2011 MLS Previews: Western Conference

2011 MLS Previews: Western Conference

  • Posted by Drew Epperley
  • On March 15, 2011
  • 2011 MLS Season, 2011 MLS Season Preview


Kyle Beckerman looks to lead RSL to the front of the pack in the West this season. (Getty Images)

There’s nothing like waiting until the last day to get all the previews out of the way, huh? Well, what can I say, I decided to do things a little differently this year and time can be a tricky thing. Today I plan to finish up my season previews with this post on the Western Conference, my bold 2011 season predictions, and finally the preview to tonight’s First Kick meeting between the Seattle Sounders and the LA Galaxy.

Just as it were with yesterday’s Eastern Conference preview, the order below is how I see things panning out this season in the Western Conference. On my season predictions I’ll post who I see making the playoffs from each conference.

1. Real Salt Lake

X-Factor: Kyle Beckerman – While Alvaro Saborio is the DP in town, Javier Morales is the MVP candidate, its Beckerman who really guides this club in my book. His leadership in the middle can be a make or break kind of thing for RSL, 9 times out of 10 its a good thing though.

Biggest Move: Keeping the band together. Minimal moves this winter kept RSL tighter and closer together. They re-signed many key guys for a couple more years, gave Saborio a deserved DP tag and put up a lot of talk about doing some amazing things. I love the confidence behind this club.

Concerns: Overly high expectations could be a killer though and losing Robin Fraser could prove costly to the defense in the long run as well. These are two things to keep in mind with this club.

Final Thoughts: RSL is still in a class of their own in this league. They should do great things this season on and off the pitch. I love their approach to the game and how they handle themselves too. Confidence is high for a reason and they want to prove that their early-round exit in the playoffs to FC Dallas was a fluke. They’ll battle to win the West this year and be in contention for the Supporter’s Shield.

2. LA Galaxy

X-Factor: David Beckham. I know, weird, but if Beckham actually plays a full season for the first time and doesn’t cause a load of distractions he’ll prove to be the biggest contributor on this club.

Biggest Move: Juan Pablo Angel. They got a tad older on offense with Angel but I have a feeling JPA has plenty in the tank for another strong season. Just consider this too, he’ll have 10x better service in LA than he ever did in New York. That could be a very scary thing for everyone facing LA this year.

Concerns: Speed in the back. This will always and will continue to be a concern until the Galaxy can prove that they won’t get easily beaten by speed. FC Dallas exposed this in the playoffs, and Colorado always had their way with the back four for the Galaxy as well. A.J. DelaGarza seemed to be a nice move in the back last year late in the season but will he be enough? We’ll have to wait and see.

Final Thoughts: I think the Galaxy have every bit of a right to still be in the Supporter’s Shield discussion this season. Its an all or nothing kind of year though for LA. Bruce Arena made plenty of moves to add depth to their roster and it will be interesting to see how they handle the additional CCL games this summer/fall as well. I like the depth but not enough to win the conference.

3. FC Dallas

X-Factor: Brek Shea – He’s moving to the back, for now at least. A move that some FC Dallas fans will absolutely love and others will absolutely hate. Believe me the man belongs in the back more so than on the wings. Based on what I saw in preseason, having him in the back means Dallas will continue to have a defense that no one wants to face.

Biggest Move: Gambles in the roster. Dumping Jeff Cunningham was going to happen, and losing Atiba Harris to the Vancouver Whitecaps in the expansion draft hurt a bit as well. Obviously, the most talked about moves were letting Dax McCarty go so easily in the expansion draft and trading Heath Pearce away for allocation money to Chivas USA. All were gambles but the last two were the biggest. A lot of folks believe losing the last two will hurt the most but let’s not forget that McCarty wasn’t a big stat guy for the club last year (1 goal, 2 assists). The depth is there to still be alright.

Concerns: Offensively this club still has plenty of concerns, mostly up top. Ruben Luna looks like the future of the club but is he really ready for primetime? Can Milton Rodriguez hold up for at least 25 – 30 games? What will the additional CCL games do to the club too? And finally, what exactly will 18-year old Fabian Castillo bring to the club? If all pan out then expect FCD to be set this season.

Final Thoughts: Dallas will still be in the thick of things in the West. Their defense is just too good for them not to be and I see reigning MVP David Ferreira stepping up a little more this season as well to help bring the offense to a level of respectability too. Injuries will continue to be an issue with this club but the depth is there with plenty of young, capable players waiting in the wings.

4. Seattle Sounders FC

X-Factor: Jhon Kennedy Hurtado – I know a lot rests on if this club can score but to me it falls more on this guy coming back and regaining his 2009 form that was so fun to watch.

Biggest Move: Getting O’Brien White. Okay, honestly they didn’t have a lot of big moves this winter but I love the addition of White to their offense. I see him as a homerun type sub for them that could potentially push for a starting role late in the year. This kid battled injuries and bad coaching in Toronto and will do well under Sigi Schmid.

Concerns: Scoring, obviously. It’s been said many times so far this preseason that the club isn’t scoring like Schmid wants them to or like their fans expect. Fredy Montero has to be at his MVP-caliber self this season and fellow DPs Blaise Nkufo and Alvaro Fernandez have to chip in as well.

Final Thoughts: Even with all the scoring problems and injury concerns I still view this as a very tough side. The pressure is on in year three though as the fans at Qwest expect plenty more out of this club and with the addition of their Northwest rivals in Portland and Vancouver, the heat is certainly been turned up a few notches.

5. Colorado Rapids

X-Factor: Pablo Mastroeni – This is more about him staying healthy all season long with the additional CCL games the club will have to deal with. Should he be healthy and his play with Jeff Larentowicz stays at a high level then the club will be fine yet again.

Biggest Move: Keeping the band together. Similar to their Rocky Mountain Cup rivals RSL, the Gary Smith didn’t do a whole lot to his roster this winter. In fact keeping the core group of players is a smart thing this day in MLS, as long as you have the depth to handle it.

Concerns: Speaking of which, their depth is still a worry for me. Let’s not forget the fact that this club wasn’t in the Supporter’s Shield discussion last year and just made the playoffs as the 7th best club. With the additional CCL games on the menu and possibly the USOC as well, the Rapids will have a lot more to deal with than they did a year ago. Only adding a couple parts really doesn’t equal enough work for me.

Final Thoughts: Fifth place finish for the defending champs? Yeah, but they should still be a playoff club again. The core group is still very talented and defensively they should be tough again. Keeping Omar Cummings on the roster for the full season will be a tall task though, especially if he comes out blazing to begin the season.

6. Portland Timbers

X-Factor: Troy Perkins – The offense will make the headlines for this bunch but the worry rests on Perkins regaining his old form. Last year was a disaster year for him in D.C. and you have to believe he wants to prove his doubters wrong.

Biggest Move: Adding Kenny Cooper. I always knew Cooper would return to MLS before long and going to Portland seems like a very nice fit for him too. The fans there will fall in love with his style of play and scoring in a hurry too.

Concerns: Defensively they aren’t that deep and I do wonder if their midfield will be anything special in terms of ball possession.

Final Thoughts: Of all the expansion teams of the last few years, I have to admit, Portland may be the one I am most interested in. Between their revamped stadium, their offensive powers up top, and their fans, Portland has to be an exciting club to watch this season. They’ll stumble like most expansion clubs but offensively they’ll be a team few want to face. It all comes down to ball possession and how their defense takes shape for John Spencer though.

6. San Jose Earthquakes

X-Factor: Chris Wondolowski – Can the guy prove that last year wasn’t a one-time thing? It’s certainly possible based on the way he was playing in preseason.

Biggest Move: Grabbing Stephen Lenhart. Yeah, really this one is a reach because they really didn’t do a lot of anything this winter. They lost key guys like Joe Cannon, Artuo Alvarez and declined options on their only DP Geovanni but they really failed to do anything about it.

Concerns: Lack of moves. Yet again Frank Yallop will wait things out until the summer transfer window to make a late season push with this group. I just fear it will be too little too late.

Final Thoughts: Their defense should be solid once again with the return of Ike Opara. Offensively I think we’ll see a dip in Wondo’s play but others will step up some to help. It will be an up and down year however in San Jose for this club. At least they know they’ll have a new stadium to call their own down the road now that things are finally happening on that front.

8. Chivas USA

X-Factor: Justin Braun – His injury issues worry me but if he can get going this club will find a way not to finish this far down.

Biggest Move: Hiring Fraser. I love this move as long as they give Fraser his time to build the club up. He’s already done solid work in the back by having veterans Jimmy Conrad and Heath Pearce lead the group.

Concerns: Offensively this is a club that will struggle early on. After they faced FC Dallas over this past weekend it was pretty evident that they’d struggle to create quality changes and to finish them. Only a couple times did they actually put real pressure on Dallas and even then it wasn’t enough. Sure they have enough scorers on their roster but finding the right pair to start will take some time for Fraser.

Final Thoughts: Chivas is going to be better down the road but early on I do see a struggle that keeps them near the bottom of the standings. They’ll be better late in the year though as Fraser finally finds a roster he can live with from back to front.

9. Vancouver Whitecaps

X-Factor: Eric Hassli – Their first DP could have plenty of pressure on him to score. Some have said he is a French Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so its possible this could be a huge move for the club. He has to score though, if he doesn’t this club will struggle offensively.

Biggest Move: The slow and steady build. I do give them credit for how they’ve put together their club here, even if it has been done slowly. Gotta remember they’ve had a few clubs to watch before them build as expansion clubs so they’re just biding their time to strike on things. As long as they’ve taught their fans patience, they’ll be set.

Concerns: Offensively I doubt them, in the midfield I worry about possession. Just normal expansion club worries really here. Should Hassli and Harris fail to score it could be a long wait until Omar Salgado is ready to go in the fall.

Final Thoughts: Just like every expansion club, this one will struggle early on but I do think toward the end of the summer they’ll make a decent push to not be last in the West. The talent is there on this roster and I do think defensively they’ll be pretty solid.