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2018 MLS Western Conference preview: Tough times ahead for some unsurprising sides

Three teams in the West needed to do a ton of work. Two didn’t do enough, while a third didn’t really do anything

Our 2018 MLS season preview series rolls on, leaving our main competition in the East for a look at the Western Conference. Last year saw the balance of power shift out of the West for the first time in ages, and things appear to be the same this season. That could open the door for, say, teams that were on the bottom last year or an expansion side to get into the playoffs.

“Could” doesn’t mean “will,” though, at least for two teams that struggled last year and one that is taking their first steps in MLS.

Colorado Rapids

Last year: 9W-6D-19L, -20 (31 for/51 against), 33 points, 10th place.
Likely starters: (532) - Howard; Hairston, Ford, Wilson, Smith, Castillo; Aigner, Price, Boateng; Badji, Mason

The good news for the Rapids is that there finally appears to be an attempt to shake this organization up after years of just sort of existing. Anthony Hudson’s only previous gig as a pro head coach on these shores was with Real Maryland Monarchs, the short-lived USL side whose name is somehow being re-used by Real Salt Lake’s USL club Real Monarchs. He has some fresh ideas after a globe-trotting career that has taken him from the USL to the English Conference to Tottenham Hotspur’s reserves to Bahrain to a World Cup qualifying playoff with New Zealand.

To go with that, the roster has seen plenty of turnover. Former Wolverhampton midfielder Jack Price looks like a good addition, and they’ve also signed his Wolves teammate Joe Mason on loan to boost their front line. Three different members of Hudson’s New Zealand national team squad have been signed, along with Swedish midfielder Johan Blomberg and Enzo Martinez, a two-time USL Best 11 member with Charlotte Independence (Colorado’s USL affiliate).

Against Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Rapids looked a lot like Hudson’s New Zealand sides: committed, willing to do some unorthodox things tactically (their right- and left-center backs both stepped into the midfield for spells of play, while target man Jack McBean dropped in to provide a fourth midfielder when TFC had the ball), but ultimately lacking game-changing players. Dominique Badji’s speed was most of what the Rapids had to offer, though to be fair to them, Stefan Aigner and Shkelzen Gashi did not appear in either leg.

Even with those two, though, it seems like the Rapids are going to be a hard-working team that have zero room for error if they’re going to win games. It’s not like Mason, who has never been capped by the Republic of Ireland, is a big upgrade over the man he has ostensibly replaced (Irish national team fixture Kevin Doyle).

Prognosis: Hudson has his team buying into the intense work rate required to overcome having a less talented roster than most other MLS teams...for now. Colorado’s limitations were revealed by Toronto FC, who beat them 2-0 in Commerce City without lifting themselves out of 2nd gear.

As D.C. United fans, we’ve seen this sort of team make the playoffs when the early results go right, and everyone plays at or near their ceiling, and you get good goalkeeping, and you catch 5-6 opponents when they happen to have suspensions and injuries to key players, get the point. It is possible to get to the playoffs built like Colorado, but it takes a whole lot of things going right at the same time.

We’ve also seen this sort of team when your non-star starters are merely in average form for themselves, and when there’s no early momentum, and when the goalkeeping is not good (note: the best Colorado goalkeeper in 2018 is Zac MacMath, but Tim Howard is going to be out there looking like a shell of himself because he’s a big name), etc. I don’t think the Rapids will be atrocious by any means, but they just don’t look like they’re good enough to be anything other than a pesky opponent. Expect a lot of narrow 2-1 losses.

Los Angeles FC

Last year: They didn’t exist.
Likely starters: (4231) - Miller; Beitashour, Zimmerman, Ciman, Moutinho; Gaber, Feilhaber; Blessing, Vela, Rossi; Ureña

LAFC has done some pretty smart things building up to their debut season. Carlos Vela is a ticket-selling big name in his prime, and they’ve landed a promising Young DP in Diego Rossi. To that, they’ve added players who have been very good in MLS at their positions, including Steven Beitashour, center backs Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman, and Benny Feilhaber. Egypt national team defender/midfielder Omar Gaber has a very strong resume.

Add to that mix Bob Bradley, who should instantly give LAFC an edge in the coaching department. Between his success with an MLS expansion club (the Chicago Fire) and his good years in California (believe it or not, Chivas USA nearly won a Supporters Shield on his watch, finishing 2 points behind D.C. United in 2007), it’s fair to expect him to be ready for the challenges to come.

It’s just that there’s not much else to bolster those moves. Vela can run very hot-and-cold, and he’ll be flanked by a youngster in a new league and a different youngster who was inconsistent with KC last season. There’s no convincing depth here, and at 33 Feilhaber is being asked to transition from attacking midfield to a more labor intensive linking role. Up front, Marco Ureña fits the profile of what Bradley wants from a forward (he’s a fast, relentless worker, more than a little like Charlie Davies back in the day), but he hasn’t shown much of a knack for carrying his team’s scoring load before.

Prognosis: Injuries have already started to hit, testing the depth of a team that until very recently didn’t even have 20 players under contract. A late series of signings has filled the roster out, but should a team that was founded in 2014 be scrambling at the last second like this?

There’s a lot more Minnesota to LAFC right now than there is Atlanta, is what we’re trying to say. While Bradley will get this group to overachieve a bit, there are just too many unanswered questions to see this group challenging for a spot in the playoffs.

Minnesota United FC

Last year: 10W-6D-18L, -23 (47 for/70 against), 36 points, 9th place.
Likely starters: (433) - Shuttleworth; Mears, Boxall, Calvo, Thiesson; Schuller, Ibson; Finlay, Martin, Molino; Ramirez

If you followed the Loons last year, you recognize a ton of these starters. They’ve added Tyrone Mears, a 35 year old right back who was phased out by Atlanta a year after being phased out by Seattle. They signed several first-round caliber draft picks, though none of them appear to have a shot at starting any time soon. Cameroonian duo Frantz Pangop and Bertrand Owundi might be diamonds in the rough. Luiz Fernando, brought in on loan from Fluminense, may end up becoming a starter due to Sam Cronin’s continued concussion troubles.

Does any of that sound like enough to make up for the fact that MNUFC gave up seventy (!) goals last year? This is still a team prepared to start Michael Boxall, who wouldn’t make most MLS rosters. Jerome Thiesson is a natural right back having to play on the left, because the only other option is Marc Burch. Rasmus Schuller is listed as a starter here, and Minnesota loaned him out last year because he was not comfortable in MLS.

The Loons were one of MLS’s worst teams last year, and they basically stood still. It’s inexplicable, especially given how much work other teams were able to do.

Prognosis: While it’ll be cool to see a front three of Christian Ramirez, Ethan Finlay, and Kevin Molino go into every game knowing they need to put goals on the board for Minnesota to have any shot at getting results. For United fans, it’ll also be fun if Collin Martin finally, at long last is given a chance to start in MLS. It looks like that’s the case at the moment, but if the Loons need defensive help, he might get dropped for Luiz Fernando or Collen Warner. Let’s hope he makes some noise.

None of that makes for a good team. Minnesota’s roster is poorly constructed (ask any MNUFC fan about how many wingers they have), and while Francisco Calvo is a very good defender, he would need to have the best season by a center back in MLS history to bail out the group around him. By the way, Calvo will miss a chunk of the season with Costa Rica at the World Cup.

We said that Philly and New England would struggle in the East, but they’re a step above Minnesota. So is LAFC, and unless the wheels completely fall off for the Rapids, it’s hard to see Minnesota keeping up with them either. For the Loons to avoid the Wooden Spoon, they’re going to need that front three (plus Abu Danladi, who may actually be a starter over Ramirez despite Ramirez being one of MLS’s better strikers) to be spectacular. That’d still leave them short of a playoff spot, and Adrian Heath has given observers no reason to believe he can take a bottom-tier roster and get them to scrape out results all year long.