“Michael and Jermaine are in the Eastern Conference”
New OTF contributor Cory Jensen brings you a detailed look at the teams we in Fireland only have the pleasure of meeting once a year…
In all reality, Major League Soccer’s eastern conference has garnered all the preseason attention with Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe, DC United’s reconstruction, and the impending introduction of NYCFC. But the West may be more chaotic due to the managerial changes that swept through the division beginning last October. If you can’t get excited about Michael Bradley and England international Jermaine Defoe, then maybe a Stefan Ishizaki or Gaston Fernandez is more attune to your non-conformist, hipster proclivities.
Carl Robinson, Wilmer Cabrera, Pablo Maestroeni, Jeff Cassar, Oscar Pareja, and Mark Watson are all new managers at their respective sides, or two thirds of the West’s squads (Watson having half a season more than his compatriots). Jason Kreis’s exit from Salt Lake and signing with NYCFC/Man City/Steinbrenner/Petroleum didn’t spark a domino effect or coaching carousel, but it may as well have. Few precedents in MLS history exist for such a managerial house cleaning in such a short period.
Portland and LA, the West’s two best teams in 2013, can smile smugly looking down from their respective ivory towers with some justified confidence. Sigi Schmid could do the same if it weren’t for a couple dressing room implosions in 2013, as well as stunted efforts in the MLS playoffs and US Open Cup. No offense to Seattle though — they will be quality and insanely tough to be beat at Century Link, but are not riding waves of success into the MLS 2014 campaign like their two unscathed conference rivals.
Portland, LA, and San Jose, indeed, will be the only Western Conference teams to cope with the extra commitment of a CONCACAF Champions League birth (LA and SJ’s commitments will be immediate, whereas the Timbers will wait until the fall). Los Angeles will be as ever difficult and effective, but the rest of the West sees a very open battle royale on the horizon. Can the West’s new sideline faces craft their sides into potent and consistent winners in 2014?
Which big acquisitions are set to turn heads, jam up volume dials, and cause squinting from fans and players alike? Again, the West failed to land any big name DPs like the East, but so be it. Going under the radar is fine. It worked for Diego Valeri in Portland, a player lauded by MLS pundits, but otherwise unknown to the public in 2013. He’s not a household mainstay (Valeri isn’t appearing on Good Morning America alongside Omar Gonzalez) but his quality is inarguable league-wide. Which under the radar pickups in the West this season will attract the same type of retrospective jealousy?
Chivas USA: One Last Laugh
Chivas USA, only here first because they’re alphabetically first, probably cleaned house the most in 2014, and rightfully so. The clown car collapsing upon itself in the circus had about the same appeal to Goats fans as a school bus fire.
For the rest of us, it was like watching a NASCAR race just knowing a pileup was only seconds away. However, the Goats did clean up their midfield and defense. And forwards. OK, they revamped everything. How could you not?
Andrew Jean-Baptiste, the promising and broad-shouldered center half from Portland, was acquired via trade, along with Mauro Rosales from Seattle, and Adolfo Bautista — the Liga MX stalwart and former Mexican Seleccion member. Take into account the acquisition of Agustin Pelletieri, an Argentine veteran, and it’s safe to say that Chivas, along with their core of Bocanegra and Osvaldo Minda, won’t be regarded as pushovers or clowns any longer.
Seriously. If Cabrera (former USMNT U-17 coach Cabrera) can weave some magic and inspiration into a long-flagging club, there may be a silver lining to the decline of Chivas USA. Do it for Dan Kennedy, if nothing else.
Colorado Rapids: We Passed Some Questionable Legislation
Colorado was rocked late in the postseason with the departure of Oscar Pareja, and then hit with an extra heavy lid at the beginning of January, affecting large swaths of Rapids supporters. “Papi” had done wonders with Colorado’s youth in turning them into an attacking, flowing, but still very fallible side that were exciting to watch, and at times effective.
Pablo Mastroeni is assumed to be the head coach at this time, but won’t have much time to make full sense of his squad. Their biggest loss (aside from Pareja) is Hendry Thomas, who was later traded to FC Dallas (no coincidence there). So, Rapids fans and administration alike can have some justified animosity towards North Texas if nothing else.
Still, picking up Marvin Chavez from San Jose was a good move (pre-Pareja’s departure), but this team will still be youthful in attack this season. With any luck, Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown can improve upon the great things they both did as rookies in 2013. Veteran defender Marc Burch will add experience and depth.
But overall, Colorado may still be reeling over the late departure of Pareja. At least fans at DSGP won’t remember much of the coaching change given recent state legislation, and could be rolling the aisles giggling at the “D” in DSGP for ninety minutes.
FC Dallas: Papi’s Back
Considering the misfortune of the Rapids, let’s change gears and talk about FC Dallas’s newfound fortune. Oscar Pareja’s return heralded a sense of calm in Dallas. For so long, it seemed unlikely that Papi would return to his beloved city and club, but it happened.
Oscar may have the closest thing to Papal infallibility among new coaches at new clubs this year just because of his reputation. His appointment made things right again in Dallas; after all, he was always seen to be an heir to Schellas Hyndman. His late acquisition will mean less time to mold his team though.
Prior to Pareja’s arrival, David Ferreira, Jackson, Kenny Cooper, Erick, and Ramon Nunez all departed, among others. Adam Moffat’s signing heralded some veteran consistency in the center of midfield, along with Pareja signing Hendry Thomas from Colorado. Offensively, FCD will look a bit stronger with a healthy Blas Perez, Fabian Castillo, and Andres “I am in no way affiliated with those Escobars” Escobar, who is on loan from Dynamo Kiev, and quite the speedster.
Add in the newest signing of David Texeira from FC Groningen of the Eredivisie and Frisco may see a consistently potent attack that has left fans wanting for three years. However, FCD may suffer early on due to the ongoing injuries of center back George John, the lack of time for Pareja to work his magic in the preseason, and lack of MLS-level preseason competition. Still, the new coach has an amazing amount of leash with the Hunts and fans alike. Frisco couldn’t be happier.
Los Angeles Galaxy: We Didn’t Sign Frank Lampard
The Los Angeles Galaxy actually went through an offseason not trying to one-up everyone in the league with an immaculate, big-name signing. But once again, they’ll be just as strong with a back line, midfield, and attack that have kept their strongest elements, plus some new friends alike.
Rob Friend is that first friend, and a Canadian one at that (Canadian friends are twice as friendly as your American ones). A Bundesliga veteran and Canadian international (not to mention a free transfer), he’ll provide the depth in attack sorely needed in LA should Gyasi Zardes go into a sophomore slump, or if Robbie Keane must withstand a new slew of injuries.
Baggio Husidic, the once-lauded Chicago Fire academy protégé, returned from Europe to LA to solidify depth in the midfield. Swedish international Stefan Ishizaki will do the same (more than likely starting), along with 22 year-old forward Samuel (on loan from Fluminense). Again, LA didn’t go with any big name signings, but they’ve bought some depth and experience.
Add in the youthful faces of McBean and Zardes (both of whom saw decent minutes last year) and the Galacticos once again find themselves in poll position in the West. It’s tough to see around the fact that the Galaxy have done decently well in the offseason market and will be just as traditionally tough.
Portland Timbers: The Possessive Type
Caleb Porter’s Timbers and their Porterball frighten me, and they should frighten you too. On top of taking a floundering, unattractive Timbers side and making it the exact opposite in a matter of one season, Caleb Porter (the MLS Coach of the Year, indeed) has created an insanely unbreakable side, with members of his cult at every position.
Do the Timbers players go-through Stonecutter-like initiations into Porterball? I’d like to think so, and often do. But Porter uses tools left to him by the Spencer administration in Portland and, with his own acquisitions, has transformed the team into possibly the most fear-inducing in MLS.
Though what may hamper Portland is something they’ve never dealt with: a Concacaf Champions League campaign. Even with the offseason pickups of Jorge Villafana, Steve Zakuani, Gaston Fernandez, and Norberto Paparatto, CCL will be uncharted waters for the Timbers as they drag themselves into oases such as Metapan. But, the new Argentinian flair to complement Valeri, Chara, Will Johnson, Rodney Wallace, Nagbe, Urruti, and Alhassan is frightening for any opponent.
Fernandez looks to be the business and will be a scary foil to Valeri in the attack. Hell, if Porter can do with any of these players what he has done with Rodney Wallace, they will be the best team in the West. Overall, depth exists, but its quality depth found through good preseason signings and trades. Well done to the Timbers. They’ll out-possess us all in 2014.
Real Salt Lake: Kreisis of Identity
When will the mourning over Jason Kreis end in Salt Lake? There will not be much closure, given RSL’s offseason signings, and the squad that Kreis left will still look largely like, well, the one that Kreis left. Jeff Cassar’s job at the helm of Salt Lake will be to craft a competitive side in his own image, which may very well look like Kreis’s. After all, Cassar was the assistant and should know better than anyone else.
Perhaps this is like a Pep Guardiola to Tito Villanova transition. That said, don’t think RSL is the North American Barcelona. Nonetheless, RSL will be a strong side and Cassar has plenty of experience working with, well, everyone in the squad.
Important facets of RSL’s 2013 team that lost both the US Open Cup and MLS Cup final missing in 2014 are: Lovel Palmer (traded to Chicago), Yordany Alvarez, Brandon McDonald, Khari Stephenson, and backup GK Josh Saunders. The defense, midfield, and attack all remain virtually the same however, and probably in a 4-4-2 with a narrow diamond in the midfield.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see Kreis’s shadow lingering a bit over Rio Tinto in 2014, but if Cassar can keep RSL a mainstay in the upper echelons of the West he’ll slowly see horrible analogies to Kreis’s legacy fade away.
San Jose Earthquakes: New Look, New Stadium, Few New Faces
San Jose cleaned house, second only to maybe Chivas USA. The late playoff push that failed in 2013, along with Frank Yallop’s early departure mid-campaign, plus a new look and stadium has given San Jose impetus to put its foot forward in a new direction. No big name signings are part of this new direction, but rather changes in the old guard.
Corrales, an MLS ’96 original, retired. Justin Morrow was traded to TFC. Starting midfielders Rafael Baca and Marvin Chavez left on different planes to different places. Steven Beitashour was traded to Vancouver. These men saw a lot of minutes the past couple of seasons under Yallop, and were significant in the creation of the “Goonies” ideology and image.
Will Wondo return? Yes, and probably with fistfuls of goals to boot. Overall, San Jose’s look going into 2014 will be very much the core of Bernardez, Cronin, Goodson, Lenhart, Gordon, and the aforementioned Wondolowski. What is missing is a lot of midfield depth, but hopefully the likes of Ligue 1 MF Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi will help stabilize the situation, alongside Atiba Harris, who is newly acquired from Colorado.
Mark Watson, another relatively new man at a relatively new club, will need to rebrand the Quakes just as the front office has, and hopefully as something more than the blunt instrument in attack they’ve come to be.
Seattle Sounders: Nice and Tidy
Sigi Schmid is probably the most unsatisfied man in MLS. After years of sporting the best attendance in the league, its most rabid support, and big signings, he’s only been able to savor US Open Cup success (which is no small feat). After 2013’s locker room fallout, the situation in Seattle remained toxic. Brad Evans, the U.S. Men’s National Team defender, has even alluded on Twitter that the personas of men like Eddie Johnson contributed heavily to a tense dressing room last year.
Apparently those types are gone now. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Shalrie Joseph, Adam Moffit, Michael Gspurning, and Patrick Ianni left as well. But a lack of production up front in 2013, even with Dempsey, Martins, Johnson, Zakuani, Evans, and Rosales, left a sour taste in fans’ mouths from so much unfulfilled potential. How does Seattle improve upon it?
Johnson and Rosales are gone, but former Fire standout Marco Pappa is in, along with journeyman Kenny Cooper. So, these players have been replaced with similar characters. It may work. Defensively, Seattle now has depth with Jalil Anibaba and Chad Marshall to beef up the ranks. Pappa should hopefully return to his pre-MLS-departure days and whip in some accurate service to the likes of Martins, Cooper, or even Dempsey.
It’s got to be a critical year for Schmid, despite the votes of confidence from the fans. His club has backed him in regards to transfers and has aided in giving him a cleaner locker room. If Sigi cannot muster an extended push to an MLS Cup final appearance, the axe may fall on Seattle’s veteran coach.
Vancouver Whitecaps: British Columbian Telenovela
Since their MLS entry, the Whitecaps have been ambitious (or stated their ambition multiple times) without the results to follow. The Camillo situation, which seemed like something straight out of a Mexican soap opera, reinforced that “ambitious, but not that ambitious” caricature of the Canadian club. To be fair, Camillo’s behavior was fairly inexcusable (but pay the man if you want him to stay, right?). So, Vancouver will have one less league-leading goal scorer.
Furthermore, the confusing situation with Andrew Lewis, the ‘Caps, and the New York Cosmos, brought elements of ‘Days of Our Lives’ to a controversy-laden offseason. MLS’s presence in the story seemed to stabilize things soon enough, and now Lewis is on loan in New York, but the whole thing not only looked dire, but in a I-just-met-you-and-love-you-and-am-critically-ill-but-am-leaving-on-a-cross-country-train-in-10-minutes type of soap opera dire. Furthermore, the ‘Caps dealt MF Daigo Kobayashi and saw the retirement of LB Lee Young-Pyo.
How did Vancouver right the ship? With a couple of Argentinian signings in the forms of Sebastian Fernandez and Nicolas Mezquida, and a crucial, late trade with Toronto for former DP Matias Laba. Steven Beitashour will hopefully plug the gaping hole that was left by Y.P. Lee’s departure. Really, Vancouver has done decently in responding to its own controversies and needs current players like Kenny Miller and Darren Mattocks to meld with the new Argentinians in attack. Throw in the fact that as of February 28th the club looked set to sign Chilean attacking mid Pedro Morales (Malaga).
So, the situation isn’t as bad as it once appeared in British Columbia, and it may play out well for the Canadians. Or not. But if the ‘Caps offseason is objectively more entertaining than their regular season’s performance, expect heads to roll and the soap-opera to open for another series.
Portland, LA, Dallas (yes, Dallas), Vancouver, and Seattle have all done distinctively well in the offseason. Dallas provided a late run, as the club’s transfer and roster situation was really a dire one in November and December. But the new coaching situation in Dallas may be one that sees the Frisco side blossom midseason after an inconsistent start. That certainly may not buy any titles for FCD though. However, Portland and LA have remained the most stable, riding waves of success from solid 2013 efforts, have kept the cores of their teams in tact, and have both done well in the transfer market.
In Seattle, all that remains to be seen is Clint Dempsey actually producing in MLS, and the Sounders may have a real shot at topping the conference. It will be far more interesting, however, to see how the new coaches (even ones like Watson who’ve been around since mid-2013) mold their teams, style their attacks, and tactically adjust to, perhaps, achieve some inaugural success. World Cup roster call-ups will impact a few teams, and not just U.S. internationals. Overall, it’s going to be a toss up in the West, given the fluctuation of managers, new under-the-radar signings, and the general nature of the league itself, which is enthralling.
OTF contributor Cory Jensen is a Texan once removed to the Chicago area. He’s longing for the South and Whataburger. Follow Cory @GSElitist