Western Conference Preview
FC Dallas Should Hold Off Seattle and L.A. Galaxy
March 03, 2017
AS I EXPLAINED in my Eastern Conference preview, little can go right when making season predictions for Major League Soccer. Commissioner Don Garber's fervent belief in the benefits of parity often results in teams performing well one year only to fail miserably the next.
The Western Conference has had a lot of turnover and teams that surprised in 2016, like Colorado and Seattle, will have heightened expectations. But I think FC Dallas will prevail this season since Oscar Pareja has built a gold-standard organization revolving around youth and highly competent central defenders and holding midfielders. It is hard to argue with this smart approach. Here's how I see the Western Conference playing out.
1. FC Dallas
Even with Mauro Diaz out until the middle of the season, FC Dallas should still be very good this year. That is the benefit of building the team around good goalkeeping and two outstanding central defenders in Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman. The fullback situation is better than it was last season and the holding midfielders, Carlos Gurezo and Kellyn Acosta, will be a huge boost to the possession game.
The best youth pipeline in the United States should continue to produce and Javier Morales will keep this team going strong until Diaz returns. Here’s hoping that fans in Dallas turn out to watch the league’s best-run team. The franchise deserves support.
2. Seattle Sounders
The Seattle Sounders endured a woeful first half of the season but rallied mightily—without Clint Dempsey—and found a way to win MLS Cup despite being outplayed by Toronto n the final. Jordan Morris blossomed in the second half of the season and Nicolas Lodeiro established himself as the league’s best player soon after arriving in July.
Lodeiro and Morris will be ready to go at the start of the season and the team added valuable components to aid in depth with Will Bruin and Harry Shipp. It is a young team, and a talented one. Brian Schmetzer will now be in his first full year as head coach but as Leicester City's Claudio Raneiri taught us, following up a magical run can be difficult.
Fortunately, MLS is forgiving and the return of Dempsey can only be a bonus. Many teams in the Western Conference are facing significant questions so it is not like there are many established teams chasing the champions.
3. Los Angeles Galaxy
A brand-new era is about to begin in Southern California—minus Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Alan Gordon, A.J. DeLaGarza, Steven Gerrard, and most importantly, Bruce Arena.
But new coach Curt Onalfo will have a lot of talent to work with and he will get a chance to put his stamp on the league's marquee franchise. The attack will be boosted by the arrival of Romain Alessandrini who will join Giovani Dos Santos, Sebastian Lletget, and Gyasi Zardes in the final third. That core should be able to put up solid numbers.
Jermaine Jones will be a wild-card in the midfield. At 35, the long-time U.S. national team veteran can still play at high level...although it is only a matter of time before the wheels eventually fall off the wagon. If Jones is enthusiastic and embraces the Galaxy, it will be a huge boost. If he is unhappy, the situation could get messy.
4. Sporting Kansas City
In a conference with so much change, Sporting Kansas City will feature many familiar faces—Dom Dwyer, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Benny Feilhaber. Last year the team lost in the first round of the playoffs to Seattle but actually played quite well despite bowing out.
The acquisition of designated player Gerso Fernandes is encouraging, and if he can put up numbers Kansas City could contend for a much higher playoff position. This team, however, has a strong veteran presence and is tough to beat at home. That alone should get it into the playoffs.
A big question mark is whether Peter Vermes can get U.S. U-20 captain Erik Palmer-Brown into the starting lineup. The central defender is in the final year of his contract and will have European suitors sniffing around as the season progresses.
5. Portland Timbers
This is the hardest team to predict in Major League Soccer. Caleb Porter's squad won MLS Cup in 2015 and then failed to make the playoffs in 2016 after going winless on the road. In 2017, this team could either struggle or be among the best. My best guess is that they finish somewhere in between.
Unlike FC Dallas, which has built the team from the backline forward, Portland has an attack-minded foundation. Unfortunately, it hasn’t completed the task and the defense does not look great at the start of the season.
The attack, however, could be special. Argentine forward Sebastian Blanco and Costa Rican midfielder David Guzman are both established players in their prime. Together they will join Diego Valeri, U.S. international Darlington Nagbe, and Fanendo Adi, who could very well win the Golden Boot this year.
That said, this team may need to win a lot of 5-4 contests if the backline doesn't step up.
6. Real Salt Lake
This is going to be a transitional year for Real Salt Lake. The team is going to need production from its young players as well as hope that aging U.S. internationals Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando still have something left in the tank.
Newly acquired designated player Albert Rusnak fits the mold of how the league is going—he is young and attack-oriented—and he has big shoes to fill in replacing veteran Javier Morales. If RSL is to prosper United States U-20 attackers Sebastian Saucedo and Brooks Lennon will need to finally transition into first-team soccer and Justen Glad cannot have a sophomore slump. Other young players like Jordan Allen must continue to progress.
It is all about how well younger players can raise their games in 2017. If they can manage to do so, Real Salt Lake could be in good shape. If not? It might very well cost Jeff Cassar his job.
7. Colorado Rapids
Last year Colorado was the biggest surprise in MLS. In fact, I predicted Pablo Mastroeni’s team to finish dead last in the West. The team obviously proved me wrong. This year, Colorado will not surprise anyone and there was not much turnover in the offseason. Midfielder Bismark Adjei-Boateng joins the club from Stromgodset (on loan from Manchester City) but how much of an impact he can make in MLS remains to be seen.
But the defense should be stingy and goalkeeper Tim Howard can bail out defensive lapses. It will be a boring team to watch and it might be too much to expect that Colorado will match its 2016 success but the playoffs are certainly within reach.
8. Vancouver Whitecaps
The Whitecaps fell apart last year and joined Portland and Columbus as the league’s most disappointing franchises. Even with the acquisition of Fredy Montero, it is hard to see that much improvement from a team that conceded 52 goals last year.
Newly signed Yordy Reyna was expected to replace Pedro Morales but his recent foot injury will sideline him until the summer and that is going to hurt the team’s capabilities in the midfield. The team can score goals but there are too many holes right now to see this team reaching the postseason.
9. San Jose Earthquakes
San Jose has been out of the playoffs since 2012 and there's no reason to believe it will improve on its disappointing 2016 season, when it finished in ninth place. Dom Kinnear is still over-reliant on Chris Wondolowski, and while the veteran forward has been one of the best goal-scorers in league history, he is starting to slow down.
This team is going to try to grind out wins and it won’t be fun to watch. There are enough veterans here with experience to be decent but the real hope is that exciting youngsters like Tommy Thompson can finally contribute on a regular basis and rookie Jackson Yueill can see minutes to open up the offense.
10. Houston Dynamo
After a last-place finish and a coaching mess, the Dynamo are trying to rebuild under new boss Wilmer Cabrera. The team will feature a heavy Latin flavor under Cabrera and newly acquired players like Honduran midfielder Alberth Elis and Colombian midfielder Juan David Cabezas.
But for Houston to have any kind of success this year it will need the veterans to have career years. Cubo Torres will have to be near the top of the league in scoring and A.J. DeLaGarza will have to be an anchor in the backline. That's a lot to ask.
11. Minnesota United
Unlike Atlanta United, Minnesota has not made much of a splash in the buildup to its inaugural season and should struggling in 2017.
Minnesota is letting the roster ride with players from its NASL team continuing on—most notably Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra (a one-time Jurgen Klinsmann project). Kevin Molino, who played well with Orlando last year, will have to be an anchor in the midfield.
Is Josh Gatt fully recovered from his three major knee injuries in Norway? He better be because he could be needed on the wing to provide speed and offense.
Unlike many previous expansion teams, Minnesota lacks a high-caliber designated player to be a difference-maker. That might not be a bad idea if it wants to lay the groundwork first and be patient. But as a result, it is hard to see this team staying out of the Western Conference cellar.