MLS Western Conference Preview
MLS 2022: Western Conference preview & predictions - Seattle & Nashville lead the pack
February 22, 2022
THE MLS WESTERN CONFERENCE is a lot harder to predict than the Eastern Conference in terms of the mid-range playoff battling teams. Nashville’s switch from the East to the West is going to have a big impact because it makes things in the West that much more crowded for the conference’s bubble teams.
Seattle and Nashville come into the season with far fewer questions and look ready to compete well right off the bat. On the flip side, there is every reason in the world to be pessimistic about the postseason hopes for Real Salt Lake, Houston, and Austin.
Essentially, we believe that gives us nine teams realistically fighting for five playoff spots. That’s essentially the story of the west in a nutshell.
With that said, here is a team by team look at how I see the West and how I think they’ll finish.
Predicted finish: 1st in the Western Conference
Seattle Sounders have everything going for them heading into this offseason. They have a great coach in Brian Schmetzer (the MLS coach of the Decade, if there was such a thing) and they’ve strengthened an already strong roster.
Essentially they added two designated players in their prime years. Albert Rusnak arrives from Real Salt Lake and he is an elite player in this league. Plus, Jordan Morris has returned from his ACL tear that sidelined him until the final weeks of the 2021 season. Morris was understandably rusty when he came back but over the course of this season, he should only be gaining steam. At this best, he’s one of the best wingers (maybe the best) in the league.
While Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz are now over 30, they won’t need to do all the heavy lifting like they did in 2021. So age shouldn’t be as much of a concern.
Then there is a strong supporting cast consisting of both Roldan brothers, Joao Paulo (a Best XI candidate), Stefan Frei, and many others.
Also this year, the team is going to continue developing top young American players like Josh Atencio, Reed Baker-Whiting.
Seattle looks like the best team in the league to start the season.
Key departures: Shane O'Neill and Brad Smith
Key arrivals: Albert Rusnak
Predicted finish: 2nd in the Western Conference
Nashville SC comes into this season knowing it has the best defense in the league – led by two-time reigning defender of the year and U.S. national team central defender Walker Zimmerman.
This year, the team brought in an experienced and solid defensive midfielder in Sean Davis to ease the workload of Dax McCarty – who is now 34.
Nashville only lost four times in 2021 but finished third due to 18 draws over the 34-game season. During the season, the team conceded just 33 goals. Everything is build on defense and only a slight tick upward in offense could help lead to some of those draws turning into wins. On the flip side, if the defense cracks a little, there could be more losses.
You can’t bet heavily on a team that has such strong defense. All of those players will return too.
The question is offense and Teal Bunbury isn’t that significant of an upgrade. If Nashville could make some offensive additions during the season (and I think they will), they could take off. Their shortcomigs are well defined and not too hard to fix. They have the system, are well coached, and they have the defense.
The problem with Nashville is that they’re overly reliant on two players: Walker Zimmerman and Hany Mukhtar. Mukhtar makes everything run offensively and the team needs to find a way to have another point of attack.
But for now, they’re fine.
Key Departures: Alistair Johnston, Jhonder Cadiz
Key Additions: Sean Davis, Teal Bunbury
Los Angeles FC
Predicted finish: 3rd in the Western Conference
LAFC is moving on from a vastly disappointing 2021 where they failed to make the playoffs and a number of players had disappointing seasons.
LAFC made a lot of changes this offseason and the first comes at the top with Steve Cherundolo getting his first head coaching job at a first-team level. There is always a risk giving a guy his first job at the first-team level. A lot of fans hope the U.S. international will be up to the task as he was an immensely popular player. But coaching is a different field and it doesn’t always translate.
Cherundolo has been gaining experience coaching at the youth and assistant levels both domestically and abroad (most recently LAFC’s second team in Las Vegas) but now he makes the jump. Las Vegas struggled last season in USL but that was due to playing very young players on a team with no stable core.
LAFC has made some strong additions to address weaknesses or losses during the offseason. The team made some smart moves bringing in proven MLS talent in Kellyn Acosta, Maxime Crepeau, Ille Sanchez, Ryan Hollingshead, and Franco Escobar. These players are all good and have little risk.
Acosta will attempt to fill the massive void left by Eduard Atuesta. It’s a tough task, but Acosta offers the best chance. Maxime Crepeau will also address the team’s need for solid goalkeeping.
A big challenge for Cherundolo will be getting Carlos Vela back to the level of being a dominant player in the league. Cristian Arango is back, and he has been great since his arrival but the scoring pace he was at in 2021 is probably unsustainable. If Vela can return to being a top attacking player, LAFC will almost certainly return to the playoffs.
LAFC is not a sure bet. The team made a heavy bet on Cherundolo. If his system works and the players respond and buy in, LAFC will be in great shape. But that’s a big “if.”
Key Departures: Eduard Atuesta
Key Additions: Kellyn Acosta, Franco Escobar, Maxime Crepeau, Ille Sanchez, Ryan Hollingshead
Sporting Kansas City
Predicted finish: 4th in the Western Conference
Sporting Kansas City is far different now than where it was a year ago. Last summer, Gianluca Busio was sold. Then there was the devastating news in January that Alan Pulido suffered a torn ACL and will miss the entire season. That has left the team scrambling for a forward. The team also lost Ille Sanchez and Jaylin Lindsey.
It is a daunting task to replace Pulido on short notice and this past week the club added Nikola Vujnovic who joined on loan from Serbian side FK Vozdovac (with an option to buy). The Montenegro national team striker will have to adjust to the league quickly.
But Sporting has the benefit of a consistent manager like Peter Vermes who knows the league better than anyone else and knows how to win. He should be able to have his teams withstand a loss better than anyone else in terms of filling from withing as well as importing from elsewhere.
Key Departures: Ille Sanchez and Jaylin Lindsey
Key Additions: Nikola Vujnovic, Robert Voloder, Logan Ndenbe
Predicted finish: 5th in the Western Conference
Portland Timbers finished fourth in the regular season but went on a strong playoff run to make MLS Cup where it narrowly lost in a shutout.
This team is largely the same and it should be in a good place this season. Club legend Diego Valeri has left but that was expected, and goalkeeper Steve Clark is off to Houston. The one addition to the club was teenage David Ayala who was one of the top teenagers in Argentina’s Primera.
The fact that Portland didn’t bring in many additions doesn’t mean that the team does have opportunities to grow. Eryk Williamson will return in the early parts of the season from an ACL tear and as he shakes off the rust, Portland’s midfield will be bolstered. Santiago Moreno was important last summer and showed a lot of promise in the playoffs, now he will have preseason and a whole season to adjust.
Portland also sealed new deals with Josecarlos Van Rankin and Sebastian Blanco. It’s hard to see the team being any worse than last season. The addition of Nashville will bump most teams down a peg, but Portland should be good again – and a bit younger as well.
Key Departures: Steve Clark and Diego Valeri
Key Additions: David Ayala
Predicted finish: 6th in the Western Conference
In 2021, Colorado Rapids were the feel-good story of the MLS season. Despite a smaller payroll, the team finished ahead of teams like Seattle, SKC, Portland, both LA teams to win the Western Conference regular-season title. It was a surprise because many, including ASN, didn’t predict the Rapids to even make the postseason.
A big reason for the Rapids overperforming was Robin Fraser – who, awards aside, was probably the best coach in the league last season. With Fraser, Colorado has great leadership on the field.
Even with Fraser, there are challenges given the team’s small budget along with the recent sales of key players. Right now, there isn’t a designated player on the roster, and it remains a big question where the goals will come from.
Last summer, the team sold Sam Vines. Then in the offseason, it traded away Kellyn Acosta and loaned Cole Bassett to Feyenoord. The team has brough into some good players like Lucas Esteves (a left back to replace Vines), Max Alves, and Bryan Acosta.
The team has been replacing the players it lost, but for this payroll, everything has to go right for it to work well. Fraser is a good coach, but he has his work cut out for him, again. If it wasn’t for him, the team could be in trouble.
The loss of Kellyn Acosta could be bigger than many realize as he brough both leadership and experience to the spine of the midfield. Bryan Acosta is not going to be able to replace that by himself.
Key Departures: Kellyn Acosta, Cole Bassett, Younes Namli. Austin Trusty will depart in June.
Key Additions: Bryan Acosta and Max Alves
Predicted finish: 7th in the Western Conference
FC Dallas is one of the teams with a very different look in 2022. Starting at the top Nico Estevez has replaced Luchi Gonzalez as the head coach. Ricardo Pepi was the team’s leading scorer and he was sold to Augsburg. Justin Che was similarly sold and Ryan Hollingshead was traded to LAFC.
Estevez is going to try to get the team back on track and into the postseason. Part of where the team struggled in recent years was with its foreign imports. Alan Velasco is one of the most exciting imports into the league over the past year. At Independiente, he was one of the top young Argentine wingers in the league. If Velasco can play to his potential, he could replace Pepi’s output – and more.
The addition of Arriola will give Dallas another attacking option from out wide. The team has the width to stretch opponents. Then there is Jesus Ferreira who returned to form after a bad 2020. There is also Paxton Pomykal who had missed a lot of time in 2019-2020. Then last season, he was getting sharper and making up for the three surgeries he underwent the previous years. This should be a year where Pomykal reminds everyone why he was such a top prospect in in 2018.
A lot must go right, of course, for all of the above to happen. Even more importantly, the team’s defense needs to rise to the occasion as it does not look strong on paper.
Dallas is known for its development and the players that have come through the academy. But Dallas fans want to win and be a team that can get into the playoffs. Development is nice, but it will only lead to frustration for fans to watch Dallas alums do great things abroad without having done anything to help Dallas win (unlike Tyler Adams for RBNY, Brenden Aaronson for Philadelphia, or even James Sands at NYCFC).
Most pundits will probably have Dallas outside of the playoff line. That’s certainly a fair opinion. But we like Velasco and we think a lot will break in Dallas favor to sneak into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.
Key Departures: Ricardo Pepi, Ryan Hollingshead, Justin Che
Key Additions: Paul Arriola, Alan Velasco, Marco Faran
Predicted finish: 8th in the Western Conference
Last season, the Galaxy narrowly missed out of the playoffs and a main reason was its defense – which bled 54 goals over 34 games. In the offseason, the club said goodbyes to Jonathan Dos Santos and Sebastian Lletget. The biggest import to Greg Vanney’s team is Douglas Costa, who was one of the biggest imports to the entire league.
Strategically, it could work. Kevin Cabral and Douglas Costa are explosive wing options and they will play in front of Jorge Villafana and Julian Araujo – two attacking fullbacks. The Galaxy can attack from wide options and that should create the space Chicarito can exploit for goals. Offensively, that is good.
But there are plenty of issues. The team might be overly reliant on Víctor Vázquez for attacking up the middle and the Spaniard is now 35. But will Delgado, Rayan Raveloson, Samuel Grandsir, or Efra Alvarez be enough in the midfield? That’s a tall ask. Then there is the defense, which could be a problem.
LA Galaxy could make the playoffs, and there will be many who predict it. For now, we have them narrowly on the outside.
Key Departures: Jonathan dos Santos, Sebastian Lletget
Key Additions: Douglas Costa, Marky Delgado
Predicted finish: 9th in the Western Conference
Minnesota United’s midfield lost three noteworthy players in Ozzie Alonso, Jan Gregus, and Thomas Chacon – with the first two being more significant. Alonso had never missed the playoffs.
Emmanuel Reynoso is one of the best No. 10 playmakers in the league, but the midfielders behind him are where the questions are. Kervin Arreaga or Wil Trapp will have to take one of the midfield roles and it will be tough for either player to replace Gregus. Hassani Dotson is an interesting young player who deserves to start in this league, but matching Alonso’s ability to play the position (even when Alonso was older) is an uphill climb.
Luis Amarilla is back as a designated player, and he was with the team previously in 2020. Now he will be joining now on a full-time basis. That is a quality add to go along with DP forward Adrien Hunou.
There is no question that Minnesota has some interesting pieces, but can Adrian Heath put it all together? There is also the question of midfield depth and the ability to create if Reynoso is injured or can’t play.
It is certainly a team that can beat anyone with his best XI, but the team seems to lack the depth needed to succeed over the course of a 34 game season.
Key Departures: Ozzie Alonso, Jan Gregus, Thomas Chacon
Key Additions: Luis Amarilla, Bongokuhle Hlongwane , Kervin Arreaga
Predicted finish: 10th in the Western Conference
Vancouver really responded last season when Vanni Sartini took over as coach on an interim basis and helped guide the club on an unexpected run to the postseason. It’s not a new case, however, where a team responds well to a coaching change but then fails to respond well over the long term under the same coach. It is too early to tell if Sartini’s success will carryover into a new year when players will need to respond to him on a full-time basis.
Vancouver is clearly better where they were a few years ago and they should be in the mix to return to the postseason again. I think that the standings in the Western conference will be tight over spots 3-11.
The good news for Sartini is that he’s bringing back almost the entire team. The biggest loss is Max Crepeau, who is an excellent goalkeeper. Thomas Hasal will now have the opportunity to show that he is ready to be a starting goalkeeper, and he has looked good when given the chance.
Sartini will have to hope that the progress Scottish DP Ryan Gauld and Pedro Vite showed last year as midseason acquisitions continues into 2022.
Triston Blackmon should boost the backline and he is the only noteworthy addition.
Key Departures: Max Crepeau, Janio Bikel
Key Additions: Triston Blackmon
San Jose Earthquakes
Predicted finish: 11th in the Western Conference
On paper, there are reasons to believe San Jose will get into the playoffs this season. There is talent there. Javier "Chofis" Lopez and Cristian Espinoza are good attacking players at the DP level and they are both returning. Then there is the midseason trade of Jamiro Monteiro who was excellent for a very good Philadelphia Union team. Jan Gregus can be a very good midfielder in this league. Jeremy Ebobisse is healthy and is a good No. 9. Then you have an exciting U.S. U-20 winger in Cade Cowell has put up good numbers in limited minutes – but who also could be sold this summer.
San Jose didn’t lose much. The retirement of Chris Wondolowski was expected, and defender Oswaldo Alanis is not coming back on a decision made by San Jose not to exercise the option to buy on his loan.
It comes down to Matias Almeyda. San Jose has never looked great under Almeyda and some of his decisions have been puzzling. A lot of teams in the Western Conference are full of question marks. How these questions are answered by the manager will dictate the success of the season. Unfortunately, Almeyda hasn’t given any reason for people to be confident that he will figure it out.
Key Departures: Oswaldo Alanis, Chris Wondolowski.
Key Additions: Jamiro Monteiro, Francisco Calvo, Jan Gregus
Predicted finish: 12th in the Western Conference
Like most expansion teams, Austin FC struggled in 2021 but escaped last place when they beat out the Dynamo on the second-to-last round of the season. Now heading into their second season, Austin FC will look to continue to the slow road of building a relevant team.
As we stand ahead of the season, Austin FC doesn’t look like a playoff team but they should be noticeably improved. The team spent money on improving the defensive spine of the team with central defender Ruben Gabrielsen added from Toulouse and defensive midfielder Jhojan Valencia joining from Deportivo Cali.
With midfielders Alexander Ring, and forwards Sebastián Driussi and Cecillo Dominguez the team has used up its DP spots and all have now had a year to adapt.
The goal should be for this team to be playing relevant games come August and September. Even if they fall short, that will get them into a position to really push for the playoffs in 2023.
Key Departures: Tomas Pochettino, Matt Beser
Key Additions: Jhojan Valencia, Ruben Gabrielsen, Kipp Keller
Real Salt Lake
Predicted finish: 13th in the Western Conference
The best thing for Real Salt Lake is that the team finally found an ownership group in David Blitzer and Ryan Smith’s Smith Entertainment Group (SEG). The team did the best it could during a period where its ownership situation was messy and the league essentially ran the team. The team was a loveable underdog in that regard.
Now the team has the chance to grow properly under a real owner. The problem is moving forward into 2022 just as the new ownership takes root. It also raises the question of whether many of the existing staff is going to gel with the new ownership? Often new owners want to bring in their own people to implement their own vision.
For example, GM Elliot Fall made the decision to hire interim manager Pablo Mastroeni on a permanent basis while new ownership groups were doing their due diligence. It remains to be seen if Mastroeni or Fall fit the new ownership now that the sale is complete.
Everything seems to be up in the air and it is going to take time for SEG to build the club that they want.
The loss of Albert Rusnak is huge and he was the heart and soul of the team. At this point, it isn’t clear if Anderson Julio will return. But the team has just one DP in Damir Kreilach and there is room for the team to grow under SEG. But that will take time.
Two things that the team has going for it is a strong home field advantage (it is tough to play in Utah) and an academy that is generally pretty good.
RSL might not be great in the short term, but their longer-term future could be a lot more bright if SEG is involved.
Key Departures: Albert Rusnak, Anderson Julio
Key Additions: Sergio Cordova
Predicted finish: 14th in the Western Conference
Back in the day, Houston was one of the top teams in the league and the city cared about the team. This was when the team had fun players like Stu Holden, Geoff Cameron, Ricardo Clark, and Dwayne De Rosario and moved into what was one of the league’s nicest stadiums at the time. In 2022, the team seems like an afterthought, attendance is down, and there really hasn’t been anyone exciting to come out of the team in recent memory. The team’s academy has yet to produce a top player for the first team or any major U.S. youth national team.
There is a concerted effort to change that. There is new ownership in Ted Segal, a new general manager in Pat Onstead, and a new head coach in Paulo Nagamura. The academy also has some interesting players coming through the ranks who could help – although not in the short term.
The new team at the top of the chain will have their work cut out for them to make the team competitive, fun to watch, and have the city care about them again.
What the team has going for it is a defense that could be solid. Whenever expansion teams come into the league, it’s smart to build the roster from the back. The Dynamo aren’t an expansion team, but the same principle should apply. With Teenage Hadebe and Tim Parker, the team has two competent central defenders. Parker is a good leader who can win in this league. Combined with Steve Clark, the Dynamo’s backline is not a bad starting point, and a good defense can cover up for a lot in MLS.
The issue will come down to the ability to score goals. That’s where it looks weak for the Dynamo. Last season the team scored just 36 goals in a 34-game season (second worse to expansion Austin FC). The addition of DP forward Sebastian Ferreira who scored goals at a great clip in Paraguay and will look to see that success translated here. He’s a good player, but the Dynamo are either weak or thin in too many areas.
Their defense will keep them in games but winning will be tough.
Key Departures: Maxi Urruit, Boniek Garcia
Key Additions: Sebastian Ferreira, Steve Clark, Zeca