MLS 2012 preview: Predictions

It is time to look into the MLS crystal ball and predict which teams and which players will take the 2012 season by storm.

Every year in Major League Soccer brings with it plenty of surprises. Such is life in a league with a salary cap, which leads to more parity than you will find in your average soccer league.

Some things are easy enough to predict. You can always count on Landon Donovan to have a big season, and for Nick Rimando to be in the running for Goalkeeper of the Year.

Who will be the players, coaches and teams to lead the way this year? Here are our picks for award winners, playoff teams and difference makers in MLS in 2012:

MLS Cup champion: Los Angeles Galaxy

The Seattle Sounders have the weapons to stop it from happening, and you never know when a team will decide to spend big in the summer, but for right now the LA Galaxy look like a strong bet to repeat as MLS Cup champions. With an attacking quartet (Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Edson Buddle) as strong as any that has ever played in MLS, and a defense that should still be stingy even without Omar Gonzalez for six months, the Galaxy could become the first MLS team to win a treble.

MVP: Fredy Montero, Seattle Sounders

Seattle already had the highest-scoring offense in the league last year, but they should be even stronger with the addition of Eddie Johnson and eventual return of Steve Zakuani. The biggest beneficiary of those additions should be Montero, who has the quality to put together a monster season.

The likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Javier Morales could challenge for the award, but we see Montero finally putting together a complete season of dominating attacking soccer.

Rookie of the Year: Luis Silva, Toronto FC

While TFC may not be ready to break their playoff drought, the Canadian squad has landed a gem in Silva, an attacking midfielder who has already established himself as a starter for Toronto.

There are several rookies who should play key roles for their clubs, like Kelyn Rowe (New England), Tony Cascio (Colorado) and Ryan Meara (New York), but Silva is our pick to make the biggest impact.

Defender of the Year: Geoff Cameron, Houston Dynamo

The Houston Dynamo went on an incredible roll at the end of 2011 after Cameron moved to central defense, and now with a pre-season at the position, Cameron should be even more dominant. He will also be fun to watch working out of the back like no other defender in the league can.

Goalkeeper of the Year: Nick Rimando, Real Salt Lake

Rimando is so good and so consistent that you could make a case for him being worthy of being Goalkeeper of the Year every year. This year, he should get the credit he deserves for being so important to RSL’s continued success.

Newcomer of the Year: Hamdi Salihi, D.C. United

Take a deadly striker and plug him into an attack stacked with creative players and you get a newcomer who should make an immediate splash. Salihi will likely play alongside Dwayne de Rosario, meaning he should be able to face single-man marking most of the time, which will be bad news for MLS defenses.

Comeback Player of the Year: Ike Opara, San Jose Earthquakes

This is a stacked category considering how many star players are coming back off injury-plagued seasons, but we won’t go with the easy picks, and instead go with a young standout who has seen a chunk of two seasons lost do to foot injuries. Opara is back healthy and should earn a starting place for San Jose. Already showing he’s ready to be a part of the US Under-23 national team, Opara should have a breakout season and establish himself as a solid national team prospect.

Coach of the Year: Martin Renne, Vancouver Whitecaps

Leading a team a jaw-dropping turnaround is usually a good way to lock up this award and first-year Whitecaps coach Rennie looks like a good bet to transform Vancouver. The Whitecaps are coming off an impressive pre-season and have made several good additions that should have them in the running for a playoff spot in the brutal Western Conference.

Portland’s John Spencer, Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes, D.C. United’s Ben Olsen and Philadelphia’s Peter Nowak are three coaches we also seeing having good years.

Breakout Players to Watch

Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Dilly Duka (Columbus), Ike Opara (San Jose), Zac MacMath (Philadelphia), David Estrada (Seattle), Jalil Anibaba (Chicago), A.J. Soares (New England), Kofi Sarkodie (Houston), Michael Farfan (Philadelphia), Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake).

Ten teams that will make the playoffs

East: Sporting Kansas City, New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo, Philadelphia Union, D.C. United.

West: Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Portland Timbers

MLS Cup final

LA Galaxy over Sporting Kansas City