MLS Western Conference: Preview and Predictions

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

By RYAN BRISTER

Two Western Conference teams — expansion Minnesota and Portland — get a jump on the rest of Major League Soccer in a nationally televised game Friday night from the Timbers’ Providence Park to open the 2017 season.

In the second of two parts, we handicap the 11 teams in the Western Conference, which has grown larger but no less competitive. Below are team capsules (in predicted order of finish).

FC Dallas

Last year: 17-8-9, first place, won Supporters Shield; lost to Seattle in conference semifinals

Coach: Oscar Pareja (fourth year)

Key additions: Javier Morales, Paraguayan forward Cristian Colman.

The youngest team in MLS has big ambitions. After winning two trophies in 2016 (Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the Supporters Shield), Pareja has retained and added to a successful core of homegrown players and young talent from South America.

Entering the off-season, Dallas had two goals: Find a center forward and figure out how to fill in for an injured Mauro Diaz. The club accomplished the first in signing Cristian Colman as a young designated player. Javier Morales, 37, will be enough to spell Diaz.

Glass half full: This season will be a disappointment in Dallas if it doesn’t take home more silverware. MLS Cup would be nice, a triumph in the CONCACAF Champions League would also work. [Dallas has advanced to the tournament semifinals.] All signs point to Dallas being one of the best teams in the league again.

Glass half empty: The question remains: Can Morales replace Diaz, who is rehabbing after tearing his right Achilles’ tendon last Octoboer? If not, Dallas may stumble until its young playmaker returns from injury. The postseason seems a certainty, but more is expected.

Seattle Sounders

Last season: 14-14-6, fourth place;, won MLS Cup

Coach: Brian Schmetzer (First full year)

Key additions: Harry Shipp, Will Bruin, Gustav Svensson

After signing Nicolas Lodeiro last summer, the Sounders were the hottest team in the league and sustained that momentum on the way to winning MLS Cup. But a veteran Seattle side had to make changes.

Zach Scott retired, and Andreas Ivanschitz and Nelson Valdez left. In turn, Seattle has gotten younger with the acquisitions of Harry Shipp and Will Bruin. The club signed a couple homegrown players to fill out the roster. They have an open designated player slot as the year begins.

Glass half full: Clint Dempsey is back on the field after missing time because of irregular heartbeat. Even a diminished Dempsey teamed with Lodeiro will concern opponents, to say nothing of Jordan Morris on the wing. There’s no reason for Seattle again challenge for the championship.

Glass half empty: For all the star power, Osvaldo Alonso, 31, has often been the most important piece of Seattle’s puzzle. When he is hurt, it struggles. Svensson offers some real depth. Chad Marshall and Roman Torres are vital on a thin back line.

Los Angeles Galaxy

Last year: 12-6-16, third place; lost to Colorado in the conference semifinals

Coach: Curt Onalfo (first year)

Key additions: Jermaine Jones, French winger Romain Alessandrini

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Galaxy enter a season without Bruce Arena at the helm. Curt Onalfo has big shoes to fill on the touchline, and big stars to replace on the field. Steven Gerrard left the Galaxy more quietly than he arrived, but the departure of Robbie Keane big disruption for the Galaxy.

It looks like the Galaxy will take a slightly more understated approach in this new era. Jermaine Jones, 35, fits the bill of an aging big name, but no one would accuse him of not giving his all. This will be a younger team in 2017, with six homegrown players on their roster.

Glass half full: Allesandrini, 27, is not a household name, but arrives straight from France’s Ligue 1 inthe prime of his career. Along with Gio Dos Santos and Emmanuel Boateng, L.A.’s attack is as potent as ever. Combine that with one of the league’s best defenses, and the Galaxy will be a team to be reckoned with.

Glass half empty: On paper, this is one of the best sides in MLS. Onalfo will have to put his stamp on the team quickly.

Colorado Rapids

Last year: 15-6-13, second place; lost to Seattle in the conference finals

Coach: Pablo Mastroeni (fourth year)

Key additions: Alan Gordon

Colorado was the biggest surprise of 2016, riding an impenetrable defense to the verge of winning the Western Conference crown. It wasn’t always pretty to watch, but Mastroeni deserves credit for producing a quick turnaround after the Rapids finished in 10th place in 2015.

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

Coach Pablo Mastroeni

The off-season has been one of subtraction. Jermaine Jones wasted no time in heading to the Galaxy, and Colorado also lost Marco Pappa and Sebastien Le Toux. Gordon was brought in to provide a physical presence up front, but who will deliver the ball to him in Shkelzen Gashi?

Glass half full: The defense and deep lying midfield have all returned, providing a sturdy backbone for the offense. Despite losing Jones, Colorado again has enough talent to contend in the conference.

Glass half empty: The Rapids’ defense last year was almost too good, allowing a league-low 32 goals. That is going to be difficult to match.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Last season: 10-15-9, eighth place; failed to advance to postseason

Coach: Carl Robinson (fourth year)

Key additions: Brek Shea, Fredy Montero, Yordy Reyna

High hopes for Vancouver in 2016 evaporated down the stretch. The Whitecaps went long periods without scoring a goal, and after a hot start missed the playoffs.

The Whitecaps have been busy in the off-season, most recently with the acquistion of Brek Shea. The former Sounder Fredy Montero should make an impact on the wing; Yordy Reyna can, too, but he’s out with an injury until the summer.

Glass half full: Vancouver has one of the best academies in MLS, and a contribution from the youngsters could lead the team to the playoffs.

Glass half empty: Pedro Morales was the key creator for the Whitecaps last year. He left in the winter and they haven’t really replaced him. Reyna and Montero are talented, but neither is the true center forward Vancouver needs. Where are the goals going to come from?

Portland Timbers

Last season: 12-14-8, seventh place; failed to advance to postseason

Head coach: Caleb Porter (fifth year)

Key additions: Designated player Sebastian Blanco, draft pick Jeremy Ebobisse, Costa Rican midfielder David Guzmán

Since Porter became the coach in 2013, Portland has had up-and-down seasons, which included winning the title in 2015 and then missing the playoffs last year. That pattern would seem to bode well for 2017. The Timbers started slowly last year, and weren’t able to make up ground after the return of Diego Valeri.

Over the winter the Timbers replaced one Argentine attacker, Lucas Melano, with another, Sebastian Blanco. Porter altered his midfield triangle by signing Guzmán, who will push Darlington Nagbe out wide. The result should be a potent attack.

Glass half full: On paper, Portland’s front six is as capable as any in MLS. With Valeri healthy, Nagbe becomes more dangerous, and with Blanco on the opposite wing the Timbers that should score a lot of goals. Fanendo Adi is still around, too, and now with an similarly physical presence in Ebobisse off the bench. East Coast fans will find the Timbers  worth staying up late to watch.

Glass half empty: Liam Ridgewell’s partner Nat Borchers retired after last season, leaving a hole in the defense. If the Timbers can’t control possession the back line will struggle, and that could determine Portland’s postseason chances.

Real Salt Lake

Last year: 12-12-10, sixth place; lost to Los Angeles in the knockout round

Coach: Jeff Cassar (fourth year)

Key additions: Slovakian playmaker Albert Rusnak

After a one-year hiatus, RSL made a short-lived return to the playoffs in 2016. This is a team in transition, moving away from a veteran core toward younger talent.

Nick Rimando Real Salt Lake 2

Nick Rimando

The off-season started with the high-profile departures of Javier Morales, Burrito Martinez, and Jamison Olave. Morales has been replaced by Rusnak. RSL has some young talent capable of stepping into the lineup. But are Brooks Lennon (on loan from Liverpool) and Jordan Allen ready to shine?

Glass half full: Given their limited resources, RSL has done an admirable job of balancing both the MLS side and its youth program. It could pay dividends this year. A long period of consistency is giving way to a new wave of homegrown talent, and RSL should make the playoffs again.

Glass half empty: Transitions of the sort RSL is attempting are rarely seamless. Could go either way.

Sporting Kansas City

Last yer: 13-13-8, fifth place; lost to Seattle in the knockout round

Coach: Peter Vermes (ninth year)

Key additions: Gerso Fernandes

Sporting KC faded down the stretch and made an early exit from the playoffs. That’s been the theme of each of the last three seasons, and many suspect Vermes’ grueling, high-pressure style is to blame.

To prevent another late-season collapse, SKC has focused on adding depth in the off-season, while the spine of the team remains largely the same. Fernandes, a winger, will likely push Graham Zusi to right back. Sporting has also brought back Soony Saad and Igor Juliao.

Glass half full: Best case: Winter efforts pay off, and Sporting can keep up strong early-season form, finishing up near the top of the conference. Dom Dwyer, Benny Feilhaber and Matt Besler remain a solid core to build around.

Glass half empty:  The decline is hard to deny. A focus on depth is nice, but the starters need to create goals beyond Dwyer.

Minnesota United

Coach: Adrian Heath

Minnesota has taken a more subdued approach to its MLS entry than Atlanta. Heath’s goal of turning Minnesota into “the Newcastle of MLS” is telling. But is it realistic or desirable? The side’s biggest star is Miguel Ibarra, who returns to the club after two years in Mexico with León.

But that isn’t to say the Loons will be out of their depth in the top flight. They made smart acquisitions in Kevin Molino and Johan Venegas, two guys with proven MLS talent. The rest of the roster has been built out largely with NASL holdovers and pickups from around Scandinavia.

Glass half full: Could Minnesota surprise? Why not? Molino was overshadowed by Kaká in Orlando, but he’s a good player in his own right. This is a team that can pose problems for opponents; Christian Ramirez was a goal-scoring machine in the NASL.

Glass half empty: There’s just not much reason to believe that Minnesota will fare better in it first season than other recent expansion sides. The defense is a question mark — the outside backs Jason Davis and Kevin Venegas are dangerous going forward but vulnerable. Minnesota might be in its new stadium before it finds success on the field.

Houston Dynamo

Last year: 7-14-13, 10th place; failed to advance to postseason

Coach: Wilmer Cabrera (first year)

Key additions: Honduran forward Alberth Elis, former Los Angeles defenders A.J. DeLaGarza and Leonardo

Some in Houston were upset when the Dynamo hired Cabrera rather than retaining Wade Barrett, who served on an interim basis. But skeptics are far from the biggest issue he faces after running the club’s USL affiliate last year. Cabrera is tasked with revitalizing a team that finished last in 2016, and needed an overhaul.

MLSSOCCER.COM

MLSSOCCER.COM

Longtime Dynamo striker Will Bruin is out and in is Ellis as a designated player. A couple players from the Galaxy made the move to Texas. The Colombian Juan David Cabezas steps take over in central defense.

Glass half full: In his first two years with the Dynamo, Cubo Torres has been missing in action. But now he’s playing for Cabrera, who he had great success with at Chivas USA. If Torres’ preseason form suggests a rebirth, and Mauro Manotas continues to develop, the Dynamo will be dangerous on offense.

Glass half empty: Houston has three DP forwards who haven’t proven themselves in MLS. The defense is a work in progress. It could be another long season.

San Jose Earthquakes

Last year: 8-12-14, ninth place; failed to advance to postseason

Coach: Dominic Kinnear (third year in second go-round)

Key additions: Bundesliga veteran Florian Jungwirth, Panamanian defender Harold Cummings, Jahmir Hyka

The Earthquakes never got rolling in 2016. Kinnear’s team was in the hunt until late in the year, but it couldn’t create the goals or the results needed to sneak into the playoffs.

The Albanian midfielder Jahmir Hyka could provide a creative spark, but the Quakes looked to improve from within.

Glass half full: Kinnear has been notoriously hesitant to give a lot of minutes to young players, but the preseason performances of Tommy Thompson and Nick Lima may force his hand. If San Jose’s homegrown talent can make an impact in the regular season, it would give the team a chance to make the playoffs.

Glass half empty: The Earthquakes bad last year and they didn’t do much to help themselves in the off-season. That’s generally not a recipe for success.

Predictions

Ryan Brister’s predicted order of finish:

  1. Dallas: The best team in MLS.
  2. Seattle: A case can be made for the defending champs getting in the off-season.
  3. Los Angeles: It’s a new era in L.A., but the Galaxy should remain near the top.
  4. Colorado: The Rapids will make the playoffs, avoiding a repeat of 2016.
  5. Vancouver: The Whitecaps added a talent over the winter and should find a way into the playoffs.
  6. Portland: The Cascadia team has improved enough to make the playoffs.
  7. Real Salt Lake: Few teams have more young talent than RSL, but it’s not unproven.
  8. Kansas City: SKC’s window with its current core may close faster than expected.
  9. Minnesota: United won’t be as poor as many expect, but they won’t make the playoffs, either.
  10. Houston: The Dynamo are better than last year, but still a few pieces away from playoff contention.
  11. San Jose: The Quakes didn’t do enough in the off-season to improve a team that was poor last year.