Six teams should jockey for spots at the top of the crowded Western Conference.Life is tough at the top of the Western Conference.
Six teams can reasonably enter the season with a chance to claim first place at the end of the regular season. The current crop of contenders reads like a classic murderers' row with the final four playoff teams from a year ago, a current semifinalist in the CONCACAF Champions League and a fervently supported club with three Designated Players in its ranks all included.
With all due respect to Chivas USA and the expansion sides in Portland and Vancouver, this competition at the top of the West table will prove too difficult for any squads attempting to build on the fly. In this test of wills, the narrowest of edges favors clubs with considerable strength in depth.
Real Salt Lake, Los Angeles and FC Dallas figure to come out ahead in the calculations. RSL's cohesive and tested squad tops the pecking order, but LA's top-end quality and FCD's silky possession game distinguish them as potential contenders as well.
The list doesn't stop there. Colorado will no doubt mount a viable defense of its MLS Cup crown, while Seattle and San Jose loom as potentially dangerous teams during the regular season and into the playoffs.
With those six sides ready to fight it out, the West should once again top the East in the regular season. It remains to be seen, however, whether the gauntlet better known as the Western Conference playoffs will leave New York or another East side in a superior position as the march to MLS Cup unfolds.
Projected order of finish:
1. Real Salt Lake*
2. Los Angeles*
3. FC Dallas*
6. San Jose*
7. Chivas USA
*- denotes playoff qualifier
1. Real Salt Lake – Goal.com preview
Last season in a sentence: Few teams moved the ball around as well as the Claret-and-Cobalt, but an unkind playoff draw saw RSL exit in the Western semifinals.
Offseason moves: RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey operated around the fringes of a squad already pressing up against the upper limits of the salary budget. In the most welcomed move of the close season, Alvaro Saborio signed a permanent deal to become the club's first Designated Player. Arturo Alvarez offers a much needed dose of inventiveness off the bench upon his arrival from San Jose, while Cody Arnoux looks like a possible forward for the future. Portland plucked Robbie Findley and David Horst in the expansion draft, but Findley made his expected European move and Horst's departure didn't impact the depth chart.
Key figure: Javier Morales. RSL's playoff downfall occurred due in large part to the absence of the influential Argentine playmaker for the second leg. His constant movement and deft passing spur RSL forward. With Morales on form and RSL purring in its possession game, the Claret-and-Cobalt is one of the best sides in the CONCACAF region.
The skinny: The status quo should serve RSL well as it plots a second MLS Cup triumph in three seasons. No side in MLS can boast the strength in depth possessed by the Claret-and-Cobalt and few clubs can match the quality within the starting XI. The camaraderie and chemistry within this settled group makes RSL particularly suited for regular season success. In order to work its way through the gauntlet, RSL must maintain its focus with the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals still on the docket and retain its hunger in the wake of several new contracts awarded over the past 12 months. Barring any devastating setbacks, RSL should be there or thereabouts when the chips fall.
2. Los Angeles – Goal.com preview
Last season in a sentence: There were plenty of high points from Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle during a record-setting first half of the season, but a second-half swoon ultimately led to an early demise in the Western Conference final.
Offseason moves: Several circumstances conspired to create some upheaval within Bruce Arena's squad during the close season. Edson Buddle's free transfer move to Ingolstadt forced the Galaxy to make a substantial move up front with Juan Pablo Angel signed as the club's third Designated Player through the re-entry process. Chad Barrett and Adam Cristman also linked up with the Galaxy to boost the depth on the front line, while Frankie Hejduk returned to southern California as another re-entry selection. Three veterans – Eddie Lewis, Chris Klein and Dema Kovalenko – retired, but Arena opted for youth with Miguel Lopez and Paolo Cardozo imported from Quilmes (Argentina) to increase the numbers in midfield.
Key figure: Donovan. After a hectic World Cup year, Donovan smartly decided to reject European loan opportunities to rest up for this make-or-break campaign. With his legs underneath him and his options increased with Angel and David Beckham in tow for the full season, Donovan should use his marauding instincts to propel the Galaxy from (nominally) the left side of midfield.
The skinny: It is now or never for Los Angeles with Beckham likely to depart at the end of the season. Beckham's possible pre-contract move could cause some headaches during the summer, but his presence should ultimately remain a positive with Angel set to flourish with consistent service up front. The increased attacking options should ensure the veteran Colombian striker won't have to carry the scoring burden alone, but questions persist about whether the central midfield combination of Chris Birchall and Juninho can match some of the top engine room pairings in the league. Despite that lingering concern, this balanced Galaxy side possesses more than enough talent to secure that elusive MLS Cup by season's end.
3. FC Dallas – Goal.com preview
Last season in a sentence: David Ferreira carried an easy-on-the-eyes FCD side all the way to a berth in MLS Cup.
Offseason moves: FCD coach Schellas Hyndman relied on his depth to cull several prominent participants in last year's side. Dax McCarty's departure to D.C. (via Portland) will hurt the most, but the loss of frequent starters Atiba Harris and Heath Pearce will sting a bit as well. Jeff Cunningham also departed after a frustrating season. Hyndman found most of his replacements in house, but Colombian U-20 international striker Fabian Castillo arrived in a highly-touted deal and Ricardo Villar landed in Dallas to link up with his old college coach and current FCD technical director Barry Gorman.
Key figure: Ferreira. Hyndman handed the diminutive Colombian schemer plenty of freedom to roam wherever he chose last season and the plan worked to devastating effect. Much like Morales does for RSL, Ferreira carves out little openings and causes persistent problems for tracking defenders. If Ferreira can reproduce his 2010 form, FCD should once again rank as one of the league's top sides.
The skinny: FCD emerged from just about nowhere to surge all the way to the cup final, but no team will underestimate this group heading into 2011. Gorman and Hyndman gambled that the likes of Eric Alexander, Jackson and Zach Loyd could play more prominent roles heading into this season as they dismissed more experienced performers to clear up budget room. Indications from last season suggest those younger players can shoulder the burden, though McCarty's absence will surely be felt in central midfield. With plenty of depth – including Brek Shea's potential deployment as a center back this year – and quality within the squad, FCD should worry more about its health (can the vitally important Daniel Hernandez remain fit?) and its sharpness (can Castillo and Milton Rodriguez score regularly?) as it plots another MLS Cup run.
4. Colorado – Goal.com preview
Last season in a sentence: The perpetually mediocre Rapids broke their confining mold with a stunning run to MLS Cup glory.
Offseason moves: Rapids technical director Paul Bravo wisely limited his wheeling and dealing to one potentially significant move up front and a series of moves to strengthen the reserve corps. Tyrone Marshall and Sanna Nyassi will bolster Gary Smith's options off the bench, while the likes of Julien Baudet, Danny Earls and Claudio Lopez all departed. Colorado has also expended significant time and energy in an attempt to sign Hull City striker Caleb Folan, though the Rapids have yet to complete the mooted move.
Key figure: Omar Cummings. Although most expected Cummings to depart for European pastures during the close season, the explosive Jamaican forward will return once again to torment opposing defenses. Cummings and strike partner Conor Casey form the most potent front two in the league and the Rapids will not be short of goals with both players – plus Folan if he eventually arrives – on the field. Cummings' willingness to act as a supplier to Casey – especially when he makes his inside-out runs to the right wing corner – makes him all the more dangerous.
The skinny: The cohesive and rugged Rapids often flatter to deceive during the regular season, but this group has the potential to push higher than a mid-table finish. With Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni set to drive this side through midfield, Colorado will once again ally its combative approach with an emphasis on getting the ball wide and serving it into the box. Bravo has handed coach Gary Smith a deeper squad this season, but it remains to be seen how this group will cope with the additional pressures exerted by CONCACAF Champions League participation later this year. Those rigors should not put a playoff spot in jeopardy, however.
5. Seattle – Goal.com preview
Last season in a sentence: A lack of goals when it counted condemned Sounders FC to an early playoff exit.
Offseason moves: With budget space at a premium in the Emerald City, Seattle made complementary moves to boost its squad. Swedish midfielder Erik Friberg provides another option through the middle and down the left flank, while O'Brian White hopes to shake off an indifferent spell in Toronto as a reserve in Seattle. Nathan Sturgis opened one starting role in central midfield after leaving for Toronto, while the likes of Tyrone Marshall, Sanna Nyassi and Pete Vagenas also made way. Sounders FC must also decide whether to exercise Pat Noonan's contract option with his contract set to expire at the end of March.
Key figure: Brad Evans. When the former Columbus midfielder earns a spot in the starting XI and makes his astutely-timed runs from midfield, Seattle can match just about any side in the league. Injuries, however, limited Evans' influence last season. If Evans can't shake those lingering fitness issues (and he is currently suffering from a hamstring injury) and Friberg or Alvaro Fernandez doesn't present a viable alternative, opposing clubs will once again find it fairly easy to figure out how Seattle will try to score from the run of play.
The skinny: This year looms as a particularly important one for Seattle with expectations once again sky high. The potentially potent duo of Fredy Montero and Blaise Nkufo will bear much of the responsibility for meeting those objective. Montero's new Designated Player deal makes it particularly vital for him to produce his brilliance regularly, while Nkufo will want to end his career on a positive note in his first (and only) full season with the club. Increased depth in midfield gives Sigi Schmid more options to rotate through if the form sags like it did at points last season and the defensive efforts should improve with the return of the excellent Jhon Kennedy Hurtado from a serious knee injury. Many of the pieces are in place for a sustained run, but it remains to be seen whether Seattle can generate the consistency required to push higher in the table.
6. San Jose – Goal.com preview
Last season in a sentence: A stunning season from Chris Wondolowski propelled the Earthquakes to an unexpected berth in the Eastern Conference finals.
Offseason moves: San Jose coach Frank Yallop kept the changes to a minimum as he prepares to shift his side to a 4-3-3 formation. Steven Lenhart should offer another physical target up front when he returns to full fitness, while Anthony Ampaipitakwong could supply a bit of creativity off the bench. The Earthquakes also struck a permanent deal with Jamaican midfielder Khari Stephenson and look likely to add Tottenham reserve Simon Dawkins to the midfield mix by officially sealing a loan deal in the coming days. In order to clear up some budget space to accommodate Wondolowski's new deal and the other moves, San Jose ditched the likes of Arturo Alvarez, Joe Cannon, Eduardo, Geovanni and Cornell Glen.
Key figure: Wondolowski. Yallop moved the MLS Golden Boot winner and MVP finalist around like a chess piece last season and the tinkering worked like a charm. The former Houston striker looked most dangerous when given the license to float around and make devastating late runs into the penalty area. During the preseason, Wondolowski has lined up as an attacking midfielder at the tip of the Earthquakes' three-man midfield to take advantage of those qualities. Five goals in the final five matches of the preseason suggests Wondo could adjust well to the role.
The skinny: As last year's playoff run showed, the Earthquakes would likely finish in the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference. The stacked deck in the West, however, makes it hard for the Earthquakes to gain much traction in the upper reaches of the table. There are promising signs to note with Andre Luiz back in the fold after knee surgery to bolster the midfield efforts and Wondolowski settling into his new role, but it remains to be seen whether San Jose can squeeze enough goals out of Wondolowski's supporting cast. Even without a surplus of goals, the Earthquakes should qualify for the playoffs without too much trouble.
7. Chivas USA – Goal.com preview
Last season in a sentence: Another muddled mess of a year for a franchise struggling to find some stability on and off the field.
Offseason moves: The biggest swap came in the dugout as Martin Vasquez departed after one season at the helm and RSL assistant Robin Fraser arrived as the replacement. Fraser immediately decided to address the pervasive defensive issues with Jimmy Conrad, Heath Pearce and Zarek Valentin already in the fold and Ghanian defender Seth Owusu poised to officially join that group any day now. Seasoned MLS performers such as Andrew Boyens, Simon Elliott, Nick LaBrocca and Alejandro Moreno should increase the experience level within the squad, while Tristan Bowen, Victor Estupinan, Francisco Mendoza and Marcos Mondiani expand the attacking options. Jonathan Bornstein's free transfer move to Tigres and Alan Gordon's trade to Toronto marked the two most prominent outgoing moves, though several unsuccessful foreign signings departed as well.
Key figure: Conrad. The former U.S. international should slide right into central defense after his arrival from Kansas City in the re-entry process. For a team in desperate need of leadership at the back, Conrad must play a significant role as a mentor and as an organizer to stabilize the defensive efforts. With the Red-and-White likely to struggle to score goals on a regular basis, Conrad and his fellow defenders must do their best to keep the side in matches with reliable performances.
The skinny: Fraser has done well to rebuild a tattered squad in short order. The defense looks significantly improved, while there are also more choices in midfield and up front. Despite the improvement within the quality of the group as a whole, it does not appear that Fraser has located a reliable scorer to lead the line or a consistently creative influence to open up supply lines from midfield. The dearth of support for Justin Braun – Moreno's earnest dealings aside – and the lack of production from midfield could heap too much pressure on the revamped back line for the Red-and-White to achieve sustained success this season.
8. Vancouver – Goal.com preview
Last season in a sentence: Whitecaps director of soccer operations Tom Soehn used his club's station in the second division to acquire potential MLS players ahead of time and evaluate other options.
Offseason moves: After retaining head coach Teitur Thordarson on a one-year deal with a club option, Vancouver constructed its squad for its first season in the league. Experienced midfielder Martin Nash won't make the jump to the American top flight after retiring during the offseason, but Davide Chiumiento, Terry Dunfield, Greg Janicki and Jay Nolly lead a significant contingent of second-division Whitecaps into MLS. Former FC Zurich players Eric Hassli and Alain Rochat will supply their European experience, and U.S. international defender Jay DeMerit will captain the side after signing on a free transfer. MLS veterans Joe Cannon, Atiba Harris and John Thorrington will lend their experience as well, while U.S. youth international Omar Salgado will have to watch from the sidelines until he turns 18. In addition to the players already under contract, the Whitecaps hope to cinch a deal for promising left winger Russell Teibert after the Canadian youth international impressed during training camp.
Key figure: Hassli. The French target man will receive plenty of attention given the paucity of attacking options currently available, but the Whitecaps' first Designated Player must find a way to score regularly. Hassli should be in midseason form after featuring with FCZ upon his return to full fitness after a leg break in Sept. 2009, but he will need all the sharpness he can muster to provide the necessary goals for this Whitecaps squad.
The skinny: In the battle between the two expansion teams, the Whitecaps look more prepared for opening day. Soehn wisely decided to build from the back with Cannon, DeMerit and Rochat all likely to help Vancouver compile a reasonable defensive record. The current crop of offensive talent does little to inspire similar confidence, though Hassli possesses the deportment to adapt well to MLS. It does not appear that Hassli will receive the necessary service or support to ensure Vancouver will score on a regular basis. While the Whitecaps would like to step in and win frequently during their first season, they may have to settle for bringing along talented young players such as Salgado and Teibert and snatching results when presented to them.
9. Portland Timbers – Goal.com Preview
Last season in a sentence: Timbers coach John Spencer joined the club last summer and worked with former coach and current technical director Gavin Wilkinson to scour the planet for potential signings.
Offseason moves: Spencer and Wilkinson meshed the usual assortment of second-division players with a pair of high-profile striker acquisitions to form the basis for the Timbers' foray into MLS. Kenny Cooper returned to MLS after an injury-plagued stint at 1860 Munich to lead the line, while prolific Colombian striker Jorge Perlaza ended up with the Timbers instead of completing a rumored move to Philadelphia. Former Akron star Darlington Nagbe and ex-Chivas USA midfielder Sal Zizzo should provide some supply from the wide areas. Jack Jewsbury, Peter Lowry and Adam Moffat could hold down the fort centrally until further reinforcements arrive. Eric Brunner, Kevin Goldthwaite, Jeremy Hall and Rodney Wallace will bring their MLS experience to the defensive efforts, while Troy Perkins and Adin Brown ensure there will be veteran hands in between the sticks as well. Notable additions from the second division include Futty Danso, Eddie Johnson, Ryan Pore and Steve Purdy.
Key figure: Cooper. The former FC Dallas striker has proven his quality at this level, but he hasn't played frequently since moving to Germany in July 2009. Injury problems all but ended his second spell in Europe, though he has featured regularly during training camp. Portland can't afford to have Cooper break down during this campaign given its defensive frailties, but the former American international could fire his Timbers further up the table and return to the U.S. squad if he can form a profitable partnership with Perlaza.
The skinny: In a mildly surprising move, Spencer and Wilkinson opted to build from the front. It is a tactic that should see Cooper and Perlaza produce goals on a regular basis if they receive the proper supply, but it could also present serious questions about the stability of the rest of the team. At first glance, there isn't nearly enough defensive quality within the squad to stem the inevitable flow of goals every expansion team encounters at one point or another. The deft trade to acquire Jewsbury from Sporting Kansas City during training camp should help, but it is perhaps not the best of signs that he immediately grasped the captain's armband upon his arrival. Further improvements are undoubtedly required to lessen the barrage on Perkins, but the front two will ensure the Timbers should have some moments to celebrate in their first MLS campaign.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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