The Western Conference is considered this season’s dominate half of the league. Many already assume that four teams will qualify for the newly expanded playoffs via the wildcard. Meaning, the teams that finish 4, 5, 6, 7 in the West will make the playoffs. This is how I see the West turning out.
1. LA Galaxy
Forget David Beckham. This will be his last season in LA and MLS unless something occurs over the course of the season (ex. Injury) that keeps him from moving back to Europe for one last ride into the sunset. I think this team is still the best in the league despite being the oldest, and they have gotten even older this season. Frankie Hejduk signed from Columbus and should see a lot of time at the right back spot. This signing should also give LA some depth at the back going into the 2011/12 Champions League tournament. Many feel the Galaxy haven’t adequately replaced Edson Buddle, which is ridiculous to say as they’ve brought in Juan Pablo Angel; who is a proven goal score and will go down as one of the best strikers in MLS history. The club has also brought in Chad Barrett who will see a lot of action and I think could finally have a break out season. If Angel and Barrett play up top this could give either Beckham or Landon Donovan the chance to play the number 10 role or out wide with Juniho slotting into the central midfield. Though LA faded at the end of last season they’re still the best team in MLS. They’ll have some rough spots during this season, but they’ll win the Supporters’ Shield yet again. The Open Cup, MLS Cup and Champions League are another story.
2. Real Salt Lake
RSL is the toughest team to beat in MLS especially at home. This team is still riding the wave they embarked on when they made the playoffs on the last day of the season in ‘09 before going on to win the MLS Cup. They have nearly all the same pieces in place and have signed Alvaro Saborio to a DP contract to keep him content. Javier Morales is the heart beat of this team and if he can continue his stellar play RSL may have a shot at all the trophies they compete for this season. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few teams in Europe came sniffing around in August if he continues his great play. Though RSL have him tied down a move could be forced through. If RSL win the Champions League this spring that could set the tone for a dominating MLS season. I think they’ll come up just short in the Supporters’ Shield, but they’re my favourites to lift the MLS Cup and Open Cup. I would like to see them bring in a couple of re-enforcements this season to help what will be a tired squad, and I’d love to see them blood young Luis Gil.
3. Colorado Rapids
In ‘09 Salt Lake won an unlikely MLS Cup, and since then have become one of the top sides this side of the US/Mexico border. Last season, Colorado made a similar timely run through the playoffs capping it off with their first MLS Cup. This will help Colorado express themselves as a team this season finishing in an automatic playoff spot. The team boasts the best attack with Conor Casey, Omar Cummings and Macoumba Kandji. They’ve added depth and pace in Sanna Nyassi to go with the cultured wing play of Jamie Smith. Though Julian Baudet has moved on the Rapids have replaced him with Tyrone Marshall; though a journeymen MLS player, Marshall will play a big part in the Rapids’ defence. The key to Colorado’s success will be in captain Pablo Mastroeni’s ability to stay fit. I don’t rate him as a great MLS player, but he and Jeff Larentowicz are the engine of this team. If they and the wide players Smith and Nyassi can get the strikers service this team will be hard to beat. Though they have plenty of fire power I still think they are third best in both the West and MLS this season.
4. FC Dallas
FCD had a break out season in 2010, and many feel should have won the MLS Cup if it were not for an own goal in extra time. But, that’s football. Many feel Dallas will push for top honours in the league this season, but I don’t believe that will happen. However, I do think the team will settle into the upper half of the league. At times this team punched above their weight last season as they went on their epic undefeated streak. The team has lost four big contributors to last season’s MLS Cup run in Dax McCarty (who seems to get better and better as we talk about his trade to DC), Jeff Cunningham, Heath Pearce and Atiba Harris. Each weighed in in their own way to help Dallas during the course of ‘10. I’m not sure how these four players have been replaced, and looking at Dallas’ roster I don’t see a striker that jumps out at me. David Ferreira is still one of the top five players in the league, but he’ll need to conjure something special for this Dallas team to eclipse last season. Heath Pearce has been moved on, and though he may not be a big lose the team will feel it in the depth department. The team could also be without the talented Break Shea during the summer as he may receive a call up to the USMNT for the Gold Cup. I don’t think this team is better than they were last season, and with the loss of four players not adequately replaced I think they’ve slightly regressed.
5. Seattle Sounders FC
The team that everyone loves to hate. Say what you will about the Sounders, but they’ve done fantastic things for MLS since joining the league from the USL. It goes to show what a team and city can do for the league when a team with some roots join the league. We should see the same in Portland and Vancouver this season and Montreal next season; and I would love to see Charleston join the league in the future. Seattle, however, as a team doesn’t appear to have done a great deal to improve on the squad they ended their inaugural MLS season with. They have added Erik Freiberg and it will be interesting to see where he slots in. Steve Zakuani is still electric down the wing, but he still needs to improve on his final ball. Alvaro Fernandez was a bright spot last season after signing as a DP. He improved the Sounders down the stretch and should help the team over the long haul of the season. But this team’s biggest question marks are in the final third and the attacking third. The back line is suspect, and James Riley is more of a right sided midfielder than right back. Tyrone Marshall is gone and Patrick Ianni and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado will need to be at their best to keep the pressure off aging goalkeeper Casey Keller. Up front all eyes are on DP Freddy Montero who can be the most exciting and most frustrating player in all of MLS. Besides being perpetually unhappy in Seattle he tends to disappear in matches; especially big games. Many times he has been marked out of games by opposing teams when defended against physically. He will have to do more on his own this season as Blaise N’Kofu has been released. Word is Seattle has over spent and it’s no doubt with having three designated players. Seattle will rely on Montero far too much again and there’s no one else on their roster who can put in the goals with the frequency of Montero and N’Kofu. Especially not Nate Jaqua. This team will need someone during the summer transfer window. I think it’ll be an up hill battle to make the playoffs, and could be a disappointing season.
6. Vancouver Whitecaps
Most pundits have already written this club off before MLS opening day. However, I believe the Whitecaps will be in the playoff hunt until the end of the season. They’ve worked hard and done their homework in the offseason. They’ve signed quite a few former division two players, and most pundits have slammed them for this. I say it all the time, but MLS and D2 are not as far off as people believe. Bringing in players the club is already familiar with will help the team bed-in to MLS unlike other expansion teams. Many of these players are unheard of by MLS followers including myself, but I love the way they’ve done it their way and I believe it will pay off. If the Whitecaps can get their DP Eric Hassli off to a strong start it maybe the best signing of the offseason.
7. Chivas USA
Chivas could be a dark horse in the West. They took their time, but finally named Robin Fraser as manager. But most importantly they’ve nearly gotten rid of any player from Preki’s time with the club. They’ve added enough good MLS players that they should have a fighting chance for a playoff spot. The acquisition of Alejandro Moreno should help with the Goats’ offence. Though he doesn’t score a load of goals his high work rate is invaluable. Heath Pearce and Andrew Boyens should help to replace the highly underrated Jonathon Bornstein. Tristen Bowen, once the coveted youth prospect of LA Galaxy, was acquired in the off season could get a lot of playing time for the Goats. I’ve never been too high on Justin Braun and going into his fourth MLS season I need to see more from him if he is to live up to what many MLS pundits already claim him to be. Chivas was able to re-sign Paulo Nagamura midway through last season, and he’ll be able to protect that back four. Nagamura is a fantastic talent and would fit into any team in MLS. They’ll need him to take the pressure off of Ante Jazic and the over the hill Jimmy Conrad. Zarek Valentin is a US U20 and we’ll see if he can make the jump from college to professional. I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs this season and the East will be better than most people think.
8. Portland Timbers
The Timbers come into MLS off a pre-season of solid signings. Kenny Cooper joins from 1860 Munich, and is a proven goal score in the league. They’ve also signed number one draft pick Darling ton Nagbe and he could factor heavily in the teams debut season. Portland has also made a solid acquisition in Jack Jewsbury who is a fantastic MLS veteran that can play across the midfield or as a fullback. He has worn the armband in the pres-season and could do the same during the regular season. The Timbers also have a former goalkeeper of the year in Troy Perkins who will hope to rebound from last season disappointment with DC. This team should challenge for a playoff spot up until the end of the season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they get in.
9. San Jose Earthquakes
San Jose was able to make it into the playoffs last season on the back of a career year by Chris Wondolowski. He won’t do that again. Wondolowski is coming into his seventh year in the league and it wasn’t until last season that he had scored more than four goals in a season. Last year he benefited from Bobby Convey’s return to form and the inabilities of other San Jose strikers. He isn’t the type of striker to have consistent scoring seasons and with his fall off it will keep San Jose at the bottom of the West. They do have some decent players such as Sam Cronin, but overall this team is poor. Goalkeeping is their strength, but with a porous defence and no major acquisitions in the offseason I don’t expect much.