaleta (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); M Lamar Neagle (1/27/13 - trade from Montreal); M Shalrie Joseph (2/19/13 - trade from Chivas USA); D Dylan Remick (2/22/13 - SuperDraft); D Djimi Traoré (2/23/13 - free)
Players out: GK Andrew Weber (12/3/12 - option declined); F O'Brian White (12/3/12 - option declined); D/M Mike Seamon (12/3/12 - option declined); D Jeff Parke (12/7/12 - traded to Philadelphia); F Fredy Montero (1/21/13 - loaned to Millionarios)
Coach: Sigi Schmid (named first coach of expansion franchise in Dec 2008; starting 5th full season)
Opening game: Montreal Impact (H), Sat March 2nd, 10.30pm
Guardian view: Not a huge amount of turnover at the Sounders compared to other teams in the West, yet no less of a change in direction. Fredy Montero had become a polarizing figure for the fans as the striker the expansion franchise was built round, and capable of scoring sublime goals, but ending up as the personification of the Sounders' shortcomings in the playoffs. The Sounders did get to the Western Conference final last year — which was progress — though winning by the only goal over two tight legs against RSL perhaps felt less cathartic than it should, after the previous season's fireworks. A hastily stamped out comeback against LA in the conference final, during which Montero was subbed out, and that was that for a season where the Sounders had also crashed out of the Champions League after a second leg thrashing by Santos Laguna, and lost the US Open Cup to Sporting Kansas City.
Time for another direction, then, though it's not entirely clear yet what that will be. Certainly Eddie Johnson, who enjoyed an awkward onfield chemistry with Montero (both were dangerous, but in parallel ways, like Rooney and Van Persie), is now THE MAN, as he'd rather indicated he'd like to be, but the Sounders have been linked with another designated player move for a striker. The problem is, is that with Shalrie Joseph having pitched up as an unexpected DP signing, following the cull at Chivas, and Rosales and Tiffert occupying the other two permitted slots, something has to give. With Montero gone, it's unthinkable that someone with the guile and creativity outside the box, like Rosales, should give way, and at time of writing Tiffert has been noticeably absent in pre-season training. The ideal scenario would be for Seattle to trade Tiffert within MLS, with other transfer windows closed and a buyout expensive. If they can do that, then the rumors linking the Sounders with Obafemi Martins of Levante, might gain some momentum. Whatever happens, this is a new era for the Sounders in their bid for a first MLS Cup.
Sam Chesneau, , Seattle:
This past off season saw a lot of big changes for the Sounders after not taking home any trophies. Fredy Montero, Jeff Parke are gone with Christian Tiffert rumored to follow suit. Shalrie Joesph replaces Montero's DP slot, making for an impenetrable central midfield defense partnered with Osvaldo Alonso and a more than likely shift to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Sounders have had a good diamond desert cup run, handling New England, Real Salt Lake and the New Jersey Red Bulls, if anybody cares about the preseason. The front office let it be known at the end of the year business meeting to their season ticket holders that they will do whatever it takes to bring an MLS Cup home and money will not be an issue. It seems as if they've been hard at work trying to add a star from Spain's La Liga, making strong attempts at Joan Verdu, Javier Saviola and Obafemi Martins. As of 2/23/13 no trigger has been pulled on any of them, but it makes perfect sense to raid the most talented league in the world while their country is suffering an economic crisis. I don't expect a third DP to join the team until the mid season, but you never know.
The Sounders must win trophies, whether its the Supporters Shield, the US Open Cup or the MLS Cup, anything less is unacceptable, plain & simple. We're obviously looking at Champions League qualification for 2014-15 by any means necessary, and expect them to make it to the CONCACAF Semifinals by beating Tigres, anything beyond that is a bonus, as it will be a daunting task to defeat Monterrey & Santos Laguna both in a home & away. Playoffs are a given, but that's just not good enough for the Rave Green, top 2 in the West and an MLS Cup appearance are the expectations.
Last Season: 5th (43 pts); eliminated by LA Galaxy (2-1) in Western conference wild card game
Players in: F Paulo Jr. (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); D Brad Rusin (1/11/13 - transfer from HB Køge); F Kekuta Manneh (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); F Corey Hertzog (1/23/13 - free); F Tommy Heinemann (1/23/13 - free); M Daigo Kobayashi (1/28/13 - free); D Johnny Leverón (2/19/13 - free); D/M Nigel Reo-Coker (2/21/13 - first right of refusal from Portland)
Players out: GK Brian Sylvestre (11/8/12 - option declined); M Tiago Ulisses (11/8/12 - option declined); F Etienne Barbara (11/8/12 - option declined); M Michael Nanchoff (12/3/12 - option declined); M John Thorrington (12/3/12 - option declined); M/F Atiba Harris (12/3/12 - traded to Colorado); M Barry Robson (1/21/13 - contract terminated); D Martín Bonjour (1/25/13 - waived); M Michael Nanchoff (2/13/12 - trade to Portland)
Coach: Martin Rennie (took over from interim coach Tom Soehn in November 2011; starting second full season)
Opening game: Montreal Impact (H), Sat March 2nd, 10.30pm
Guardian view: Vancouver were last year's media darlings before a ball was kicked, as Martin Rennie overhauled his squad for his first full season, with an eye-catching mix of veterans and youth. And as the season got underway, the Whitecaps were allying defensive solidity with decent production to put themselves solidly into playoff contention, though without ever looking like they were going to set the league alight. DeMerit continued to control the defense, the rookie Darren Mattocks was showing well as a speedy forward option, and Camilo was always dangerous at set pieces. The Whitecaps were a decent team. Then the summer came and Rennie began to tinker with his side. The planned arrival of Barry Robson as a designated player was augmented by fellow Scot Kenny Miller. Sndy O'Brien came into the defense. Rather than kicking on though, the team lost their balance and rather limped over the line into the playoffs, almost overtaken on the run in by a very mediocre Dallas team. And despite taking an early lead in the wild card game, the Galaxy cruised past them en route to the Cup.
This off-season, yet again people are praising a Vancouver team who are yet to kick a ball in anger, though there's arguably more of a reason to do so this time round. The parts of last year's team that did work are still there, with the fast-maturing Mattocks now being joined by Paulo Jr up front, and the speed and promise of young Generation Adidas draftee Kekuta Manneh adding to the impression of a faster more direct Vancouver this year. Japanese attacking midfielder Daigo Kobyashi steps in for the departed Robson, while most intriguingly, 28 year old Nigel Reo-Coker has arrived, probably to help anchor the midfield (though he may show up as right back from time to time), with the veterans O'Brien and DeMerit keeping the heart of the defense solid. On paper at least, this is a dangerous Whitecaps side. And while last year's results showed that the best laid plans can go awry, the Whitecaps should at the very least build on last year's finish.
Benjamin Massey, Editor, , Vancouver:
The Whitecaps have added an exciting British midfielder who captained his club in the Championship, although he's joined Vancouver a bit late. They've also got a very exciting early first-round pick forward renowned for his pace and made sensible additions at other positions (an imposing veteran centre back not least among them).
This may sound familiar.
But the Whitecaps' 2013 preparations are more than a copy of 2012. They've kept most of the quality, with only Martin Bonjour even vaguely missed by most, and moved out the deadweight (some want to throw Kenny Miller on the same bonfire as Barry Robson, but he's looked promising as a withdrawn forward this preseason). Last year the Whitecaps had a bad defense, a bad offense, and snuck into the playoffs anyway: this year there's reason to hope they've improved both. But little more than hope, as so many players are unproven in MLS.
The attack remains problematic. Japanese playmaker Daigo Kobayashi has much to prove after disappointing years in Japan and Greece and is almost Vancouver's only classical playmaker, Paulo Araujo Jr. is useful but couldn't break through at Salt Lake, and rookies Erik Hurtado and Kekuta Manneh are, well, rookies, whose speed and potential don't necessarily mean immediate success. Second-year forward Darren Mattocks may take a step back, although hopefully it will even up with Camilo getting good luck for once. As it stands the Whitecaps should compete for fourth in the West, but with all the new blood anything could happen.