2011 Western Conference preview: RSL, L.A. head another deep field
Western Conference houses the past two MLS Cup champions
The Galaxy will need Juan Pablo Angel to replace Edson Buddle's strike rate
Expansion franchises Portland and Vancouver make their debuts in 2011
Just as was the case last season, the West in MLS appears to be the stronger of the two conferences. Not only does it contain the presence of the past two MLS Cup champions (Real Salt Lake in 2009 and Colorado in 2010), it also has the past two runner-ups in the Galaxy and FC Dallas. This season's addition of expansion franchises Portland and Vancouver add even more intrigue to the West as their heated Northwest soccer rivalry with Seattle will resume.
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish
1. REAL SALT LAKE
2010 Record: 15-4-11, 56 points, plus-25 goal difference
Prominent comings and goings: Not much changed around the league's current rock of roster stability. The offseason was mostly spent re-signing key players or extending contracts. Arturo Alvarez was claimed on the cheap. Otherwise this is more or less the same team that won it all two years ago and is nearly identical to the side that finished second in the West last year.
The good, bad and noteworthy: RSL is the first MLS team to advance into the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. The men from Rio Tinto meet Costa Rican power Saprissa over two legs in March and early April. ... Three players return from MLS Best 11 seasons: center backs Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave and playmaker Javier Morales. In goal, the Galaxy's Donovan Ricketts claimed Best 11 honors -- but plenty of ballots checked the box next to RSL's Nick Rimando for his outstanding season. ... Jason Kreis remains the youngest coach to claim an MLS title but is no longer the youngest coach overall; D.C. United's Ben Olsen now wears that badge.
The man who matters: Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio was MLS Newcomer of the Year in 2010, hitting for a team-leading 12 goals. Armed with a year of MLS experience and a new deal that makes him, officially, a designated player, Saborio appears set for bigger things still.
Bottom line: Last year's surprising first-round playoff loss to Dallas provided ample motivation for the preseason. On the other hand, Kreis has already expressed reservations about the burdens of expectation for his talented club; With a potential place in the FIFA Club World Cup (for the Champions League winner), and a professed intent to take the U.S. Open Cup more seriously this go-round, there's a lot dangling out there for RSL.
2. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
2010 Record: 18-7-5, 59 points, plus-18 GD
Prominent comings and goings: Juan Pablo Angel's move from New York to Los Angeles (in the league's first re-entry draft) was a huge offseason story. The veteran Colombian is an upgrade from Edson Buddle -- so long as he remains healthy. At age 35 that's no slam dunk. Even with Angel's addition the team got a little younger; Chris Klein and Eddie Lewis retired, while Dema Kovalenko wasn't invited back. Buddle's departure (to Ingolstadt in Germany) would be a pressure point but for Angel's arrival. And finally, L.A. is Chad Barrett's latest chance to prove himself a reliable forward.
The good, bad and noteworthy: This is probably David Beckham's last shot at MLS hardware; he is entering the last season of his landmark five-year deal. There's no question that Beckham's acquisition in 2007 has succeeded on the first intent, to ramp up MLS buzz. But the Galaxy had something else in mind, too: trophies. On this account, Beckham's failure to produce is difficult to conceal. ... Don't be surprised to see young Brazilian midfielder Juninho in a slightly more defensive role. He did well in limited time last year in more recessed areas. ... The team has depth on the back line and at forward, where Barrett, Mike Magee, Bryan Jordan and others will compete for the spot alongside Angel. (Unless Donovan plays there, which is possible.)
The man who matters: Beckham always gets the buzz, but this has long been Landon Donovan's team. The country's top player took a true winter respite for the first time since 2008-09, so he's fresh and eager. Donovan would love to repeat or top last year's assist total (a league-leading 16) while adding a few more goals (he had 7). In preseason Donovan played a variety of roles: as a left-sided midfielder, a second forward and as the offensive fulcrum beneath two strikers in a 4-3-1-2 arrangement.
Bottom line: Given Beckham's contract status and Angel's age, plus Gregg Berhalter's age, this year may be it for this version of the Galaxy. Significant changes are probably on the way next year, so it's MLS Cup or bust for L.A.
3. COLORADO RAPIDS
2010 Record: 12-8-10, 46 points, plus-12 GD
Prominent comings and goings: This was a quiet offseason for the league champs, with only some reinforcements added for depth. Midfielder Sanna Nyassi will offer a change of pace on the right side. And veteran center back Tyrone Marshall will provide able cover for center backs Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne.
The good, bad and noteworthy: It seems counterintuitive, but most observers still fancy Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles in the West -- never mind that Colorado lifted the MLS Cup less than four months ago in Toronto. ... Veteran midfielder Pablo Mastroeni knows he'll have to parcel out the minutes carefully this year since Colorado could have 40-45 competitive matches through the season. That's a lot to ask of a 34-year-old central midfielder. ... Moor didn't get the attention of fellow Rocky Mountain men Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers at RSL, but he put together a substantial season. Moor played every minute of the regular season and the playoffs and he was an underrated element on the road to Colorado's first MLS Cup.
The man who matters: Conor Casey gets more press, probably because he's American or maybe because he looks like an MMA brawler. Still, Omar Cummings is the true danger man around DSG Park in suburban Denver. The speedy Jamaican international has 22 goals and 15 assists over the last two years. His slashing, diagonal runs are the perfect complement for the Casey's blunt force ways.
Bottom line: If Mastroeni remains healthy alongside Jeff Larentowicz, the Rapids' hardworking, hard-tackling midfield will make life hard on opposition once again. Still, it's hard to sneak up on teams when you play with the silver ball (the reigning MLS champs always use the special silver ball at home). How difficult is it to repeat? It has happened before in MLS, but only once since 1997.
4. FC DALLAS
2010 Record: 12-4-14, 50 points, plus-14 GD
Prominent comings and goings: It was a strangely staid offseason in terms of replacing key components, especially before the announced signing of 18-year-old striker Fabian Castillo on March 7. A member of Colombia's under-20 side, Castillo was also apparently a target of Portuguese power Benfica. Dax McCarty, a major reason Dallas made it to the league championship game, got away with zero compensation. Atiba Harris was plucked in the expansion draft, Heath Pearce was traded away and Jeff Cunningham's option was declined. No one around the team seems too upset about Cunningham's exit; his goal scoring will probably be replaced so long as league MVP David Ferreira keeps breaking down defenses and arranging the pretty setups. Midfielder Andrew Jacobson and goalkeeper Chris Seitz were added from Philadelphia.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Dallas has quite a history with Colombian players (like Castillo). Leonel Alvarez may still be the best player to wear an FC Dallas shirt. Juan Toja and Oscar Pareja (now a valued assistant at Pizza Hut Park) were plucked from Colombia, as were Ferreira, striker Milton Rodriguez and left back Jair Benitez. ... The speedy Castillo will probably miss about six weeks while away at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. ... Former Chivas USA striker Maykel Galindo remains in camp on trial. ... Injuries bit both starting center backs in preseason, so goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, 36, needs to be as sharp as he was in last year's sensational season.
The man who matters: Since getting his feet set over the first few months of 2009 (his first MLS season) no playmaker has done it better than Ferreira. Beyond his assists (13 last year, second in MLS) his goals tend to be important ones. Ferreira struck for eight in each of the past two seasons.
Bottom line: Dallas lost three starters plus Cunningham, a lot of turnover for a team that came so close to winning it all. It's a bad year to lose so much firepower, as the West clearly looks stronger than the East this year. A lot appears to be riding on an 18-year-old talent who has yet to play a minute (Castillo).