The 18th season of Major League Soccer (MLS) kicks off this weekend amid a flurry of off-season change. Los Angeles Galaxy have retooled in the hope of retaining their title, while on the other coast, Thierry Henry looks to help the free-spending New York Red Bulls make good on their brimming promise. Join for a look ahead at a big season in North America’s top flight.

The best of the West
Los Angeles Galaxy
aim to become the first team to win a third consecutive MLS crown, but they will need to do so without the help of league darling David Beckham. The former England captain called time on his Stateside stint with a move to French big-spenders Paris Saint-Germain, leaving the men from sunny Southern California with a hole in midfield. Fortunately for coach Bruce Arena, Republic of Ireland forward Robbie Keane, who scored 16 times last term, remains, and Landon Donovan, whose future with the club was uncertain in recent weeks, announced his commitment to the Galaxy cause.

The men from LA hope not to repeat their start to last season, one of the worst in the league, and the presence of sturdy Omar Gonzalez in the centre of defence, and veteran goalkeeper signing Carlo Cudicini, should help the team’s balance.

It will be no cakewalk to the play-offs for the star-studded Galaxy as the Western Conference is packed through with pitfalls. San Jose Earthquakes, from a little farther north in the state of California, finished with the best record in the regular season last year and boast the league’s top marksman in Chris Wondolowski, who scored no fewer than 27 times in 2012 for Frank Yallop’s hard-charging team.

Elsewhere in the West, Real Salt Lake are a side of no-nonsense battlers from the High Rockies of Utah. Coach Jason Kreis, a former MLS scoring hero, has assembled a team that’s hard to beat. RSL will be bolstered by the scoring panache of striker Alvaro Saborio, who is hitting the form of his life with his national team, Costa Rica, in the final CONCACAF qualifying phase for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The return of his strike partner Robbie Findley from a move overseas will likely help the attack, as will the decision of Argentinian playmaker Javier Morales to stick with the club.

Many in the know are tapping Seattle Sounders, one of the best-supported clubs in the league, for big things. Former Liverpool defender Djimi Traore arrives along with Shalrie Joseph, formerly of New England Revolution and Chivas USA. Mauro Rosales, the creator in midfield, will be charged with feeding revived USA striker Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, should the much talked-about deal for the Nigerian pan out.

The arrival of Nigel Reo-Coker from England will likely help Vancouver Whitecaps in their hunt for a play-off place, while neighbours Portland Timbers bolster their experience with the arrival of former Manchester United defender Mikael Silvestre. While not among the favourites in the West, the pair from the Pacific North-west will be trying to claw their way into the play-offs along with strivers FC Dallas, Chivas USA and Colorado Rapids, who are all hoping to improve on poor 2012 campaigns.

Eastern Promises
Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference is less straightforward, but the New York Red Bulls match the Galaxy for star power. Former UEFA EURO and FIFA World Cup winner Thierry Henry returns to the fold, while the controversial tenure of Mexico defender Rafa Marquez comes to an end. In the new-look side, Brazilian veteran and free-kick specialist Juninho Pernambucano will provide the playmaking as head coach Mike Petke, who recently lost the interim tag to his title earlier in February, tries to turn the Bulls’ potential and talent into coherent play and consistent results. “We’re going to play a variation of an attacking style of play,” said Petke, a former journeyman in MLS who has been thrown into the hot-seat.

Houston Dynamo, who lost in last year’s one-off title decider to the Galaxy, return with a powerful squad. Dominic Kinnear has assembled a cohesive unit of hard workers, committed to the cause, with Honduran standout Oscar Boniek Garcia working tirelessly in midfield and Brad Davis setting up most of the team’s goals. “We don’t have the big names,” Davis told, “but we play hardcore.” Sporting Kansas City were bested at the penultimate play-off hurdle last season, but they signed up Benny Feilhaber and will be relieved by the return of Graham Zusi after unsuccessful trials in England. It is still to be seen how badly the loss of Honduran international Roger Espinoza, currently with Wigan Athletic, will impact on the team.

D.C. United and Chicago Fire both reached the play-offs in 2012 and return in good shape with strengthened sides. Jeff Larentowicz arrives in Chicago as cover for Mexico international Pavel Pardo, who retired at the end of last season. Chris Rolfe offers a foraging presence in midfield while the Fire rearguard will again rely on veteran German back Arne Friedrich.  The men from the nation’s capital will benefit from the arrival of free-scoring Carlos Ruiz, Guatemala’s all-time leading goal-getter, whose predatory instincts will likely influence the younger players in the squad.

Toronto FC are in the midst of a big shake-up, with New Zealand international Ryan Nelson arriving to take up his first coaching post after hanging up his playing boots. The Canadians, who must cope with the loss of Torsten Frings, hope for the best after a disastrous last season and join strugglers New England Revolution, Columbus Crew, Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union in hopes of improvement.

Matchday 1
2 March

Philadelphia Union-Sporting Kansas City
Vancouver Whitecaps-Toronto FC
Houston Dynamo-DC United
FC Dallas-Colorado Rapids
Seattle Sounders-Montreal Impact
Chivas USA-Columbus Crew

3 March

Los Angeles Galaxy-Chicago Fire
Portland Timbers-New York Red Bulls
San Jose Earthquakes-Real Salt Lake