The 2011 MLS season wrapped up only last month, but it’s certainly not too early to start talking about next season, as it will get underway in a few short months.
The Los Angeles Galaxy will enter the new campaign as champions, but there are several other teams ready and able to knock the champs off of their perch, and 2012 will also see the Montreal Impact make their MLS debut. There also a lot of emerging young talents to keep an eye on, and as always, it will be interesting to see how the top rookies perform.
Overall, there’s a lot to look forward to in the 2012 MLS season, and there are many players who will make soccer tickets a worthwhile investment for Americans fans, both rabid and casual alike. But the top story to watch will be the Galaxy’s quest to repeat, and even if David Beckham spurns a return to the Galaxy in favor of a move back to Europe, the Galaxy will still have an excellent chance to win back-to-back titles.
Landon Donovan will be spending January and February with English Premier League side Everton, and if all goes as well as it did in his first loan stint with the Toffees, he’ll return to the Galaxy fully fit and high on confidence. Robbie Keane was greatly impressive in his first few months in MLS after a summer move from Tottenham, and expect big things from the experienced Irishman in his first full season with the Galaxy. And while they’re not big names, forwards Mike Magee, who was a key part of the Galaxy’s playoff run, and Chad Barrett, who scored seven goals last season, could have big roles to play next season.
And while the Galaxy are mostly known for their star attackers, they were actually the league’s best defensive team last season, and they should continue to be strong in that department next season.
If Becks isn’t back, you’d have to expect the Galaxy to make a move for a marquee name sometime next year, whether prior to the season or during the season, but their current crop of players is still plenty good enough to contend.
But there’s been a repeat champion only twice in MLS history – D.C. United in 1996 and 1997, and the Houston Dynamo in 2006 and 2007 – so history isn’t on the Galaxy’s side. With that in mind, which teams will be the Galaxy’s biggest challengers for the title next season?
The Seattle Sounders finished second behind the Galaxy in the Western Conference and posted the second-highest point total in the league with 63, even with star midfielder Steve Zakuani missing the majority of the season due to a broken leg. After going down in the conference semifinals in each of their first three MLS seasons, next year could be the Sounders’ year, as the sky’s the limit if Zakuani’s comeback is a successful one.
Sporting Kansas City was the top seed out of the Eastern Conference in 2011, and they’re a team on the rise. With their bevy of young talents, including 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong, it might be a matter of when, not if for K.C. Could next year be the year? Don’t be surprised if it is.
Also, Real Salt Lake will be strong again, led by forwards Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola, who both scored double-digit goals last season, and a fit Javier Morales, whose extended absence last season due to a serious ankle injury was a big reason why RSL fell off after a strong start.
Who else could be in the mix? The Philadelphia Union made a big leap in their second MLS season, making the postseason and finishing only three points behind K.C. in the Eastern Conference standings, and look for them to build on that success.
And what about the Lone Star State duo of Houston and Dallas? The Dynamo, who lost out to the Galaxy in the 2011 MLS Cup final, could be in the mix, as you can never overlook a Dominic Kinnear-coached side. Meanwhile, FC Dallas, who suffered a big slump over the last couple of months of last season, could contend, provided top talent Brek Shea doesn’t depart for Europe sometime next summer.