MLS Western Conference Preview
MLS Western Conference Preview: LAFC, Minnesota lead the pack while familiar faces follow
April 14, 2021
THE MLS WESTERN CONFERENCE in 2021 is probably a little more stable that the mass changes in the East and the biggest wildcard is the Galaxy under Greg Vanney and his ability to right the ship after poor 2020. But this conference has some older rosters that are difficult to predict and raise questions of hanging onto core players too long.
Teams like Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Minnesota, and Kansas City seem to be very safe bets (or at least as safe as MLS can be) to make the playoffs. The remaining two spots are up for grabs
Yesterday we previewed the Eastern Conference and here is how we think the West will shape up in 2021.
Los Angeles FC (1)
Key additions: Kim Moon-hwan, Marco Farfan, Corey Baird
Key departures: Bradley Wright-Phillips
LAFC comes into the season with the fewest serious questions, and momentum after a nice CONCACAF Champions League run in December where it defeated three Liga MX teams only to suffer a narrow 2-1 defeat to Tigres.
Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi are the best attacking duo in the league, Bob Bradley is one of the best coaches, and Mark Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing, and Eduard Atuesta make up a quality midfield. There is reason to believe Bryan Rodriguez would come back from his loan at Almeria as he’s not exactly crushing it. But this is a team that will make bold moves if needed and might look different in the fall.
The question will be if the defense improves in 2021. That hurt the team in 2020 but it also improved later in the season. Tristan Blackmon’s development here will be something to watch. With the addition of Kim Moon-hwan (a South Korean international), it seems like Blackmon will shift into central defense.
Minnesota United (2)
Key additions: Ramon Abila, Jukka Raitala, Wil Trapp
Key departures: Kevin Molino
It’s fair to be bullish on Minnesota as it is a team on the rise and is younger than most of the other teams it had been chasing in recent years. It checks a lot of boxes in terms of what you want from a contending team. It has an absolute difference maker in Emanuel Reynoso who was terrific since arriving from Boca Juniors. The club has midfield depth and a nice homefield advantage that will hopefully be on display at some point in 2021.
Manager Adrian Heath has done a nice job with this team and it continues to be building something very positive.
Until last week, the question about center forward was the big concern and Juan Agudelo was seen as a potential starter. But last week Minnesota announced it had acquired Ramon Abila from Boca Juniors. At 31, Abila had 34 goals and 13 assists in 81 matches for the powerful Argentine club.
With Reynoso, Jan Gregus, Ozzie Alonso, Hassani Dotson, Ethan Finlay, Robin Lod – there is just a solid amount of midfield and wing depth.
If this team stays healthy, it certainly can contend for MLS Cup.
Sporting Kansas City (3)
Key additions: Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Remi Walter
Key departures: Matt Besler, Gerso Fernandes, Felipe Gutierrez
It wasn’t long ago when Sporting Kansas City was a team with elite defense anchored by Matt Belser and Ike Opara. The past two years, the team struggled defensively but defensive midfielder Remi Walter and central defender Nicolas Isimat-Mirin have been brought into shore up the backline.
The team’s attack is solid enough for the team to be really good, but how will the additions pan out on the other side of the ball? Peter Vermes has earned the benefit of the doubt here.
From an American perspective, Tim Melia remains one of the best goalkeepers in the league even as he will turn 35 next month. Gianluca Busio will also need to show continued growth as he looks set to move further up the field into a more attacking position. Sporting has a bunch of homegrowns that will also look to make an impact this year.
But success this year will largely come down to Mexican international Alan Pulido who gives the team the impact player it needs to win. If Pulido has a big year, so will Kansas City.
Portland Timbers (4)
Key additions: Josecarlos Van Rankin, Claudio Bravo
Key departures: Jorge Villafana, Marco Farfan
The core group of players remains the same for Portland once again as Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Yimmi Chara all return for the 2021 season. This Portland team is very much the same as last year – only with improved fullbacks with the acquisitions of Josecarlos Van Rankin and Claudio Bravo. Everyone else is a year older and the core is now all over 30.
These are all good players and Portland will continue to win games but it is fair to ask what this team will look like come playoff time? How much gas will be in the tank?
While much of the league has grown younger and more into player development, Portland has focused on older, veteran players. There are two interesting American players on this team in Eryk Williamson and Jeremy Ebobisse who were both controversial cuts from the U.S. U-23 team but are both key to Portland. Ebobisse has been a player the Timbers have been trying to replace (while he has been underrated internationally) but he still scores. Between 2019 and 2020 he has 20 goals.
The Timbers will be good are they going to be better than 2020 or are they going to be worse?
Seattle Sounders (5)
Key additions: Freddy Montero, Kelyn Rowe
Key departures: Gustav Svensson, Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam
Like their rivals in Portland, the Seattle Sounders are another team that seem to be getting a little older and it is hard to see them being as good as 2020. Jordan Morris will miss the season, Nico Loderio, 32, will miss the first few weeks. This team relies so heavily on Lodeiro and he typically find a way of getting on the ball all the time.
Seattle are the defending Western Conference champs but how much longer can it be the Lodeiro show – especially in the absence of Morris? Raul Ruidiaz will turn 31 this summer, Joao Paulo also turned 30 last month. Freddy Montero will be welcomed back to Seattle but he’s 33.
The good news for the Sounders it that the drop-off won’t bee too quick. They are still a good team with a very good manager. But it is hard to see this team improving or reloading the way others have.
LA Galaxy (6)
Key additions: Derrick Williams, Víctor Vázquez, Jonathan Bond, Samuel Grandsir
Key departures: Cristian Pavon, David Bingham, Rolf Feltscher
The Galaxy come into this season with far more questions than answers. If you are a supporter and want to believe, there are plenty of reasons to do so. If you are skeptical, you can remain being a skeptic.
Gone are Cristian Pavon, the extremely talented but troubled attacking midfielder and that is a huge area of concern.
On the other hand, it is hard to see Chicharito being as dreadful as he was in 2020. He’s only going be more dangerous if he is fit from the get-go. Plus there are youngsters in Julian Araujo and Efra Alvarez who should continue to progress and the departure of Feltscher should move Araujo back to his right back.
But above it all, new manager Greg Vanney should bring stable leadership that was missing under Guillermo Barros Schelotto. It will be interesting to see him build a team that needs a lot of work but has a nice blend of youth and experience. Plus, this team could potentially grow and evolve within the season as well.
This can go either way, but we’re predicting playoffs for the Galaxy.
FC Dallas (7)
Key additions: Jader Obrian, Freddy Vargas, Jose Antonio Martinez
Key departures: Michael Barrios, Reto Ziegler, Bryan Reynolds, Thiago Santos
FC Dallas is a team built with a youthful core and lately it has been enough to squeak them into the playoffs. What has held them back in years past, however, was the lack of big-time production from their veterans or pricey imports.
The offense for FC Dallas is intriguing but still full of questions. Jadar Obrian arrives to play the wing and he was one of the top scorers in the Colombian league. Franco Jara arrived last year and ended the season playing very well. Paxton Pomykal returns from injury. That frontline could be good or could disappoint. Will Pomykal’s healthy hold up? Will Obrian adjust well to FC Dallas?
Then there is the youth core. Tanner Tessmann played a lot in his first season after singing a homegrown deal? Will he continue progress and become an impact player? Jesus Ferreira disappointed in 2020 but can he return to form in 2021? Ricardo Pepi is one of the top 2003-born players emerging in the league? Will he get minutes and will he score? Thomas Roberts has always been on the verge of regular minutes but has never broken through? This seems to be a pivotal year for him.
Dallas is seems likely to flirt again around the fringes of the playoffs but we’re going to predict they find a way to sneak in there.
Colorado Rapids (8)
Key additions: Michael Barrios
Key departures: No major departures
2020 was a tumultuous year for Colorado which played well, was shutdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak, eventually impressed down the stretch, got into the playoffs where they were easily beaten by Minnesota.
There is a lot to like about the Rapids last year. Robin Fraser is doing a nice job on a smaller budget and the team plays very hard. It’s tough, however, to predict the playoffs as so many players exceeded expectations last year. Jonathan Lewis put up big numbers last year in limited minutes and Cole Bassett emerged as one of the league’s top young American players.
A lot has to go right for Colorado to get into the postseason but keeping this team together will also be a challenge. Bassett has stated he wants to get sold to Europe and he was expected to be with the U.S. U-20 team this spring. If he impresses in the season’s first few months, a sale could happen in the summer. The same can and should also be said for Sam Vines.
The Rapids have the ability to make the playoffs and they could be close. Again, the fact that they are even making a strong case is because of Fraser.
San Jose Earthquakes (9)
Key additions: Eric Remedi, Javier Lopez, Luciano Abecasis
Key departures: Nick Lima, Danny Hoesen
In 2020, San Jose snuck into the playoffs in a year where most teams made the playoffs. Their -16 goal differential was reflective of their poor defense and the team’s attack is still being led by 38 year old Chris Wondolowski. The additions to this team are a pair of players in Javier Lopez and Luciano Abecasis who previously played under Almeyda at Chivas and River Plate, respectively.
This team is not better than it was in 2020 and that should be a concern. It’s not like it is FC Dallas or Colorado which can legitimately have reason to believe some very young players will improve in 2021. Cade Cowell is a talented U.S. youth player but still too young to bank on being a real contributor.
The playoffs are possible, but it’s hard to make that a prediction.
Houston Dynamo (10)
Key additions: Tim Parker, Maxi Urruti, Fafa Picault, Joe Corona, Derrick Jones
Key departures: Kiki Struna
When Tab Ramos took this job, the team needed a lot of work that would take some time. A top youth coach, Ramos did not have a lot of young players to work with and building the academy was always going to take time. But just to compete in the present, Ramos needed to retool the team’s approach.
The loss of designated players Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas during the 2020 season certainly hurt the team’s offense. But Ramos has added steady, league-veteran players in their place. Tim Parker is a good defender in this league and he will help bolster the backline. Fafa Picault, Joe Corona, and Maxi Urruti are dependable veterans.
In terms of younger players, expect to see defender Ethan Bartlow and winger/right back Ian Hoffmann get phased in during this season as Ramos will want to start taking that approach.
This team is starting to look like an older version of Ramos’ scrappy U-20 teams early in his tenure – full of many dependable players and a few standouts. Over the course of a season, that’s probably not going to be enough for the playoffs, but this team will work hard and be tough to play against.
But with too many teams spending real money on difference making players, Houston has one designated player in Darwin Quintero – who will turn 34 later in the season. Philadelphia didn’t rely much on designated players but won the Supporters Shield by also having some really good young players and smart veterans. Houston has smart veterans now but doesn’t have top young players or difference designated players.
They’ll be better and a tough out for opponents, but they are probably missing too much to make the playoffs.
Vancouver Whitecaps (11)
Key additions: Deiber Caicedo, Bruno Gaspar, Caio Alexandre
Key departures: Freddy Montero
The last few seasons have been brutal for Vancouver but they’ve added youth with Alexandre and Caicedo while also parting ways with an aging Freddy Montero. The team has the talent to be pretty good and Lucas Cavallini is a good finisher.
Talent wise, the playoffs are within reach. Playing on the road for an indefinite amount of time with home games in Rio Tinto is going to take its toll for all of the Canadian teams. There is a mental aspect of this too which will isn’t going to make this easy.
Austin FC (12)
Key additions: N/A
Key departures: N/A
The inaugural season of Austin FC will be eagerly anticipated and recent expansion teams have been both good (Atlanta, LAFC), bad (FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami), and in between (Nashville). Austin FC seems like it could be an in-between type team. Unlike expansion teams that have struggled, Austin is not over-relying on the roster of a USL team nor does it have foreign people running the team who have little clue about the level and style of the league.
Instead, the team is being run by technical director Claudio Reyna and new manager Josh Wolff who both know the league well. In their first year, they are bringing in players who are not splashy but are dependable veterans - players like Matt Besler, Nick Lima, Ben Sweat, Alexander Ring, and Diego Fagundez.
Overall, the playoffs are still asking a lot, but this is not a bad starting point at all for this team.
Real Salt Lake (13)
Key additions: Bobby Wood, Anderson Julio, Rubio Rubin
Key departures: Giuseppi Rossi, Kyle Beckerman, Corey Baird
This team’s attack still lacks goalscoring threats as the addition of former U.S. youth international Rubio Rubin and the summer arrival of former U.S. national team forward Bobby Wood are tough to get excited about. Everything needs to break their way.
Their backline, anchored by Justen Glad and right back Aaron Herrera, are all solid American players who were among the few decent players on the U.S. U-23 team that failed to qualify for the Olympics.
The roster is subpar, but that’s only part of the problem. The team is still looking for new ownership and there has been progress on that front. But with the league essentially running the team, leadership from the top is also missing.
Real Salt Lake, playing high in altitude, is always generally tough to beat at home. They’re really going to have to capitalize on that – when saying that is a huge factor for them, it showcases that the team is in trouble.