The 2012 MLS season is almost here! Most teams will get started in league play Saturday, while Chivas USA will get going Sunday. Before we focus on the Goats' First Kick, we'll take a look at all of the teams heading into the season, offering brief previews and our predictions. Since Chivas will only be playing each Eastern Conference team once, the Eastern preview will be a bit more condensed than the Western preview, which will be coming over the next few days.
To get you caught up, let's remind you of each team's finish in 2011:
1. Sporting Kansas City: 51 points (lost in Eastern Conference finals)
2. Houston Dynamo: 49 points (lost in the MLS Cup Final)
3. Philadelphia Union: 48 points (lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals)4. Columbus Crew: 47 points (lost in the Wild Card round of the playoffs)
5. New York Red Bulls: 46 points (lost in Western Conference semifinals)
6. Chicago Fire: 43 points (did not qualify for playoffs)
7. D.C. United: 39 points (did not qualify for playoffs)
8. Toronto FC: 33 points (did not qualify for playoffs)
9. New England Revolution: 28 points (did not qualify for playoffs)
Now, onto the 2012 predictions. We'll go in the order I picked, with fellow Goat Parade writer Rachna Kapur's predictions and insight included as listed.
1. Sporting Kansas City (Rachna's prediction: 1st)
Alicia's take: Sporting Kansas City barely beat out the Dynamo and Union atop the regular season standings last season, but I thought at the time they were probably a year or so ahead of their development when they finished first and fell in the conference finals. They haven't lost any of their key players, so even though Omar Bravo and Davy Arnaud have moved on to Cruz Azul and the Montreal Impact, respectively, they've gained Bobby Convey and Paulo Nagamura in the process. They boast unquestionably the deepest and most talented forward corps in the league, even with the departure of Bravo, and they will have a potent attack. With young stars Graham Zusi and Matt Besler returning, along with fan favorite Aurelien Collin, there is plenty of talent on the squad. And with Convey coming into the fold, they may hit the season running and never look back.
If there's one major limitation I see with this group, it's with coach Peter Vermes. He is a classic "my way or the highway" kind of coach, and the improvement he's provided to the club means he's been doing something right. But he comes across as abrasive and arrogant nearly all of the time, and while his man management and coaching away from games may be strong, his in-game management sometimes leaves something to be desired. It's unlikely a team with title aspirations and young players who believe in their coach will mutiny, but if he fails to bend at a key time, it could cost the team their momentum.
Rachna's take: I think that they've made the necessary changes to continue to compete this season and have really worked on strengthening their depth.
2. Houston Dynamo (Rachna's prediction: 2nd)
Rachna's take: I think that they have the high morale from their unexpected trip the MLS Cup last season + their new stadium and fan support which will help propel them forward.
Alicia's take: Yeah, I believe in the new stadium effect (are you listening Chivas?). If Houston was playing in Robertson Stadium again this season, I don't think they would finish this high. They are a decent team, generally likable but pretty boring overall. Brad Davis was really outstanding in 2011, and it seemed the good play ran through him. If he can't play at an MVP-caliber level again in 2012, the club's prospects will probably take a nosedive. Although I understand the sentiment behind Brian Ching playing for the Dynamo this year, the chance he will make it through the season without an injury keeping him out for a significant spell is slim. Besides him, their forward options are pretty thin. And their front office has been among the worst at finding quality international talent.
The two factors that work to overcome those potential problems are the stadium and coach Dominic Kinnear. Seriously, I think the stadium bump will be huge. Until a team flops after moving into a stadium and having a sellout crowd willing the team to win on a weekly basis, I think this is a component that can't be ignored. In addition, Kinnear is one of the best coaches in the league who has coached the Dynamo from championship to bottom-dwellers and nearly back again. He seems to keep his squad's focus well. If any coach can get his group to overachieve again, it's him.
3. New York Red Bulls (Rachna's prediction: 8th)
Alicia's take: If any team could be reasonably projected to finish anywhere between first and eighth, it's the Red Bulls. And anybody who's sure they know where New York will finish is lying. While their defensive liabilities were laid bare in 2011, and they lost young star/struggling star Tim Ream to a transfer to Bolton Wanderers, there's no indication the defense will actually be any better in 2012. Oh, and the goalkeeping situation? Yeah, it's probably worse, unless rookie Ryan Meara or youngster Jeremy Vuolo turns out to be the star keeper the team's been casting around for.
But their midfield and forward is in the top three in the league. Joel Lindpere is an underrated player who finally got paid in the offseason. Thierry Henry can be petulant at times, but when he's dealing with the biggest circus in the league, it's understandable. And he still plays great. If Luke Rodgers gets his visa situation straightened out, he'll be back beside Henry. They've also added Kenny Cooper, who could finally settle down or could continue to struggle as a little forward in a big forward's body. And they have Juan Agudelo, who will probably be stuck on the bench with his club while starting for his country at youth and possibly senior levels. Now, throw in coach Hans Backe, who appears to be generally crazy and also ignorant of the international schedule and MLS rules (although to be fair, MLS rules are fully understood by practically nobody, even people who create said rules), and you have a cocktail for a team that could finish practically anywhere in the Eastern Conference. As a result, I'm splitting the difference in a way and putting them in at 3rd.
4. Columbus Crew (Rachna's prediction: 3rd)
Alicia's take: On one hand, the Crew is a generally boring team, with a squad of decent but unremarkable players. On the other hand, they are perpetually underrated. Last season they struggled with injuries all year, and yet they still finished a creditable fourth. With "star" Robbie Rogers shipped out to Leeds United, they may be able to refocus the attack around midfielders Eddie Gaven, Dilly Duka, and new addition Milovan Mirosevic, as well as Venezuelan international Emilio Renteria. Their defense can falter at times, but with Chad Marshall at center back and Will Hesmer at goalkeeper, they will never fall entirely apart, especially if both of those players can stay healthy all season. Even if they are a largely anonymous team that plays boring yet effective soccer, they could turn out to be this year's version of the Houston Dynamo, hanging around quietly but winning when it matters.
Rachna's take: I think Columbus is yet again the dark horse. They will always compete.
5. Toronto FC (Rachna's prediction: 5th)
Rachna's take: Positive changes in the offseason.
Alicia's take: Is this the year Toronto makes the playoffs? I think so. This is a team with a loyal fanbase desperate for success, and this may be the year they turn the corner. In their second season under coach Aron Winter, the signs are looking up, and designated players Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans made a difference right away after joining the club midseason. It seems the turning point came when they entered the CONCACAF Champions League group play and advanced to the quarterfinals (they'll face the LA Galaxy in the quarterfinals starting this week). Regardless of whether they can keep going in the CCL, they'll now need to turn to league play and see if they can get into the playoff mix. The risk is whether they have enough quality players yet. They have shown signs of improvement, but their backline still has young players, and their midfield could be the weak point. Still, they have a substantial portion of homegrown players, from defender Ashtone Morgan and midfielder Matt Stinson, among others, who will probably figure heavily. And will this be the year Julian de Guzman puts in a consistently good season, or we he continue to struggle as an albatross around the neck of a club trying to build a winning tradition? I suppose if he plays well, that's probably a good sign for the team overall.
6. Chicago Fire (Rachna's prediction: 9th)
Alicia's take: Like Toronto, a secondary competition reignited their season in 2011, although their quest to win the U.S. Open Cup fell just short. Under Frank Klopas, who took over during the season, the team improved, and they were able to incorporate good players during the season, including former Mexican international Pavel Pardo and Argentine Sebastian Grazzini. Forward Dominic Oduro had a breakout season, and Ghanian compatriot Patrick Nyarko proved dynamic on the attack. But the issue for this team? Their defense can be lackluster at times, and they can fall flat from time to time. Even so, if any key players go away for a time with an injury or on international duty, it can hurt the team's prospects more than deeper teams or those with more talented players. They will probably acquit themselves well again in 2011, but will ultimately fall short of the playoffs yet again.
7. D.C. United (Rachna's prediction: 7th)
Alicia's take: Is D.C. talented enough this season to make the playoffs? Probably. But if the U.S. Men's National Team's U23 team makes the Olympics, defender Perry Kitchen and goalkeeper Bill Hamid will probably be gone for two sustained stretches during the season. If Honduras makes the olympics, then Andy Najar will probably be gone during the same stretch. Chris Pontius is coming off a major injury. Perhaps most importantly, reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario got paid recently. While he's a good player, he seems motivated by money, at least to some extent. To be fair, many people are motivated by money, but will the motivation be somewhat lessened for De Ro? It's possible. I just think there's a team every year that deals with several unlucky events - despite their finish, Real Salt Lake probably had that dishonor in 2011, and I'm randomly assigning that mantle to D.C. in 2012.
8. Philadelphia Union (Rachna's prediction: 4th)
Rachna's take: Not sure what they've done in the offseason will really help them get to the Finals, but it remains to be seen.
Alicia's take: I think they'll rue losing so many key players. They probably couldn't have prevented the departure of goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, as he seemed set on returning to Colombia to finish his career. Justin Mapp was a good MLS veteran, but I suppose they could find a like player to replace him. Likewise for Kyle Nakazawa. But Sebastien Le Toux was the key player in the Union's short history, the heartbeat of the team, they player who was behind their success. But whatever, the team's better off with allocation money than Le Toux, or at least according to Union coach Peter Nowak. While there may be more to the story of Le Toux's surprise trade to the Vancouver Whitecaps, the story as publicly revealed will continue to make the Union look bad unless they can win without him. And I don't believe they can. Their offense will now be built around Freddy Adu, Danny Mwanga and rookie Chandler Hoffman, who are all talented but have limited experience, you know, actually playing in MLS matches, and there will be major expectations for new signings Lionard Pajoy and Josue Martinez. Needless to say, this could be a big problem. I expect they will lose a lot of games 1-0 as their defense will be stout but their offense will be ineffective.
9. New England Revolution (Rachna's prediction: 6th)
Alicia's take: Could the Revs improve this season? Possibly. Will they be transformed? Probably not. A lot will depend on new coach Jay Heaps. If the rookie manager can transform the team, maybe they'll get the most out of the club. But I just don't think they've improved the squad sufficiently to really change for the better. Shalrie Joseph got paid in the offseason, but I think that was necessary, as a midfield without him would have lacked stability. Benny Feilhaber's returning, but I still think he'll have a tantrum nearly every match, frustrated that the other players aren't at his level (which may be true, but still). Perhaps the new front office will be better at personnel moves than the previous group, or else they'll stay mired at the foot of the table yet again in 2012. I think having an Eastern Conference expansion team will save them from finishing last.
Rachna's take: Like the changes and progress they've made in the offseason, but I'm not sure where it will land them during the regular season. They are a pretty young team and need more experience.
10. Montreal Impact (Rachna's prediction: 10th)
Alicia's take: There are mixed opinions about this team heading into the season. Will they perform more like the Seattle Sounders or Portland Timbers in their first MLS season, or will they play like the Philadelphia Union? Montreal has an advantage over the Union in that they existed prior to their MLS incarnation, but will the combination of aging international players and MLS veterans make them a successful team? I don't know if they'll be uncompetitive week in and week out, but I think they'll struggle. Especially with first-time head coach Jesse Marsch, whose Chivas history is apparent with Justin Braun, Zarek Valentin, and Gerson Mayen all part of the squad, it could be a season to settle in and build for the future. While expectations surrounding first overall SuperDraft pick Andrew Wenger are high, he will probably need to figure out his position before he can become a club centerpiece. Still, it's exciting to see what they will bring on the field and what their fans will bring. It seems like Montreal will be the favored away trip for conference opponents in 2012.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!