The defending champion LA Galaxy faded and the Seattle Sounders floundered again and Real Salt Lake didn't even get into the playoffs, but still a Western Conference team lifted the MLS Cup trophy.
MLS Eastern Conference: Preview
Portland's surprising surge to the 2015 MLS Cup title preserved the dominance of Western Conference teams, and also confirmed that in MLS anything can happen in the postseason. Another busy offseason has every team hopeful it can emulate the Timbers.
On the eve of the launch date for the 2016 regular season, here’s how the Western Conference shapes up:
1. FC DALLAS. Tinkering with success can be treacherous, yet the 2015 regular-season conference champion has pushed more chips into the pot rather than staying pat.
Ecuadorean DP Carlos Gruezo, veteran Honduran international Maynor Figueroa, former Timber Max Urruti, and MLS stalwart Mauro Rosales head an intriguing list of new faces. The 2015 squad was good enough to tie the Red Bulls atop the overall standings (18-10-6, 60 points) and during the season academy products Victor Ulloa, Kellyn Acosta and Jesse Gonzalez established their credentials as well as FCD’s prowess at player development.
Yet five midfielders -- Ulloa, Acosta, Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz, and Michael Barrios -- all played at least 1,600 minutes. Head coach Oscar Pareja and technical director Fernando Clavijo used the 2016 preseason to bolster that part of the field. Gruezo played alongside Ulloa in a 4-0 preseason victory over Salvadoran club Alianza that featured two goals each by Urruti and Diaz.Figueroa upgrades the back line. A veteran of the English Premier League with more than 100 caps for Honduras, he got to know MLS last year while playing 10 games for the Rapids and is reliable either at left back or in the middle.
FCD’s only real concerns are replacing Perez’s robust presence and how Gonzalez, who turns 21 in May, will cope with a full MLS season.
2. PORTLAND. The defending champs, through circumstance as well as design, are very different in 2016. While many of the primary contributors to an MLS Cup title are back, there are question marks.
Is there a suitable replacement for left back Jorge Villafana in either Chris Klute or Zarek Valentin? Can journeyman Jack McInerney be the reliable backup to Fanendo Adi that Urruti was last year? Is there a wide player who can replicate what Rodney Wallace brought to the team? Is this the year that Diego Valeri is productive and healthy from start to finish? Can Lucas Melano, signed in midseason for a reported $5 million transfer fee, justify his price tag? Is there sufficient cover at centerback to relieve the stress of a long season on Nat Borchers, 34, and Liam Ridgewell, who hasn’t had a real break in two and a half years?
Preseason results normally don’t mean much to the top dogs, and 2-0 losses to Vancouver and Chicago as Simple Invitation hosts caused only a bit of concern. Backups played most of the minutes against the ‘Caps and a squad of mostly regulars outshot the Fire, 20-12. Ridgewell, bothered by a calf strain, didn’t play in either match.With a strong spine of Adi (16 goals last year) up top, Valeri backed by Darlington Nagbe and Diego Charain midfield, and the Borchers-Ridgewell tandem as central anchors, Portland against looks formidable. Sufficient depth to handle the Open Cup and Concacaf Champions League along with MLS is open to question.
3. VANCOUVER. There’s no secret as to what went wrong for the Whitecaps in 2015. Octavio Rivero went goalless after Sept. 9, they scored just two goals during a five-game winless streak near the end of the regular season, and in the playoffs Portland blanked them twice, 0-0 and 2-0.
‘Caps fans hope that the sight of Perez, the one-time nemesis obtained in a trade with FC Dallas, kneeling in his celebratory horns pose after scoring in a preseason game will be oft-repeated. Another offseason signing, Japanese forward Masato Kudo, netted his first goal for the team in a 3-2 victory over New England. Returnees Rivero, Kekuta Manneh, and Darren Mattocks also hit the target during preseason.
So frontline options are plentiful for head coach Carl Robinson as the ‘Caps go forward from their best record (16-13-5) in MLS and compete in the Concacaf Champions League for the first time. Vancouver also took care of business on the defensive end, signing All-Star goalie David Ousted to a new contract and acquiring Canadian right back Fraser Aird on loan from Glasgow Rangers to replace Steven Beitashour. The ‘Caps tied Seattle for the fewest goals allowed (36) in 2015.
There’s a wild card in midfield, where Matias Laba is closest to a guaranteed spot. Costa Rican international Cristian Bolanos is the new face and during preseason Robinson used him in different spots while experimenting with playmaker Pedro Morales in a deeper role. If the coach gets this dynamic right and deploys his forwards shrewdly, Vancouver will be very hard to beat.
4. SEATTLE. The swap of, in effect, Jordan Morris for Obafemi Martins looks like a short-term loss, yet for all his prowess, Martins failed to score in all eight of his playoff appearances. Morris is embarking on a formidable journey: his first pro season and probable double-duty for the national and U-23 teams. Team management is determined to avoid burnout.
“He’s super-talented and it’s incumbent upon us now to put him in an environment where he can succeed,” says general manager Garth Lagerwey. “Certainly with Martins’ departure that gives even bigger opportunities to Jordan and I’m excited to see what he’s going to do with it.”
Deploying Nelson Valdez as a target man flanked by Clint Dempsey and Morris in the front line of a 4-3-3 formation produced a 4-0 rout of the Galaxy, and in their two-game CCL series with Club America the Sounders took three one-goal leads. Incredibly, the vaunted Seattle defense quickly conceded an equalizer each time, and eventually the defending tournament champion rolled to a 5-3 aggregate victory.
Dempsey drifting inside from the left wing to clear out space for Andres Ivanschitz and Joevin Jones with Erik Friberg tilted right and Osvaldo Alonso anchoring the middle is an appealing picture. But can it work defensively?
Seattle is still waiting out the aftermath of a torn ACL that struck down defender Roman Torres last year just four games into his MLS career. Until Torres is ready, Brad Evans does his captain’s duty alongside Chad Marshall.
5. LA GALAXY. With a few bold strokes, the Galaxy has become more European and older than at any time in its long and successful history.
Thus, depth will be at a premium as the Club of 35 -- left back Ashley Cole, midfielder Steven Gerrard, and forward Robbie Keane are all of that age -- slogs through a long, hot summer. The Galaxy looked terrible while being thrashed by Seattle, 4-0, in the final tune-up for CCL play against Santos Laguna, which after grinding out a 0-0 tie at Stub Hub Center scored early and often to take the series, 4-0, on aggregate.
Head coach Bruce Arena also has to meld midfielders Emmanuel Boateng and Nigel de Jong and defender Jelle Van Damme into his system, so the first month or so might be rough for Galaxy fans. Gyasi Zardes, rumored to be headed overseas a couple of months ago, has signed a new contract, but the lackluster play of Giovani dos Santos has raised questions of not where he should play -- he’s been paired up front with Keane as Zardes runs the flank – but whether he should be on the field at all. Of course, at his salary ($5.75 million) he has to play.
A change in goalkeepers -- again -- has returned Dan Kennedy (formerly of Chivas USA and FC Dallas) to his Southern California roots. He figures to be rather busy as the new pieces sort themselves out.
Arena’s track record is of one of getting it right, and he may have to count on Mike Magee, Sebastian Lletget, Robbie Rogers, A.J. DeLaGarza and Zardes at least as much as the Euro contingent as they smooth out the rough spots.
6. SPORTING KANSAS CITY. Two years after winning its second title, SKC dropped all the way to sixth place, yet was a double-post penalty kick away from ousting eventual champion Portland in the Knockout Round.
Like most teams that qualified for the playoffs, SKC can look at the Timbers’ run and say, “That could have been us.” On the other hand, a record of 3-7-2 in its last dozen games suggests postseason success had little chance of occurring.
The free-agent signings of Brad Davis and Justin Mapp are obvious upgrades to the wide positions. Davis is third in all-time assists (122) and brings 14 years of league experience. At 34, he’s well on the downside of a great career. Injuries have limited Mapp to just 28 games the past two seasons -- and only five last year -- but he racked up 21 assists for Montreal from 2012 to 2014 and hits the kinds of serves that Dom Dwyer can convert.
SKC has cleared a fair amount of cap space by the departures of Jalil Anibaba ($150,000), Marcel de Jong ($191,500), Mikey Lopez ($100,0000, Krisztian Nemeth ($250,000) and Amobi Okugo ($300,000), but probably didn’t get fair value out of Roger Espinoza ($750,000). It also needs more production out of Graham Zusi, who provided just two goals and five assists at a base salary of $650,000.
In preseason play at the Desert Diamond Cup, newcomer Nuno Andre Coelho played three games alongside Matt Besler in central defense and scored a goal in the tournament finale, a 2-2 tie with Houston. SKC finished the preseason unbeaten, but the regular season may hinge on Zusi’s numbers and whether Coelho or somebody else can help Besler re-stabilize SKC’s central defense.
7. REAL SALT LAKE. Pay no attention to the spirited team that ran stride-for-stride with Tigres in the CCL quarterfinals. The long, hard slog of an MLS season still presents problems that RSL must address after missing the playoffs last year.
Let’s start with finishing. Only one team, Colorado, scored fewer goals last year than the 38 registered by RSL.In both games against Tigres, returnee Yuri Movsisyan failed to test the keeper from close range. He blazed over the bar in the first leg and smashed a sharp-angle shot off the post in game two. But six years in Denmark and Russia has broadened his game: he slid a ball from the right flank that Joao Platatouched over the line for RSL’s only goal of the series.
Movsisyan, a member of RSL’s only MLS Cup-winning team in 2009, scored 60 goals in six European campaigns, and at 28, should be poised for several productive seasons. He’s also well-versed in the RSL tradition and team ethic, an important element in a squad still transitioning from the reign of Jason Kreis. Keeper Nick Rimando and captain Kyle Beckerman have led this team for nearly a decade, and Movsisyan adds another reminder of the team’s best days.
A season of eight goals and nine assists wouldn’t suggest that playmaker Javier Morales has lost his mojo. But he’s 34 and not the clever-yet-gritty creative force he once was. Fortunately, the emergence of Juan “Burrito” Martinez and Plata’s effervescence can override the effects of attrition on Morales. Martinez is incredibly skilled and devious and could blossom into one of the league’s best. If.
The “if” is in the back. Jamison Olave just isn’t getting it done week after week, game after game. The heir apparent to Nat Borchers had been Chris Schuler, but he wasn't retained. Unless head coach Jeff Cassar finds answers at centerback, how he tweaks the role of Luke Mulholland in midfield won’t matter much.
8. SAN JOSE. The Quakes have certainly worked the system to improve. Yet even its most ardent fans can look at the six teams that qualified for the playoffs last year, plus RSL, and ask, "Okay, who misses out if we get in?”
The pieces are in place for San Jose to knock off somebody. In the attack, former loanee Simon Dawkins has been acquired, and DP Innocent Emeghara is nearly ready to resume an MLS career interrupted in 2015 after seven games by a torn meniscus. Last year another returnee, Quincy Amarikwa, scored seven goals in 17 games following a trade from Chicago. He epitomizes the work ethic and commitment demanded by head coach Dominic Kinnear.
This added firepower should play well with Chris Wondolowski, who tied a league record by hitting double-digits in goals for a sixth consecutive season. Wondo’s 16 goals accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Quakes’ total of 41.
Argentine defender Andres Imperiale supplements the solid centerback core of Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez. The midfield has been bolstered by Panamanian Alberto Quintero, probably at the behest of countrymate Anibal Godoy, who arrived in midseason and sparked the Quakes to victory in six of his 10 appearances.
The Quakes can very quickly establish their credibility. They open at Avaya Stadium on Sunday against Colorado and take on the Timbers in their second game. Four of the first six games are at home. Last year, a late-season run of three home games that yielded just one point torpedoed their playoff hopes.
9. COLORADO. A rather benign offseason sprang to life on Friday; unsettled midfielder Jermaine Jones, miffed at an 80 percent pay cut offered by New England, landed in Colorado via a trade.
He joins an eclectic list of newcomers: winger Marco Pappa, keeper Zac MacMath, midfielder Zach Pfeffer, left back Mekeil Williams, and the team’s other big signing: Albanian forward Shkelzen Gashi, a native of Zurich acquired from FC Basel.
Colorado bagged just 33 goals last year -- Kevin Doyle topped the charts with five! -- yet though Gashi scored 78 goals for various Swiss clubs since 2008, he probably wasn’t the blockbuster addition fans might have hoped for. He’s what technical director Paul Bravo and head coach Pablo Mastroeni believe was missing last year.
“He is willing and able,” said Mastroeni to the team’s Web site when the deal was announced last month. “What we want to be this year is a bit more mobile; not so static and easy to defend. I think he’ll bring that element.”
Elements of fire and toughness will be brought by Jones, who has been signed using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) and will not take up a Designated Player slot. Doyle, Gashi and Juan Ramirez, who has been loaned to Spanish club Almeria, are the three DPs.
The Rapids are still in the hunt for U.S. keeper Tim Howard, according to multiple outlets. Whatever happens with Howard, the Rapids have injected a dose of excitement by bringing back the player whose “Snow-Fro” provided unforgettable images three years ago in a Hexagonal qualifier at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
10. HOUSTON. And so to the Dynamo, about to embark on its second season post-Kinnear and shorn of its iconic leader, Davis, and nearly a dozen other players from the 2015 squad.
Head coach Owen Coyle and general manager Matt Jordan dipped into the Spanish Second Division to obtain midfielder David Rocha and defender Agus. Both of them turn 31 this year and join a roster well populated by MLS veterans whose careers had stalled with other teams -- Jalil Anibaba, David Horst, Abdoulie Mansally – as well as two significant pickups from the Philadelphia Union, Andrew Wenger and Cristian Maidana.
Not surprisingly, the jelling process during preseason produced ambiguous results. Houston tied Colorado, 0-0, at the Desert Diamond Cup and concluded the tournament with another deadlock, 2-2, with SKC. Erick Torres scored his third preseason goal against SKC and also netted in a 2-1 loss to New England, against which Houston opens the regular season on Sunday.
The departure of Davis leaves the leadership roles with DaMarcus Beasley, Ricardo Clark, and attacker Giles Barnes, who earlier this week was named team captain. Maidana can take on the playmaking burden shouldered by Davis and occasionally shared by Oscar Boniek Garcia, whose chronic inconsistency belies his talent and experience.
Up front, Will Bruin has scored 21 goals the past two seasons but seldom has found synchronization with Torres. If Houston is to climb out of the Western Conference bottom tier, a polyglot group must come together.