Posted: Wednesday March 7, 2012 9:15AM ; Updated: Wednesday March 7, 2012 9:15AM
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Preseason MLS Power Rankings: Defending champ Galaxy on top

Story Highlights

Defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles is loaded with talent

Seattle's title hopes could depend on the health of playmaker Mauro Rosales

Toronto's push for a playoff spot will be powered by Danny Koeverman's goals

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With the 2012 MLS season nearly upon us, it's time to look into our crystal ball and project the next nine months of action. What do we see? Despite plenty of non-playoff teams making vast roster improvements that should lead to as entertaining a season as the league has seen, expect more of the same in terms of final outcome in 2012:

MLS Cup champion

Los Angeles Galaxy

For all the clamoring about league parity, there's one team with a cavalcade of stars positioned to rise above the rest and post the double yet again, and that's the defending champions.

The Galaxy's 2012 ride won't be one without any speed bumps, though. Between David Beckham missing a good chunk of the summer for the Olympics, Robbie Keane missing time for Euro 2012, the team being stretched with CONCACAF Champions League matches on both ends of the season calendar and center back Omar Gonzalez being on the shelf with a torn ACL, Bruce Arena will once again have to showcase his magic touch to bring more silverware back to the Home Depot Center. Fortunately for him, he has one of the league's greatest-ever collections of talent with which to work (Landon Donovan, Beckham, Keane, Edson Buddle, Juninho, Todd Dunivant, A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin make for one heck of a nucleus), and Gonzalez should return before the end of the season.

MLS MVP

Mauro Rosales, Seattle Sounders

Even though Los Angeles is the runaway favorite in the West, the Galaxy will be pushed hard by the likes of Seattle and Real Salt Lake. Guiding the ship for the Sounders is Rosales, a true find in the international transfer market and an MVP candidate with five goals and 13 assists last season before he got hurt toward the end of the campaign. Rewarded with a Designated Player contract after proving his worth, the Argentine playmaker has what it takes to be the season-long catalyst for a Seattle team with major aspirations.

Golden Boot winner

Danny Koevermans, Toronto FC

Like the discussion for league MVP, there are so many viable candidates. It's hard to pick against San Jose's Chris Wondolowski, who has the most goals in MLS over the last two seasons. Reigning Golden Boot winner Dwayne De Rosario figures to be playing closer to goal in his forward role with D.C. United, too. The usual suspects like Donovan, Fredy Montero and Thierry Henry linger as well. While perhaps more of a dark horse pick, Koevermans' productivity in his brief time in the league last season raised some eyebrows. With eight goals in 10 league games (and two more in CONCACAF Champions League play), he proved to be apt in the air and a lethal poacher in front of the target. With the size and physicality to match up with the toughest of MLS center backs, the lumbering Dutchman could certainly hit the 18-20 goals range.

Rookie of the Year

Luis Silva, M, Toronto FC

A stellar preseason confirmed what many thought after Silva was picked by TFC in the MLS SuperDraft -- the UCSB product is a great fit for Toronto's tactical arrangement. Despite Montreal's Andrew Wenger and Vancouver's Darren Mattocks garnering more attention as top draft picks and New England's Kelyn Rowe also looking like a good bet to shine in his first year, Silva's combination of opportunity and potential should make him the top MLS freshman.

Defender of the Year

Geoff Cameron, Houston Dynamo

With Gonzalez out for the bulk of the year, his throne as top MLS defender is up for grabs. RSL's center backs Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers always merit consideration, and George John will be sure to be in the mix now that he is returning to FC Dallas. With Cameron becoming a fulltime center back, though, it is his prize for the taking. His combination of aerial ability, stout man marking and composure on the ball is a coach's dream, and his recent emergence for the U.S. national team is a testament to his quality.

Comeback Player of the Year

David Ferreira, FC Dallas

The obvious candidates are Ferreira and Seattle's Steve Zakuani, who both suffered season-ending injuries early in 2011 and are hot on the comeback trail. At the top of his game, Ferreira, the 2010 league MVP, completely transforms the complexion of the FCD attack. Zakuani has had a larger physical hill to climb and might not be poised for as much production right away. There's also Colorado Rapids forward Conor Casey, who should return a few weeks into the season after tearing his Achilles tendon in July, and D.C. United Designated Player Branko Boskovic, who will be given the keys in central midfield after healing from a torn ACL.

Most Improved Player

Dilly Duka, Columbus Crew

If there's a postseason award MLS needs to institute, it's this. Often times players who end up on the Comeback Player ballot are only there because there's no Improved Player category to recognize their feats. All 2010 finalist Brek Shea came back from was his second season in the league, and the only thing 2011 finalist Dominic Oduro bounced back from last year was a trade that propelled him to new heights. So who is best-positioned to take a step to the next level in 2012? Duka has emerged as one of the top midfielders in the U.S. U-23 player pool and should play a consistent role in the Crew's attack now that Robbie Rogers is off to Leeds United. RSL's 18-year-old midfielder Luis Gil is another one to watch as a youngster poised for a bigger role.

Newcomer of the Year

Kris Boyd, Portland Timbers

Probably the most intriguing sideplot to watch this season is the integration of the newcomer class. Every year it seems teams get wiser and more prudent when it comes to international signings, and last year's crop of newcomers was perhaps the best the league has ever seen. This year figures to build on that. Between proven strikers Boyd (the Scottish Premier League's all-time leading scorer), Hamdi Salihi and Blas Perez joining the fold and a league's-worth of talent coming from Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America, international player quality continues to rise. Although the goal scorers will get the acclaim, one to keep an eye on is Seattle's Austrian goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who has the task of filling Kasey Keller's legendary gloves and cleats for a title contender.

MLS Playoff Teams

The tweaked playoff format has five teams from each conference making the postseason. So who do I think will make the cut? After a long season that will undoubtedly have the race for the final spots go down to the wire:

Eastern Conference: Sporting Kansas City, Houston Dynamo, Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls, D.C. United

Western Conference: Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, Portland Timbers

2012 MLS Power Rankings
 
New Rank Team
1 Los Angeles Galaxy
The defending champions and overwhelming favorites kept David Beckham and Juninho and brought back Edson Buddle, but the glaring hole at center back in light of Omar Gonzalez's injury is a worrisome underbelly that can't be ignored.
2 Seattle Sounders
Perhaps the biggest "if" of the MLS season: If one-time U.S. national team striker Eddie Johnson finds his past form alongside Fredy Montero and emerges in front of all of those talented pieces for the Rave Green.
3 Real Salt Lake
RSL lost some of its depth but maintained its veteran nucleus and won't be bogged down by a CONCACAF Champions League hangover like last season. Considering moves made by competition, RSL is flying under the radar but is as complete and battle-tested a team as there is in the league.
4 Sporting Kansas City
Losing Omar Bravo should not be overlooked, but SKC was playing as well as anyone down the stretch last season and returns just about everybody else, including Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong, breakout midfield star Graham Zusi and a center back tandem of Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin that doesn't necessarily get the notoriety it should.
5 Houston Dynamo
The new-stadium boost that has worked wonders for teams in recent years will surely play a part for the Dynamo, who were a win away from an MLS Cup title last season and had no major defections. Playing the first seven games away from home until BBVA Compass Stadium is ready for business will be a challenge, and upgrading the front line should still be a priority, even after swinging the trade to bring back captain Brian Ching.
6 FC Dallas
Adding Blas Perez gives FCD a go-to option at striker it had been sorely missing. Combine that with David Ferreira's return to the field, George John's somewhat unexpected return to the heart of the defense and Brek Shea's continued growth, and FCD is poised for another strong season.
7 New York Red Bulls
The Luke Rodgers visa saga is becoming more worrisome as the season approaches, but Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper have meshed well in their limited time together. The bigger questions are in the back, where Tim Ream is gone, Rafa Marquez has shifted up to the midfield and unproven commodities are battling for time in goal.
8 Portland Timbers
DP striker Kris Boyd's arrival snagged the headlines, but the additions of former Barcelona academy player Franck Songo'o on the wing and Colombian Hanyer Mosquera at center back may prove to be just as vital to the club's success. The Timbers Army should have plenty to sing about in their second MLS season.
9 Philadelphia Union
Losing Faryd Mondragon and trading Sebastien Le Toux were both destructive developments, and the Olympics will likely take their toll on the club's youthful roster, but there's enough incoming talent and depth across the field for Peter Nowak to guide the club back to the postseason.
10 D.C. United
D.C. took the necessary steps to improve at need areas and could very well boast the East's most potent attack. Making up for the expected losses of Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid (assuming the United States qualifies for the Olympics) will test the club's depth, but there aren't many more excuses to be had in the nation's capital after assembling a playoff-caliber roster.
11 Chicago Fire
No team was hotter down the stretch in 2011 than Chicago, which nearly completed a miraculous late dash to the postseason. Not much has changed in terms of the club's integral pieces, but when stacked up against the East's elite, Chicago still comes up a bit short.
12 Colorado Rapids
With Oscar Pareja in charge, and an influx of Latin American attacking talent brought in, these won't be your older brother's Rapids. Plenty will hinge on how long it takes to grasp the shift to the 4-3-3 along with veteran forward Conor Casey's effectiveness upon his return from an Achilles tear.
13 San Jose Earthquakes
After a highly rated offseason, San Jose should not be as Wondo-reliant as it has been the last two years and is definitely a team on the rise after a disappointing 2011. Fierce competition in the West might just have the Quakes on the outside looking in, though.
14 Toronto FC
With a full overhaul of the roster completed, TFC has the pieces in place to embrace Dutch coach Aron Winter's style of play. If the defensive reinforcements can shore up what was the league's worst unit in 2011, Reds fans may finally get their first trip to the playoffs in franchise history.
15 Columbus Crew
If Chilean midfield signing Milovan Mirosevic brings back memories of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, then steady-if-not-flashy Columbus could become a player in the East. There's certainly quality on the Crew roster, but lacking a wow-factor has them a cut below some of their improved competitors.
16 Vancouver Whitecaps
First-year coach Martin Rennie has no shortage of attacking options, and midseason arrival Barry Robson will fortify the center of the midfield. Still, the 'Caps have a tall mountain to climb, and questions linger about the defense. Will be a much-improved side in Year 2, though.
17 Montreal Impact
As for as expansion team rosters go, Montreal has done quite well, and Jesse Marsch has his team buying into what he's selling. An anticipated midseason DP arrival could shake things up even more for the Impact, who figure to lean toward the Portland side of the expansion scale as opposed to the Vancouver side.
18 Chivas USA
Between the bevy of moving parts and jettisoning two potential-filled players in Justin Braun and Zarek Valentin, it seems as if the Goats are stuck in quicksand -- always trying to make moves but not making enough progress. On top of that, striker Juan Pablo Angel is still without a contract less than a week before First Kick, even though both club and player are clear that a deal will be made at some point.
19 New England Revolution
The Benny Feilhaber-Shalrie Joseph-led midfield could be among the tops in MLS, but new pieces up front and first-year coach Jay Heaps' new system will take time to develop, and a lack of overall depth will be exposed should injuries come into play.
 

 
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