The Western Conference was the weaker conference for the first time in a few years in 2017, and now it’s time to reload to challenge the East. Most teams didn’t do terribly much, but we’ve got an expansion side and plenty of new DPs in the conference that should make it interesting. If you missed the Eastern Conference preview, read it here.
- Anthony Hudson: The Rapids needed a new coach. Pablo Mastroeni over-achieved in his 2016 run to the conference finals and then crashed again in 2017. The New Zealand National Team coach, a native of Seattle, was an interesting choice. Hudson has no top-flight experience and has only coached small national sides, Bahrain and NZ, but he made a strong impression at the Confederations Cup. The system Hudson will put in is yet unclear, but he’s loading up on mid-Championship level players and his national teams played a physical, defensive type of soccer.
- Importing the Championship: Hudson has brought in four players from the EFL Championship and another from the Scottish Premiership. Jack Price and Joe Mason joined from Wolverhampton, the latter via loan, to shore up the spine. Mason doesn’t have the most reliable scoring record, but he’s better than the options Colorado rolled out last year. Defenders Tommy Smith and Danny Wilson were signed from Ipswich Town and Rangers FC, respectively.
- Edgar Castillo: At one point Castillo was going to solve the USMNT defensive issues. He didn’t, but Colorado is hoping he’ll at least be a key cog in their back line. He’s in on loan from Monterrey for the season.
2017 record: 33 points, 9-19-6; 10th in the West
2018 outlook: I don’t expect the Rapids to improve this season with the players they brought in. They’ll likely play a similar style of bunker and counter that we’ve seen in previous years, and I don’t see how that’ll work. They won’t give up a lot of goals, but if they don’t score some it won’t matter. I like the hiring of Anthony Hudson and think he has great potential, but I don’t think this time around it’ll work out.
- Trading Walker Zimmerman: Allocation money is getting more and more valuable, but Dallas netted allocation and the #1 allocation order spot, which they flipped for yet more allocation money. They brought in Reto Ziegler to replace Zimmerman, but he’s older and not an improvement.
- Signing Santiago Mosquera: The Colombian striker is a good use of a DP slot, particularly since he’ll count as a Young DP for this season. Mosquera is a pacy, creative forward who has already slotted in on the left wing in Oscar Pareja’s 4-2-3-1 against Tauro FC. He’s valued around $4m and should compete with Roland Lamah for minutes.
- Keeping Kellyn Acosta: This is easier said than done and it doesn’t mean that the young American won’t transfer overseas at some point. While he isn’t as highly sought after as other USMNT mids, Acosta has a lot of potential and could make impact in a mid-tier European league. FC Dallas ownership has shown willingness to transfer players, as seen with rumors swirling around Maximiliano Urruti and selling Fabian Castillo a few seasons ago.
2017 record: 46 points, 11-10-13; 7th in the West, missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker
2018 outlook: Aside from Mosquera, Dallas didn’t really bring in any impactful (or potentially impactful) players. Pareja’s side looked like they’d win the West again in 2017 but managed to get only two wins in their final 15 matches, failing to make the playoffs. Without significant improvements, and arguably getting worse without Zimmerman, Dallas is likely going to fight for but miss the playoffs again.
- Selling Erick “Cubo” Torres: Torres was twice loaned out to Liga MX sides while he was with Houston and never seemed to be the first choice of any manager he played for in Texas. Wilmer Cabrera used him about 50% as a starter and 50% as a sub, but that’s bad value for a DP. Getting a reported $2m for the misfiring Mexican striker is a great deal for the Dynamo.
- Trading for Darwin Ceren: About a week before dealing Torres, the Dynamo brought in Darwin Ceren from San Jose. Ceren was a cheap buy, costing only $175k of mixed allocation (which could escalate to $225k). He played in about half of San Jose’s games in 2017 after joining them in 2016 from Orlando City. The Dynamo needed to find replacements for their vacated midfield, and Ceren will do a great job in the defensive pivot for Cabrera.
- The midfield void: Ceren helped fill some of the openings created this offseason as Alex and Ricardo Clark both found new clubs. While Cabrera did rotate his midfield often enough and has plenty of wingers on his roster, Alex and Clark were the Dynamo’s best options in the center of the park, and now they’ll need to rely on Ceren to stay healthy and be in form.
2017 record: 50 points 13-10-11; 4th in the West
2018 outlook: Houston surprised everyone by making a run at the playoffs, eeking in, and then winning a home-series against Sporting Kansas City. They then managed to knock out a weakened Timbers side before falling to some team from Seattle you have probably heard of. I would expect the same thing to happen this year. Their wingers, Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto, are not going to the World Cup and are only getting better. If Ceren plays well and Cabrera figures out to win on the road (1-9-7 in 2017) they’ll be a big threat.
- Ola Kamara-Gyasi Zardes trade: The Galaxy have been unsettled at striker since the departure of Robbie Keane, but they likely found a solution in Ola Kamara. Allocation money is valuable, but you can find it when you need it or borrow from future years. Zardes was done in LA, and I don’t think he’ll progress in Columbus, but Sigi Schmid had even tried him as a RB to salvage any useful minutes from the homegrown player. Kamara is a good striker and should connect well with the dos Santos brothers and Romain Alessandrini.
- Getting old DC United parts: Perry Kitchen and Chris Pontius both joined the Galaxy this offseason. Pontius can still do some things well, but likely just serves as a Lamar Neagle-style late sub. He can play on the wing or up top, score some goals, and defend a lead. Kitchen, meanwhile, will help solve some of LA’s midfield depth issues, which were obvious when Jermaine Jones was not playing last year (and even when he was).
- Adding David Bingham: The Galaxy cycled through backup keepers last year, using Bruce Arena’s old theory that you do not need a good keeper to win the league. It didn’t work. This off-season they went out and grabbed David Bingham from their northern rivals, who is an average MLS keeper or better.
2017 record: 32 points, 8-18-8; Last in the West, and tied for worst in the league with DC United.
2018 outlook: I probably will not stop mocking them for how LAFC looks likely to be the much more successful LA side, and they haven’t even stepped foot on the pitch. The Galaxy actually had a good enough offseason — they didn’t build an MLS Cup champion, but they improved enough to fight for a playoff spot. They could be really good if they start gelling and the dos Santos brothers figure out how to play in MLS. However, I don’t see that happening; I see them keeping their head above water just enough to fight for a final playoff spot. LAFC will have a better season.
Los Angeles FC
- The DPs: So far LAFC has Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela, and it looks like Andre Horta will be joining them as well. Rossi is just 19 but stands to make a big impact, Vela is a known quantity on the wing, and Horta will solidify the midfield. It’s a great combination of youth and experience with a mix of positions to create a strong core for LAFC.
- Trading for Benny Feilhaber: I’m not the biggest Feilhaber fan and definitely liked him less as he picked up the hacking habits of Sporting KC, but he makes things happen and should work very well in the LAFC wheelhouse. He can play as a playmaker or deep-lying attacker for Bob Bradley, and if paired with Horta will create some magic. He’s not the only KC player joining the expansion side, with Latif Blessing also making the switch.
- Trading for CBs: It cost a lot of allocation money and two expansion draft picks, but LAFC grabbed two MLS Defender of the Year candidates, Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman, to solidify their backline. Not having to worry about his CB pairing is a big win for Bradley.
2017 record: Undefeated
2018 outlook: I’m calling it now — they’ll be the better LA team. In fact, I predict that they’ll make the playoffs in their first year of competition and will be drawing comparisons to Atlanta for best expansion team. Bob Bradley’s side may be waiting until the last minute to finish signing players to their roster, but they’ll fill their remaining spots with a mix veterans and youth. They’ll have growing pains, but are slowly building a good roster, and it might even get Aaron Kovar some minutes.
- Matt Lampson trade: There is no way around it, Minnesota had a bad first year, particularly in defense. Bobby Shuttleworth played in 34 of the 36 matches in goal, and while he wasn’t 100% at fault for a league-worst 70 goals against, it’s hard to keep a starting position after that. Chicago wanted to move up in the draft and gave United Lampson, the 15th pick and allocation in exchange. If Lampson organizes a better defense, this trade was worth it. If Minnesota ever uses the allocation, this trade was worth it.
- Cameroonian signings: As stated above, Minnesota needed defensive help, and they bolstered their backline with a 24-year old Cameroonian international. Bertrund Owundi Eko’o joined from Rainbow FC; at 6’2” he should give the Minnesota defense the intimidation factor they were missing in 2017. Frantz Pangop, another 24-year old Cameroonian, is coming in as well as an attacker. Pangop only has a couple of senior national team appearances but scored in his first cap, which was against Algeria in a World Cup Qualifier. Pangop should put some life into an largely lifeless attack around Christian Ramirez.
- Loaning in Luiz Fernando: Every part of MNUFC needed an upgrade, with Ramirez and Ibson the only players that really stood out in the inaugural season. Luiz Fernando is a 22-year old Brazilian joining on loan from Fluminense FC, with an option to buy. He should provide solid depth in the center of the park. Coach Adrian Heath hopes that Ibson, a legend in Brazil, is able to help Fernando get comfortable with the side immediately.
2017 record: 36 points, 10-18-6; 9th in the West
2018 outlook: In the standings they could be worse, but overall with how poorly they started last season, it is hard to imagine the Loons will have a rougher go of it this year. They still haven’t really made large impactful moves since joining MLS, so it’s likely going to be a long road for the Loons again this year.
- Trading Darlington Nagbe: Nagbe was a key player for the Timbers ever since he was drafted in 2011. It was going to take a lot for Portland to move on, and $1.65m in allocation is a lot. The team was coming off a first place finish in the West and is only a few years removed from an MLS Cup victory, so they didn’t need to make a major move. That said, Nagbe has probably maxed out his potential and Portland got a great deal. They have the midfielders and the creators to replace him, but who will replace him in the locker room?
- Signing Cristhian Paredes: Paredes might be that replacement, at least on the field. The 19-year old hasn’t seen much playing time since joining Club America and his move to Portland is just a loan with an option to buy, but the Paraguayan has a lot of potential. He’ll probably be the understudy for Diego Chara and David Guzman.
- Gio Savarese in, Caleb Porter out: The biggest change of the offseason for Portland was moving on from Caleb Porter. After a return the top of the West in 2017, a reported disagreement led to the coach and club mutually agreeing to part ways. Whatever actually happened between him and GM Galvin Wilkinson is not entirely clear, but the result is that Giovanni Savarese is now the head coach of the Timbers. The Venezuelan rode the tidal wave that was the NY Cosmos for five seasons. He is a highly regarded coach who, like Porter, is being given high expectations. Porter won MLS Coach of the Year in his inaugural season, which sets the bar particularly high for Savarese.
2017 record: 53 points, 15-11-8; 1st in the West
2018 outlook: It all depends on how the players gel with their new coach. The faster they all get on the same page, the better Portland can be. Portland has a good roster, but the chemistry with a new coach and their defense are still questionable. I expect the roller coaster to continue and for our neighbors to the south to miss the playoffs.
- Retaining Brooks Lennon: The winger left for Liverpool, then returned on loan, and now is permanently back with Real Salt Lake. The 20-year-old made 25 appearances for Salt Lake last year, and although he didn’t make a major impact, he showed a lot of potential. Another year with Mike Petke, one that isn’t a disaster at the start, should turn him into an above-average winger.
- Signing Damir Kreilach: Union Berlin’s dynamic center mid put up 33 goals in a 147 matches, all in the German second division. The Croatian should pair well with Albert Rusnak to take on some of the playmaking duties while opening the space for speedy players like Joao Plata. Kreilach fits the role Petke needed to fill, and if he plays like he did in Berlin, RSL will have a strong attack.
- Keeping their veterans: Some teams saw their veterans leave either for other teams or just not find a new contract, and while that is true for some of from Salt Lake (namely Chris Wingert and Chad Barrett), RSL retained their top two free agents. Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando signed new contracts to stay with the team they’ve led for over a decade. Both are major locker room guys and set the tone for that team, and while Beckerman specifically is not as strong of a player as he used to be, he’s still an MLS starter.
2017 record: 45 points, 13-15-6; 8th in the West
2018 outlook: 39 of Salt Lake’s 45 points were earned in the 28 games Mike Petke was in charge for, going 12-13-3. While it still isn’t the best record, they would’ve made the playoffs comfortably as the six seed if they had earned that many points per game over the full season. Petke had his team playing great soccer, especially later in the season, and he didn’t lose any of his top contributors. This RSL side was a team you did not want to face at the end of the season as they only got better. I expect that they’ll make the playoffs this year and probably host a game.
- Signing Magnus Eriksson: San Jose was tied for third worst attack in MLS in 2017, only scoring 39 goals, but somehow still scraped into the playoffs. Colorado and DC United were the only worse squads at finding the back of the net. Naturally that meant bring in a new forward, and Ericksson is a big pick up. The Swede is a left footed striker who lead the Allsvenskan in goals last year with 14. He’s 27 and should give new manager Mikael Stahre a great option up top.
- Yeferson Quintana in: On top of how bad their offense was last year, San Jose was also the fourth-worst defense in MLS, allowing 60 goals, by far the worst of any playoff team. The next worst playoff team was Portland, which gave up 50 goals. Quintata, a 21-year-old Uruguayan, is being loaned from Penarol for the season to solidify the back line. There’s no guarantee he’ll make it better, but he can’t make it worse.
- A long list of departures: The Earthquakes moved on from a lot of players: Victor Bernandez, David Bingham, Cordell Cato, Darwin Ceren, Simon Dawkins, and Marco Urena all played starting roles at one point and have left the club. Outside of the two signings noted above, SJ has replaced these mostly with homegrown and NASL/USL signings, with only Joel Qwiberg joining from a newly promoted first division Swedish side. How the new team fits together will be interesting.
2017 record: 46 points, 13-14-7; 6th in the West, made the playoffs on a tiebreaker
2018 outlook: Eriksson should help improve San Jose’s attack, but if the chances aren’t supplied, as they weren’t last year, then it will not really make a difference. The defense has two new guys from the Allsvenskan and a new goalkeeper, so it likely will take a couple months for that group to really get used to playing together. San Jose made the playoffs last year, but they really shouldn’t have, and they likely won’t in 2018.
Sporting Kansas City
- New DP, Yohan Croizet: The French midfielder gives SKC a dynamic attacker who can play anywhere across the midfield. Croizet adds a lot of flexibility for Vermes with his ability to play on the wing or in the center of the park, which provides a different aspect to the attack than SKC has had. Croizet also says he’s excited to play in their press system.
- A Second New DP, Felipe Gutierrez: The Chilean center midfielder is joining SKC from Real Betis in La Liga after spending most of his career in the top Chilean league. The seasoned international can play as a defensive mid or box-to-box mid, which means he’s a good match for Vermes’ system. He’s likely to be a physical force and will probably quickly fit into their press, possess, and foul system.
- Trading Benny Feilhaber: It was a big move, but KC’s two DP signings take away any negative impact from trading him to LAFC. Feilhaber is now 33 and they were able to get $400k in mixed allocation for him. That’s a great deal for SKC, who cleared cap space, got allocation, and set themselves up with DPs.
2017 record: 49 points, 12-9-13; 5th in the West
2018 outlook: Sporting Kansas City is always a tough matchup and now they got younger on the field and have a better training facility. Two DPs, some good in-league signings (Brad Evans and Khiry Shelton), and some other foreign signings mean SKC has had a great offseason. They traded away Saad Abdul-Salaam, lost Latif Blessing in the expansion draft, and were unable to agree to a new contract with Erik Palmer-Brown, but very few key players left and those who did were replaced. SKC should again be a playoff team.
- Trading for Kei Kamara: Vancouver thought they had solved their striker issue last season with Fredy Montero, but Carl Robinson seemed hesitant at times to play Montero and tried to use him as a target forward, which he’s not. It didn’t work and now he’s gone, so they replaced him with Kei Kamara. This is Kamara’s third team in three seasons, and ever since he became a DP he has seemed to be more of a headache than he’s worth. Kamara fits the style of player that Robinson uses tactically, but that doesn’t guarantee success.
- TAM signings: Kamara isn’t the only new striker applying his trade in BC. Anthony Blondell, a big bodied Venezuelan 23-year old, was also signed. He put up a lot of goals with Monagas in the Venezuelan Primera Division. Efrain Juarez, a Mexican RB and midfielder, joined the Whitecaps after four years with Monterrey. Juarez has played RB most of his career and has struggled to see the field the few seasons in Liga MX, but Vancouver thought highly enough to bring him in as a TAM player.
- Lost starters: David Ousted and Montero are the biggest names to leave the club, with Ousted being allowed to go after losing his starting spot, while Montero returned to China after his loan expired and was then transferred to Sporting Clube de Portugal. Matias Laba, Nosa, Mauro Rosales and Sheanon Williams all left the club, as well. Vancouver brought in a handful of players to replace their lost starters, but aside from the new signings mentioned above none will likely make a large impact.
2017 record: 52 points, 15-12-7; 3rd in the West
2018 outlook: Vancouver had a good roster in 2017, but it got a little weaker in 2018. They should be better than they are, but Carl Robinson makes questionable tactical decisions. He now has players that will better fit his system, but the overall quality of the roster took a step back. I don’t expect Vancouver to make a return to the playoffs in 2018, but they should put a fight.