The stage is set for the opening weekend of the 2013 MLS regular season, as 18 teams will see action as part of First Kick. Another season means another three trophies are up for grabs, as well as a host of individual honors that will be bestowed by the end of the year. So which teams will be adding silverware to their display cabinets, and who will earn a salary bonus by being voted as “best of” in the league? A look into the MLS crystal ball tells all…
MLS Cup champion: It is hard to vote against the two-time champion LA Galaxy, and their swagger will certainly be on display for all to witness, but the team that will hoist the cup in 2013 will be the Seattle Sounders. A perennial playoff team since joining the league four years ago, Seattle has never quite gotten over the hump in the postseason. In fact, prior to last year, the Sounders were without a playoff win in five of their six attempts. Finally the team broke through in 2012, and advanced to the Western Conference final round for the first time. While the loss to eventual champion LA seemed preordained, the experience showed the team that it had the ability to make it all the way. In 2013, the Sounders finally fulfill that destiny, and in front of a raucous sold-out Century Link Field to boot.
Supporters’ Shield winners: With a brand new trophy to fight for, thanks to the efforts of supporters groups throughout league, the 19 MLS teams start the season at a dead heat in the race for the Supporters’ Shield. However, for an award that rewards excellence from opening weekend to the finale in late October, the most qualified team will need to be deep in the roster and play before an imposing crowd. In the West, the Sounders could be that side, but for the first time in four years, the East will capture the prize. And the team that will outlast the rest in MLS is none other than the Houston Dynamo. With nearly the entire roster back from an MLS Cup runners-up season, the Dynamo will get a whole season in their garish orange stadium and look the most likely team in the East to win it all.
Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup: With the Seattle Sounders taking the tournament by storm in 2009, the U.S. Open Cup has quickly gained acceptance throughout the league as a trophy worth targeting. Add in the automatic entry into the CONCACAF Champions League, and the USOC takes on an even bigger prize. For 2013, the U.S. Soccer sanctioned club championship will be celebrating its 100th edition. Seattle, last year’s winners Sporting Kansas City, and perennial challengers DC United will be in the mix this season, but the winners will come from Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, as the Chicago Fire capture their fifth championship to tie legendary clubs Bethleham Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles for the most USOC triumphs ever. Sporting KC will make a worthy opponent, but the Fire will reign supreme.
MLS Golden Boot: When something is not broken, don’t try to fix it. In terms of goal scoring in MLS, the simple fact is that San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski is going to score goals. A lot of goals. In the last three seasons, he has amassed a total of 61 goals. Last season alone, through his MVP winning campaign, Wondolowski tied the league mark held by Roy Lassiter of 27 goals and won the Golden Boot by a margin of 9 goals over second place finisher Kenny Cooper. Wondo recently had his contract status upgraded to Designated Player status, and he will surely see fit to lead MLS in scoring for a fourth straight season.
MLS Most Valuable Player: While making Wondolowski the MVP in 2012 was a no-brainer, a new face will grace the podium this season. Ever since last summer, LA Galaxy Robbie Keane has been on an absolute offensive tear. He closed out the season on such a fine run of form that he finished the season as the #1 player on the Castrol MLS player index. With former teammate David Beckham enjoying his French adventure, Keane may not get the guaranteed looks the midfielder was able to provide, he will still find plenty of chances in front of net. Add to his goal scoring prowess the ability to be a playmaker on the field, and the 2013 MLS MVP award is Keane’s to lose.
MLS Defender of the Year: Sticking with the defending champs, a healthy Omar Gonzalez will squeak out a narrow victory over last year’s respective winner and runner-up Matt Besler of Sporting KC and Victor Bernardez of the Earthquakes. Given that all three players may see some of their season taken away due to national team duty, the playing field remains level. For some award voters, Gonzalez in 2011 was considered MLS material. However, since defenders will never get the level of love they need to earn MVP status, they’ll have this award to fall back on. Gonzalez will make it two in three years with his triumph come November.
Robert Jonas is a writer for CenterLineSoccer.com and SJEarthquakes.com. Send him feedback on Twitter: @RobertJonas