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.

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