Without doubt, the MLS still has a long journey ahead before earning the type of respect afforded to the Premier League and La Liga, but the past few years have confirmed it as one of the most unpredictable leagues in world football. With a refreshing balance of power and a growing band of stars, its popularity is on the increase and, next week, the 2011 campaign gets under way.

Much of the excitement is a by-product of the season structure, which puts teams through their paces in the regular season before the playoffs decide the ultimate top dog in a format that makes picking a champion incredibly tough. Regular season records have counted for little in the post-season, with big names flopping and underdogs thriving in the spotlight.

While the stars have flocked to Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls to soak up the most attractive locations, the MLS Cup has not followed. In fact, recent winners have largely been outsiders. Last season, the Colorado Rapids were the surprise champions as favourites New York and Los Angeles both failed to clear early hurdles. A year earlier, Real Salt Lake were the Cinderella story, sneaking into the post-season with the eighth and final playoff spot then lifting the MLS Cup.

Heading into the 2011 campaign, the usual suspects have been installed as favourites. But, with the MLS expanding the league by welcoming new clubs Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, the playoff structure has been altered, opening the door for an even more open race. The new rules mean that the top three teams in each conference will qualify automatically and the four teams with the next best records – regardless of conference – will play knockout games in the opening round of the playoffs. Essentially, the elite group of post-season teams has been expanded from eight teams to ten, in a move that has met with criticism in some quarters.

Clearly, making predictions is a dangerous game but Inside Futbol have broken down the main contenders in each conference:


Eastern Conference

With Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez onboard – and able to enjoy a full pre-season with their team-mates – the Red Bulls have a potent one-two punch, which should paper over the disappointment of losing Juan Pablo Angel to LA Galaxy in the off-season. New York are unquestionably the strongest side on paper in the Eastern Conference. But, as the club discovered last year, it takes a lot to turn that potential into the big prize.

With Columbus Crew rebuilding after last season’s impressive run, there is little to choose between the rest of the Eastern Conference, but Sporting Kansas City, powered by strikeforce Teal Bunbury and Omar Bravo, should present the sternest challenge.

New England Revolution, having added Ousmane Dabo alongside Shalrie Joseph, and Houston Dynamo should also enter the discussion for an automatic playoff spot while Toronto FC, under new boss Aron Winter, are an outside bet to squeeze into the playoffs through the knockout games. The feeling remains, however, that there is no great depth of talent in the East.

Western Conference

Over in the West, it is a different story with a cluster of highly-talented teams fighting for a post-season spot. Much-discussed Los Angeles Galaxy will be among the frontrunners, particularly with a fitter David Beckham and new face Angel to lead the charge alongside Landon Donovan. It is a big year for Beckham, who is running out of time to convince sceptics about the merits of his move to LA. After training with Tottenham Hotspur during the off-season, he should be in peak condition.

Real Salt Lake (RSL), MLS Cup winners in 2009, and the Seattle Sounders will push Galaxy all the way in what should be a gripping race. RSL have an array of highly-rated stars, with Alvaro Saborio the standout talent, while Seattle will once again lean on a passionate home crowd at Qwest Stadium and hope that striker Fredy Montero takes the next step in his development.

But the list of challengers does not end there. FC Dallas were runners-up last season and will hope David Ferreira, the 2010 Most Valuable Player, can spark another deep post-season run while it is also tough to write off the San Jose Earthquakes, led by breakout star Chris Wondolowski and impressive boss Frank Yallop. And then there are last year’s champions, the Colorado Rapids , who – as in 2010 – are receiving few headlines despite possessing the deadly strikeforce of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey.

With the last four playoff spots handed out regardless of conference, it is no stretch to imagine the West providing the bulk of the playoff teams again, just as they did last year with six of the eight teams. In 2011, the Western Conference could certainly put forward six or seven of the ten sides.

The path to the MLS Cup is long and winding, but teams will be all too aware that dominating the rankings is no guarantee. While earning home advantage or a favourable tie cannot be dismissed lightly, there have been so many shocks, on-the-road wins and unexpected collapses in recent memory that nothing can be taken for granted. If anything, it is the team carrying the most momentum, regardless of their seeding, who present the biggest threat.

The Red Bulls look the standout candidates in the East however, while LA Galaxy should emerge as the top seed from a frenetic race in the West. But, of course, it is anyone’s game once the playoff drama begins.