Yesterday, we rolled out a preview and predictions surrounding the Eastern Conference heading into the 2012 season, and today we are getting underway with the Western Conference. Since Chivas USA will play each Western Conference opponent three times this season, as opposed to once each for Eastern opponents, it seemed prudent to go a bit more in depth with the West.
Let's start by reminding you of the West's standings last season:
1. LA Galaxy: 67 points (Supporters Shield Winner, MLS Cup Champion)
2. Seattle Sounders: 63 points (lost in the Western Conference Semifinals)
3. Real Salt Lake: 53 points (lost in the Western Conference finals)4. FC Dallas: 52 points (lost in the Wild Card round)
5. Colorado Rapids: 49 points (lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals)
6. Portland Timbers: 42 points (did not qualify for the playoffs)
7. San Jose Earthquakes: 38 points (did not qualify for the playoffs)
8. Chivas USA: 36 points (did not qualify for the playoffs)
9. Vancouver Whitecaps: 28 points (did not qualify for the playoffs)
Ok, let's get started with the prognosticating. For the West, Rachna and I are picking the finishing order in thirds. Today we are starting with our projected bottom of the standings. Tomorrow, we'll pick the middle third, and we'll "reveal" the top three Friday. Since our thirds look a bit different, we thought this would be the best way to reveal our picks.
First, my three at the foot of the standings:
9. Colorado Rapids
Ok, picking them for the basement is pretty bold. They still have a lot of key players from their 2010 MLS Cup-winning squad. But a combination of aging and injured talent, as well as a culture of apathy that set in prior to the firing of the front office and coach Gary Smith during the offseason means Colorado may move down before they move back up. They've hired Oscar Pareja as coach, who has gotten rave reviews for his work as an assistant coach and youth director at FC Dallas, but who has not been head coach before. Accounts coming out of training camp say Pareja is attempting to change the system from Smith's, and as a result, he's probably going to find some growing pains as well as some players on the books whose playing style won't fit his philosophy.
Although the Rapids have had the reputation for bland soccer, they actually employed a variety of styles in 2011. Sometimes they played an ugly game all-around, sometimes they played a kick and rush style, sometimes they had a fluid attacking game, and sometimes they played a counterattacking style. As a result, their versatility could prove difficult for opponents to deal with, but it seemed their chameleon-like style came from the couple of players capable of stepping up on a given night and not from a conscious shift on the part of the coach and the team. In other words, they were a jack of all trades and a master of none, and so they could find themselves unable to play a rigid style this season.
Most of the core of the squad is intact, but their prospects heading into the season are mixed. Forward Conor Casey is returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered last summer, and will probably not be up to speed until midseason. Defender Anthony Wallace has now ruptured his own Achilles tendon and is expected to miss the entire season. Pablo Mastroeni is returning, but only after mulling over retirement. On the flipside, Omar Cummings should be back to form after an injury-plagued 2011, and I am excited to see Kosuke Kimura and rookie Kohei Yamada play on the same team. Fellow rookie Tony Cascio has also gotten good reviews in the preseason. And after weeks of teasing, the team signed young Argentine Martin Rivero. They think he will be the next MLS star - I think it's a possibility but I also think there's an equal chance he'll wash out. You just never know. Some of these players will shine for Colorado, but I think they will struggle mightily in 2012.
8. Vancouver Whitecaps
Will they improve on their first MLS season? Yes. Will they completely turn everything around. No. I think new coach Martin Rennie will prove to ultimately be a successful coach in MLS, but Rome wasn't built in a day, as they say. This club has a few good players, some potential young stars, and still some major question marks. They are starting on their path up the table, but in a stacked Western Conference, they will only go so far in 2012.
Returning this season are star attacking players Eric Hassli, Camilo Sanvezzo, and Davide Chiumiento. All three had brilliant moments in 2011, but they also drifted in and out of entire months of the season. It could be due in part to the destructive tenure of interim coach Tom Soehn, or it could be in their nature as players. This year, they'll have a great deal of competition for places in the lineup. The biggest addition is unquestionably Sebastien Le Toux, who will be expected to make an impact right away, and he likely will deliver. In addition, they will have rookie standout Darren Mattocks, who is expected to be an MLS-ready star, and will have young striker Omar Salgado a year older and more accustomed to the professional game. They also have NASL star Etienne Barbara, who is following Rennie up to MLS and is something of a wild card.
The big question comes in defense. They have added a couple of players, including South Korean star Young-Pyo Lee and Argentine Martin Bonjour, to bolster the defense, but Lee is pretty old and Bonjour is an unknown quantity. Jay DeMerit was the centerpiece of their team last year, but he was hurt most of the time. If he stays healthy that should help the team tremendously. But they seem pretty brittle as a unit heading into 2012.
This team will probably be fun to watch. But they will probably lose a lot of 3-2 and 4-3 games. They have so much depth in attack but you can't play all of them at the same time, while their defense may not be able to keep up with the glut of goals and could let the team down. So there will be improvement in 2012, but they need more time before making a significant leap up the table.
7. San Jose Earthquakes
They are in a very similar position to Chivas heading into the season. Both teams struggled quite a bit in 2011, but had short stretches of good play. Both teams totally overhauled their rosters this offseason and expect major improvement. While I think one of the pair will actually make a leap, I don't think it will be the Quakes. They may be better but they won't be contending for any of the trophies.
San Jose coach Frank Yallop has brought in a significant number of players. They traded for Marvin Chavez of FC Dallas, who is a dangerous speedster but who suffered from inconsistency in Dallas. They also traded for midfielder Jean Alexandre, who is a versatile player but with a limited track record. Their big splash signing was veteran Turkish forward Sercan Guvenisik, who could turn out to be this year's Eric Hassli or could be this year's Mustapha Jarju. They've also brought in forward Tressor Moreno, who as a part of the Colombian invasion will likely have a better shot of adapting to the league.
This is a team that has a good attacking corps and a solid defense, but their midfield seems somewhat soft. They have several promising wingers, but somebody will need to step up and dictate play through the middle. I'm not sure they will be able to advance the ball well on a consistent basis, and as a result, I think they will struggle. I anticipate the Earthquakes having vast swings from game to game, with some matches making them look like world beaters while others will leave them looking hopeless. This inconsistency will haunt them ultimately in the coming campaign, and their rebuilding effort will fall short.
Let's now turn to Rachna's bottom three. Rachna decided it was more logical to lump the teams together in groups of three rather than assign specific finishes, so these three are in no particular order: