This article is the second part of a three part series previewing the 2016 Major League Soccer season. Part one on the Eastern Conference can be found here. Part three will be available on Friday.
Looking at the Eastern Conference was fun but now it is time to focus on the business end of Major League Soccer. While there are certainly some interesting sides east of the Mississippi it is the Western Conference where MLS is the strongest.
In the past fifteen years the Western Conference has claimed thirteen MLS Cups and six Supporters’ Shields.
So why do the Western Conference sides hold such a stranglehold on the silverware? For a league where change is almost a certainty the Western sides have been noticeably stable. Just like any league the teams at the bottom are obviously shaking things up.
But whereas there is uncertainty with over six to seven sides in the East, there is far more certainty.
So if the West is the best who will be the best in the West? It would be easy to say that the best team would be the MLS Cup champions, the Portland Timbers . But success during the playoffs is not always indicative of a strong regular season run.
Just six Supporters’ Shield winners have gone on to claim the MLS Cup (D.C. United in 1997 and 1999, Sporting Kansas City in 2002, the Galaxy in 2002 and 2011, and Columbus Crew SC in 2008). The Timbers themselves also needed a rare penalty kick miss off of both posts to avoid elimination against Sporting.
That being said, the Timbers certainly have all of the pieces to make another run at both titles in 2016. The club strengthened their back four by adding both Chris Klute (14 appearances, 8 starts) from Columbus Crew SC and Jermaine Taylor (16 starts) from the Houston Dynamo. That should help off-set the loss of defender Jorge Villafana, who signed with Santos Laguna in Liga MX.
The big adjustment that the Timbers will need to make is up top. Without Maximilliano Urruti (4 goals, 3 assists) Porter will look towards midfielder Darlington Nagbe (5 goals, 5 assists) and newly signed Jack McInerney to ease the pressure off of Fanendo Adi (16 goals, 3 assists).
Both have shown flashes of promise with Nagbe being considered one of the top young midfielders in the United States. But both will be under to pressure to create opportunities for the defending champions.
With the Timbers claiming the first-ever MLS Cup in Cascadia it only seems fitting to talk about their hated rivals, Seattle Sounders FC, next. As if watching one of their two chief rivals win a trophy that has eluded them for years was not enough, salt was rubbed onto the wound when forward Obafemi Martins (15 goals, 6 assists) left for the Chinese Super League.
Not everything is rainy in the city that never sleeps. The club was able to nab Homegrown Player Jordan Morris away from Schalke 04. The addition of Morris likely means that Schmid will use a 4-3-3 with Clint Dempsey (10 goals, 10 assists) and Paraguayan international Nelson Valdez up top with Morris.
The hope is that with two veteran strikers up top that Morris will have a chance to take his time breaking in. The fear is that unrealistic expectations set forth by the league and by national team supporters will hamper Morris’ ability to grow and live up to his potential.
The third member of this rivalry, the Vancouver Whitecaps, are also likely primed for a playoff spot and more in the West. After becoming the first Canadian side to win a playoff match, the ‘Caps quietly made one of the best moves of the offseason signing midfielder Christian Bolanos from Saprissa. With Bolanos working down the right flank, that should open up opportunities for midfielder Pedro Morales (6 goals, 4 assists) and forward Octavio Rivero (10 goals, 3 assists).
The one thing that might hold this team back is the lack of a third option up top. Vancouver brought in Blas Perez from FC Dallas to provide some spark. But Perez is 33 and is coming off of a season where he made just 14 starts and scored just 5 goals.
Darren Mattocks is also back for 2016 but as any good Whitecaps supporter knows Mattocks is consistently inconsistent.
Part of the reason why Perez was expendable was because F.C. Dallas have amassed a small army of attackers. The league’s fifth highest scoring team has brought back Fabian Castillo (9 goals, 9 assists) and Mauro Diaz (8 goals, 10 assists) despite multiple offers from European sides.
Castillo and Diaz, coupled with the return of Tesho Akindele and the additions of Urruit and Mauro Rosales from the Whitecaps make this team even more dangerous up top.
The player to keep an eye on for Dallas is goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez (.91 Goals Against Average in 11 matches). The Mexican youth international blew past Dan Kennedy and Chris Seitz last season to seize Dallas’ starting goalkeeper job. He had a very strong series of matches late in the and against the Sounders in the Western Conference Semifinals.
But Dallas have made a gamble this offseason by unloading defenders Je-Vaughn Watson and not finding a veteran replacement for Bakary Soumare. Skipper Matt Hedges is back and Moises Hernandez and Kellyn Acosta are two of the top young defenders in MLS. But it is always dangerous to change a back four with a young goalkeeper.
On the other side of Texas the Houston Dynamo are looking to develop the same youth model that their derby-mates have developed over the past several years. Coach Owen Coyle and General Manager Chris Colletti emptied out many of the players remaining from the Dominic Kinnear glory years.
The idea in Houston seems to be simple: it is time to rebuild. In a Conference where there is very little room for error that may mean taking a season off to build for the future.
The real question that the Dynamo must answer this season is if Erick Torres (3 goals) and Will Bruin (11 goals, 4 assists) can work together up top. At times last season the duo seemed to mesh well, with Bruin serving as more of a holding forward for Torres.
But in other stretches the two looked disjointed and out of sync. Having Giles Barnes (7 goals, 3 assists in 28 matches) for the full season to provide service inside the box should alleviate some of these issues.
The Dynamo have spent a considerable sum of money on both players and if they cannot work together then Houston’s rebuilding efforts may be doomed from the start.
Speaking of rebuilding, let’s talk about the Colorado Rapids! Stan Kroenke’s least favorite soccer club (that may shock Arsenal supporters) the Rapids spent the offseason trying to find someone, anyone to come to their squad.
Although it appears that United States Men’s National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard may have taken them up on their offer they are still very far away from being a contender.
At the heart of the Rapids problems is the attack. The club scored just 33 goals last season which was the lowest among all MLS sides. They were able to pick up FC Basel’s Shkelzen Gashi who won the Swiss League Golden Boot in 2014-2015. But beyond Gashi there are very few attack players in Mastroeni’s projected eighteen.
The club is going to need Irish international Kevin Doyle (5 goals, 2 assists) and United States under-23 Dillon Serna to step up and create more chances if this team has any hope of escaping the bottom.
As opposed to their MLS original comrades the Los Angeles Galaxy have never finished at the bottom of the table and it appears that 2016 will be more of the same from the five-time champs.
After using some very creative budgeting practices the Galaxy picked up defenders Ashley Cole (AS Roma), Jelle Van Damme (Standard Liege), and Nigel De Jong (AC Milan), midfielder Jeff Larentowicz (Chicago Fire) and forward Mike Magee (Chicago Fire).
Those additions, coupled with last summer’s additions Giovanni dos Santos and some guy named Steven Gerrard give this roster some serious pedigree.
The question for the Galaxy is at what cost are these additions to their long-term plans. De Jong, Cole, Van Damme, and Gerard are all in their 30’s and not likely to stay beyond a season. Instead of giving time to the likes of Jose Villarreal and Bradford Jamieson IV the Galaxy are going all in on a title.
Arena, through his work with the likes of Robbie Keane (20 goals, 8 assists) and David Beckham, that he is a coach that can work with players from Europe and get them to mesh with younger players. Can he work his magic again?
In general though this team will be very difficult to defeat. Keane and his strike partner Gyassi Zardes (6 goals, 4 assists) work seamlessly with one another, always finding the one space to exploit. If Arena can somehow figure out how to add Emmanuel Boateng to this partnership then the Galaxy might need to get some space in the trophy cabinet ready.
The Galaxy’s derby-mates in the California Classico, the San Jose Earthquakes, have also been busy this offseason. The club brought back former Derby County and Aston Villa midfielder Simon Dawkins with the hope that he can rekindle his scoring partnership with forward Chris Wondolowski (16 goals, 2 assists).
With Wondolowski turning 34 this season the Quakes will need to develop a consistent second scoring option from either Dawkins, Quincy Amarikwa (6 goals, 4 assists) or assuming he is healthy Innocent Emeghara (1 goal in 7 matches, former Siena and Livorno striker).
The one player on the Earthquakes to keep an eye on is Fatai Alashe (2 goals in 28 matches). The U.S. under-23 midfielder had a strong beginning to his professional career in 2015 before tiring at the end of the season. His patience with the ball and service into the box make him an excellent compliment to Matias Perez Garcia (2 goals, 7 assists) who likes to serve as more of an attacking midfielder.
If Earthquakes coach Dominic Kinnear can somehow find a role for Tommy Thompson at center midfield San Jose may get into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
If the Earthquakes are to be in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the West come October they will likely be going against Real Salt Lake. While the team has certainly placed serious investment into the future with forward Joao Plata, midfielder Jordan Allen, and defender Justin Glad there will be many familiar names on this side for the 2016 season.
With defender Chris Wingert and forward Yura Movsisyan returning to the side RSL will have six members of their 2009 MLS Cup winning side on their roster this season (the others being goalkeeper Nick Rimando, defenders Jamison Olave and Tony Beltran, midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales).
While reunions are nice that RSL have to rely on seven players over the age of 30 is a bit troubling. Their 4-8-0 record down the stretch should also be of a concern. With coach Jeff Cassar entering his third season he will need to figure out a method to get the best out of his aging players for the duration of the season. A full season of Javier a.k.a. “Burrito” Martinez should help that cause (1 goal in 8 matches).
The other major unknown in the West, Sporting Kansas City, could potentially win the West and claim their fourth MLS Cup. Or they might not even make the playoffs.
The club did a good job this offseason addressing their problems at maintaining possession in the midfield by picking up Justin Mapp (8 assists in 23 appearances for the Montreal Impact in 2014) and Brad Davis (MLS all-time leader in assists).
At times in 2015 the Sporting midfield struggled to provide quality opportunities for forward Dom Dwyer (10 goals) up top. With Mapp, Davis, Benny Feilhaber (10 goals, 15 assists) and a healthy Graham Zusi (2 goals, 5 assists in 25 matches) that should not be a problem.
The two major flaws with this team though are a lack of a second option up top with the loss of Hungarian international Krizstian Nemeth and their proclivity towards making poor challenges (Sporting has never finished outside of the top ten MLS for fouls committed during coach Peter Vermes’ tenure).
MLS Western Conference projected final standings (top six make the playoffs:) Whitecaps, FC Dallas, Galaxy, Timbers, Sounders FC, Sporting Kansas City, Earthquakes, RSL, Dynamo, and Rapids.
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