Today marks the beginning of the 2013 Major League Soccer season. Let's tackle my top five questions going into the league's 18th season:
1. How will the L.A. Galaxy respond to the departure of David Beckham?
Beckham's six-year run in MLS ended last season, and he went out in style by helping the L.A. Galaxy win back-to-back MLS Cups. He is now playing at Paris Saint-Germain, capping off his incredible career. Beckham's veteran presence will be missed, but Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan should have no problem taking over more of the leadership role. Brazilian youngster Juninho returns to anchor the midfield, Omar Gonzalez continues to shine as one of the top young central defenders in the world, and Carlo Cudicini joins the club to improve its inconsistent goalkeeping from last year. All this adds up to the Galaxy being a strong contender again this season.
2. Who will win MLS MVP?
Thierry Henry of the New York Red Bulls is the best player in the league at the moment, so I am picking him. Henry scored 15 goals last season and contributed 12 assists. With the Red Bulls improving their roster in the offseason, I think Henry will surpass the assist number and maybe his goals, leaving everyone else battling for second in the MVP race. San Jose's Chris Wondolowski won the award last year and will once again be a top candidate. Irish striker Keane should also be near the top of the contender list.
3.Which teams will be the biggest surprises?
The Portland Timbers struggled immensely last season, but new manager Caleb Porter brings a more dynamic style of play from his days leading the University of Akron to becoming one of college soccer's most successful programs. The Timbers have some good young talent, including one of Porter's former Akron stars, Darlington Nagbe. They should be a fun team to watch, and they are always tough to beat when Timbers Army is rocking Jeld-Wen Field. In Columbus, the Crew made some significant moves in the middle of last season, sparking an exciting run that nearly got them into the playoffs. Federico Higuain begins his first full-season in MLS to lead the Crew's attack, accompanied by Jairo Arrieta up top and always reliable Eddie Gaven in the midfield. Chad Marshall's health will be the key to keeping the Crew's backline strong and helping the 2008 MLS Cup Champions get back into the postseason.
4. Who will make the playoffs?
Seattle will win the Supporters' Shield as best team in the league, and will be followed in the West by Real Salt Lake, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Portland. Houston will be the class of the East, followed by D.C. United, Red Bulls, Sporting KC, and Columbus.
5. Who will hoist the MLS Cup in 2013?
I am going with the Seattle Sounders. The Sounders have a strong club, a manager who has led an MLS team to the title, and they have the best home stadium advantage in the league. As long as the Sounders win the Supporters' Shield as I have predicted, they will ensure home field advantage in the playoffs and that would spell doom for the rest of the league. Houston will likely face the Sounders in the final, and they will be tough to beat...but I don't see anyone going to CenturyLink Field and beating Rave Green when it matters most.
Who do you think will win the 2013 MLS Cup?