Why the West is Best in MLS

Addition of SKC, Houston makes a tough conference even tougher
by Ray Marcham   |   Saturday, January 31, 2015

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

With the Major League Soccer preseason in full swing and friendlies between clubs getting underway, there’s one thing that could be an almost safe bet.

If you’re predicting the MLS Cup champ, or the Supporters’ Shield winner, look west.

The dominance of the Western Conference in MLS is as strong as ever, and 2015 could have the conference being the best that MLS has seen. The depth of good teams is strong, with the addition of the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City, and demise of Chivas USA, making the West even tougher.

How dominant has the West been? With the return of Houston (in the West from 2006-10) and SKC (as the Wiz/Wizards, in the West in 1996-2004), the conference now has 13 of the last 15 MLS Cup champions, including the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy. Those include 5 for the Galaxy; 2 each for Houston (both won as a Western side), Kansas City (2000 as Wizards in the West, 2013 as SKC in the East) and San Jose; and one each for Colorado and Real Salt Lake. The only Eastern teams to break that run have been DC United in 2004 and Columbus in 2008.

Recently, the West has been dominating the race for the Supporters’ Shield, as well. The Seattle Sounders winning the shield last season made them the fourth Western club in the past five seasons to be the regular season champions, joining the Galaxy (2010-11) and San Jose (2012) in that run. This has been a change from past MLS history, where Eastern teams won the shield 10 times from 1996-2009.

So, one could think that the safe place to look for a 2015 MLS Cup champ would be the West, even as rosters change. Los Angeles lost Landon Donovan to retirement, but will get Steven Gerrard from Liverpool in the summer and still have Robbie Keane ready to dominate. DeAndre Yedlin left Seattle for Tottenham, but signed Tyrone Mears from Bolton. Plus, the Sounders still have the best 1-2 combo in the league in Clint Dempsey and Obi Martins. Knocking those two from the top will be tough.

Don’t be afraid to look beyond LA and Seattle. Real Salt Lake traded Nat Borchers to Portland, but got Jamison Olave to slip in that spot. They still have Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman, which means they will be in any match this season. They have to wait for Joao Plata to return from injury, but Alvaro Saborio & Javier Morales are healthy. RSL is always near the top of the West, though they have never finished in first.

Then comes the big middle of the conference, which will determine how things fall out. FC Dallas got Dan Kennedy in the Chivas USA dispersal draft, adding to the high hopes that Oscar Pareja will continue the improvement seen in 2014, which saw the Hoops fin their first playoff match since their run to the MLS Cup Final in 2010.

Seattle’s Cascadia rivals have also been very busy. Vancouver acquired two Uruguayans, forward Octavio Rivero and defender Diego Rodriguez, to add to the depth of Carl Robinson’s side. They also signed former Portland defender Pa Modou Kah to help the back line and be a mentor for some of the younger Whitecaps.

Portland revamped their defense, trading Michael Harrington to Colorado, letting Kah go and trading for Borchers. They also acquired Ghanaian goalkeeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey, while losing Donovan Ricketts to Orlando City in the expansion draft. Not much change up front, as the Timbers wait for Will Johnson and Diego Valeri to come back from major injuries.

Houston’s biggest changes are off the field, with Owen Coyle taking over from Dominic Kinnear as head coach and Matt Jordan becoming the club’s first general manager. They’ve also made a big splash in getting players, with former Chivas USA star Cubo Torres coming in the summer and trading with DC United to get GK Joe Willis and defender Samuel Inkoom. While there’s a hill to climb for the Dynamo in the post-Kinnear era, they are building be competitive as they return to the West.

It’s on the field where SKC has seen big changes. Gone are Aurelien Collin and C.J. Sapong, traded to Orlando and Philadelphia, respectively. SKC brought back Roger Espinoza from Wigan Athletic, adding to their stacked midfield. They have revamped their goalkeeping, dropping Andy Gruenebaum & Erik Kronberg and signing Chilean Luis Marin and former Chivas USA backup Tim Melia. They join homegrown GK Jon Kempin in the fight to be the #1 keeper at Sporting Park. SKC also traded for midfielder Servando Carrasco (Houston), midfielder Bernardo Anor (Columbus) and defender Jalil Anibaba (Orlando City), hoping to support Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Benny Feilhaber as Sporting looks to get better from a disappointing 2014.

A big mystery is San Jose. They open a new stadium, brought Kinnear home to be their coach, brought in Gruenebaum to be their keeper, grabbed Kris Tyrpak in the dispersal draft and got Mark Sherrod from Orlando City. It all still revolves around Chris Wondolowski for the Quakes, and a healthy Steven Lenhart will help Wondo as San Jose tries to come back from a horrid 2014.

Colorado? There’s much work to be done. Eighteen players from the 2014 squad are no longer there, as a full rebuild is underway.  But the foundation is there, as Shane O'Neill and Dillon Serna got call-ups to the US Men’s National Team this week. But it’s a long way to go for the Rapids.

The MLS West will be incredible strong in 2015. LA and Seattle still lead the way, but RSL, Dallas, Vancouver, Portland, SKC, Houston and San Jose can all come up & challenge for a playoff spot. Even with six playoff spaces, a spot in the postseason will be earned.

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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