Having picked through the ruined seasons of the undesirable end of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference last week, let us now turn to the happier end, the West’s Best in 2018. As with the previous, sadder post, I relied on two main sources for this one: the regularly updated Transfer Tracker, which one can find under New, then League News, followed by the Transactions tab. (No, please, check my math.) MLSSoccer.com has another article they pop onto the front page now and again and the added analysis gives people a contextual frame for all the swapping of bodies and talents.
To recap the top of the Western Conference in 2018, it turned out to be less plainly hierarchical than the Eastern Conference; Atlanta United FC and the New York Red Bulls dominated that side of the league, and more or less from start to finish. Sporting Kansas City had the best season in the West, the Seattle Sounders finished very (very, very) strong, and more people cooed over Los Angeles FC than they deserved, but it was the (and my) Portland Timbers that sucker-punched their way to MLS Cup, where they lost narrowly, but deservedly, to Atlanta. Still, that run was enough to make at least one grown man cry (ahem), but it also subtly revised one of the more reliable truisms about MLS. While the playoffs really do give every team that reaches them a clean slate, “peaking” at the right time (timing) ultimately comes second to having a well-built, well-drilled team. The Timbers looked like a strong cup team for most of 2018, and that’s what they turned out to be.
For what it’s worth, I think of MLS Cup less as the league’s championship, and more as a cup tournament tacked onto the end of a “normal” soccer season – and give me the Supporters’ Shield over MLS Cup any day. Draw that distinction to meet your personal needs, but all fans want the same thing: to see their team win trophies. With that, let’s see how the best teams in the Western Conference helped or hurt their chances for 2019.
Sporting Kansas City
2018 Finish Line: 1st in the Western Conference (18-8-8), 62 pts. 65 goals for, 40 goals against
They stayed in the Supporters’ Shield race longer than their record would suggest, but that arguably underlines the uncomplicated truth that both the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United FC were better teams in 2018. All the same, a team doesn’t build a +25 goal differential on anything but a good season, and Sporting KC did that. While that was good enough to keep them near or at the top the West through the regular season, they suffered a dip in form and confidence at exactly the wrong point – e.g., the post-season – and there is nothing more MLS than having a great season undone at the end.
OUT: A series of wild stabs in the dark, then, D Ike Opara, F Khiry Shelton, F Diego Rubio
IN: D Rodney Wallace, M Kelyn Rowe, D Botond Barath, D Abdul Rwatubyaye, F Erik Hurtado
By dealing Opara to Minnesota Untied FC, SKC takes a step into the unknown, but with Barath and Rwatubyaye coming in, SKC felt confident enough to take it. They did some high-end scavenging around the league too (wait…it’s “high-end scavenging” here, but “moneyball” when I talk about the bad teams?), with Wallace coming in from New York City FC and, a more exciting stretch, Rowe from the New England Revolution. Hurtado came down from Vancouver as well, but, meh. The important thing is that the West’s best didn’t stand pat for 2019.
Opara is a big hole to fill, no question, but a player with Barath’s pedigree should come through and I’ve heard Rwatubyaye described as a potential sleeper. I keep seeing the name Andreu Fontas pop up, as well, sometimes as a straight replacement for Opara outright, so, barring terrible choices, the depth looks very much in place at centerback. Those are just the additions: who knows what last year’s hope, Felipe Gutierrez, will do after his “adjustment year,” or the size of the step Gianluco Busio takes, or what fresh terrors Johnny Russell has for opposing defenders. They remain the West’s team to beat in my mind.
2018 Finish Line: 2nd in the Western Conference (18-11-5), 59 pts. 52 goals for, 37 goals against
In the previous, depressing portion of these previews, I talked about the idea of “runs,” mostly in the context of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ false signals, but Seattle…they also went on a run. Only theirs burned through all of MLS for the second half of 2018, just teeing up every ass they saw and kicking it. The Los Angeles Galaxy all but patented the “slow start, reanimated monster season” during the mid-2000s, but Seattle has owned it for the past two seasons at least. The Sounders built last year’s model on a fortress of a defense, only to see the floor fall out against the Timbers, of all teams. Holy crap, was that game epic.
OUT: M Lamar Neagle, M Osvaldo Alonso, D Aaron Kovar, D Waylon Francis
IN: D Jonathan Campbell, GK Trey Muse. That’s it.
They didn’t really do one. Apart from bringing in Campbell, a cast-off defender from the Chicago Fire (pause) and calling up a kid named Trey Muse in goal (who sounds like he moonlights in a boy band), Seattle has so far opted to stand pat. Or, probably more accurately, that they’d done enough last season to carry them through to the summer, aka, when Seattle makes its annual major, momentum-altering acquisition – e.g., Raul Ruidiaz last season, Nicolas Lodeiro the season before. Letting go of Alonso was a big deal for the team, though more from a team culture perspective than a playing one. They got value for him when they could.
Seattle has a very sound team, and probably for two more years. Even if Marshall went down, the Sounders are fine between Kim Kee-hee and Roman Torres. And now there’s Campbell. Their roster is a list of players who are not league-best in their position (Kevin Leerdam, Jordan Morris, and Cristian Roldan), and yet other teams would trade large sums and useful bodies to have them. That’s what allows Seattle to flip the script with those mid-summer acquisitions. The real question is how well Jordan Morris reintegrates into the team, against what parts, if any, breakdown, whether by strain or injury. Barring bad luck, the bastards…er, Seattle should be fine.
Los Angeles FC
2018 Finish Line: 3rd in the Western Conference (16-9-9), 57 pts. 68 goals for, 52 goals against
LAFC came out of the gate looking exciting, even exotic. Diego Rossi built a reputation before the season really started and Carlos Vela lived up to his hype. There was that forward-tilting midfield as well – who plays Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen just ahead of the defense? – but that forward tilt left a glass jaw behind it, and that kept LAFC from looking like real contenders. They had the talent to bully weak teams, and that bought them third place, but the league’s better teams reliably reminded them of where they stood. There could be a theory that a team can’t sit at the big kid’s table without some kind of functioning defensive midfield scheme, or I could be making that up. Still, exciting, flashy, and unbalanced: that was LAFC in 2018.
OUT: A lot of who’s that, then M Callum Mallace, F Marco Urena, M Benny Feilhaber, and, why not? (see above), D Aaron Kovar (I don’t make the rules, people)
IN: D Eddie Segura, D Mohamed El-Munir, F Rodolfo Zelaya
Their big drops included Feilhaber and Urena – players more or less expendable – while picking up what strikes me as a nifty throw-back to MLS 1.[X]. Seeing any MLS team sign, Zelaya, one of the best forwards in El Salvador, maybe even all Central America, took me all the way back to Raul Diaz Arce. Some high profile Salvadorans have passed through MLS since him (e.g., Ronald Cerritos and Mauricio Cienfuegos), but the other end of the talent pipeline feeding MLS has by and large shifted to South America in recent seasons. In less retro news, LAFC also added Segura from Colombia and El-Munir from Orlando City SC.
LAFC has some interesting-to-great parts, but there is something really wrong with its player acquisition process. Mark Anthony-Kaye appears to be the only true defensive midfielder on their roster…and so they add two defenders (one 22 years old, the other, an escapee from the horrors of Orlando City SC’s 2018), and a forward? Excited as I am about the latter (clearly, see above), I’m struggling to see a better 2019 for LAFC until they add players where they need them. At the same time, there’s no reason last season’s formula of having the talent to bully weak teams won’t hold up this season, and that’s good enough for the playoffs.
2018 Finish Line: 4th in the Western Conference (16-9-9), 57 pts. 52 goals for, 44 goals against
Dallas started 2018 strong enough to top the Western Conference (off and on) till the end of July. And then, as if it’s etched onto this team’s motherboard, they fell apart down the stretch, losing the last three regular season games – including a loss in Dallas against Sporting KC that all but announced they would never make MLS Cup, not these guys. Sure, enough, it was the Portland Timbers, in Dallas, just one game later with a 2-1 win. They had the opposite problem of LAFC: a solid defense, but no reliable way to score. The decision to play Maxmiliano Urruti as a No. 10 gives at least one of the reasons.
OUT: M Roland Lamah (hello, Cincy!), F Tesho Akindele, F Maxi Urruti, D Chris Richards, M Victor Ulloa (hello, Cincy!)
IN: F Zdenek Ondrasek, D Bressan, D…sure, John Nelson
After nearly five years of stalling in the same general time and place, FC Dallas parted ways with long-time head coach Oscar Pareja. In a move that underscores Dallas’ investment in its academy, they promoted FC Dallas Academy Director/U-16 Academy team head coach, Luchi Gonzalez to head coach. They like to keep teachers and students together down in Dallas.
Dallas very quietly cut some losses after 2018 – e.g., your
Of all their pick-ups, Ondrasek, a forward from Poland, has plausible potential to change that. Dallas hasn’t had a forward since Blas Perez, and Ondrasek has the scoring history (1 goal every three games, or thereabouts), and in multiple countries that says he can do the same in MLS. It’s not like the Brazilian, Bressan, will hurt them, but a central defender won’t help them fix their biggest weakness – i.e., a permanent failure to find a higher gear. They’ve relied on players like Mauro Diaz to do that, and his replacement has yet to materialize. If there’s a worry, it’s that Ondrasek doesn’t make up for everything Dallas’s F.O. subtracted.
2018 Finish Line: 5th in the Western Conference (15-10-9), 54 pts, 54 goals for, 48 goals against
To speak as someone who watched from the front row, taking notes all the while, Portland’s 2018 shouldn’t have felt like a credit card binge, but it still does. The team rode The Holy Trinity – Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Diego Chara – and thin margins all the way to MLS Cup. They enjoyed two great runs – a 15-game unbeaten streak from April through July, then a methodical march through the Western Conference playoffs (steely dans, to the last man) – and without a reliable option at forward and back-stopped by a defense that looked more suspect than it was. If the Timbers have a strength – across two coaches now – it’s what Dallas lacks: a knack for finding a higher gear.
OUT: D Alvas Powell (hello, Cincy!), D Liam Ridgewell, M Lawrence Olum, GK Jake Gleeson
IN: GK Aljaz Ivacic, D Claude Dielna. M Marvin Loria, M Renzo Zambrano, D Jorge Moreira
The Timbers let a couple anchors float away – e.g., Liam Ridgewell for sure, but maybe even Alvas Powell and Lawrence Olum (not the best, but a supreme known quantity). Portland brought in Claude Dielna from the New England Revolution to deal with the loss of Ridgewell. The ambition finally showed up in the most recent acquisitions, attempted and otherwise. It looks like Portland will acquire Paraguayan right back Moreira, thereby filling the hole left by Powell. They’ve also made a very expensive approach toward Eduardo Vargas, a forward currently signed to Tigres in Mexico. They also signed Slovenian ‘keeper Ivacic on top of calling up Loria and Zambrano from Timbers2.
If all those signings land, Portland should be very competitive next year, if not in 2020. Dielna looks like the key signing at time of writing, but the Timbers will be a very different team with a 15+ goals per year forward – which obviously assumes the team can land Vargas and that he can hit that number. If the Timbers can just work the same defense in 2019 as they did in 2018 – something that relies depressingly heavily on a healthy Diego Chara – that’ll be enough to keep them in the mix on its own. As noted above, this is my first team, so I know more about them than any team in the league, and they have some potential that could come good as well – I mean beyond Loria (who I’ve seen, and not bad) and Zambrano. The list starts with Lucas Melano, but he’s got a lot of company, especially in central midfield.
Real Salt Lake
2018 Finish Line: 6th in the Western Conference (14-13-7), 49 pts, 55 goals for, 58 goals against
Speaking of the Timbers, they really should have ended RSL’s 2018 early by dropping two losses in a late season home-and-home series that saw RSL outscored 1-7; that they gave up four goals at home, where they’d been great all season, twisted the knife. They ultimately backed into the playoffs on the back of the Galaxy’s baffling Decision Day choke against the Houston Dynamo. While RSL has the talent to beat anyone, it took that gift to get them to the post-season.
OUT: D Demar Phillips, D David Horst, M Sunday “Sunny” Stephen, F Luis Silva
IN: F Sam Johnson, M Everton Luiz, D Danny Toia, and a literal handful of homegrown players
To give positions to that clutch of homegrowns, they include Julian Vazquez (F), David Ochoa (GK), Luis Arriaga (M), Tate Schmitt (F), and Erik Holt (D), but RSL did two smart things besides that. First, they brought in Everton Luiz to (perhaps permanently) spell all-around legend Kyle Beckerman, but they also signed Liberian international Sam Johnson at forward. Those were enormous positions of need for this team.
RSL has a decent history with homegrown players, even as Aaron Maund and Justen Glad have become something close to cautionary tales; I think Maund just got cut loose by Vancouver, but Glad’s still with RSL, but neither is exactly thriving in the moment. Based on that, I present the list above as (again) a handful of unknowns, a list of names waiting on context (that may never come). The thing with RSL is that a good forward can carry them a long way. They’re one of you more pure academy teams in MLS and, as such, it might take a while to see how far their foundation carries them. That said, I’d expect another marginal season in 2019.
And, between the two articles, that’s everyone in MLS’s Western Conference. Now, if I were a betting man (I am, and I lose frequently), I’d name RSL, FC Dallas and maybe LAFC as the teams likeliest to fall out of this, the Winner’s Bracket. At the same time, I’ll be damned if I can figure out which teams from last year’s wrong end of the West takes however many places
Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of MLS and FC Cincinnati’s preseason.