Seattle Sounders FC are much less active this offseason than last year's massive rebuild. The club won the Supporters' Shield, the US Open Cup and finished the year after losing on a tiebreaker in the Western Conference finals. There have been some big names and big talents enter MLS this offseason, but Seattle has so far not been a part of that. This is scary, but also not necessarily worrisome.
Most of those teams had a long way to go in order to close the gap with the top sides in MLS. A team just on the Playoff Bubble needs to add 10-12 points to become a Shield Contender. Even a team that we might call "playoff lock" is probably 4-6 points away from the Shield. Awful teams need even more changes.
Bucketing teams into four categories simplifies things, which is important, because soccer lacks no master number for analytics and a wild ass guess is a good way to capture the coarseness of a season of soccer.
- Shield Contender ~60 points
- Playoffs Caliber ~55 points
- Playoff Bubble ~50 points
- Awful is for clubs that should be expected to be more than six points from the red line.
These buckets are based on last season's activity in transfer windows, standings, expectations and luck shows some teams were good and underperformed, others were bad and did OK.
Taking a deeper dive into what each Western Conference team has so far done this offseason will allow comparisons of change from '14 to '15. Looking at Seattle specifically you can see a significant talent lost, but when focusing only on rotational players (regularly in the 18 with many starts), starters and key talents the losses are not extreme.
Seattle entered last year as Shield Contenders, and they should be expected to do so again. The offense has virtually all of its key contributors back and the defense might actually be stronger. Clint Dempsey should have more time with Seattle this year, possibly missing time for the Gold Cup but not the two months -- and six league matches -- he was away for the World Cup in 2014. Marco Pappa's role is more defined than at this point last year. Cristian Roldan offers more attacking orientation off the bench. Lamar Neagle and Obafemi Martins are both coming off the most productive seasons of their careers.
There are questions. Tyrone Mears is still mostly untested after missing the last 18 months and so Brad Evans might have to step in as the starter at right back. That shift from Yedlin hurts the attack, but the defense with either Mears or Evans is likely better. Zach Scott is amazing, but older. At some point he will not continue to improve with age. Seattle's depth at CB is largely untested. It is the most significant concern for the club and could be answered with Evans at playing there.
Troy Perkins is an upgrade over Marcus Hahnemann. With as many as 50 competitive first-team matches in 2015 that is a significant addition. Andy Rose could take that final step forward. He is entering his peak now, if he can take his already strong defense and get just a touch better as a passer while still making his late runs the central midfield Sigi gains a valuable tool.
As an estimate the team is probably worse, but likely only a minor step worse. Here's the thing - the other Western Conference teams that started 2014 as Shield Contenders? They are be significantly worse.
Those LA Galaxy lost the man after whom the MVP award is now named as well as their second best central midfielder. Outside of Robbie Rogers, their aging fullbacks are older than last year, are not a threat in the attack and can't really defend. Sure, they get Steven Gerrard, at some point, after he's played a full Premier League season. Garcia? He's actually a re-signing but they had so few new players that MLS lists him as new. One could list their likely bench players as new additions, but they didn't add significant players there either. Still, they are the Galaxy and Bruce Arena has thrown away the first half of seasons before with little to no cost and will do so as long as he lives. You can read this last statement as Bruce Arena is a scary monster that lives in my head.
Real Salt Lake is entering their post-Kreis/Lagerwey world. They are doing so by blowing up their roster. The graphic is simplified. They lost a lot of bench players. Their keys will be getting production from their HGPs, from last year's late-to-the-party DP and converting from forever diamonds into their new system. They will do so without the defense they've had in place for years, and an aged, returning Jamison Olave. They probably still make the Playoffs. In Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Jaiver Morales they have a strong foundation, but no one should expect a Shield performance from RSL. Missing from the graphic is Demar Phillips. The older Jamaican left back likes to get forward. His ability to get forward is well known. How he adapts to MLS life is key.
Cascadia is interesting. There are three different approaches to the offseason from the trivalry. Seattle is repeated in this graphic as reminder of the small changes by the Sounders, so far. Portland is dealing with significant injuries, while Vancouver rebuilt their defense.
Portland's additions/subtractions ignore the fact that Will Johnson and Diego Valeri will miss months early in the year. So while they probably got better overall it won't be until mid-season when Porter gets his full talent for selection. Borchers may be old, but he's better than Kah and could be a great partner for Ridgewell. The Keeper situation is improved. The attack is better, and just maybe Porter will figure out how to use all the exciting attackers in front of a backline that is now more than serviceable. That much change can also lead to issues in integration. Expect a weak start, as much to do with long term injury as talent changes. They are a team that should be in the Playoffs (yes, that's a fourth playoff spot of six already filled and only five of 10 teams in the West are addressed yet).
The Vancouver Whitecaps are pretty stable. The young attackers will continue to get better, but the defense is a major issue. This is a team so desperate for quality defense they picked up Kah as a probable starter. The Whitecaps may be a lesser version of the Sounders trying to run-and-gun their way to success. It will be exciting, but it is in essence treading water, maybe even falling backwards a touch.
The two new teams to the West have strong histories in the modern era of MLS. But they are not the teams you remember.
Both teams were in a pretty weak Eastern Conference last year, but were still only on the Playoff Bubble. In the West that will be more difficult.
Houston is stuck in neutral for the first half of the year. The moves are basically on the margins and they are trying to reinvent themselves with a new coach. Just as they settle into that system they will get a massive scoring boost in Cubo Torres. If the Dynamo make the Playoffs they'll be a serious threat. But there is no reason to think they will be in the Playoffs. Their talent level was merely marginal when compared to the West already, and their best player won't be there until July. Expect them to miss the Playoffs.
Sporting KC should also miss the Playoffs. Their defense is worse. No longer will they have Collins/Besler paired in the back. Instead it will be Besler with either the oft-injured Opara or Seattle castoff Anibaba. They feel that they've upgraded at Keeper, which is probably true, but they also rejected their keeper depth. The midfield is an upgrade both starting (Espinoza) and on the bench (Carrasco). One thing that will hurt the Sporks' chances in the harder West is scoring. They have Dom Dwyer and not much else in the attack. That offense that was 11th best in the league last year looks pretty poor on paper. They did add Hungarian Kristian Nemeth. He's not on the graphic. He's also not a key player. Unless you think a forward that doesn't score is going to be a key addition.
There are three other teams in the Western Conference. One of them had a crappy year due to injuries, got those guys healthy and then added good players on top of that talent.
FC Dallas did a whole lot of losing talent and a whole lot of not enough else. For the first time in ages they enter a season that does not count on the oft-injured George John. They do have a young squad and Pereja is an amazing coach of younger talents. The only clear improvement is at keeper. The starting defense is stable (the bench in defense is bad), the possession game worse and the attack is stable. Things could break right for FCD. Expecting them to break right would be pre-mature. They've taken a step back from their performance last year, but essentially match their preseason expectations.
Remember how awful the San Jose Earthquakes were? They aren't that awful any more. They've made several aggressive changes and brought in former Sounder Dom Kinnear as a coach. There's going to be a new stadium too. Lots of reason for hope with the new players. They added even more speed (Nyassi) and some Latin talent to fill out the roster on top of last year's DP addition of MPG. Maybe an expectation of awful is harsh, but they are at the point of having so many moving parts that having high expectations is counting on so much coming together and working. That suspension of disbelief is hard, then again this is the team that won the Shield when they were expected to be on the Bubble. The Quakes could blow my mind. Which would be fine. Maybe they get a decent Playoff seed.
If there is one team in the West that had everything go wrong in 2014 it was the Colorado Rapids. Now, their young and oft-injured core is healthy. Slap in some shiny parts to go around them and there are reasons to fear the Rapids. No other team had injuries plague them like Colorado. Getting a few of those players healthy and adding talent across the XI is going to be huge. They had the type of offseason that wins GM of Year awards.
This back of the envelope analysis ignores the East, but it need not do so.
The East is better, much better. Seattle should only have two must-win games against the East - US Open Cup Final and MLS Cup Final. Maybe the late-season matches against Orlando City and TFC matter as well. Those are two teams that should be in the Playoff hunt. OCSC looks built for a full season and if Toronto doesn't act like Toronto they will be good. Both New York teams have significant issues (Lampard joining late, Henry and Cahill leaving with no replacements yet). Chicago added a lot of talent, but were horrible. Montreal seems content to be a bad Italian soccer team with a couple Canadians. Philly exists.
East by Tier
- Shield - New England, Columbus, D.C.
- Playoffs - Orlando City, TFC, NYCFC
- Bubble - Fire, Red Bull
- Awful - Montreal, Philly
West by Tier
- Shield - Seattle, Galaxy
- Playoffs - RSL, Rapids, Portland
- Bubble - Vancouver, Dallas
- Awful - Houston, Sporks, San Jose
The most important thing to remember about this analysis is that there is still a week until the Primary Transfer Window opens and more than a month until the CBA gets signed (because it won't be resolved until the week of the first games). Any team could still add an amazing player or two. Some teams may reinvent themselves still.
Seattle could be one of those active teams if the CBA goes in a very player/Haves friendly way. Right now, there is very little reason to think that the massive improvements by bad teams and activities by expansion teams are major threats to the balance of power.
This is not the appropriate time for a snapshot of an offseason. It is especially poor timing for an estimate in team quality, and yet there is a pervasive force that looks at Seattle's lack of activity as a failure. Five weeks from a season, and not seeing a single Sounders scrimmage or preseason match it is hard to judge the impact of the few additions. There is still time for judgement, as well as time to add talent.