[MLS COUNTDOWN]Only three Western Conference teams qualified for the playoffs last year and only one made it through the first round, but again it was Houston that went all the way and repeated as MLS Cup champion. Counting Kansas City's triumph in 2000 before it changed conferences, seven of the last eight titles have been won by western teams. The Dynamo has lost a few players from last year's squad, yet faced the same situation in 2007 and still prevailed.
FC Dallas and Chivas USA have upgraded, Real Salt Lake looks more competitive, and with Carlos Ruiz back in LA the Galaxy should be able to score goals even if its defense has been revamped, again. Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney previews and predicts the Western Conference.
Here's the predicted order of finish, with last year's record and playoff performance - if any - in parentheses.
1. HOUSTON (15-8-7, MLS Cup champion)
Exclamation points: The Quakes set a league record by allowing only 23 goals in 30 matches! Dwayne DeRosario is unstoppable when he's on his game! Stuart Holden lit it up at the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers!
Question marks: Can Franco Caraccio and/or Chris Wondolowski produce consistently as Brian Ching's partner up front? Is Bobby Boswell back to his excellent form of 2006? Can the Dynamo survive another demanding season of domestic and international competitions?
Quote:"We feel our back line is good, we have great depth in midfield, we have good depth in the back, but we feel up top we could use another person."
-- Coach Dominic Kinnear
2. CHIVAS USA (15-7-8, eliminated in first round)
Exclamation points: Brad Guzan is back! There's depth up front with Atiba Harris and Alecko Eskandarian in addition to Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo! Sacha Kljestan was second in MLS last year with 13 assists in just his second pro season!
Question marks: Is Guzan destined to move during the summer? Can defender Claudio Suarez get it done again at age 39? What midfield role will Raphael Wicky fill? When will this team draw the attendances its success deserves?
Quote: "I like to think we're pretty solid in the middle of the field. That's something that's very encouraging."
-- Coach Preki
3. FC DALLAS (13-12-5, eliminated in first round)
Exclamation points: Juan Toja is a midfield force! Keeper Dario Sala looked great in preseason! There are plenty of candidates to replace Carlos Ruiz! Midfielder Dax McCarty earned Best XI honors at the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers!
Question marks: Is Duilio Davino the defender and leader FCD needs to get over the hump? Can Brazilian loanees Ricardinho and Andre Rocha earn enough time to make an impact?
Quote: "He's someone who's very, very composed in possession in the back and I think that's going to bring a calming influence not only to our back line but throughout our whole team."
-- Coach Steve Morrow, on Davino
4. LOS ANGELES (9-14-7)
Exclamation points: Think about an attacking trio of Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Carlos Ruiz! Brazilian Alvaro Pires is a great addition in midfield! Left back Mike Randolph's first season in MLS was excellent!
Question marks: How will Coach Ruud Gullit adapt to the demands and parameters of MLS? Can Greg Vanney stabilize the back line? Is Steve Cronin ready to start regularly in goal?
Quote: "We have a good team, we are strong, and we are trying to build something for the future."
-- Coach Ruud Gullit
5. REAL SALT LAKE (6-15-9)
Exclamation points: Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, and Ian Joy have been added to the back line! Matias Cordoba is the fourth Argentine on the roster! The new stadium in Sandy will be ready before the end of the season!
Question marks: Can Coach Jason Kreis blend so many disparate elements into a cohesive unit? Will Nick Rimando keep the starting keeper's job away from Chris Seitz? Can striker Yuri Movsisyan hold down a regular spot?
Quote: "I don't want to speak for anybody in the group, but it feels to me like, from what I see and what I hear, everybody's excited right now about being a part of this club."
-- Coach Jason Kreis
6. SAN JOSE (expansion team)
Exclamation points: Coach Frank Yallop is back in San Jose, where he won two titles! Goalie Joe Cannon one of the league's best! Ronnie O'Brien can dominate on the right wing!
Question marks: Is another scorer needed to supplement Gavin Glinton and Kei Kamara? Can midfielder Ramiro Corrales and defender Nick Garcia control the middle of the field? How will Yallop utilize his ample salary cap space and allocation money to fill out the roster beyond its 15 players?
Quote: "We could sign players, but I want to make sure they're good signings and what we actually need. We will fill the roster as we move along."
-- Coach Frank Yallop
7. COLORADO (9-13-8)
Exclamation points: Colin Clark and Terry Cooke are terrors on the flanks! Christian Gomez and Rafael Gomes will dominate in the middle! Keeper Bouna Coundoul is a save machine!
Question marks:How well with Pablo Mastroeni mesh with newcomers Gomez and Gomes? Can any of the forwards hit the net consistently? Will a bad start or a poor run end the tenure of head coach Fernando Clavijo?
Quote: "Christian Gomez is playing like he did as an MVP [in 2006]."
-- Coach Fernando Clavijo