McCarthy's Musings: 2012 MLS Western Conference Preview

Los Angeles once again tops the heap, but the Galaxy will feel plenty of pressure from Seattle, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas in yet another competitive and crowded race.
Read's comprehensive preview of the MLS Eastern Conference here.

It may seem like a near impossibility, but the Western Conference race appears even more crowded than last year upon close inspection.

At the top, status quo may rule the day. Los Angeles remains the odds-on favorite to finish first for a third consecutive season. Seattle, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas likely come next in the pecking order in some way, shape or form.

Even if the top four holds true to form (and it certainly may not given the way parity rules in this league), the next four sides could wage an almighty tussle for the one meager postseason spot left to claim. Portland, San Jose and Vancouver all made significant improvements to their squads during the offseason, while Colorado represents something of a wild card given its philosophical shift. Only Chivas USA appears well and truly off the pace at the moment.

The moral of the story, as always: the battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference remains a task ill suited for observation by the faint of heart.

Projected order of finish:
* – denotes playoff qualifier

1. Los Angeles*
2. Seattle*
3. Real Salt Lake*
4. FC Dallas*
5. Portland*
6. Vancouver
7. Colorado
8. San Jose
9. Chivas USA

1. Los Angeles

Last season in a sentence: With all of the pressure piled onto one make-or-break season, the Galaxy came through in spades and lifted MLS Cup on home soil.

Offseason moves: Most observers expected this Galaxy squad to break apart after its triumph, but canny manager Bruce Arena managed to keep most of his key players in the fold and supplement his squad with other intriguing additions. David Beckham's decision to shun the petrodollars on offer in Paris bolstered the club on and off the field, while Omar Gonzalez's unfortunate knee injury in Germany will ensure he remains stateside until his contract expires at the end of the year. Robbie Keane returned despite Alex McLeish's continued advances during his successful loan spell at Aston Villa. The experienced Ireland captain will have a new partner up front after the Galaxy somehow shoehorned Edson Buddle within the salary budget restrictions upon his return from Germany. Marcelo Sarvas joined the club after impressing during CONCACAF Champions League play as Juninho's presumed replacement, but Juninho's stunning return on loan ensured the excellent partnership in the center of the park would remain intact. Most of the familiar faces on the bench – including deposed number one Donovan Ricketts – departed, but the arrivals of Bill Gaudette, Kyle Nakazawa and Pat Noonan guaranteed a few known quantities will feature among the substitutes this season. 

Key figure: For all of the foreign stars in the fold, the most important figure in this Galaxy remains Landon Donovan. The experienced U.S. international provides much of the attacking impetus with his darting and deceptive runs through midfield. Donovan will prioritize World Cup qualifying commitments from time to time, but he must display top form at the key moments in order for the Galaxy to sustain its recent level of success. 

The skinny: Most of the anticipated hurdles to prolonged success disappeared during the winter, but a few unexpected issues cropped up to inspire at least a pinch of doubt. Gonzalez's injury, in particular, dealt one of the league's strongest back fours a crippling blow. Without a high profile solution in sight to ease the issues, the Galaxy will have to rely on its shape and its wits to muddle through until Gonzalez returns. Fortunately for Arena and company, there are plenty of attacking weapons in the arsenal to mask any defensive deficiencies. Buddle's return offers a sorely needed target presence and removes some of the question marks surrounding the proper partner for Keane. Even with Beckham's London distractions, Donovan's World Cup qualifying larks and Keane's Euro 2012 dreams, this Galaxy team appears poised to sustain its high standards this season. A valiant MLS Cup defense and a viable push for CONCACAF Champions League glory represent the minimum standards for a side capable of achieving all of its goals.

2. Seattle

Last season in a sentence: Another U.S. Open Cup success, another dose of heartache during the postseason.

Offseason moves: A series of painful departures punctuated an active offseason for Sounders FC. Few people in rave green would have wanted to see Kasey Keller move into the broadcast booth or James Riley ply his trade in southern California. The hope is that projected replacements Michael Gspurning and Adam Johansson can fill the void and, at least in Johansson's case, offer a bit more on the whole. The swap meet mentality continued in midfield as Christian Sivebaek replaced Erik Friberg as the likely first man in reserve. The persistent pursuit of Eddie Johnson finally ended in success, but his budget-friendly arrival through trade required Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle to make their way to Montréal. Mauro Rosales signed a Designated Player deal to ensure none of that budget space went to waste, while familiar faces such as Taylor Graham, Nate Jaqua and Tyson Wahl exited the scene. As a potential added bonus down the road, Steve Zakuani continued his recovery from the horrific leg break he suffered last April.

Key figure: In a team filled with talented players, Osvaldo Alonso always finds a way to rise above the crowd. Other players may contribute more at one end or the other – Rosales, in particular, will dictate how this team performs in the attacking third – but no one does more to set the overall tone in the side. Alonso's selfless and tidy work in central midfield links everything together and permits the players around him to thrive in other ways.

The skinny: After a couple of seasons on the brink, Seattle must find a way to break through in either the CONCACAF Champions League or the MLS Cup playoffs this season. Seasoned coach Sigi Schmid will enter this season with a stronger squad than he had at his disposal last season (even if left back still looms as a potential problem area), but the reliable Keller will be missed in more ways than one. His big-game mentality could have proved crucial to the Sounders as they attempt to get over the hump in the two competitions it seeks claim in 2012. Even without its veteran shotstopper, this side represents the most likely threat to the Galaxy's dominance atop the the West.

3. Real Salt Lake

Last season in a sentence: One devastating home defeat and one untimely injury left the Claret-and-Cobalt to regroup in midseason and somehow fight its way through to the Western Conference final.

Offseason moves: Salary budget concerns stripped away much of the proven depth for one of the league's strongest overall squads. Veteran fixtures Robbie Russell and Andy Williams departed to preserve some necessary operating capital for the new deals for Ned Grabavoy and Fabián Espíndola. Collen Warner moved to Montréal as the cost of doing business in the expansion draft. Loan signings Yordany Álvarez and Paulo Jr. inked permanent deals to ensure some familiar faces would come off the bench, while SuperDraft selection Enzo Martinez, former Carolina midfielder Jonny Steele and J.League veteran Terukazu Tanaka represented the most notable names in the crop of relatively untested acquisitions.

Key figure: It didn't take long to divine that RSL's fabled possession game doesn't work quite as well without Morales around to pull the strings. The Argentine schemer is fully fit after a winter's worth of recovery. If he can reclaim his past form and slide into those dangerous spaces between the lines with regularity, RSL will look even more potent in the attacking third.

The skinny: Jason Kreis' well-drilled side defends well and keeps the ball without too much trouble. Opposing teams will set out to frustrate their work in possession, but the core group usually fights through those issues and produces attacking chances on most nights. Health, however, could play an even more important role this season with four fixtures – Nat Borchers, Will Johnson, Morales and Saborio – struggling for fitness at the start of the campaign. It remains to be seen whether this new batch of reserves can meet the lofty standards of the established players within the squad as the fixtures pile up during the summer. Even if the fresh faces fall a little bit short in the final accounting, RSL should find itself there or thereabouts at the business end of the campaign.

4. FC Dallas

Last season in a sentence: An enthralling start petered out by the end as fatigue and tragedy sidetracked a promising campaign.

Offseason moves: Schellas Hyndman kept the movement to a minimum during the close season with David Ferreira poised to return to the side after breaking his ankle last April. Panama internationals Blas Pérez and Carlos Rodríguez should make an impact at some stage, while Colombian defender Hernán Pertúz supplies much needed depth in central defense. George John's return from West Ham United ensures FCD will have its top center back pairing available for the start of the 2012 season, but John's contract expires at the end of the year and he could still make a summer move across the pond. Those positive flourishes in the transfer market were balanced out by the departures of versatile regulars Marvin Chávez and Jackson. Room still exists for further additions from a group of recent trialists with a midfielder presumably atop the priority list.

Key figure: Perez could supply Hyndman with the one cog he has craved since taking over the FCD hot seat: a reliable target man to lead the line and plunder on a regular basis. The itinerant 30-year-old striker satisfies both criteria. He may not stay for more than a season based on his career to date, but his CV suggests he will at least offer some goals and plenty of tidy hold up play while he waits for his next move.

The skinny: Hyndman's biggest challenge with this group will involve keeping the proper focus throughout the group. It won't be easy given the disparate individual priorities already on the table. Ferreira will have to work his way back into the mix slowly after Orlando City kicked him to bits in a recent friendly, John will have one eye on Europe and Brek Shea will have to deal with the Olympic process and World Cup qualifying responsibilities. Several other players – including the always influential player/coach Daniel Hernandez and new captain Ugo Ihemelu – will grapple with their own concerns. If everyone pulls in the same direction, then this group will deserve its place among the handful of relatively complete teams in the league. If not, the wheels could fall off more quickly than anticipated.

5. Portland

Last season in a sentence: Passion and power carried the Timbers to the cusp of a playoff berth in their first season.

Offseason moves: General manager/technical director Gavin Wilkinson and coach John Spencer turned to Colombia for reinforcements after encountering success with Diego Chará and Jorge Perlaza. Promising forward José Adolfo Valencia signed as a young Designated Player in December, but he will miss much of the year as he rehabs from left knee surgery. Sebastián Rincón – another prospect with a ex-Colombia international forward for a father – will likely join the Timbers soon after a successful trial spell. Hayner Mosquera possesses none of the question marks of his two younger countrymen and should feature regularly in central defense. Spencer leaned on another set of connections – the familial ones tying him to ex-Nottingham Forest boss Billy Davies – to seal a DP deal for former Rangers striker Kris Boyd. Boyd offers a prototypical target option to replace the wandering legs of Kenny Cooper up front. The arrival of winger Franck Songo'o – another son of a famous footballer in ex-Cameroon 'keeper Jacques – and the departures of several reserves completed the traffic.

Key figure: Portland shelled out big money for Boyd to guarantee goals on a regular basis. The burly target man scored for fun in the Scottish Premier League (he currently leads that particular competition in career goals scored), but the extensive travel demands and the stop-start nature of his post-Rangers career raise some questions about whether he can step straight into the starting XI and reprise his usual ways. Those doubts, however, likely won't linger for too long. If he receives accurate and reliable service from a group of wingers that didn't always provide it last season, then he'll likely turn home his fair share this season.

The skinny: Boyd's arrival means all of the fundamental pieces are in place to improve upon last year's encouraging debut. The occasionally suspect back four will have to keep matters together and the central midfield duo of Chará and Jack Jewsbury will have to continue to hold their own, but this physical side should lean on its new center forward, its prodigious work ethic and its significant home-field advantage to move up the Western Conference ladder.

6. Vancouver

Last season in a sentence: Chaos reigned and losses accumulated as this expansion side couldn't decide how to move forward during its maiden season.

Offseason moves: Everyone should start moving in the same direction now that former Carolina boss Martin Rennie has assumed control. Several Railhawks migrated north with their NASL mentor, but the most notable additions carried significantly more cachet. Sébastien Le Toux unexpectedly trekked west from Philadelphia to bolster an already potent attack. Ex-South Korea international fullback Lee Young-Pyo staved off retirement to join a back four that will now also include Argentine center back Martin Bonjour. Scotland international midfielder Barry Robson will arrive in midseason as a DP and presumably wipe away the memories of failed DP signing Mustapha Jarju along the way. A gaggle of reserves – including the recently acquired Lee Nguyen – quickly located alternative employment as Rennie overhauled the squad to his liking.

Key figure: Most of the heavy midfield lifting will fall at the feet of Jun Marques Davidson until Robson joins from Middlesbrough during the summer. The Japanese midfielder – another of Rennie's former Railhawks – will make a significant leap in class from J.League 2 side Tokushima Vortis as he attempts to provide a part of the solution to the Whitecaps' considerable central midfield woes. Can he hold the fort down well enough to cover until Robson's belated arrival and mask the impact of yet another John Thorrington injury?

The skinny: Most of the pieces are in place to mount a playoff push during the second season. Vancouver possesses a wealth of options in the attacking third – think Eric Hassli up top with Le Toux and Camilo Sanvezzo potentially buzzing around him in the proposed 4-2-3-1 setup, for starters – and a revamped back line capable of eradicating those lingering defensive concerns. With all of those points granted, the Whitecaps must still close the gaping chasm in the middle of the field and pay enough attention to their defensive duties on the flanks in order to muscle their way into a place among the Western Conference elite.

7. Colorado

Last season in a sentence: Internal strife and untimely injuries ultimately sidetracked the Rapids' MLS Cup defense before it really gained steam.

Offseason moves: Incumbent coach Gary Smith decamped for Stevenage after losing the public squabble with technical director Paul Bravo for power within the club. New coach Oscar Pareja arrived shortly before the SuperDraft and quickly introduced a 4-3-3 system designed to turn the Rapids into a more aesthetically pleasing side. Colombian midfielder Jaime Castrillón could act as the primary conduit after he signed in the days following Pareja's arrival. Fellow South Americans Martín Rivero and Luis Zapata could also work their way into the lineup at some point along the way, while SuperDraft selection Tony Cascio fits in nicely with the revised mentality. The new, possession-oriented vision didn't include roles for Miguel Comminges, Caleb Folan and Mac Kandji.

Key figure: Colorado's MLS Cup hopes all but ended when Conor Casey tore his Achilles tendon last July. His partnership with Omar Cummings always troubled defenses in the previously preferred 4-4-2 setup, but he could assume an even greater importance in Pareja's new system. The burly striker offers the right mix of robust and technical qualities to excel as the primary striker in a three-man forward line. With no evident alternative behind him, he will have to avoid the always persistent injury bug once he returns from his Achilles injury (and recent hernia surgery) sometime next month in order for the Rapids to hit top form.

The skinny: The switch from a traditional English style to a more positive and technical approach could encounter a few bumps along the way. Several regulars in the previous regime – including Brian Mullan, Jamie Smith (on the road back from a torn ACL) and Wells Thompson – may struggle to secure frequent starting roles within the revised setup. If the Rapids flounder a bit out of the gate, then some internal pressure to revert to the more simplistic ways of the past could surface. Either way, it will likely take some time for Bravo and Pareja to construct the squad they will need to facilitate the type of soccer they want the Rapids to play.

8. San Jose

Last season in a sentence: Not even the prolific Chris Wondolowski could keep the Earthquakes from sliding out of the playoff picture.

Offseason moves: General manager John Doyle and coach Frank Yallop did their best to supply Wondolowski with some support during the close season. Marvin Chávez stands out as the addition most likely to cement himself in the starting XI, though fellow Honduran international Víctor Bernárdez should improve the back four if he can stay fit. Returning duo Simon Dawkins and Shea Salinas should provide plenty of electric runs on the flanks, while former Colombian international schemer Tressor Moreno and Turkish striker Sercan Güvenisik offer alternatives in the attacking third. Combative target man Steven Lenhart also returned from a personal leave of absence during the winter. A pair of Bobbys – Burling and Convey – topped a fairly lengthy list of departures designed to create enough salary budget room to improve the top end of the squad.

Key figure: No player should have to bear the load Wondolowski have carried over the past two years. He may receive more help this year – Lenhart offers deft and robust hold up play, while Moreno should supply more craft – in the attacking third, but there isn't another regular goalscorer on the roster at first glance. His continued success in the final third (34 goals in two seasons) could mean the difference between a playoff berth and an early vacation if other components of the side improve.

The skinny: Drastic close season changes have renewed hope without eliminating all of the existing problems. A trio of brittle center backs leaves the Earthquakes back line exposed to chopping and changing with makeshift options on call at a moment's notice. Wondolowski still doesn't appear to benefit from a reliable second option capable of relieving some of the pressure he faces to score in every match. Throw in the concerns about how to deploy this group – a couple of options are in play with the versatile Wondolowski and his starting position critical to all of them – and there might be too many questions to answer in time to snatch one of those playoff berths.

9. Chivas USA

Last season in a sentence: Robin Fraser instituted several changes in his first season in charge, but inconsistent results relegated the Red-and-White to the scrap heap.

Offseason moves: Fraser trained his sights on South America to bolster his squad. Miller Bolaños and Osvaldo Minda both arrived from Ecuador, while John Valencia made the move from Colombia.  Minda and Valencia are all but certain to feature on opening day, but Bolaños reported to camp out of shape and may have to fight for time in a crowded midfield. Domestic additions include James Riley (via trade with Montréal), Ryan Smith (via trade with Sporting Kansas City) and Peter Vagenas (free transfer). Justin Braun, Simon Elliott, Michael Umaña and Zarek Valentin topped the extensive list of departures. Juan Pablo Ángel has not signed a new deal as of yet, but he remains with the side and expects to sign in the near future.

Key figure: The former Aston Villa man needs to come to terms quickly in order to secure at least one starting caliber forward to start the campaign. Fraser lacks any semblance of depth up front with Braun in Canada and Alejandro Moreno now deployed in a midfield role. If Angel isn't in the starting XI, then Fraser will have to rely on rookie Casey Townsend to carry the scoring load. Even if Townsend hits the ground running, that situation simply isn't tenable for any stretch of time.

The skinny: Early signs do not offer much in the way of positive encouragement. The troubles up front are matched by persistent concerns about the quality of the options in central defense and in the wide areas. Fraser has tinkered with a 4-5-1 setup to make the best use of the side's strength in midfield, but no formation can mask the holes within the squad at the moment. A long season appears likely unless significant upgrades occur quickly.

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