MLS West Preview
Western Conference Preview & Predictions: LAFC & Dallas rank high
February 21, 2023
MAKING PRESEASON PREDICTIONS in MLS is always hard. But making preseason predictions in the West is even harder. As veteran journalist Steve Davis said, the top four teams in the West in 2021 were Colorado, Seattle, Kansas City and Portland. In 2022, none of those four made the playoffs. This is clear evidence that these predictions are impossible, but against our better judgment, we will try anyway and probably look like fools at the end of the season.
I don’t think the 2023 season will be quite as crazy as 2022. I think some teams will improve and some will get worse, but we will see traditional powers like Seattle and Portland return to the postseason. Other teams like LAFC, Dallas, and Austin will continue to be good. I don’t think we will see a completely unexpected team like Colorado in 2021 or Austin in 2022 contend for one of the top positions.
In other words, I think the big takeaway is that the “wildness” from the past two seasons in the West will subside and it will look more like what we think the West should look like.
But the big news is the expanded MLS playoffs. The top seven teams make the first round while the seventh and eighth place teams have a single elimination game to make the first round.
With that in mind, here we go.
Los Angeles FC
Prediction: First in the West
The current MLS Cup Champions will return most of the team’s starting XI from last year’s championship but the losses are significant. The sale of Cristian Arango to Pachuca is huge and losing Latif Blessing to New England hurts the stability of the midfield. Gareth Bale isn’t a great loss because he was never completely healthy when he arrived last summer.
On top of that important players like Carlos Vela is a little bit older as is Ryan Hollingshead and Ilie Sánchez. Combined with new central defender Aaron Long, that is a substantial part of their core that is over 30 years old. Giorgio Chiellini is now 38.
But being an ambitious team, LAFC is always going to be looking for changes and upgrades. The team needs a No. 9 and they will spend to get one. Stipe Biuk was a very interesting and potentially big upgrade on the wings. The Croatian youth international from Hajduk Split should ease the burden off Vela. Denis Bouanga was signed last summer and is still yet to get going. He should be ready to produce in 2023.
Part of picking LAFC to finish first is to be on their front office and second year head coach Steve Cherundolo. This team won’t look nearly the same in the fall as it does now. But will the changes be smart and will Dolo find a way to make it work? For now, we are optimistic for their chances. Why bet against them?
Key Additions: Stipe Biuk, Aaron Long, Timothy Tillman
Key Departures: Cristian Arango, Latif Blessing, Sebastien Ibeagha, Gareth Bale
Prediction: Second in the West
There is a lot to like about the direction FC Dallas is heading. Head coach Nico Estevez built a stable and reliable core in 2022 and made it one of the league’s most improved teams. Now in 2023, he is keeping most of that core together. What is even more important to point out is that this core is all on the younger side with players still in their early to mid-20’s. After years of developing players, Dallas now has a team and a coach that could help them win now.
Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira combined for 28 goals in 2022. Even if that tapers off a little, Alan Velasco should produce a lot more. The highly talented Argentine winger is only 20 but now has a full year of adjusting into the team. He has the talent to be one of the top wingers in the league.
The midfield is also in good shape. After years of dealing with injuries, Paxton Pomykal looked like the once promising U.S. youth international he was. Sebastian Lletget is now 30 but he can bring some experience to the squad.
Defensively, Estevez did great work with Dallas and that was key to their turnaround. Changing the team’s defensive setup saw it conceded just 37 goals in 2022, lowest in the West. While Matt Hedges left the team over the winter, I would not expect a step back. Sebastien Ibeagha brings some grit to central defense and he did well helping LAFC win MLS Cup. Right back Geovane Jesus was acquired by Cruzeiro under the U-22 initiative and he will help.
Dallas has room to maneuver. With Franco Jara leaving, there is an open DP spot beyond Ferreira and Velasco. The front office has work to do. Brandon Servania’s departure hurts the midfield depth. But it will be telling to see if the FC Dallas academy can step up and help fill voids. Historically, that has been a team's strength.
All in all, Dallas is a good team that could push LAFC for top of the table in the West.
Key additions: Geovane Jesus, Sebastien Ibeagha
Key departures: Matt Hedges, Franco Jara
Prediction: Third in the West
Austin FC surged in 2022 in just its second year in the league. After a learning experience in an expansion year, the team finished second in the conference and advanced to the Western Conference Final before being outplayed by LAFC.
The team was heavily reliant – perhaps overly reliant – on all-star Sebastián Driussi. He should continue to be one of the best players in the league but the question is whether or not Austin has a second point of attack. Diego Fagundez and Maxi Urruti were productive, and both are returning. But a big upgrade should be a healthy and in-form Emiliano Rigoni. The Argentine winger signed a DP deal last summer but only played seven games for the club and did not score. He is still an untapped resource.
Gyasi Zardes, now 31, should help as a free agent addition. 2022 center forward Moussa Djitte only scored five goals in 2022 and Zardes will be an upgrade.
For head coach Josh Wolff, the issue becomes the team’s defensive approach. Ruben Gabrielsen was excellent in central defense in 2022 but he wanted to return home to Norway. The addition of Finland international Leo Vaisanen will be critical.
Overall, Austin is a little thin and reliant on one player, but Rigoni and Zardes will help ease the burden. It’s all about the defense right now but Austin should still be good.
Key additions: Leo Vaisanen, Gyasi Zardes,
Key departures: Ruben Gabrielsen, Moussa Djitte
Seattle Sounders FC
Prediction: Fourth in the West
It was the best of times and the worst of times for Seattle in 2022. The team won the CONCACAF Champions League in 2022 and became the first MLS team to do so in the modern era – rolling through two Liga MX teams and NYCFC in the process. After that, they crashed and burned – failing to even make the MLS playoffs.
The news is that Seattle is bringing back the entire core and the team has only minimal additions and departures. But that could change throughout the year as GM Garth Lagerwey left and Craig Waibel was promoted into that spot in the offseason.
The truth is that Seattle is an older team. Nicholas Lodeiro, Joao Paulo, Raul Ruidiaz, and Stefan Frei are all starters over 30 and they all struggled in the second half of the season.
This core will have to be replaced sooner than later, but for 2023 it should be enough to get them back into the playoffs. Not playing in the CONCACAF Champions League will help. Seattle lost a lot of points due to the CCL serving as a distraction. Plus, head coach Brian Schmetzer has a nice list of promising homegrown players who will need minutes – players like Obed Vargaz, Reed Baker-Whiting, and Danny Leyva.
Seattle will be improved in 2023 just because of a better focus on the league games. But is this the begining of the end for one of the best core group of players the league has ever seen? Maybe
Key Additions: Herber
Key Departures: Will Bruin
Prediction: Fifth in the West
After losing MLS Cup at home in 2021, the Portland Timbers failed to make the playoffs in 2022 thanks to a collapse in the final three games of the season.
Portland made just one serious upgrade in the offseason and that is Evander – the DP No. 10 who was an assist machine in the Europa League with FC Midtjylland in Denmark. The Brazilian was one of the best players in the Danish Super Liga and he will go a long way to helping Portland get back on its feet.
Portland will be hoping for upgrades this year from within. Eryk Williamson spent the first half of 2022 still getting his legs back from an ACL injury. Jarosaw Niezgoda and Santiago Moreno should be in a better position to succeed. Jose Carlos Van Rankin left the club to make way for young right back Juan David Mosquera.
The question will come down to central defense. With a potential pairing of Zac McGraw and the aging Larrys Mabiala, there is concern there. If they struggle, Portland can struggle. But with the playoffs expanding, they should be okay.
Key Additions: Evander
Key Departures: Jose Carlos Van Rankin, Bill Tuiloma
Sporting Kansas City
Prediction: Sixth in the West
Coming off a brutal 2022 season where they finished in 12th place, Sporting Kansas City hasn’t made the number of changes that you’d expect from a team who finished so low. But still, they should be pretty good.
But the addition of Nemanja Radoja, 30, will help the team’s spine. The defensive midfielder has plenty of experience in La Liga with Celta Vigo and Levante and he will help both offensively and defensively. Sporting KC’s biggest weakness was in the backline and Radoja will help.
But Sporting will be improved offensively. Willy Agada was dynamite when he arrived midseason from Israel, and he scored eight goals in 12 games. Now you have him and Alan Pulido returning from a season-long ACL injury in 2022. Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell will continue to be mainstays on the wings.
Sporting KC’s chances of making the playoffs are pretty good but it will come down to the team’s defense. It will be a big test for Peter Vermes to improve that area. On another note, look potential U.S. U-20 right back Kayden Pierre continue to push the aging Graham Zusi at right back for minutes.
Key Additions: Nemanja Radoja
Key Departures: Nicolas Isimat-Mirin
Prediction: Seventh in the West
For the LA Galaxy this year, it will be the Riqui Puig show. Acquired from Barcelona in August, Puig played 10 games and added three goals and five assists. He made his team better and carried LA into the postseason with a fourth-place finish. Then in the postseason, they were bounced after a tough but hard-fought loss to LAFC.
In the offseason, the Galaxy jettisoned wingers Kevin Cabral (which is addition by subtraction) and Samuel Grandsir who was a more significant loss but should be replaced adequately by American winger Tyler Boyd. The 2019 Gold Cup veteran is coming off a rocky time at Besiktas but still can be an explosive winger when in form. It might take Boyd some time to get back into the swing of things but it could be a good pickup.
In the end, the question is whether or not the team did enough to build around Puig. As of now, it really doesn’t seem like it. Still, it’s good enough to get into the post season.
Key Additions: Tyler Boyd, Memo Rodríguez, Chris Mavinga
Key Departures: Julian Araujo, Samuel Grandsir, Kevin Cabral
Real Salt Lake
Prediction: Eighth in the West
Last season, Real Salt Lake continued to earn results despite a wave of injuries. For long stretches, the team played above the sum of its parts and that was good enough to see the team qualify for the playoffs on the last day of the season.
Pablo Mastroeni has done a good job with Real Salt Lake and he will hopefully have some more consistency in his lineup. The club has high hopes for 20-year-old winger Andres Gomez who was brought in a club-record transfer from Millonarios. Also, Brayan Vera will help at left back. The loss of leading scorer Sergio Córdova is tough.
Salt Lake plays a frantic style and the team has a nice homefield advantage in altitude. They are lacking a true difference maker and the loss of Cordova hurts - but they have a lot of intangibles. It’s not unrealistic to think they could outperform our predictions and be a surprise.
Key Additions: Andres Gomez, Brayan Vera
Key Departures: Sergio Córdova, Aaron Herrera
Prediction: Ninth in the West
Colorado Rapids had a serious fall in 2022 finishing in 10th – one season after they were removed from winning the Western Conference regular season title in 2021. Head coach Robin Fraser, however, has more to work with this season.
Part of the team’s problem in 2022 was its defense which conceded 57 goals – second worst in the West behind San Jose. The team has brought in Andreas Maxsø from Brondby to anchor central defense and Alex Gerbach will replace Lucas Esteves at left back.
The midfield will also be upgraded. The return of Cole Bassett from a pair of unsuccessful Eredivisie loans helps and Connor Ronan should also help upgrade the team’s spine. On the wings, Kevin Cabral has been acquired from the LA Galaxy but he has been wildly inconsistent and LA was happy to see him go.
Diego Rubio is consistent in this league in scoring but I am also curious to see U.S. youth international Darren Yapi start to make strides as he looks like a promising young American forward.
The Rapids have a deeper squad than last year but there are bunch of question marks. Maxsø is unproven in this league. Bassett had a tough 2022. Gyasi Zardes is a loss at forward. Fraser might have the makings of a better team but he has a lot of work to do in order to build up chemistry.
Key Additions: Alex Gerbach, Cole Bassett, Andreas Maxsø, Kevin Cabral, Connor Ronan
Key Departures: Lucas Esteves, Gyasi Zardes
San Jose Earthquakes
Prediction: 10th in West
Only 12 months ago, the problem for San Jose was its porous defense and its wild head coach Matias Almeyda. Credit to the organization for knowing its faults after it conceded a conference-worst 69 goals and had no coaching stability.
The club has made clear moves to fix this. Luchi Gonzalez arrives as the new head coach after successfully running the FC Dallas academy, having mixed results as the first team head coach, and then moving on to be the U.S. national team assistant.
For a club that has very promising young players like Cade Cowell, Niko Tsakiris, and Cruz Medina, hiring Gonzalez makes sense.
But the club has also brought in Brazilian goalkeeper Daniel, former FC Dallas and Augsburg defensive midfielder Carlos Gruezo (as a designated player), and top central defender Jonathan Mensah, the club has brought in players with high level success in MLS into needed positions. The losses of midfielders Jan Gregus and Eric Remedi are not going to hurt the club.
They should be better this year but it will be interesting to see how Gonzalez puts younger players into the mix. Plus, Cowell seems like the player who is going to want to leave after the U-20 World Cup given that he has already been a first team player for three years.
Jackson Yueill will likely have a different role with Gruezo in back of him. Can he be a creative playmaker? Will Gruezo help to shield the backline?
The front line for the Quakes is good, but Gonzalez will need to have more success working to build a defensive system than he did in Dallas. But this year, he has an expanded playoff format and that could help the team stay motivated into the fall.
Key Additions: Daniel, Carlos Gruezo, Jonathan Mensah
Key Departures: Jan Gregus, Shea Salinas, Eric Remedi
Prediction: 11th in West
Head coach Vanni Sartini has a pretty solid roster in the front six of his 4-3-3 system and the additions of Sergio Cordova, RSL’s leading scorer, will adequately replace the loss of Lucas Cavallini.
The team needed to improve defensively and they have added Uruguayan central defender Mathías Laborda and Japanese goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka. But the question is not necessarily the backline, it is also the team’s defensive approach as a collective unit including midfielders and forwards.
Santini has a lot of work to do in order to get the most out of this group but an expanded playoff format should keep them in the mix.
Key Additions: Sergio Córdova, Mathías Laborda, Yohei Takaoka
Key Departures: Lucas Cavallini, Jake Nerwinski
Prediction: 12th in West
The bad news for Minnesota over the past two seasons is that the club has been over-reliant on Emanuel Reynoso. They played well if he was playing well, if he wasn’t playing well or was contained, Minnesota struggled. Minnesota has been very one-dimensional.
The bad news became a nightmare in preseason as they are about to go from one-dimensional to zero-dimensional. Reynoso has been dealing with personal issues and is not with the club. It is unknown when or if he will be with the club and he is suspended without pay by Minnesota.
Pretty much everything else doesn’t matter. Yes, the club added two nice central defendersin Miguel Tapias and Mikael Marques while suffering no major departures (other than right back Romain Métanire who spent almost all of 2022 injured).
Unless Reynoso returns, Minnesota looks like they will struggle. But this is the price of being so one-dimensional.
Key Additions: Miguel Tapias, Mikael Marques
Key Departures: Romain Métanire
Prediction: 13th in West
The Houston Dynamo have been uninspiring for a long time. It’s been five years since they’ve made the playoffs and they seem like an afterthought these days. The Dynamo will now open shop under new manager Ben Olsen – who was up and down for many years in DC but still finished with a losing record.
The problem for Houston is that they haven’t made a lot of changes. Tim Parker, Fafa Picault, and Memo Rodriguez leaving and Ivan Franco, Franco Escobar, and Amine Bassi arriving seems like a push or a modest upgrade.
Of course there are interesting players like DP’s Hector Herrera and Sebastian Ferreira but these two will need to be in top form. Houston also need some of their younger homegrowns and draft picks to be competitive. Fortunately, the academy has been improving during the club’s funk in recent years. Colombia U-20 international Juan Castilla, U.S. U-19 midfielder Brooklyn Rains and draft pick and Iceland native Thorleifur Úlfarsson all are promising.
Sure, the expanded playoffs will help the bottom half of each conference but our bet is that the quagmire continues.
Key Additions: Ivan Franco, Franco Escobar, Amine Bassi
Key Departures: Tim Parker, Fafa Picault, Memo Rodríguez
St. Louis CITY SC
Prediction: 14th in West
St. Louis should be welcome addition to the league. There is a ton of passion behind the club and tickets are selling fast. Head coach Bradley Carnell was popular among the players while as an assistant and interim head coach with the New York Red Bulls. He is well versed in the system he wants to play – the familiar pressing system we typically see with Red Bulls teams here and in Europe.
The team’s talent, however, isn’t great and there are already injuries to key players such as centerback Joakim Nilsson. Some expansion teams have done well quickly but St. Louis looks like it is going to have some growing pains in 2023. There just aren’t enough difference makers or players who have had a lot of success in this league.
Key Additions: N/A
Key Departures: N/A