The Western Conference lost quite a few of its star players this off-season -- including David Beckham, Fredy Montero, Fabian Espindola, and Brek Shea. In their places come a great number of young players who have yet to make names for themselves, plus a few old guys in the twilights of their careers.
It's hard not to take the turnover as a sign that the Western Conference might not be as competitive as it was in 2011 and 2012. But whether that diminished competition will open doors for lower half teams is far from certain.
2012 finish: 1st place, 66 points
2013 prediction: 3rd place
If it ain't broke, don't go fixing it, and indeed the only thing that was even close to broken for the Quakes in 2012 was an occasionally dodgy defense that allowed more goals than all but two of their fellow playoff contenders. To that end Frank Yallop brought in Nana Attakora and Dan Gargan to provide some extra depth on the back line. But that was pretty much it for offseason acquisitions (aside from a trade for striker Mike Fucito).
The challenge now is to figure out how to win without the benefit of the unbelievable run of luck they enjoyed in 2012. Alan Gordon will score somewhat fewer than one goal per 90 minutes. Referees will keep a closer eye on Steven Lenhart (they sure had better). And Chris Wondolowski, who has been rewarded for a career year with a DP contract, will have a tough time matching his 2012 form. Having lost Simon Dawkins won't help matters.
There is little doubt San Jose will continue to win games. But they won't come close to another Supporters Shield.
2012 finish: 2nd place, 57 points
2013 prediction: 6th place
After failing to qualify for the CCL, the RSL gravy train has finally come to an end. This offseason saw the departure of the anchor of RSL's back line, Jamison Olave, the engine of their attack, Fabian Espindola, and the stick in their opponents' craw, Will Johnson. The most detrimental of those losses has to be Olave -- Salt Lake was limited to less than one point per match when Olave was out of the starting lineup in 2012, as compared to more than two points per match when he started. Losing Olave -- and not finding a replacement for him -- will hurt, plain and simple.
But RSL still has plenty of potency in their attack, in spite of the losses. Alvaro Saborio remains with the squad, as do youngsters Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez, who did well to fill in during the tighter parts of the team's 2012 schedule. Their presence, along with the return of Robbie Findley, might even improve the team's ability to find the back of the net in 2013. But they will struggle to keep the ball out of the back of their own.
2012 finish: 3rd place, 56 points
2013 prediction: 2nd place
Yes, they lost star striker Fredy Montero, but the bigger loss would be the as yet unknown fate of German midfielder Christian Tiffert. Aside from those and a few shrewd draft picks (and one important home-grown signing), though, Seattle didn't change much this offseason, nor did they need to.
Even without Jeff Parke, Seattle's defense is likely to continue to be one of the best in MLS, thanks primarily to keeper Michael Gspurning and holding mid Osvaldo Alonso. Their midfield remains potent, with Mauro Rosales and Steve Zakuani leading the way, and Sammy Ochoa will compete with David Estrada for the right to run alongside Eddie Johnson. And on top of all that Seattle added DP Shalrie Joseph -- to do exactly what is uncertain, but I'm sure they'll find something for him.
All of that points to a team that will have a real chance at the Supporters Shield (but I just can't bring myself to predict a first place finish for them).
2012 finish: 4th place, 54 points
2013 prediction: 1st place
Yes, David Beckham is gone. So they no longer have a guy who runs at half speed and kind of plays defense taking up a spot on the field -- when he's not on vacation, that is. Thankfully they still have a solid finisher in Robbie Keane, as well as other quality pieces Mike Magee, Juninho, and Omar Gonzalez. And all signs point to Landon Donovan's return sometime in the spring. Add 39-year-old keeper Carlo Cudicini, and you've got just a ton of quality and experience up and down the lineup. Again.
When they were properly motivated in 2012 there wasn't another team in MLS that could feel confident in matching them on any given gameday. Barring multiple significant injuries, and assuming the key players do stay motivated, that dominance is almost certain to continue for another year.
2012 finish: 5th place, 43 points
2013 prediciton: 5th place
Another year, another big shrug from anyone trying to predict what this team will do. After starting 2012 with a surprisingly strong spring, Martin Rennie kept tweaking things and nearly fell out of playoff contention for his efforts. The tweaking continued in the offseason, as he ditched Barry Robson, John Thorrington and Atiba Harris in favor of Nigel Reo-Coker, Daigo Kobayashi, and Paulo Jr.
Vancouver's defense will continue to be solid with Jay Demerit and Andy O'Brien working the back line, their attackers will continue to strive for ever higher levels of inconsistency, and Martin Rennie will continue to tweak, tweak, tweak the roster. And somehow they'll still figure out a way to qualify for the postseason. I guess.
2012 finish: 6th place, 39 points
2013 prediction: 4th place
The news that FC Dallas was able to deal Brek Shea surely rivaled the birth of Schellas Hyndman's children in how happy it must have made him. "What, I don't have to deal with trying to motivate a punk-ass under-achiever, and my team suddenly has loads of cash to spend? Is it Christmas again already?" Now to try and make sense of what Hyndman did with all that cash (Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli).
Dallas' 2012 campaign was marred by devastating injures at nearly every position on the field, and yet they still only just failed to pass Vancouver for a playoff spot. While it certainly hurt the team at the time, the injuries gave young guys like Fabian Castillo, Matt Hedges and Jackson Gonçalves extended trials with the first team. If this young group, having endured a tough 2012 campaign, can stay healthy, they could well become the team to beat by season's end.
2012 finish: 7th place, 37 points
2013 prediction: 8th place
Oscar Pareja's first season as an MLS coach was marred somewhat by persistent injuries, but it was ultimately undone by a half-assed lineup reshuffle. Honestly, even as much as the Denver faithful love Conor Casey, he had no business crowding speedy rookie Tony Cascio out of Pareja's starting lineup.
Now that Pareja is using his whole ass to reconfigure the lineup, finally shedding Casey, Omar Cummings and Jeff Larentowicz, his system might finally start to take shape. But there are giant question marks hanging over the new players he's brought in this year, most notably whether Diego Calderon can shore up a defense that underperformed in 2012, and whether Edson Buddle can regain anywhere near the quality he once had. It could all very easily work out famously, but I'm still not betting on this team yet.
2012 finish: 8th place, 34 points
2013 prediction: 7th place
In the 2012 offseason the Timbers' goal was to build depth at positions filled with mediocre starters. The goal this year appears to be to replace those mediocre starters wholesale. If Caleb Porter's preferred first team actually gets to play on a consistent basis, Portland is going to be a ton of fun to watch (obvious defensive issues notwithstanding). But when one of those first-teamers falls to injury, and when the team faces one of those difficult three-game weeks, the Rose City's lack of first-team-ready depth will be a serious liability.
The Timbers won't be push-overs, and they'll win their fair share of matches against quality sides. But against the longer tenured coaches in MLS, Porter will learn just how much that experience matters. And Timbers fans will have to wait another year before a playoff match comes to Jeld-Wen Field.
2012 finish: 9th place, 30 points
2013 prediction: 9th place
Oh look, Chivas USA is back to being a Chivas del Guadalajara farm club. As much as Chelis and Jorge Vergara want us all to take their plan for their team seriously, it's not at all clear that they themselves take it seriously. Another season in the league's basement isn't likely to change anything.
My predicted final standings
1. LA Galaxy
2. Seattle Sounders
3. San Jose Earthquakes
4. FC Dallas
5. Vancouver Whitecaps
6. Real Salt Lake
7. Portland Timbers
8. Colorado Rapids
9. Chivas USA