Commentor scudsmckenzie took a moment to examine the state of the Western Conference and make some predictions for the 2014 season. Give them a read and share your own predictions in the comments below.
With more than half the teams in the West having made recent coaching changes, and at least two still looking, will the Portland Timbers have an easier path to the Western conference title next year? While many teams have strengthened their rosters, will there be enough time for teams making changes to coalesce, or will 2014 be a year that the top teams are clearly separated from the rest of the pack well before the final week of the season?
Looking at the Timbers' Western conference foes at this point in the off season, there is reason to think Portland, with a second year under Porter and the core of the team intact, could rise above the competition somewhat more decisively than last year.
With the additions of Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Mauro Rosales, the Goats look like they've addressed some of their glaring needs and hope not to be the pushovers they were last year. In Eric Avila, Gabriel Farfan, Bryan de la Fuente, and Gabriel Torres, Chivas has a handful of promising young players. However, one has to wonder if they have the experience, leadership, and stability to climb out of the cellar. With a coach yet to be announced, and judging by Chivas' handling of player transactions over the past several seasons, it's easy to think next year will look a lot like the last, with inconsistency throughout the organization translating to inconsistency on the pitch.
LA looks to be one of the more stable teams in the West and should continue their strong form of the past few seasons, but if their struggles at the beginning and end of 2013 are any indication, they should be beatable. There's plenty of experience on the backline and competition for the #1 shirt between two well qualified keepers, then there's the deadly duo of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane up front. Their midfield is a little less impressive, stocked with decent role players but no consistent game breakers. LA's solid coaching staff and strong development academy surely are an asset, but the Galaxy's 2014 could come down to how much contribution the non-DonoKeane roster makes. If Robbie Rogers remembers how to play, and Gyasi Zardes has a break out year, LA could be a contender. If not, or if Landon or Keane struggles with injuries again, so might the Galaxy struggle.
They look like they've gotten their man in prying Pareja (Note: the most recent reports out of Colorado have Pareja staying with the Rapids) away from Colorado, and they've trimmed the fat by moving Kenny Cooper and David Ferreira. They've added some bite in Adam Moffat, they've got a great goalkeeper, and they have got high hopes for young Argentine Mauro Diaz. They have got speed in Fabian Castillo and Je-Vaughn Watson, size and power at forward, and potentially a decent defense anchored by George John. Dallas have also been injury prone in the past and fell apart down the stretch after starting off 2013 in hot form. Pareja may be a good choice to bring the most out of his young players, but whether he can get the team to gel and stay healthy is another matter. His familiarity with Dallas and penchant for a system that works to FCD's strengths are a plus. Still, as much praise as Pareja got for guiding Colorado through adversity with a young group, he is a coach with a 24-32-12 overall record. Transitions don't always go as well as Caleb Porter's, and it's possible that Dallas will look back at 2014 as a rebuilding year.
They certainly don't sound like they wanted to lose Pareja; how well they're able to rebound from that loss remains to be seen, but with coaching candidates rumored to include Robin Fraser and John Spencer as front runners, 2014 could see the team taking a very different shape. Their big asset is the experience that their young core gained in fighting their way to a playoff spot in 2013, garnering national team call-ups for several, and Gabriel Torres showed that he could make an instant impact, with 3 goals and an assist in his first 7 games. It's easy to write off Danny Mwanga until you remember he's still only 22, and injury-prone Edson Buddle, but he's shown he can bounce back before. It really seems that everything rests on the suddenly urgent coaching hunt-- the wrong fit and the developing team chemistry could quickly backslide. Both Fraser and Spencer have seemed a little more conservative tactically than Pareja, and whoever takes over the side, it will be an adjustment for a group just finding its legs.
Newly promoted head coach Carl Robinson already has his hands full of problems this January as details of the Camilo Sanvezzo debacle continue to unfold. The situation comes on the heels of Darren Mattocks' disgruntled comments in the press several weeks ago, yet another sign that the 'Caps locker room is somewhat in disarray. Their fans are frustrated with what they see as an out of touch board of directors. And while players have expressed support for Robinson, he's only one year removed from his playing career, and one wonders what sort of coaching lessons he garnered while still playing at Toronto and the up-and-down 2010-11 Red Bulls. Most of his playing career was spent on loan at various second division English clubs, and no one knows what his tactical and player management vision will be like. The Caps have some work ahead of them to even put a squad together, with only one GK on the roster at the moment. On a positive note, Gershon Koffie and Russell Teibert are young midfielders who look like they are continuing to improve, and Kekuta Manneh suddenly discovered at the end of the year that he could finish like a boss, but there are some serious question marks in key positions for Vancouver, and they don't currently look poised to come out swinging in the spring.
SJ also promoted from within and while head coach Mark Watson promised more attractive soccer, SJ's playing style seems ingrained in the DNA of their current personnel. If it's true, that designated player Chris Wondolowski was playing injured for much of the year, there is a chance he will return to his 2012 finishing form, but without much to be excited about in terms of the midfield, it looks like another year of hard-nosed, gritty , and direct play is on the books. Goalkeeper Jon Busch is 5'10 in high heels and at 37, just might be starting to lose a little of the spring in his step. Watson also made the vexing decision to trade national team prospect Justin Morrow to Toronto in December, leaving the team with a mostly older backline. Maybe the Quakes pending makeover will spell on-field changes as well, but the roster doesn't suggest it. While the SJ brand of soccer has been a formula for MLS success in the past, the trend in the league toward more intelligent and attractive soccer could see the Quakes falling short of both ideas and wins in 2014.
Sigi Schmid is already in the hot seat with fans and front office alike, and anything short of a stellar start to the year could well spell his exit. Luckily for him, the Sounders have a deep roster, even with the losses of Steve Zakuani and the GAM (Eddie Johnson). While it seems Seattle is putting all their eggs in Clint Dempsey's basket, they've improved around him in ways that should make them tough to beat again next year. Stefan Frei might have the most to prove of their new acquisitions, but has been a solid keeper in the past, and with the addition of Chad Marshall to anchor the backline, he should have good protection. Seattle are clearly gunning for hardware with a lot of experience throughout the squad to help guide developing players like DeAndre Yedlin, Lamar Neagle, Andy Rose, and Ericq Zavaleta. They're deep at forward, with journeyman Kenny Cooper joining Obafemi Martins, Dempsey, Neagle, and David Estrada, (who, don't forget, was on a tear at the beginning of 2012 before injury and Eddie Johnson derailed his playing time). With Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans looking like locks in midfield, perhaps the biggest question for the Sounders next season is what formation and lineup best suits the team. A 4-4-2 with Dempsey playing as a #10 and Neagle on left wing behind Cooper and Martins wouldn't seem far-fetched, but if goals don't come quickly, expect Schmid to throw a lot at the wall to see what sticks. Seattle looks to be a contender for the conference championship, but with the pressure of huge expectations, the wheels could come off if things don't go perfectly.
Salt Lake are betting it all that their culture and grooming have prepared former GK Jeff Cassar to guide the team to another championship run. There is no question that RSL has excelled at working young players into bigger roles over the last several years, with Devon Sandoval and Chris Schuler looking prepped to contribute much more in 2014. Unknown is just how RSL's "the team is the star" mantra will hold up in the absence of beacon Jason Kreis. Will their chemistry be derailed if Cassar doesn't display Kreis's aptitude for player management and game planning? Are Luis Gil, Joao Plata, and Sebastian Velasquez ready to carry the team if Javier Morales or Kyle Beckerman fades or gets hurt? Will there be tension for playing time between Alvaro Saborio and up-and-comers? Does Cassar have the instincts and the freedom to put his own successful stamp on the team, or will 2014 be the year RSL spends trying to imitate themselves rather than evolving their identity? RSL will be dangerous again, but if they spend too much time reflecting instead of looking forward, they may lose the plot. One key question: can Ned Grabavoy repeat or better his career year from 2013? RSL will need players like him to continue to exceed expectations if they want to stay on top. If the coaching transition goes smoothly and Real can follow its pattern of handing the keys to younger players as they become ready, they will be tough to beat, once again.
In all, the Timbers' returning group and new signings have me very optimistic for their chances at winning the West next year. They have some questions to answer at forward and center back, but all signs indicate that Portland has deepened its roster in most areas, and locked in key players for contracts that will continue their success. If all goes well I predict Portland will pull comfortably ahead of the pack by the end of the season, and that 2014 will be the first year we get to see some meaningful hardware here. The West was incredibly tough last season, but I see the trends in some teams' fortunes changing, and I don't think next year will reprise the historic parity of 2013.
My guess at final standings:
- San Jose
I look forward to hearing others' predictions-- I'm sure I'm missing out on some roster changes and rumors that would impact my guesses. Who do you guys think will be the Timbers' most dangerous adversary next season? What do you think will really happen with all these coaching and personnel changes? Do they sink or swim?