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Issues 2015 Part II: Around the Western Conference

Issues 2015 continues with a look around the biggest issues facing the Timbers’ Western Conference competitors.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we looked at questions facing the MLS Eastern Conference teams in 2015. Today, in the next installment of our Issues 2015 series, we shift our gaze westward and look at each of the Timbers’ competitors for the 2015 Western Conference crown.

Colorado Rapids

Key Additions: LB/RB Michael Harrington, CB Bobby Burling.

Key Departures: D/M Brian Mullan, D Marvell Wynne, DM Nick LaBrocca, DM Jose Mari.

Question: Are the Rapids completely adrift?

The Rapids have a few nice pieces – Drew Moor, Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers, Chris Klute, and Shane O’Neill. Accordingly, when healthy, Colorado will be competitive enough to avoid the bottom of the table. But are the Rapids doing anything to become a contender again? Is there any ambition, beyond the hiring of additional (read: "redundant") technical staff, to deliver a better product on the field? As of now there doesn’t appear to be pulse in Commerce City, and until the front office shows some signs of vision and ambition, the middle of the West appears to be the Rapids’ ceiling.

FC Dallas

Key Additions: GK Dan Kennedy, F Atiba Harris.

Key Departures: GK Raul Fernandez, DM Hendry Thomas, CB George John, LB Jair Benitez

Question: Is there such a thing as too much young talent?

Mauro Diaz is 23. Tesho Akindele is 22. Fabian Castillo is 22. Moises Hernandez is 22. Victor Ulloa is 22. Walker Zimmerman is 21. Kellyn Acosta is 19. Even Matt Hedges is only 24. Without a doubt teams around MLS gaze jealously at FC Dallas’s bevy of young talent. But young talent has limitations, namely it doesn’t always develop as you’d like and can be prone to moments of indiscipline. For instance, FC Dallas led MLS is red cards in 2014. Then again, the Burn were solid (if unspectacular) in close games and late in games, and, despite a curious season-ending drubbing from Portland, didn’t embarrass themselves in the postseason.

Houston Dynamo

Key Additions: Manager Owen Coyle, F Erik "Cubo" Torres.

Key Departures: GK Tally Hall, F Mark Sherrod.

Question: Will they be able to play defense?

On paper the Dynamo look stacked in the attack. Cubo Torres should be a game-changer when he arrives in June. In 2014 Giles Barnes finally began to produce some deliverables to go along with his eyeball-test prowess. And the Dynamo won’t lose Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia for as long as they did during the World Cup. But as of now this is a defense that is materially unchanged from the one that conceded 58 goals a year ago, and relying on an aging DaMarcus Beasley and an oft-injured David Horst is a risky proposition.

L.A. Galaxy

Key Additions: TBA.

Key Departures: M Landon Donovan.

Question: Can the Galaxy afford to get older with their next big-name signing?

Landon Donovan is gone. Robbie Keane is 34. Marcelo Sarvas is 33. Even Stefan Ishizaki is 32. Let’s face it: Outside of Gyasi Zardes, who was inconsistently wonderful in 2014, the Galaxy attack is old. Let’s also face it: With Donovan gone, the Galaxy are out for another big-name DP this winter. And yet, you don’t have to scroll far down our sister site LAG Confidential to rack up quite a list of names the Galaxy may be targeting: Fernando Torres (30 and not happening), Wesley Sneijder (30 and a longshot, at best), Andrea Pirlo (35, albeit still magical), Steven Gerrard (34 and seemingly connected to every big-market MLS team), and Ronaldinho (34 and causing headaches at Queretaro). Now, granted, these are just your run-of-the-mill offseason rumors, but if any bear true, the question about the Galaxy entering the season will be whether their aging stars can endure another 34-game season plus playoffs.

Real Salt Lake

Key Additions: CB Jamison Olave, LB Demar Phillips (Aalesund FK), M Pecka (Fort Lauderdale Strikers).

Key Departures: CB Nat Borchers, M Ned Grabavoy, LB Chris Wingert, M Sebastian Velasquez.

Question: What will RSL’s midfield look like in 2015?

RSL, as much as any team in MLS, has been defined by their formation. The Claret-and-Cobalt’s diamond 4-4-2 has become somewhat iconic in MLS, but everything about this offseason suggests RSL is beginning a rebuilding effort. Although some of the pieces are certainly on the roster (looking at you, Joao Plata, Luis Gil, and Chris Schuler), many of the pieces that made up the core of RSL’s lengthy run of quality in MLS are either aging (Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and a returning Jamison Olave) or gone (Borchers, Grabavoy, Wingert, Will Johnson). With the personnel changes, many in Salt Lake are wondering whether the signature diamond is a thing of the past.

San Jose Earthquakes

Key Additions: Manager Dominic Kinnear, GK Andy Gruenebaum, M Leandro Barrera, F Mark Sherrod.

Key Departures: GK Jon Busch, CB Jason Hernandez, M Atiba Harris, M Yannick Djalo.

Question: The Earthquakes keep talking about change, but are they actually serious?

Over the past several years the Quakes have been among the most direct teams in MLS.  Aside from an aberrant-looking 2012 Supporters Shield-winning campaign, they haven’t had much success in this system.  For all the talk about change around San Jose the last couple years, however, the hiring of Dom Kinnear appears to be a doubling-down on directness.  Kinnear, however, has had more success in this system than his Earthquakes predecessors, even if that success was largely limited to an increasingly weaker Eastern Conference.

Seattle Sounders

Key Additions: RB Tyrone Mears (Bolton Wanderers).

Key Departures: RB DeAndre Yedlin, RB/CB Jalil Anibaba.

Question: Can the Sounders rebuild their backline?

Little known fact from 2014: The Sounders defense wasn’t very good and it was downright atrocious on the road. Chad Marshall was great. Yedlin was exciting. Leo Gonzalez was serviceable. Zach Scott was an adventure. Anibaba was bad. All told, Seattle conceded 50 goals (two fewer than the Timbers, mind you, who were reputed to have a poor defense), a staggering 34 of which were on the road. Of those five players on Seattle’s backline, Yedlin and Anibaba are gone and Scott and Gonzalez have at-best tentative holds on their starting spots. Why were the Sounders so good, then? Well, their attack was otherworldly and was so lethal in the open field that no opponent was willing to commit numbers to the attack at CenturyLink Field. But the concern for the Sounders, then, is that even a small step back in the attack (Martins is 30 and Dempsey turns 32 the week after opening day) could easily bring them back to the pack in the West if their defense doesn’t markedly improve. The reason for optimism in the Emerald City is the Sounders have resources to acquire defensive replacements (thanks to the allocation money garnered from selling Yedlin), the players they’re replacing are replaceable (Yedlin, for his virtues in the attack, was never better than average defensively), and have some viable options already on the roster (Brad Evans at right back, for example). On Monday Seattle took the first step in this process by signing veteran right back Tyrone Mears, most recently of Bolton. Most expect the Sounders will at least also pursue a centerback. So while there is reason to believe the Sounders will be able to reshape their backline, if things don’t quite go according to plan Seattle could quickly find themselves in a battle in the conference many expect them to dominate in 2015.

Sporting Kansas City

Key Additions: M Bernardo Anor, CB Jalil Anibaba, F Krisztian Nemeth, GK Luis Marin.

Key Departures: M Tony Dovale, DM Lawrence Olum, CB Aurelien Collin, F C.J. Sapong, M Sal Zizzo, GK Eric Kronberg, GK Andy Gruenebaum.

Questions: Will SKC’s house cleaning pay off?

After their 4-1 win over TFC on August 16, 2014, SKC was through a World Cup break that depleted their roster and sitting on 42 points – one point out of 1st place in the East and very much part the Supporters Shield race. Then the Wiz fizzed out in spectacular fashion, earning a pathetic seven points the rest of the way and tumbling from near the top of the league to 5th in the East. In the end, their knockout-round playoff exit at the hands of New York had the feel of a mercy killing. Whatever happened, the SKC leadership was clearly displeased, as Peter Vermes, Robb Heineman, and company settled all family business in the offseason. While the core of Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber, and Dom Dwyer remains intact, SKC rid themselves of many pieces around those four. As a result the team that won MLS Cup a year ago and looked poised to be an MLS juggernaut going forward is now a wild card in an intensely competitive Western Conference.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Key Additions: F Octoavio Rivero (O’Higgins).

Key Departures: CB Jay DeMerit, M Mehdi Ballouchy, CB Carlyle Mitchell.

Question: Is Octavio Rivero the answer at striker?

The 'Caps have questions on the backline (namely whether Andy O’Brien and Johnny Leveron will be back and who will pair with Kendall Waston), but regardless of what happens in central defense, the Whitecaps are up a creek without a paddle unless Rivero is the goalscorer the Caps hope the young-DP is.  The Whitecaps' 42 goals in 2014 were the worst among playoffs teams by a healthy margin as Carl Robinson seemingly tried everything imaginable to create some production up front.  Without a consistent goalscorer, the Whitecaps’ fifth-place finish in the 2014 West is probably near their ceiling, which is a shame in light of their considerable talent in midfield.