By Ridge Mahoney
The maligned Western Conference, deemed inferior to the East last season, may not be any stronger in 2006, but still it boasts the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup winner (Los Angeles) as well as the team that posted the best regular-season record (San Jose, now Houston: 18-4-10.)
TOP DOG.How the former Quakes adapt to their new surroundings in Houston, where the field is lush and the confines aren't much less confining than Spartan Stadium, dictates how the West will be won. Despite their playoff collapse to the Galaxy last season and the loss of four players, including defender Danny Califf, they are still the best team. But ticket sales for the opener Sunday are lagging.
If Brad Davis recovers from the groin injury that sidelined him for the second half of the 2005 season, Houston's midfield -- sparked by the sinuous Dwayne DeRosario -- reigns supreme and the forward triumvirate of Ronald Cerritos, Brian Ching and Alejandro Moreno (not all at the same time) will score goals. Coach of the Year Dominic Kinnear has Goalkeeper of the Year Pat Onstad and a solid lineup, but it's unlikely they'll finish five games ahead of their closest conference pursuers this time around.
NEXT IN LINE. Los Angeles and Dallas will fight it out for second a few games over .500, unless the Galaxy's sans-Landon malaise returns while he's at the World Cup and FC fails to find a solution at goalkeeper. In that case, the Rapids, overstocked with forwards yet thin in the middle, could make it a melee a trois.
The Galaxy has changed little and with the memory of the late Doug Hamilton in their thoughts, should better their 13-13-6 mark of last year.
Dallas, in their new stadium, has added a towering striker in 6-foot-3 Kenny Cooper to Carlos Ruiz and two other studs, gets back midfield dynamo (sorry Houston) Richard Mulrooney, and has some young, talented guys scrapping for time in midfield. The defense, though, faltered last year and the goalkeeping is average.
The goalkeeping in Colorado, i.e. Joe Cannon, is superhuman, and there is a glut of attackers. Holes abound everywhere else.
Among the castoffs to find their way to Colorado last season was Diego Serna. Coach Fernando Clavijo has upped the ante by importing Clint Mathis. Fasten your seat belts.
OUT OF THE GLOOM? Speaking of Ante, he's among the feeding frenzy of changes in Southern California. Bottom feeders CD Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake combined for a glorious nine wins out of 64 games last year. Both have undergone drastic makeovers.
Ante Razov and Jesse Marsch have helped Anglo-cize CD Chivas, which will creak in the back with Carlos Llamosa and Claudio Suarez. Real Salt Lake can point to Chris Klein, Douglas Sequeira, and Daniel Torres as dependable additions, and it has shed a dozen members of last year's embarrassment. Progress, of a sort.
CD Chivas USA would seem to have a better chance of cracking the playoff quartet and must also make a real run at topping the average attendance of 18,037 registered by Real last year. The CD average of 17,080 ranked fourth in the league and the team ranks first in local sponsorships sold, but partners Jorge Vergara and Antonio Cue need more customers to pay off the $1 million-plus dowry owed to AEG each year.