MLS 2011 Season Preview: Western Conference

Major League Soccer's Western Conference outshone the East last season, look for it to do the same this year as many of the teams only got better. (Courtesy Major League Soccer)

By Kevin Koczwara

There’s no disputing that the Western Conference was the better than the East last year. The two MLS Cup finalist teams, FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids, were both from the West and so was the top two teams in the regular season, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake. The West had six of the best eight teams in the league last year. This year looks no different. In fact, many of the teams out west have improved this offseason.

There is a major shake-up in the west though. With the addition of teams in Portland and Vancouver, the Western Conference has a true rivalry in the works in the Northwest and potentially two teams looking to follow the Seattle Sounders’s model and come out swinging from the first whistle, upsetting the established balance.

The Northwest has become a battleground for the MLS and its most vital asset since the Sounders came into the league and immediately started selling out the lower bowl of Qwest field in 2009. With the additions of the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle has territorial rivals, a major plus for the two-time U.S. Open Cup winners and the rest of the league.

But don’t count on the two new team from the Northwest to upset last season’s top teams.

Dallas and Colorado Only Get Better

David Ferriera still lurks in the FC Dallas midfield with Brek Shea and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman keeps getting better with age. Last year’s MLS Cup runner-ups lost talented midfielder Dax McCarthy, but the Hoops promoted Jonathan Top from its youth ranks and added Colombian starlet Fabian Castillo*. Castillo comes from Deportivo Cali of Colombia’s top-flight. The 18-year-old striker signed on as one of the team’s designated players and could be the breakout player of the year playing in front of last year’s league MVP and his compatriot Ferriera.

Dallas made a marvelous run in the MLS Cup last year, but fell short to a very good Colorado Rapids side in extra-time in the final. The Rapids got to the final with a substantially overhauled roster that was built around a solid midfield and two complimentary strikers.

Omar Cummings brings pace and trickery to the Rapids attack while Conor Casey brought brute force, hard work, and size. The pair has been one of the best pairing of forwards in the league for a few years now, but they were finally able to get the support in the midfield they needed. The addition of Jeff Larentowicz last year in a trade with New England was the missing piece that Colorado finally found. With the midfield pairing of Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni controlling play, Cummings and Casey wore out opponents and scored the goals Colorado needed.

With limited movement from the Rapids in the offseason, look for them to again be a big player in the West and really shine in the MLS Cup Playoffs, where the team really shines because of it’s ability to keep a lead and score on the road.

All Roads Lead Through Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Galaxy won the Supporters Shield last year — (the Supporters Shiled is awarded to the team with the best record in the MLS). With Landon Donovan running up and down one flank providing service and a good combination of veteran players and up-and-coming youngsters, the Galaxy built a strong unit that only got better when Edson Buddle decided he would actually start scoring goals on a regular basis for the first time in his career.

In case you forgot, David Beckham also plays for the Galaxy, but his limited contributions since joining the MLS because of injuries have hampered his ability to influence play on the field. This year should be different. There was no World Cup in the summer for Beckham because of injuries. There was no loan spell in Italy or the English Premier League because Los Angeles wanted to have the superstar on the field and completely fit for the first time since signing. The rest of the MLS will take notice because last season’s best team in the regular season now has its most skilled player on the ball in the fray, again.

Los Angeles’s top-scorer, Buddle, left in the offseason for Germany, but he was quickly replaced in the re-entry draft by the New York Red Bull’s all-time leading scorer Juan Pablo Angel. Angel’s pace may not match Buddle’s, but his ability in front of goal and his hold-up play is far superior to the American’s. Angel makes the Galaxy attack more versatile and dangerous. Scary thought.

Look for Brazilian midfielder Juninho to continue to grow as a player this year for LA. The 22-year-old showed glimpses of his ability last season and grew more comfortable to the league as got accustomed to the physical play of the MLS. This year he could be one of the star performers and he should begin to stand out..

Real Salt Lake Take on the CONCACAF Champions League

Real Salt Lake pushed Los Angeles to the last match day in competition for the Supporter’s Shield, but in the end fell a few points short of the Galaxy. The Royals dropped out surprisingly early in the playoffs to the Columbus Crew (I should know, I picked them to repeat as Champions). And yet, they still have to remain a favorite to upset the Galaxy this year because the core in the midfield of Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales is still intact, and the league’s stingiest defense lead by goalkeeper Nick Rimando stayed put as well.

Jason Kreis has done a great job of getting the best from his players the last two years, but the team’s involvement in the CONCACAF Champions League will hamper his ability to rotate his midfielders and keep them fresh. Early in the year Kreis will have to balance his players and figure out the best way to keep them healthy, but he has to take a chance on the league for the Champions League because he is close to leading the Royals to the finals and becoming the first team from the MLS to ever hoist the cup.

With that said, there was little movement from Real Salt Lake, coming or going, and the team is still the deepest and best balanced squads in the league. They will finish in the top-four, but expect them to go into a little slump in the league if they continue to keep fighting for Champions League glory.

Chivas USA Rebuilding and San Jose Riding Wondo, Again

Last place in the West, it’s where Chivas found itself last year. Former Salt Lake assistant Robin Fraser hopes to change that this year. He has his hands full.

The Western Conference is a tough nut to crack. From top to bottom the West touts the majority of the better teams in the MLS, and to turn things around at Chivas, Fraser will need a good amount of luck and a lot from Jimmy Conrad.

Conrad still has plenty of miles left in his 34-year-old legs and will be a key contributor to the Chivas turn around after leaving Sporting K.C.

Joining Conrad on the other side of the defense will be Heath Pearce from FC Dallas. Pearce was on the fringe of making the U.S. Men’s National Team World Cup squad last summer after having an impressive season, but Dallas needed to free up some room and traded the veteran defender to Chivas and the Los Angeles club gladly accepted the deal. Zarek Valentin of Akron will have time to grow under the tutelage of the veteran defenders and be given a good core of players to look up to as he works his way into the team.

Other key additions for Chivas: Nick LaBrocca comes over from Toronto via trade and Alejandro Monero from was acquired in a trade with Vancouver. The two midfielders give Chivas sturdy, veteran leadership in the middle of the field to help patch up one of the weakest in the league.

San Jose lost Arturo Alvaez and Joe Canon to the expansion draft and yet, if Chris Wondolowski can keep up his performances from last season, the Quakes will again be on the fringes of the playoffs and a team no one wants to match up with in October. If Wondo can’t keep up the remarkable pace of last season, the Quakes will probably drift off to sea and be forgotten.

Wondolowski scored more than half of San Jose’s goals last year, and if any one player has that much of a hand in a team’s success then it becomes impossible to replace if he goes down injured or if he can’t repeat the performance. Good luck to you sir.

Bobby Convey will need to continue to supply the attack for San Jose and take some of the weight off of Wondo. The 27-year-old former Reading player needs to be the leader in the midfield and add on to his 10 assist season last year with a few more goals and continued service into the box. Otherwise Wondo will be left on an island without a Wilson to keep him company.

Players to Watch

Kenny Cooper, Portland Timbers: Cooper has all the skills a team looks for in a striker. He didn’t have the best time playing in Germany the past couple years, but he returns to the MLS with a club looking to establish itself in its first year. Cooper has plenty of experience under his belt and could be just the kind of player the Timbers need to lead them in their inaugural season in the MLS.

Eric Hassli, Vancouver Whitecaps: The Whitecaps wasted no time in signing a striker with European pedigree. Hassli comes from FC Zurich of the Swiss Super League, Switzerland’s top-division and has UEFA Champions League experience. The French striker has the size and skill to have an immediate impact for Vancouver. He also has a great name to twirl off your tongue.

Fabian Castillo, FC Dallas: The Hoops are taking a chance on the 18-year-old striker, but if Castillo can adapt to the move to the States and the big-money he is making, he could be the league’s next bright star. Having Ferreria to feed him the ball in space will help, but Castillo is thought to have the skill to make an impact now and that could be vital for a team that lost Jeff Cunningham and Dax McCarthy to the re-entry draft. He could be the next Freddy Montero and surpass the early expectations.

Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.

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