Six points separated first to sixth in the Western Conference last season with the Portland Timbers finishing the year atop the conference earning their first ever playoff berth writes Christian Araos.
Real Salt Lake finished one point behind the Timbers but beat them 5–2 on aggregate in the Western Conference Final before ultimately losing to Sporting Kansas City in the MLS Cup Final on penalties. Right behind them are two star-laden teams in the LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders while a young Colorado Rapids team will look to build off of a pleasantly surprising 2012 season.
A team-by-team breakdown:
This will be Chivas USA’s last year.
MLS recently purchased operational control of the club from owners Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes with the intention of selling the club to an owner who will rebrand the team but keep them in Los Angeles. The sale does not affect the job status of new head coach Wilmer Cabrera.
The most immediate impact of the purchase is the termination of the affiliation that Chivas de Guadalajara had with Chivas USA that will lead to promising Mexican striker Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres returning to the Mexican club in June. Torres led the club with seven goals in 15 appearances last season. Former Swansea City forward Luke Moore–who joined the club as a free agent–will partner with him up top.
Chivas USA’s midfield is going to be one of the oldest in the league. Oswaldo Minda, Agustín Pelletieri and Daniel Fragoso are all on the wrong side of 30 and two of them will fit into head coach Wilmer Cabrera’s 4-4-2 midfield. Former Seattle Sounder Mauro Rosales will be at right wing and he will be looking to recapture the form he lost last season. Thirty-four year old Bofo Bautista finally joins MLS and will feature at left wing along with Leandro Barrera. Rookie Thomas McNamera and second-year Carlos Alvarez will see time as well.
Chivas USA’s center back group of Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Bobby Burling and former USA captain Carlos Bocanegra is actually fairly decent at first glance. Bocanegra will turn 35 but can still be effective in MLS. Burling is better served as a depth option in MLS but is by no means out of his depth in the league. Jean-Baptiste is the curious option. At 21, he was a starter with the Portland Timbers and a key factor to their team’s success before his form and confidence dropped and the Timbers traded him this offseason. If he can get his career back on track, he has the potential to be one of the best center backs in the league. Eric Avila is a steady presence at right back even if it is a relatively new position for him. New Zealand international Tony Lochhead will feature at left back.
As long as he plays for them, Chivas USA’s chances will always rest on the form of Dan Kennedy in goal. Kennedy has made at least 100 saves in each of the past three years but only had three clean sheets last year. That number should increase with Chivas USA’s defense actually being decent this season.
Like the New England Revolution in the East, the Colorado Rapids enjoyed a renaissance that was propelled by a solid corps of young players. However, they are about to enter the regular season without a head coach as Oscar Pareja stepped down to take the vacant job at FC Dallas. His assistant, Wilmer Cabrera, took over at Chivas USA leaving former midfielder and US international Pablo Mastroeni in a caretaker role, one that he has fulfilled for the last two months.
What makes this situation so concerning for the Rapids is that the uncertainty comes at a time when their promising young players need some stability in the coaching staff so that they can continue their development.
The other major change for the Rapids will be at defensive midfield as the club declined their option on Honduran Hendry Thomas and recently signed former Spanish international Jose Marí as a free agent. This fills the club’s biggest hole coming into the year and it also for the Rapids to keep their midfield roles as is. This benefits Nathan Sturgis who finally enjoyed a successful year becoming the team’s box-to-box midfielder. It also keeps last year’s Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers in an attacking midfield role where he scored five goals and recorded six assists. Dillon Serna and Nick LaBrocca add some depth in the midfield and should rotate in as the season goes along.
Clint Irwin went from an unsigned college graduate backup goalkeeper to one of the league’s best young goalkeepers in one season. He recorded 10 clean sheets last season and spent part of the offseason training with Everton.
There is a solid mix of youth and experience in the Rapids’ back four with 24-year old left back Chris Klute fulfilling the hype generated by his former coach Eric Wynalda during his first full season in MLS. Klute recorded a team-high seven assists from left back and has superb one-on-one defensive abilities. He looks to be an outsider for the US Squad for Brazil at the moment but if he continues to improve, it would be hard for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to not give him a second look.
Irish-born, US U20 international Shane O’Neill partners with veteran Drew Moor in the heart of the defense. Marvell Wynne played last season at right back but may be moved inside to switch with the versatile O’Neill. O’Neill may also drop to the bench with Klute playing at right back which allows him to play on his favored right foot and former Seattle Sounder Marc Burch moving into left back. Sturgis also spent time during the preseason at right back as well.
The Rapids have an exciting front three that continues the mix of young and old motif. Striker Deshorn Brown could have easily won Rookie of the Year after scoring 10 goals in 31 appearances and could either lead the line in a 4-3-3 or partner with former US international Edson Buddle in a 4-4-2. Panamanian international Gabriel Torres became the Rapids’ first ever Designated Player when he signed from Venezuelan club Zamora last August and scored three goals in seven appearances at left wing. Vicente Sanchez also provided instant dividends at right wing after signing with the Rapids last August. Honduran Marvin Chavez joins the team after requesting a trade from the San Jose Earthquakes.
How big of an impact the coaching situation will have on a Rapids team with loads of potential remains to be seen but if the team can remain in tact during this interim period, they can make a big leap forward as the season goes on.
After only losing two of their first 14 games, FC Dallas failed to record a win from June 1 to August 18, a 13-game stretch that saw the team fall from top of the league to out of playoff contention. The collapse led to the end of Schellas Hyndman’s tenure as head coach but relatively few, yet significant, changes to the roster.
David Ferreira had been the team’s primary playmaker and was the 2010 MLS MVP but injuries caught up to the 34-year old and the club declined the option on his contract this offseason. The Brazilian midfielder Jackson was traded to Toronto FC and journeyman striker Kenny Cooper was traded to the Seattle Sounders for midfielder Adam Moffat.
The two biggest additions to FC Dallas’ organization come from the Colorado Rapids as Oscar Pareja takes control of the club he once played for and also where he previously served as an assistant head coach. Pareja brought along Hendry Thomas to be his defensive midfielder and he will look to duplicate the success he had working with Thomas in Dallas.
Former River Plate midfielder Mauro Diaz will handle the playmaking duties in a similar capacity to Ferreira as he enters his first full season in MLS. Moffat will be the box-to-box midfielder and a reliable option in that position. Of course, Moffat is best known for his long-distance shooting tallying seven goals in his 62 appearances with the Houston Dynamo from 2011 to Sept. 2013 when he was traded to the Sounders.
The success of FC Dallas’ defense depends on the health of center back George John. John, who was once on loan at West Ham, has had several injury setbacks in his young career and missed more than half the season in 2013 as a result. If John can recapture the form that made him a transfer target by West Ham and Blackburn Rovers, then FC Dallas’ defense will give up far less than the 52 they allowed last year. If John cannot recapture that form, the onus falls on US U20 international Walker Zimmerman to improve off of a rookie season that had its ups and downs.
Dallas’ front three looks pretty solid with Panamanian international Blas Perez leading the line. Perez has 20 goals in 45 appearances dating back to the beginning of 2012 but has frequently missed time due to international duty. With Panama unfortunate to not qualify for the World Cup, Perez will be free of international commitments and can build off of an 11-goal season from last year. Former Uruguayan U20 international David Texeira also joins the team as a Young Designated Player after being signed from FC Groningen.
The young Colombian Fabian Castillo enters his fourth season with Dallas while still only 21 years old. With Castillo, the potential for stardom is there and it shows itself on occasion but far too inconsistently right now. If that consistency can come, watch out. Dallas also signed Andres ‘Manga’ Escobar on loan from Dynamo Kiev. Escobar, 22, has yet to make an appearance with Dynamo Kiev–instead making loan moves to Deportivo Cali and Evian.
To round off the South American influence, there’s Peruvian number one Raul Fernandez in goal. Fernandez was a Newcomer of the Year contender last year recording seven clean sheets in 26 starts and earning a place on the MLS All Star Team but may be a doubt for the beginning of the year after undergoing hernia surgery.
He’ll be fit in time to help FC Dallas turn things around but Dallas is not as good as their first 14 games last year suggested nor are they as bad as their subsequent 13. The question will be if the medium between those two stretches is good enough to crack the Top Five and make the playoffs.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY
The LA Galaxy failed to become the first team to win three consecutive MLS Cups after losing 2–1 on aggregate, after extra time to Real Salt Lake in the Conference Semifinals, a huge disappointment for the most successful club in recent MLS history.
The Galaxy have made some improvements to bolster an already strong squad but with Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez likely to play for the US in Brazil, the Galaxy’s depth will be tested far more than its strength. That is especially the case in defense with the departure of right back Sean Franklin, whose contract option was declined.
As a result, the Galaxy will move A.J. DeLaGarza to right back and start Leonardo alongside Gonzalez. 33-year old Todd Dunivant will feature at left back despite having some injury issues. If Dunivant is sidelined, newly signed James Riley would feature but it would leave the Galaxy threadbare at fullback. When Gonzalez leaves for Brazil, expect Tommy Meyer to start. The Galaxy will be fine with that happening.
Panama’s unfortunate elimination from the World Cup blesses the Galaxy in goal, as Jaime Penedo will not miss time due to the tournament. Penedo helped turned the Galaxy’s season around after signing as a free agent last August and immediately replacing Carlo Cudicini in goal, recording four clean sheets in nine starts.
The Galaxy play a standard 4-4-2 and will rely on the solid pairing of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas in the middle. While the two Brazilians are very sound in their offensive and defensive abilities, head coach Bruce Arena wants them to increase their offensive production as they only combined for five goals last year. Donovan will likely move from the withdrawn forward role to the left wing, a role he has plenty of experience playing for Bruce Arena for both club and country. Second-year player Gyasi Zardes will also feature. Former Swedish international Stefan Ishizaki will feature at right wing with Robbie Rogers backing him up.
Former Borussia Monchengladbach forward Rob Friend joins the team as a target striker. Samuel also joins the team on-loan from Fluminense to compete for the same role. Whoever wins the starting job will partner with Robbie Keane. Keane just signed a multiyear contract extension after recording his second straight 16-goal season.
The Galaxy are probably going to be a perennial safe-bet to make in the West because of the talent they have and because of Arena’s overall coaching ability. After a third-place finish and semifinal elimination, the expectation will be that the Galaxy will rebound and the Galaxy rarely fail to meet expectations twice.
For their first two years, it was best to watch the Portland Timbers at home not because of the on-field product but because of the atmosphere that can only be compared to Fratton Park during Portsmouth’s Premier League days.
Last year, the vibrant atmosphere retreated from the spotlight and became the perfect accompaniment for one of the most positive minded teams in the entire league under first-year head coach Caleb Porter. For those unfamiliar with Porter, he made six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with the University of Akron winning a National Championship there before a failed stint as the US U23 head coach in 2012 in which the US failed to qualify for the London Olympics.
Porter instituted the same 4-3-3 style that he had with Akron and the US and it paid instant dividends as the Timbers only lost five games all season resulting in a first place finish in the West and Coach of the Year Honors for Porter.
Although Costa Rican winger Rodney Wallace will be sidelined until June with a torn ACL, the Timbers addressed their only non-injury concern, center back, by signing Noberto Paparatto from Tigre. Paparatto’s arrival means the Great Wall of Gambia will be broken up for the moment as he will partner with Pa Modou Kah and move Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso to the bench. Michael Harrington recently received a US National Team call up at left back and Jack Jewsbury is a solid, veteran at right back.
Diego Chara and Canadian captain Will Johnson execute the single pivot superbly with Chara covering for the defense and for Johnson’s forward runs. Johnson scored a career high nine goals last year coming from midfield and has been given more freedom to influence the Timbers’ buildup under Porter. Diego Valeri is the team’s primary playmaker and won Newcomer of the Year recording 10 goals and 13 assists in 31 appearances despite being bothered by a sports hernia for much of the latter portion of the year.
Gaston Fernandez joins the team from Estudiantes and although he will start out at right wing, he can float into the middle or to the left wing. That makes the trio of Fernandez, Valeri and Darlington Nagbe very fluid with players constantly moving from wing-to-wing and into the middle, as they look to find channels and spaces in and around the back four. Steve Zakuani and Wallace are skilled wingers who are not fit to start the season but can contribute off the bench, along with Kalif Alhassan.
Maximiliano Urruti does not need to be a Golden Boot contender up front given the attacking midfield’s finishing abilities but he only recorded six shots on target in five games after joining the Timbers from Toronto FC. Urruti gets into the right positions but needs to capitalize on that as he enters his first full season. If Urruti struggles, Frederic Piquionne could move into the starting lineup.
However the difference maker for the Timbers is Nagbe. His dribbling and first touch is better than most players in the world, not just MLS. He can use those two traits to quickly create chances for himself either by dribbling his way out of tight spaces or by making quick turns. His finishing is superb as he can shoot with power, accuracy and/or curve. He scored a career-high nine goals last season and was listed Number 1 in MLS’ Annual 24 Under 24 ranking. While he has YouTube skill and playmaking ability, the challenge for him this year is to find some consistency. Yes, he can score a magical at any moment but he needs to develop into a scoring threat every game this season. Portland’s fluidity and surrounding talent should help him do that and if that happens, sit back and enjoy.
REAL SALT LAKE
The Jason Kreis era came to an end in less than ideal fashion as Real Salt Lake lost the MLS Cup Final on penalties to Sporting Kansas City. Kreis has moved on, becoming head coach of New York City FC while RSL replaced him with his former assistant Jeff Cassar.
Cassar’s roster is mainly the same with just two replacements. Right back Lovel Palmer was traded to Chicago and midfielder Yordany Alvarez was loaned to Orlando City of USL Proand will make that move permanent when the team joins MLS in 2015. Versatile, academy product Jordan Allen will now be the second-choice right back and Luke Mulholland, signed from the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL, becomes another depth option in the midfield.
Cassar will keep the 4-4-2 diamond that Kreis implemented to great effect and will rely on US international Nick Rimando to be his number one. Rimando is undersized for a goalkeeper but makes up for it with his positioning and shot-stopping ability. Jeff Attinella will replace Rimando when he heads to Brazil with the national team. RSL’s back four are all established veterans with experience playing together. Chris Wingert and Chris Schuler are steady presences at left back and center back while Tony Beltran played right back for the US during the 2013 Gold Cup. Nat Borchers will also feature at center back but expect Carlos Salcedo to make more appearances this year with Borchers set to turn 33 in a month.
Kyle Beckerman is the best deep lying playmaker in the league and can complete 100 passes in a game, while maintaining at least an 85% accuracy rate. Beckerman, who may make the US roster to Brazil, will play in the bottom point of the diamond for RSL. Ned Grabavoy is a steady presence as a box to box midfielder and can also play anywhere in the diamond although it’s best to have him on either wide point or playing deep. Javier Morales is a club legend with his playmaking ability atop the diamond and recorded eight goals and 10 assists but at 34, he will need to have his minutes somewhat moderated. Sebastian Velasquez will also feature, coming off the bench.
The key figure for this team’s midfield is Luis Gil. Despite only being 20, Gil is about to enter his fifth year with RSL. Gil has already been capped at the senior level for the US National Team and had an impressive U20 World Cup in Turkey last year, scoring the lone US goal in 4–1 defeat to Spain. His five goals last year were a career-high but if he can bring his assist record up from three, it would be a positive sign of his development going forward.
The main man Gil can look to provide assists for is Costa Rican international striker Alvaro Saborio. Saborio was only able to make 16 appearances last year due to injuries and national team duty but scored 12 goals. Saborio will miss time due to the World Cup and it will remains to be seen if the soon-to-be 32-year old can make it through the entire season healthy. If he cannot, RSL have depth at forward with Robbie Findley, Joao Plata, Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia all capable options up top.
All in all, RSL have the personnel to stay competitive which will make Cassar the person who will be most scrutinized albeit slightly unfairly given Kreis’ success building the team. The easiest way he can make RSL fans forget about Kreis, bring home trophies–something Kreis only did once, on penalties.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
The Earthquakes have had a decent squad for the past few seasons but that squad has received the blessings and curses of lady luck. In 2012, they won the Supporters Shield with the help of several late game goals from their striker trio of Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon. Last year, they failed to make the playoffs costing Frank Yallop his job.
Mark Watson, Yallop’s former assistant, was named the head coach on a permanent basis after finishing last year as the interim head coach. Watson reassembled the back four in front of MLS veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch and will rely on two center backs with World Cup prospects in mind in Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez. Former Bayern Munich right back Andreas Gorlitz recently signed for the club and will slot in on the right side while Jordan Stewart is set to play his first full season at left back after signing from Coventry City last July.
Rafael Baca left the club after a disappointing year and will be replace in the center of midfield by former Ajaccio captain Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. Pierazzi will work mainly in a defensive midfielder role allowing for Sam Cronin to venture forward. If Shea Salinas can stay healthy, he can continue to develop into the same type of left midfielder as Brad Davis of the Houston Dynamo. MLS veteran Atiba Harris joins the club after a trade with the Rapids and was unlucky to lose his roster spot with the Rapids when they brought in Vicente Sanchez.
Lenhart will lead the line as a target forward who has the ability to physically and mentally defeat his opponents. His aerial ability and strength make him a hassle to defend, his general annoyingness makes him impossible to be around if you’re defending him but it’s the right combination for a target man to get in a defender’s head. He can finish but he is better at heading balls down for Wondolowski to finish. Wondolowski is the best poacher in the league and tied a league record with 27 goals in 2012. He only scored 11 in a 2013 impacted by a broken toe and national team duty. Gordon’s size makes him another punishing aerial target to come in off the bench.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC
“We got rid of good players and replaced them with good people,” Brad Evans said when asked about the Sounders’ offseason. That was the Sounders’ mission this offseason after head coach Sigi Schmid admitted that locker room issues led to one of the most unexpected freefalls one could see in any soccer league as they failed to win their last seven regular season games, squeaked by the Colorado Rapids in the Wildcard Round before being soundly defeated by the rival Portland Timbers in the Conference Semifinal.
The Sounders were contending for the Supporters Shield when they signed Clint Dempsey in August but Dempsey was not match fit as a result of his preseason with Tottenham having been cut short. That set off a chain of events that has seen Dempsey enter the worst slump of his career, a slump that could not even be turned around by a loan to Fulham.
Dempsey leads a Sounders attack that is being overhauled. Eddie Johnson was traded to D.C. United after a contentious contract dispute and Mauro Rosales tailed off last year and was traded to Chivas USA. Obafemi Martins remains the team’s main striker and he will either partner with Lamar Neagle or Kenny Cooper who was acquired from FC Dallas. Marco Pappa returns to MLS after a stint with Hereenveen and can provide the forwards with solid service from left wing. Evans will feature at right wing and has developed into a complete winger, aided by his appearances at right back for the US National team. However, it is Osvaldo Alonso who makes the midfield tick. Alonso covers the entire center of the field as a holding midfielder and a destroyer which allows for Dempsey to not have to track back as much as he needs to.
Club stalwart Leo Gonzalez will start at left back but is beginning to show signs of age at 33 so expect second-year Dylan Remick to break into the first team at some point. Chad Marshall joins the team from the Columbus Crew and may be the only center back who can be accurately described as enigmatic. It’s not that Marshall has mental lapses, it’s that he occasionally looks like he would rather be doing something else. He has the ability to be a strong center back in the league but if he shows the same demeanor that he did with the Crew, he will draw the scorn of the Sounders’ rabid fanbase. Djimi Traore will partner with Marshall. Second-year pro DeAndre Yedlin will look to continue to improve his defending after exciting fans with his speed and ability to venture forward. Yedlin was the second player from last year’s US U20 World Cup team to be capped at the senior level and plays very similarly to another American right back in FC Nurnberg’s Timmy Chandler. It won’t be long until Yedlin has another thing in common with Chandler—a role at a European club.
Stefan Frei has the chance to be MLS Comeback Player of the Year after a promising career in goal with Toronto FC was sidetracked by two seasons worth of injuries. Frei replaces Michael Gspurning whose contract option was declined. Gspurning’s underwhelming form was a key factor in the Sounders’ freefall late last season, Frei’s potential career turnaround will be a key factor in the Sounders’ attempt to avoid the same mistake.
The Whitecaps have lost their direction this offseason. Their best player and MLS Golden Boot winner, Camilo Sanvezzo, forced a transfer to Mexican club Queretaro where he has yet to play or, apparently, be paid with the club reportedly set to be seized by the Mexican government after its owners were charged with fraud.
That is not head coach Carl Robinson’s problem. His first problem is his defense. Right back Steven Beitashour is the only player on the new back four that is younger than 30. Beitashour and left back Jordan Harvey will be relied upon to venture forward and provide service for the attack but they also have to cover for former Irish international center back Andy O’Brien, who will turn 35 in June, and former US international Jay DeMerit, 34, who tore his achilles in the first game of last season.
David Ousted will play his first full season with the Whitecaps in goal after signing from Danish club Randers last June.
The Whitecaps have a talented midfield pairing of Nigel Reo-Coker and Matias Laba but the problem is that Laba just joined the team in a trade with Toronto FC. There are simply no guarantees as to how good the pairing will do since they barely had any time in the preseason to get to know each other. The Whitecaps added Uruguayans Sebastian Fernandez and Nicolas Mezquida to bolster an already solid attacking midfield that includes Russell Teibert and the promising youngster Kekuta Manneh.
Kenny Miller is a decent option to have up top but the Whitecaps are looking at Jamaican international Darren Mattocks to have a breakout year in his third-year as a pro. He’s a speedy, dynamic finisher who had a sophomore slump in 2013 only scoring three goals in 20 appearances but with Camilo gone, the door is open for Mattocks to become the team’s new scoring threat.
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