MLS: 2015 Western Conference Preview

By Ridge Mahoney

Both Houston and Sporting Kansas City were successful as Western teams and their return has toughened up an already stacked conference that boasts the 2014 Supporters Shield winner (Seattle) and MLS Cup champion (LA Galaxy).

That gives the lineup a run of six straight titles -- Real Salt Lake (2009), Colorado (2010), the Galaxy (2011, 2012, 2014) and Sporting KC (2013) -- as well as nine of the last 10, counting the Galaxy’s triumph in 2005 and Houston’s superiority in 2006 and 2007.

The revamped grouping should produce a compelling playoff race, with the number of postseason slots increased from five to six. As the teams prepare to kick off the 20th MLS season, here are how they stack up:

1. SEATTLE. The best team during the regular season last year looks just as strong this time around, though the experiment of Brad Evans as a centerback will take a few games at least to evaluate. Seattle conceded 50 goals last year, more than any playoff team except New York. Based on experience alone, newcomer Tyrone Mears can provide more stability if less offense than did predecessor DeAndre Yedlin. Veteran keeper Troy Perkins adds some experience as well as depth in case Stefan Frei doesn’t replicate his ever-present season of 2014. The frontline pairing of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey (who combined for 32 goals and 23 assists) is back and last year Lamar Neagle broke through with nine goals and nine assists. If there’s a midseason need, does the addition of Garth Lagerwey as GM come into play?

2. LA GALAXY. The Galaxy could be the league’s strongest team in August once Steven Gerrard arrives and is worked into the mix, but as of early March the loss of Marcelo Sarvas and Landon Donovan tugs the Galaxy down a notch or two. Gyasi Zardes nailed 16 goals last year in just his second pro season and grew a lot under the tutelage of MVP Robbie Keane (19 goals, 14 assists). But the forward ranks look a bit thin after the top two and following a preseason trial veteran Edson Buddle is negotiating a deal to return. Who gets Sarvas’ spot in midfield has yet to be decided –  Baggio Husidic or Kenny Walker will get first crack – but a stingy defense anchored by Omar Gonzalez has been strengthened by Todd Dunivant’s recovery from several injuries.

3. FC DALLAS. Staying the course should be sufficient for FCD to challenge for the Western Conference’s slot in the MLS Cup final, though the back line might need a tweak or two as the season unfolds. The players quickly bought into the teachings of Oscar Pareja in his first season as head coach and there’s a good mix of youth (Fabian Castillo, Tesho Akindele, Kellyn Acosta, Mauro Diaz) and experience (Blas Perez, Michel, Dan Kennedy). It’s been a long time -- 2009, in fact -- since ex-Chivas USA keeper Kennedy played on a good team and if he falters, Chris Seitz can step in. Draft pick Otis Earle and ex-TFC midfielder Kyle Bekker are intriguing additions, as is Colombian Michael Barrios. Wherever he looks, captain and centerback Matt Hedges sees good players at nearly every position.

4. VANCOUVER. Head coach Carl Robinson expects improvement from his team, which finished fifth in his first season and enchanted the fan base with players like Newcomer of the Year Pedro Morales (10 goals, 12 assists). One of this year’s newcomers, forward Octavio Rivero, got the fans jazzed by netting twice against New England in a preseason game and is being counted on to produce consistently. (The ‘Caps were the lowest-scoring playoff team last year with 42 goals.) Ex-Timbers centerback Pa Modou Kah has earned a roster spot, where Kendall Waston’s dominance last year sparked a solid finish and a playoff berth. Uruguayan defender Diego Rodriguez is another addition to the back line. In his second MLS season, goalie David Ousted led the league in shutouts (13) and the ‘Caps have no worries unless he’s injured.

5. REAL SALT LAKE. The offseason hoopla of high-priced signings and significant departures and new franchises and teams changing conferences has edged RSL off the radar screen, which is probably ideal as RSL sets out for its second season under head coach Jeff Cassar. The former keeper’s squad conceded 39 goals in 2014 – only the Galaxy allowed fewer – but a 5-0 playoff thumping in L.A. prompted several stalwarts to depart. Coming back after a two-year absence is centerback Jamison Olave, and a shift from RSL’s traditional diamond 4-4-2 formation will showcase the skills of newcomer Pecka. Potency abounds in the attack with Javier Morales pulling the strings for Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata (currently sidelined) and Kyle Beckerman still commands the middle. This is a crunch season for Luis Gil, who isn’t a lock to start with Luke Mulholland eager to follow up a solid debut season in MLS.

6. SPORTING KANSAS CITY. Champion in 2013, SKC stumbled to the finish line last year in fifth place and lost its playoff game to New York. Offseason rebuilding hit snags when James Marcelin and Jorge Claros were cut loose, and fans are anxious to see who will replace stalwart centerback Aurelien Collin, traded to Orlando City after asking for a new contract he didn’t get. Canadian international Marcel De Jong, acquired this week, brings experience from the Eredivisie and German Bundesliga to SKC. In the nets, Chilean keeper Luis Marin strives to eradicate the specter of 2013 hero Jimmy Nielsen. The return of Roger Espinoza strengthens the middle, and the wing play of Bernardo Anor (ex-Crew) adds another element. Hungarian forward Krisztian Nemeth has been asked to complement 22-goal man Dom Dwyer. If the new pieces fit, SKC will be formidable.

7. HOUSTON. Initial reaction to head coach Owen Coyle has been positive. Scrutiny for any successor to Dominic Kinnear, who left to take his previous job in San Jose, would be intense, yet Coyle -- formerly of Burnley, Bolton and Wigan -- seems to have cleared the first hurdles of fan acceptance and knowledge of MLS. He is fortunate to have ex-MLS keeper and Impact technical director Matt Jordan to streamline the transition. Forward Erick “Cubo” Torres is a big catch, of course, but if the Dynamo is laden with losses by the time he arrives in June, the season could slip away. Centerback Raul Rodriguez and winger Leonel Miranda need to acclimate quickly. If they do, the Dynamo’s go-to guys -- Brad Davis, Will Bruin, Oscar Boniek Garcia, Ricardo Clark, Giles Barnes, DaMarcus Beasley -- will thrive. Honduran Luis Garrido played 11 games last year in his MLS debut season. How he does in his first full season will say a lot about Houston's fortunes.

8. PORTLAND. The injury bug that bit Will Johnson (broken leg) and Diego Valeri (torn ACL) last year returned in preseason to fell Johnson’s replacement, Ben Zemanski, who suffered a torn ACL in the Simple Invitational opener against Vancouver two weeks ago. Veteran Jack Jewsbury will get first crack at taking his spot as the Timbers try to stand tall while Johnson and Valeri recover. Ex-RSL centerback Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell, who spent two months on loan to Wigan, are refining what should be a reliable partnership on a back line that creaked a bit in 2014 even though Alvas Powell played some “wow” games at right back. Newcomer Dairon Asprilla did some wowing up top in preseason, so the attack looks potent with him, Fanendo Adi and Max Urruti, assuming Valeri can pick up where he left off.

9. SAN JOSE. Dominic Kinnear has inherited a team that managed only six wins and tallied just 35 goals (only defunct Chivas USA scored fewer) and lurched through a 15-game winless skid last year, so his return to Northern California roots is tempered by the huge task ahead. He’s added some speed (Marvell Wynne and Sanna Nyassi), beefed up the front line (Mark Sherrod and DP Innocent Emeghara), and bolstered the midfield (Leandro Barrera and draft pick Fatai Alashe). Injury limited playmaker Matias Perez Garcia to six games last year so he’s yet to prove he can run the show. In preseason, Portuguese defender Paulo Renato scored a goal against Vancouver; he’ll duel with Clarence Goodson, limited by injury to 10 games last year, for a starting spot alongside Victor Bernardez.

10. COLORADO. Failure to win any of their last 14 games dropped the Rapids into eighth place and, even though injuries were a major factor, triggered an extensive clearout of players. Head coach Pablo Mastroeni scoured the league to pick up the likes of defenders Bobby Burling and Michael Harrington, midfielders Sam Cronin and Sarvas, and goalkeeper Zac MacMath (on loan). Argentine midfielders Lucas Pittinari and Juan Ramirez will give that area a different feel. The return from injury of captain Drew Moor should stabilize the defense as Mastroeni tries to revive the spirit and camaraderie by which Vicente Sanchez, Dillon Powers, Shane O'Neill, and Deshorn Brown drove Colorado into the 2013 playoffs (barely). A bounce-back season in goal for Clint Irwin and a productive year by Gabriel Torres (three goals in 23 games last year) would also help.
1 comment about "MLS: 2015 Western Conference Preview".
  1. Tim Brown, March 5, 2015 at 5:19 p.m.

    FC DALLAS . If we can stay healthy we have the makings of a championship team. Star studded la galaxy will be hard to beat though. How do these guys keep coming up with the big name players? " Red till I Die"

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