Major League Soccer 2012: 10 Bold Predictions
On the eve of the 2012 MLS season, here's what we know: not much. This is a league with a reputation for throwing up the unexpected, after all, so accurately projecting how a 34-game season (plus playoffs) will unfold is like trying to keep Bobby Convey happy. It's just not going to happen.
But you can't head into a new year without making a few predictions, and there are expectations surrounding the league that might need a second look. Conventional wisdom has spoken, but conventional wisdom gets it wrong quite often. That's especially true when things like the schedule format and officiating outlook are so drastically different from 2011.
The defending champions, L.A. Galaxy, are heavy favorites to repeat; maybe they're ripe to under-deliver. The West is still the dominant conference, but maybe there's an East team ready to step forward and steal the spotlight. Perhaps a team expected to contend will flop, or a club everyone overlooks will surprise. The list is endless. It wouldn't be exciting if it all went to plan.
In that spirit, meaning the spirit of predicting things because predicting things is fun, here are ten bold predictions for the 2012 MLS season.
The Golden Boot Winner Will Have More Than 20 Goals
Sure, this doesn't sound like a bold prediction, but consider the recent history of the Golden Boot: Dwayne DeRosario and Chris Wondolowski tied with 16 goals to lead the league last year—DeRo won the actual Golden Boot award thanks to a better assist total.
And no champ has scored more than 20 since Carlos Ruiz hit home 24 in 2002. Landon Donovan scored 20 in 2008, a year after Luciano Emilio did the same. MLS doesn't produce big individual goal totals, and it hasn't had anyone beyond 20 in 10 years.
But with the unbalanced schedule and a reduction in the leg-taxing travel that bogs players down during the summer, there's a good chance 2012 is the year someone finally cracks the 21-goal barrier.
Hans Backe Won't Make It Past the All-Star Game
The Red Bulls have Rafa Marquez, Thierry Henry, a cast of capable talent surrounding them and a new stadium that should make for a fine home-field advantage. And yet, here they are again, coming off of a trophy-less season, just like every other one in the club's 16-year history.
Backe has the tools at his disposal to make the Red Bulls a serious contender, but has failed to do so over two full seasons.
Without a torrid start to 2012, Backe should be on his way out. Half of the teams in the Eastern Conference will make the playoffs this year, and if New York is treading water or sits in the bottom half of the standings come July, management will (finally) have to make a change.
Toronto FC Will (Finally) Make the Playoffs
It's Year 6 of MLS life in Toronto, and the Reds are still searching for their first playoff berth. The latest rebuild, led by Dutchman Aron Winter, is actually beginning to bear some fruit.
A full season of forward Danny Koevermans and midfielder Torsten Frings will do wonders in Ontario, and there's enough talent around them to give Toronto a real chance to finally get into the post-season.
Joao Plata is the real (tiny) deal, goalkeeper Stefan Frei is one of the league's best, and the aforementioned Koevermans is an absolute beast up top.
Really, it's about time, Toronto. This is your year.
Brek Shea Will Head to Europe in the Summer...For Good
Brek Shea will most certainly be a part of the U.S. Olympic team when Caleb Porter leads his side to London this summer (assuming they qualify, of course) and the tournament is the perfect showcase for a young player already drawing significant European interest.
On the back of his breakout 2011 season and a move up the USMNT ranks, a summer in London will seal the transfer deal.
If he plays half as well as he's capable of through the first half of the MLS season and into the Olympics, FC Dallas and MLS will find it nearly impossible to turn down every offer. Say bye-bye to Brek.
Sporting Kansas City Will Run Away with the Top Spot in the East
If if hadn't been for an uncharacteristic home meltdown against Houston in the Eastern Conference final, Sporting Kansas City would have been standing there as L.A. lifted the MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center in November.
In another universe, maybe SKC took home the trophy themselves. As it was, the club with the fancy new name to go along with the fancy new stadium turned around a depressing start to finish first in the East, something of an upset.
In 2012, without the long road trip to start the season and only Omar Bravo in the notable departures column, Sporting is primed to defend their first-place finish in the Eastern Conference, and they'll do it by a margin much larger than the two points they bested Houston by last year.
The Montreal Impact Won't Finish Dead Last
Call this one a hunch, because it's not much more. Expansion teams don't typically do well. Expansion teams with first-time head coaches, like the Impact have with Jesse Marsch, can't really be expected to be anything but cannon fodder in their first MLS campaign.
Everything points to the Impact struggling mightily and mirroring the season fellow Canadian side Vancouver experienced in 2011.
But the Impact are in the East, and the East is bound, just by chance and recent results, to have at least one total dud. If they play well enough, Montreal could just barely slide into ninth place at the inevitable dud's expense. Bon chance!
Seattle Will Fizzle out in the Playoffs, Again
Since joining MLS, the Seattle Sounders have been a resounding success in almost every way possible save for one: They've yet to win a playoff round despite making the postseason every year in their existence.
Heading into 2012, the Sounders are a strong bet to challenge L.A. for the top spot in the Western Conference, and should have little trouble qualifying for the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.
But something happens to the Sounders once MLS Cup Tournament starts, and the strength of the West means they're likely to face off against another strong team in the first round. Last year, the Sounders were done in by a poor away performance in the first leg of the conference semis against Real Salt Lake.
The opponent might be different, but history has a way of repeating itself.
The Galaxy Will Come Up Short in Supporter's Shield Race
Sure, the L.A. Galaxy look like one of the strongest teams in MLS history on paper. But the new schedule format means they'll mostly be doing battle against their Western Conference rivals for preeminence, and the West is where most of the league's elites reside.
If L.A. stumbles at all, perhaps due to injury or if Bruce Arena is forced to rest players with the club facing multiple competition, and depth fails to meet the challenge, Sporting Kansas City or an upstart in the West could nose them out for the regular season points title.
It wouldn't be the end of the world for L.A., but it would mean failing to meet one of the many lofty expectations they have facing them in 2012.
New England Will Play Attractive Soccer
If you've been paying attention over the last few years, you'll recognize that this might be the boldest prediction yet. New England hasn't been much to look at in recent seasons, a function of both coaching direction and their mostly underwhelming talent.
With Steve Nicol gone and the earnest Jay Heaps at the helm, it might be a stretch to imagine much of a difference for 2012.
Still, the Revs will have Benny Feilhaber for a full year, added an exciting young midfield talent in Kelyn Rowe through the draft and can count Colombian options José Moreno (if he shows up) and Fernando Cárdenas among the attacking upgrades.
There's hope, and that's more than there was before.
The MLS All-Stars Will Win the All-Star Game in Philadelphia
The opponent for this summer's All-Star Game at PPL Park in Philadelphia is undetermined as of yet, but I feel fairly safe in assuming it won't be Manchester United for a third year in a row.
That means the MLS side should have at least a fighting chance against whomever the league lines up. Frankly, it can't get much worse than the last two drubbings the Red Devils handed out to the league's representatives. If it's not United, MLS will win.
Note: This bold prediction is also rendered void if the All-Star Game opponent turns out to be named Barcelona or Real Madrid.