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5 Up and 5 Down: Which MLS offseason transactions will make the difference in 2013?

With the 2013 MLS regular season opening weekend at hand, the plethora of roster moves in the offseason will finally get to be judged via results on the field. In both the Eastern and Western Conferences teams that struggled last year went about trying to fix their problems as aggressively as their budgets would allow. For the 10 postseason participants in 2012, the job was simply to make sure the team was set up not to relinquish that standing this season. So which transactions will prove to be the difference makers in 2013? We look at 5 that will make a team’s fortunes and 5 that will consign them to watching the playoffs from the outside.

5 moves that will make a difference…

1) Omar Cummings joins Houston Dynamo — Head coach Dominic Kinnear had his Dynamo team playing in the MLS Cup final two seasons in a row, only to see them fall to the LA Galaxy in consecutive trips to The Home Depot Center. Whereas the team was limited offensively in 2011, last year saw Houston enlist the duo of Oscar Boniek Garcia and Ricardo Clark in the midfield and enjoy the emergence of Will Bruin at forward. This year, with a preseason trade of Jamaican forward Omar Cummings from Colorado bringing an experienced speedster up top to complement third year target forward Bruin, the Dynamo start the season as favorites in the Eastern Conference.

2) Filling in the holes in Vancouver — In 2012, the Whitecaps became the first Canadian team in MLS to qualify for the postseason. However, Martin Rennie’s men basically backed into the playoffs and were quickly dispatched by eventual champs LA Galaxy in the wild-card play-in round. With lessons learned in his first season in charge of Vancouver, Rennie approached the offseason with a to-do list that focused on removing the weak links in the line-up and finding the right pieces to install. Defender Nigel Reo-Coker and midfielder Daigo Kobayashi strengthen the core of the squad, while sophomore forward Darren Mattocks will be expected to provide the fireworks in front of goal. If Rennie can resist the urge to tinker with the Whitecaps roster like he did last summer, Vancouver could find themselves as the kings of Cascadia.

3) Bigger is always better in Texas — After a disappointing loss in the 2010 MLS Cup final to Colorado, FC Dallas never seemed to regain their footing. MVP David Ferreira suffered a devastating injury a year later and last season young winger Brek Shea regressed in his development. Since a strong finish to the 2012 season, Dallas has sold Shea to Stoke City in the EPL and turned that money around to buy a pair of proven goal scorers in Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli. With Panama striker Blas Perez also in the mix, coach Schellas Hyndman has a trio of big bodies of which to choose from to employ ahead of a healthy playmaker Ferreira this season. Could FC Dallas be following the recipe San Jose Earthquakes rode to the playoffs last season? Sure looks that way.

4) Sporting Kansas City adds Benny Feilhaber — The former U.S. Men’s National Team regular has fallen off the map of late, and after nearly two unproductive seasons with New England, finds himself among a wealth of talent in KC. Without debate, Feilhaber is fantastic at pulling the strings in the midfield, and with added DP Claudio Bieler and rejuvenated Bobby Convey to search out ahead of him, is likely to surpass his two-year assist total of 9 with the Revolution before the summer is done. With a solid defensive line behind him, led by 2012 MLS Defender of the Year Matt Besler, Feilhaber can safely roam higher up the field and even drift from sideline to sideline to initiate possession for Sporting. The 28-year old midfielder, who still hopes to impress USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann and get back in with the team, will not disappoint in 2013.

5) Diego Valeri transforms Portland Timbers — When Timbers owner Merritt Paulson turned over the keys to MLS debutante Caleb Porter as his new head coach, the first question asked of the former Akron Zips mastermind was who would he install as his #10? The answer came soon enough with the loan of Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri to Portland. Not especially known on the international level, he has played nearly his entire career in his homeland, Valeri looked right at home in the central midfield for the Timbers ever since the start of the preseason. If the 26-year old Designated Player can stay healthy, and his teammates adapt to his fluid style of passing and creating, then Portland may finally earn their first trip to the MLS playoffs.

…and 5 moves that will not.

1) Chivas USA puts all its stock in “El Chelis” — Not one to do things understatedly, Chivas USA owner Jorge Vergara has hired the flamboyant José Luis Sánchez Solá, aka El Chelis, as his head coach. And from his first day in charge, at Vergara’s bequest El Chelis is almost entirely transformed to the roster to contain only Latino players. In a case of déjà vu, the new Chivas USA seems to be approaching 2013 like the very first Chivas USA squad did back in 2005. To better understand why this is not a good thing for today, remember that in 2005, the Goats managed to win only 4 games all season. If El Chelis gets Chivas USA off to a flashback start to 2013, he will almost certainly be sacked early on in the year.

2) Fredy Montero leaving Seattle Sounders — At first it would seem that losing a player who netted 47 goals over 4 seasons would leave the Sounders more like flounders on offense. However, Sigi Schmid has newcomer Mario Martinez to pick up some of the slack and a fully healthy Steve Zakuani to fill in for the rest. If Mauro Rosales plays at the MVP-level he did in 2011, and striker Eddie Johnson continues his scoring renaissance, then the Seattle is likely to surpass previous results despite the absence of Montero. Finding forwards that can score 10+ goals a season is never easy, but the Sounders have more than enough replacement parts to make do.

3) A completely revamped Real Salt Lake — All good things have to come to an end, especially in salary cap constrained MLS. With memories of an almost championship in the CONCACAF Champions League still lingers at Rio Tinto Stadium, head coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerway elected to completely retool their starting XI. Out the door were Jamison Olave, Will Johnson, and Fabian Espindola, three solid components of the team from back to front, and welcomed to the fold were Robbie Findley and Khari Stephenson. Will the new faces and those promoted from within mesh with the same chemistry that the previous reign enjoyed? More likely is a feeling out period that RSL will hope settles down sooner than later.

4) Designated Player number 3 in LA still “to be announced” — The LA Galaxy don’t do anything quietly, on or off the field, and 2013 doesn’t look to be any different. MLS Cup finalists in 3 of the past 4 years, with two championships the last two seasons, the Galaxy don’t seem to be in need of a whole lot of help in the line-up. But, with talisman David Beckham off to France and mercurial midfielder Landon Donovan off to find himself on sabbatical, LA could easily appear to be in trouble. That will not be the case with Irish international Robbie Keane the man with the captain’s band for Bruce Arena’s squad. So why the rush to bring in a “massive name” DP to replace Beckham? Maybe it’s to fill seats in the stadium; certainly it is not because the team on the field will struggle in 2013.

5) Philadelphia Union stock two MLS veterans at forward — Whereas the decision in Dallas to bring in two big forward in Cooper and Hassli will certainly pay dividends in the Lone Star state, Philadelphia’s roll of the dice on former fan favorite Sebastien Le Toux and long-time Rapid Conor Casey does not look as promising on paper. Already struggling under the weight of Freddy Adu’s DP contract, the Union had to find parts on the open market to fill out their line-up. Casey has had a great career, but he is not the player he was when winning the MLS championship just a few years ago. Le Toux will be a great locker-room guy for Philadelphia, but he’ll need to be much more consistent on the field in order to save the Union from another disappointing season. Both will need to be successful in 2013, and that seems a pretty tall order.