In just over a month the first matches of the 2012-2013 CONCACAF Champions League group stage will take place. Many are wondering if this will be the year that an MLS side will finally be crowned champion of North America or if the Mexican domination of the league will continue.
All five (except TFC) of MLS' representatives are capable of hoisting the trophy this time around.
The LA Galaxy have several world-class players and with their veteran experience they know how to navigate a tournament of this caliber.
The Seattle Sounders know how to win cup competitions—they are three-time defending US Open Cup Champions going for four this year—and have some crafty players offensively and solid players defensively.
Real Salt Lake were in the final two years ago and were one goal away from winning it, so they have more experience in this competition than any other MLS side.
Houston Dynamo have a defense which can keep them in games against the best of teams.
As for Toronto FC, they have picked up form recently but being drawn with Santos Laguna ends any realistic hope of silverware from this competition.
With a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup on the line, there is plenty at stake in this cup. The road to the final always provides plenty of entertainment, and I will try to provide you with how each MLS team will do in the group stage of this crazy, unpredictable competition. So without further ado, let's begin.
Group 1 consists of Santos Laguna, Toronto FC and Aguila.
Santos Laguna, champions of the winter season in Mexico last year, made it to the final by beating this very same Toronto FC side comprehensively 7-3 on aggregate.
American Herculez Gomez found new life with Santos and led the team in scoring while setting personal highs in scoring as well.
While Aguila did win the winter league in El Salvador and TFC have been playing pretty well as of late under new coach Paul Mariner, Santos Laguna are too strong and deep and should win this group easily.
The Key: How well TFC defend. If their defending is strong, they have a chance.
Group 2 is made up of Herediano, Tauro and Real Salt Lake.
Herediano ended a streak of 22 years without a league title by winning the Costa Rican league this past year.
Tauro are experienced, having been here four times, but the side from Panama City have never progressed past the group stage, and I think that will continue this time around.
Salt Lake made it to the final of this competition just two years ago, and I think that their depth will be the difference as they prevail and win a difficult group.
The Key: How RSL fare on the road. They will be traveling to two hostile environments, and if they can get positive results in each, they should go through.
The three teams in Group 3 are Olimpia, FAS and the Houston Dynamo.
FAS didn't win any trophy this year but made it in to the Champions League because El Salvador gets three spots in the league and they had the best aggregate record.
Houston was able to make a surprise run to the MLS Cup Final where they ran into an LA Galaxy side that seemed destined to be victorious.
FAS were able to win both the fall and spring leagues in Guatemala.
Houston is currently not doing very well in MLS and I think that Olimpia will be able to put all of their resources into this competition to top the group at the expense of FAS and the Dynamo, who seem to have a lack of depth at the moment.
The Key: If Geoff Cameron is transferred. There are many rumors that he will be leaving for Europe this summer. If not, he could be the reason the Dynamo are able to advance to the knockout stages. He is so strong at the back and gets them out of so many messes that he may prove to be the difference.
Group 4 contains Marathon, Caledonia AIA and the Seattle Sounders.
Caledonia AIA were crowned the best team in the Caribbean this year and will look to make some noise in their first time at the tournament.
Marathon are here for the fourth time, but haven't won a domestic league title in four years, while arch rivals Olimpia have won several. T
he Seattle Sounders have been untouchable in the domestic cup, but they've never made it past the quarterfinals in this cup. I think Seattle are undoubtedly the best side in this group and should win it easily.
The Key: Caledonia are major dark horses here, but if they can play well and pick up some points against the other two sides then they could alter the table and be the deciders in who goes through.
Group 5 has been chosen as the Los Angeles Galaxy, Isidro Metapan and the Puerto Rican Islanders.
Metapan have been here five times and are consistently good performers, coming off of another championship win in El Salvador.
The Galaxy finally won that coveted MLS Cup with several of the world's best players, but came crashing out of the CCL against Toronto FC in the quarterfinals.
The Puerto Rican Islanders are the best team in the NASL, but it's the second tier in the American soccer pyramid and they will be hard pressed to do much in this group.
The Key: How seriously the Galaxy take the group stages. If they rest their top players for MLS play, they could very easily finish second or third with an inexperienced core of young players. If they have all their top men in the game, however, they should win this group comfortably.
Out of all the MLS teams in this year's competition, I feel like RSL has the best chance. They have the veteran experience and have been to the final before, and I also feel like they have the most depth.
While LA Galaxy have several phenomenal players, I feel that their overall starting XI and substitutes could get beat up by a strong Mexican team, especially if David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane aren't on form.
Seattle has some chance at going far based on pure talent, but even as a Dynamo fan I feel like it's too much for the Houston side to balance MLS and CCL play.
And as for TFC, they just don't have the squad to compete.
I predict that Santos Laguna will be the champions after getting to the final last season, but maybe an MLS side can surprise me and finally get that trophy that has long been sought after.