MLS Western Conference preview (cont.)
5. SEATTLE SOUNDERS
2010 Record: 14-10-6, 48 points, plus-4 GD
Prominent comings and goings: The club lost several complementary parts or tier-2 starters (Sanna Nyassi, Nate Sturgis, Peter Vagenas and Tyrone Marshall) but retained the important core. Danny Earls, O'Brian White and draft pick Michael Tetteh will compete for backup roles, but it would have been nice to see Sigi Schmid and Co. reinforce some of the outside spots.
The good, bad and noteworthy: The team had trouble finishing in preseason. Sound familiar? It certainly will to Sounders fans, who watched their side created chances in sufficient quantity in 2010 only to flail and fail too frequently inside the penalty area. No member of the "big four" around Qwest -- Blaise Nkufo, Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani and Alvaro Fernandez -- has scored during the run of play in preseason. Alarming? You bet. Because at some point, the hollow cries of "It's just preseason," doesn't cut it. ... At the other end, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's return after an injury-interrupted 2010 will surely help. Behind him, goalkeeper Kasey Keller (recently turned 42) had a couple of uncharacteristic wobbles in 2010 but was otherwise effective.
The man who matters: The talk of Fredy Montero as league MVP reached a crescendo in late July, but died a long, slow and pitiful death afterward. Frankly, the young Colombian disappeared down the stretch. With apologies to Zakuani and Nkufo, as Montero goes, so goes the Sounders' offense.
Bottom line: All that fantastic support in Seattle goes hand in hand with pressure to perform. So it looks like a critical year for Schmid and for the current roster core. The club's expansion season (2009) was a surprising success. But there was zero progress in 2010, so improvement this go-round is essential. Short of that, changes could be on the way. Because the additions of expansion sides in Portland and Vancouver will add even more pressure; it's gonna get hot in the Pacific Northwest kitchen, for sure.
6. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
2010 Record: 13-10-7, 46 points, plus-1 GD
Prominent comings and goings: The exit door got a workout in the offseason. Arturo Alvarez and Joe Cannon were claimed in the expansion draft. And the club declined options on Geovanni (a Designated Player last year), Eduardo and Cornell Glen. Steven Lenhart and a few draft picks were the only notable additions. On the other hand, coach Frank Yallop is one who makes liberal use of the summer transfer window, so check back in July.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Yallop's plan for 2011 took a minor hit when Lenhart underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in early March. He is expected to miss the first week or two of the season, at least. Lenhart was a starter last year for Columbus but probably known more for his reckless, relentless style than for steady production (13 goals in 63 matches at Columbus). His injury probably means more early playing time for Ryan Johnson. ... Ike Opara's rookie season was on the right track but limited to 11 games due to a season-ending injury. His return to health for 2011 gives Yallop the option of using Brandon McDonald in the midfield. ... You don't hear a lot about Jason Hernandez, but he's a steady MLS center back. If Opara returns to pre-injury form (and there's no reason to think he can't), the center back position should be among the league's deepest, with Bobby Burling and McDonald competing for spots as well. ... With McDonald, Sam Cronin, Brad Ring and Khari Stephenson, Yallop has good options (but no great ones) for center midfield.
The man who matters: One of the truly intriguing questions of MLS 2011 revolves around Chris Wondolowski, who broke from the ranks of the anonymous to claim Major League Soccer's Golden Boot last year -- surely the most unlikely scoring champ in 15 MLS seasons. So, was it a one-year aberration or does the Earthquakes' attacker have it in him again? A good year of service from Bobby Convey would help tons.
Bottom line: There wasn't much of an offseason improvement initiative around Buck Shaw. Last year's attack was far too reliant on Wondolowski, who practically carried the team into a playoff appearance. Yallop simply must turn up a secondary threat, something that won't be easy without a true creator around.
7. PORTLAND TIMBERS
2010 Record: N/A (Expansion season)
Prominent comings and goings: The roster is entirely new. Names to watch include Kenny Cooper, a consistent scorer for FC Dallas before two lost years in Europe, dynamic rookie Darlington Nagbe, former D.C. United defender Rodney Wallace and former Red Bull New York fullback Jeremy Hall.
The good, bad and noteworthy: If there was any doubt about Portland as a soccer town, fans erased them by snapping up 12,000 season tickets for the newly remodeled, downtown PGE Park. ... Coach John Spencer, an assistant for several successful seasons in Houston, says he doesn't intend to nurse along Nagbe, the league's No. 2 overall draft pick. Nagbe can play as much as likes, so long as he earns it, Spencer said. ... Nagbe will, however, miss the first game or two while recovering from surgery to correct a sports hernia. ... Several reports, unconfirmed by the club, say the Timbers are negotiating with Argentine playmaker Marcos Flores, now pulling the strings for Australia's Adelaide United.
The man who matters: For all the press headed toward Cooper and Nagbe, this side will only find success in 2011 if goalkeeper Troy Perkins can be better than in a failed stint with D.C. United. He appears to have it in him. After all, Perkins was third in the U.S. national team pecking order not so long ago. He lost his place at D.C. United midseason last year after a series of costly blunders.
Bottom line: Spencer insists that his team's goal, like pretty much every other club, is to make the playoffs. Seattle did so as an expansion side in 2009, but that was more "exception" than "rule" around MLS. Every other expansion side since 1998 has dragged the bottom in its first year. The Timbers will challenge for a postseason berth in 2011 only if Cooper or Nagbe can have a huge year.
8. CHIVAS USA
2010 Record: 8-18-4, 28 points, minus-14 GD
Prominent comings and goings: The personnel changes are vast, but the one key fortification was at the end of the bench. Robin Fraser, a respected, high-value target among the league's assistant coaching ranks, now gets his chance in charge. The former No. 2 at Real Salt Lake wasn't shy about turning over the roster. Incoming talent includes veteran target man Alejandro Moreno, decorated center back Jimmy Conrad, young attacker Tristan Bowen, draftee Zarek Valentin and U.S. international Heath Pearce. Pearce is a real steal, filling the big void left by Jonathan Bornstein's departure.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Fraser is the team's third head coach in three year following Martin Vasquez's one-year run in 2010. ... There were times in the dismal 2010 campaign when Justin Braun was about all Chivas had, attack-wise. So it was a real blight on preseason prep that the fringe U.S. international missed the first few weeks, still recovering from an Achilles problem picked up in the January national team camp. The team's leading scorer last year (nine goals) didn't get into a preseason contest until March 8. ... Braun's absence showed as Chivas struggled to produce goals all preseason.
The man who matters: Conrad has always been a fellow of good humor, and he never dogged out Sporting Kansas City for letting him go in the offseason. Still, you have to think that's a big motivational burr in his shorts. He needs a big year in terms of performance and leadership. That's a big ask at age 34.
Bottom line: This is a side that never has formed a true identity. Fraser wants to build one around defense that's tough, smart and technically proficient -- a little like he was back in his playing days. Still, it's a long road, probably more than a one-year fix, especially on the attack.
9. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS
2010 Record: N/A (Expansion season)
Prominent comings and goings: U.S. international center back Jay DeMerit highlights another new roster. Atiba Harris (from Dallas), Joe Cannon (San Jose) and John Thorrington (Chicago) were all former starters gathered in the expansion draft.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Say this for Whitecaps officials: They won't be rushed into imprudent personnel choices. With just 17 players signed for coach Teitur Thordarson as of March 8, this is the league's thinnest roster at the moment. ... If only the team were as strong elsewhere as it is at center back, where DeMerit will be on patrol next to former D.C. United man Greg Janicki. ... Just how good is the Swiss Super League? We'll know more soon, because Whitecaps technical director Tom Soehn, formerly the coach at D.C. United and now in charge of building Vancouver's side, plucked three players from Switzerland's top tier. ... FIFA rules say Omar Salgado, the league's No. 1 draft pick, can only play for the reserve side until his 18th birthday in September (because he was signed by a team outside his home country.) ... The Whitecaps will play at 27,000-seat Empire Field pending completion of a $563 million renovation to BC Place.
The man who matters: It took until early March for the Whitecaps to sign their first DP, veteran Swiss striker Eric Hassli. Once a consistent scorer for FC Zurich, he's been at relatively low ebb since a leg break in September 2009. At his best, he hit 21 times over 34 games in Zurich's title run in 2008-09. (Whitecaps teammate Alain Rochat was a member of that side, too.)
Bottom line: It's hard to see much initial success given the lack of depth, the current reliance on talent from U.S. Soccer's second tier and an alarming lack of attacking muscle. Vancouver's choice to build patiently might have been easier for fans to swallow but for one mitigating factor: MLS is about to pull the pin on a powerful, three-way Pacific Northwest rivalry. Portland's simultaneous arrival and the bitter border rivalry with Seattle adds pressure that could potentially alter the calculus of it all.
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