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The Goat Parade's 2012 Western Conference Preview: Part III

CARSON, CA - OCTOBER 22: Sounders have a good shot of running away from the pack in 2012 (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
CARSON, CA - OCTOBER 22: Sounders have a good shot of running away from the pack in 2012 (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
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We conclude our leaguewide 2012 MLS preview today with the top of the Western Conference. If you missed it, take a look at the Eastern Conference, the bottom of the West, and the middle of the West. Obviously, if you've been keeping score at home, the big reveal today shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Then again, our predictions today are not too different from most folks heading into the season. Although it's difficult to bet three teams against the field for MLS Cup, these three are among the best bets heading into the regular season.

Once again, let's remind you of the Western Conference 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)

So with that, guess who we expect will be at the top of the West in 2012? Let's see what Rachna says first:

Spots 1-3: LAG, Seattle, RSL
I think that these three teams remain the strongest in the West. Each one has had some setbacks (the loss of Omar Gonzalez for LAG, loss of key players for Seattle, and some rearrangements for RSL), yet they have all been able to work through these and demonstrate that they are the best. All three are loaded and will be able to turn to their bench in times of need. I expect to see all three of them in the post season.

Alicia: I'm with Rachna here all the way. Let me give my predicted order of finish at the top and a few more observations.

The Galaxy are coming off a fantastic season, one that Chivas fans probably don't want to spend much time thinking about. They have retained all their key players, except for the long-term injury to Gonzalez, and they have brought back Edson Buddle into the fold and signed Marcelo Sarvas. So why am I picking them to finish third? I think there are a few reasons. First, it's tough for any team to win a title - it's even tougher to keep humming at the same frequency for seasons on end. The Galaxy have been a dangerous team the last few years, but with them crowned champs, the bullseye will be completely on them every single game this year. That kind of pressure is tough to deal with, and while Bruce Arena and the players he has can probably manage, it's asking a lot.

Another concern is the loss of Gonzalez. The interesting part of this is that Gonzalez might have transferred in January had he not suffered the ACL tear in his very first training session in Germany, so obviously the Galaxy knew there was a solid chance he would not play in 2012 anyway. But he is the reigning MLS Defensive Player of the Year, and while the rest of the backline is very good, Gonzalez was a step above the rest. So while Arena put a premium on defense last season, it will be interesting to see if the team can be as stout this year.

Finally, Robbie Keane is going to be gone for awhile in the middle of the season while at the Euros for Ireland, David Beckham will certainly be at the Olympics in one capacity or another (again coming in the middle of the season) and there are strong rumors Landon Donovan will go to the Olympics with the U.S. team as an overage player (assuming the U.S. makes the Olympics, of course). These are three of the best players on both the Galaxy and in the league - can the Galaxy withstand long-term absences from these guys?

They have made almost no changes this offseason. Their draft picks were somewhat puzzling, although if any team in the league has a track record of getting unheralded guys to make good, it's RSL. I would probably be lower on this team if they hadn't made such a run in the playoffs last year, but they looked like the RSL of old when they made it to the postseason. With the key core intact, and with Javier Morales back to full strength after Marcos Mondaini's terrible tackle last year, they will probably hit the ground running.

One significant question will be how top forwards Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio will play this year. The pair has alternated strong seasons the last two years, and if both can get on form, the team will probably be unstoppable. But if one of them is hampered by injuries or is out of sorts, it could slow the team down considerably.

The main reason I'm slotting them in second is that I think Morales' injury demonstrated the importance of first teamers on this team. They have depth in the squad, but with the limited payroll they've had to be more strategic in building depth than other teams that can splash the cash. So if any of the players in the spine of the team (Saborio, Espindola, Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, and Nick Rimando) is out for a sustained stretch, it could derail their Supporters Shield aspirations. Still, this team looks ready, and hungry to win.

Put simply, they look ready to make the next breakthrough. Many teams have a strong homefield advantage in MLS, but the combination of the size of the crowd and the unique turf (which has been replaced and should be of much better quality this year) gives Seattle an edge. They are a truly major professional team in Seattle, and the front office treats them as one. They have an MLS Cup-winning coach in Sigi Schmid, and they have a very good core of players. Besides that, the Sounders have added a couple of key starters and shifted their squad depth in ways that could pay off tremendously.

One of the big questions coming in to the season will be if new goalkeeper Michael Gspurning will settle in MLS. The hype surrounding him is that he's great - maybe even better than Kasey Keller. But international goalkeepers have had a checkered past in MLS, and while I realize there's no American keeper hanging out waiting for a team, goalkeeper is one of the deepest positions in the league and if Gspurning is not an absolute rock, watch out because it will get ugly fast.

This is the make or break year in many respects for star forward Fredy Montero, who is expected to break out and become the biggest star in the league, but hasn't previously put it all together. If he can get going and lead this team, there's no reason why the Sounders cannot end the season atop the standings and make a big push in the playoffs. They have no major holes in their lineup, the team is focused, and they are motivated to bring more to the city. As a result, I think this is the Sounders' year.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!