2018 MLS Western Conference preview

On March 3, MLS will kick off its 23rd season featuring a new team in Los Angeles, a new stadium in DC, and new investments in first-teams and academies across the league that have raised the bar again.


1. Portland Timbers

What’s To Like: Despite losing two franchise cornerstones in Caleb Porter and Darlington Nagbe in November and December, Timbers fans are almost giddy for 2018.

There are a few reasons why. One is that Gio Savarese, brought in from the New York Cosmos to replace Porter, looks like the real deal – a bilingual coach with energy, ideas, and the same natural command that Porter himself showed when he took the reigns so memorably in 2013.

The other plus-note is that the roster – which was good enough to win the Western Conference last year before injuries derailed the team’s postseason – has been improved.

Nagbe might be gone, but ten starters are returning and the bench has been completely overhauled with young, TAM-level players who should log big minutes.

What’s Not To Like: The Timbers were hugely reliant on Diego Valeri last season, all the more so after Fanendo Adi went down in August, and while there’s no reason to believe Valeri won’t be great again in 2018, he also likely won’t score 21 goals.

Like Seattle, and though there certainly has been an infusion of youth, Portland’s best players are older and/or coming off of injuries. Valeri, Adi, Diego Chara, Liam Ridgewell all fall into that camp.

Injuries crushed both the team’s Supporters’ Shield hopes last year as well as their MLS Cup hopes, but the other big problem was defense – and between Jeff Attinella and Jake Gleeson, the goalkeeper spot is still unsettled.

We’ll also get a good idea fairly early of just how important Nagbe was for all he did for this team that didn’t show up in the boxscore – holding the ball, connecting passes, shifting the field, etc.

Watchability: Best in the Western Conference. Providence Park is still the gold standard for per-person passion in MLS, and the Timbers will play with intensity and verve.

In the booth, Jake Zivin and Ross Smith will comprise the club’s best broadcast team since the halcyon days of John Strong and Robbie Earle.

Projection: Savarese has waited a long time to jump into MLS, and his debut season is going to be worth watching. The Timbers will compete for the West title again.


2. Seattle Sounders

What’s To Like: Seattle made MLS Cup at a walking pace last season, and are just a year and change removed from winning the championship. The club has still never missed the playoffs since it’s been in the league. These guys are about as reliable as it gets.

They’ve had a good winter too. A younger center back is on the way, and Magnus Eikrem is important attacking depth. A fully acclimated Victor Rodriguez won’t hurt either.

The spine of the team remains tough – especially in midfield and defense – and there’s a lot of veteran leadership.

What’s Not To Like: Losing Jordan Morris to a torn ACL is a huge, huge blow. That’s the first line. Morris seemed primed to take a step forward in his third pro season, and the Sounders have no one else who can stretch defenses like he can.

Joevin Jones was really effective for this team last year, whether it was from fullback or midfield, and Waylon Francis is going to be an attacking downgrade.

But the big red flag is the age of the core. Chad Marshall and Roman Torres are both on the wrong side of 30, Clint Dempsey is nearing the end, and Osvaldo Alonso was a shell of himself last year.

The age of the team might explain, at least in part, why the Sounders have gotten off to such slow starts the last two seasons – both in terms of pace of play, which was glacial at times last year, and results.

The slow starts didn’t matter in 2016 because of how strong they came on once Nico Lodiero came aboard, and didn’t matter last year because the Western Conference was abysmal, but it’s going to be harder to overcome this year.

Watchability: The Sounders are always entertaining, even if they don’t play one of the league’s more watchable styles. CenturyLink is a big time atmosphere, and even Kasey Keller has improved behind the mic in recent years. Seattle is a first-rate franchise.

Projection: It remains to be seen whether the Sounders can get out of first gear, but even in first gear, they’ll contend to make it three straight MLS Cup appearances.


3. Real Salt Lake

What’s To Like: This is a club that’s feeling awfully good about itself heading into 2018. Mike Petke was a jolt of energy when he replaced Jeff Cassar last year, and he’s got a young, hungry team backed by an owner who has seemingly gone from one of the league’s worst to one of its best overnight.

At their best last year, RSL pulsated. Their attacking line, with Jefferson Savarino, Joao Plata, Albert Rusnak, Brooks Lennon, or whoever it was, could run teams off the field like no other club in the league besides Portland, Atlanta, or TFC last year – and Salt Lake did it without an elite striker.

Petke and Craig Waibel think they’ve solved that problem with the signing of Alberto Ortuño from Spanish football. Luis Silva is still serviceable, but Ortuño was the big pickup in an offseason marked by youth signings and the outright purchase of Lennon from Liverpool.

Justin Glad and Marcelo Silva anchor a defense that should be among the league’s better units this year.

What’s Not To Like: Kyle Beckerman will be 36 and Nick Rimando will be 39. Rimando in particular showed signs of slipping last year, which is the last thing anyone – at RSL or not – wants to see.

There’s also a question of consistency. Petke’s teams have always been up-and-down, and this is largely a young team without a lot of MLS experience. How will it navigate a long season as a contender?

One thing last year made clear is that RSL needs Glad on the field. Their record without him was abysmal, and they haven’t improved lacking depth in central defense or midfield.

Watchability: This was an extremely fun team to watch in the second half last year, and while there’s nothing fancy about the Rio Tinto, it’s a good atmosphere when Salt Lake is winning. Brian Dunseth’s commentary, while sharp, is overbearing.

Projection: After just missing out last year, RSL should be solidly in the playoffs this year and better-positioned to compete once there than at any point since Jason Kreis left.


4. LA Galaxy

What’s To Like: Since taking the reigns last summer, Sigi Schmid hasn’t looked back. The Galaxy have been completely remade, and have gone from one of the conference’s least talented teams to one of its most talented teams.

Perry Kitchen, Ola Kamara, David Bingham, Jørgen Skjelvik all fill gaping holes, and picking up pieces like Chris Pontius and the potential Rookie of the Year in Stanford’s Thomas Hilliard-Arce won’t hurt either.

All of the sudden, this team has – so long as it finds the right center back pairing – everything it needs: an excellent central midfield partnership, a playmaker, a #9, a couple of goal-dangerous wingers, and a goalkeeper. It was a ruthlessly effective offseason.

If that’s not enough, Zlatan’s arrival is likely just a matter of time.

What’s Not To Like: This team made a big call when it bought Jonathan dos Santos last summer, and, thus far the younger dos Sanots has been less than convincing.

Bigger picture, Schmid needs to figure out who the personalities in his team are. Ashley Cole has been a stalwart, but it says something when he’s your captain.

In the last couple of years, the club has lost Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Jelle Van Damme, and a whole host of other players who set the right tone – not to mention Bruce Arena, whose ability to set a good tone was always, at least until last year, one of his best traits.

Who steps into that leadership void? Romain Alessandrini is a big personality, but is there a leader in the middle of the field? Last year, when there wasn’t, the team cratered.

Watchability: Joe Tutino is a great game-caller, Cobi Jones is pleasant alongside him, and the Galaxy will benefit in every way from the new rivalry with LAFC – not to mention the vastly improved team.

Projection: The Galaxy are going to be good. How good depends on the how well all the new players mesh, and how dialed in the dos Santos brothers are.


5. Sporting Kansas City

What’s To Like: Defense, defense, defense.

Tim Melia had a monster season in goal last year – close to anything Nick Rimando has ever done – and the team only conceded 29 goals all of last season. Back to front, it was a phenomenal effort.

Offense, as usual, was the problem. But Peter Vermes has taken more drastic steps to fix the goalscoring issues this season than he has the past several years, bringing in attacking players from Yohan Croizet to Khiry Shelton to Felipe Gutierrez.

Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber are gone, and Sporting probably sold both guys at the right time. As a dealer, Vermes is unrivaled in MLS. This is a first rate club with seven straight playoff appearances and a lot of hardware. There’s been a lot of success, and that isn’t about to change.

What’s Not To Like: There’s still no obvious elite attacker, or, with Feilhaber gone, a true #10. Shelton has been good in preseason, and the club likes Daniel Salloi and Diego Rubio, but none are guys you’d bank on making an MLS Cup run behind.

But maybe the even bigger question is why Sporting collapses in the second half every year. The team always starts hot, fades late, and loses on the road in the Wild Card round. It’s happened every year since the club won MLS Cup 2013.

The intensity of pressing system very well might be to blame. Can Vermes stomach letting up in the first half to help save his players’ legs? So far, it hasn’t happened.

Watchability: Sporting’s fans are fantastic, and Children’s Mercy Park is an excellent venue. The issue is its size. The stadium is one of MLS’s smallest, and it’s due for an expansion.

On the field, Sporting is great to watch because they’re so well coached and play such good defense. They won’t give you a lot of goals, but they’re a fairly unique MLS club in how defined Vermes’ ethos is.

One drawback last year was color man Matt Lawrence, who was nearly unlistenable. Here’s hoping he improves drastically in his second season in KC.

Projection: Sporting has some new faces, but they’re going to play the same game they’ve always played under Vermes. The defending will be excellent, they’ll play hard and smart, and they’ll struggle to get goals in the fall.


6. FC Dallas

What’s To Like: 2017 is over.

Dallas’ free-fall out of the playoffs and down to eighth place last season was one of the most shocking in-season collapses in MLS history. It was a mess. No one in the locker-room was happy, for various reasons, and Oscar Pareja didn’t handle it at all well.

The offseason, then, has been a breath of fresh air. Walker Zimmerman is gone, but Maxi Urruti seems recommitted to the cause, and Santiago Mosquera – a big buy from Millionarios – should help with the goalscoring load.

What’s Not To Like: For all their good work in finding young talent, Oscar Pareja and Co. have done pretty, pretty poorly in buying senior players in the last couple of years. They desperately need Mosquera to come good. It wouldn’t hurt if a couple of those busts – Roland Lamah or Cristian Coleman – came around either.

The player Dallas needs at his best most, though, is Mauro Diaz. The playmaker never got right last year coming off of an ACL tear suffered at the end of 2016, and there’s no replacing him.

Overall, it’s a big year for Pareja. Last season did a number on what was an excellent reputation, without which he almost certainly would have been fired. He needs a bounce-back campaign.

Watchability: Low. The team was last in the league in attendance last season, and – though Mark Followill is getting some FOX love – the broadcast is no better than average.

US Soccer Hall of Fame or not, as long as the stadium is in Frisco, it’s going to be one of the league’s worst atmospheres.

Projection: It’s hard to imagine that this season will be the nightmare last season was, but Dallas’ ceiling is still likely lower than it was in 2015 and 2016.


7. Los Angeles FC

What’s To Like: LAFC have certainly done more right than they’ve done wrong in the buildup to their first season.

Bob Bradley was a slam-dunk coaching hire, and he and John Thorrington have done good work in assembling a roster that is full of big résumés, well balanced between youth and experienced, and set up to score a ton of goals.

Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, and Andre Horta should be one of the best trios of DPs in the league, and the defense will be anchored by a pair of center backs – Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman – who have both been at a Best XI level in the last two years.

What’s Not To Like: This will change, we assume, but LAFC is really, really thin. They have the fewest players of any team in the league, and need some proven depth at pretty much every position except fullback.

The team also doesn’t have a lot of players who are in their age primes. There’s a contingent of young players – prospects – and a significant number of important players who are older.

Benny Feilhaber slowed somewhat last season with Sporting KC, and LAFC is about to hand him a lot of attacking responsibility.

Watchability: This team should be really, really entertaining. Bob Bradley is an attacking coach, and he’s assembling a team that’s going to have a lot of forward-thinking players. The preseason games have had some crazy scorelines.

Banc of California Stadium looks like it’s going to be a gem, and tickets have sold extremely well. It’s unlikely that any LA team will ever have a truly rabid fanbase, but this team might come close. We’ll see.

Then there’s the TV deal with YouTube, which is a big risk. We’ll get a better idea of how that’s playing pretty quick. Max Bretos as lead announcer, though, is a move no one can argue with.

Projection: We had a pretty good idea that last year that Atlanta was going to compete and Minnesota wasn’t. It’s less clear where this LAFC team will fall in the league pecking order, but they should be entertaining at the very least.


8. Houston Dynamo

What’s To Like: Wilmer Cabrera did an excellent job with this team last year, constructing with Matt Jordan a roster that blended some legitimate young Central American talent with a bunch of MLS vets who know how to win.

Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto were both unplayable at times, and Mauro Manotas had his moments too, and the Dynamo took advantage of a soft Western Conference to run all the way to within a series of MLS Cup. It was a great year.

That frontline of Elis, Quioto, and Manotas is back for 2018, and should be even better. Manotas is now the fulltime starter with Cubo Torres mercifully gone, and the central midfield of Eric Alexander and Juan David Cabezas is strong too.

Houston is a stout team with some game-breakers – more than you can say for at least half of MLS.

What’s Not To Like: Much like the next team on this last, Houston’s reliance on the counter to score their goals is troubling. They need another gear – one that would look a lot like Tómas Martinez playing the DP ten he was brought in to be.

Houston caught a lot of teams off guard last year, but that isn’t about to happen again. How can Cabrera diversify the team’s style? That’s a make-or-break question this year.

It’s also tough that Houston will be without AJ DeLaGarza, one of last year’s stalwarts, until at least the late summer as recovers from a torn ACL. That, along with the goalkeeping situation, leaves big question marks on the backline.

Those questions haven’t really been answered. Alejandro Fuenmayor is an intriguing singing, but he, Chris Seitz, Darwin Ceren, and Arturo Alvarez doesn’t constitute much of an offseason haul.

Watchability: BBVA is never more than half-full – a real blemish for MLS, considering that it’s a very nice stadium in a good location – and it hurts that the Dynamo aren’t relevant in their own market.

Glenn Davis isn’t for everyone, but he’s MLS through-and-through, and Eddie Robinson does a really good job alongside him. Any chance to watch DaMarcus Beasley is a blessing.

Projection: I think the Dynamo are due for a slide down what will be an improved Western Conference, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see them surprise either.


9. Vancouver Whitecaps

What’s To Like: You – and should – hate the way the Whitecaps play, but it was effective in 2017. Vancouver finished just one point off of the top of the Western Conference and finally got a playoff win before bowing out against Seattle.

A lot of the ‘Caps success last year had to do with Kendall Waston, who got the captain’s armband, settled down, and turned in a campaign that easily could have won him Defender of the Year.

That said, Vancouver was pretty, pretty good on the counter last year. They scored 50 goals, and got a lot of production from their fleet of fast attackers that includes Yordy Reyna, Nico Mezquida, and Christian Techera.

Fredy Montero is gone this year, but Kei Kamara – who’s a stylistic fit, for better or worse – will come and get on the end of a lot of crosses.

What’s Not To Like: Vancouver plays terrible soccer, they overachieved last year, and they’re going to come back to earth this year.

The ‘Caps aren’t nearly as challenged offensively as the Colorado team that won West in 2016, but playing exclusively on the counter with no ability to generate chances from midfield is not a recipe for sustainable success in MLS.

Vancouver’s playoff exit against the Sounders was a perfect example of why. A competent defensive team simply won’t let you play on the counter. In that series, even though they were chasing or should have been chasing a goal nearly the entire time, the ‘Caps got off just one shot on target over 180+ minutes. One.

With Kamara in the fold, you’re going to see Vancouver hit even more long-balls and crosses than ever. Carl Robinson is all in.

That’s not all though. Matias Laba and Tony Tchani were good for this team in midfield, and they’re both gone – replaced by a longtime fullback in Efrain Juarez and maybe Jordan Mutch? On balance, I don’t think this has been a good offseason.

Watchability: That run-and-gun style the Whitecaps play can be fun at home in the right game, but this team is pretty miserable to watch on the road. Peter Schaad is a fun broadcaster, though, and BC Place – while not Portland or Seattle – an above-average atmosphere.

Projection: The Whitecaps will get their wins at home, but they’re going to be passed by a bunch of better teams this year – much like they were in 2016 after a strong 2015.


10. Minnesota United

What’s To Like: From about late May on last year, Minnesota really wasn’t bad. They weren’t great, by any stretch of the imagination, but they were a middle-of-the-pack Western Conference team.

Because of that – because Adrian Heath and Co. righted the ship after that historically bad start last spring – the Loons have a lot to build on heading into their sophomore season.

Christian Ramriez, who scored 14 goals in 2017, finally got a look at a national team camp. Ethan Finley has some charge, Kevin Molino produces, Ibson is a ton of fun, Sam Cronin is nails, Abu Danladi might be a star – there are pieces here.

Regardless, this year will be easier. United was so, so rushed in trying to get itself ready for last season, and this year they have their feet under them. It will help.

What’s Not To Like: It wasn’t exactly for a lack of trying – the club made runs at Sacha Kljestan, Yamil Asad, and Nicolas Benedetti – but the Loons are not measurably better right now than they were in October.

Furthermore, though Benedetti still might get done in the summer, it’s a little troubling that the club’s front office wasn’t able to pull a big move off. Minnesota still doesn’t have a DP, and that’s just not going to fly in MLS in 2018.

The concern about the offseason isn’t just about the moves that didn’t happen. The Loons are still stockpiling wingers, to what end no one knows, and a defense that conceded 70 goals last year hasn’t been significantly improved. Bertrand Eko’o might help, but Tyrone Mears is washed up and shouldn’t be playing.

It’s a particularly big year for Heath. The club will make a fresh start when they move into their stadium in St. Paul next year, and there must be marked improvement if the club is going to stick with him. He could use a real playmaker.

Watchability: The Loons have a nice broadcast – and just signed a deal with Fox Sports Minnesota that will get their games on TV across the state, as well as in Wisconsin – and Heath himself is excellent television.

Last year’s Minnesota team played some fun soccer, and, at the very least, their games were reliably entertaining.

Projection: A lot depends on whether they can pull off a big move or two in the summer, but I don’t think Minnesota can be consistent enough this year to make the playoffs.


11. San Jose Earthquakes

What’s To Like: San Jose was a playoff team last year, they’ve got an interesting collection of players, and a new coach in Swede Mikael Stahre whose vision is firmly in line with GM Jesse Fioranelli’s.

That vision, in part, is to play better soccer – something San Jose needs to do to get back to winning consistently, and one of the big reasons why Dom Kinnear lost his job last year even with the team in a playoff spot.

It was also the right move to return Chris Leitch to the front office. It was a short audition, but he didn’t have the chops for the full-time job.

The hope for this year is that some of the team’s younger players – Tommy Thompson, Nick Lima – make big steps. Yeferson Quintana should be a good pickup at center back.

What’s Not To Like: They might have made the playoffs this year, but that 5-0 loss in the Wild Card round in Vancouver was a solid indicator of how good the ‘Quakes really were last year. They weren’t.

I’m not totally sure that changed this offseason. Stahre was an extremely strange hire, and the process of getting to him from Kinnear was uneven at best.

I don’t know what the plan is in central midfield, but it’s likely not going to be pretty. It’s also unclear how the ‘Quakes are going get wide spacing, especially if they play two natural tens – Vako and Jahmir Hyka – in wide positions. The team is unbalanced.

There’s also the fact that Chris Wondolowski has been this team’s only reliable producer for years, and he’s now 35. Can he score his thirteen goals again? Is Magnus Eriksson’s success in Sweden going to translate? The jury is very much out.

Watchability: Pretty low, though the team might play better soccer under Stahre than it ever did under Kinnear/Mark Watson/Frank Yallop.

The atmosphere at Avaya is badly hampered by the fact that no one is ever in their seats. The bar under the scoreboard is a cool feature, but there’s a real drawback.

In an attempt to improve the atmosphere, the club is moving their incorrigible supporters’ group, the 1906 Ultras, down to field level behind the goal opposite the scoreboard. It’s a good move on balance, though the Ultras’ numbers are small.

Projection: 11th is probably low for San Jose, but I don’t think this is a playoff team and I don’t think it’s going to be particularly close.


12. Colorado Rapids

What’s To Like: Uh, Dominic Badji maybe?

The cupboard remains pretty bare in Colorado. Anthony Hudson gives the Rapids a sense of forward momentum that they lacked last year, and always lacked under Pablo Mastroeni, and the club is certainly going an interesting route with its player recruitment – mining for talent in the English second and third divisions, instead of South and Central America like the rest of the league.

It also looks like Hudson will import his 5-3-2 from New Zealand, so there’s that. The Rapids aren’t following the playbook, and for that, you might applaud them.

What’s Not To Like: There’s a 98 percent chance that this team is going to be abjectly terrible again.

These guys scored less than a goal per game last year, and their response was to hire a coach with an extraordinarily thin résumé and no MLS experience and load him up with a guys from Wolves and Ipswich.

I don’t think this team knows how to play offense, and there’s no reason right now to believe that Hudson can teach them. The backline should be strong, but there are real question marks at this point about Tim Howard’s effectiveness in goal. He was statistically a below-average goalkeeper last year.

Watchability: Never watch the Rapids.

Projection: Another last place finish.

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