Kyle McCarthy starts his three-part look at the MLS landscape this winter by assessing the Western Conference clubs as they continue their preparations for 2012.
This upcoming fortnight represents one of the few remaining quiet spells in the MLS calendar.Clubs will still make a few transactions over the next two weeks as they continue to shape their squads for next season, but this two-week period before the new year primarily lays the groundwork for the busy January ahead.
In this particular space, the lull allows for a few moments of introspection and projection as next year beckons. This week provides a rare opportunity to take a breath and wade into some of the questions heading into next year.
Today's opening salvo assesses the situation in the Western Conference, while the usual columns on Wednesday (Eastern Conference) and Friday (MLS on the whole) will continue and then complete the series.
1. Los Angeles (19-5-10, 67 pts., MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield winners)
2011 in a sentence: Bruce Arena pushed all of the chips to the middle of the table and his players responded with the third MLS Cup victory in franchise history.
Offseason to date: Arena acquired the rights to four players and retained the opportunity to sign two old boys in the second stage of the re-entry process. In addition to those possible arrivals and the potential re-signing of Adam Cristman, the Galaxy have also signed midfielder Marcelo Sarvas from LD Alajuelense (Costa Rica). Departing veterans Gregg Berhalter (retired – appointed manager at AEG-part-owned Swedish second division side Hammarby) and Donovan Ricketts (traded to Montréal) will leave holes that must be filled. Oh, and there's that whole deal with Landon Donovan returning to Merseyside on a temporary basis to consider as well.
Biggest remaining question: Will David Beckham and Juninho reprise their successful central midfield partnership in 2012?
Shopping list: Beckham's likely departure to Paris Saint-Germain will almost certainly force the Galaxy into the market for another Designated Player. A more advanced attacking piece would make sense as a replacement if Beckham does vacate the Home Depot Center. If Sean Franklin (out-of-contract) and Juninho (loan deal with Sao Paulo) cannot reach new accords with the Galaxy, Arena must hit the transfer market with some vigor as the new year beckons.
2. Seattle (18-7-9, 63 pts., lost in Western Conference semifinals)
2011 in a sentence: Seattle once again excelled in secondary competitions, but it fell short yet again during the postseason.
Offseason to date: Michael Gspurning (Skoda Xanthi) arrived from Greece to replace the iconic Kasey Keller between the sticks in the most significant swap to date. Former D.C. United man Marc Burch (second stage of the re-entry process) should eventually arrive to bolster the ranks at left back. Sounders FC boss Sigi Schmid still needs to replace Erik Friberg (transferred to Swedish side Malmö), James Riley (lost in expansion draft to Montréal and then shipped to Chivas USA) and a host of reserves. Several players from Central America – most notably Costa Rican international fullback Heiner Mora – have landed on the radar during a series of scouting trips.
Biggest remaining question: Who will eventually fill the fullback roles?
Shopping list: Schmid desperately needs to address the lingering concerns at both fullback spots. The combination of Burch and Leo Gonzalez does not inspire confidence on the left, while Riley's old spot on the right remains vacant. In addition to those defensive issues, Sounders FC could use another striker – preferably one with some size – to add a different look up front. Steve Zakuani's projected return at some point next season should provide a welcome boost to the attacking options, however.
3. Real Salt Lake (15-11-8, 53 pts., lost in Western Conference final)
2011 in a sentence: The Claret-and-Cobalt weathered Javier Morales' extended absence before falling short of its ultimate goal.
Offseason to date: It's all outbound traffic at the moment for budget-strapped RSL. Key departures include Robbie Russell (traded to D.C. United), Collen Warner (lost to Montréal in the expansion draft) and Andy Williams (retired).
Biggest remaining question: Is there enough budget room to supplement the current squad with a wise signing or two?
Shopping list: Some of the departures – Russell and Williams, in particular – will impact the side, but there is enough depth to compensate for those concerns in the short-term. The problems could start if RSL can't find a way to retain the services of Fabián Espíndola (“It’s expensive,” RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey told MLSsoccer.com about Espíndola's contract option in November. “It’s a big option. And basically you’ve got to decide if Fabián’s a Best XI striker or not, and if you think he is, then it’s easy.) and Ned Grabavoy (out-of-contract). If and once those players – and perhaps loanees Yordany Alvarez and Paulo Jr. as well – return to the fold, the next step probably involves acquiring another attacking piece to take Williams' place in midfield.
4. FC Dallas (15-12-7, 52 pts., lost in Wild Card round)
2011 in a sentence: A heavy fixture list, the injury-enforced absence of David Ferreira and a series of unspeakably tragic events ultimately drove a promising season to an abrupt conclusion.
Offseason to date: The only truly notable move occurred on Friday as FCD shipped off livewire winger Marvin Chavez to San Jose in exchange for allocation money. A few reserves have also departed in an attempt to freshen up the squad. The back room setup will also look a little bit different as Barry Gorman has left his post as technical director.
Biggest remaining question: Is this the year FCD finally signs a suitable center forward?
Shopping list: Expect FCD to splash some of the allocation dough it acquired in the Chavez deal on a striker to lead the line in 2012. A suitable reserve to back up the new number nine looks like a compulsory addition as well even with Ruben Luna's development over the past year or two. FCD must also do whatever required to ward off potential suitors for David Ferreira and George John to maintain its current place among the Western Conference elite.
5. Colorado (12-9-13, 49 pts., lost in Eastern Conference semifinals)
2011 in a sentence: Internal strife and pervasive injury concerns doomed the MLS Cup holder to another mid-table finish.
Offseason to date: Most of the intrigue has taken place off the field as coach Gary Smith and managing director Jeff Plush have departed during the offseason. Chief marketing officer Tim Hinchey recently assumed the title of president, while technical director Paul Bravo has consolidated his power on technical matters. Bravo has made a couple of moves around the edges – Sanna Nyassi departed for Montréal in the expansion draft, Hunter Freeman and Baggio Husidic may arrive through the re-entry process and Brian Mullan inked a new deal – without amending the strong core of the side.
Biggest remaining question: Can the new boss make sure everyone pulls in the same direction?
Shopping list: The front office moves should at least give the Rapids the fresh start they so desperately need. Bravo can move the pieces around a bit, but he can't undertake extensive renovations until a new coach arrives. The new hire must figure out how he wants to use the talent in house – hint: pairing Conor Casey (once healthy after recovering from a serious Achilles injury) and Omar Cummings still makes sense – and perhaps look to add a creative midfield influence during the close season.
6. Portland (11-14-9, 42 pts., missed playoffs)
2011 in a sentence: This youthful side established a foundation for future success during its combative and entertaining expansion season.
Offseason to date: Colombian youth international striker José Adolfo Valencia represents the lone move of note for the Timbers so far this offseason. 'El Trencito' should count under the league's new guidelines for young Designated Players and hit the salary budget at a reduced DP rate next season. Several fringe players have also made way during the offseason as technical director Gavin Wilkinson has scoured the world for potential additions to replace them.
Biggest remaining question: How can John Spencer push his charges forward in 2012?
Shopping list: The first stop probably involves boosting the options in the wide areas in search of more offensive production. Room for improvement exists in central defense and central midfield (particularly in terms of creative influences) as the Timbers search for the right formula to mount a postseason charge next season.
7. San Jose (8-12-14, 38 pts., missed playoffs)
2011 in a sentence: It didn't take long for those positive playoff vibes to dissipate as the Earthquakes stumbled their way through a disappointing campaign.
Offseason to date: Marvin Chavez's arrival from FC Dallas gives Frank Yallop a speedy and versatile option in the wide areas, while Jean Alexandre (trade with Real Salt Lake) and Shea Salinas (trade with Vancouver) should provide some depth. Bobby Burling (lost to Montréal in the expansion draft) and Bobby Convey (traded to Sporting Kansas City) represent the most significant losses to a side in need of an overhaul.
Biggest remaining question: Can Yallop and general manager John Doyle secure some help for Chris Wondolowski?
Shopping list: San Jose must construct alternative routes to goal in order to lessen the load on Wondolowski. Chavez and returning players like Steven Lenhart (signed to an extension after missing final three months on a leave of absence) and Khari Stephenson could help in that department, but there is still room for a creative influence and a top-end striker. In addition to those concerns in the attacking third, the Earthquakes need more depth in central defense with Burling now in Canada and Ike Opara struggling to overcome the injury bug.
8. Chivas USA (8-14-12, 36 pts., missed playoffs)
2011 in a sentence: High-profile abstentions in the transfer market obscure a season of modest progress.
Offseason to date: Former Seattle right back James Riley (trade with Montréal) offers the lone tangible acquisition, but the Red-and-White will hope that fliers on Arturo Alvarez (out-of-contract – plucked in the first stage of the re-entry process) and Ryan Smith (trade with Sporting Kansas City) yield dividends. Even if all of those acquisitions pan out, there is still work to do to replace the likes of Justin Braun (trade with Montréal), Simon Elliott (out-of-contract), Paulo Nagamura (trade with Sporting Kansas City) and Zarek Valentin (lost to Montréal in the expansion draft).
Biggest remaining question: What exactly are the objectives here heading into next season?
Shopping list: Chaos appeared to reign for much of last season as the Red-and-White dodged opportunity after opportunity to add players on high wages. Some of the money conserved during that process must find its way into the squad ahead of next season. Every department – aside from the goalkeeping provided by the underrated Dan Kennedy – could use reinforcements, but the needs are most acute in central defense and up front.
9. Vancouver (6-18-10, 28 pts., missed playoffs)
2011 in a sentence: Set this tumultuous expansion season aside as one painful learning experience.
Offseason to date: New coach Martin Rennie has cut ties with nine players from last season's squad as he attempts to make this side his own. Lee Young-Pyo will fill the vacancy at right back, while Lee Nguyen will make his MLS bow after a successful spell in Asia. Former Carolina Railhawks midfielder Matt Watson's arrival ensures Rennie sees at least one familiar face, but he could dip into the second division pool again to locate some much-needed depth. In front-office news, CEO Paul Barber will depart in February with president Bob Lenarduzzi and chief operating officer Rachel Lewis poised to pick up the slack on the business side.
Biggest remaining question: How will Rennie revamp this side with several expensive pieces already in place?
Shopping list: The high-priced talent already in Vancouver will limit the Whitecaps' flexibility as they attempt to rebuild this side from scratch. Central midfield stands out as the biggest priority, but the wide areas present another pressing concern heading into next season. If those issues aren't enough, the Whitecaps must also find a way to keep Camilo happy (is a new deal in the offing?) and sort through the difficult personnel decisions at the top end of the roster (is Mustapha Jarju's future with the club secure after his rocky 2011?).
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.