The 2013 Major League Soccer season will get underway this weekend, which makes it an ideal time to lay out who will contend for the championship cup this year.
It will be an unprecedentedly long season for America's biggest league with 34 games on the schedule. There is certainly growing respect for the MLS, which is in its 18th year and is attempting to establish itself amongst the world's best (h/t Yahoo!).
The sport's exposure in the U.S. was enhanced by the presence of British star David Beckham, who recently returned to Europe. Beckham's former MLS squad, the Los Angeles Galaxy, is the two-time reigning MLS Cup champions.
While LA should be considered a favorite to three-peat despite the departure of Beckham, there are several other clubs that stand out as contenders and are worth analyzing.
San Jose Earthquakes
As reported by Elliott Almond of the San Jose Mercury News, superstar striker Chris Wondolowski just inked a four-year contract extension. The three-time reigning scoring champion and 2012's MLS Most Valuable Player has committed to the long haul with the Quakes, who are also in the process of building a new stadium for 2014.
Wondolowski intimated that he loved the direction the San Jose organization was going in, and it is easy to see why that is so.
The red-hot Galaxy were not going to be denied in winning their second consecutive cup last season, and they steamrolled the Quakes in the opening round of the playoffs 3-1 after losing the opening match 1-0.
For the Quakes, there is definitely a vengeance factor after that disappointment, especially after finishing atop the league table.
The addition of the versatile Mike Fucito will only help the league's most dominant attack continue to have a commanding possession advantage. With the rest of the core relatively intact, this may be the year that coach Frank Yallop's squad finally reaches the pinnacle of American soccer.
This scrappy bunch ousted Eastern Conference leader Sporting Kansas City in the second round of the postseason, spurred by the momentum gained from the knockout-round triumph over Chicago.
That wave wound up sparking a run all the way to the championship for the second consecutive year, where Houston, of course. fell to the Galaxy.
But as long as they make the tournament again in 2013, there should be no counting out the Dynamo. Coach Dominic Kinnear had a lot of moving pieces to juggle last season (h/t New York Times) but managed to morph his club into instant cup contenders.
Dynamic Honduran winger Boniek Garcia arrived during the transfer window this past June and made an instant impact, being voted the MLS Latino Player of the Year despite his abbreviated season.
Kinnear seems to have the right touch in gauging the pulse of his team, and he tends to pull out close matches. Of the teams in the top-eight in the previous regular season, the Dynamo's plus-five goal differential was the only one not in double digits.
Austrian goalkeeper Michael Gspurning made quite an impression in his maiden MLS campaign. All he did was lead the league in goals against average with a staggering 0.70. He also had nine clean sheets to show for his remarkable efforts.
That type of performance allowed the Sounders to boast the second-best goal differential, but Gspurning was blitzed in the playoffs by the Galaxy attack. That resulted in a costly 3-0 loss in the first matchup that was too much for Seattle to overcome in the final fixture.
GM Adrian Hanauer has been active in the offseason to address the defense in front of Gspurning by signing 34-year-old defensive midfielder Shalrie Joseph and defender Djimi Traore.
The club's all-time leading scorer, Freddy Montero, is now gone, and Hanauer has made strides in that area, too. As BBC's Oluwashina Okeleji reported on Thursday, Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins is set to sign a contract with Seattle on Saturday.
With those transactions, the Sounders figure to be a cup contender yet again thanks to their front office's constant quest for improvement.
There simply has to be a feeling of unfinished business for Chicago, whose season ended in the knockout round at the hands of the Dynamo.
It was a painful experience, but one that should fuel the Fire and ultimately provide long-term benefits. Newly acquired veteran Joel Lindpere should provide a spark on the attack, and the versatility of Jeff Larentowicz also gives the midfield a significant upgrade.
2012 was easily the best campaign the Fire have had in quite some time, as they finished with 17 wins—the most in 12 years.
Also, Chicago's attack figures to be enhanced by a lineup featuring last year's leading scorer Chris Wolfe and striker Sherjill MacDonald.
The 28-year-old MacDonald recently articulated his excitement about how things are coming together in the preseason between him and Wolfe on the club's official website, "I feel great already...In the first few training sessions, I feel with Rolfie we’ve already had some direct connections. I feel very good, I’m excited to play with him again and of course it’s easier this year with the preparation."
MacDonald didn't have the benefit of working with Wolfe, as he had to adjust on the fly after coming to Chicago during last summer's transfer window from K.F.C. Germinal Beerschot of the Belgian Pro League.
That added time to develop chemistry bodes well for the Fire to advance further in the postseason and gives them an outside shot at the MLS Cup in 2013.