By Andy Humphrey
One of the biggest dangers of making your MLS conference preview three weeks before the start of the season is putting out a column and then hearing about a big trade that happened after you sent it out. That’s what I fell for this week with the trade between Sporting KC and New England, in which the Revs acquired striker Teal Bunbury. This is huge for New England’s attack force, which already includes Diego Fagundez and new addition Charlie Davies. I won’t change my standings position for either side (NE is still out of the playoffs in my book), but just know that the Revs will be tough to beat.
Now, onto the West! And just like the East, I had a really tough time placing each team. There were many moves made in the offseason, but most of the moves were domestic as opposed to the East where teams brought in a number of international transfers. But, of course, MLS is sometimes more unpredictable than the color of Craig Sager’s suit. Teams can make big surprises, like Portland finishing first in 2013 and 2012’s Supporter’s Shield winner San Jose missing the next year’s playoffs. Still, challenge accepted!
Without wasting any more of your time, let’s dive right in:
1. Portland Timbers
2013 season: 1st in West; lost in conference final
Key acquisitions: M Steve Zakuani, F Gastón Fernández, D Jorge Villafaña
Key losses: F José Valencia, D Andrew Jean-Baptiste, M Sal Zizzo, D David Horst
JELD-WEN Field is slowing turning into one of the deadliest fortresses in the league. The Timbers lost just two home games last season: one in March against Montreal and the other against RSL in the second leg of the conference final. Of course, the fans have a respectable impact, but it’s largely due to their defense, which gave up the fewest goals in the conference (33) in 2013. Even with the loss of Jean-Baptiste, that back line still remains strong, and 2013’s Goalkeeper of the Year Donovan Ricketts backs them up in net.
And let’s not forget the skill players. Right now, there are not many midfield pairings better than Will Johnson and 2013 MLS Newcomer of the Year Diego Valeri. Plus, with new members Zakuani and Villafaña teaming up with some of the league’s most electrifying young players in Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace, expect no shortage of goals from Rose City.
2. Seattle Sounders FC
2013 season: 4th in West; lost in conference semifinal
Key acquisitions: GK Stefan Frei, D Chad Marshall, F Kenny Cooper, M Marco Pappa, D Jalil Anibaba
Key losses: F Eddie Johnson, M Mauro Rosales, GK Michael Gspurning, F Steve Zakuani, F Fredy Montero
I’ve been favoring the busy offseason teams in these predictions, so I won’t break the trend now. Obviously, this team is confident that Clint Dempsey’s monster contract will translate into production on the field, even though he’s only scored one goal in nine appearances with the Sounders so far. Eddie Johnson is gone, and now he’s the focal point. It’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to the scrutiny.
Dempsey’s got quite a bit of help as well. Midfielder Lamar Neagle had his best season with the club in 2013 and, in my opinion, was the most unstoppable player in the league for the month of September, delivering goals and assists in very key moments and propelling his team to the top of the table. Dempsey will also hope to be assisted in goal-scoring duties by designated player Obafemi Martins, who tied Neagle for second on the team with 8 goals scored in 2013.
3. Vancouver Whitecaps
2013 season: 7th in West
Key acquisitions: D Steven Beitashour, GK Paolo Tornaghi, D Christian Dean (SuperDraft)
Key losses: F Camilo Sanvezzo, GK Joe Cannon, GK Brad Knighton
This is turning into a squad with one of the most intriguing combinations of young talents and wily veterans I have seen in MLS. Obviously, forwards Kekuta Manneh and Darren Mattocks lead the charge and will get more scoring chances after the departure of 2013’s Golden Boot winner Camilo. With other young midfielders Gershon Koffie and Russell Teibert, along with English international Nigel Reo-Coker, Vancouver hopes its SuperDraft investments pay off in 2014.
The only hole I see in this team is in the back line. The Whitecaps gave up 45 goals last season for third-worst in the conference. They addressed this issue in the offseason by trading for Beitashour and drafting yet another Generation Adidas player in Dean, but I still see some potential for some sloppy defending in key situations, especially with a new starter in goal (likely Tornaghi). Other than that, this team is poised for a deeper run.
4. Los Angeles Galaxy
2013 season: 3rd in West; lost in conference semifinal
Key acquisitions: F Samuel, M Baggio Husedic
Key losses: F Jose Villareal, M Hector Jimenez, D Sean Franklin
When all players on the Galaxy are healthy and playing their best football, this team is unstoppable. Check that… when Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane are healthy and playing their best football, this team is unstoppable. However, LA is starting to lose its dominance in the conference and can’t keep up with other West teams. If they gradually start dropping more and more conference matchups, this team could be in danger of missing the playoffs.
One player that must step up this year is Gyasi Zardes. He has been proclaimed as one of the most promising young speedsters in MLS and was given most of the starts in midfield last year. However, despite the aesthetics, he only produced four goals and four assists last season and will be expected to be a more reliable source of offense given Keane’s age and durability and Donovan’s imminent World Cup invitation.
5. Real Salt Lake
2013 season: 2nd in West; lost in MLS Cup Final
Key acquisitions: M/F Jordan Allen, M Luke Mulholland
Key losses: M Yordany Álvarez, D Brandon McDonald, D/M Lovel Palmer
RSL was the envy of the entire league for quite a while in 2013 when originally viewed as a team that would be expected to rebuild instead. Coach Jason Kreis turned into a genius overnight, with his diamond midfield scheme that left defenses backtracking like crazy. This ultimately led to the excruciating results of losing in both the U.S. Open Cup Final and in the MLS Cup Final.
Now Kreis has moved on to become the first head coach of New York City FC, entering the league in 2015. The team is mostly intact and should still expect no shortage in production despite the absence of Kreis’ master plans. I still think that the loss of their coach will speak volumes as to how much of an impact he had on their 2013 success, but new coach Jeff Cassar has too much talent and experience on his roster to miss out on a playoff spot.
6. Colorado Rapids
2013 season: 5th in West; lost in Knockout Stage
Key acquisitions: M Marvin Chávez, D/M Marc Burch
Key losses: F Atiba Harris, M Hendry Thomas, M Tony Cascio
It’s safe to say this team snuck up on a lot of people last season with its youth and firepower. Not to mention, Clint Irwin had as great of a season you could ever want from a goalkeeper. Despite the abrupt departure of their head coach in January, second-year players Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers are looking to show the rest of the league that they are a force to be reckoned with, but I think the combo will eventually not be enough to repeat as a playoff team.
However, the way they’re building up their program is quite similar to how Vancouver was a few years back. They have plenty of SuperDraft and homegrown products to develop for future years. I wouldn’t be surprised if they occupy the two- or three-seed for a stretch in 2014 before moving back down towards the end of the season. Still, I think the more seasoned clubs above them seal off their path to the playoffs for now.
7. FC Dallas
2013 season: 8th in West
Key acquisitions: F Andrés Escobar, F David Texeira, M Hendry Thomas
Key losses: M David Ferreira, F Kenny Cooper, M Jackson, M Erick
If you had asked me in May of last year whether or not FC Dallas would win the Supporter’s Shield, I would’ve answered affirmatively. They looked virtually impossible to defeat for the first three months of the season, then they dropped a few here and there, then lost a few key players to injury, then all of a sudden, the wheels fell off. They went from one of the strongest-built teams in MLS to a second-to-last finish and ended up firing their head coach, Schellas Hyndman.
Now, Oscar Pareja returns to his old club to pick up the pieces, and he’s started off on the right foot. The team brought in some goal-scoring talent in Escobar and Texeira, while holding on to assets like forward Blas Pérez, midfielder Michel, defender George John, and goalkeeper Raul Fernandez. They will return back to playoff contention soon, and maybe fight to the same position they were in last year, but in my mind, the mix doesn’t quite equal a playoff spot in 2014.
8. San Jose Earthquakes
2013 season: 6th in West
Key acquisitions: F Atiba Harris, D Brandon Barklage, D Shaun Francis
Key losses: M Ramiro Corrales, D Justin Morrow, M Rafael Baca, M Marvin Chávez, D Steven Beitashour
Losing key position veterans like Baca, Morrow, Chávez, and Beitashour can be debilitating, and while you should never ignore Chris Wondolowski’s goal-scoring abilities, I think the stock is gradually declining for San Jose. While the back line remains stout (Victor Bernardez and Clarence Goodson), the midfield is the area that is most hard-hit. Sam Cronin and Shea Salinas will most likely captain that force, but when comparing them to other midfields in the West, I see the Goonies losing many possession battles.
However, scoring tools are still available. In addition to Wondo, San Jose keeps Steven Lenhart, Alan Gordon, and Adam Jahn, who provided four goals a piece in 2013. Atiba Harris is another nice addition to a midfield that needs some work. I think this team can have success playing wide and sending in crosses for big bodies like Lenhart, Gordon, and Jahn. That can only do so much, though.
9. Chivas USA
2013 season: last in West
Key acquisitions: M Mauro Rosales, D Andrew Jean-Baptiste
Key losses: M Gabriel Farfan, D Jorge Villafaña, F Tristan Bowen
One more thing you could put in that “Key losses” section is organizational control. After being bought out by the league on February 20, it looks like Chivas is about to undergo some major internal reform as well as look for a new home stadium, which they currently share with the Galaxy. Plus, judging by the offseason they had outside of the ownership problems, it doesn’t look like they’re putting themselves in any position to win at a high level.
Sure, they added a skillful midfielder in Rosales and a rock-solid defender in Jean-Baptiste, but put yourself in those two’s boots. If you were a respected MLS player at your position, wouldn’t you prefer to at least play for a franchise that isn’t, you know, bleeding uncontrollably as we speak? I worry about the morale of each player on this squad and the dumpster fire that former Rapids assistant Wilmer Cabrera will be asked to extinguish in 2014.