The LA Galaxy are your defending MLS Cup Champions (again). The Houston Dynamo are your defending Eastern Conference champions (again). Sporting Kansas City are the league's most talented team (again).
We start the 2013 season in many ways just like we began the 2012 season, but the league is also very, very different in many ways. We tapped up Ryan Rosenblatt, Jeremiah Oshan, Alicia Rodriguez, Kevin McCauley and Zach Woosley to discuss the MLS offseason gone and the season to come.
1) Which team had the best offseason?
Jeremiah: They didn't make as many splashy moves as many of the other teams, but the Houston Dynamo quietly got a lot better by adding Omar Cummings and Eric Brunner. At his best, Cummings has been among the most dynamic players in MLS over the past few years. Unfortunately, he hasn't been playing in the best situations and has also disappeared for periods of time. Dominic Kinnear seems like the kind of coach that can get the most out of him. Brunner, too, has been very good at times and should help cover for the loss of Andre Hainault. Just for good measure, they picked up Scottish MF Andrew Driver.
Ryan: Almost by default, I think it has to be the Timbers. They were so bad last season that any significant improvement is going to stand out above the rest and they have certainly done that under Caleb Porter in acquiring Diego Valeri, Will Johnson and several others. In a Western Conference that drops off significantly after the top four, the Timbers could be a playoff team and that is a gigantic step up in Portland.
Alicia: D.C. United. To a large extent, they overachieved in 2012. In keeping the core group together, they've added an intriguing mix of MLS veterans and foreign prospects this offseason, and if the entire group can gel, there's no reason to expect them to do anything but improve in 2013.
Kevin: The Houston Dynamo, who managed to get a lot better without spending a bunch of money. Eric Brunner should be about as good as Andre Hainault and adds another serious threat on set pieces. Andrew Driver should be a very good winger. Omar Cummings is better than any other speedy forward option they've had recently. They've lost very little and replaced everyone they needed to replace with an equal or superior player.
Zach: Portland Timbers. The Timbers have added a coach that I really like and he's brought in some players familiar with his system and style to go along with Darlington Nagbe. Bringing in Will Johnson and Diego Valeri should help too. There's still a ton of work to do in Portland but I think they've done a lot of the right things so far.
Which team had the worst offseason?
Ryan: What the hell is going on in Vancouver? They made a ton of moves last season to put up assets and cap room, then only signed Kobayashi and Reo-Coker this winter? It makes absolutely no sense to do so little with so many pieces and so much flexibility. They have to be gearing up for a big summer, but for now they get a big, fat "F".
Jeremiah: The braintrust at Real Salt Lake is among the best in the league, but I don't think this was what they had envisioned. After trading away Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave and Will Johnson, they were really counting on Javier Morales to return to the form he flashed back in 2010. Getting Robbie Findley back and bringing in Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia mean the cupboard are not bare, but they look like a team that will battling for a playoff spot.
Kevin: I think it's the Seattle Sounders by default, since they're the only team who I don't think did something to get better or at least maintain what they were last season. Even if they do sign Obafemi Martins, he's very similar to Eddie Johnson and probably won't compliment him well. They're worse at central defense. They're throwing a lot of their eggs in the "Steve Zakuani will get back to his former level" basket. I still think they're a clear playoff team, but I can't make an argument for them taking a step forward this offseason. I can do that for 18 other teams.
Alicia: I'd go with the Philadelphia Union. They have a lot of young players, and are clearly hoping they will come through. They've added some experience in attack with Conor Casey, while "Getting the band back together" with the return of Sebastien Le Toux. But I'm not sure those two will take them over the edge to really be competitive, and the albatross of Freddy Adu still hangs over the club. Plus, John Hackworth may be much better as a stabilizing influence over the team than Peter Nowak, but he's said some strange things in the offseason. I think the Union could be improved over 2012, but perhaps not substantially.
Zach: It may not matter in the long run but I'm not impressed by the Seattle Sounders offseason moves. Fredy Montero and Jeff Parke are gone, while the additions of Shalrie Joseph and Djimi Traore are hardly going to raise any eyebrows. Obafemi Martins could help offset my feelings but I'm hardly convinced he's the answer or will fit into MLS. Basically, the Sounders haven't gotten any better and I feel like they've taken significant steps backwards.
Who was the best signing this offseason?
Zach: José Luis Sánchez Solá. I think I'm saying this simply because I want Chivas USA to kick everyone's butt all over the place just because they've taken so much schtick from people this season. This is a pipe dream but then again, it's MLS and anything can happen.
Kevin: While I still think that Portland has a lot of work to do as a team, Diego Valeri was probably the best signing that any team made this season, in terms of what he'll produce and mean to his team. Close second: RSL's re-acquisition of Robbie Findley.
Ryan: Philadelphia signing John Hackworth (technically last year) because he's not Peter Nowak.
Alicia: This is the hardest question since I don't follow fourth division Belgian leagues or whatever. Partisans of teams hype their signings up, and everybody else scoffs at a player nobody has ever heard of. Based on that criteria, I'll say Juninho Pernambucano, since I've seen him play and David Beckham demonstrated that aging set-piece specialists don't have to really run for 90 minutes in order to be effective.
Jeremiah: I'm wary of taking too much away from preseason games, but Diego Valeri is looking like a real difference making for the Portland Timbers. One thing they've always lacked is a veteran playmaker and Valeri promises to provide the kind of stability that Mauro Rosales brought to the Sounders. The caveat here is the Sounders' rumored signing of Obafemi Martins. If that ends up happening, it appears the Sounders may have gotten a leg up on their southern rivals.
Both LA and Seattle are two of the best teams in the league, but lost Beckham and Montero respectively and haven't replaced either. Does their waiting until the summer change the way you view either team?
Ryan: It is a little surprising that Seattle didn't replace Montero because that is going to hurt them in the Champions League, which they seemed to have made a priority so i guess it changes the way I view their priorities a bit. Otherwise, both teams will be fine by the summer and favorites for MLS Cup by October.
Alicia: Not particularly. With the playoff format, we know that even good teams can have months-long dips in form and still have strong seasons overall, in the regular season and playoffs. If either team misses the playoffs entirely, then it would be a whole different story, and the losses of the key players would appear to be much more consequential.
Jeremiah: Truth be told, I am still a bit shocked that LA hasn't replaced Beckham in any meaningful way. Throw in the fact that Landon Donovan probably won't be fully fit until May and the recipe is there for a rough start. The Sounders have at least attempted to replace Montero and if they can actually sign Martins, they probably have the most talented team in the league.
Zach: Not one bit, just look at the Galaxy last season who everyone was ready to write off well into the summer before they got themselves together and went on to win MLS Cup. It's becoming a proven fact in this league that you can basically blow off the first few months of the season and still have a great year in the end. It seems to work for Houston on a fairly regular basis. If neither team is playing well come July and makes no moves in the summer window, then we can talk about if our views of these teams have changed.
Kevin: I viewed LA and Seattle as the second and third best teams in the league last season and that hasn't changed. Sporting KC had a better squad last year and still do. San Jose still don't have the top-to-bottom talent of those teams. They're both worse than they were last year, but still better than the teams below them. I wouldn't be stunned if San Jose and Houston overtook them, though.
Who's your breakout player for 2013?
Jeremiah: Miller Bolanos seems to be a great candidate. The Ecuadorian never seemed to fit into Robin Fraser's plans a year ago, but will likely be a major focus of El Chelis' offense. Expect big things.
Zach: Jack McInerney