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Western Conference still strongest in MLS despite new additions in East

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Quick quiz: Which team from the Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference can best compete for the landmark 20th league title this season?

Answer: It’s a trick question, of course. Far more likely that your 2015 title winner comes out of the West.

That would be a re-configured West, one that was already stacked and packed before shedding the dead weight of Chivas USA, exchanging the dumpster fire of a club for powerful Sporting Kansas City and a Houston Dynamo side now guided by the accomplished Owen Coyle.

So while it’s true that Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference led the offseason in wow-wow headlines, accumulating a few bright and shiny things, the league map tilts appreciably left this year in true balance of power.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of reasons to watch an Eastern Conference brimming with storylines. For instance, I love that Mix Diskerud is now in place for New York City FC. He’s a real personality, and having that kind of figure in the country’s top media market will serve the league well. Beyond that, it will be fascinating to watch Jason Kreis put the pieces together for the expansion team. His charges this season at Yankee Stadium include Frank Lampard (we think) and a former World Cup winner in David Villa.

Kreis is one of the smartest, most driven managers in MLS, and NYCFC will be a force at some point – but it’s a little too early this year.

Not far away in distance and along the “interesting scale” will be Sacha Kljestan’s arrival into Red Bull Arena. Besides being such a good midfield partner for the hard-working Dax McCarty, Kljestan is the very picture of a “mid-tier star” that can really make MLS teams work.

And yet, the Red Bulls’ attack does look a bit ordinary without Thierry Henry, and you still wonder about a defense that never quite arrived at “championship caliber” in 2014.

Toronto has all those big names, but a defense that still looks sketchy at best. Orlando City will be fascinating to watch, everything from Kaka’s ability to dominate (we’ll see) to the scene around the ground. They want to put 60,000 fans in the Citrus Bowl for the debut match on March 8 (vs. NYCFC). And you know what? Those crazy kids just might make it, having already sold north of 30,000.

New England has a little something, but after he recovers from his injury, you do wonder how well 33-year-old Jermaine Jones will hold up over a long season of extensive travel, playing home matches on artificial turf? D.C. United has enough roster muscle to kick up a fuss, although Ben Olsen and Co. still has that pesky Eddie Johnson riddle to unravel.

Columbus remains intriguing, although that early playoff capitulation – Uh, allowing four goals at home? Yuk! – certainly rang some alarm bells. Chicago, Montreal and Philly? You’ll have to show it to us, then we might believe it.

So the East matches the West in absorbing plot lines. But in terms of quality, top to bottom? Well, let’s put it this way: the battle for playoff spots in the East will be a fair fight with 14 oz. gloves, while the competition for six spots in the West looks like a bloody, brutal cage fight.

Los Angeles, with three of the last four MLS titles, has arguably gotten stronger. Marcelo Sarvas (now in Colorado) was certainly an influential figure around the StubHub Center, but en-route Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard is an upgrade.

Fair enough to argue that Robbie Keane, turning 35 in July, can’t go at top speed much longer. But the counter punch is that steady improvement from Gyasi Zardes, coming off a successful January national team camp, will mitigate any slight Keane dropoff.

As for losing Landon Donovan: that does open a slight hole. But does anyone believe wily ol’ Bruce Arena won’t find a way to squeeze in one more talented midfielder to close the gap?

Seattle is another team that didn’t need a lot of makeover, having claimed last year’s Supporters Shield and U.S. Open Cup. (Although this Osvaldo Alonso injury certainly is a concern; a slow start seems possible, given the preternaturally busy Cuban’s enormous impact in midfield). Clint Dempsey had 15 goals and 10 assists in 26 matches last year. Given the support of such a solidly built team around him, a 20-goal season hardly seems beyond reach.

That pair is clearly the elite among West favorites, but there is plenty to like elsewhere. Portland was everybody’s darling at this time last year, and it’s hard to believe Caleb Porter’s team will repeat last year’s sluggish rollout. Don’t forget, the Timbers were 6-2-4 over their final dozen in MLS. Now, Nat Borchers’ arrival has helped fortify central defense. So long as Will Johnson and Diego Valeri can recover from injuries on pace, the Timbers could easily challenge their higher profile rivals.

There is still plenty of graft and craft around Real Salt Lake, where quality vets like Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio helped drive the team to a third-place finish last year.

FC Dallas didn’t make any significant improvements, although Oscar Pareja’s team – with the league’s second youngest roster in 2014 – could progress simply by another year of seasoning for the likes of Fabian Castillo, and by getting a full year from talented playmaker Mauro Diaz, who made just nine starts in 2014.

Like Dallas, Vancouver is counting on improving young attackers and a sophomore season by playmaker Pedro Morales to match his first run in MLS. On the other hand, the losses of Johnny Leveron, Jay DeMerit and Andy O’Brien mean the Whitecaps lost too many of their starters at center back in 2015. Hard to say if the replacements, plus the promising Christian Dean, will be better or worse.

So, the Caps had better be careful, or they could be lapped by improved Colorado or San Jose. The Rapids are fortified by an intriguing mix of younger and older additions, while a new manager in northern California, Dominic Kinnear, certainly knows his way around MLS. Besides, the Earthquakes can ride the momentum of that new stadium opening.

That leaves Sporting Kansas City, which is just one year removed from an MLS title. Manager Peter Vermes shed the excess baggage of DP bust Claudio Bieler. (SKC officials kept trying to convince us otherwise, but 12 goals in two seasons from a DP striker is the very definition of “bust.”) Meanwhile, the club will benefit from Roger Espinoza’s return. He is back at Sporting Park, all that hustle-bustle now enriched by two seasons at Wigan, not to mention a second World Cup with Honduras.

Let the cage fight begin; MLS opening date is less than a month away (March 6).

Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He’ll continue to share his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s previous columns on World Soccer Talk. .

 

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Rob

    February 13, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    Agree re: the West. And a nice preview!

    Looking forward to this season, and hopefully some continued improvements on-field and in viewership/attendance!

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