Commentary

MLS 2017: How Western Conference teams look on the eve of the SuperDraft

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

No more Robbie Keane or Bruce Arena in L.A., a coaching change in Houston, and a new champion in the Northwest cast the Western Conference in a very different light than in past years.

Here are how the Western teams look on the eve of the SuperDraft, listed in order of 2016 finish:

FC Dallas
OH STRIKER, WHERE ART THOU? After back-to-back, record-setting, 60-point seasons, and signing three outside backs during the winter, the reigning Supporters’ Shield winner has one big hole to patch up. Right up top.
FCD has held its cards as forwards such as Will Bruin (Houston to Seattle) and Olmes Garcia (RSL to San Jose) have moved within MLS. Does FCD make a play for Kei Kamara, or could “Cubo" Torres be wooed a few hours’ north? Among the rich Homegrown crop is Coy Craft, 19, who has played just five games (one start) since signing his deal in 2014.
Reports surfaced last week FCD might be trying to land Paraguayan striker Cristian Colman, currently employed by Nacional Asuncion. Unless FCD trades up, and even if it does, there doesn’t seem to be a fresh-out-of-the-box striker it can nab in the SuperDraft. But there’s available depth available at centerback and that area could be depleted by callups for Matt Hedges and/or Walker Zimmerman.
Signing RSL legend Javier Morales as cover for injured star Mauro Diaz makes sense, though Morales looked stale and flat in more than few games last season. But he should respond well to the vibrant FCD environment.
 
Colorado Rapids
THE FINAL FRONTIER. In Year Four of the Pablo Mastroeni Era, he faces perhaps the toughest task of an MLS head coach; how to get a good team into an MLS Cup final and win it.
Seattle needed a dramatic midseason turnaround after seven straight failures to get it done. The Revs have lost five finals and won none. Mastroeni’s predecessor, Oscar Pareja, and FC Dallas are on the clock.
No playoff team scored fewer goals (39) than did the Rapids and yes, the back six of the league’s stingiest defense (32 goals conceded) returns intact, but a repeat performance in that regard is unlikely. Shkelzen Gashi nailed some spectacular strikes in his first MLS season but he needs a productive focal point.
Less important is whether said player relies on speed -- as does Dominique Badji -- or holdup play and finishing, a la Kevin Doyle. The departure of sporting director Paul Bravo opens the door for the ideals and philosophies of Padraig Smith to propel further a team that won 15 games in a season for the first time.
 
Los Angeles Galaxy
ALL CHANGE. Yes, the Galaxy hired from within by naming Galaxy II head coach Curt Onolfo to replace Bruce Arena, and the departure of Landon Donovan after a three-month cameo doesn’t shake up the roster all that much, but adjusting to life after Robbie Keane just isn’t going to be smooth. His presence on and off the field and incredible production -- 92 league and playoff goals in 146 appearances -- stamp him as the prototypical DP.
The coaching staff, announced on Monday, has been in place for some time, but there’s a midfield to sort out whether or not Jermaine Jones comes on board, a bit of a question mark in goal, and much work ahead melding the myriad abilities of Gyasi Zardes and Giovani Dos Santos. This could be a typical Galaxy season in which the lineup changes radically from April to August.
A strong showing by Sebastian Lletget after he moved into the middle last season adds another piece to the midfield puzzle, to which Juninho might be added at some point if his loan to Chicago can be converted into a transfer.
 
Seattle Sounders
NEW AGE DAWNS. Great job, thanks for helping us finally win it, now buzz off. The newly crowned Sounders didn’t spring for sentiment.
Nelson Valdez is the biggest name -- and salary -- to leave the 2016 MLS Cup champion, but options on a dozen others were declined and stalwart Zach Scott rode off into the sunset. Wisely, GM Garth Lagerwey and head coach Brian Schmetzer have already dipped within MLS to add hefty and production up front in Bruin (50 goals in six seasons) and midfield skill in Harry Shipp, who in just three pro campaigns has already burned brightly in Chicago and flamed out in Montreal. Shipp could be just the ticket to balance out the heavy loads to be borne in the middle by Ozzie Alonso and Cristian Roldan.
Lagerwey and Schmetzer should temper expectations and playing time for Jordan Morris; opponents will gear up to stop him at all costs and he’ll be burdened by Hexagonal games and maybe Gold Cup commitments as well. How much down time they can allocate for Morris will hinge on the utter unknown that engulfs Clint Dempsey.
Over a full season, Seattle will sputter if Nicolas Lodeiro goes down or is smothered, so someone out wide better than Erik Friberg (back in Sweden) and Andreas Ivanschitzis needed to stretch the opposite flank or step in for the star.


 
Sporting Kansas City
EXOTIC MAKEOVER. A lot of domestic experience has left -- Brad Davis, Justin Mapp, Chance Myers, Jacob Peterson -- along with veteran midfielder Paulo Nagamura. Stepping into the breach are a Ghanaian winger (Latif Blessing), a Guinea-Bissau forward (Gerso Fernandes), and a Brazilian loanee (Igor Juliao) who returns to MLS three years after playing 23 games for SKC on loan from Fluminense.
Fernandes can also play midfield, but he’s not renowned for wide play, and the return of right back Juliao indicates the grand experiment of Graham Zusi in that slot may be favored more by Bruce Arena than Peter Vermes. SKC struggled last year when opponents squeezed the middle to starve Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer of space, so offensive production may depend on Blessing’s forays from the flank and Fernandes’ success in drawing defenders away from Dwyer, who has fought through barren spells and brutal marking to score 50 goals the past three seasons.
The shuttling of Matt Besler in and out of the lineup last season caused some instability yet may also have infused the savvy and confidence Ike Opara needs to meld with his athletic prowess. Opara can be a beast in the back, if he’s consistently paired with a smart, cool veteran. That’s the theory, anyway.
 
Real Salt Lake
CROSSROADS. RSL comes off a season slightly improved from the previous one – eighth place in 2015, sixth last year – and not terribly impressive nor dramatic.
Moving on from Morales will reshape the team and there’s good reason to believe that a full season of good health for Yura Movsisyan and Joao Plata can help RSL stay in the playoff tier. Most No. 10s in MLS come from the Americas, and signing Slovakian international Albert Rusnak is a bit out-of-the-box, but if head coach Jeff Cassar and technical director Craig Waibel are to tangle successfully with big-bucks rivals, these are the moves that move the needle -- hopefully in the right direction.
A curious move it was for Jeff Attinella, who played impressively if rarely behind Nick Rimando, to leave. Rimando is 38 and must be closely monitored but seldom shows his age. The centerback slots are well-manned but young -- Aaron Maund, Chris Schuler, Justen Glad –- so acquiring an experienced centerback would make sense. So would packaging one of the incumbents in a trade.
By re-signing veteran Chris Wingert, RSL has retained a connection to past glories. He and Rimando will be vital factors in grooming the next generation.
 
Portland Timbers
A YEAR LATER. Seattle fans reveled in how fast and how far the Timbers toppled from the summit of winning it all in 2015, but it was a valuable lesson for all. There’s a reason eight different teams have played in the last four MLS Cup finals: staying near the top is tough.
Another big wave of departures has swept through Porterland, shorn of former captain Jack Jewsbury (retired) and Lucas Melano (DP disaster banished on loan) and about a dozen others. On the eve of the SuperDraft only a few additions had been secured.
Newcomer Daniel Guzman assumes the Ron Burgundy role -- “Anchorman”, get it? -- as midfield screen, which either shunts Diego Chara to the bench or redefines his role and that of Darlington Nagbe. Regardless, Caleb Porter’s lads must do a better job of transforming goals into points. Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi scored a combined 30 goals last year, and still the Timbers went winless (0-11-6) on the road while finishing seventh, which is what happens when you concede 53 goals in a defensively oriented conference.
Former Red Bulls scapegoat Roy Miller returns to fill a slot, left back, which has been a concern since Jorge Villafana left for Mexico 13 months ago. The midseason signing of Vytas offered promise but not much else. The saga of Nat Borchers’ ruptured Achilles’ tendon continues.
 
San Jose Earthquakes
WHO’S WITH WONDO? The acquisition of Garcia from RSL didn’t occur on the watch of new GM Jesse Fioranelli, but he’s on the hot seat anyway as a disgruntled fan base waits for signs of a reborn attack.
Eleven goals by Garcia in 104 games isn’t much to brighten the hopes of Quakes’ fans, who suffered through an anemic season -- 32 goals in 34 games -- overly dependent on Chris Wondolowski. He tallied a team-high 12 goals to extend his run of double-digit seasons to seven, a league record, but the next name on the list, Simon Dawkins, bagged just five.
So far, signing Cal-Berkeley star Nick Lima to a Homegrown contract and adding another defender, Harold Cummings, to an already solid defense (39 goals conceded) is not regarded as progress in the right direction. President Dave Kaval has promised the team, notorious for ballyhooed DPs who’ve fallen on their faces, will spend wisely.
 
Vancouver Whitecaps
NORTHWEST ANGST. Consider the conflict; as their teams tumbled down the mountain, Portland and Vancouver supporters watched Seattle pitch camp on the peak.
“Too many bad goals, too many red cards, not enough good games,” were cited by head coach Paul Robinson, who rated his own performance subpar as the ‘Caps slid to their poorest finish since joining MLS in 2011.
The ‘Caps, of course, didn’t slip from the pedestal, and there hasn’t been much upheaval. Six players, including playmaker Pedro Morales, departed and the only notable addition is ex-Union defender Sheanon Williams. Several scouting trips abroad may yet bear fruit but Robinson also said he wanted to keep together a “strong core” of players rather than tear down and rebuild. That’s a clear message he expects keeper David Ousted, defender Kendall Waston, midfielder Cristian Bolanos, and winger Kekuta Manneh to get it done.
 
Houston Dynamo
WHO-STON? There’s not only a new sheriff in town but a whole herd of debuting deputies.
Just for starters, new head coach Wilmer Cabrera will be joined by Honduran winger Romell Quioto and international teammate Alberth Elis,  Colombian holding mid Juan David Cabezas and a pair of center backs: Adolfo Machado of Panama, and Leonardo of Brazil (and formerly the Galaxy).
Elis joins forward mates of contrasting fortunes; Mauro Manotas, who scored six goals in 22 MLS games after being blanked in nine 2015 appearances, and Erick "Cubo' Torres, back after a bleak loan to Cruz Azul. Cabezas joins veteran Ricardo Clark in a reshuffled midfield and the back line figures to look a lot different as well.
So if Cabrera and technical director Matt Jordan have scouted and spent shrewdly, Houston can edge its way back into the playoff conversation. This process will not unfold quickly.
 
Minnesota United
LOONS LOOKING UP. Finally, a United in the Western Conference! It’s been a long time coming.
But seriously folks, MNUFC already looks potent up front. Well, maybe. That’s assuming Johan Venegas tacks some consistency onto his array of attacking skills, and fan favorites Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez clear the hurdles to MLS success. The team is negotiating with former SKC forward Soony Saad, who has played the last two years in Thailand, and thanks to the top SuperDraft pick has first dibs on former Duke forward Jeremy Ebobisse.
To the back line has been added Norwegian defender Vadim Demidov using Targeted Allocation Money as the probable partner for Costa Rican Francisco Calvo. NASL holdovers Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas are among the contenders at outside back.
In front of them journeyman Collen Warner and ex-Crew SC midfielder Mohammed Saied look to have first call on starting spots, though the extensive domestic and international contacts of sporting director Manny Lagos and head coach Adrian Heath suggest this area of the lineup is far from settled.
Oh and there’s no goalie currently on the roster. Last year, Sammy Ndjock threw the ball into his own goal during a friendly with Bournemouth. (Yes, that was a loony thing to do.) 

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