2014 MLS Western Conference Standings Prediction

fgktnyaimgp9fs2rll5lhtmdtPredicting the Western Conference is always a tough battle, for differing reasons than predicting the East. For one, it’s been a perennial powerhouse of clubs for a good 10 years. Secondly, where the top clubs finish is always a crapshoot as the gaps in performance between them are almost non-existent. Most of this (as with the Eastern predictions) are my gut instinct, but it has a good dose of factual evidence and objective analysis to it as well.

For the most part, the West should remain similarly to the 2013 season. There are a couple exceptions, though. As always, feedback and commentary is always welcome. Let me know who you have in your own predictions. Or just berate mine!

201px-Colorado_Rapids_logo.svg9. Colorado Rapids

The Rapids will be punished for being indecisive off the field in the offseason. Their FO has lacked initiative to respond quickly or decisively to personnel issues the club has faced since the end of 2013. Losing your head coach that remade your team into a playoff-contender to a conference rival is one thing; failing to replace him with a capable candidate in a timely manner is quite another. With Wilmer Cabrera joining Chivas USA as well, remodeling the coaching staff should’ve been Priority One.

We shouldn’t be surprised by Pablo Mastroeni being named Rapids head coach, officially; that was the obvious path as soon as he was named interim. Both Colorado fans and media pundits alike have questioned if Mastroeni has the know-how to operate the club game in, game out. Larger than this, though, is that both he and TD Paul Bravo have failed to make acquisitions to fill the gaps in the roster. Hendry Thomas following Oscar Pareja to Dallas is a big loss. Not jumping on the Matias Laba wagon with force was the second mistake. Still not having an able, long-term, veteran presence in the position is the third.

Resting on aging forward Edson Buddle for goal-scoring isn’t intelligent. And neither is depending on sophomore Deshorn Brown. The few new-comers capable of stepping up offensively (Dillon Serna and Jose Mari) have a learning curve ahead of them. All of this turbulence will see Colorado take a major dive in 2014… to dead last in the league.

san-jose-quakes-crest8. San Jose Earthquakes

The 2013 season ended under interim coach Mark Watson, and he finished his first tenure at the helm rather admirably. That late run almost landed them in a playoff spot, but the Quakes came up just short. Many think Watson’s Quakes will continue where they left off for 2014, but I see it a bit differently.

The pieces they’ve added are all crucial. Atiba Harris is great depth at the wing or forward position. Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi is a quality pickup for d-mid with potential to be a new leader. Shaun Francis and Brandon Barklage will expand the talent of the back line beyond what outgoing defenders Dan Gargan and Nana Attakora could do.

But all these signings are mere smoke. None but possibly Pierazzi have the ability to be clutch for a team for an entire season. The defenders and Harris have hopped around for years hoping to find a permanent home, but due to poor integration and/or sub par performances found themselves on the outs. Simply put, these are depth players that are going to be asked to contribute to the First XI.

The losses are bigger than the acquisitions. Justin Morrow going to Toronto is a loss, especially after getting a US call-up last year. The same with Steven Beitashour. Center back duo Victor Bernardez and Clarence Goodson are going to have to be phenomenal all season for this team to not leak goals. Expect Jon Busch to stand on his head in goal.

Offensively, San Jose have the talent to bag 50 goals. Whether they do or not is the question. With Chris Wondolowski’s foot healed, the former Golden Boot winner could rival that honor once again. But service is going to have to come from Walter Ramirez as both Ramiro Corrales (retired) and Marvin Chavez (traded to Colorado) won’t be providing anymore. The revolving door of second striker is going to continue. Adam Jahn, Alan Gordon, and Steven Lenhart will all pull roughly the same minutes next to Wondo. I don’t have much faith in their Goonish styles two years after they made their claim to fame.

San Jose should be able to stay far ahead of Colorado, but just short of Seattle and Vancouver. It’ll be a close race between those three club.

361px-Vancouver_Whitecaps_FC_logo.svg7. Vancouver Whitecaps

Another new coach will be making waves in the West. Carl Robinson is tabbed as a players coach. Much more so than Martin Rennie. And this will go a long way to galvanizing the club for the future. As much as I like the coaching pick and the squad as a whole, however, I see them as a victim of a very tough and competitive Western Conference.

Losing Camilo to Liga MX is going to be the biggest detriment. Replacing 20 goals is no small feat, and the young team Vancouver has is ill-equipped for the challenge. The only veteran striker on the team, Kenny Miller, can’t be guaranteed even close to 30 games. That number is probably closer to 20. That means young forwards like Kekuta Manneh, Darren Mattocks, and Erik Hurtado will need to be relied upon. Mattocks’ poor mental state has cost him in the past, and a simple coaching change isn’t going to force him to mature. Hurtado is a striker with massive potential, but I don’t see him being ready to contribute in the ways that could be asked of him. That leaves the reins to Manneh, a 19 year old that’s nursed a back injury in the offseason.

In the middle, the inclusion of Matia Laba is a coup for the Whitecaps. How he factors into a congested defensive midfield is the real question. Robinson could choose to run all three d-mids (Nigel Reo-Coker and Gershon Koffie, too) together, a la the USMNT has done at times. Indeed, all three offer different styles of play. Reo has played that box-to-box role in his time with Aston Villa. But this pushes others out, namely the prodigy Russell Teibert. A talent like that needs to be on the field, especially if the offense is going to be as impotent as it’s looking to be. And if Teibert doesn’t get playing time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him request a transfer, possibly even abroad.

Despite an aging backline, the defense should be about average for the league. GK David Ousted has proven he’s capable of playing in this league, and wing backs Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour will be quality assets on both sides of the ball. The depth at central defense is their saving grace. Rookie Christian Dean, last year’s new-comer Johnny Leveron, and youngster Carlyle Mitchell will all see plenty of minutes as Jay Demerit and Andy O’Brien play it safe during their inevitable built-in rest periods.

Look for a competent back half for this squad, but they will struggle to score goals. And for that, they’ll miss out on the playoffs. Beware of the Whitecaps in future seasons, though. They’re built to be successful down the road.

6a00e54ef2975b8833011279691b4628a4-pi6. Seattle Sounders

Ownership had the option of changing the guard in the coaching staff at the end of 2013. They chose to renew Sigi Schmid’s contract. This is only part of their mistake.

On the surface, the roster moves they’ve made seem legit. Bringing in a solid center back in Chad Marshall, a oft-injured albeit very good GK in Stefan Frei, and bolstering their already-lethal strike force with guys like Kenny Cooper or Chad Barrett are good moves in this league. But, similar to San Jose, this expects there to be productive first-teamers already in place. That’s not necessarily the case.

Clint Dempsey’s loan spell cost him rest and time with his primary club with absolutely nothing to show for it but a probably-relegated EPL team. Obafemi Martins took long to adjust to life in MLS in 2013. Luckily his preseason has been on point. But a club does not one striker carry. He’ll need help from Cooper or Barrett or Tristan Bowen, all who’ve shown to perform in mixed ways. Add to that Corey Hertzog, a kid who showed well in NASL with Edmonton, but looks destined to be nothing more than bench fodder in MLS.

Regardless of how well the offense actually does, the service from the midfield is another big question mark. Bringing in Marco Pappa to provide that service is a known commodity, but how he meshes with existing components in an existing system is the unknown. Talk about implementing a midfield diamond might come to fruition, but that’s something Pappa hasn’t done before, at least not in MLS. It just adds to the flux for the Sounders.

The biggest flux, though, comes on defense. Marshall should be good, but presumably partnering with former Chicago defender Jalil Anibaba is my concern. Anibaba should get to slide back to the center for Seattle, but working on that tandem with Marshall takes time. Then again, Schmid could opt for the 34 year old Djimi Traore. If so, you’d think his number of games will plummet over last year’s 27. He’s not one to be relied upon long-term, and others will need to step in. Behind them are rookies Jimmy Ockford and Damian Lowe, and also Leo Gonzalez. Again, more bodies either untested or proven to not be consistent.

Put all of that mess in front of a new ‘keeper in Frei and you have a pretty good recipe for a defense like a sieve. I won’t say Seattle will be bottom feeders; far from it. But they will have a lot to sort out during the course of the season, and that is the reason they’re on the outside looking in for the first time in their MLS tenure.

228px-Chivas_USA_logo.svg5. Chivas USA

New coach. Plenty of new faces. And now new ownership in the form of the league itself. Chivas is going to be the dark horse for the playoff race in 2014. They’re boasting offensive threats like Bofo Bautista, 2013 starlett Cubo Torres, and Sounders castoff Mauro Rosales. Defensively, it appears they’re set for a better and more consistent showing than last year. Andrew Jean-Baptiste, USMNT defender Carlos Bocanegra, and Kiwi international Tony Lochhead will go a long way to shore up a porous backline and give GK Dan Kennedy a lot less headaches.

It’s not going to be easy, however. A few obstacles present themselves already. Firstly, Torres’ loan deal is set to expire in June. In spite of news that Torres could be extended if Cabrera sees fit, I’m not holding my breath. Former owner Jorge Vergara made it known all loanees would be returning to the mothership in Guadalajara, and it takes two to tango. Bautista will be sticking around longer, but how he performs compared to Cubo is a big question.

Secondly, the league’s talk of finding an owner in the coming months is going to be impactful for the club mentally. Should they be sold to a private owner, how is the sale and coming transition going to affect the players and coaches?

Lastly, and a bit more minor, Oswaldo Minda’s disciplinary problems might prove to be a mountain. It’s no secret he’s a card magnet. How the new coaching staff responds to losing him repeatedly for suspensions is going to be interesting. It certainly wasn’t a boon for previous regimes.

All in all, Chivas will be a playoff team… just. They’ll sneak in past their foes, but by the skin of a couple points. Don’t expect a deep post-season run.

175px-Los_Angeles_Galaxy_logo.svg4. Los Angeles Galaxy

Never doubt Bruce Arena. Or so they say. Consider me a detractor. Many have picked the Galaxy to win MLS Cup. But over 34 games I don’t see major regular season success like others.

While their defense is largely intact, the issue I see is the consistent play of Omar Gonzalez and AJ Delagarza. I’m in the minority here, but their play is not something I’d feel comfortable with on my team. Their big games come often, but their stretches of four or five matches at sub par levels (individually and as a unit) are disturbing. It’s something that I think holds LA back from being a true dynasty. Todd Dunivant is another concern. The aging wing back has a lot of miles on his legs, and his overlapping runs aren’t what they used to be. Defensive contributions to the attack are slowly eroding, and I see 2014 as being a major obstacle in this regard.

Robbie Keane is Robbie Keane. And he’ll likely contest the Golden Boot race this season. But Brazilian new-comer Samuel does not strike me as the type of player that’ll have much success in MLS. I initially thought he’d be a bench option, but it appears Arena is serious about him as a starter. This forces further questions about the midfield…

Landon Donovan finished 2013 alongside Keane at the top. With Samuel coming in, that’ll probably mean a return to the wing for Lando. But this move forces issue about the young Gyasi Zardes (who played on the wing last year) and Swedish new-comer Stefan Ishizaki. If Arena is serious about getting both Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas on the field together, one of these three midfielders is going to have to sit. I don’t see that going over well for Zardes or Ishizaki, both of whom are looking to make inroads in their careers, albeit opposing ends of them.

All of this is going to cost them in the long run. They’ll drop games here and there that they should’ve won, and it’ll result in another low seed for the post-season. MLS Cup favorites is a possibility. Supporters’ Shield? I think not.

RSL_logo_NoStar3. Real Salt Lake

The on-field changes have been subtle for RSL. Additions of Luke Mulholland (who tore up the preseason and looks set to be a big contributor this season) and academy product Jordan Allen are the most likely to make it into First XI duty regularly. The core is the same, though, and it’ll still largely be the same RSL we’ve seen under Jason Kreis.

Except… this isn’t Kreis’ team anymore. A promoted Jeff Cassar is now the head, and his assembled coaching staff is very promising for the future. His subtle changes in tactics is a refinement of the system under Kreis. This is a good thing as they’re not looking to fix something that’s unbroken. The problem here lies with implementing these subtle yet difficult changes in such a short offseason. Cassar’s changes are going to require immense effort from the veteran leaders of the team, especially defensively. If there are disruptions in that leadership, it could be disastrous.

I don’t think this season marks an end of the winning ways of RSL, although I do think that these changes get the club off to a rough start. Don’t be surprised if they have a 20% win ratio through the first third of the season. Despite that, a push from mid to late season (like last year) saves their collective bacon and boosts them ahead of their Californian rivals to a 3rd place finish in the West. Unfortunately, this also sets them up to face a tough opponent in FC Dallas…

250px-FC_Dallas_logo.svg2. FC Dallas

With Oscar Pareja jumping ship to his long-time club in Dallas, we’ll see a renaissance of sorts in Frisco. He brought with him Hendry Thomas who’ll fill a much needed position in d-mid, a position the team hasn’t successfully filled since Daniel Hernandez. Pareja has also inherited the likes of youngster Mauro Diaz, an able replacement for the departed David Ferreira.

With other midfield options being clear in Ryan Hollingshead and Andres Escobar (both of which showed well in preseason), FCD will have a lock in the middle of the pitch against most teams. The contributions of Michel from the back cannot go without noting either.

Service to strikers Blas Perez, Fabian Castillo, and possibly even rookie Tesho Akindele will be mixed as the young Diaz gets comfortable being in the lime light. Even still, I don’t see that being a hindrance during the season. What I do think will be their achilles heal is goalkeeping.

Raul Fernandez started 2013 off to a blistering, though unorthodox, start. Mid season woes and late season flubs in net cost the team big. If Fernandez hasn’t grown as a player mentally since then, don’t expect a high goal differential for this team.

290px-PortlandTimbers-logo1. Portland Timbers

Yes. I’ve picked them to win the West for the second straight year. Not because they made the personnel moves that keep them ahead of the pack, but because 2014 will be a consolidation year for the PDX club.

The additions of Steve Zakuani and the two Argentinians (Gaston Fernandez and Norberto Paparatto) will be a big factor for the team’s success, but it’s how the existing pieces continue to improve under Caleb Porter’s system. Max Urruti is another player that’ll be looking to add to that improvement, and have a breakout year for himself. The offensive options for Porter are myriad, and this does not spell good tidings for their opponents.

With guys like Will Johnson, Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Donovan Ricketts, Portland will be a new power in the West, one that’s here to stay for some time. Keeping the defense true to form is going to be the biggest challenge. If Ricketts and the line that stands in front of him are up to last season’s task, then this is a team that can not only win the West, but the Supporters’ Shield and possibly MLS Cup. They’ll have CCL to deal with later in the year, and that’ll be a new challenge for this squad and manager. Juggling it all is tricky, as some on the team know, but it can be done. To me, Portland will be up for the challenge.

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