Unlike the wide-open Eastern Conference, the Western Conference does have a clear favorite, and that’s the LA Galaxy. Winners of two straight Supporters’ Shields, and last year’s MLS Cup, the Galaxy could be an even stronger side in 2012. That could be bad news for the rest of the West, and the rest of the league, as the 2011 squad lost just five games.
On the plus side, David Beckham returns after his best year in MLS. Despite turning 37 in May, the former England captain is still expected to play a major role in LA's attempt to become the first MLS repeat champion since Houston won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.
Beckham will have plenty of help when you factor in fellow Designated Players Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. If that wasn't enough, the club was able to reacquire Edson Buddle, who returns from a season in the German second division. When we last saw Buddle in an LA jersey, he was busy scoring 17 goals in 2010. Head coach Bruce Arena was also able to get underrated midfielder Juninho back on loan from Sao Paulo, after it appeared as if his MLS playing days were over.
Only two things can hurt LA's chances for a repeat. One is the long-term injury to reigning MLS Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez. Gonzalez helped lead the Galaxy to the league's best defensive record. Whoever takes Gonzalez spot will have big shoes to fill. The second is the international calendar. They will lose Donovan to World Cup qualifiers, Keane to Euro 2012 duties, and most likely Beckham to the Olympics, where he is rumored to be one of three overaged players who will suit up for a Great Britain Olympic entry. While MLS no longer plays on international days, players will still miss training time and will be doing a good amount of traveling to participate with their national teams.
If you're looking for a team that could unseat the Galaxy at the top of the West, the best guesses would be the Seattle Sounders or Real Salt Lake.
Seattle bring back star striker Fredy Montero and impressive midfielder Mauro Rosales. If Rosales stays healthy, he will be a league MVP candidate. Seattle have two big questions in 2012. Can Michael Gspurning be as effective in goal as the now retired Kasey Keller was in the last three years for the Sounders? And can Eddie Johnson return to the goal scoring form that we saw in his earlier days in MLS? There's a huge upside in Johnson, but there is also a huge risk involved. To get Johnson from Montreal, Seattle had to give up two young, talented and popular players in Michael Fucito and Lamar Neagle.
Real Salt Lake are returning their core players as they seek to win another MLS Cup. On paper, this is as talented a club as any in MLS. Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Fabian Espindola and Nick Rimando are as good as any group in MLS, plus RSL have arguably the best center back tandem in the league in Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers.
FC Dallas have Kevin Hartman in goal, so they can be a player in the West. Does Panama striker Blas Perez give them the big goal scorer they've been seeking up front to complement rising star Brek Shea?
The Colorado Rapids have a new head Coach in Oscar Pareja, who will rely on new signing Martin Rivero to lead the offense.
Chivas USA were improved under first year head coach Robin Fraser and with several new additions in 2012 should take another step forward, but how big will that step be?
The San Jose Earthquakes have made numerous changes for the upcoming season. They could be among the more improved teams in the West, but will their improvement be enough to get them back into the playoffs? Chris Wondolowski will need some help from his teammates with the preseason talk centering around newcomer Tressor Moreno.
Expansion teams a year ago, Portland and Vancouver missed out on the 2011 postseason. Portland missed by inches … Vancouver by miles. Portland should be bolstered by their DP signing Kris Boyd, while the Whitecaps under head coach Martin Rennie have overturned the roster, focusing on both sides of the ball. Sebastien Le Toux will help a Whitecaps offense that finished dead last in scoring in 2011. Scottish international midfielder Barry Robson will also help, but he won’t arrive until the summer. A defense that ranked 16th a year ago will have to improve dramatically for this team to have any hope of a postseason berth. They’ll be improved under Rennie and with a year’s experience in MLS, but can they challenge for a playoff spot?
With less than a week until MLS First Kick, we won't have to wait much longer to begin finding out answers to the many questions heading into the season.