Major League Soccer's 18th season begins on Saturday, and so the time has come to offer some predictions for the coming year.
Several MLS franchises have made wholesale changes to their rosters, so accurately predicting where everyone will finish is difficult, but we'll take a shot at it anyway. Below are predictions for conference standings as well as individual award winners for the 2013 campaign:
1.) Sporting Kansas City: SKC has finished at the summit of the conference each of the last two seasons and still has the talent up and down the roster to do it again in 2013. Sporting lost some players in the offseason with forward Kei Kamara going on loan to Norwich City and Roger Espinosa moving to Wigan, but the club still has C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury, who combined to score 14 goals last season. Add in Designated Player Claudio Bieler up top, standout defenders Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, and Jimmy Nielsen in goal, and Kansas City is still the class of the conference.
2.) D.C. United: The league's most successful franchise made the playoffs for the first time since 2007 last season behind an outstanding year from talisman Dwayne De Rosario, who scored seven goals and added 12 assists. De Rosario missed the final seven regular season matches last year, but should be ready to go when D.C. takes on the Houston Dynamo on Saturday. Forward Lionard Pajoy should thrive in his first full season under coach Ben Olsen, and assuming De Rosario stays healthy, United should have no trouble reaching the postseason again.
3.) Red Bull New York: It's a new era for the Red Bulls heading into 2013 with Mike Petke taking the reins of a team that is loaded with talent. Forward Kenny Cooper was traded to FC Dallas, but the Red Bulls pulled off a huge trade in the offseason for Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave from Real Salt Lake. Olave instantly makes the defensive unit stronger, while Espindola paired with Thierry Henry up top is extremely dangerous. Petke should be able to get his players on the same page fairly quickly, resulting in another playoff berth.
4.) Houston Dynamo: Houston has been the Eastern Conference's representative in the MLS Cup Final each of the past two seasons. Unfortunately, they lost to a better Los Angeles Galaxy side. Forward Will Bruin scored 12 goals last year and is a star in the making. He should get close to the 20-goal plateau this season while receiving fantastic service from standout midfielders Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis. The Dynamo's backline is solid as ever with veterans Bobby Boswell and Corey Ashe, and goalkeeper Tally Hall is also excellent. Houston has a tendency to start slowly, however, which will land it out of the top-three places in the standings.
5.) Philadelphia Union: On paper, the Philadelphia Union have significantly upgraded their team by bringing back fan favorite Sebastien Le Toux and adding veteran Conor Casey to the forward ranks, while youngster Jack McInerney is set for another solid season under coach John Hackworth. Midfielder Michael Farfan should flourish in the middle of the field without having to worry about getting Freddy Adu the ball. The Union lost former captain Carlos Valdes, who went on loan to Colombia, but gained hometown man Jeff Parke in a trade with Seattle. Bakary Soumare should be healthy and ready to fill in for Valdes on a permanent basis in central defense. Hackworth's challenge this season will be figuring out what to do with Le Toux, Casey and McInerney up top. It's unlikely that all three will play at the same time, but two out of three isn't bad and should help Philadelphia back to the postseason.