2012 Western Conference preview: L.A., Seattle lead a strong field
Western Conference houses the past three MLS Cup champions
With the return of Edson Buddle, the Galaxy will have a fearsome forward line
Seattle lost Kasey Keller but still present the greatest obstacle to L.A.
Just as it was last season, the MLS West appears to be the healthier of the two conferences, containing the past three MLS Cup champions:
2012 WESTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish
1. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
2011 Record: 19-5-10, plus-20 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: Keeping David Beckham seemed like a long shot when Becks and Co. lifted the MLS Cup last November. But what d'ya know! Beckham and his golden right foot are back. Then the Galaxy held off the EPL wolves who hoped Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan might stamp "permanent move" onto their winter loan agreements. So while these weren't actual offseason acquisitions, it feels a bit like they are. Then in the rich-getting-richer department, Juninho suddenly became available anew; L.A. officials were resigned to the valuable central midfielder capping his loan and moving back to Brazil. Plus, Edson Buddle brought his scoring talents back to Southern California. With promising youngster Kyle Nagazawa (obtained in a trade from Philly) and Brazilian Marcelo Sarvas completing for midfield minutes, this train looks unstoppable. Meanwhile, first-round draft pick Tommy Meyer is challenging for a starting center-back role. To create salary room, the Galaxy shed pricey veteran backup luxuries Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter and Jovan Kirovski, and starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.
The good, bad and noteworthy: So long as David Beckham remains healthy, there's only one worry with this stacked side: the central defense won't be as strong, and there's no getting around it. Omar Gonzalez, 2011 MLS Defender of the Year, will be out until midseason or longer, recovering from a winter knee injury. The replacement options aren't bad, but none come close to matching the combined effect of Gonzalez's size, skill and anticipation. ... With Ricketts' departure, Josh Saunders is now the clear No. 1 in goal. He's been a great No. 2 for years. Everyone assumes Saunders can handle the additional weight of expectations, but he still must prove it. ... Donovan could miss a major chunk of time with U.S. qualifier duty and potential Olympic competition as well. Beckham may be tapped for Olympic preening, too, but the Galaxy depth is in place to deal with it. .... With all the noise over Beckham, Donovan, Keane, etc., it's easy to forget that trusty Todd Dunivant, the league's top left back in 2011, remains on the job.
The man who matters: There's so much to choose from here, but who can deny David Beckham's ongoing importance to the side? He'll be 37 soon, although that deep-lying playmaking role not only suits Beckham's skill set, it allows him to control the amount of running required. Besides, even if his legs lose just a wee bit of zip, those signature deadeye set-piece deliveries probably won't.
Bottom line: The Buddle and Juninho "additions" make Los Angeles the clear and away favorite to repeat. Given Major League Soccer's big playoff structural change (the title match will now be hosted by the contender with the best regular season record), there's a reasonable chance Arena's side will host a second consecutive MLS Cup. Beckham, Keane, Buddle and Donovan may well make up the best attacking foursome yet seen in MLS.
2. SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC
2011 Record: 18-7-9, plus-19 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: A big February talker was a trade that brought Eddie Johnson (yes, that Eddie Johnson, the former U.S. international recently back from his UK and Mexico wanderings) in exchange for Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle. Otherwise, Kasey Keller is no longer sentinel in Seattle goal; Austrian Michael Gspurning will try to fill those enormous shoes. Also new to the Sounders FC scene: an upgraded version of FieldTurf was recently installed; it's not grass, but it should be an improvement over the old stuff, which sometimes made games at CenturyLink Field more helter-skelter and possession-unfriendly than they needed to be.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Effectively, Steve Zakuani could be listed under "newcomers," having missed so much of 2011 after that terrible, notorious injury early in the campaign against Colorado. Finishing has been a habitual problem since the club's 2009 MLS debut. Hopes are high that a Johnson-Fredy Montero pairing can squash that particularly bothersome bug. ... The Sounders were undefeated in seven preseason matches, a real confidence boost going into March CONCACAF quarterfinal play. ... Montero is already great form. Coach Sigi Schmid says the DP forward's timing, instinct and work rate are already at top rev. ... Seattle management will open the entire stadium for Cascadia Cup matches, upping the ante around MLS and creating the likelihood of 64,000 green-clad screamers for matches against rivals Portland and Vancouver.
The man who matters: Fans and some media voices still label Osvaldo Alsonso as "underrated," although it's such a silly thing to say at this point. The Cuban harrier has climbed the ranks in three Sounders' seasons and now is regarded in some circles as the gold standard of MLS midfield ball winners. In addition to the dirty work of harassing, tackling and covering acres of ground, he gets forward to supply enough offense to be considered a threat, at least. Suffice to say, no central midfielder relishes a visit to CenturyLink Field with Alonso on the case.
Bottom line: If there's an MLS team built to challenge L.A., it's the one headquartered in downtown Seattle. Mauro Rosales, perhaps the biggest surprise in MLS last year for his brilliant work in Seattle's midfield, is back at a more commensurate salary. Montero, Rosales and Alonso bothl have Best XI potential, and the depth is in place to deal with the U.S. Open Cup (Seattle is three-time defending champion) and CONCACAF Champions League.
3. REAL SALT LAKE
2011 Record: 15-11-8, plus-8 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: The organization was delighted when Enzo Martinez, projected to be a top-10 draft pick, fell all the way to No. 17 at the MLS SuperDraft. Why the central midfielder (a member of the Generation adidas developmental program, whose salary won't count against the team's budget) dropped so far is anybody's guess. Either way, RSL was giddy to get him. The club isn't so happy to see club fixture Andy Williams retire and watch valued fullback Robbie Russell move to D.C. United. Dribbling specialist Arturo Alvarez, who couldn't establish a starting place in his latest MLS stop, left for Portugal.
The good, bad and noteworthy: Nick Rimando hasn't been around forever, it just seems that way. He's been a starting goalkeeper in MLS since 2000 (with the defunct Miami Fusion). Still, Rimando is just 32, with plenty of good years ahead. Based on a heroic performance last month in Panama for the U.S. national team, he's already in outstanding form. ... Speaking of national team material, no one has benefitted more than RSL's Kyle Beckerman from Jurgen Klinsmann's appointment as coach. Real's captain and midfield enforcer has become a Klinsmann favorite. ... Beckerman, center back Nat Borchers, attacking midfielder Javier Morales and striker Alvaro Saborio all dealt with preseason injuries; that deserves continued monitoring, considering the importance of each player to Real's ambitions.
The man who matters: This team stands and falls on about five guys, all roughly as important as the other. Between Rimando, Beckerman, Borchers, Morales and center back Jamison Olave, it's hard to finger the absolutely essential ingredient. So perhaps the real key man involved is someone who needs to elbow his way into that group of indispensables: Alvaro Saborio. The Costa Rican international had 11 goals and two assists in 2011, fairly good numbers, especially in an injury-dented season. On the other hand, less-expensive Fabian Espindola produced about the same for Real, albeit in a few more matches. If Saborio, one of RSL's Designated Players, can produce DP-like numbers, RSL becomes a more significant MLS Cup threat.
Bottom line: Right now, this is more or less the same Real Salt Lake that's been so strong over the last two years. But a couple of injuries could make things look a lot different, as "depth issues" continues to a troubling buzzword around Rio Tinto Stadium.
4. FC DALLAS
2011 Record: 15-12-7, plus-3 goal difference
Notable comings and goings: Management at (newly renamed) FC Dallas Stadium has fingers crossed that Panamanian striker Blas Perez can be the goal king so dearly and clearly missed over the last few years in North Texas. Another Panamanian newcomer, Carlos Rodriguez, has been unable to unseat Zach Loyd at right back. On the other hand, young Colombian center back Hernán Pertuz had a good preseason; he'll provide cover for George John, who seems determined to move overseas and could do so in the summer. The club traded speedy winger Marvin Chavez, then regretted the choice almost immediately when utility knife Jackson decided to remain in Brazil rather than return for a second season in Dallas.
The good, bad and noteworthy: David Ferreira made fans nervous during early preseason days, still not fully recovered 10 months after last year's ankle injury. But the 2010 MLS Most Valuable Player gained form as February turned to March, so hope persists that he can rise once again to former levels. ... Kevin Hartman, 37, still looks up for the job. He shared the league lead in shutouts last with 13. Hartman, by the way, has been around for 15 of the 16 previous MLS seasons. ... Dallas' hectic summer in 2011 was the very picture of fixture congestion, with 23 matches over a three-month stretch, or two games a week for about 12 weeks. By October, FCD looked like a tired team. This year, not having CONCACAF Champions League to deal with might be a blessing for Dallas.
The man who matters: If Ferreira can provide the killer passes like before, and if Perez supplies the 12-14 goals a decent MLS striker should, then the difference between a good and a great offense will be down to Brek Shea. The young U.S. international, now 22 years old, absolutely carried the offense in 2011 after Ferreira's injury with 11 important goals. (He struck in 11 different matches; no stat padding nights are included in that total.) Shea, like the team, did wear down toward the campaign's end, and the club's ability to manage another hot and busy summer for the 22-year-old winger (World Cup qualifiers, Olympics, etc.) looms large.
Bottom line: Like other challengers to the Galaxy throne, FCD's first 11 looks pretty good -- but quality depth looks a little thin past the salty starters. So much depends on Ferreira's ability to regain the mental edge. His touch and vision are already back, but how quickly will be willing to face the tackles and the clumsy clatterings that are headed his way?
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