MLS is back this weekend and here is our team by team guide to the Western Conference race. Can the Earthquakes repeat their surprise Supporters Shield run
Graham Parker and our regular cast of fan reps and bloggers inspect the contenders Eastern Conference preview
A quick glance down who's in and out at each Western Conference club, suggests that there's a lot of turnover, and it may be a little while before a clear picture of the conference emerges. Certainly guessing at front runners is a little more complicated than last year, when a stacked LA side appeared to have gotten stronger, if anything, in the off-season. Yes, they'd lost Omar Gonzalez to injury, but how much could they miss one defender? A whole lot it seemed, as the Galaxy spent the first half of the year falling down the rabbit hole created by the absence of Gonzalez, and the second half of the year quietly climbing out of it. So quietly that Bruce Arena could claim with some justification that nobody had noticed his side were the form team in the league from the sumer onwards. By the time they had noticed, Robbie Keane was plundering goals through the play-offs and the Galaxy had back-to-back titles. Oh and then Beckham left.
Of the teams they beat to get there, Seattle and San Jose have been among the more stable sides for turnover this off-season, suggesting at first glance their respective coaches are pretty happy with their squads. Though on closer inspection, a Seattle side built round Fredy Montero will now proceed without Montero, after another playoff disappointment, while San Jose have drafted in some defensive reinforcements with Champions League play in mind. The third team LA beat, Vancouver Whitecaps, have had a fair amount of players in and out, as Martin Rennie retunes a team that rather went off the boil in the second half of the season. Rennie's team is clearly his now, and this will be a key year for him. The same goes for Oscar Pareja at Colorado, who finally tilts the balance of his personnel towards his way of playing, after occasional first year culture clashes.
Two new coaches have arrived at their respective teams with a bang - Jose Luis Sanchez Sola has been checking birth certificates at Chivas, while Caleb Porter arrives at Portland with a mandate to reinvent a team that struggled again on the road in 2012.
Reinvention of a sort at Real Salt Lake, too, as the team Jason Kreis built finally loses some of its foundational members, after a strangely subdued season for one that turned out to bring a record points haul. Finally FC Dallas, now without Brek Shea, have added Eric Hassli and Kenny Cooper to their strike force. Hopefully for their fans Hassli does not end this season with the bottom team in the league, as he has done for the past two.
And those fans and others have their say and their predictions below, as we go to some of our regular cast of fan reps, bloggers, podcasters and beat writers to assess their team's chances this year, along with my take on where each team has made changes and what we can expect of them.
Players in: M Carlos Alvarez (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); M Eric Avila (1/22/13 - trade from Colorado); D Steve Purdy (2/14/13 - free); D Carlos Borja (2/14/13 - free); M Edgar Mejia (2/22/13 - loan from Chivas Guadalajara); F Giovani Casillas (2/22/13 - loan from Chivas Guadalajara); D Mario de Luna (2/22/13 - loan from Chivas Guadalajara); D Joaquín Velázquez (2/26/13 - loan from Chivas Guadalajara); D Walter Vílchez (2/26/13 - discovery signing)
Players out: F Juan Pablo Ángel (12/3/12 - out of contract); M Peter Vagenas (12/3/12 - out of contract); D Danny Califf (12/3/12 - option declined); F Alejandro Moreno (12/3/12 - option declined); M Nick LaBrocca (1/22/13 - trade to Colorado); F Casey Townsend (1/25/13 - trade to D.C. United); M Ben Zemanski (2/13/13 - trade to Portland); D James Riley (2/14/13 - trade to D.C. United); M Paolo Cardozo (2/14/13 - option declined); M Ryan Smith (2/14/13 - option declined); D John Valencia (2/14/13 - option declined); F Cesar Romero (2/14/13 - waived); M Shalrie Joseph (2/19/13 - traded to Seattle)
Coach: Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, aka "Chelis"; (replaced Robin Fraser in off-season)
Opening game: Columbus Crew (H), Sat March 2nd, 10.30pm
Guardian view: There appears to be very little middle ground here - either Chelis is the "Special One" his rather bullish public proclamations would suggest, or Chivas will be picking up the pieces for some time to come. The new ownership regime at Chivas wasted little time in letting Robin Fraser go, after the horribly isolated incumbent head coach had endured a dismal run in at the end of last season. Fraser soon pitched up again as an assistant at New York, while several of the players he'd brought to the club now found themselves following him through the exit, as new head coach Chelis embarked on a roster purge that saw veteran players like Danny Califf, James Riley, and most remarkably perhaps, Shalrie Joseph out of the door to make way for a Mexican-centric revolution. Chelis was adamant that the main issue was a bloated wage bill needing to be trimmed to give him room to manoeuvre, and that may explain the rather lop-sided deals in favor of the clubs taking players off his hands (Joseph's move to Seattle seemed particularly remarkable in that regard).
As a coach at Puebla, Chelis made his name as a motivator of middling players to punch above their weight. He'll need all his famed motivational powers at a dispirited Chivas, though early signs are that the players who remain are responding. Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy has survived the cull so far (though it seems there have been a couple of near misses on the trade front) and has spoken of the enthusiasm the new coach has generated. Having moved Joseph off the wage bill though, Chelis was quick to turn to a trusted source for reinforcements. Three Chivas de Guadalajara players arrived on loan at the end of last week, including midfielder Edgar Mejia and 19 year old forward Giovani Casillas. And a further two veteran defenders, including another parent club loan arrived as this preview was being finished. The forward depth still looks very thin though, which suggests an intriguing litmus test for the coach's man-management prowess — can he persuade Juan Agudelo to deliver more consistently on his promise and score the goals Chivas needs? If he doesn't, then Chelis could be rummaging through the remainder bins at parent club Chivas de Guadalajara before too long, in search of more firepower. He's not worried though - telling one sceptical writer, "In October, call me please and tell me the talent of this team." As for Chivas USA's last abortive attempt to build a team round players of Mexican heritage:
"In 2005, the owners have this idea, but don't give it to Chelis. Now they have the Mexican players, the American Latino players and Chelis."
Chivas USA have had perhaps the most news-filled offseason of any MLS team. Owner Jorge Vergara assumed full control of the club, held a fascinating press conference, then went back into the shadows. The club hired Jose Luis Sanchez Sola (aka "Chelís") as their new head coach, and he will likely be the most quotable coach in the league this season. As for the roster itself, there has been considerable turnover, as expected, but what has been controversial has been the assumed policy taken by the club. Every player brought in so far has been Latino (although it must be said that many of these players are American), while most of the players who have left the club one way or another are non-Latino. Is Chivas USA trying to corner an untapped market on and off the field, or something more sinister? Either way, it has dominated conversations during the preseason.
As for performance, that is difficult to say what will happen. The majority of players brought in this season do not have MLS experience, and that usually does not work well in the league. Of those who do have MLS experience, most have not really done much to this point. Chelís already seems to have rubbed off on his players, and they seem to genuinely think highly of him, but it is unclear if the team can realistically compete. Certainly, the best case scenario would be for this to be a multi-year project, but it is unclear if this club has the patience to see something like that through. If Chivas USA made the playoffs this season, it would be a terrific achievement, but more realistic would be if the club could make its way out of the basement for 2013. I'll go with 7th place.
Last Season: 7th (37 pts)
Players in: M/F Atiba Harris (12/3/12 - trade from Vancouver); M Eric Avila (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Edson Buddle (12/14/12 - trade from LA Galaxy); M Nathan Sturgis (12/23/12 - trade from Houston); D Diego Calderón (1/3/12 - transfer from LDU Quito); F Kevin Harbottle (1/17/12 - free transfer from Universidad Católica); D DeShorn Brown (1/17/12 - SuperDraft); M Dillon Powers (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); M Dillon Serna (1/18/12 - Homegrown); M Nick LaBrocca (1/22/13 - trade from Chivas USA); F Charles Eloundou (1/25/13 - weighted lottery); GK Clint Irwin (2/21/13 - free); D Korey Kindle (2/21/13 - SuperDraft)
Players out: F Conor Casey (11/16/12 - option declined); M Edu (11/16/12); GK Ian Joyce (11/16/12 - option declined); D Tyrone Marshall (11/16/12 - out of contract); M Joseph Nane (11/16/12 - option declined); D Scott Palguta (11/16/12 - out of contract); D Tyson Wahl (11/16/12 - option declined); D Luis Zapata (11/16/12 - option declined); D Hunter Freeman (12/3/12 - option declined); F Omar Cummings (12/23/12 - trade to Houston); M Jeff Larentowicz (1/16/13 - trade to Chicago); M Eric Avila (1/22/13 - trade to Chivas USA)
Coach: Oscar Pareja (took over from Gary Smith after 2011 season; second full season)
Opening game: FC Dallas (A), Sat March 2nd, 8.30pm
Guardian view: The Rapids endured some rather rough teething problems in 2012, as Oscar Pareja started his overhaul of a quintessential physical 4-4-2 side into one capable of playing a more fluid passing game. Such changes of systems and mindsets can be a treacherous proposition in MLS, as Aron Winter found at Toronto last season - as the disparity between his desired style and available personnel proved too much. For Pareja, the ghost of Smith's side (and their unlikely MLS Cup in 2010) hung over his first year, and while the Rapids had their moments, they failed to convince consistently. The peculiarities of the playoffs meant that their season technically stayed alive longer than the team had any real right to expect, and from summer onwards, most fans' eyes were on the winter overhaul.
And quite an off-season it has been. The face of the Smith era, Conor Casey, was sent to Philadelphia, while other stalwarts of that side, Omar Cummings and Jeff Larentowicz, were also traded. It's Pareja's team now, and it throws up some interesting questions:
How will Hendry Thomas, who arrived near the end of the 2012 season, bed in with Mastroeni at the base of that midfield? Have the side gone too far in the opposite direction from the old physical Rapids? The center back pairing of new signing Diego Calderon and Drew Moor may fit with Pareja's technical style, but they might get pushed around by some of the bigger teams out there. Can Edson Buddle, coming off a mediocre season at LA, recapture his 2010 form? And can the likes of Cascio build on their rookie form to give him the assists he needs?
Buddle might be the key to providing a cutting edge to some pretty approach play and they need him to start scoring early. The Rapids have had a lot of turnover this off-season and that suggests another period of initial adjustment, but they won't want to be cut adrift in the meantime, after the mediocre way last season played out. If Pareja can make it work, the Rapids should become a more consistently entertaining team to watch, and a more consistent team to play for.
Aside from Drew Moor. I have no idea who will be in the first 11 for the Rapids as a complete overhaul of the roster poses more questions than answers. Out are Conor Casey, Jeff Larentowicz and Omar Cummings and incoming are, among many others, Edson Buddle, Nick LaBrocca and Atiba Harris. Additionally, Pablo Mastroeni is back after missing most of last season. Pre-season games have demonstrated the lack of familiarity on the team as they shipped a ton of goals and didn't score many either. The cause hasn't been helped by injuries to Martin Rivero, Matt Pickens and Edson Buddle. With so many new and unknown players supporters are both excited and terrified, which is a new feeling after the doldrums of the past few seasons.
Given the squad turnover, injuries to Buddle and Rivero and the lack of clarity at both fullback positions the Rapids appear primed for repeat of last season —missing the playoffs. This is a big year for Bravo as he now has the coach and type of players he wants for the style of play. The question is how patient will the supporters be come July and August? At least it'll be interesting to watch.
Last Season: 6th (39 pts)
Players in: M Peter Luccin (12/10/12 - free); D Stephen Keel (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Pipico (12/18/12 - transfer from Vasco da Gama); F/M Bradlee Baladez (12/19/12 - Homegrown); D London Woodberry (1/9/13 - Homegrown); GK Raúl Fernández (1/10/13 - free); D Walker Zimmerman (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); F Eric Hassli (2/4/13 - trade from Toronto); F Kenny Cooper (2/4/13 - trade from New York); M Je-Vaughn Watson (2/19/13 - trade from Houston); D Michel (2/19/13 - free)
Players out: M Bryan Leyva (11/7/12 - option declined); M Bruno Guarda (11/7/12 - option declined); F Ruben Luna (11/7/12 - option declined); F Matías Jara (11/7/12 - option declined); GK Kevin Hartman (12/3/12 - out of contract); M Julian de Guzman (12/3/12 - out of contract); F Scott Sealy (12/3/12 - option declined); D Moises Hernandez (1/3/13 - loan to Saprissa); M Ricardo Villar (1/23/13 - waived); M James Marcelin (1/23/13 - waived); M Brek Shea (1/31/13 - transfer to Stoke City); F Pipico (2/4/13 - waived)
Coach: Schellas Hyndman (took over from Steve Morrow in June 2008; starting 5th full season)
Opening game: Colorado (H), Sat March 2nd, 8.30pm
Guardian view: The rumblings around Brek Shea set the tone for a rather fractious season last year, as the frustrated young player sat out games through injury and suspension, while the Dallas team labored, with or without him. Just as crucially the team seemed to be in a holding pattern waiting for 2010 MVP David Ferreira to return from injury and rescue their season. Ferreira did come back, and Dallas made a late run, only to capitulate in their playoff challenge with 5th place Vancouver looking very vulnerable on the run-in. It was that sort of season.
Shea has gone to Stoke now and Schellas Hyndman wasted no team spending the allocation money to bring in a serious looking frontline of Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli - the former a victim of the cap at New York, the latter vocally agitating his way away from Toronto. Cooper got 18 goals last season, alongside Thierry Henry. If that version of Cooper shows up in Dallas (rather than the 2011 Portland Timbers version), Hassli starts knocking in the wonder goals, Blas Perez builds on his first season and Ferreira hits full throttle, this should be a much more dangerous Dallas side going forward. Draftee Walker Zimmerman was a highly touted prospect before skipping the Combine - he may get a chance to impress in defense, while Hyndman will be hoping that at the very least there's no drop-off in goal without veteran Kevin Hartman, having signed the Peruvian national team goalkeeper Raul Fernandez. It's a lot of turnover, but the experience of the key new players and the technical staff continuity, should see this Dallas side consolidate to do better this year. Of the teams who finished outside the playoffs last season, Dallas are perhaps the nearest to a reliable bet to break into them this year (the variables are somewhat wilder when it comes to predicting how all the changes at Portland pan out).
The off-season started kind of rocky and has been slowly getting better. Straight away we lost Kevin Hartman and were kind of confused as to why a player who'd done so much for the club was going now, then came the one we'd been sort of expecting when Brek (Shea) went. But then the day after we lost him we picked up Hassli and Cooper. I think it's a fantastic swap. Hassli's had a rough go in MLS so far and has been with terrible teams. He seems really excited to be here. He was quoted saying he just wants to "shut his mouth and work" and that he's "F-ing excited" to be here. Hopefully we'll jeep up the track record of improving the fortunes of players who come from Toronto. And Kenny Cooper, I just about hit the roof in excitement when I heard he was coming back to Dallas.
Last season Perez was good but it felt like he was never here, always in Panama for qualifiers. But now we've gone from one good striker to three good strikers, so I'm going to say that with the supply they'll get and their finishing, 3rd place looks a realistic target — certainly nothing less than the playoffs.