We spend a lot of time around these parts discussing the Portland Timbers. Let’s take a look around the league and who the Timbers will be competing with for the 2018 MLS Cup, starting with the Timbers’ competition in the West.
The Western Conference was as wide open in 2017 as any conference in recent memory, with eight teams finishing within eight points of the top. As of the week before the regular season opens, it’s not clear much has changed as on paper no team has separated itself from the pack.
The Timbers, as we know, finished atop the Western Conference standings in 2017, but only as a result of holding the tiebreaker with the Sounders. With an aging core of Clint Dempsey, Chad Marshall, and Ozzie Alonso, many thought the Sounders were poised to use the offseason TAM infusion to make a final push with their current core. To date, though, the Sounders have had as quiet an offseason as any team in MLS, acquiring Waylon Francis from the Columbus Crew to compete with Nohou at left back, and bringing in Norwegian international Magnus Wolff Eikrem as an additional central-midfield piece.
Losing Jordan Morris to a torn ACL is a significant setback for the Sounders in 2018 as early preseason returns indicated the forward may be poised to round back into strong form. Morris’s injury likely forces the Sounders’ hand in looking to add another major attacking piece in short order rather than waiting for the right deal to come together. If they can, the Sounders figure to be among the contenders in the Western Conference. If not, it could be a long first half of the season in Seattle.
The Whitecaps, who finished just a point behind the Sounders and Timbers, have been significantly more active. Up top the Whitecaps acquired strikers Kei Kamara from the New England Revolution and Anthony Blondell, a 23-year-old Venezuelan, while seeing Fredy Montero return to Sporting CP. The ‘Caps midfield has undergone a similar transformation with mainstay Matias Laba going to Estudiantes de la Plata in Argentina, Nosa Igiebor’s tenure ending almost before it began, Christian Bolanos heading back to Saprissa, and Andrew Jacobson retiring. In their place, the Whitecaps are looking to holding midfielder Efrian Juarez, who transferred in from Monterrey in Liga MX. Carl Robinson’s side continues to undergo changes on the backline, though, as Tim Parker is looking to make his way out of Rain City while Doniel Henry returns to MLS with the ‘Caps.
The Whitecaps in 2017 were far from the darlings of analytics, relying largely on set pieces to outperform their poor expected-goals numbers. 2018 looks to shape up much the same with Kamara only adding aerial prowess to the Whitecaps. Still, for a team that didn’t show an ability to create goals in bunches, any defensive regression could quickly deflate the ‘Caps’ fortunes. And the instability inherent in Parker’s potential departure and a midfield makeover carries some risk of that happening.
If the Whitecaps have been in the midst of a major roster rebuild, the Houston Dynamo appear set to enter 2018 with much the same team as they used in a surprise Conference Finals run in 2017. The Dynamo have added depth to their goalkeeping corps (Chris Seitz), backline (Alejandro Fuenmayor), central midfield (Darwin Ceren), and attack (Arturo Alvarez). The Dynamo also parted ways with Cubo Torres, and appear set to commit to Mauro Manotas up top, while Alex has departed the Houston central midfield. For the most part, though, the Dynamo will continue to run through the counterattacking wing play of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto.
Whether the Dynamo’s success is repeatable in 2018 is a reasonable question. With Elis, Quioto, and Manotas as a front three, it’s a decent bet that Houston will continue to be dangerous on the break and stellar at home. If Tomas Martinez builds on a brief, but somewhat promising debut in 2017, it’s possible the Dynamo attack takes even another step forward this year. Wilmer Cabrera’s team, though, has some questions on the backline, including when Father Time will claim the form of DeMarcus Beasley and Philippe Senderos. Moreover, whether Eric Alexander will remain up to par in central midfield is far from certain for a player who turns 30 in April and has not stuck with any MLS team for more than two years. The Dynamo, then, are another team that could easily swing between contending in the West or being out of the playoff picture altogether.
Timbers fans, meanwhile, are familiar with Sporting Kansas City from the Tucson finale. The departure of Dom Dwyer is old news, but now Benny Feilhaber and Latif Blessing have joined Dwyer in hitting the intra-MLS trade market. In their place, the Wizards have brought in Frenchman Yohan Croizet and Scottish winger Johnny Russell to bolster the attack and Chilean international Felipe Gutierrez in central midfield.
Croizet and Russell may be enough to pump a little bit juice into an attack that only scored 40 goals in 2017, but questions about who Sporting plans to run up top counsel some caution in that regard. Right now the options for SKC at striker appear to be Khiry Shelton and his six career goals in three seasons, Daniel Salloi and his three goals and two assists in 1200 minutes in 2017, and Diego Rubio and his year-and-a-half-long difficulty claiming the top spot for Peter Vermes. SKC’s vaunted defense, however, remains in tact from its historic 2017 season, which, by itself, is enough to place Peter Vermes’s comfortably within the conference contenders in 2018.
The Quakes, meanwhile, added a major piece to an attack that largely struggled in 2017 in Magnus Eriksson who scored 14 goals and logged seven assists for Djurgardens IF in the Swedish top flight. The Quakes also bolstered their central defense by bringing in Yeferson Quintana on loan from Penarol in Uruguay.
This San Jose team isn’t as reliant on Chris Wondolowski as it once was, though, with is a good thing considering the striker just hit 35. To a significant extent, however, the Quakes will be relying on internal improvement from Vako, Tommy Thompson, Jahmir Hyka, and Danny Hoesen to bolster their faltering attack. Still, for a team with a goal difference of minus-21 in 2017, that’s a pretty big bet.
FC Dallas was MLS’s most disappointing side in 2017, following a second-half swoon that resulted in Oscar Pareja’s team dropping from Supporters Shield contention out of the playoff picture altogether. The Burn traded centerback Walker Zimmerman to LAFC and brought in Anton Nedyalkov and Reto Ziegler to reinforce the backline. Meanwhile, Santiago Mosquera from Millonarios comes in as a designated player to fill the hole on the wing where Oscar Pareja has struggled to replace Fabian Castillo.
By and large, however, Dallas’s fate will be decided by whether Mauro Diaz, Michael Barrios, and Maxi Urruti regain form. The Burn have more talent and pace in their attack than most teams in MLS and a rock solid central midfield in Carlos Gruezo and Kellyn Acosta. If FCD can be more consistent than they were in 2017, they should be plenty good enough to get back into the playoff picture and could very well even make noise at or near the top of the table.
After just missing the playoffs in 2017, Real Salt Lake is perhaps the team most poised to make a major jump in 2018. Just climbing back into the playoff picture was a major coup for Mike Petke’s team in 2017, as the spring and early summer were dreadful for RSL. The team that Petke will trot out to start 2018 will likely look quite a bit like the one that finished 2017. The Claret-and-Cobalt, however, have added Spanish forward Alfredo Otuno to the mix to compete with Luis Silva to start up top, Croatian central midfielder Damir Kreilach from Union Berlin, and Welsh right back Adam Henley from Blackburn.
RSL may quietly also have the best collection of young domestic talent in MLS, led by winger Brooks Lennon and centerback Justen Glad. That, together with their emerging international talent led by Albert Rusnak and Jefferson Savarino, make RSL among the top contenders to jump from below the red line into the upper echelon of the conference.
Minnesota United may be the most stunningly inactive team in MLS this offseason. Despite scratching their way to a semi-respectable 36 points in their inaugural season and showing they had some nice pieces with which to build, the Loons have done diddily this winter when it comes to major acquisitions. Although new goalkeeper Matt Lampson looks like he may take the number-one shirt from the mediocre Bobby Shuttleworth and journeyman right back Tyrone Mears may also make the starting XI, none of the Loons’ other acquisitions — including internationals Luiz Fernando, Frantz Pangop, or Bertrand Owundi Eko’o — seem to be MLS game-changers. A much-ballyhooed courtship of Nicolas Benedetti from Deportivo Cali reeks of GM Manny Lagos pursuing a DP just to say he pursued a DP, and their reported interest in Israeli attacking midfielder Dia Saba from Maccabi Netanya doesn’t move the dial.
There is, in short, little reason to think the Loons will be any better in 2018 than they were in 2017, which, considering the significant additional talent coming into MLS by way of the TAM infusion, suggests Adrian Heath’s team may be favorites in the race for the wooden spoon.
Minnesota’s primary competition in that race for the wooden spoon (at least in the West) figures to be the Colorado Rapids. Colorado’s biggest acquisition of the offseason seems to be American left back Edgar Castillo, which is telling for the Rapids’ offseason given his standing as the third option at the U.S. Men’s National Team’s weakest position. Otherwise, the Rapids have largely shopped among out-of-favor players in the English Championship (centerback Tommy Smith from Ipswich Town, striker Joe Mason from Wolves, and central midfielder Jack Price also from Wolves) or Scottish Premiership (centerback Danny Wilson from Rangers). There may be some useful MLS players in that bunch, but it seems unlikely there is anybody who will push the lowly Rapids into playoff contention. Add to all that a hardly inspiring coaching hire in Anthony Hudson, and 2018 looks very much like we’ll see more of the same out of Commerce City.
If Minnesota and Colorado don’t seem all that determined to leave the Western Conference cellar, it at least has to be acknowledged that the LA Galaxy are trying to do so. After finishing last in the West in 2017, the Galaxy went on a fire sale, parting ways with half their roster this offseason. Former San Jose goalkeeper David Bingham appears set to take over in goal after a disappointing 2017, while Venezuelan international right back Rolf Feltscher, Norwegian international centerback Jorgen Skjelvik, and number-two SuperDraft pick Tomas Hillard-Arce look set to reinforce the backline. In midfield Perry Kitchen returns to MLS after two years abroad at Hearts and Randers and will step into the hole while the dos Santos brothers, Romain Alessandrini, and either Ema Boateng or Sebastian Lletget fill out the midfield. Joao Pedro remains with the Galaxy while Servando Carrasco and Chris Pontius join up to provide depth in midfield. Up top, the Galaxy sent the disappointing Gyasi Zardes and some allocation money to Columbus in exchange for proven Norwegian goalscorer Ola Kamara, which should considerably improve the Galaxy’s fortunes at striker.
As a result of their makeover, the Galaxy should be more potent than the team that scored 45 goals in 2017, and the backline — though still questionable — can’t possibly be worse than last season. It remains to be seen whether this Galaxy team will make a playoff run, but it certainly appears to be markedly better than last season.
And the Galaxy better be improved from 2017, or their new, hipper neighbors may put the legendary MLS franchise on the ropes. LAFC made a splash in their early signings of Mexican international winger and attacking midfielder Carlos Vela, Uruguayan youth international forward Diego Rossi, and Egyptian international Omar Gaber. To those international signings, LAFC added MLS centerbacks Laurent Ciman, Walker Zimmerman, left back Jordan Harvey, and right back Steven Beitashour to round out their backline. Bob Bradley’s side completed the midfield by signing Latif Blessing on the right wing and Benny Feilhaber to run the central midfield, while inking Marcos Urena to play up top.
LAFC, though, has found the acquisition of their third designated player to be considerably more difficult, although they’ve been linked to Portuguese central midfielders Andre Andre and Andre Horta. Conspicuously absent from LAFC’s roster, however, is depth. Although top SuperDraft pick Joao Moutinho looks like a promising player, the likes of Aaron Kovar, Dejan Jakovic, Tristan Blackmon, Calum Mallace, and Rodrigo Pacheco are well short of the type of depth MLS teams are sporting in the TAM era.
All told, this LAFC side has very little margin for error if it wants to compete for a playoff spot in 2018. If even a couple of its signings don’t pan out or Ciman and/or Zimmerman repeat their disappointing 2017 campaigns, LAFC’s expansion season will likely have more in common with Orlando City or NYCFC than Atlanta.