It’s taken me by surprise but as we’re less than a week away from the first kick of the 2019 MLS season, it seemed like an appropriate time to analyze the rest of the Western Conference and how Marc Dos Santos’s rebuild (or expansion side as some have coined it) stacks up against the opposition. No side has seen as big an overhaul as the ‘Caps but, even though I’ll probably pay for this later, by analyzing coaching, strength of XIs, and acquisitions, I offer my best attempt at how the Western Conference will look come October: and where our ‘Caps fit into it.
Below are both my predictions and analysis of the Wild, Wild West.
(1) PORTLAND TIMBERS
Another rival. 1st. You hate to see it, but you see it often as a ‘Caps fan. Despite an aging core Giovanni Savarese hasn’t blown things up this offseason, but rightfully so. Uncertainty can often come with hiring a new head coach, yet Savarese guided the Timbers to MLS Cup final from their 5th place finish. The Timbers have made a sneaky addition in the loan deal for Paraguayan right back Jorge Moreira of River Plate, but it’s their Front Office’s ambition to sign a Designated Player number 9 in the recent weeks that puts them above a brilliant Kansas City side for me. A deal is unlikely before this window closes, but expect an addition in the summer that guides them to the top of the West.
With right back and a potential striker addition, there’s not really a weak spot anywhere in Portland’s XI. And they have considerable depth. Jeremey Ebobisse and Dairon Asprilla both looked good at the end of last year, and Zarek Valentin and Bill Tulioma provide more than capable defensive reinforcements. Should Portland be able to sign one of their targets (Eduardo Vargas, Ezequiel Ponce) or players of that calibre (Dario Benedetto, Nicolas González) they’d have the quality that should put them top of the table. And I hate to say it, but I expect they will.
(2) SPORTING KANSAS CITY
They were only going to fall so far. Peter Vermes’s side seems impeccable as always but, on paper, it has actually gotten weaker. Ike Opara was sent packing to Minnesota for nearly a million in allocation, and Diego Rubio off to Colorado in a three way trade for Kelyn Rowe. Nevertheless they don’t fall down much. Even after three months away from the pitch they looked sharp in a 3-0 win over Toluca FC in the CONCACAF Champions League this past Thursday, with Krisztián Németh appearing an adequate plug for the Diego Rubio shaped hole left at number 9: maybe.
Johnny Russell and Gerso Fernandes look good on the wings, but my gut doubt still rests with that striker position. While there’s plenty of reason to believe they’re capable of topping the West, I expect growing pains of a new Besler-Fontàs centre half pairing and a lack of star power up top to breakdown other top teams will result in them underperforming at times. For these reasons, they miss out on top spot.
(3) SEATTLE SOUNDERS
Sounders fans likely don’t know whether to be satisfied with retaining most of their strong roster or disappointed no rumoured acquisitions came to fruition. Nonetheless they held on to Nouhou despite various European clubs interest, Jordan Morris is healthy, and they have a full season of Raúl Ruidíaz.
Ozzie Alonso’s departure for Minnesota in free agency is the biggest headline. Alonso was, however you feel about him as a rival fan, amazing at what he did. His passing and distribution were top class, and if anything will rock the Sounders down, it’s his absence. Otherwise I don’t actually anticipate them to have a slow start.
Rodriguez and Morris should start as wingers with Lodeiro in the hole. Svensson and Roldan will remain the defensive midfielders. The backline looks decent with Marshall and Kee-Hee in the middle and a left back battle between Smith and Nouhou. I expect one of those two will leave in the summer, and the Sounders to bring in a TAM replacement. They were linked with Peruvian international Miguel Trauco over the winter; a signing like that should signal another deep playoff run.
The only good news for ‘Caps fans is that Gareth Lagerway and Co. don’t look like they’ll sign a DP or splash big on the TAM this year. They’ll still finish above us, but who else can’t wait to see Fredy Montero dunk on his former team again?
(4) LOS ANGELES FC
Bob Bradley’s side will experience an early sophomore slump in 2019: failure to add a DP/TAM quality defensive midfielder will mean their defensive problems carry over from their inaugural season. Returning from injury, Mark Anthony Kaye will help, but the club still conceded plenty even before the Canadian international’s injury last summer.
LAFC managed to re-sign Walker Zimmerman to a 4-year TAM deal despite interest from Mexico (Club América) and Germany (Stuttgart, Hannover). Longtime El Salvadorian talisman Rodolfo Zelaya finally gets his entrance to MLS as he replaces Marco Ureña for the Black and Gold. They’ve also brought in talented Columbian youth Eddie Segura and resigned Danilo Silva for CBs, with Canadian Dejan Jakovic getting a second stint as well. Ex Real Sociedad B keeper Pablo Sisniega is another intriguing depth pickup with a high ceiling.
Nevertheless I don’t expect them to excel as well in 2019, not at first. They’ll likely stumble in the early months hovering around mid-table, but their talented FO will turn things around in the summer. In the end they’ll make the playoffs, but 4th is as far as they’ll go. They’d drop lower, but the West’s playoff qualification will once again be like a generous bell-curve: To pass it’s really not about succeeding, it’s just about holding it together better than the rest.
(5) LOS ANGELES GALAXY
The Galaxy may have something like four head coaches still on payroll, but they finally got their man in Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Zlatan is also back after his 22 goals last season, and pressure from a multitude of European interest this winter renegotiated the Swede to a 7+ million a year contract. With Zlatan back and the tactical upgrade at coach they’ve addressed two of the biggest worries this winter. The defence, however, remains yet to be determined.
Schelotto has brought in 27-year-old Uruguayan centre half Diego Polenta in replacement of the departed Michael Ciani, but nothing else has changed. Rolf Fletcher is back on a new, discounted deal, and Jørgen Skjelvik’s one million dollar deal shouldn’t leave much wiggle room. They always seem to find a way though, as it appears the Galaxy will enter the MLS season with four designated players after the MLS board allegedly met to restructure Giovani dos Santos’s contract. They’ve been linked with Costa Rican centre back Giancarlo Gonzalez of Bologna, and Ricardo Centurión of Racing Club (could be catastrophic but amazing to watch). Expect additions in some way, shape, or form.
Regardless of the defensive issues, such as the shaky partnership of Perry Kitchen and Jonathon Dos Santos in defensive midfield, I expect they’ll make the playoffs. They always find a way to skirt the rules, MLS won’t let them miss the playoffs a third time, and they’ll score their way to victory. Their main opponents for a playoff place – Houston, Minnesota, and Vancouver – each have their own handicaps too. However LA get there, it’ll be damn good entertainment.
(6) HOUSTON DYNAMO
Houston will once again take advantage of a strange season in the West. Attack produced their best assets last year, racking up an above-average 58 goals in the league, and retaining Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas, despite interest from Turkey and Portugal respectively, should ensure they continue that success up front. The additions of Aljaž Struna and Mayor Figueroa (no love lost with FC Dallas) at centre back and the return of defensive midfielder Juan David Cabezas from injury should help solidify the backline.
The Dynamo looked decent against C.D. Guastatoya in Champions League action last week. Beasley appears to be going strong and Adam Lunqvist will be happy to steal minutes when he needs rest. Another young Argentine midfielder, Matias Vera, has been added following a transfer from San Lorenzo. Overall they’ve just strengthened everywhere. Only thing that could go wrong is the possible scenario that Elis is sold in the summer. My gut feeling is he won’t be though, so they stay at 6th.
Feel good about H-Town. They’re my 2019 sleeper pick.
(7) VANCOUVER WHITECAPS
I almost had you. No seriously, despite all the uncertainty with regard to the roster and how successful MDS will be at implementing his tactics I do believe the ‘Caps will make the playoffs. But just narrowly.
Expect a slow start though and a lot of growing pains, particularly in the midfield. To play the high press MDS wants, with it’s reliance on the midfielders to both control possession and start the attack, is going to take time. But we’ll get there in the end, likely in the summer when I’m expecting we’ll start to see the efforts properly translate into consistent results. Minnesota will suffer as we beat them out for the final spot.
The attack compares well to the rest of the conference following Montero’s return. He’s an absolute steal on less than 1.5 million, and he’ll be the x-factor going on to once again break his MLS scoring record and bag 15+ goals for us. Lass Bangoura will be really fun to watch. Watch for Hwang, Erice, and Felipe to contribute as much going forward as back in the MDS system.
The defence is the liability, and it’s what’ll keep us supporters on our toes all season. Should the defence be strong, expect the ‘Caps to comfortably qualify and challenge for the top three, but I don’t think that’ll be the case. Henry can be quality and we all know what Nerwinski can do, but both can be inconsistent and there is no defensive leader. Godoy’s a bright pickup, but the left back situation remains worrisome. To offer some positivity Crépeau has looked good.
I’m imprudently optimistic though. MDS is much more than a young and up ’n’ coming manager and has proved in the past he can make a lot of what, on paper, appears little. The summer window will also likely see Vancouver add: more likely starters than depth. Be patient Vancouver, it’s going to be a bumpy ride but there’s an end product worth waiting for.
Playoffs. And Good Football. Who knew?
(8) MINNESOTA UNITED
Closest to the ‘Caps, in terms of blowing up their roster, has been Minnesota. They’ve brought in five starters already. To the surprise of many Adrian Heath and company were not fired this winter and have been allowed to reshape the roster. Much like Orlando allowing Jason Kreis to architect the Lions rebuild despite his lack of success, I believe this will prove to be a mistake.
Ozzie Alonso has been the marquee addition, signing a TAM deal in free agency, and his skillset will be integral for success. Ike Opara was traded from SKC for $900,000 in TAM with an additional conditional $100,000 should they make the playoffs. Outside of MLS players, they’ve imported French born Madagascar international Romain Métanire from Stade de Reims in Ligue 1 for right back, Slovakian international Ján Greguš as a Designated Player central midfielder from FC København, and former Arsenal keeper Vito Mannone on loan from Sunderland.
All appear good signings but it’s the gaffer Heath that remains Minnesota’s handicap. He hasn’t proven he has the tactical prowess to win in MLS through his tenure in both Orlando and Minnesota. They’ve signed good players this winter, but I have little confidence in his ability to make it gel. Also Alonso will be key, and his health is far from a guarantee. For these reasons, despite all the hype around them, I believe they’ll miss the playoffs.
(9) COLORADO RAPIDS
They’ve been busy up in the rockies this window, utilizing MLS’s funny-money and transfer mechanisms to bolster the squad with plenty of experienced MLS talent. Former New Zealand national team coach Anthony Hudson remains at the helm following their 11th place finish last season.
Benny Feilhaber joins from LAFC in free agency. Former Whitecaps Kei Kamara and Nico Mezquida join the Rapids from free agency and the trade for Zac MacMath respectively. Diego Rubio was acquired in a three way trade involving Edgar Castillo, and the club added Keegan Rosenberry after sending up to $300,000 in allocation to Philadelphia. All should help bolster hopes after Colorado’s lacklustre past season, some going far enough to say they’ll make the playoffs.
I’m not convinced though. As strong a base as Colorado has built, Tim Howard and Shkëlzen Gashi have had a hold on the Designated Player spots and cash for what seems like forever. Neither perform well and without talented tacticians like Vermes or Marsch, clubs just don’t make the playoffs without performing DPs. There’s a bright future in sight, but no playoffs for the Rapids this year.
(10) FC DALLAS
It’s fair to say FC Dallas haven’t had a great offseason and one can expect a subsequent fall from grace on the pitch. The culture will likely be broken there: Fernando Clavijo’s passing has shaken up the club in a very bad way, and Oscar “Papi” Pareja’s departure for Club Tijuana makes matters worse. The few signings they have made still don’t make up for the exodus of players that left over the winter.
The good news is Bryan Acosta. The 25-year-old Honduran attacking midfielder joins from CD Tenerife in Spain as a Designated Player and is likely the proper replacement for Mauro Diaz fans have been looking for. Additionally Dallas utilized TAM on centre forward Zdeněk Ondrášek and Brazilian defender Bressan. Both look to be decent additions.
Can they make up for the exodus though? It includes, to name a few, Maxi Urruti, Tesho Akindele, Victor Ulloa, Ronald Lamah, and Abel Aguilar. Most of all it’s Pareja though. He made that club tick like Vermes in Kansas and tactically outsmarted opponents. Dallas’ decision to not meet Tab Ramos’s salary demands and instead hire academy director Luchi Gonzalez could backfire. He may know Dallas, but has no coaching experience whatsoever. I don’t anticipate that to be a Chris Armas-esque transition. Expect a successful integration of youth products Pax Pomykal and Jesus Ferreria — and Bryan Acosta to be good – but no playoffs for Dallas in 2019.
(11) SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
Not a lot of people would have guessed the Bay Area as Matías Almeyda’s landing spot, but credit to the Quakes they beat a lot of teams to get him. Almeyda is a top coach, and his experience at Chivas seems perfect for tackling a small market club such as San Jose.
Wondo has returned, but Almeyda has brought in a number of signings already to supplement last year’s squad. Picking up Argentine keeper Daniel Vega from Miami FC is a stroke of genius in terms of cheap quick fixes, and the loan deals for talented youngster Cristian Espinoza from Villarreal CF and 25 year old Brazilian midfielder Judson from Tombense provide low risk, high reward options.
There haven’t been any splash signings yet, but it’ll be interesting to see how Almeyda fairs in Northern California. He’s a smart guy, and got a real challenge in cash-strapped San Jose. No playoffs for the Quakes this year, but they’ll have increased organization under Almeyda, a steady rebuild, and #WondoWatch to cheer for.
(12) REAL SALT LAKE
Somebody had to be last. It’s not a huge slight against RSL, but rather an indicator of the rapid growth taking place year after year in MLS. Mike Petke’s side was relatively quiet this winter, but it’s the front office’s classification of Designated Player that has me worried for Salt Lake fans.
The core of Beckerman, Rimando, Plata, and Rusnák remains, with Damir Kreilach and Nedem Onuoha back for sophomore seasons. The club added ex-Montréal and Orlando left back Donny Toia in the re-entry draft and signed five homegrown products to professional contracts. Their largest addition was Liberian international Sam Johnson who, despite only playing in Scandinavia and China, has been labelled as a Designated Player. No prejudice against those leagues, but a quick look into Johnson’s pedigree doesn’t justify anything close to a DP label. TAM money at best. For a small market club like RSL, you have to feel that’s a large chunk of their funds exhausted already.
RSL did well last year and had a fun playoff run after the Galaxy’s shock defeat to Houston on Decision Day gifted them the final playoff spot. I really like Mike Petke as a manger, and they have an okay squad. But it’s not great, not even good. And that just doesn’t cut it in MLS 3.0.
The West saw a relatively quiet winter window for last year’s playoff teams, and big shakeups for teams like LA, Minnesota, Colorado, and Vancouver, who missed out. I anticipate this to create a lot of parity and a rather chaotic season where coaching and tactics play a larger role than ever in determining success.
Clubs like Portland and Kansas are the clear leaders, but I expect everything from the 3rd – 9th spot to be really tight. As for the ‘Caps, even in Dos Santos’s first season, I expect MDS will be able to guide them past similarly rebuilding clubs Colorado and Minnesota with superior tactics and organization — and into the playoffs.
Anyway there you have it, an offseason round up and my table predictions for the 2019 West. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments and tweet us your own predictions!