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Many see the MLS Western Conference as the stronger of the two, and the favourites at this stage have to be LA Galaxy, despite the 2011 MLS Cup winners losing centreback Omar Gonzalez to injury on the first day of a month-long loan spell at FC Nuremberg.
While the top three places may be cut and dry, excitement this season comes in the mid-table battle. With four sides potentially vying for that last play-off spot: Vancouver, Portland, Colorado and San Jose all have things going for them. They also all possess kryptonite-like weaknesses that will hamper their chances, making it a tough difficult battle to call.
But who are the teams involved, and where do we think they'll finish?
Chivas USA (9th) Last season was a tough one for the Los Angeles-based side. Inconsistency meant they finished one place from the bottom in the West, with little likelihood of big improvement in 2012. The club added pace to the flanks with the signing of former Arsenal trainee Ryan Smith, but there’s a distinct lack of depth up front, putting a lot of pressure on Juan Pablo Angel to perform.
If Chivas are to achieve anything this year, the issue of consistency needs rectifying. That can often be hard to do with such a high turnover of players, and while poor league finishes have seen them get better draft picks, it’s not really an ambitious long term strategy.
Key Player: Juan Pablo Angel. Watch a compilation of Angel’s goals for New York (good news, there's one below...) and you’ll see why so many in MLS admire the Columbian forward. Moved on to the LA Galaxy when Thierry Henry arrived in the Big Apple, it was a similar story for the former River Plate and Aston Villa man when Robbie Keane made the move to LA. With so few options behind him (bar rookie Casey Townsend) it’s a lot to ask of Angel and if he fails to score you have to question who will pick up the slack.
Colorado Rapids (7th) After winning the MLS Cup in 2010, the defence of their title never really got going last season. Manager Gary Smith went back to England after a falling out with the club’s technical director Paul Bravo, amid claims he was “sick of the backbiting.” Former Cardiff City man Miguel Comminges, Ireland international Caleb Folan and MLS Cup final hero Macoumba Kandji were also allowed to depart the club as Oscar Pareja moves towards playing a more fluid 4-3-3.
While his new system may still accommodate Jamaican forward Omar Cummings, Smith favourites such as Brian Mullan will likely find themselves warming the bench. Colorado have long term potential, but the squad still needs work if it’s to play the way Pareja wants them to.
Key Player: Connor Casey. Think Colorado and star striker Casey tends to spring to mind. After missing most of last year with an Achilles injury, much of their success this season depends on whether he can stay healthy. His robust style of play means while he may lack pace, he’s the ideal focal point for their new attacking triangle.
FC Dallas (4th )A heavily compacted fixture list last season saw FC Dallas try to compete on two fronts, tiring themselves out in the process. Admittedly Dallas weren’t the only club with Champions League commitments, but their policy of fast-stracking youngsters into the side, while admirable, did seem to hamper them last year.
Despite the squad’s best attempts to convince people otherwise, former Colombia midfielder David Ferreira’s absence through injury was also noticeble.
Maintaining focus throughout the squad, as well as being more clinical in front of goal, will be key for Dallas this year. By bringing in Panama striker Blas Pérez (nicknamed Super Ratón - Spanish for Mighty Mouse) the club have attempted to address the second problem. And now George John is entering the final year of his contract, holding his concentration may stifle attempts to maintain harmony.
Key Player: Brek Shea. Possessing a vast array of questionable haircuts, Shea is a 6 ft 3 wide-man with the lungs of a whale. An artist in his spare time (see the below video), he’ll do well to balance all of his commitments this year. Proving he’s human by eventually succumbing to fatigue last year, he became a versatile component of the Dallas side and will be a large part of any success they have this time round.
Los Angeles Galaxy (1st)You have to commend LA for last season, deapite the burden of pressure and expectation they were still able to deliver David Beckham’s first MLS Cup. Although Becks spent a long weekend in Paris, he’s back and committed to a new two year deal.
The pressing concern for LA is the injury suffered by Omar Gonzalez while on loan at FC Nuremberg, with his replacement Andrew Boyens not having the best of games against Toronto in the Champions League on Wednesday. However LA can celebrate the returns of midfielder Juninho - on another loan deal from São Paulo, and Edson Buddle following a disappointing stint in Germany for the US international forward.
Key Player: Landon Donovan. In a team littered with stars it’s difficult to single out one, but Donovan just rises above his team mates. While he might be playing coy about his future, he keeps producing for LA when required. Scoring a late equalizer against Toronto midweek, it typified why you need players like him in your team. If he can balance a hectic international schedule with his club commitments, he could very easily be the MVP for 2012.
Portland Timbers (6th)Portland almost capped their debut season with a play-off berth, and they’ll be hoping they can go one better this time around. Kenny Cooper has been replaced by Kris Boyd, the ex-Rangers man enticed by the prospect of working with fellow Scot and current Timbers coach John Spencer.
Unfortunately the club’s young designated player José Adolfo Valencia will be spending this season on the treatment table as he recovers from knee surgery.
With Spencer scouting Colombia for players following good seasons from Diego Chará and Jorge Perlaza, the Timbers have been busy this off-season, seeing several lesser known players depart Oregon. Although it’s unlikely they’ll win MLS Cup, the play-offs are certainly achievable.
Key Player: Kris Boyd. It took him just eight minutes to score his first goal for Portland, a neat header in a friendly against Swedish side AIK. Expectations of Boyd are high, partly due to his time with Rangers as well as the handsome salary he’ll be picking up while he’s with the club. As you might expect, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson is confident Boyd will be a big hit in MLS. The one piece of advice we’d offer the former Middlesbrough man would be to not irk 'Timber Joey' while he's at work (see below...)
Real Salt Lake (3rd)IIt was hard not to feel sorry for Real Salt Lake last season. A narrow defeat in the Champions League to Mexican side Monterrey was only worsened by the sickening leg break midfielder Javier Morales suffered a week later.
Credit must go to the club for not only making the play-offs but also knocking out heavy favourites Seattle. The summer saw veterans Robbie Russell and Andy Williams depart, which helped secure new deals for Ned Grabavoy and the sometimes temperamental Fabián Espíndola.
Enzo Martinez also arrived via the Superdraft and he could potentially blossom under Jason Kreis’ tutelage. Defensively solid, Salt Lake are definitely one of the better sides in the West, but perhaps not quite good enough to trouble Seattle and LA just yet.
Key Player: Javier Morales. The year 2011 was not a good one for the Argentine playmaker for obvious reasons. Now fully recovered, his return should make the club a more dynamic prospect in attack - provided he recaptures the form that earned him an All Star selection in 2009 & 2010.
San Jose Earthquakes (8th) The biggest move for San Jose was Bobby Convey relocating himself to Sporting Kansas City (insert terrible Wizard of Oz joke here). While Convey might not have got on with coach Frank Yallop, his public outburst made the situation untenable, regardless of how good he is.
Tottenham forward Simon Dawkins returns on loan, but rumours of David Bentley joining him seem a tad fanciful. Akin to D.C. United, a late surge almost saw San Jose make the play-offs, but alas it was not to be. Having added some options up front, the back line still looks a little suspect, and with such a high player turnover in the off season San Jose will take time to gel.
Key Players: Chris Wondolowski. A fantastic goal return over the last two seasons, Wondolowski really is one of the best finishers in the league. Having made the MLS team of the year in 2010 & 2011, expect him to be near the top of the goal-scoring charts once again this year. As for San Jose, it’s sad to say but it’s a same story as last year, with the Earthquakes relying on the ‘Magic Wondo’ to perform.
Seattle Sounders FC (2nd)Kasey Keller finally called time on his illustrious career and the Sounders will miss his big-game experience as they look to compete in both MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League this season. Former Ajax winger Mauro Rosales has earned his designated player contract after an impressive 2011, with Congo DR winger Steve Zakuani edging ever closer to a return after his horrible leg break last year.
Elsewhere, Eddie Johnson will be hoping to prove that Seattle were right to swap Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle for his services, and former Liverpool trainee Jason Banton has earned the chance to display his talents in MLS. As LA’s only realistic challengers, expect Seattle to comfortably make the play-offs.
Key Player: Osvaldo Alonso. Cuban international Alonso is nicknamed the “Honey Badger” for his tenacious style of play, and while Rosales and Co may take the headlines, it’s Alonso that really makes Seattle tick. His selfless and tidy play in the middle of the park make him the fulcrum of the side and although he may not be flash, he’s the kind of player any team with MLS Cup aspirations needs.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC (6th)There wasn’t anything funny about Vancouver last season (including Terry Dunfield’s terrible Christmas Cracker style joke). This season seems far more optimistic, as the club have dealt wisely in the off-season. Like a master craftsman, coach Martin Rennie has begun refining his squad, sending Lee Nguyen to New England and acquiring Scotland's Barry Robson (although he won’t arrive until July).
Arguably one of the best moves the club made was getting Sébastien Le Toux from Philadelphia. His hard working mentality will serve the club well, and if Eric Hassli can curb his poor disciplinary record, there’s potential in Vancouver. Also watch out for the speedy Darren Mattocks, who has looked impressive in pre-season.
Key Player: Barry Robson. It might sound silly to pick a player who won’t arrive till halfway through the season, but having watched Robson has a lot to offer. While there are still question marks over the Vancouver back line, it's likely to be a close battle between them and Portland for that last play-off spot.
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