MLS Western Conference Preview
1. FC Dallas
When Colin Clarke was fired and his opponent ex Arsenal man Steve Morrow was promoted, many believed little would change in philosophy at Pizza Hut Park. Well just about everything has changed this off season. FC Dallas let go of its three best midfielders from a year ago- Ronnie O’Brien and Richard Mulrooney are now in Toronto while Simo Valakari is back in Europe. However a signing of former Argentine National Team and Real Valladolid midfielder Pablo Richetti coupled with the addition of Colombian Juan Carlos Toya will more than alleviate the hole in midfield. Roberto Mina, who was one of Ecuador’s final cuts before the World Cup can also play in midfield but prefers to play up front, and in Morrow’s 4-3-3 he will have his shot. Mina will be joined up front by Carlos Ruiz, one of the best players to ever step on an MLS pitch and 6′-4” Kenny Cooper, whose apprenticeship at Manchester United helped to make him a revelation last year. Speedy Ghanian Dominic Oduro, and talented Abe Thompson will provide needed depth to the front line. The defense is outstanding and is anchored by Chris Gbandi, and Drew Moor. The Goalkeepers are fantastic. Dario Sala is suspended for the first six games of the season, but when he returns his inspired and rugged play will make him the starter. His backup is Shaka Hislop who recorded a clean sheet versus Sweden and then shut out England for 70 plus minutes in the World Cup. Not bad for a backup! Keep an eye on young Honduran midfielder Ramon Nunez, and American U-23 holding midfielder Dax McCarthy. FC Dallas lost a lot in the off season, but actually recovered nicely with the two midfield signings and have critical depth at every position. This team is a legitimate title contender.
The defending MLS Champion Houston Dynamo return a largely unchanged squad except for the loss of M/F Adrian Serioux. They may be the only team that did not add one significant player to their roster. Perhaps AEG didn’t have any money left after signing Beckham and Blanco for their two chosen franchises to fill either of the two vacant senior international slots in Houston. Inspite of being the ugly stepchild of the AEG MLS trio of teams, Houston will once again be the best of the three. Despite a strong starting eleven that includes Dwayne De Rosario, one of the best finishers in the history of the league, along with US World Cup veteran Brian Ching, Alejandro Moreno, and Scottish International Paul Dalglish as attacking options, and a midfield anchored by an improving but injory prone Ricardo Clark, this team is very thin on the bench. This team could be one major injury away from a possible disaster. Clark is potentially the replacement for Claudio Reyna with the US National Team but he must remain healthy. Brian Mullan and Craig Waibel are also excellent midfielders. The defense is anchored by the rock solid Eddie Robinson and Zach Wells continues to be a top keeper.
3. Los Angeles
David Beckham has played for two of the best clubs in the world. It is a pity for him that his arrival stateside will be on a team that will likely be fighting to keep its head above water when he arrives. For all the bluster coming from AEG and Alexi Lalas, not only are the Galaxy not one the premier clubs in the world, they are a fringe playoff contender in Major League Soccer. Were the great David Beckham not coming to America, we’d have no hesitation in picking the Galaxy last in the West. Perhaps it is because of the Galaxy’s weak roster that Landon Donovan recently announced he’d skip Copa America to concentrate on the club. Maybe it is because after trading Hercules Gomez and Ugo Ihemelu in the off season the L.A. will be over ally dependent on young stars like Midfielder Quaves Kirk and Defender Nathan Sturgis. Sturgis for his part will be gone for much of the summer with the US Under 20 team at the FIFA World Youth Cup. The fact that Frank Yallop seems enamored with Santino Quaranta, who couldn’t find himself in the match squad for DC United despite being given numerous chances to do so speaks volumes about the current situation at the Home Depot Center. Steady veterans Peter Vagenas and Cobi Jones will help the cause as will rock solid Jamaican International Defender Tyrone Marshall, but this team minus David Beckham is one of the worst in MLS. Nonetheless a player of Beckham’s quality and stature will be good enough to take this team into the playoffs and perhaps beyond. For all of Beckham’s detractors, England’s shocking form since his departure from the National Team speaks volumes as to his impact on the field. Since he is an unconventional player who lacks pace but is dead ball specialist, he is often maligned. Yet Beckham is one of the greats of our generation and his decision to come to MLS makes this league, inspite of its other faults relevent on the world stage.
4. Chivas USA
Bob Bradley did a remarkable job with this team last season, and was rewarded with the US National Team job. He has been replaced by perhaps the best player in MLS history-Preki. While Chivas LA maintained its latin flavor and emphasis on young American talent was also develop. From that came Jonathan Bornstein (who despite his name is part Mexican and thus fits in well at Chivas) the MLS Rookie of the Year and likely left back of the future for the US National Team. Chivas USA’s heart is Claudio Suarez, who last year continued to be an important part of Mexico’s World Cup team even at 37. Suarez anchors a back line that is very solid. The midfield will be led this season by Amado Guevara a former league MVP whose lack of discipline and team play ended his stay in New York. Jesse Marsch who started his MLS career by winning the MLS Cup with DC United in the inaugural year of 1996 is still going strong as vital cog in Chivas’ attack. Ante Razov had an outstanding year last year with 14 goals, but the loss of Fransisco Palencia and Juan Pablo Garcia could very well be too much to overcome. Cuban defector Raykel Galindo has been impressive in pre-season and could be the other starting forward. Chivas USA appears solid but unspectacular at every position. If David Beckham were not joining the other team that plays at the Home Depot Center, then Chivas would be a playoff lock. As it is, they have a fair chance of making the postseason.
5. Real Salt Lake
RSL may be improved this season with the addition of dynamic offensive talents like Freddy Aduand. Luis Tejeda, a forward from Panama. Their roster reads like a MLS All-Star team or USA “B” squad from about 10 years ago with veterans like Defender Eddie Pope, Midfielders Jason Kreis, Chris Brown, and Chris Klein as well as 2006 MLS leading scorer Jeff Cunningham. The player to watch is Mehdi Ballouchy who is entering his second season in MLS after a successful college career including time at Santa Clara. His technical ability and passing savvy should be enhanced by the offensive additions. Unfortunately for Real the surprise retirement of Goalkeeper Scott Garlick has left them vulnerable in the last third. This came after RSL traded Jay Nolly to DC United. A healthy Pope and U-23 keeper Chris Seitz may help, and could be enough to get Salt Lake into the playoffs. Owner/operator Dave Checketts has let coach John Ellinger know that the current results have not been good enough, and should RSL miss the playoffs again, Ellinger will be looking for work.
6. Colorado Rapids
The Rapids look to be a mess. Despite fancy new uniforms, tie up with Arsenal and a brand new stadium, the roster looks like a work in progress. In the off-season they traded their best player, Joe Cannon, to the Galaxy for Hercules Gomez and Ugo Ihemelu. Ihemelu was badly needed because the Rapdis defense was in a word abysmal last season. The back line will also included three players who have seen better days: Mike Petke, Greg Vanney and Brandon Prideaux. The midfield features two time US World Cup veteran Pablo Mastroeni, Kyle Beckerman and Jovan Kirovski. The attack will be led by Gomez and Panamanian Roberto Brown. This team will need a serious rebuilding phase and some useful advice from Arsene Wenger to be competitive. Fernando Clavijo could be the best coach in MLS, a potential future US National Team boss, but this team will not make him look good.