Galaxy pull it out

STEVEN SANDOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:58 AM ET

The Major League Soccer season kicks off Thursday night when Seattle hosts the expansion Philadelphia Union.

We continue or preview of the 2010 season with the West. And MLS is no different than the NHL or NBA: The West is best. With the unbalanced playoff system, it wouldn't be impossible to imagine that six of the eight playoff teams this season could come out of this conference.

Yes, Chicago and Columbus are strong franchises in the East, but after that, it wouldn't be hard to imagine the sixth or seventh-place team in the West being good enough for third in the East.

REAL SALT LAKE

PREDICTED FINISH: 1st

THE KICKABOUT: Last season, the pundits all picked RSL to be the best in the West. The underachieving Royals left it to the last weekend of the season to make the playoffs -- and then showed us all what we expected to see all season long, marching to the MLS Cup. Now, this season, expect RSL to keep it up all season long. There's no reason to believe that the team can't build on that momentum. Only question: How will CONCACAF Champions League commitments wear on the team as the season goes on? RSL has never been there before.

THE VERDICT: Because Utah isn't necessarily a media mecca, a lot of RSL's players fly under the radar. But the central midfield of Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales is as good a tandem as anywhere in the league. And Canadian midfielder Will Johnson has really found his niche on the wing. Great goalkeeping in Nick Rimando, who won two penalty shootouts en route to the MLS Cup, and balance throughout the lineup. The team is at its best when coach Jason Kreis has it believing in his us-against-the-world mantra; Kreis is the kind of coach that loves to find a clipping to post on the wall; he challenges his players.

LOS ANGELES GALAXY

PREDICTED FINISH: 2nd, West, MLS Cup finalist

THE KICKABOUT: Yes, it will hurt to know that David Beckham's injury will force him to miss the entire season and any possible return to the Galaxy in 2010. Despite the naysayers, he was a damn good part of the team that won the West last season. And Landon Donovan, the league MVP, showed us all with a hugely impressive loan spell at Everton, that he's not just an outstanding MLS player -- he's world class. Donovan is going to miss some time because of the World Cup, so it will hurt Los Angeles a bit in the regular season and that's why the Galaxy will finish behind RSL, but beat 'em in the playoffs.

THE VERDICT: As much as we talk about Donovan and Beckham, the Galaxy's success hinges on its defence. Omar Gonzalez, 2009's rookie of the year, is a special player -- and a European career beckons. Sean Franklin, his partner, was 2008's rookie of the year. See a pattern here? Despite the stars up front, the Galaxy's backbone -- and the recipe of its success -- was built through the draft.

SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC

PREDICTED FINISH: 3rd, West,

THE KICKABOUT: What will the Sounders do for an encore? Last year's expansion darlings won the U.S. Open Cup, qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League and made the playoffs. Oh, and the Sounders drew an average of 30,897 fans a game, pushing soccer into the mainstream in an American market like we haven't seen since the days of the NASL. Ichiro who?

THE VERDICT: Seattle likes to play the ball on the ground, there isn't a lot of panic in its game. Maybe it has to do with the fact that attacker Steve Zakuani and designated player Freddie Ljungberg brought their Arsenal influences with them. In 2009, Ljungberg had about as solid a season as a designated player has enjoyed so far in MLS -- he's a fantastic passer of the ball and is deadly in one-on-one situations. But give credit to Sigi Schmid, as smart a tactician as MLS has ever had behind a franchise's bench. Ownership and fans demanded a quality product right off the bat, and Seattle will show again this season that last year was no fluke. And, when the transfer window opens this summer, Swiss international Blaise Nkufo will add to the already powerful attack, spearheaded by Colombian Fredy Montero.

HOUSTON DYNAMO

PREDICTED FINISH: 4th, West

THE KICKABOUT: Houston is rebuilding this year, right? After all, the team lost the backbone of its team, midfielders Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden, to Eintracht Frankfurt and Bolton Wanderers, respectively. But we said this last year about Houston, too. When the Dynamo dealt its offensive star, Dwayne De Rosario, to Toronto, it still contended for the Western crown. Coach Dominic Kinnear is one of the best in the business and he always finds a way. Don't discount the Dynamo.

THE VERDICT: The Dynamo will feature a rebuilt midfield, but its defence will hold it in games. Geoff Cameron, in the centre of the backline, is solid. This team uses its home advantage in humid, sickeningly hot Texas summer afternoons to its full advantage. Three Canadians will be key: The ageless Pat Onstad in goal, who continues to be one of the MLS' best even though he may be old enough to remember the leather ball, and defenders Andre Hainault and Adrian Serioux. If Toronto FC isn't your thing, Canadians could do a lot worse than cheering for the Can-con on the Gulf Coast.

FC DALLAS

PREDICTED FINISH: 5th, West

THE KICKABOUT: FC Dallas might not be an MLS Cup contender, but the team is the great entertainer of the MLS. Last year, FCD led MLS in both goals scored and goals conceded, and a lot of that has to do with coach Schelles Hyndman being the most aggressive tactician in the league. Jeff Cunningham will be asked to finish off chances as he did in 2009, when he led MLS with 17 goals. But, midfielder David Ferreira is the real star of this team. Look for the Colombian to earn some MVP votes this season. A lot of the time, Cunningham has easy chances to convert because of Ferreira's work.

THE VERDICT: Dallas can come at you in waves -- and it's not unusual for FCD to hang, three, four or five goals on an opponent. But, despite the move for veteran goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, MLS carer saves leader, there isn't enough defensive improvement to make the team a contender. FCD made a huge late push last season to move from the depths of the league into a last-day battle for the playoffs. Don't be fooled by teams that start weak, finish strong.

CHIVAS USA

PREDICTED FINISH: 6th, West

THE KICKABOUT: Preki transformed Chivas from a bad expansion team to a regular playoff team by transforming the Goats into the Minnesota Wild of soccer. Yes, Chivas was a power, but it was a defence-first team that wasn't pleasing on the eye. Martin Vasquez, who played for both the Mexican and American national teams and was recently an assistant with mighty Bayern Munich, was brought in to bring attacking flair to the team. But, can Vasquez teach a defence-first crew, used to playing under Preki's rigid system, how to have fun again?

THE VERDICT: Chivas' season will come down to the performance of Sacha Kljestan. Before the 2009 season, he trialled with Celtic in Glasgow and got on the cover of FIFA Soccer 10. But, he struggled for large portions of last season and fell down the U.S. national-team pecking order. The first few months of the season will be his last chance to prove to the American brass that he can go to South Africa. Look for a big start to the season from Kljestan.

COLORADO RAPIDS

PREDICTED FINISH: 7th, West

THE KICKABOUT: The Rapids feature the best thunder-and-lightning scoring tandem in the league. Conor Casey is a true target man and finished second on the goal-scoring list last season with 16. Omar Cummings, his Jamaican partner, has speed to burn and can pass as well as shoot. He had 12 assists to go with his eight goals. But, while the pair can tear up defences, the rest of the squad remains thin.

THE VERDICT: Last season, the Rapids looked like a sure bet for the playoffs until an awful run in September and October saw them plummet out of the picture. A big part of that was a road-heavy final stretch. This is a squad that has yet to show that it is competitive when it's away from the massive home advantage of playing at altitude in the Mile High City. Of the team's 10 wins last season, only two came on the road. While Cummings and Casey should have the team in the fight for the eighth and final playoff spot, the Rapids can't afford to be cannon fodder on the road anymore.

SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES

PREDICTED FINISH: 8th, West

THE KICKABOUT: The Earthquakes are trusting their season's fortunes to the man who used be the midfield general for Montreal Impact. In the off-season, the 'Quakes brought in the key piece of the Impact squad that went to the 2009 CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals, midfielder Joey Gjertsen. For years, he's been the best midfielder in second-tier pro soccer in North America. Now, he makes the jump.

THE VERDICT: The Earthquakes, under former Canadian national team coach Frank Yallop, have some interesting pieces. Jamaican striker Ryan Johnson had a breakthrough last season and could become a top striker in this league. The Earthquakes are coming off an impressive preseason, which saw them string together an impressive shutout streak. But, there are still so many questions for a third-year team that looks to be following Toronto's expansion model, not Seattle's.


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