By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - The Los Angeles Galaxy kick off their campaign for a third straight Major League Soccer title without David Beckham but with the promise of a new star and rivals desperate to end their domination.
The New York Red Bulls have overhauled their coaching and playing staff in the off-season as they seek to end their 18 year wait for a first MLS title and the Seattle Sounders large fanbase also crave a first championship.
But the challenge to the Galaxy could well come from one of the more modestly assembled but astutely coached teams such as Sporting Kansas City, D.C. United or recent challengers Houston and Real Salt Lake.
The departure of Beckham is likely to impact the Galaxy box office more than their performance on the field with Robbie Keane taking on the leadership role.
Landon Donovan, the U.S's all-time top scorer, will miss the first two months of the season while he takes a brief sabbatical from the game, but he and Irish international Keane will likely be joined by a well-known international player, according to team owner Tim Leiweke.
"I promise that we're not done, the best one is coming, well, don't tell Robbie that the best one is coming, the second best one to Robbie is coming," Leiweke told the teams' website.
A new signing might not arrive until the end of the European season in May - Leiweke named Brazilian Kaka, currently with Real Madrid as his prime target when Beckham departed in December and the club has also been linked with Chelsea and England midfielder Frank Lampard.
The Galaxy will have a new goalkeeper in Italian Carlo Cudicini, signed from Keane's old club Tottenham Hotspur, but the team, coached by ex-U.S. national coach Bruce Arena are not shy about splashing the cash.
"As long as these guys stay committed to wanting to have that target on their back and wanting to create a legacy and wanting to step up to the pressure of being part of the LA Galaxy, I always tell Bruce, we've got your back and we'll get you the resources that we need," he said.
The Red Bulls have also invested in foreign talent - former France and Arsenal striker Thierry Henry is supported by Australia's ex-Everton midfielder Tim Cahill and former Brazil international Juninho Pernambucano, previously with Lyon in France and a spectacular free-kick specialist.
New York have struggled to find the right chemistry in recent seasons but hope former defender Mike Petke will get the balance right this season.
"If you can find some consistency that can always help. We have a new coach, new staff, new players. It is easy to talk at the beginning of the season about what you are going to do and so on - we need to get into a consistent rhythm," Henry told Reuters.
The Red Bulls will have to fight hard in the Eastern Conference though - Sporting Kansas City and D.C United finished as the top two last year and look likely to be in the frame again this time around.
K.C coach Peter Vermes and D.C. boss Ben Olsen are both building good reputations for their ability to get the most out of their squads and find and hone talent.
Three of their players have headed to play in Europe - a loss for the clubs but a sign of the increasing value of MLS players.
Sporting lost Sierra Leone forward Kei Kamara to Norwich City and Honduran Roger Espinoza to another Premier League club Wigan Athletic during the off-season while D.C. sold Andy Najar to Belgium's Anderlecht.
The Houston Dynamo, who were runners up in the past two seasons, have an astute coach in Dominic Kinnear who has succeeded in building a consistently solid team who peak in the playoffs and it would be no surprise to see them in the frame again.
In the West, the San Jose Earthquakes finished top in the regular season and had the league's top scorer in Chris Wondolowski while Real Salt Lake have had to do a little rebuilding but will also concern the Galaxy.
The Sounders averaged 43,144 attendances last season but were unable to get past the Galaxy in the playoffs - they are reported to be close to signing Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins, formerly of Inter Milan and Newcastle United, to boost their bid this year.
(Reporting By Simon Evans; editing by Julian Linden)