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Western Conference Preview

High hopes for Portland, Vancouver, & Seattle

Making predictions in MLS is very difficult to do but ASN's Isaac Heath took a look at the Western Confernce and believes things are especially sunny in the The Pacific Northwest as well as with the newly formed LAFC. Here is his Western Conference preview
BY Isaac Heath Posted
March 01, 2018
9:45 AM
THE 2018 MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER SEASON is finally upon us and with the U.S. Men out of the World Cup, it is really all American soccer fans have going for them this year. After three straight years of the West winning MLS Cup, Toronto FC was able to bring the cup back to the East when they outdueled Seattle in the rematch of the 2016 Final.

Not only did Toronto win MLS Cup, but the Eastern Conference proved to be superior all season long and looks to be so again this year. That said, don’t be too quick to count the West out, as every writer who has covered MLS will tell you, predicting results in a league of such parity is difficult.

The Western Conference has some intriguing storylines and several unknowns that should make for an entertaining season. How will Portland rebound without Darlington Nagbe and Head Coach Caleb Porter? Will FC Dallas and their commitment to youth propel them back to the top of the league after a disappointing finish last year? Will Bob Bradley and LAFC’s maiden MLS season be more like Atlanta United’s or more like Minnesota United’s?

Buckle up as we take a look at ASN’s Western Conference Preview.

Portland Timbers

Predicted Conference finish: First

For a team that won MLS Cup just a few years ago, and returns 10 of 11 starters from a team that finished first in the Western Conference last year, the Portland Timbers have an unusual amount of uncertainty going in to the 2018 campaign.

To the surprise of many, Caleb Porter walked away from the team shortly after the season, and then during the offseason Darlington Nagbe was traded away to Atlanta United. Portland quickly named former NY Cosmos boss Giovanni Savarase head coach to replace Porter.

While on paper Portland appears to have taken a small step back with the loss of Nagbe, the Timbers still count on one of the best players in the league in reigning MLS MVP Diego Valeri. The midfielder makes everyone around him better, and Portland hopes that continues this season with new attackers Andy Polo and Samuel Armenteros.

Key Losses: HC Caleb Porter, Darlington Nagbe, Darren Mattocks

Key Additions: Andy Polo, Andres Flores, Samuel Armenteros

Vancouver Whitecaps

Predicted Conference finish: Second

The 2017 Vancouver Whitecaps looked to be headed to a first place Western Conference finish before faltering towards the end of the season. Then, in the playoffs Vancouver looked great against Seattle only to not be able to find the net and disappointingly crash out in the semifinals.

Despite the 2017 flame out, Craig Robinson has Vancouver on the right track and Whitecap fans should be excited about 2018. Yes, leading scorer Fredy Montero departed, but the front office traded for proven forward Kei Kamara who although 33, should fit well into the line up.

Vancouver picked up Efrain Juarez of Monterrey and Canadian defender Doniel Henry which should bring strength to the midfield and defense while buying their offense time to gel.

Key Losses: Fredy Montero, Christian Bolanos

Key Additons: Kei Kamara, Efrain Juarez, Doneil Henry

Seattle Sounders

Predicted Conference finish: Third

This preview would have certainly looked different had it been written prior to Jordan Morris going down with an awful injury this past week. The young US International will be out 6-9 months with an ACL injury leaving a gaping hole in the Sounders attack.

As it stands Will Bruin and US legend Clint Dempsey will be relied on to fill the void in the attack. Long time Sounder Brad Evans left in free agency, but Seattle signed Waylon Francis from the Crew and Magnus Wolff Eikrem from Malmo to solidify their defense and midfield.

All is not doom and gloom for the Sounders and they should still have a strong team. However in order to make it to MLS Cup for a third consecutive year, several players will have to step up.

Key Losses: Joevin Jones, Brad Evans, Jordan Morris (INJ)

Key Additions: Waylon Francis, Magnus Wolff Eikram

Los Angeles FC

Predicted Conference finish: Fourth

In a league that is tough to predict already, expansion teams are especially difficult. LAFC does seem to have constructed a fairly strong roster that could be competitive in year one. Add to the fact that the West is wide open, and it would not be too surprising to see them in the playoffs their debut season.

Their big splash was Mexican International Carlos Vela. Vela is certainly a player who should not only sell tickets, but also is a versatile attacker that can make everyone around him better. On paper he really seems to be the perfect Designated Player signing for LAFC.

In addition to Vela, LAFC added Benny Feilhaber, Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman, so the team definitely has a strong core. With Bob Bradley at the helm, LAFC has one of the more respected and successful coaches in American soccer. In 1998 he led the expansion Chicago Fire to an MLS Cup, the only expansion team to do so in their first year. That might be too much to ask, but you can bet that they are built to compete.

Sporting Kansas City

Predicted Conference finish: Fifth

As is a common theme in the West this year, Sporting Kansas City experienced a lot of changes in the offseason. Most notably gone are playmaker Benny Feilhaber and Latif Blessing, but Vermes and Co. did come through with some interesting signings that could improve the offense.

One thing that didn’t change though was their solid defense. With Opara, Besler and Zusi in the back Kansas City should field a very strong defense yet again. Roger Espinoza is back again as well so while they will certainly miss Feilhaber, the midfield still should be strong as the Honduran pairs with Chilean International Felipe Gutierrez.

Scoring will be the big question for Sporting KC this year and in order for them to compete in the Western Conference they will have to find a combination that works from Yohan Croizet, Diego Rubio, Daniel Salloi, and Johnny Russell. If they can find offensive cohesion and stay healthy on defense, don’t be surprised to see them back in the playoffs again.

Key Losses: Benny Feilhaber, Latif Blessing, Erik Palmer-Brown

Key Additions: Johnny Russell, Felipe Gutierrez, Yohan Croizet, Khiry Shelton

FC Dallas

Predicted Conference finish: Sixth

After winning the Supporters Shield in 2016, FC Dallas started the 2017 season on fire and appeared to be a lock for the playoffs. However, Oscar Pareja’s men collapsed towards the end of the season and narrowly missed out on the playoffs.

The 2018 FC Dallas line up should feature some opportunities for young homegrown players such as Reggie Cannon and Paxton Pomykal. Additionally they added some European talent to shore up the defense as well as Santiago Mosquera from Millonarios to help with the attack.

This combination of youth and new signings should make for an intriguing season for FC Dallas as they look to find their way back into the playoffs. The largest question mark appears to be who will step up for the team offensively in support of Max Urruti.

Key Losses: Walker Zimmerman, Chris Seitz, Atiba Harris

Key Additions: Santiago Mosquera, Anton Nedyalkov, Reto Ziegler

San Jose Earthquakes

Predicted Conference finish: Seventh

The San Jose Earthquakes squeaked into the the playoffs last year but it did not feel like a playoff berth because they were throttled by Vancouver 5-0 in the opening round. The Earthquakes struggled defensively last year and the hope is new coach Mikael Stahre will be able to help the team find some much needed consistency on the field in 2018.

Offensively they’re big offseason addition was Magnus Eriksson of Sweden. His ability to create will be key in helping the ageless Chris Wondolowski continuing to score goals at a high rate in MLS.

Overall they have kept a solid core of contributors from last years team so as long as they can buy into Stahre’s system quickly and improve defensively, they should have a shot to return back to the playoffs.

Key Losses: Victor Bernardez, Marco Urena

Key Additions: Mikael Stahre (HC), Magnus Eriksson

Real Salt Lake

Predicted Conference finish: Eighth 

Similar to FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake will likely be a team that relies heavily on younger players for success. Yes, bringing back team legends Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman was huge, but the veterans will need a lot of help to get back into the playoffs.

Overall, the roster does have a decent amount of continuity so that should help Mike Petke build on last season when he helped the team improve from a disastrous start that saw Jeff Cassar get fired.

One player to watch, and one we have featured on ASN, is right back Adam Henley. Henley was once a highly sought after dual national who debuted with Blackburn in the Premier League as a 17 year old. After injuries slowed him the last few years, at 23 the young veteran has a chance to jump start his career again. If he does, he would be a key feature in getting the team back into playoff contention.

Key losses: Chris Wingert

Key additions: Pablo Ruiz, Adam Henley, Damir Kreilach

LA Galaxy

Predicted Conference finish: Ninth

The LA Galaxy will look to rebound quickly in 2018 after a disastrous 2017 that saw the perennial contenders not only miss out on the playoffs, but embarrassingly finish tied for fewest points in MLS.

Wholesale changes were needed and wholesale changes were made. Gone are Jermaine Jones, Jose Villarreal, Jack McBean, and Gyasi Zardes among others. Zardes appeared to be the future of the Galaxy after a stellar season in 2014, but the US International struggled mightily the last few years so the club decided to move on.

In his place, Ola Kamara will join the Galaxy front line and look to combine with Giovani dos Santos. MLS veteran Perry Kitchen was brought in to shore up the midfield, and the defense added in a pair of international players that should start in Rolf Feltscher and Jorgen Skjelvik.

While questions remain, LA seems to have made the right moves to be competitive in the West again.

Key losses: Gyasi Zardes, Jermaine Jones, Jose Villarreal, Jack McBean

Key additions: Rolf Feltscher, Jorgen Skjelvik, Perry Kitchen, Chris Pontius, David Binham, Ola Kamara

Houston Dynamo

Predicted Conference finish: Tenth

Not many expected the 2017 Dynamo to make a run to the Western Conference Finals, but that is exactly what they did. Wilmer Cabrera got the most out of his roster and the team stayed consistent enough- particularly at home- to make the playoffs.

If the Dynamo are to succeed this year they will have to get increased contributions from their current roster, as there were no major signings for the team this year. In fact, they lost Erick Torres and Alex, so the Dynamo are clearly betting on Mauro Manotas, Romell Quioto, and Alberth Elis to continue to grow and lead the offense this year.

Another big question for the Dynamo on the defensive side is their age. With Beasley, Senderos and Machado all over 33, Houston will hope new signing Alejandro Fuenmayor can earn a starting spot to strengthen the aging defense.

If they can stay healthy, the Dynamo should be able to have a solid season and challenge for a playoff spot. However, at this point the team seems to be shallow in many areas, so injuries or poor play could derail them quickly.

Key losses: Erick Torres, Ricardo Clark, Alex

Key additions: Arturo Alvarez, Darwin Ceren, Alejandro Fuenmayor, Chris Seitz

Minnesota United

Predicted Conference finish: Eleventh

Minnesota United had a debut campaign to forget. While they did improve as the season went on, the start for the expansion club was so bad that they couldn’t do much more but improve.

For them to experience much success in 2018 they will have to hope the team develops much faster as there were no major signings yet. While both Luiz Fernando of Brazil and Bertrand Owundi Eko’o are on the roster, as of this week they had not joined the team yet. Once those two signings arrive the club hopes they will bring much needed improvement to their historically bad 2017 defense.

Key losses: Johan Venegas

Key additions: Matt Lampson, Luiz Fernando, Bertrand Owundi Eko’o

Colorado Rapids

Predicted Conference finish: Twelfth

The Colorado Rapids had a very poor 2017 and look to rebound in 2018 with a new manager in former New Zealand boss Anthony Hudson. His work is cut out for him as he takes over a team with several new parts as well.

They still have Tim Howard in goal, and while he isn’t quite what he used to be, the veteran US National Team keeper still is a comfort to have leading your defense. The Rapids hope newcomers such as defender Tommy Smith and Edgar Castillo can help solidify the defense and bring some much needed consistency.

Overall, the team should get some stability from some of the veteran signings, but it appears to be more of a rebuilding year than a contending year for the Rapids.

Key losses: Alan Gordon, Josh Gatt, Luis Gil, Mohammed Saeid

Key additions: Deklan Wynne, Edgar Castillo, Tommy Smith, Jack McBean

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