By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Feb 26, 2020) US Soccer Players - For most of the previous decade-plus, the Western Conference was Major League Soccer's dominant conference. Eight consecutive Western Conference teams won MLS Cup, from Real Salt Lake's 2009 championship team through the 2017 Seattle Sounders. Toronto FC and Atlanta United won consecutive titles for the Eastern Conference, but the Sounders righted that ship and are now defending their title.
Surviving the Western Conference regular season and the playoffs have been more than enough preparation for succeeding in MLS Cup. This season, the field looks stacked once more. There are a few duds out West, but 2020 promises to be much more competitive than last year.
The Seattle Sounders walked away with the biggest prize of all from 2019 in capturing their second MLS Cup title. The Sounders remained mostly quiet in the offseason, save for bringing in midfielder and Designated Player Joao Paulo from Brazilian side Botafogo. Paulo showed his worth immediately, scoring in the club's first leg in the Concacaf Champions League series against CD Olimpia. Miguel Ibarra was also a late pick-up, but the Sounders will rely on the likes of Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris, and Stefan Frei to help chase after another championship. How the team handles the pressures of trying to repeat remains to be seen, but history suggests a struggle. The last team to repeat was the 2011-12 LA Galaxy.
Meanwhile, the 2020 LA Galaxy feels the weight of those teams and all other Galaxy championship teams. So much so, that the team spent big on Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez to try and bolster their roster. While Chicharito did not answer an on-the-field need, he certainly checks the Galaxy superstar box. How much he has left in the tank is anyone's guess, but he likely will not surpass Zlatan's total of 31 from 2019. That's only because that figure is ridiculously high for anyone to target. Management will expect a stronger season, both in regular-season play and postseason finish. Another second-round finish will not work. Unfortunately for the Galaxy, that might be the ceiling for this club unless the defense shows significant improvement.
Los Angeles FC meanwhile was the cream of the crop from the start of 2019 through the Western Conference final. The dream season came up short, but the team set an impossibly high bar for itself to reach. This year's team will be compared to last year's team every step of the way. The team will face immense pressure to compete with last year's squad, fair or not.
Sporting KC might be the most-improved Western Conference club. That's mainly because of the arrival of Alan Pulido. The shock transfer was a record-setter for Sporting KC. It gives them one of the most enigmatic and talented strikers in Mexican soccer. Pulido will provide the club a scoring presence that they lacked a year ago. Acquiring Robert Puncec from Croatian side HNK Rijeka as well as former West Ham defender Winston Reid helps address their defensive issues. The defense was outright terrible, allowing the second-most goals in the league. An improved defense and Pulido's presence up top should help turn things around quickly.
It will be a delayed reaction, but FC Dallas will gain a prominent striker once Franco Jara arrives from Pachuca. The Argentine striker will not be available to the club until after the summer transfer window opens in July, but the team should be in a strong position once that happens. FC Dallas added Fafa Picault from Philadelphia and Thiago Santos from Palmeiras to man the defensive midfield. FC Dallas's youth system continues to churn out players such as Jesus Ferreira and Paxton Pomykal. More young players should get chances this season.
Minnesota United made two major moves, bringing in Ecuadorian league standout Luis Amarilla to bolster the attack. Amarilla is an upgrade over outgoing forward Angelo Rodriguez. Tyler Miller also came over from LAFC to take over in goal for the Loons. Already, Minnesota's upgrades are strong as they should take an already solid club up a notch. The Loons are also chasing Boca Juniors midfielder Emanuel Reynoso. If successful, Minnesota could be unstoppable at times. Even without him, the club should contend for a top-three spot out West.
Rearranging the Furniture
The furniture may be new, but the Vancouver Whitecaps keep buying the same kind of goods. The exception to that is Lucas Cavallini, who is a big get. The club paid Liga MX side Puebla around $6 million for his services. It will be worth it if nothing else to bring the Canadian-born Cavallini home to star for a Canadian side. Still, the team has question marks all over the field. A slew of offseason changes coupled with a history of subpar performances does not foreshadow a great showing from Vancouver. The club's 34 points from 2019 might be a figure this year's team could match.
The Houston Dynamo meanwhile has some positives, notably new coach Tab Ramos. The former USMNT star and youth coach now gets his first crack at coaching on the professional side. His vigor and enthusiasm should be a benefit. Also, Darwin Quintero was underused in Minnesota. With Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas on the field, Quintero could become part of a strong attack. The midfield is suspect. Asking more than the 40 points the team had in 2019 may be asking too much. Things may seem to be in a decent spot, but Houston has reached the playoffs just once in the past six years. So much must change to bring true progress to the club this season.
Robin Fraser took over as Colorado Rapids coach in late August 2019. The team promptly went 5-2-0 in the final seven games. Add to that newcomer Younes Namli, a playmaker on loan from Russian side Krasnodar. There's also ex-Guingamp winger Nicolas Benezet and other newcomers such as Lalas Abubakar and Auston Trusty. All of a sudden, the team has quite a bit of depth. Fraser also had the entire offseason to get comfortable in the Mile High City. That means the team should be strong from the start. Maybe not five-wins-in-seven-games strong, but solid enough.
Real Salt Lake's longtime star goalkeeper Nick Rimando retired, removing a given for the club over multiple seasons. Without that safe pair of hands, RSL's improvements don't look like much with 18-year-old Venezuelan midfielder Jeizon Ramirez and veteran keeper Zac MacMath the most notable additions. With no Rimando, no major acquisitions, and other Western teams improving, many onlookers look at RSL and yawn. RSL thrives in the underdog role. To be honest, this team did not look like much last year. All RSL did was hang around all season, finish third in the Western Conference, and reached the quarterfinals. They lost to eventual champions Seattle. They dealt with coach Mike Petke's ouster and other off-the-field distractions. So, RSL will be a surprise this season when the club really shouldn't be.
Southern Question Mark
Soccer in the south has succeeded with Atlanta United dominating MLS. Now, it's Nashville FC playing in a region not necessarily known for pro soccer. The club plucked two defenders out of LA teams as hometown star Dave Romney and ex LAFC standout Walker Zimmerman will try and stabilize the club's defense from the start. FC Cincinnati is a warning of what can happen when new teams do not place the utmost importance in piecing together a strong defense. Dax McCarty helps give the team personality and should pair nicely with ex-Quakes midfielder Anibal Godoy. The team will struggle to score goals. Nashville might not hit the depths that FC Cincinnati did a year ago, but don't expect an Atlanta United entrance either.
Belief in the System
A scant few offseason moves are not necessarily a bad thing. At least that's what the Portland Timbers hope for. Portland did bring in players like Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Felipe More to bolster the attack. Yimmi Chara will add some flair to the midfield. Otherwise, the Timbers were rather quiet in the offseason. That may not be a bad thing if Portland thinks that coach Giovanni Savarese is the right man for the job. Savarese was unable to get the team to win much at home down the stretch. Some improvement on that end will be critical. The team was very close to a respectable playoff finish. Instead, they petered out toward the end. The challenge will be consistency and a better showing at home.
Mathias Almeyda is a bona fide star coach in the league if nothing else for giving the San Jose Earthquakes hope that the team has not had in nearly a decade. Hope needs to bear fruit this season. San Jose should have reached the playoffs last season. However, a terrible record down the stretch cost the team the spot. The club made some changes, notably bringing in former Chivas defender Oswaldo Alanis to stabilize the backline. The team's biggest mover for the 2020 season was bringing in Almeyda before the 2019 season. Now, the club is hoping to see that come to fruition.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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