Los Angeles will once again offer a formidable MLS Cup defense, but the Galaxy must ward off several threats to remain at the top of the heap.
More questions crop up outside of that core group. FC Dallas and Vancouver look best situated to tussle for the fifth and final playoff spot, but Colorado and Portland will hope their aesthetically pleasing approaches can lay the foundation for a viable playoff push a bit ahead of schedule. Even Chivas USA could spring a surprise or two if its drastic overhaul vastly exceeds the minimal expectations set forth prior to the season.
2. San Jose
3. Los Angeles
4. Real Salt Lake
6. FC Dallas
9. Chivas USA
Last season in a sentence: Another promising campaign ended with playoff heartache, but the first taste of postseason success provided a modest silver lining.
Offseason moves: Sounders FC boss Sigi Schmid altered the spine of his side for reasons not entirely within his control. Fredy Montero garnered most of the headlines for his loan move to Millonarios, but Jeff Parke's trade to Philadelphia created a more pressing hole in central defense. Former Liverpool defender Djimi Traore convinced Schmid he could help to fill the void after a successful preseason trial. Chivas USA outcast Shalrie Joseph also arrived to provide additional depth in midfield.
Key figure: Whispers about Mauro Rosales' future with the club floated around persistently during the winter. His continued presence in Seattle represents a boon for the side. With the former Ajax man in the mix, Sounders FC boasts a creative presence capable of turning a game in an instant. Without him in the fold, Seattle lacks the necessary incisiveness to produce opportunities for Eddie Johnson up front.
The skinny: Great expectations always swirl around this talented side. Those ambitions may finally come to fruition this season if Traore can plug the gap created by Parke's departure and if Obafemi Martins eventually agrees to join from Levante to replace Montero.
2. SAN JOSE
Last season in a sentence: Late heroics fueled an unexpected run to the Supporters' Shield, but the Goonies saw their MLS Cup dreams dashed by their hated rivals to the south.
Offseason moves: The crazy gang returns for an encore with the important pieces largely intact. Simon Dawkins' deadline day loan move to Aston Villa stripped some of the creativity away in midfield, but the Earthquakes harbor some hope of bringing him back in the summer. Until that particular dilemma resolves itself in a more permanent way, Frank Yallop will focus on the increased depth in his rearguard after the arrivals of Dan Gargan and Ty Harden and the rather remarkable ability to retain nearly all of the important pieces from last year.
Key figure: San Jose underscored the importance of Chris Wondolowski to the cause by handing him a Designated Player contract on Tuesday. The new deal – his third in as many winters – offers a just reward after Wondolowski matched Roy Lassiter's single-season goalscoring record last season. He won't have to reach 27 goals again this year, but his predatory instincts ensure he will remain among the goals yet again.
The skinny: Second season syndrome presents a real challenge for these Earthquakes. Opposing sides now understand the threat posed by a side that simply will not relent. Even with that caveat in mind, San Jose's palpable resolve and Wondolowski's presence in the side should prevent a significant dropoff from the standards set last year.
3. LOS ANGELES
Last season in a sentence: The holders stumbled out of the gate before righting the ship and securing the title for a second consecutive season.
Offseason moves: The departure of a certain former England captain captured most of the headlines, but the Galaxy also tended to other matters during the close season. No move appears more important for the short- and the long-term than Juninho's arrival on a permanent deal after three seasons spent on loan. The deft move for Tottenham goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini likely erased most of the questions between the sticks, too. None of the outgoing players bound for non-Paris destinations – save for perhaps Edson Buddle – would have warranted a starting place.
Key figure: Last season underscored Omar Gonzalez's importance to this star-studded cause. His physical presence and robust defensive work establish the foundation for the back four and permit this Galaxy side to push forward intelligently. As the troubles during the first half of 2012 revealed, this outfit isn't nearly as formidable without Gonzalez in the middle of the rearguard.
The skinny: Lifting the title for a third consecutive campaign appears too much to demand, but this group – particularly with a healthy and invested Landon Donovan back in the fold by the business end of the season – possesses all of the tools to deliver it nonetheless.
4. REAL SALT LAKE
Last season in a sentence: One last ride with the current core saw the perennial contenders fall just short once again.
Offseason moves: Salary budget concerns led RSL to jettison a few of its familiar figures ahead of the current campaign. The departures of Fabián Espíndola, Will Johnson and Jámison Olave allowed RSL to squeeze within the necessary parameters and strengthen the squad in other ways. Former striker Robbie Findley returned from Nottingham Forest to start his second stint with the club, but the introduction of several other players – including Joao Plata, Josh Saunders and Khari Stephenson – to increase the overall depth within the ranks could prove more important as the season progresses.
Key figure: RSL escaped a potentially crippling setback when Javier Morales spurned overseas offers to remain with the club. The seasoned Argentine schemer did not match his unimpeachable standards last season, but his ingenuity remains a critical part of RSL's plans in the final third.
The skinny: Consider this winter a perfect example of how to evolve within salary budget strictures. Although the departures will exact an unavoidable toll, RSL remains a potential force given the quality that still remains.
Last season in a sentence: A bold midseason overhaul resulted in a late season slide and an early playoff exit.
Offseason moves: One of the key pieces in that transformation – Scotland midfielder Barry Robson – decamped for Sheffield United. The arrivals of Daigo Kobayashi and Nigel Reo-Coker ensure Martin Rennie will not miss the combative Robson too much as he sorts through his midfield options. Rennie also tweaked things at the back by swapping Martin Bonjour for Honduras regular Johnny Leverón. Most of the other comings and goings operated around the fringes of the squad.
Key figure: Former U.S. international Jay DeMerit mustered the sort of form required to prompt a recall last season. A return to the international fold isn't in the cards, but his presence in the middle of a stout back four will prove crucial to a side that will score goals with Darren Mattocks leading the line.
The skinny: Give credit to the Whitecaps for possessing the conviction to make a bold move and suffer through the consequences when it faltered. Now they must find a way to push onwards this season to validate the ambition shown last campaign.
6. FC DALLAS
Last season in a sentence: Rampant injuries and suspect patches of form left this likely playoff contender out of the postseason picture.
Offseason moves: FCD's winter work constituted a changing of the guard. Out went previous lynchpins Kevin Hartman, Daniel Hernandez and Brek Shea and second-half helper Julian de Guzman to make room for fresh faces. FCD coach Schellas Hyndman turned to Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli to solve the recurring concerns up front with some of the money saved. The foreign recruits – including the already departed Pipico, the perpetually crocked Peter Luccin and the projected backup goalkeeper Raúl Fernández – fell a bit short of the anticipated standard, though.
Key figure: The return of prolific forward Cooper guarantees a regular supply of goals. Hyndman must weigh Cooper's placement on the field carefully in order to extract the best from a player capable of contributing at the sharp end on a regular basis.
The skinny: There are enough talented pieces here to bounce back from last year's disappointment. Whether they will all fit together neatly remains somewhat uncertain. If FCD can lean on George John and the rest of the back four to establish a resolute foundation, then this side might meld together more quickly than expected.
Last season in a sentence: Philosophical adjustments led to practical concerns as the Rapids grappled with the implications of their desire to play more expansively.
Offseason moves: Colorado spent most of the offseason trying to add younger players and tailor their selections to the possession-oriented approach preferred by Oscar Pareja. MLS Cup winners Conor Casey, Omar Cummings and Jeff Larentowicz all found new homes as the Rapids searched for financial flexibility. The latitude paved the way for Diego Calderón and Kevin Harbottle to join from South American sides and prompted the arrivals of proven domestic contributors Edson Buddle and Nick LaBrocca via trade.
Key figure: Promising midfielder Martín Rivero serves as the catalyst within Pareja's 4-3-3 setup. His absence for the next month or two leaves the Rapids without their primary schemer and underscores his importance to the success or failure of the project on the whole.
The skinny: Patience remains a necessary virtue for the Rapids. This season should prove more profitable than the last, but the overall scope of the transition probably requires another year to truly reap the anticipated benefits.
Last season in a sentence: After the old regime exited unceremoniously, the Timbers played out the string and waited for their new coach to arrive.
Offseason moves: Caleb Porter spent much of the offseason trying to cobble together the necessary pieces to run a functional 4-3-3 in his first season in Portland. Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri arrived on loan from Lanús to fill the vital number 10 role. Ryan Johnson, Will Johnson, Ryan Miller and Mikaël Silvestre all joined the fold to strengthen the options in the starting XI. The influx of new players meant many of the reserves from last year found new homes, while the departure of Kris Boyd looked inevitable from the moment Porter took charge.
Key figure: At this advanced stage of his career, Silvestre probably should not represent a team's best hope of establishing a firmer defensive core. But his presence – both in distribution and in preventing the opposition from exploiting the inevitable spaces when possession is conceded – looms as a particular important fillip for a side that struggled defensively last season.
The skinny: It takes time to implement the ideas Porter espouses. Just ask Colorado. Perhaps the Timbers can accelerate the timetable, but it is more likely that they will spend this season acclimating to the new demands placed upon them and sorting out those defensive issues.
9. CHIVAS USA
Last season in a sentence: The bottom fell out midseason and prompted an offseason overhaul designed to restore the ethos first cultivated in 2005.
Offseason moves: New boss José Luis Sánchez Solá followed investor/operator Jorge Vergara's directive and purged most of the non-Hispanic players from the roster. Most of the departures – and there were just too many to recount here – left for a bargain price. In their stead came a mix of loan signings from parent club C.D. Guadalajara, El Chelis devotees and other Mexican and Mexican-American imports. The best way to sum it all up: the Red-and-White announced the signing of 37-year-old Joaquín Velázquez on Tuesday. He hasn't played in a professional match since featuring under Sánchez Solá for Puebla in 2010.
Key figure: Sánchez Solá somehow resisted the previously mooted urge to deal Dan Kennedy during the housecleaning. The beleaguered goalkeeper now wears the captain's armband, but that honor won't diminish the difficult days ahead for him between the sticks. Kennedy must excel in order to give Chivas USA a chance to succeed.
The skinny: Forget about the playoffs. Chivas USA must first set its sights on respectability. Sánchez Solá wrings the most out of his squads, but this group appears ill-equipped to deal with the rigors of MLS. If El Chelis can turn this group into a competitive outfit, then he will deserve the plaudits he will receive.
Follow KYLE MCCARTHY on or shoot him an email