MLS Western Conference Preview: LAFC & Seattle remain strong
February 27, 2020
THE 25th SEASON of MLS will kickoff this Wednesday and the Western Conference will provide the fireworks. The Eastern conference is far more chaotic at the moment but the Western Conference has more stable teams more expensive talent.
Predicting the first four teams seems like a safe bet – by MLS standards. The teams that will struggle are also mostly known. The middle of the pack – and the playoff race – will be interesting. There is also quality coaching. Aside from the expansion team, Nashville, the only team that will have a different manager than the one that closed the 2019 season is Houston with Tab Ramos.
So, here is Part Two of the 2020 MLS preview – The Western Conference. If you have not read Jamie Hill’s excellent Part One for the East, be sure to do so.
1: Los Angeles FC
Key additions: Jose Cifuentes, Francisco Ginella
Key departures: Tyler Miller, Walker Zimmerman, Steve Beitashour
It is hard to pick against LAFC this year. The team has enough offensive firepower to stay way atop the Western Conference and is very well-coached by Bob Bradley. But there are fair questions to ask. Is the team overly dependent on Carlos Vela? Can it win without him? Is the latest round of young imports from South America, defensive midfielder Jose Cifuentes and Francisco Ginella, going to pan out? With youth, there is always a question.
Then the backline remains significantly weaker than its attacking components. Shipping off Walker Zimmerman meant that the team is losing a very consistent presences but one that was likely done because of salary constraints. The CONCACAF Champions League showed that this is problem right now for LAFC.
But there is simply too much offensive talent and too much of a home-field advantage to bet against them – in the regular season. As we saw last year, the playoffs are a different beast. The intensity is elevated and there is a greater value on defense. That lets teams like Seattle catch-up. To win MLS Cup, LAFC will have to hope its backline develops solid chemistry over the course of the season or that it finds a way to import defenders in the summer.
2: Seattle Sounders
Key additions: Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Joao Paulo
Key departures: Roman Torres, Kim Kee-hee
There is everything to like about the direction of the Seattle Sounders right now. As defending champs, Seattle is in great shape to defend their title. The moves they make are well thought-out and have a high likelihood of succeeding. The result is that the team is very balanced is just about all areas of the field.
Roman Torres is gone but is replaced in the back by Colombian central defender Yeimar Gomez Andrade who is in his prime and a veteran of Argentina’s Primera. Then in central midfield, designated player Joao Paulo should be able to create from deep to set up one of the best offensive trios in Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz, and Nicolas Lodeiro.
When you combine it with the fact that so much of this team has experience with each other, is very well-coached by Brian Schmetzer, has reliable goalkeeping, and one of the best home-field advantages in the league, then Seattle is truly one of the elite teams in the league.
It is very possible they can finish ahead of LAFC and they should be the favorites to win MLS Cup again.
3: Minnesota United
Key additions: Tyler Miller, Luis Amarilla
Key departures: Darwin Quintero, Vito Mannone
Minnesota United is in strong shape in 2020 on the heels of making the playoffs for the first time. While Darwin Quintero is gone, Luis Amarilla comes in to replace him and the Paraguayan is younger and hungry to make a difference. In goal, Tyler Miller is a solid replacement for Vito Mannone.
The team is balanced and doesn’t have many weaknesses. Jan Gregus is a rock in midfield and if Ozzie Alonso starts slowing down, U.S. U-23 midfielder Hassani Dotson is ready to fill the void.
The team still needs more creative forces in the midfield and that hurt down the stretch in 2019. There was not enough improvement there but the team is ambitious and will make moves if that is a problem midseason.
4: Los Angeles Galaxy
Key additions: Javier Hernandez, Aleksandar Katai, Emiliano Insúa
Key departures: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Favio Alvarez
A lot of goals left with the departure of Zlatan but a lot of goals will arrive with the much anticipated arrival of Chicharito. As great as Zlatan was, the Galaxy were not great with him – missing the playoffs in year one, and winning one playoff game in year two.
There is an optimistic take that the overall team might be better and that the team is in better position to have all the pieces working together well. There is basis for optimism. Chicharito scores almost all of his goals from close range but with the addition of Katai, the second season of Carlos Pavon, and the veteran presence of Sebastian Lletget, Jonathan Dos Santos, and Joe Corona, there are plenty of avenues to get Chicarito the ball in dangerous places. Plus Katai and Pavon can also score on their own and also make up for the goal loss of Zlatan.
But defense remains a huge concern. They will score a lot but like their city-rivals LAFC, defense is going to make the difference in the playoffs and big games. This team is still incomplete.
5: FC Dallas
Key additions: Fafa Picault, Thiago Santos, Franco Jara
Key departures: Pablo Aranguiz, Dominique Badji
The youthful FC Dallas team added notable veterans with winger Fara Picualt, defensive midfielder Thiago Santos, and attacker Franco Jara which should only help the young players continue to grow as there is much more stable leadership to draw from.
A lot of Dallas will depend on the growth of the team’s young core. Can Brandon Servania and Jesus Ferreira avoid sophomore slumps? Can Paxton Pomykal develop into the impact player that he showed was possible in 2019? Can Pomykal stay healthy?
Zdenek Ondrasek also turned the corner down the stretch and should be more dependable in 2019. He might not score at the rate he did down the stretch, but he won’t be MIA the way he was in the first half of the season either.
6: San Jose Earthquakes
Key additions: Oswaldo Alanis
Key departures: Anibal Godoy, Harold Cummings
San Jose remains mostly unchanged from 2019 and 2020 (with the one notable addition being Oswaldo Alanis in central defense) and the hope this year is that consistency under Matias Almeyda will only see the team improve even more.
Last year, San Jose had an awful start, solid midseason, and terrible end. Despite those holes in either side of the season, the club nearly made the playoffs. The improved chemistry under Almeyda shoud mean that improvement is very possible. But it will need to avoid injuries at all costs. Also, U.S. national team midfielder Jackson Yueill will need to show continued growth.
7: Portland Timbers
Key additions: Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Felipe Mora, Yimmi chara, Dario Zuparic
Key departures: Brian Fernandez, Zarek Valentin
Last season, Portland played poorly down the stretch – despite having a 10-game homestand due to stadium improvements earlier in the season. This year, the team has the advantage of significant improvements in offense while disrupting the team’s core too much with and Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Sebastian Blanco all in the starting eleven.
This year will come down to the ability of Giovani Savarese to put it all together. It has talent to finish much higher-up but Savarese will be the telling story. There are a lot of good coaches in the Western Conference.
8: Sporting Kansas City
Key additions: Alan Pulido, Winston Reid, Roberto Puncec
Key departures: Krisztian Nemeth, Benny Feilhaber, Seth Sinovic
Sporting Kansas City can go either way. They might find a way to surge in the West this year, or they could miss out badly again. For one, Peter Vermes is a good coach who has won in this league and knows what it takes. The addition of Alan Pulido will mean that the team will potentially score a lot more goals. That’s all good.
But Sporting Kansas City conceded a woeful 67 goals in 2019. Is the addition of Roberto Puncec in central defense really going to swing that many goals? He’s a good addition to the team and Sporting will score more to also help reduce goal difference margin. But on the other hand, there is a ton of offensive firepower in the Western Conference – far more than in 2019. How is Sporting going to stop that?
9: Colorado Rapids
Key additions: Auston Trusty, Nicolas Benezet
Key departures: Tim Howard, Tommy Smith
Because of Colorado’s terrible start in 2019, many people forget that the team had a winning record the rest of the way once Anthony Hudson was fired. Robin Fraser is a good coach who can put together a strong system to give his team a chance.
But there is still a huge talent gap and good coaching can only do so much. Auston Trusty is a good defender and Kellyn Acosta is a good midfielder, but there is a lack of difference makers who can put the team on their backs against some quality opposition.
10: Real Salt Lake
Key additions: Jeizon Ramirez
Key departures: Nick Rimando, Jefferson Savarino, Brooks Lennon
Despite the coaching turmoil in 2019, Real Salt Lake was pretty good and made the playoffs – only to lose in a tough matchup to Seattle. There is no reason to think the team is any better this year, while there is plenty of reason to think other teams have improved.
Nick Rimando was such a steady presence in goal, it will take years to hope someone can grow into that reliability. American fans might hope Real Salt Lake takes the time to grow the very talented U.S. U-20 keeper David Ochoa into the role, but no one will be under the illusion he can match Rimando’s level at 18 years old.
But the loss of Jefferson Savarino in a sale to Atletico Mineiro is also a tough blow. Jeizon Ramirez, 18, is very promising but is still likely to fall well short of matching Savarino at this age and stage of his career.
Real Salt Lake is almost in a stage of rebuilding under manager Freddy Juarez, who earned the job on a full-time basis in the offseason. The team lost a lot and its replacements are more future projects.
Still, Real Salt Lake has some reliable veterans and Rio Tinto remains a tough place to play. With MLS being naturally tough to predict, anything can happen but a lot needs to break Real Salt Lake’s way to be in the playoffs.
11: Houston Dynamo
Key additions: Darwin Quintero, Victor Cabrera, Marko Maric
Key departures: Romell Quito, DaMarcus Beasley, Joe Willis
The arrival of new manager Tab Ramos is exciting for Houston but the former successful U.S. U-20 head coach has his work cut out for him. This is a team that still needs a lot of work and previous coaches have been unsuccessful. Its academy has not been successful and even with the arrival of Ramos, it is still years away from having a pipeline similar to the better ones in the league.
The arrival of Darwin Quintero will bring goals and playing with Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis will only help alleviate the production that duo needed for it to win games. But the team is not balanced with there being holes in defense and in the midfield.
Ramos will likely need time to turn the team around – although his arrival in the league and his staff of Omid Namazi and Pablo Mastroeni is exciting.
12: Vancouver Whitecaps
Key additions: Lucas Cavallini, Cristian Dajome
Key departures: Doneil Henry, Jon Erice
The Whitecaps have drifted into obscurity in recent years and that came to a head after the 2018 season when exit interviews devolved into finger pointing and blaming. Last season was bad, but at least the team understood it was rebuilding. 2020 will continue on that path with more additions of positions in need with also addition by subtraction in removing players who weren’t fitting in well – such as recent captain Jon Erice.
Canadian international Lucas Cavallini shouldn’t have trouble adjusting into the league and there are real reasons to feel good about Cristian Dajome.
The team still needs a lot more work but it will take time. One of the big mistakes a team can make in a rebuild is to panic and sign players who end up being too expensive, or who can’t adjust to the league. Vancouver isn’t heading down that road. 2020 is probably too soon to expect a playoff push but the rebuild is a long process.
13. Nashville SC
Key additions: N/A
Key departures: N/A
There are two ways to approach being an expansion team. Either you go all in like Atlanta United or even Inter Miami are doing. Or you try to slow build into a contender. Minnesota United did this and now look to be in good shape.
Nashville isn’t Miami or Atlanta. But the team is also avoiding turning into Cincinnati – which has provided all new teams with the blue print of what not to do. Nashville is trying to build its roster with reliable and steady defenders, first. Then probably focus on offense in future windows.
As a result, the team won’t be the defensive nightmare that Cincinnati was. Walker Zimmerman, Dax McCarty, Dave Romney, Anival Godoy will keep it competitive in games. As with other teams, further growth can be implemented in future windows and offseason.