Back in November or so, MLS announced a change to the league's schedule that would do away with home and away matchups against each team, and create an unbalanced schedule to deepen regional rivalries and enhance intra-conference competition, saving a little transportation money along the way.
With the stronger Western Conference teams playing each other more, the road to the playoffs will be more difficult for every team. Add the fact that nearly every team in the West has made significant improvements in the offseason, and 2012 starts to look like a completely different league from 2011. Love the schedule change or hate it, Western Conference fans may enjoy a higher level of play and more fierce competition this year.
After the jump we'll take a brief look at each team and make an almost completely arbitrary prediction about where each team will end up in the table. (Ryan Gates will have an Eastern Conference preview later this week.)
Los Angeles Galaxy:
2011 finish: 1st
2012 prediction: 1st
The LA Galaxy improved in an area where they needed none by bringing in Edson Buddle - will he bring more than Chad Barrett (whom I would think Buddle would replace in the starting lineup) in partnership with Robbie Keane? Meanwhile their backline will suffer from the ACL injury to Omar Gonzalez. How much is the question, and looking at the rest of their defensive options, it might well be quite a bit. Still, they continue to employ several of MLS' best players. They won't dominate quite as completely as they did in 2011, but they still have the pieces to challenge for the Shield.
2011 finish: 2nd
2012 prediction: 3rd
It was all looking so good for Seattle. The return of Steve Zakuani alone made for welcome news. Sure, Seattle Sounders fans lost their favorite player, but I think they overestimated the degree to which that loss would hurt their chances in 2012. But then they traded two fan favorites for Floridian Eddie Johnson, giving up valuable pieces of their midfield depth. Whether Seattle sees the Eddie Johnson who lit up MLS six years ago or the one who has languished in League 1 limbo more recently, will play a big role in the Sounders' season. It's not a bet I would feel confident in.
Real Salt Lake
2011 finish: 3rd
2012 prediction: 4th
RSL are the owners of the Western Conference's least favorable home/away schedule, which means they will have to work extra hard to keep pace with their competitors. Although they have not added many, if any, players likely to see much time on the first team in 2012, this team is still stacked. However, they will be relying on a few too many 30-somethings this year -- Kyle Beckerman, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales, to name a few -- and health will likely be a concern.
2011 finish: 4th
2012 prediction: 2nd
FC Dallas have increased their Colombian roster to four this offseason, adding 22-year-old defender Hernán Pertúz to an already staunch defensive corps that includes Zach Loyd and George John. They also added 30-year-old striker Blas Perez, whose prolific goal scoring history will be put to the test in MLS. There are still a few questions to be ironed out before the start of the season in Dallas, but count them among the Western Conference sides that could crack the top 3 in 2012.
2011 finish: 5th
2012 prediction: 7th
The Colorado Rapids have recently added Argentinian Martin Rivero, to add to their 13 other midfielders. It will be interesting to see how much Rivero, billed as a #10 playmaker but only 22 years old, will help the team's sagging offense this year. The return of Conor Casey will bring back memories of their MLS Cup run in 2010, but will he come back from his injury and stay out of the referee's book? Meanwhile their starting defense is essentially unchanged from 2011, which also does not bode especially well for them, especially as they switch to new coach Oscar Pareja's preferred 4-3-3 formation. A few too many ifs after a disappointing 2011 campaign could usher Colorado out of playoff contention.
2011 finish: 6th
2012 prediction: 5th
The Portland Timbers look set to surpass their 2011 campaign in every way, with a new big deal striker in Kris Boyd, key defensive changes, and increased depth up and down the roster. The recent signing of Cameroonian Franck Songo'o and offseason improvements of some of 2011's underperformers, notably Bright Dike and Rodney Wallace, should provide John Spencer with more options. Still, as successful as their preseason has been, the extent to which their changes will translate into regular season wins remains in question. They will almost certainly score more goals and allow fewer than in the previous season, but it will still be a mighty feat to get into the top 5.
San Jose Earthquakes
2011 finish: 7th
2012 prediction: 6th
The San Jose Earthquakes are a team poised to break out of the bottom third of the table. Having re-signed Chris Wondolowski and having Simon Dawkins back for another year, look great on paper, and overall they added more than they lost in the offseason. They will score more goals, but their lack of depth defensively may render them more vulnerable as well.
2011 finish: 8th
2012 prediction: 9th
Chivas USA have reshuffled their lineup in the offseason, with Justin Braun, Zarek Valentin and others departing, and a couple of relative unknowns from the team's connections in Ecuador, as well as Englishman Ryan Smith, joining the squad. Chivas will continue to be a fast team, young in age and short in stature, and the big question will be whether aging Colombian star Juan Pablo Ángel (if they even manage to finalize a deal with him) can keep doing what he's done, namely score goals.
2011 finish: 9th
2012 prediction: 8th
The joke of the 2012 offseason has been the excessive depth the Vancouver Whitecaps have built at the striker position, while the MLS's second worst defense in 2011 has a fresh face in 34-year-old South Korean Young-Pyo Lee. Still, I would say the Whitecaps' defense underperformed in 2011, due mainly to persistent injuries and a season-long accumulation of apathy. The team's leadership had a heck of a first year as well. So this do-over year can only be an improvement.
What do you think? In what order do you think the Western Conference 9 will finish?