Thursday, April 05, 2007

MLS Western Conference Preview

See the East preview here, posted yesterday. Things should certainly be more interesting at the bottom of the league table this year because of the change in how playoff spots are allocated. It's a good thing because of the unbalanced conferences.

I don't see much difference between the two conferences. Maybe a small advantage to the West. Last season, the East did better head to head but only by a margin of one game: 26-25-21.

1) Houston Dynamo

Unlike the East, things are expected to be more even in the West. DC is unquestionably the favorites out East, while pretty much everyone has the same bottom three there as well. So while they aren't huge favorites, the Dynamo are expected by most to finish first. They return nearly everyone from last year (minus Adrian Serioux) from a squad that's played together for a few years now. However, their predicted success may be because of the falls of the two teams closest to them in 2006. Dallas and Chivas have both lost talent and may take a step back.

The good news is that this team is better than their record last year (11-8-13). They were outstanding in 2005 and it was no surprise to see them fall off a bit from that. Team is solid pretty mucheverywhere on the field, and the depth is also impressive. Ryan Cochrane may not be a great center back, but he's certainly ready for a shot at starting. The second forward after Ching is a potential weak spot, but one of Dalglish/Moreno/Wondolowski should do a decent job. The one thing I really like about this franchise, which may be due to Frank Yallop and Dominic Kinnear, is that they don't expect rookies to be start right away. They have no problems grooming a guy for a year or two before throwing them into the mix; see Cochrane, Kevin Goldthwaite, Eddie Robinson, Chris Wondolowski. It may be because of the strength of the team, but it's still working out well. It wouldn't surprise me to see a guy like Patrick Ianni go from 2 appearances last year to about 10-15 this year, followed by starting in 2008.

2) Los Angeles Galaxy

Enough about David Beckham already. Yes, he's instantly the league's most famous and best player. Even without taking him into account, however, the Galaxy seem like a much better team. Yallop is a great coach, first off. The team itself is stronger due to the arrivals of Nate Jaqua and Shavar Thomas, who replace Herculez Gomez and Ugo Ihemelu. I would say those are both slight upgrades, but they also now have the league's top keeper in Joe Cannon. In addition, there's two talented young guys who will likely start on the bench: Nathan Sturgis and Quavas Kirk.

But the biggest reason to expect better things from the Galaxy is Landon Donovan. Still an amazing player, the team has statistically been much better when he's on the field over the past two years. He'll miss time again for an international tournament, but the back-loaded schedule will decrease the importance of that. Landon seems motivated as of late. Will 2007 be like his 2001, 2003, and 2005? On paper the team isn't as good as DC or Houston, but they easily could win the MLS Cup.

3) Colorado Rapids

This is the big year for Arsenal, I mean the Rapids. A brand new stadium and possibly the most media attention and fan support they've ever received. So it's important for them to do well. Statistically the team was awful last year, worst on defense and second worse on offense. The semifinal run may have covered that up a little bit, but the good news is that they haven't rested on their laurels. The defense looks much better, even with the loss of Aitor Karanka and Joe Cannon. Vanney/Prideaux just wipes the floor with last year's starting fullbacks. So that should be better.

Can they score more goals? I'm not convinced Fernando Clavijo knows what he's doing (Thiago Martins?). He's planning on using Herculez Gomez on the left, while newcomer Roberto Brown may play up top with Nicolas Hernandez. Brown is a Panamanian international, but reviews have been less than stellar so far. The good news is that they have a few more guys who could score for them: Jovan Kirovski, Jacob Peterson, and rookie Omar Cummings (who outplayed Brown in the Valencia game). Without Martins and Clint Mathis sucking it up, they should be improved on both sides of the ball. They don't look great, but they don't look bad either, and appear to be headed for the usual Rapids finish of 3rd or 4th place.

4) FC Dallas

I sure hope Steve Morrow knows what he's doing. Gone are Ronnie O'Brien, Simo Valakari, and Greg Vanney. In are Juan Carlos Toja and Pablo Ricchetti, who will anchor the midfield in the 4-3-3. They have lots of depth, but overall it seems like a weaker team compared to last year. It really will depend on how guys like Ramon Nunez, Drew Moor, and Clarence Goodson play. The attacking midfielder and the centerbacks are keys to any team, but they don't seem to be among the league's best at their positions. The defense overall looks shaky.

The real test is the playoffs, however. This team has had two good seasons in a row, with two disappointing failures against the Rapids in the quarterfinals to show for it. So even with a worse season, the important thing is October, and building for that is Morrow's goal.

5) Real Salt Lake

Coming off the 'most newsworthy offseason in Utah sports history,' we'll know a lot about them right away, with four of their first five games at home. By then, either John Ellinger will be fired or they'll be on their way to a good season. Assuming they don't blow it on the four game road trip after that.

There may be a repeat of the good offense/bad defense RSL of 2006. They've added players, but mostly on offense where it may not be needed. Luis Tejada and Freddy Adu are good, but the defense still seems weak. It was mentioned by Ellinger that Daniel Torres and Eddie Pope only played three games together as the center back pairing, like they were supposed to. They will this year, but is that going to make a difference? I don't know, but a playoff run wouldn't be surprise, unlike my expectations last year. Jeff Cunningham's gotta come back to earth, but Nick Rimando is an improvement in goal and the second half of 2006 was encouraging.

6) Chivas USA

What's going on? No Bob Bradley, no Mexican stars to replace the ones that left, and increasingly looking like no playoffs either. Amado Guevara is a very good player, but the Metros weren't ever a great team with him, and the other acquisitions are questionable. It's safe to say that Preki is not as good of a coach as Bradley, too.

It's also discouraging that the players they'll rely on are all way up there in years. Jesse Marsch and Ante Razov are 32, while Claudio Suarez is 37. Age is not the most important thing, but all had better than expected seasons last year, and now the first two will be without their longtime head coach as well. It doesn't help that Jonathan Bornstein is already banged up and will certainly miss time in the Summer. I just expected Chivas to more aggressive.

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