2016 MLS Western Conference Preview

Well folks, the time is once again almost here where we can put our offseason hopes back up on the dusty old shelf with our souvenir hand towels and that limited edition bobblehead and face the reality that while even just two weeks ago the 2016 MLS season promised that anything could happen, we’re about to find out that only one outcome is actually possible and that long trek to October starts soon and we’ll be leaving the station without any hope of slowing down, stopping, or changing direction.

So, let’s get down to it. Let’s go ahead and preview the 2016 Western Conference. As always winning the Western Conference this year will be the most impressive achievement in the league. More so than the Supporter’s Shield (unless of course a western conference team wins it) and MLS Cup (unless of course a western conference team other than LA wins it).

The balance of power started to shift a little bit last season, with LA, Seattle, and RSL failing to impress and nearly every team in the conference going through a period of a few weeks at some point in the season where they were grateful to the good lord that there is no such thing as relegation in the land of the free (and Canada).

Portland Timbers

As the old saying goes, "it is better to be lucky than good", and if you're the Portland Timbers, it's best to be both. Although the Timbers seemed to benefit from some fortunate bounces and bizarre officiating during their improbable run to MLS Cup, the only thing that fans will care about in the end is that it’s their teams name on the trophy and there’s a golden star above their crest. 

The question everyone will be asking is, can they repeat? I don’t rightly know and neither does anybody else. Looking at their offseason moves it seems like Portland lost a lot of depth and some key players. Paparatto, Will Johnson, Villafana, Fochive, Jeanderson, Urruti, and Rodney Wallace are Timbers no more but some seemingly shrewd acquisitions like Ned Grabavoy, Jack McInerney, and Chris Klute should be able to paper those cracks quite nicely. 

While they deservedly revel in their MLS Cup success, Coach Caleb Porter won’t let the team rest on their laurels and will have an eye on a Supporter’s Shield to add to the trophy case. When the Timbers are at their best, there aren’t many teams that can beat them, and the main objective this season has to be figuring out a way to hit that form with far more consistency.

 - Ian Lamberson

Los Angeles Galaxy 

The LA Galaxy had a very Galaxy-esque off-season. Adding Ashley Cole, Jelle Van Damme, and Nigel De Jong to their already glamorous roster has left many asking, “how in the world are they getting all of these players under the salary cap?”

But, is LA going to be good this year or not? I honestly don’t know. The roster looks fantastic on paper if you read it under the assumption that it is currently 2011. The Galaxy bid farewell to two of their best players this offseason. So farewell Omar. Farewell Juninho. If LA's performance in their CCL campaign is any indication of how they will fare in MLS this season, they could be in trouble against some much younger opposition. But, only a fool would count them out based on this.   

Should the Galaxy reach their fullest potential, this side could potentially be unbeatable, but with their super top-heavy attack and with so many aging players at all positions, time isn’t on their side.   

Once you scratch the shiny paint, you’ll find that the depth below is frighteningly thin. So, staying healthy and not suspended is going to be crucial for the Galaxy going forward. 

LA has a fascinating team but there are a lot of unanswered questions about how they’ll perform this season. Will Keane keep being Keane? Will Gerrard run? How many careers will De Jong end But knowing LA, they’ll be mediocre at best for 6 months and then become world beaters by August.   

 - Ian Lamberson

FC Dallas

FC Dallas were the best team in Major League Soccer last season, and in my opinion, it wasn’t very close. They nearly won the Supporters Shield coming out of the significantly more difficult West and managed a deep run in the playoffs, but couldn’t quite overcome a resurgent Portland. For my money (around $18.72). these guys are going to be the team to beat again in 2016. 

Incoming: It’s not difficult to see that Dallas has likely improved this offseason. Most irritatingly for fans of teams that are not FC Dallas, they’ve bolstered their front line with the addition of former Toronto (his career was slightly longer than an episode of Friends) and Portland Designated Player Maximiliano Urruti who joined in the re-entry draft and hopes to finally cement himself a regular place in a starting lineup.

Leaving the front line, is Blas Perez, accomplished striker/irritating person. Now, most people were probably hoping that if any player in the league was going to go to China, it was going to be this guy. Alas, he’ll be turning out in the PNW for the Vancouver Whitecaps and could very well find a starting job there depending on how quickly their new signings bed in. In exchange for the soccer equivalent of a papercut, Dallas added veteran MF Mauro Rosales. Rosales isn’t the type of player who’s going to be able to go a full match, but can add a much needed creative spark late in matches, or even spot start occasionally when circumstances allow or require.

Additionally, Dallas added veteran right back Maynor Figueroa, who is most famous for his time at Wigan outside of the states, and most recently spent a year in Colorado presumably working off some unspecified karmic debt, as well as bringing in Colombian Attacking Midfielder Carlos Lizarazo on a one year loan.

Basically, the league’s best team got better.

 - Ian Lamberson

Vancouver Whitecaps

The Whitecaps are a routinely underrated team in Major League Soccer and they started off last season looking very much like they'd be in the conversation for the Supporters' Shield performing in such an aesthetically pleasing fashion whilst also maintaining the requisite goal totals to ensure early victories. They finished second in the West right in that 50-53 point pile that vaulted them into playoffs only to be halted by Portland's manifest destiny to ruin my year.  

They'll be looking to build on that success this season, and in order to accomplish such a task they've done smart work in retaining the services of Matias Laba, made a questionable decision in re-signing Pa-Madouh Kah, and as mentioned above, traded away one of the most lovable presences in sports for a man that is best described as what stubbing your toe would be like if stubbing your toe could play striker. 

They also went out and snagged Masato Kudo on a free transfer, and the Japanese striker looks to be one of the more intriguing additions to the league this season.  He'll be fighting for playing time with Octavio Riviero and Blas Perez (see above).  In Christian Bolanos, the whitecaps might have acquired a more than adequate replacement for Mauro Rosales, and in a team that was hardly starving for good play on the wings, his signing will like ensure that they will continue to have excellent service for the next few seasons.

Vancouver are always strong, but they have to be hoping that this is the year they finally assert themselves as a serious candidate for hardware. 

 - Ian Lamberson

Seattle Sounders

Next up are the Seattle Sounders. What in the world are we going to do about the Seattle Sounders? Crowning themselves as the heir apparent to the Galaxy’s throne hasn’t gotten them any closer to a league championship and though it isn’t exactly de rigueur to point it out, Portland’s cup run last season has added an extra bit of incentive to fill the MLS Cup shaped hole in the trophy case.

The early part of the offseason was all about departures, with the Sounders declining options on nine players and shipping future captain, designated player, and likely Ballon’ d’Or winner Andy Rose to Coventry City. Meanwhile, Marco Pappa took time out of his busy schedule of living in a spec script for Law and Order to get traded to Colorado, and long serving Left Back and fan favorite Leonardo Gonzalez returned home for one last go around with Herediano.

Sounders fans were promised early on that there would be no significant additions aside form the possibility of Jordan Morris. Morris did eventually sign a lucrative Homegrown Player contract despite several worrying weeks where he was backpacking around Europe (or trialing at Wolfsburg, whatever). Expectations for the Stanford standout are sky high, and he’ll look to capitalize on the sudden departure of Obafemi Martins to snag valuable first team minutes. Oh yeah, Obafemi Martins got sold to China. That’s probably important.

Just when Sounders fans were starting to enjoy imagining the possible benefits of a relatively quiet but settled offseason, Sounders two year leading scorer and perennial MVP candidate Obafemi Martins announced that he was leaving Seattle to join up with Chinese side Shanghai Greenland Shenhua. Seattle isn’t the kind of team to set on an empty designated player spot for long though, and whomever they choose to replace the nomadic Nigerian will undoubtedly have a huge impact on how the Sounders fare this year.

As always, Seattle have a talented side but staying healthy and learning how to better cope with adversity will be crucial if they want to win the biggest prize.

 - Ian Lamberson

Colorado Rapids

In times such as these when tumultuous change is afoot in the league - when RSL finish near the bottom and Portland are awarded a trophy for playing soccer effectively - it’s hard to imagine something even crazier than all of that happening without risking your very sanity and that’s why I’ve chosen to not even consider the possibility that Colorado might be a good playoff calibre team this season. I simply can’t do it and maintain my credibility as a fledgling internet soccer journalist.

To give credit where credit is potentially due, you can’t argue that Colorado aren’t changing things up this season. 14 players were either traded away of had their options declined. Most notably, Drew Moor was sent to Toronto presumably just to be nice to Toronto, Clint Irwin went with him, and Gabriel Torres and Vicente Sanchez were also not included on the “see you next season” Evite.

But Colorado isn’t just sending players away! No. That would be foolish and would disqualify them from participating in the league and if there is one thing you can say for the Rapids, it’s that they are certainly just about competent enough not to be disqualified. All kidding (I’m not kidding) aside, there are some intriguing additions to the squad, most notably is the acquisition of a new Designated Player from Basel named Shkelzen Gashi. If there’s one thing that the Rapids are in desperate need of it’s an offensive threat and Gashi seems to fit the bill. Perhaps now they can somehow accidentally play Kevin Doyle as a striker and start to see some of these investments actually pay dividends.

Tim Howard is rumored to be showing up at the end of the Premier League Season and that should be fine I guess.

Two former Sounders will be turning out at Dicks Sporting Good Park this season. Michael Azira is best known for being one of the many players who didn’t do a good job replacing Ozzie Alonso when he was injured and Marco Pappa comes to Colorado amidst one of the strangest stories to ever grace the MLS/Other Sports section of most papers. While Marco is undoubtedly capable of electrifying offense and quite possibly already Colorado’s best player, he’s unfortunately coming with a hefty amount of baggage. If Marco’s story is to be believed, shortly after being traded he was “probably” stabbed by a homeless person outside of a Seattle bar and didn’t discover this until much later that evening at home. On the one hand, it will be interesting to see how Pappa fits in with Colorado’s mostly trouble free culture. On the other, being so numb that you’re no longer able to feel pain is something that Rapids fans can surely relate to and may find him a kindred spirit in that regard.

It would be an understatement to call this a transitional season for Colorado. I think just seeing a competently designed roster with players lining up in their correct positions will go a long way towards improving the team’s performances. The Rapids have fans who are saintly in their patience and forgiveness, and while they won’t be expecting a playoff run, they will rightly expect to see signs of improvement. Improving on last year’s performances shouldn’t be difficult, and it’s literally the least they can do for their supporters.

Colorado needs to learn to walk again before it takes off running.

 - Ian Lamberson

Houston Dynamo

It’s been a season of change around BBVA Compass Stadium. Everyone from the coaching staff to the players will tell you, there’s something different about the 2016 version of the Houston Dynamo. After consecutive seasons of missing out on the MLS Cup Playoffs, things must change, and that urgency is felt from the top down. 

Gone is captain Brad Davis, sent back home to Sporting Kansas City this offseason. Jamaican international Giles Barnes assumes the captain role. He’ll be joined in the midfield by fellow newcomers Christian Maidana and Andrew Wenger (trade with Philadelphia), and David Rocha (signed from Spain). Veteran Ricardo Clark and recent acquisition Collen Warner will provide the defensive work needed with an attack heavy midfield. 

Can Houston score goals? Yes. Will Bruin and Cubo Torres will likely lead the line with young Colombian Mauro Manotas impressing this offseason. Defense has been the Achilles heel for the Dynamo but this unit has now had time to gel and should be improved in front of rising talent Tyler Deric. 

A trip to the MLS Cup Playoffs has to be the goal. Can they get there in a very competitive Western Conference? The odds are stacked against them. 

 - Dustyn Richardson 

Real Salt Lake

Since winning MLS Cup in 2009, Real Salt Lake has been one of the more consistent teams in North America. A tradition of success took a bit of a dip in 2015 as the Claret and Cobalt finished 9th in the West and failed to challenge for much of the season. 

After bowing out of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, a valiant effort against Mexican powerhouse Tigres, RSL return to MLS play in an effort to regain their league form and return to a familiar place late in the season.Yura Movsisyan returns from Spartak Moscow as a designated player and will lead a formidable attack along with fellow DPs Joao Plata and Burrito Martinez. Another familiar face returns to the backline with veteran fullback Chris Wingert coming back to Rio Tinto Stadium after a season in the Bronx. 

Veteran leadership is a huge plus for this team. Captain Kyle Beckerman anchors the midfield and provides a calming presence. He’ll look to pair with new signing Stephen Sunday to provide stability in the center of the park. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando, arguably the best shot stopper in the league, gives the defense an anchor they can rely on.  

Real Salt Lake should have the firepower to compete and their defense can compete with most around the league. Don’t be surprised to see Jeff Cassar’s side fighting for 5th or 6th in the difficult Western Conference come October. This team showed signs in their two legged tie against Tigres that they may just be a waiting lion, ready to catch the league napping.   

 - Dustyn Richardson

Sporting Kansas City

After winning a trophy in 2015 (the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup), SKC were bounced out of the playoffs in one of the cruelest ways possible. A penalty that would have eliminated eventual champion Portland hit not one, but both posts, causing an early MLS Cup playoff exit. 

Veterans Brad Davis and Justin Mapp were brought in to bring depth and leadership while goal scorer Krisztian Nemeth saw the dollar signs and headed for Qatar. The core of their 2013 MLS Cup championship team remains and if Peter Vermes can get them clicking, SKC could be a big threat.

Playing at the palace that is Children's Mercy Park provides a huge advantage as one of the league's best fan bases drives their team forward. A strong home record in 2016 will go a long way in getting this team back to playoff heights they've missed out on the past two years.

The big question will be if Dom Dwyer can carry the scoring burden. He'll have help from the likes of Benny Feilhaber but the English born forward will need to be lethal in front of goal. With their additions, Sporting is now very deep and creating a starting eleven will cause some angst for the coaching staff. This is good angst.

Don't expect SKC to falter down the stretch in 2016. A talented and deep roster should push them near the top of the West and have them challenging for a first round bye in the Western Conference playoffs.

 - Dustyn Richardson

San Jose Earthquakes

With a full season at Avaya stadium under their belt, and the return of their Prodigal Son Dom Kinnear, San Jose is looking to the 2016 season with hope.

While 2015 ended with San Jose not making the playoffs, it provided a new foundation for them both on and off the pitch, a foundation that has been desperately missing for some time for this franchise.

On the pitch, Kinnear’s team looked familiar to what he has done with his time in MLS – pragmatic and efficient, but lacking flair and excitement. Off the pitch (or, well, the pitch itself?), the team finally opened their crown jewel of a stadium, Avaya Stadium, the host of the 2016 MLS All-Star Game. Dom has assembled a wily team of veterans both from within the league, and without. Like every Kinnear team in the past, the strength of this team is seen in its spine. A solid GK in David Bingham. A proven, veteran CB pairing in Victor Bernardez, and Clarence Goodson. A solid central midfield with Panamanian International Anibal Godoy and Fatai Alashe (when healthy). And of course, up top you have Chris Wondolowski.

The question marks remain, though. Will their other 3 DPs (Matias Perez Garcia, Simon Dawkins, and Innocent Emeghara) provide enough spark to get this team over the finish line? Will an aging core of MLS veterans last a whole season? Will Kinnear finally let Tommy Thompson out of his cage? We know this team has enough fight and talent to make it to the playoffs, but will it be enough to beat out the flashier, bigger names out west? We’ll have to wait and see. I think that with their solid core, and what they’ve added to the roster, along with the return of Emeghara, they’ll just squeak into the playoffs. The ultimate key for San Jose is making sure their backline stays healthy, and no DP misses crucial time to silly red cards and injuries. 

 - Mark Kastner