By Ridge Mahoney
A wave of goalscorers has been acquired by Western Conference teams, of which defending champ Los Angeles Galaxy still holds the strongest hand.
The players have changed but the song remains the same: the Eastern teams are still trying to match their Western counterparts for strength, top to bottom.
The usual suspects -- the top four teams last year -- figure to battle it out for the upper tier, but a campaign concentrated with more intra-conference battles could turn the race into one of survival. Los Angeles, Seattle, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas all amassed more points last year than Eastern Conference winner Sporting Kansas City, and only one can reach MLS Cup, as all games leading up to the title contest will be played within the conferences.
Only the top five teams, regardless of how the overall points stack up, will reach the postseason; the fourth- and fifth-place finishers go into the wild-card round, the top three advance automatically.
1. LOS ANGELES – The loss of 2011 Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez (for much of the season, at least) to a torn ACL is major, yet so are the additions of striker Edson Buddle and midfielder Marcelo Sarvas. They give the Galaxy: a) a proven goalscorer, and b) midfield depth it will need playing in multiple competitions, often without Designated Players Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham during their international duty. Coach Bruce Arena will have problems if rookie Tommy Meyer or someone else can’t approximate Gonzalez’s reliability in an excellent unit. Look for goalie Josh Saunders, previously backup to the traded-away Donovan Ricketts, to command the box more.
2. REAL SALT LAKE – The winter was a nervous one, with forwards Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio recovering from offseason surgeries and several others, including defender Nat Borchers, hobbled by other medical issues. A few players counted on for depth in previous seasons – Jean Alexandre, Collen Warner, Arturo Alvarez – have departed, so newcomers such as Enzo Martinez, Sebastián Velásquez, and Emiliano Bonfigli may be asked to jump in early and often. RSL’s strength up the middle and along the back line give it a very strong foundation; its game-breakers and flair players are talented enough to mount a serious title push.
3. SEATTLE – Retired keeper Kasey Keller leaves an imposing presence that can’t be replaced. Austrian Michael Gspurning draws the unenviable task of living up to a legend. Troubled Eddie Johnson comes back to MLS after four nightmare years in Europe; both he and Danish newcomer Christian Sivebaek (6-foot-3) are strong and fast. The South American attacking tridente of Fredy Montero (Colombia) up front and Alvaro Fernandez (Uruguay) and Mauro Rosales (Argentina) should be supplemented as some point by winger Steve Zakuani, sidelined since last April with a severe leg fracture and related nerve damage. Centerback Jeff Parke joined the ranks of solid MLS centerbacks last year; his partner is one of the best, Eduardo Hurtado.
4. FC DALLAS – The arrivals of forward Blas Pérez and defender Hernán Pertúz, plus a return to health for attacking catalyst David Ferreira may push FCD higher up the conference standings; if both defender George John and winger Brek Shea depart during the summer transfer window, it might struggle to finish this high. Decades of experience in key positions – keeper Kevin Hartman, holding mid Daniel Hernandez, and defender Ugo Ihemelu – are nicely balanced by precocious youths like Fabian Castillo, and outstanding outside backs Jair Benitez and Zach Loyd. Still, the road back to MLS Cup looks a lot rougher than in 2010, when it lost to the Rapids, 2-1, in overtime.
5. PORTLAND – It’s easy to get giddy about the plucky, persistent Timbers and the magic that enveloped Jeld-Wen Field every time they played during an unforgettable expansion year. Coach John Spencer wants a lot of steak with his sizzle, so he’s bolstered the back line with Colombian Hanyer Mosquera and punched up the attack with Scottish forward Kris Boyd, who scored in his preseason debut in front of the home fans. Another newbie, Cameroonian winger Frank Songo’o, will vie for time with Kalif Alhassan, Sal Zizzo and Darlington Nagbe. Midfielder Jack Jewsbury captains an ambitious team on the improve.
6. COLORADO – Former FCD assistant coach Oscar Pareja begins his makeover of the 2010 MLS Cup champion that could look very different by the end of this season. He’s instituted a 4-3-3 formation and is incorporating fresh talent from his native Colombia: midfielder Jaime Castrillon and defender Luis Zapata. They have already raised the skill level, something that Pareja wants to sharpen throughout the roster. That transition to a more fluid game will take time, so veterans Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni in midfield and Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne on the back line all need solid starts to the season.
7. SAN JOSE – The Quakes have shed the disgruntled Bobby Convey; re-signed attacking catalyst Simon Dawkins; added Marvin Chavez (from FCD); re-worked the contract of Chris Wondolowski (34 goals the past two seasons, the highest figure in MLS) once again, and signed a several foreign players. Battering ram Steven Lenhart, who missed most of the 2011 season dealing with family issues, has been his regular pulverizing self in preseason, and defender Ike Opara – limited by foot injuries to 19 games in his first two pro seasons – seems poised to showcase his remarkable talents. Yet this team won only eight games in 2011 and just about every team in the West also looks stronger.
8. VANCOUVER – Hired to replace the fired Teitur Thordarson, head coach Martin Rennie has overstocked his shelves of attackers. Sebastian Le Toux, traded from Philly, is now one-half of the “French Connection” with burly compatriot Eric Hassli. Darren Maddocks comes as the No. 2 SuperDraft selection itching to prove Montreal should have taken him at No. 1; Scottish midfielder Barry Robson, the team’s second DP (after Hassli) will arrive after completing the English season with Middlesbrough. One player to watch, though, is Argentine defender Martin Bonjour, who joins a leaky back line that conceded 55 goals, third-worst in MLS.
9. CHIVAS USA – Nearly a dozen players have departed, and negotiations continue with striker Juan Pablo Angel, who netted seven times in nine matches after failing so miserably with the Galaxy it traded him. The new faces include winger Ryan Smith (from Sporting Kansas City); right back James Riley (ex-Seattle), and several foreign signings on which a great deal depends: Ecuadorans Oswaldo Minda and Miller Bolanos, who are expected to power the attack, and Colombian defender John Alexander Valencia. If all those pieces fit around stalwarts like defender Heath Pearce, goalie Dan Kennedy, and midfielder Nick LaBrocca, Chivas USA can be the surprise team of 2011. If not, the 2012 season will be inexorable.