Editorial – The MLS Western Conference has been the wild west in this early 2018 MLS season. Sporting KC are first in the west and tied for the Supporter’s Shield. Outside of them, every team is a work-in-progress and in the thick of it.
The Wild MLS Western Conference: Sporting KC and Unfinished Products
Eight of the twelve teams in the Westerns Conference are within two points of the red line. The only convincing team two months into the season are Sporting KC. Every other team has somethings going for them and somethings to work on.
Ahead of the pack:
Kansas City have just one loss on the season, the season opener against New York City FC (who they are tied with for the Shield as of the writing of this article). The defense had a shaky start to the season but has turned it around of late. They’re scoring goals in bunches with nine different players contributing so far this season. Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez have quelled the doubts about having a consistent goal scorer. They’re playing well on both sides of the ball and undefeated on the road. They’re the best team in the west bar none.
Still, Sporting have been bad once they get to the playoffs the last few years. Unless they win the Supporter’s Shield, this team will be judged on whether they win in November or not.
Contenders in waiting:
The Houston Dynamo had a fantastic 2017 season in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. They’ve got a multi-headed monster in the attack led by Albert ‘La Pantera’ Elis. The defense is still slow and needs some work but the midfield is starting to come together. There’s no doubt they’ll be able to score goals this year. If Manager Wilmer Cabrera can tighten up the defense, they can be a contender in the west.
In the same boat are Oscar Pareja and FC Dallas. The Hoops had one of the most spectacular crashes to the end of the last season with a number of players potentially seeking transfer opportunities during the summer window. The band, for the most part, is back together this year and Mauro Diaz is back and completely recovered from ACL tear. They play great at home and Pareja has a knack for getting the team to play together and filling gaps with young talented homegrown players. If he can keep everyone motivated and Maximiliano Urruti can get hot, they’ll be in the thick of it.
Los Angeles FC are tied for second in the conference and haven’t even played a home game yet. They open up Banc of California Stadium this weekend. Bob Bradley’s side have been up and down so far this year. There’s no doubt they’ve hit on all their DP and TAM signings. Their depth is still a question and we’ll have to wait and see how much energy Carlos Vela has after the World Cup. History isn’t on their side as a first-year expansion team, but if they make a few good moves in the summer, I wouldn’t bet against Bob Bradley getting them into the playoffs.
Across town, the LA Galaxy aren’t a team so much as a collection of assets. Sigi Schmid completely rebuilt this squad over the off-season with an emphasis on defense and being stronger up the middle. And then they signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and how the team seems to be operating around his gravitational pull. The back line is still finding chemistry but is really slow. They’ve given up 10 goals in seven games which has them in the middle of the pack. Ola Kamara and Romain Alessandrini haven’t scored since the home opener and the Dos Santos brothers are MIA/injured/refusing to play until after the World Cup(?). On paper, they’re one of the most talented teams in the league, but Sigi’s got put the puzzle pieces together and they don’t seem to match right now.
Real Salt Lake are winless on the road and all three of their wins have come at home and been unconvincing. They’ve been blown out several times. The aging core of Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, etc. are showing their age. Joao Plata hasn’t terrorized defenses like in years past. The young players are working through their struggles. They’ve yet to establish a tactical identity and are dealing with some injuries. Mike Petke’s a great motivator but no strategy mastermind.
Colorado Rapids are in many ways a new team in 2018. First-year Head Coach Anthony Hudson has brought in 14 new players and is still implementing his 3-5-2 system. They’ve dropped a bunch of points by giving up goals in the final 10 minutes of the game, but they are scoring and creating more. The team isn’t the most talented, but are still getting fit and healthy. Much like LAFC, they’re a new squad that’s trying to gel and has yet to reach a higher level of consistency.
The Vancouver Whitecaps have been red card machines in 2018 and that’s had them start slow. Carl Robinson is still in love with sitting deep and creating havoc by creating quick counter-attacks on turnovers in the midfield, but there doesn’t seem to be a Plan B. They’ve had a few good road wins so far and their only bad road results have come when they’ve gone down a man. They’re only averaging a goal a game, but Jordy Reyna and Kei Kamara haven’t been fully healthy. If they can get healthy and the team can clean up the red cards, they’ll be in the playoff hunt. To truly take them seriously though, Robinson needs to come up with a secondary gameplan when the opponent doesn’t let them bunker.
You guys need help:
The Portland Timbers are basically Diego Valeri and a bunch of interns right now. They had a terrible start to the year, granted with five away games in a row. They’ve won back-to-back home games which has restored some confidence. Stil Fanendo Adi looks disengaged so far this season year and the defense has issues. Givano Savarese benching Liam Ridgewell was a puzzling decision. They still have one of the 2017 MLS MVP, but someone else needs to step up if they even want to be in the conversation to defend their 2017 Western Conference Title.
Oh gosh, where do I start with Minnesota United FC? The defense is still really bad and nothing they did this off-season has stopped that bleeding. Darwin Quintero was a great first DP signing and he’s already contributing offensively. Still, this team doesn’t have an impressive result outside of surviving a 2-1 win at Orlando City SC. And apparently, Adrian Heath thinks Abu Danladi should be starting over Christian Ramirez (who’s averaging half a goal per appearance in league play). This team will score goals, but unless four players kick it into high gear, they again won’t be about to outscore opponents and should end out outside the playoffs.
Second to last in the Western Conference are the San Jose Earthquakes. They still have the Goonie Magic but have been giving up leads before they get to the final minutes of the game. They have lots of offensive contributors and are scoring a bunch, but can’t keep a clean sheet. Their only win is from opening day against Minnesota when they had a 3-0 lead and almost lost (final score 3-2). Anibal Godoy has regressed to the mean. I don’t know what to make of this team and I’m not sure how it gets way better from here.
Bottom of the west are Seattle Sounders FC. In Seattle’s defense, they had a bunch of injuries to start the year and were trying to prioritize CONCACAF Champions League. Clint Dempsey got suspended and the offense sputtered. They did get their first win on Sunday. The offense still needs some help with Jordan Morris out for the year and several other players not picking up the slack. This looks like it will be the last run for Dempsey, Chad Marshall, Ozzie Alonso, and the old core. We’ll see if Brian Schmetzer can work his late-season magic into one final cup run. If not, we’re probably looking at serious rebuild this winter.