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2018 MLS Western Conference preview: Uncertainty for teams on the playoff bubble

There’s a lot of “could be good, could be bad” in the West’s middle tier

The 2018 MLS season hasn’t started yet, but it was fairly easy to figure out who would struggle in the Western Conference. It also wasn’t too hard to figure out who the top sides will be. What’s not as easy to sort out is the fate of everyone else, because there are a lot of big variables with each team. Everyone we’ll talk about in this post could be right up there with the contenders, but it’s just as likely that they’ll see the wheels fall off and possibly “contend” for the Wooden Spoon.

Let’s get to it:

FC Dallas

Last year: 11W-13D-10L, 0 (48 for/48 against), 46 points, 7th place.
Likely starters: (4231) - Gonzalez; Cannon, Hedges, Ziegler, Nedyalkov; Gruezo, Acosta; Barrios, Diaz, Mosquera; Urruti

On July 22nd last year, Dallas was 9W-7D-3L, riding a three-game winning streak, meeting widespread expectations that they’d be among the top teams in the West for a third year running. And then...the cliff. Dallas lost their next game 4-0 at home to Vancouver, starting a ten-game winless streak. They picked up 12 points in their final 15 games, the kind of pace that would leave a team far adrift as MLS’s worst if kept up for a full season.

Even with that astounding dip in form, Dallas was in the playoffs entering stoppage time on Decision Day. Winning 5-1 over the Galaxy, they just needed San Jose to fail to beat Minnesota at the same time. Justice was served, though, and the painful fall from grace was completed when Marco Ureña scored in the third minute of stoppage time to send the Quakes to the postseason instead.

What’s strange is that the whole thing is hard to explain. There were some injuries at center back, but FCD was deep there. Oscar Pareja had rotated his team all season to keep them fresh. Mauro Diaz was back and healthy. The wheels fell off, and there wasn’t one clear thing to point to.

As a result, there have been some changes. Walker Zimmerman is with LAFC now, replaced by former Premier League defender Reto Ziegler. Dallas spent seven figures to land left back Anton Nedyalkov, and Young DP Santiago Mosquera seems like an improvement over Roland Lamah to improve their attack. Pareja has also made homegrown player Reggie Cannon, 19, the club’s starting right back.

Is that enough to reverse the decline in Dallas?

Prognosis: Based on their embarrassing CONCACAF Champions League elimination against Tauro FC (a club that would not be a sure bet to win the USL title, much less contend in MLS like Dallas is supposed to), it certainly hasn’t reversed that decline right away. FCD might be a work in progress, and that includes some significant experimentation with a 352.

There is a ton of talent here, and Pareja guided them to 60+ points in 2015 and 2016 for a reason. The question marks all seem to be about mentality and consistency from individual players. If the Toros put all of their ingredients together, they’ll probably make the playoffs without much trouble. If not, their finish to 2017 might carry over for a full season. There might not be a team with a bigger gap between their best and worst possible outcomes.

Houston Dynamo

Last year: 13W-11D-10L, +12 (57 for/45 against), 50 points, 4th place. Eliminated in the conference finals.
Likely starters: (4231) - Seitz; K. Garcia, Machado, Senderos, Beasley; Cabezas, Alexander; Elis, Martinez, Quioto; Manotas

Last year, the Dynamo were a bit of surprise. Wilmer Cabrera’s rebuilding project seemed solid enough, but Houston never fell off. Even when the playoffs arrived, they were largely counted out, only to knock Kansas City and Portland out before coming undone against Seattle. It was still an impressive showing, with the Dynamo seeming far ahead of schedule.

They started the winter off right, selling Erick Torres (who, despite leading the team in scoring, was clearly a back-up to Mauro Manotas by the time summer ended) and freeing up plenty of cap space. They paid the purchase clause to make Alberth Elis’ move from Monterrey a permanent one, and then...

...well, that was it. Arturo Alvarez and Darwin Ceren are solid additions, but neither would start for playoff teams. The rest of their moves of note appear to be players promoted from Rio Grande Valley Toros, their USL affiliate, and a few draft picks. Venezuelan center back Alejandro Fuenmayor is one for the future, but at least for now appears to be Cabrera’s fourth-best option at the position. Aging veterans DaMarcus Beasley and Philippe Senderos are still unquestioned starters, as is skilled but injury-prone midfielder Eric Alexander.

Prognosis: The good news for Cabrera is that his team is a nightmare on the counter, and playmaker Tomas Martinez used the back half of last season to adjust to MLS. They’re also quietly very good on set pieces, and that’s long been a recipe for picking up points in this league.

However, it feels an awful lot like Houston stood in place during the winter. Selling Torres and retaining Elis were important moves, but they didn’t make this team any better. Their starting eleven is very strong, but there’s precious little in terms of impressive depth, particularly up top (where Elis or Rommel Quioto may have to fill in, as lumbering 6’7” back-up Mac Steeves is going to struggle to keep up with the Dynamo’s counterattacking style of play).

Of last year’s playoff teams out west, Houston seems like they might be the most vulnerable. That’s not to say they’re in trouble, but that they could be in trouble if they fall off just a little bit from last season.

LA Galaxy

Last year: 8W-8D-18L, -22 (45 for/67 against), 32 points, 11th place.
Likely starters: (4231) - Bingham; Feltscher, Ciani, Skjelvik, Cole; Kitchen, J. Dos Santos; Alessandrini, G. Dos Santos, Boateng; Kamara

Last year’s Galaxy finished dead last in MLS. I’ll say it again, because it’s fun: Last year’s Galaxy finished dead last in MLS. They won just twice in their final 19 games of the season, prompting fans to demand someone come out after a particularly embarrassing home loss to TFC and provide answers. It was telling that the man who came out to face the music, Romain Alessandrini, was a) LA’s only good player in 2017 and b) someone who hadn’t even played a part in the match.

Under pressure with LAFC in town, the Galaxy have scrambled to improve. Signing Perry Kitchen (thanks for all that allocation money, by the way) addressed one major problem, as last year’s team had a bunch of box-to-box midfielders and no one capable of staying home and defending a woeful back four. Adding Ola Kamara from Columbus will provide Alessandrini with some help on the attacking end. Jorgen Skjelvik, acquired for Norwegian power Rosenborg, and Venezuelan national team defender Rolf Feltscher were acquired to fortify the defense, as was #2 overall draft pick Tomas Hilliard-Arce.

There’s some solid depth to go with those likely starters. LA added Chris Pontius as a free agent signing, while they grabbed Servando Carrasco via the Re-Entry Draft. Finally, and perhaps most vitally, they have Sebastian Lletget back fit again, though it appears Sigi Schmid is going to repeat Bruce Arena’s mistake by using him wide more often than playing him in the central role that he starred in back in 2016.

Prognosis: LA needed a big response to an awful season, and it appears they’ve provided it. Schmid isn’t going to try to reinvent the wheel; it’s just about adding better players, putting them in the right spots (well, except for Lletget), and focusing on being solid first.

They’ve put together a playoff-caliber roster on paper, but that’s only if everyone plays up to their potential. Both Giovani Dos Santos and Jonathan Dos Santos have been largely disappointing, with Gio’s form erratic and Jona’s interest levels appearing less than sufficient. If they both bring something approaching their best soccer, the Galaxy could be one of MLS’s best teams going forward. If not, a defense that still seems a bit flimsy (the right side in particular looks vulnerable) might undermine a potentially free-scoring attack.

San Jose Earthquakes

Last year: 13W-7D-14L, -21 (39 for/60 against), 46 points, 6th place. Eliminated in knockout round.
Likely starters: (442) - Tarbell; Lima, Cummings, Quintana, Salinas; Eriksson, Jungwirth, Godoy, Vako; Wondolowski, Hoesen

San Jose’s organizational shift started last year with GM Jesse Fioranelli pursuing more technical, mobile players than the Bash Brothers Quakes had been previously associated with. Mikael Stahre, who has managed in Sweden, Greece, and China, has been brought in as their new head coach despite Chris Leitch getting the Earthquakes into the playoffs as interim boss.

However, they haven’t made a bunch of big moves. Winger/forward Magnus Eriksson was the joint-top scorer in the Swedish top flight last year, while young loanee center back Yeferson Quintana appears to have supplanted Swiss international Francois Affolter as a starter. Harold Cummings — who was signed last year but missed the entire season injured — will give San Jose a huge speed boost in the other center back spot, though the Panama national team regular’s discipline levels are a big concern.

That’s about it, though. They made sure to keep Danny Hoesen, who improved once San Jose moved towards a more progressive style of play mid-season, and Quincy Amarikwa should be able to replace Marco Ureña after a long road back from a major knee injury. Florian Jungwirth, who was one of MLS’s most underrated signings last season, has been moved into a midfield role due to an influx of center backs, but it might be something of a misallocation of resources.

Prognosis: The Quakes are deep enough that we’re only just now mentioning Vako, the DP attacker they added last year, and winger Jahmir Hyka. Jackson Yueill, Tommy Thompson, and Fatai Alashe are also pretty good players to have available on the bench. That’s probably crucial, because San Jose doesn’t appear to have an elite match-winning player in their squad. They’re also still relying heavily on Chris Wondolowski, who turned 35 during the offseason.

That depth isn’t just good for keeping the team fresh, or getting through the World Cup-enforced absence of Cummings and Anibal Godoy. It’ll also allow Stahre the freedom to make changes and experiment as he learns a new league without having to sacrifice much in terms of overall ability.

The Quakes certainly aren’t a bad team, and if Stahre adapts to MLS quickly, they have a real shot at making the playoffs again. However, if he needs time to get up to speed, or can’t quite fit a solid set of pieces together, they’ll probably finish somewhere in the 7th-9th place range.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Last year: 15W-7D-12L, +1 (50 for/49 against), 52 points, 3rd place. Eliminated in the conference semifinals
Likely starters: (4231) - Marinovic; Nerwinski, Waston, Maund, de Jong; Felipe, Juarez; Techera, Reyna, Davies; Kamara

Carl Robinson made sure that someone in MLS took up Dominic Kinnear’s mantle, making the playoffs by sitting deep, playing a ton of long balls, and relying on good set piece play to provide most of the offense. It was not at all pretty, but Vancouver got themselves into the postseason despite not really ever convincing. The Whitecaps won ten different games by one goal last year, showing a knack for grinding out results in tight games.

Last year, it seemed like VWFC made moves to get away from this approach. This year, they’re leaning into it pretty hard. Kei Kamara is a far better fit for the amount of aerial challenges the lone Vancouver striker has to win than Fredy Montero was, and they’ve added Venezuelan speedster Anthony Blondell to improve their forward depth.

Trading Tim Parker away for Felipe (plus some xAM) might seem like a curious choice given Parker’s value to Vancouver and their relatively low need for defensive midfielders, but the Whitecaps have some solid center back depth, including Aaron Maund, Jose Aja, and Doneil Henry, who has returned to MLS after a more or less disastrous spell with West Ham (despite three different loans to lower-level clubs, Henry made just 8 appearances from 2015 through 2017).

Curiously, Felipe will probably partner Efrain Juarez, a Liga MX veteran who hasn’t been very good in recent years. More importantly, Juarez is a career right back that Vancouver is turning into a defensive midfielder for unclear reasons. We may eventually see Aly Ghazal, a more traditional defensive midfielder, emerge as Felipe’s partner, but Juarez will probably get plenty of chances due to the expenditure to bring him in.

A speedy, creative attacking midfield crew including Yordy Reyna, Alphonso Davies, Cristian Techera, and Bernie Ibini will provide a viable source of counter attacks, and the Whitecaps should be a major threat on set pieces again this year. Basically, the Whitecaps look like they can Whitecap harder than last year, which means you should underrate them at your peril.

Prognosis: I can’t shake the suspicion that Vancouver, regardless of aesthetics, will get themselves into the postseason. Kamara and Kendall Waston on set pieces is a nightmare, and Robinson has shown the ability to get his team to scrape wins out of otherwise even games. It won’t be fun, but Robinson certainly doesn’t care about that.