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Western Conference is barely recognizable
by Ridge Mahoney, April 12th, 2012 3:08AM

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TAGS:  colorado rapids, fc dallas, los angeles galaxy, mls, portland timbers, san jose earthquakes

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The MLS season is barely underway and already the Western Conference is barely recognizable compared to last year’s version.

Some changes that had been anticipated haven’t transpired. By now FC Dallas fans had hoped playmaker David Ferreira would have recovered from the broken ankle he suffered about a year ago. Instead, a small fracture in his right foot that requires surgery will sideline him for six to eight weeks, and despite the addition of Blas Perez during the offseason, the FCD attack will continue to flow through the talented yet erratic Ricardo Villar.

The other two star attackers injured early in the 2011 season, Javier Morales of Real Salt Lake and Steve Zakuani of Seattle, are in much better condition. Morales got his first start of the season last week in a 2-0 defeat of Rocky Mountain Cup rival Colorado, and Zakuani is getting back into match shape playing for the reserves. Their return to health further strengthens the better of the two conferences, yet under a revised playoff format only the top five teams qualify for the playoffs. The battle for those spots figures to be fierce.

Not so healthy is the Los Angeles Galaxy, which has yet to fill the yawning hole created by Omar Gonzalez’s torn ACL, though he’s expected to begin light training next month. David Beckham was substituted at halftime of a 3-1 loss to New England and didn’t travel for last weekend’s 1-0 defeat at Kansas City. Whether or not there’s a rift with head coach Bruce Arena isn’t as pressing an issue as that he, and Landon Donovan, just aren’t playing well. The Galaxy lost by only a goal to SKC but got bossed around for much of the match.

The latest in a series of Galaxy-Chivas USA trades -- certainly the most convenient and economical, since no relocations or moving costs are involved – transpired Tuesday when Los Angeles sent midfielder Paolo Cardozo down the Home Depot Center corridors in exchange for defender David Junior Lopes.

Teams exchanging benchwarmers normally rates barely a ripple, but much more has been expected of both players, and they wouldn’t be the first ones to blossom after a change of address, or in this case, jerseys. (Kenny Cooper’s recent move from Portland to the Red Bulls has already produced six goals. He scored eight in 34 games last season for the Timbers).

Leonardo, who has missed nearly a year after suffering torn lateral collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee, is still weeks away from returning to action. The trade is also a stark statement that rookie Tommy Meyer and veteran Andrew Boyens aren’t the answer.

As the defending champion has stumbled, San Jose and Vancouver – which missed the playoffs last season – have bolted out to fast starts. Off their early-season showings, neither look like flukes. The Quakes rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat the Whitecaps, 3-1, last Saturday, to snap Vancouver’s unbeaten start to the season and end its shutout string to start the season at 427 minutes. They are second and fourth, respectively, behind conference leader RSL. (They were seventh and ninth in 2011.)

One of those players who changed locker rooms at HDC two years ago, Alan Gordon, sparked the Quakes’ response to falling behind early in the second half. Gordon, who started the match on the bench despite the injury absence of regular targetman Steven Lenhart, came on seven minutes into the second half and scored the winner with a glancing header as San Jose riddled the ‘Caps for three goals in 10 minutes.

Chris Wondolowski, scorer of 34 goals in the past two seasons, tallied the other two goals after, by his own admission, struggling ineptly to replace Lenhart.

“Alan gives us that target forward,” said Wondolowski, who is tied with Cooper in second place MLS among the scoring leaders with six goals. “It allows me to drop a little bit underneath. I really did a horrible job playing at target forward in absence of Lenny. I thought Alan did a great job. He caused a lot of havoc inside the box. He’s such a force to be reckoned with.”

To replace Cooper, the Timbers signed Scottish striker Kris Boyd, who has scored two goals but isn’t yet a force to be reckoned with. And unlike the rabid crowds at Jeld-Wen Field, neither are the Timbers, who squandered a one-goal lead for the second straight home game in losing to Chivas USA, 2-1. Early-season stumbles for a second-year team aren’t unusual but this loss deeply pained the Portland faithful in the wake of a 3-2 defeat to RSL also marred by a late-game collapse. There are playoff expectations to be met.

Sub Ryan Smith set up both Chivas USA goals with swerving crosses from the left flank; one of them went to midfield mate Nick LaBrocca, whose aggression and spirit could be greatly enhanced by the addition of Cardozo. The win moved Chivas USA above Portland in the standings to give head coach Robin Fraser’s team some encouragement after it won just eight games last year.

Tucked between San Jose and Vancouver in third place is Colorado, which has taken on a different persona under the tutelage of head coach Oscar Pareja. An emphasis on possession and skill has replaced the bang-it-forward mantra of predecessor Gary Smith; newcomers Luis Zapata, Martin Rivero and Jaime Castrillon have imbued more skill, and the absence of again-injured Conor Casey has yielded further adjustments.

“The word that is constantly thrown out by Oscar during training is ‘mobility,’” says midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, whose anticipated role in a 4-3-3 formation has been altered with partner Pablo Mastroeni sidelined by post-concussion problems. “He wants to create those partnerships on the field, whether it’s between a wide player and a central player, or a wide player and another wide player. The more we’re able to move, the harder it is for the other team to mark us. That’s the difference from a 4-4-2; the 4-4-2 is very rigid, or at least it has been over the last couple of years and I think Oscar’s trying to change that.”

Change is certainly the byword so far for the Western Conference.



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