Major League Soccer
FC Dallas and the Galaxy Look Like Best in the West
March 03, 2016
ON PAPER, the 2015 iteration of the Los Angeles Galaxy appeared to be one of the best teams in Major League Soccer history.
The club's first-round exit should highlight just how hard it is to predict results in Don Garber's parity party—especially in the Western Conference.
The already-muddled picture in the West is confused further this year by heavy offseason turnover: The reigning champion Portland Timbers lost Jorge Villafana and Rodney Wallace; the Galaxy saw top defender Omar Gonzalez head south of the border; Sporting Kansas City sold Krisztian Nemeth; and one of the league’s best forwards, Obafemi Martins, left Seattle for the Chinese Super League.
That said, here’s how I see the Western Conference playing out as MLS’s third decade begins this weekend.
1. FC Dallas
Oscar Pareja’s side took the top spot last season and nearly claimed the Supporters’ Shield, too. Expectations this year will be higher: Dallas’ core was a notable exception to the conference’s aforementioned turnover.
Fabian Castillo is one of the league’s best attackers, and captain Matt Hedges is one of its best central defenders. Like Castillo, 23, Dallas’s other two designated players—Mauro Diaz, a Best XI candidate at 24, and Ecuadorian holding midfielder Carlos Gruezo, a 20-year-old previously with Stuttgart—are young and still only approaching their prime.
Blas Perez’ move to Vancouver leaves a hole up top, and Maximiliano Urruti and Tesho Akindele will have the considerable task of filling it. Other than that, though, academy products Kellyn Acosta, Victor Ulloa, and Jesse Gonzalez round out a roster with very few weaknesses. If the returning youth can show growth from last year and if Gruezo settles in well, Dallas could be scary-good.
“Our mentality has changed,” Pareja said recently. “I’m not afraid to say that our expectations always should be winning. I don’t like excuses. I don’t like to take shortcuts or anything. I just want to fight for the first spot, and I want to build the character in the team and the club that way.”
2. Los Angeles Galaxy
A group including Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Gyasi Zardes, Steven Gerrard, Juninho, and Omar Gonzalez would seem to yield surefire success, but the 2015 Galaxy managed to play at a level below the sum of its parts, losing to Seattle in the first round after a disappointing regular season.
Since then, Gonzalez and Juninho both left for Mexico, and to replace them Bruce Arena elected to bring a nastier tone to the team in signing the very physical midfield duo of Jelle van Damme and Nigel De Jong. Also added: 35-year-old left back Ashley Cole.
Age will again be a problem in L.A., as the loss of Gonzalez creates a void in central defense, and it’s tricky to fit Dos Santos, Keane, and Zardes on the field together tactically without giving up too much defensively on the wings. Speaking of the wings, Sebastian Lletget was red hot when he joined the Galaxy midway through the season before tapering off late. What will he offer in his second year?
It is entirely possible that the Galaxy will start off strong but once again fade down the stretch as the older folks on the roster wear down. That said, if Arena is able to integrate the younger players throughout the season, it might pay big dividends.
3. Sporting Kansas City
Nemeth’s transfer to Qatar hurts, but adding proven MLSers Brad Davis and Justin Mapp will be a boost. At the same time, it’s hard to gloss over the fact that midfielders Mapp, Davis, and Best XI selection Benny Feilhaber are all on the wrong side of 30. Expecting their productivity to hold is a possibility but not a certainty.
Last season Graham Zusi and Dom Dwyer both dropped off from where they’d been in 2014; Dwyer’s goal production declining from 23 to 12. Dwyer is likely to become an American citizen next February, giving him added incentive: If he can score more than 20 again, his stock would be greatly boosted for possible inclusion by Jurgen Klinsmann for the Hexagonal round of qualifying. If his output is in the low teens, he probably won’t stand out from the pack—and with little depth behind him at club level, Kansas City’s offense could struggle.
"I think we have more than enough attacking players right now," Coach Peter Vermes said. "As I said before, we're looking at another one. It's just that what day that trigger gets pulled and that gets sorted out is really the hang-up at the moment, but we'll add one more. But I feel good about the players that we have."
4. Portland Timbers
Last season the Timbers only made the playoffs because of a late-season surge—and then went on to win its first MLS Cup. Yes, Wallace and Villafana are gone, as is Maxi Urruti, and 34-year-old Nat Borchers may not replicate his outstanding 2015 form. But Caleb Porter and Co. should still be all right.
Portland has been aggressive in the offseason, reuniting Porter and former Akron Zip Zarek Valentin; replacing its lost firepower up top with Jack McInerney; and acquiring Chris Klute to fill the left-back gap. Argentine Lucas Melano, inconsistent in his first season with the Timbers, will have to step up in Wallace’s absence.
The good news for the Timbers? Unlike last year, the team is healthy at key positions to start the season. Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, who will likely begin the season in the same central role in the 4-3-3 that excelled late last year, form one of MLS’s best midfield partnerships. And they have a great target forward ahead of them in Fanendo Adi.
The 2015 Timbers were a surprise. The 2016 version won’t be.
“This season coming in, I catch myself sometimes, reminding myself that we won it,” Caleb Porter said. “Which is good because I think it's important to put the past behind us because it is over and it's on to a new year. But you can't help but look back and remember the feeling we had at the end of the year. That is the first thing I said to the guys to start this season—we know what is possible at the end of the road.”
5. Vancouver Whitecaps
At one point in 2015 it looked like Vancouver would be a strong contender for the Supporters’ Shield. But in the final two months of the season Carl Robinson’s team tumbled, finishing seven points back of the Red Bulls and FC Dallas before suffering a decisive loss to Portland in its first playoff series.
Even so, there’s a lot to like about this Whitecaps team. Pedro Morales is healthy again, leading a very quick attacking corps that also includes Kekuta Manneh, Cristian Techera, and Octavio Rivero. A question mark lingers over Darron Mattocks, part of the swarm of players being linked to China at the moment, but Masato Kudo—who had been one of the best forwards in the J-League—will bring plenty of attacking punch. Defensively, Tim Parker is one of the fastest-rising American central defenders in the league, and Costa Rican partner Kendall Watson is one of the best.
Vancovuer is unproven, but has the talent not only to finish high in the Western Conference standings but also to win MLS Cup. It’s all a matter of how that talent develops and comes together.
6. Seattle Sounders
Expect Martins’ move to Shanghai Shenhua to have a big impact. When he and Clint Dempsey were both on the field in 2015, Seattle was an extremely dangerous attacking team. But in July, when Martins was injured and Dempsey missed time with suspensions and international duty, the Sounders couldn’t buy a goal.
Without Martins, much-hyped rookie Jordan Morris will need to produce right away—although, like Dempsey, Morris will almost certainly miss time due to international commitments throughout the summer.
The most important storyline for Sounders, then, will be the front office’s use of the money from the Martins sale. All indications point to this team being far different in September than it is today.
“We’re going to take our time, and we’re going to replace Oba,” General Manager Garth Lagerwey said. “Maybe not position for position, maybe not player for player. But I think some of the replacements will come from the group, in terms of how we collectively play. And I think we’re going to look to add some more talent. We have some roster and salary flexibility to go look at players.
“In a perfect world, I don’t want three DP forwards,” he continued. “I don’t think we want that, particularly when arguably our best young player in Jordan Morris is also a forward. We’d like to have more balance in the team, front to back.”
Like some other teams in the conference, Seattle is also long in the tooth, and some of its players are injury-prone. Midfielders Osvaldo Alonso, Erik Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz; defenders Brad Evans and Chad Marshall; and Nelson Valdez and Dempsey up top are all over 30. That has to be a concern.
7. San Jose Earthquakes
Despite San Jose’s shiny new stadium and increased attendance, not much was expected out of the Earthquakes last season. But Dominic Kinnear’s team nonetheless hung around until the season’s final month. For the Earthquakes to reach the playoffs, a lot is going to have to go right, and one thing has already gone very much wrong: After injuring his knee in preseason, Marc Pelosi will miss three-to-four months.
Chris Wondolowski will have to continue to be among the best goal-scorers in the league, and U.S. U-23 midfielder Fatai Alashe must continue to develop, and quickly. Goalkeeper David Bingham, now in contention for the U.S. national team, will have to be among MLS’ best again, and aging central defenders Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez will have to avoid declines.
If all that happens, and everyone else stays healthy, and the Quakes keep up their brand of scrappy (but cohesive) soccer, Kinnear’s team can find a way. With 2016 season tickets sold out, the home-field advantage will only improve this time around, too.
8. Real Salt Lake
Last season was one to forget for Real Salt Lake, which failed to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Most of the team's core, brought together under former head coach Jason Kreis and former G.M. Lagerwey, has either aged or moved. The result: a massive decline.
Javier Morales is now 36, but the midfield is still heavily reliant on both he and Kyle Beckerman, 33. Central defender Jamison Olave is 34 and a step slower, and his partner in the back is still unclear. Neither Luis Gil nor Sebastian Saucedo played much in 2015, but both are very talented, young midfielders whose departures will hurt Salt Lake’s depth.
Yura Movsisyan returned to RSL this year, and he, along with Joao Plata, will have to have overdeliver for Salt Lake to push for a playoff spot. That still seems unlikely, though, without big midseason changes.
9. Houston Dynamo
Houston was never seriously in contention for a playoff spot last season, and the outlook since then hasn’t gotten better. Cristian Maidana, coming off a 15-assist season for Philadelphia, is a nice new piece of the puzzle, but he came at the expense of former captain Brad Davis—the club’s all-time leader in games, starts, minutes, and assists.
Even with Maidana the Dynamo’s midfield is still aging, with Ricardo Clark and Oscar Boniek Garcia both past 30. Left back DaMarcus Beasley, 33, is also nearing the end of his impressive career.
A playoff run, then, would require a lot of luck and career years from forwards Andrew Wenger, Will Bruin, and Giles Barnes. Don’t get your hopes up.
10. Colorado Rapids
Yes, we did say at the start of this column that MLS standings are hard to predict. But if there’s ever such a thing as a lock, it's this: The Rapids will finish last in the West.
Pablo Mastroeni has been the subject of much criticism since his hire in 2014, and it’s not hard to see why. Over the course of 2015, young players have departed for nothing promising in return, and some of those who stuck around, like central midfielder Dillon Powers, were given little playing time. Mastroeni is going to have to learn how to work with youngsters—which also includes U.S. U-23 players Dillon Serna and Eric Miller—in order to have any hope of turning things around.
The Rapids’ best winter acquisition, Albanian forward Shkelzen Gashi, has plenty of potential but could be stranded if the midfield can’t generate possession. Colorado also acquired Marco Pappa in a trade, but the attacker was stabbed in a bizarre incident in January; thankfully Pappa will recover, but it only enhances the image that nothing can go right these days in Commerce City.
There are credible reports that Tim Howard will be coming to the Rapids this summer, but regardless of Howard’s stature and popularity among fans, such a signing seems like an incredible waste of money. With Clint Irwin in net, goalkeeper was perhaps the Rapids’ only true position of strength. By trading him away to make room for a very expensive Howard, they now have even less money to address their many weaknesses.
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.