The 11′s super-duper MLS 2012 season preview

The 11’s Steven Sandor, Mark Polishuk and Aman Dhanoa held a virtual round table, discussing how they foresaw the 2012 MLS season.

Will the Galaxy repeat? Will any of the three Canadian teams make the playoffs? Who will be the MVP?

We tallied up our votes, and came up with our list of how the teams will finish, who will win MLS Cup and who will be the league’s MVP. No need to play the season, now. We have it all figured out.

What’s going to make the MLS season interesting is the schedule. Now that the slate is skewed towards Conference rivalries, that means the West, where the power lies in MLS, won’t have as much as an effect on the weaker East.

After all, how many of you regarded last year’s Los Angeles Galaxy-Real Salt Lake Western Conference Final as the, ahem, “real” MLS Cup? OK, you can all put down your hands, now.

But it also means the Western teams will beat up on each other a little more, and won’t finish with obscenely higher point totals than the Eastern clubs. But it will also hurt the Vancouver Whitecaps’ attempt to bounce back after a poor debut season. The Whitecaps have made several key additions. And, there’s no doubt that the Whitecaps would have many more points if they got to face the likes of Chicago and New England twice a season. But, the Caps get extra games against the likes of the Galaxy, Sounders and Real Salt Lake, which will lessen their chances at a major surge in the standings.

Meanwhile, because the East is so close, with a lot of teams coming into the year as unknown quantities, that Toronto FC could finish anywhere from first to ninth, depending on how much faith you have in the rebuilt centre of the Reds’ defence.

As for the Impact, the question still hangs: How will this team score goals?

But, no more delays. After tallying up our votes, this is how The 11 sees the season.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Sporting Kansas City
SS: This year, they won’t play the first half of the season on the road, the second half at home. But, in an Eastern Conference that’s so much weaker than the West, SKC is a class above the rest. Should be able to enjoy the biggest home-field advantage out of any of the Eastern teams, and if C.J. Sapong continues to build on his rookie-of-the-year form and Teal Bunbury can find some consistency, this team will be fun to watch.
MP:  SKC was already one of the East’s best teams last year and now it’s added Bobby Convey to the mix.  I like Sporting’s chances to win the East and perhaps reach the MLS Cup final, though I think this team is a step behind at least a couple of Western Conference sides.

Brad Davis

2. Houston Dynamo
SS: MVP candidate Brad Davis may be the best passer in MLS, but what makes the Dynamo a threat in the East is how tight this team should be at the back. Andrew Hainault and the backline aren’t easy to break down, and Tally Hall will soon be winning Goalkeeper of the Year awards on an annual basis.
MP: The biggest challenge this year could be the schedule.  Not only do the Dynamo have extra Champions League fixtures to look forward to, but it will play their first seven games on the road before opening BBVA Compass Stadium.  Some teams would crumble under this extra pressure and extra fixtures, but Houston is an experienced side used to big-game situations. Brad Davis’s playmaking skills will continue to develop to the point that he’s my pick for the MLS MVP Award.

3. Columbus Crew
SS: It seems each and every year we expect THIS to be the season where the Crew loses too many players and will collapse. And, each year, the Crew makes the playoffs. Emilio Renteria will need to score a lot, and Eddie Gaven has to pick up the slack left by the departure of Robbie Rogers for Europe. But the Crew will manage and continue to make TFC fans mad by finishing ahead of the Reds yet again.
MP: Ho hum, just another postseason appearance for the Crew, making it five in a row.  Columbus will miss Robbie Rogers but overall is still a solid, consistent side that has fewer question marks than most Eastern Conference teams.

4. D.C. United
SS: Still a ton of questions about the back line — which let DCU down badly when it threw away what looked like a sure playoff spot in the final month of the 2011 season. I think Dwayne De Rosario can score 15 again. And, with DeRo and defender Dejan Jakovic in D.C., chances are DCU will start more Canadians on a regular basis than either Montreal or Vancouver will this season.
MP: Dwayne De Rosario finds himself back with Maicon Santos, though I can’t decide if this is good or bad karma. TFC reunion aside, it will be United’s improvements on the back line that makes it a better team from 2011, if one that’s still short of the playoffs. (Mark picked DC to finish sixth)

5. New York Red Bulls
SS: Kenny Cooper and Thierry Henry up front. Wilman Conde brought back to MLS to fix the defensive woes. Star power to burn. And, just like last season, you get the feeling it’s all going to implode. On paper, New York should win the East. Reality is, no one really expects them to do more than claw for the wild card.
MP:  It seems bizarre that a team with so much firepower has left itself so thin in goal and on the back line.  New York could lead the league in scores and still conceivably end up with a negative goal differential.  I could see this season being a lot like 2011, where the Red Bulls survive both their defence and some locker-room finger-pointing to squeak into the postseason.
AD: Houston and Kansas City look to be the strongest from the East, but Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls can’t be discounted if its young goalkeeping tandem can keep balls out of the net.

Danny Koevermans

6. Toronto FC
SS: This defence is still really suspect. Didn’t have enough of a preseason to allow the new parts, like centre back Miguel Aceval, to gel. Still, chances are the team will start the season with three-quarters of the back four that was savaged so much in 2011. Who will score goals if Danny Koevermans gets hurt or hits a bad patch?
MP: Knock on wood, I finally think this will be the TFC team that breaks through. The Reds finally have both the top-level talent and the depth to play well throughout an entire season and reaches the playoffs. Playing November soccer under any circumstance is a big step forward for Toronto.
AD: The Reds will continue to improve in the East but much depends on its defence. The situation in goal is solid and may be one of the best duos in MLS, the midfield is anchored by Torsten Frings and look to be capable up front with Ryan Johnson and Danny Koevermans.

7. Philadelphia Union

SS: Lost its starting keeper, Faryd Mondragon. Traded away its top scorer and offensive sparkplug, Sebastien Le Toux. Maybe there’s a grand plan. But this seems a lot like the New England Revolution, Mark 2.0.
MP: It two steps forward by reaching the playoffs last year, but now it looks like Philly is taking one step back.  Gone are Veljko Paunovic, Justin Mapp, Faryd Mondragon and Sebastien Le Toux (with the latter being the Union’s loss and the Whitecaps’ gain), among others.  As easy as it was to say the Union overachieved last year, it could be better than its seventh-place finish here indicates and maybe miss the postseason again by just a few points.

8. Chicago Fire
MP: I wish I had a more concrete reason for this placement besides “its roster doesn’t impress me,” but… well, its roster just doesn’t impress me, despite a talented nucleus and a breakout striker in Dominic Oduro. Chicago strikes me being a year away from being a real threat.  It could easily prove me wrong and contend for the Eastern crown but I’ll bite the bullet and cite the Fire as the annual preseason darling who ends up having a rough season.
SS: I always beware mediocre teams that have hot finishes when the games don’t mean all that much anymore. The Fire had a great finish to the year, but will it carry over to 2012? Think that the Fire come into the season as maybe the most overrated team in the league.

Donovan Ricketts

9. Montreal Impact
MP: Could the Impact become the first Canadian MLS side to actually pose a threat in its inaugural season?  Probably not. It does have a very good chance of topping the Whitecaps’ 28 points from last season, especially given that the Impact plays in the weaker Eastern Conference.  There is little doubt that Montreal will step into the upper-tier of MLS markets, just as Toronto and Vancouver did when they entered the league, though success on the field is still a ways away.  Beating TFC in the first round of the Voyageurs Cup tournament would automatically make the year a success for the Impact.
SS: This team has focused almost all of its MLS buildup on shoring up the defence, like the Whitecaps in a mirror universe. With Donovan Ricketts in goal and what should be a decent spine with the likes of Matteo Ferrari and Patrice Bernier, the Impact will be tough to break down. That being said, the fact that the striker who looked the most capable in preseason was Eduardo Sebrango, who will turn 39 this year, says a lot. Look for the Impact to lose a lot of 1-0 matches this season.
AD: Montreal, making its MLS debut, will struggle offensively, but will look to play a more defensive style with Donovan Ricketts backstopping in goal.

10. New England Revolution
MP: There is little doubt that the Revolution will again be at or near the bottom of the league table.  Perhaps the only question is if Shalrie Joseph will finish the year in New England, or if the rebuilding Revs will decide to totally blow things up and trade its captain for a big return.  (Though a trade is made harder by Joseph’s new contract as a designated player.)
SS: OK, quick, name all 19 MLS teams. OK, you have 18 of them. That one you’re forgetting? That’s on the tip of your tongue? It’s the Revs. That’s right. Stunning that, just five years ago, the Revs were playing in their third MLS Cup in a row. Now, it’s the most anonymous team in the league, with a roster in such a state of flux that you’d think Mo Johnston had gone to work in Boston. No consistency, no stars outside of Shalrie Joseph. Chances are the weekend that the Revs are visiting your MLS city, you’ve made plans to hit the cabin.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Los Angeles Galaxy
MP: Even with World Cup qualifiers taking their toll on several players, the Galaxy simply have too much talent for the rest of the league to deal with.  Los Angeles will contend for another Supporters’ Shield, but this veteran club might not have the legs to last all the way to the end of another long season, which could stretch all the way to the Dec. 1 MLS Cup final.
SS: Even with defender of the year Omar Gonzalez lost to a knee injury, the Galaxy is a scary crew. With the MLS Cup win of 2011, Bruce Arena’s boys have broken the jinx; they are no longer the big-game chokers they’d been in 2009 and 2010. Edson Buddle is back with Landon Donovan, so that could be a goal factory. Robbie Keane gives L.A. and embarrassment of riches. But the defence is still solid, even without Gonzalez, so it’s not like the strikers need to come up with three goals a game. They’ll just do that to pad the goal difference. Could win a treble.

Mauro Rosales

2. Seattle Sounders
AD: As for the MVP I think Mauro  Rosales will once again be a leader on a team that will be contending for the Western Conference crown. As long as he stays healthy, he will be one of the league’s leaders in assists and certainly provide goals as well. The 2011 MLS Newcomer of the Year’s absence in last year’s playoffs spoke volumes as to how valuable he was to the team despite having the talented Fredy Montero playing up front. Montero had great stats last year as well, but Rosales made him and just about everyone on the team better through his experience and leadership on the pitch. He plays an important attacking role in the midfield and is creative in distributing the ball from the flank to push the play forward.
SS: If Eddie Johnson can turn the clock back five years and rediscover the form of his early MLS days, he might be the piece that turns Seattle into a real playoff contender. Rosales, Johnson and Montero could be a downright terrifying trio.

3. Colorado Rapids
MP: It remains to be seen how Oscar Pareja will adjust to being a head coach, but the longtime Dallas assistant (and player) is certainly no stranger to MLS. Unless Pareja has some serious growing pains, it’s hard to see the Rapids missing the postseason.  Martin Rivero was a big signing for the club and could be one of the best of all the MLS newcomers in 2012.  Conor Casey’s recovery from a torn Achilles tendon injury will be a key factor in whether the Rapids merely make the playoffs or contend for the title.
SS: Can never count Rapids out of the playoff race because of the ridiculous home field advantage they have at home. I worry that Oscar Pareja’s attempts to transform the Rapids from a 4-4-2 team into a more dynamic side could work about as well as Martin Vasquez’s vain attempt to turn Preki’s dour-but-durable Chivas into a fun team to watch. Still, if Casey comes back in decent shape, the Rapids will be tough — and the cold and altitude in November makes the club a miserable playoff opponent.

4. Real Salt Lake
SS: Really, Real Salt Lake enjoy the same kind of altitude advantage as the Rapids do. Still boast the best midfield in MLS, with Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson (who is recovering from hernia surgery) and Javier Morales pulling the strings. Loss of inspirational Andy Williams will hurt, and team’s MLS form will suffer when it returns to the CONCACAF Champions League this summer — as we all know there is no team in MLS that takes the CCL as seriously as RSL does.
Real Salt Lake is like the Brett Hull of MLS; media guys secretly pull for RSL because it is the classiest, most transparent and honest organization in the league.

5. FC Dallas
MP: I could be underestimating FCD here, given that some pundits think the Hoops could even be dark-horse MLS Cup contenders.  It’s too much to say that Dallas is a one-man team, but its fortunes hinge on whether David Ferreira’s ankle is fully recovered.  If Ferreira is fit, the Hoops make the playoffs.  If not, they just miss out.  Ferreira recently played a full 90 minutes in a preseason game, which is a good sign that he’s ready to go.
SS: Can Kevin Hartman keep playing like he’s 25 in the FCD goal? Can Brek Shea score a dozen goals?  The team’s swoon late in 2011 was troubling, because the roster SHOULD have been deep enough to overcome the loss of David Ferreira. It didn’t.

6. Vancouver Whitecaps

MP: I have two bold predictions about the 2012 Whitecaps. First of all, they will win at least one road game this season.  Secondly, they will be awfully fun to watch, given the offensive firepower of Eric Hassli, Sebastien Le Toux, Camilo and a half-season of Barry Robson.  Vancouver could be playing more than their share of 3-2 games this season but, given their thin defense corps, the Caps will find themselves on the short end of those scores more often than not.  I look to 2013 as the first season where we can seriously think about Vancouver as playoff contenders.

Eric Hassli

SS: If the game of soccer allowed you to start 15 players, allowing you the freedom to play six forwards, well then the rest of  MLS would quake at the thought of facing the Whitecaps. But the truth is, the majority of the offensive talent the Whitecaps have will be on the bench or not even in uniform. There isn’t room enough for Camilo, Barry Robson and Davide Chiumiento to be in the same attacking midfield roles. Preseason wasn’t enough of a test for the centre of defence; goalkeeping continues to be a sore spot. They will score goals, but not as many as Whitecaps fans would hope, and will still give up a lot. It won’t be as depressing as last season, but in the West it’s tough to rise to the level of the Galaxy, RSL and the Sounders.
AD: The Whitecaps, a.k.a. Carolina RailHawks, have made the biggest strides — most notably new coach Martin Rennie and acquiring Sebastien Le Toux —  and have the capability to win on any given night. But in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the team might just fall short of a postseason berth.

7. Portland Timbers
SS: If Kris Boyd can score 15 goals this season, then the Timbers have a chance to make a push for the playoffs. With Diego Chara and Boyd engineering the offensive thrusts, the Timbers will score. But, like the Whitecaps, there are deep questions about the state of the team’s goalkeeping and defence. And, can midfielder Jack Jewsbury, at 30, repeat the career year he enjoyed in 2011?

8. Chivas USA

MP: After two straight busy offseasons, the Goats have finally done enough to rise from the bottom of the league table. Juan Pablo Angel isn’t going to replicate his seven goals-in-nine games form from last season after he joined Chivas, but he’s still the most dangerous weapon the team has. I see Chivas surprising a lot of teams but actually making the playoffs is far-fetched.
SS: Some nice pieces here, like defender Heath Pearce. Nick LaBrocca enjoyed a breakout year in 2011 as he finally moved into a true attacking role. Dan Kennedy is a one of the more reliable MLS keepers. But there is a real lack of depth here and you can’t depend on the thirtysomething Angel for more than a handful of goals.

9.San Jose Earthquakes

MP: Give them credit for shaking things up (pardon the pun) after their lousy season, but the Quakes still look like Chris Wondolowski and not much else. Tressor Moreno is an interesting signing; some see an assist machine of an attacking mid, others see a 33-year-old who could have trouble adjusting to MLS.  I tend to lean a bit towards the second camp.
SS: Simon Dawkins and Chris Wondolowski will need to walk on water to drag this team into the playoffs. Like Toronto FC, this team offers very little in secondary scoring — it’s the big gun, or else.

MVP:
MP:Brad Davis, Houston Dynamo
AD: Mauro Rosales, Seattle Sounders
SS: Javier Morales, Real Salt Lake

MLS Cup Winner:
MP: Seattle Sounders FC
SS: Los Angeles Galaxy
AD: Los Angeles Galaxy

MP: Let’s be honest, the MLS Cup tournament is basically a crapshoot.  Just two of the last nine Supporter’s Shield winners have gone on to hoist the Cup, making Major League Soccer’s postseason less of a coronation than it is a game of musical chairs.

So, while basically any of the 10 playoff teams have a shot come November, I think this is the year the Sounders finally break through and add a league trophy to their already-impressive run of three straight U.S. Open Cups.  I really like the addition of Eddie Johnson and think he’ll pick right back up where he left off in MLS, giving Seattle another big scoring threat.  The club’s playoff run last year was short-circuited by an injury to star midfielder Mauro Rosales and Steve Zakuani is forecasted to return by May or June, about a year after suffering a career-threatening broken leg.  Seattle has to find a replacement for Kasey Keller in goal, but aside from that admittedly important hole, the Sounders have a deep, experienced roster.

This year’s MLS Cup Final won’t be held at a neutral site, but rather at the home stadium of the team who had the better regular season record.  This creates the possibility that the Sounders (owner of the league’s best home-field advantage) could be hosting the MLS Cup in front of 65,000+ fans at CenturyLink Field.  Obviously the cards have to align just right for the Sounders to enjoy this dream scenario, but I think they’ll be as good as any team in the regular season save the Galaxy and this year will take that next step to becoming MLS champions.

AD: My choice for MLS Cup Winner is the LA Galaxy, but I see Seattle as a close second option. The Galaxy is hard to beat and, of course, is the defending champ.  The Western Conference is extremely strong with so many teams upgrading talent that it will be a dogfight to get into the playoffs. The Eastern Conference picture looks clearer, but parity among the teams might mean a similar scramble to get into the postseason.

As for the Canadian teams — it will be tough for any of the three teams to qualify for the playoffs. Vancouver and Toronto will definitely improve on 2011 but by how much remains to be seen. But I foresee all three missing the playoffs — for Montreal that is expected, in Vancouver it will be a disappointment but understandable with the quality in the West, but in Toronto it could see its fervent fan base be further alienated if significant progress is not made, resulting in more protests and town-hall meetings.

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.