By IVES GALARCEP
The MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy were crowned less than three months ago, but plenty has changed across the league in the weeks since the 2012 MLS season ended.
Several top players have left some of the league’s top teams, while general managers across MLS were busy revamping rosters in hopes of either closing the gap on the champions, or with the goal of reaching the playoffs after missing out in 2012.
The Los Angeles Galaxy are back in 2013 without David Beckham, but with Robbie Keane still leading the attack. Landon Donovan’s delayed return won’t help the team’s start to the season, but the fact he is planning on coming back for the season is a major boost for the team’s hopes for a three-peat.
The Seattle Sounders sent Fredy Montero to Colombia on loan, but they still stand poised to be the Galaxy’s top challenge for top honors. The additions of Shalrie Joseph and Djimi Traore, coupled with the continued improvement of Steve Zakuani and emergence of Mario Martinez has the Sounders looking like serious title challenge.
In the East, Sporting KC lost two top players to the English Premier League in Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara (though Kamara is still technically on loan), but the team’s aggressive moves to add forward Claudio Bieler and midfielder Benny Feilhaber have them looking like a team that could very well be challenging for the Supporters Shield and a place in the MLS Cup Final.
The Houston Dynamo have beaten Sporting KC in the playoffs the past two years, doing so despite not having had the best regular seasons. This year, the Dynamo stand poised for a strong year thanks to having Oscar Boniek Garcia from the start of the season, and thanks to the additions of Omar Cummings and Andrew Driver.
While those four teams have the looks of being MLS Cup favorites, trying to size up the next dozen teams is a tough task. Parity is in full effective, particularly in the range of teams that are right on the doorstep of the playoffs. You can make strong arguments for why 16 or 17 teams could put things together this year and make the playoffs. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much separating team nine from team 17 in the first MLS Power Rankings of the season.
As usually, we will see our share of surprise seasons, both of the positive variety and of the negative variety. Portland, Columbus and Colorado stand out as teams we could see making big jumps in 2013, while D.C. United and Vancouver could stumble.
Here is a closer look at how we see the 19 teams in MLS stacking up in the SBI MLS Power Rankings:
SBI MLS Power Rankings
1. LOS ANGELES GALAXY (16-12-6, MLS Cup champion)
Outlook: As much as you’d love to drop them down the rankings considering they lost David Beckham and didn’t add much on the international front, the Galaxy are still very much the team to beat.
Carlos Cudicini should be an upgrade from Josh Saunders, and the Galaxy defense will have Omar Gonzalez from day one, so don’t expect many goals allowed. Throw in the return of Leonardo and LA has depth to spare in the back.
Offensively, Beckham’s departure hurts, but rookie Gyasi Zardes is a difference maker who could offer the perfect strike partner to Keane. With Landon Donovan, Mike Magee and Juninho still providing goals and assists, LA has plenty of firepower to make a strong run at a third straight championship.
2. SEATTLE SOUNDERS (15-8-11, lost in West Final)
Outlook: The Sounders loaned out Fredy Montero, who it’s safe to say won’t be coming back to MLS, but Seattle should be even stronger than in 2012. Why? Mario Martinez has the makings of a breakout star while Steve Zakuani is closer to being back to his all-star form before the career-altering broken leg suffered in 2011.
The addition of Shalrie Joseph could be what puts Seattle over the top. Whether playing alongside Osvaldo Alonso in midfield, or anchoring the central defense, Joseph should be able to provide a boost to an already strong lineup. If Djimi Traore can be a quality centerback options, the Sounders will be right in the title mix (and if they succeed in landing a big-money goal-scoring forward, they could be considered the favorites).
3. (2) SPORTING KANSAS CITY (18-7-9, Lost in East Semifinals)
Outlook: The fact Sporting KC is listed this high despite losing two standouts like Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara is a testament to the quality still on the roster. They still boast a very stingy defense, and still have an attack that features the likes of Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong.
Losing Kamara hurts the attack, but the team is banking on Claudio Bieler being the sorely-needed consistent goal scorer on the team. Throw in the return from knee surgery of Teal Bunbury and Peter Vermes won’t be starving for forward options. Benny Feilhaber’s arrival, and Oriol Rosell’s increased roll should help offset the departure of Espinoza. And a wild card? If Sporting KC does sell Kamara to Norwich City, they will have the resources to land another difference maker this summer.
4. HOUSTON DYNAMO (14-9-11, Lost in MLS Cup Final)
Outlook: The Dynamo were a very different team after moving into BBVA Compass Stadium last season, as well as being boosted by the mid-season arrival of Oscar Boniek Garcia. Now they will have both from the start of the season, which should help Houston climb within range of Sporting KC for the regular season top spot in the East.
Houston didn’t stand pat on a team that reached its second straight MLS Cup. The addition of Jamaican forward Omar Cummings is a significant acquisition, while Scottish winger Andrew Driver could provide some valuable depth in midfield.
5. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES (19-6-9, Lost in West semifinals)
Outlook: Why are the reigning Supporters Shield winners only fifth? Losing Simon Dawkins will hurt, and it is difficult to envision the Earthquakes duplicating their 2012 success, particularly their penchant for late-game heroics. Chris Wondolowski should remain among the league’s top scorers, but it will be interesting to see how their defense shapes up. They have the pieces in place to boast a strong back-line, but only two playoff teams allowed more goals than the Earthquakes in 2012.
6. NEW YORK RED BULLS (15-9-9, lost in East semifinals)
Outlook: The Red Bulls dumped head coach Hans Backe, and traded away Kenny Cooper and Joel Lindpere, but they have added a plethora of veteran options. Fabian Espindola replaces Cooper while Juninho steps into midfield. Jamison Olave is expected to provide a major upgrade in central defense while having Tim Cahill from the start of the season should offer a significant boost as well. There are question marks in goal after Luis Robles put in a shaky pre-season (and Ryan Meara’s recovery from hip surgery remains incomplete) but overall the Red Bulls have the talent to be right in the mix among the top teams in the East. It will be up to rookie head coach Mike Petke to hit the ground running.
7. CHICAGO FIRE (17-11-6, lost in East wild card)
Outlook: The Fire made several smart moves in improving the roster of a wild card team that came so close to a top three playoff spot. Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere give the Fire some sorely-needed bite in midfield, while Dilly Duka could enjoy a breakout season after leaving Columbus.
8. REAL SALT LAKE (17-11-6, lost in West semifinals)
Outlook: The inevitable breakup of the RSL roster finally happened this off-season, with the departures of Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave and Will Johnson, but Jason Kreis has some ready-made replacements ready to step in in Luis Gil and Chris Schuler. Robbie Findley’s return gives RSL a major speed option up front, while the signing of young Colombian forward Olmes Garcia is a positive sign for the future. The additions of MLS veterans Khari Stephenson and Josh Saunders help give the team some depth, but overall you still get the sense that this RSL team will be just a notch below the league’s top title contenders. That can change if Schuler and Gil emerge as upgrades rather than just replacements.
9. D.C. UNITED (17-10-7, lost in East Finals)
Outlook: D.C. United didn’t have the flashiest off-season, but with a strong nucleus of young talent and the presence of 2011 MLS MVP Dwayne DeRosario, D.C. didn’t have a ton of glaring needs. One of the team’s key needs is a top-level striker, something the team failed to add in the off-season (though Carlos Ruiz should help provide some goals). They still boast Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon in attack, but the offense could once again rely too heavily on DeRosario. Defensively D.C. United lost Andy Najar, but softened that blow with the acquisition of veteran right back James Riley. John Thorrington should help provide some veteran leadership, but overall you just don’t get the sense D.C. United did enough to make the jump in the standings. If anything, they could be vulnerable to missing the playoffs.
10. PORTLAND TIMBERS (8-16-10, eighth in West)
Outlook: The Caleb Porter era has begun and the team enjoyed one of the best off-seasons in the league. They unloaded Kris Boyd and added a wealth of promising upgrades. Will Johnson and Diego Valeri are major improvements in midfield while Ryan Johnson could thrive in the Timbers attack. The defense remains a question mark, but the additions if Michael Harrington, Mikael Silvestre and Ryan Miller should help make the back-line stronger. If Donovan Ricketts can regain his Goalkeeper of the Year form, the Timbers will be a playoff team.
11. COLUMBUS CREW (15-12-7, 6th in East)
Outlook: If D.C. United slips up, the Columbus Crew look like the East team most likely to take advantage. They are strong enough to be a playoff team when you consider they will have Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta from the start of the season, but throw in off-season acquisitions Glauber, Matias Sanchez and Dom Oduro and Columbus could wind up being the surprise team of 2013.
12. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (11-13-10, lost in West wild card)
Outlook: The Whitecaps finished the 2012 season poorly after a very promising first half, and this off-season felt very much like another makeover. Barry Robson was let go, and the team lost Dane Richards as well. Martin Rennie didn’t stand pat though. He added two promising attacking players in the draft in Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado, while also boosting defensive depth with the additions of Johnny Leveron and Brad Rusin. Nigel Reo-Coker and Daigo Kobayashi should provide upgrades in midfield, but the Whitecaps could wind up relying heavily on young Jamaican striker Darren Mattocks to carry the scoring load.
13. COLORADO RAPIDS (11-19-4, seventh in West)
Outlook: The Rapids broke up the long-serving trio of Omar Cummings, Conor Casey and Jeff Larentowicz, dealing all three members of the 2010 MLS Cup-winning team to Eastern Conference sides. In step Edson Buddle, Diego Calderon and Kevin Harbottle, a trip of newcomers expected to play key roles in 2013. Where the Rapids are very intriguing is in the influx of young talent onto the roster, with draft picks Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers and Homegrown signing Dillon Serna all keys to the team’s long-term success. If the Timbers aren’t the surprise team in the West, Colorado certainly could be, though they still might be a year away from making a big jump.
14. FC DALLAS (9-13-12, sixth in West)
Outlook: Selling Brek Shea to Stoke City meant a big loss, but the money gained helped the team acquire the forward tandem of Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli. Having David Ferreira from the start of the season is a major bonus, while Fabian Castillo could be poised to finally have the breakout season expected of him when he was signed as a young Designated Player. There are question marks in central midfield, as well as in goal, where newcomer Raul Fernandez must fill the big shoes of Kevin Hartman.
15. MONTREAL IMPACT (12-16-6, seventh in East)
Outlook: New head coach Marco Schallibaum didn’t make wholesale changes to the roster, but the addition of Andrea Pisanu should boost the offense. Having Marco DiVaio and Alessandro Nesta from the start of the season should help the team improve, but there is still a sense that there will be some growing pains in year two.
16. PHILADELPHIA UNION (10-18-6, eighth in East)
Outlook: With a full off-season to shape the roster, head coach John Hackworth enters his first full campaign in charge still cleaning up the team’s salary cap mess. The additions of veterans Sebastien LeToux, Jeff Parke and Conor Casey should help, but losing defensive leader Carlos Valdes still hurts. Having a chunk of their salary cap tied up by Freddy Adu (who the team don’t want back) hurts, and as much promising young talent as is on the roster, you get the sense this will be a rebuilding year for the Union.
17. (17) NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (9-17-8, ninth in East)
Outlook: The Revs were very aggressive in the off-season in revamping the roster, and it does look like the team addressed some key areas of need. A potential forward tandem of Saer Sene and Jerry Bengtson could be very good (once Sene is fully recovered from knee surgery) while New England’s midfield has depth and intriguing attacking options with Juan Toja, Andy Dorman, Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe.
The defense should improve with the additions of No. 1 pick Andrew Farrell and Portuguese centerback Jose Goncalves, as well as the addition of defensive midfielder Kalifa Cisse. That is a lot of new pieces to fit together, but if Jay Heaps can find the right mix, the Revs could jump up several spots on this list.
Outlook: It is tough to project just what the Goats will be like in 2013 because the team has undergone such a thorough transformation. Head coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola is a character, but a coach who loves attacking soccer and is determined to make his mark on the team. Based on additions like Giovanni Casillas, the Goats should be a stronger attacking side in 2013, but it remains to be seen whether the defense will show much improvement. Without a stronger defense, the Goats are doomed to another forgettable season, even with star goalkeeper Dan Kennedy in net. That being said, Chivas USA should be more fun to watch in 2013.
19. (19) TORONTO FC (5-21-8, last in East)
Outlook: The Ryan Nelsen era is underway in Toronto and he has some serious work to do to rebuild a roster that was one of the worst in recent memory. A strong draft yielded top prospects in Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman, but it is still too early to tell just what other important additions are on their way. With Torsten Frings expected to join Eric Hassli on the way out the door, there should be money available for major upgrades. If anything, the defense should be better with a healthy Stefan Frei in goal and Danny Califf and Gale Agbossoumonde joining the back-line. Even with that, TFC still has way too much to do to climb out of the MLS basement.