When Los Angeles Galaxy lifted the MLS Cup back in November, the smart money seemed to be on David Beckham riding off into the sunset, having silenced the critics by finally earning the silverware that was expected the minute he inked a deal to swap Madrid for Los Angeles.

But life in the MLS is rarely that simple or predictable. Beckham ignored the lure of a move back to Europe with Paris Saint-Germain, instead opting for a new deal at the Home Depot Center and committing to driving the Galaxy on for another two years.

The league can have experienced few better off-seasons – and Beckham’s decision to stay can be interpreted as a big thumbs up for the MLS. With the standard of play on the rise and new contenders emerging, the 2012 season might just be the best yet.

The new campaign kicks off on 10th March – and Inside Futbol look at what might lie ahead in the Eastern and Western Conferences this year.

Eastern Conference

Thierry Henry is back in New York after a memorable loan spell at Arsenal. Expect the Frenchman to hit the ground running and fire the Red Bulls to a strong start. New York still have the star power to dominate the regular season, but excuses for a lack of success are wearing thin. This current group may only have one more year to get it right – so the stakes are high.

Strong competition will come in the form of Sporting Kansas City, who topped the Eastern Conference last season and have an exciting young core. The progression of up-and-coming striker C.J. Sapong may define how far this team can go.

There is little to choose between the rest of the playoff hopefuls in the East. Houston Dynamo, the East’s representative in the 2011 MLS Cup, will bring a largely unchanged group but emulating last season seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Union had a breakthrough year in 2011 too, though may take a step back after losing key players, and Columbus Crew are still rebuilding. Canadian outfit Toronto FC will also be worth monitoring. Aron Winter’s side ended last season on a high and, with a more settled squad, could be dark horses this year.

Western Conference

Every year, the West seems tougher and tougher to predict. Some things are clear cut – like the fact that the Galaxy are favourites to clinch top spot – but there is little to choose between several of the other contenders. Los Angeles will again have the trio of Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane to call upon – and that firepower is unmatched across the league.

But do not write off the likes of Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas. Seattle, in particular, have the weapons to put together a run, with Fredy Montero a major goal threat and Osvaldo Alonso considered one of the MLS’ best midfielders. Their 2011 charge was cut shorter than expected so the Sounders will be out to prove a point.

FC Dallas will sink or swim based on the form of talisman David Ferreira – and it should not be forgotten that, should the big boys slip up, there are gritty underdogs like Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers ready to pounce. Just to emphasise the strength of the West, four Western Conference sides – Los Angeles (67), Seattle (63), Real Salt Lake (53) and FC Dallas (52) – finished with more points in 2011 than Eastern Conference top dogs Sporting Kansas City (51).

The route to the MLS Cup will be long and winding – but there is sure to be plenty of entertainment along the way, particularly with the intriguing addition of Montreal Impact as the league’s 19th club. While the fans’ choice for the end of season showdown might be a Los Angeles Galaxy-New York Red Bulls clash, previous years have proved that regular season forms counts for little in the playoffs.

But the post-season is a distant prospect at this stage. For now, teams are focused on making a positive start and throwing their name into the hat as contenders. With so much on the line, it promises to be a gripping campaign.