By: Zach Gee, KCOU Sports
Last week Andy Humphrey provided a great preview of the MLS Eastern Conference and the new developments for MLS as a whole in the offseason. Next week we’ll combine our efforts and provide a full preview with predications of final standings, awards, and playoff predictions. This week I will be giving a team-by-team preview of the Western Conference.
The Western Conference last year produced the US Open Cup winner, Supporter’s Shield winner, and the MLS Cup winner. It was considered the better of the two conferences by a country mile. Then the announcement that Sporting KC and Houston would be moved to the Western Conference came, and the whole dynamic of the Conference changed. The addition of these two teams adds even more depth to an already loaded conference. Stars such as Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi, DaMarcus Beasley, and Cubo Torres now will help their clubs navigate through MLS’ best conference. Every week in 2014 was full of tough matchups, gritty play, and everything on the line. This season looks to be the same way with some incredible teams set to play.
So without further ado let’s get to know the Western Conference…
RIP Chivas USA
2014 Season: 8th in West
Key acquisitions: M Marcelo Sarvas, D Axel Sjoberg, D Michael Harrington
Key losses: M Jose Mari, D Chris Klute,
2014 was a rough year for the Colorado Rapids. They finished the season winless in their last 14 games, which included a heavy 6-0 defeat against the eventual champion Galaxy. The offseason was a mixed bag for the Rapids with key losses in midfielder Jose Mari, who returned to Spain, and defender Chris Klute, who was traded to Columbus. However, Marcelo Sarvas will provide structure in the midfield for this young team and can be a reliable source for assists as he totaled 11 last season. Sarvas will be looking to returning forward Deshorn Brown, the Rapid’s 2014 leading goal scorer; to finish on the chances the midfield creates.
Defensively the Rapids have vastly improved over last year. Adding Michael Harrington, who has played over 15,000 minutes in MLS, and drafting the 6 foot 7 inch Axel Sjoberg from Marquette will give the Rapids needed experience and youth pieces for the future. Shane O’Neil is another key defensive piece to the Rapids backline and in my opinion is on deck for a breakout season. This season should be an improvement, but one theme throughout the entire season will be the youth and inexperience this team still possesses. Especially with how deep the Western Conference is this year with Houston and Kansas City in the mix expect this Rapids team to get beat, but learn over the course of the season.
2014 Season: 4th in the West, lost in the Semifinals.
Key acquisitions: G Dan Kennedy, M Kyle Bekker, M Michael Barrios
Key losses: D George John, G Raul Fernandez
Last season FC Dallas was the first team eliminated from playoff contention by the controversial ‘away-goal’ rules, falling in the semifinals to the Sounders despite not technically losing either of the games they played. FC Dallas had a great offseason in my opinion and kept the core of what made this squad a playoff team together, and also made some moves to acquire pieces they needed. Fabian Castillo returns to lead the attack, and that one sentence should send fear into the hearts and mind of the defenders who will have to play against him. Joining Castillo is Tesho Akindele, the 2014 MLS Rookie of the Year. Did I mention that both of them are only 22? This duo will be terrifying for years to come.
In the midfield the acquisition of Kyle Bekker from Toronto should give this midfield added depth if Bekker doesn’t receive the nod to start. Michael Barrios recently (February 20th) signed with FC Dallas after spending four years in Colombia with first division side Uniautonoma where he made 136 appearances and scored 35 goals. Look for him to be a potential Newcomer of the Year contender. Defensively this team lost a big time player in George John to NYCFC, but the back line is in good hands with free kick specialist Michel, defensive monster Matt Hedges, and Zach Loyd all coming back. Goalie Dan Kennedy, picked up in the Chivas dispersal draft, will be a reliable starter for this team and has proven to be a solid keeper over his seven seasons in MLS. I could easily see this team being a top three squad in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if this team can quell the (Dallas) Burn-ing desire this fanbase has for a trophy.
2014 Season: 8th, in the East
Key acquisitions: F Erick “Cubo” Torres (currently on loan to Guadalajara), D Raul Rodriquez, M Zach Steinberger
Key losses: GK Tally Hall, F Mark Sherrod (Knoxville represent)
2014 was not kind to the Dynamo. Finishing 8th in the weaker Eastern conference the Dynamo have a lot to prove this season moving to the deeper Western conference as a result of the expansion of Orlando City and NYCFC. However, 2015 is looking to be different. The Dynamo have a new coach, a new keeper, and a shiny new striker heading into 2015. Owen Coyle takes the reigns as coach bringing an intrigue and buzz around what the tactics of this Dynamo team will be.
So, what does this roster look like for 2015? The forward position got a huge boost with the acquisition of Cubo Torres from the Chivas dispersal draft. Currently he is on loan to Guadalajara, but should rejoin the Dynamo when the Liga MX season ends. The always reliable Will Bruin will be back. Bruin scored 10 goals last year, his second season scoring in double digits, and the thought of Torres and Bruin moving the ball forward together must induce headaches for the coaches trying to prepare their defenses. In the midfield, look for the Dynamo’s 2015 first round draft pick, Zach Steinberger, to get some minutes. He’ll join the veteran core of Ricardo Clark and Brad Davis, both USMNT members. Defensively the Dynamo has bolstered the back line with the acquisition of Raul Rodriguez from La Liga side RCD Espanyol. DaMarcus Beasley, Jermaine Taylor, and David Horst all return providing experience to the defense, which lost solid keeper Tally Hall. Replacing Hall in the goal looks to be Tyler Deric who started the final nine games of the season. The Dynamo will be looking towards that 5th or 6th playoff spot, but with how deep this conference is only time will tell if they make their goal.
2014: 2nd in West, won MLS Cup
Key acquisitions: M Steven Gerrard (will join mid-season)
Key losses: M Landon Donovan, M Marcelo Sarvas
It was the dream ending for the best player in MLS history. In his final season Landon Donovan raised the MLS Cup for a fourth time, and then had the MLS MVP award named after him. The retirement tour is over; he’s gone now. Going elsewhere with him is key midfielder Marcelo Sarvas. Except for those two all the pieces from the championship winning team are still there, but those are two huge pieces to lose. Forwards Gyasi Zardes and Robbie Keane are returning, and the young prospect Jose Villarreal could finally make his presence felt. Starting in June or July Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard will join the team and provide an experienced midfielder to service the ball to Zardes or Keane. Gerrard is also a known threat on free kicks a la David Backham circa 2010. The midfield does currently lack the depth last year’s squad had, but Juninho and Robbie Rogers along with Baggio Husidic all return to provide a solid midfield. My one concern is injuries. If Juninho or Rodgers were to go down before Gerrard arrived, who would fill in their spot?
Defensively all the pieces of last year’s team are still there. Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Leonardo, and noted hater of Valentine’s Day Dan Gargan all return. The backline is solid and has proven to be exceptional. No worries for Bruce Arena there. The goalkeeper position is in good hands with Jaime Penedo, who is entering his third season as the Galaxy’s main keeper. Can LA get their fourth trophy in five years this year? It’s certainly possible, but I see growing pains early as Arena and the team adjust to the loss of Donovan and Sarvas. This team is a top three side when it’s all said and done, but at the start of the season it won’t seem that way.
2014: 6th in West (two points away from playoffs)
Key acquisitions: D Nat Borchers, GK Adam Kwarasey, M Dairon Asprilla
Key losses: GK Donovan Ricketts, D Michael Harrington, M Steve Zakuani
So close to being in the playoffs the end of 2014 was total heartbreak for the Timbers. The good news for the Timbers is that for every key player they lost they acquired a player easily capable of filling the hole left. The forward position has some depth on this team and the days of relying on Darlington Nagbe for goals seem to be over. Fanendo Adi, Maximiliano Urruti, and Gaston Fernandez all contributed last season with Adi and Urruti scoring double-digit goals. In the midfield Darlinton Nagbe returns to play alongside Timber veterans Diego Chara and Diego Valeri. Look for Will Johnson to provide solid depth for this squad.
Defensively the loss of Michael Harrington is a big blow to a backline with questions already, but the Timbers did go out and land Nat Borchers in a trade with Real Salt Lake. Borchers has been a mainstay in MLS and has logged over 25,000 minutes since his career began in 2003. Liam Ridgewell, a 2014 MLS All-Star, is another stout defenseman on this team, but other than these two no other Timbers defensemen played in more than 20 games last season. Some experience issues on this backline, but Nat Borchers should be able to mentor some of these defensemen. The Timbers lost GK Donovan Ricketts, 2013 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, to Orlando City in the expansion draft, but acquired a talented keeper in Adam Kwarasey. If his name sounds at least a little bit familiar it’s because Kwarasey started for Ghana in the group stage match against the United States in the 2014 World Cup. It might take some time for Kwarasey to adjust to MLS, but I believe he has the talent to be a successful keeper for this side. My prediction for the Timbers is they spend the season fighting for the 5th and 6th spot in the conference standings, but I’ll be surprised if this team doesn’t make the playoffs.
Real Salt Lake
2014 Season: 3rd in West, lost in Semifinals
Key acquisitions: D Jamison Olave, M Wellington “Pecka” Paeckart
Key losses: D Nat Borchers, M Ned Grabavoy, D Chris Wingert
In 2014 Real Salt Lake performed well during the regular season (thus their third place finish) but got demolished in the semifinals by the eventual champion LA Galaxy, 5-0. The offseason saw some long time staples of RSL leave for various reasons. Midfielder Ned Grabavoy and defender Chris Wingert were selected in the expansion draft by NYCFC, and defender Nat Borchers was traded to Portland. In an effort to fill the holes left by these key losses RSL went out and brought in defender Jamison Olave, and the interesting singing of midfielder Wellington Paeckart. Jamison Olave spent the last two seasons with the New York Red Bulls, but previously had spent the first five years of his career with RSL. Chris Schuler will be looked to accompany Olave in the center of the defense, but the big question concerning Schuler is whether or not he will be able to stay healthy. Look for Abdoulie Mansally and Tony Beltran to continue their run of form in 2015 at the left and right back positions, respectably. Nick Rimando will still be between the sticks for RSL. Frankly there is no better keeper in MLS, despite what the goalie of the year votes show.
In the midfield all the regulars (except Grabavoy) are returning. Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Luis Gil should make RSL one of the most dominating midfields in the league. If RSL has one weakness I would put it in the forward position. Alvaro Saborio is a threat to score goals, but a combination of national call-ups and injuries has prevented him from being one of MLS premier talents. After Saborio, the depth is not there for RSL. So my question is where will the goals come from? This team will still be a threat in 2015, but I see a similar fate as last year and watching RSL get bounced early from the playoffs.
San Jose Earthquakes
2014: 9th in West.
Key acquisitions: M Leandro Barrera, D Marvell Wynne
Key losses: M Sam Cronin, D Jason Hernandez
2014 was rough for the Earthquakes and 2015 won’t be much better. The offseason moves (or lack thereof) from this team puzzle me. The Earthquakes didn’t really lose any players of vital importance, nor did they gain any players that could revolutionize the outlook of the team. For most clubs this would be fine, and in some cases even a good thing, but this team finished 9th (last) in the West so some kind of big time deal would have been a breath of fresh air. The Earthquakes did sign Steven Lenhart to a new two-year deal in a move that absolutely astounded me. Lenhart has been injured and hasn’t performed well in over two seasons, and fellow attacker Mike Fucito has lost a step from a solid, yet unspectacular, 2011 season with the Sounders. It looks like the attack of the Earthquakes this season will live and die by the form of Chris Wondolowski
The midfield on this team isn’t great either, but Martias Perez Garcia will now have a full season, barring injury, to show what he can do after some promising showings late last year. Cordell Cato is only 22 years old and has already seen serious minutes playing in 27 games last season for the Earthquakes. He’s still learning, but he has invaluable tools in his speed and elusiveness. The Earthquakes did trade veteran midfielder Sam Cronin in a move that would indicate the club is opening playing time for players such as new arrivals Leandro Barrera and Sanna Nyassi. Defense is another huge question for this team, as they lost longtime starter Jason Hernandez to NYCFC, and only signed one new defender in Marvell Wynne (who has played in zero MLS games). The core defenders they have remaining are old, and didn’t play well in 2014. The Quakes only have two goalies on their roster and it looks to me as though Bryan Meredith will get the start between the sticks as he has more experience than his teammate David Bingham. At least Earthquake fans will enjoy the brand new Avaya Stadium that has the largest outdoor bar in America. Cheers!
2014: 1st in West, Won Supporter’s Shield, Won US Open Cup, lost in Conference Finals
Key acquisitions: D Tyrone Mears, M Cristian Roldan, D Andres Correa
Key losses: D DeAndre Yedlin, D Jalil Anibaba, F Eriq Zavaleta
Seattle almost had it all in 2014. They won the Support’s Shield and US Open Cup, but were shut down in the playoffs by the Galaxy on the new away goal rule. The Sounders will certainly miss USMNT member DeAndre Yedlin but the key pieces from last year’s team are still there. Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins are back and ready to tear up defenses again in 2015. The Sounders also have Lamar Neagle and Kenny Cooper to provide depth for the forward position. Midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Marco Pappa are also back to control the midfield. Brad Evans plays a defender/midfielder hybrid, but will be looked to for carrying midfield duties this season.
Previously mentioned DeAndre Yedlin is gone, but this is still a better defense than most believe. Jalil Anibaba was selected in the expansion draft, but then traded to Sporting KC, which meant the Sounders had to go and find a suitable replacement at center back. Enter Tyrone Mears. Anibaba is one loss on this Sounders team that actually benefits the team because at many times during the 2014 season Anibaba was terrible. Long time Sounder Zach Scott is back and will help the backline with added experience. Stefan Frei will continue being the number one choice keeper for the Sounders. Overall, I believe this could be the season where Seattle finally burst out of LA’s shadow and will certainly contend for the MLS Cup.
Sporting Kansas City
2014: 5th in East, lost in Knockout round
Key acquisitions: GK Luis Marin, F Krisztian Nemeth, M Roger Espinoza, M Servando Carrasco
Key losses: F C.J. Sapong, D Aurelien Collin, M Sal Zizzo
Ladies and Gentlemen, meet your dark horse for the 2015 MLS Cup. This team has a ton of talent in every position. Dom Dwyer leads the offensive attack after having a breakout 2014 season where he scored 22 goals. Krisztian Nemeth is a newcomer to MLS after playing two seasons in Eredivisie, and has been playing well in preseason matches. In the midfield Sporting KC have their superstar USMNT member Graham Zusi. Zusi will look to build off a fantastic 2014 where he recorded eight assists. Re-joining Kansas City is Roger Espinoza, a talented midfielder who spent two and a half years with English club Wigan Athletic. This midfielder is one of the best in MLS and look for other players such as Paulo Nagamura and Servando Carrasco to be valuable starters.
To go along with their great midfield Sporting KC also has a solid defense. Lead by USMNT member Matt Besler this team also sees Chance Myers and Ike Opara return from injury. Opara and Myers were a big part of the Sporting KC’s 2013 campaign, the year they won the MLS Cup. Luis Marin will be pegged as the starter in Goal, and he comes to Sporting KC by way of the Chilean Primera Division where he spent 12 years. Kansas City should be excited about this team as I think they can do a lot of damage in this Western conference. Expect a top four finish and a possible deep run in the playoffs.
2014: 5th in West, lost in knockout
Key acquisitions: D Pa-Modou Kah, D Diego Rodriquez, F Octavio Rivero
Key losses: D Jay DeMerit, D Andy O’Brien
Last year was a breakout season for the Whitecaps in more ways than one. After initially being written off in the preseason the Whitecaps edged out Portland for the last spot in the MLS playoffs. What’s in store for Vancouver in 2015? More of the same I believe, as this young team builds off what they accomplished in 2014. The amazing thing about the Whitecaps is just how young they are. Kekuta Manneh (20 years old) and Erik Hurtado (24 years old) got plenty of minutes last year playing a midfield/forward role. Octavio Rivero joins the Whitecaps and looks to be the new first choice striker. In the midfield the Whitecap’s leading goal scorer last year, Pedro Morales, returns along with plenty of young talent that saw the field in 2014.
Jordan Harvey and Steve Beitashour lead a defense that now has some added experience in the form of Pa-Modou Kah, who started 20 games for FC Dallas last season. Also, Diego Rodriguez joins the Whitecaps from La Liga side Malaga CF, and should prove to be a valuable addition to this backline. Goalkeeper David Ousted returns after starting all 34 games for the Whitecaps last year, and provides the Whitecaps with a veteran presence to command the backline with. I see this team fighting a season-long battle with Houston and Portland for the 5th and 6th spots in the West. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team makes the playoffs, but I wouldn’t be surprised either (with the additions of Houston and Sporting) if they didn’t. That being said, I believe this squad can make it.