Predicting the Major League Soccer champions days before the new season begins is an unenviable task.
Firstly, strict roster restrictions and salary caps guarantee a certain level of parity among the league’s 15 franchises.
Secondly, huge uncertainty exists around which players will be available for the entire campaign—flourishing performances can attract summer transfers to Europe, while American expatriates failing to make the grade abroad or nearing the end of their careers may be making the opposite journey.
Thirdly, MLS does not adjourn for international dates—this is especially relevant in 2009 with ongoing World Cup qualification and the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament taking place, as well as the U.S. team’s participation in June’s Confederations Cup.
Finally, as New York Red Bulls showed last year, anything can happen when it comes to the postseason playoffs.
Columbus Crew suffered three seasons of purgatory before rebounding to the top of the regular season table and lifting the MLS Cup last year. Real Salt Lake fell agonisingly short of appearing in that final, having also turned around three seasons of woe to mount a title challenge.
In this year’s Western Conference, I’m going for seasoned campaigners Houston Dynamo to reclaim their crown with Real Salt Lake as their closest challengers.
In the East, another Conference Final between Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire could be in the cards, but with a different outcome.
Come Nov. 22 at Seattle’s Qwest Field, I’ll take Houston to clinch their third MLS Cup in four seasons over Cuauhtemoc Blanco and his Chicago teammates.
Here is a look at this year’s title contenders, playoff hopefuls, and helpless stragglers.