Alright, let's recap: Monday, we previewed the Eastern Conference ahead of the 2012 MLS season, and yesterday we looked at the teams Rachna and I each thought would finish at the foot of the Western Conference this season. Today, let's turn our attention to the middle of the Western Conference pack. Two of the teams that finish 4-6 will make the playoffs, while the sixth place team will be the first out of the postseason in the conference. So, who do we think will make the cut and who will just miss? Let's jump in.
To help you get your bearings, here's a reminder of how the Western Conference ended in 2011:
1. LA Galaxy: 67 points (Supporters Shield Winner, MLS Cup Champion)
2. Seattle Sounders: 63 points (lost in the Western Conference Semifinals)
3. Real Salt Lake: 53 points (lost in the Western Conference finals)
4. FC Dallas: 52 points (lost in the Wild Card round)
5. Colorado Rapids: 49 points (lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals)
6. Portland Timbers: 42 points (did not qualify for the playoffs)
7. San Jose Earthquakes: 38 points (did not qualify for the playoffs)
8. Chivas USA: 36 points (did not qualify for the playoffs)
9. Vancouver Whitecaps: 28 points (did not qualify for the playoffs)
Alright, let's start with my picks. In descending order...
There's a lot of reasons to believe Portland can make a step up in 2012. They have maintained most of their core from 2011, signed some intriguing players that they expect big things from this season, and have a fervent and supportive fanbase. For a team that was in the running for the playoffs until the last few matches of last season, leaving Portland in 6th again this season is a somewhat-bold statement.
Here's my logic on this: Portland has made several high-reward but also high-risk moves. The first sense of this came when young Colombian forward Jose Adolfo Valencia, whose signing as a young-Designated Player was highly touted in the offseason, had a major knee injury that required surgery that is expected to keep him out of most or even all of the season. It was a bad break, so to speak, and the Timbers front office was savvy to demand Valencia's selling club buy him back temporarily since they were trying to pass on damaged goods. But it is a worrisome start for a club that has major ambitions.
The other players who are being brought in have not had such poor luck to start out. They signed Colombian defender Hanyer Mosquera, and the caliber of talent from that country in MLS in recent years means he'll probably be just fine. On the other side of the field are Franck Songo'o and Charles Renken, promising youngsters who have never found a club to settle down at during their careers. This is the epitome of high-risk and high-reward: Songo'o trained in the famed Barcelona youth ranks, but he didn't make it to the first team, so there must be some deficiencies in his game or mindset. Renken has been beset by massive injuries over his short career, so again, either of these players could be awesome, or they could wash out (or be mediocre, I suppose).
Finally, Portland is buzzing with the signing of Scottish striker Kris Boyd. The new DP has a reputation as a scorer, and his stats in the Scottish Premier League are outstanding. But the narratives surrounding Boyd have been curiously mixed. Boyd has a lot of fans in Scotland, naturally (although Celtic fans are far less admiring). But fans in England and Turkey are pretty critical of him, based on his experiences in those countries. Furthermore, Boyd reportedly refused to play for the Houston Dynamo due to the Texas heat in the summer, which is reasonable on some level, but hopefully Boyd understands he will have to play in heat and humidity all over the country for several months this year. Could he be a superstar in the league? Absolutely. Is there any doubt about his suitability on a new continent and in a new league? You bet.
Again, if the Timbers get up to fourth this season, I wouldn't be surprised at all. But I think they have constructed something of a house of cards to make a leap. Likely some of the new guys will play well, but there is some real baggage associated with them. As a result, I think they will be disappointed again in 2012.
5. Chivas USA
Yes indeed, I'm predicting a playoff appearance for the Goats in 2012. I know, I know, they looked shaky to poor in the preseason, but they looked pretty bad in the 2011 preseason as well. I know this is a risky pick, as the roster has faced a massive turnover, but I'm feeling optimistic for Chivas and I think they will surprise a lot of people.
What will change for Chivas in 2012? They are in their second season under Robin Fraser, and his project seems to be coming together nicely. In particular, although Fraser really tried to fix the defense first and foremost last season, he was able to adjust on the fly as necessity dictated and give more attention to an attack that looked dreadful at the beginning of the 2011 campaign. While the emergence of Nick LaBrocca was a pleasant and fortuitous surprise, and Justin Braun had four really really good matches, of course the trade for Juan Pablo Angel helped to bolster the attack. But despite the toothlessness that the offense demonstrated at the start of last season, the club ended up scoring a respectable amount of goals compared to the rest of the league. Now, although Chivas have lost Braun and JPA is still not signed, Fraser has brought in new signing Cesar Romero and drafted Casey Townsend, and while I don't think they will carry the team, I think both players can make an immediate contribution in 2012. Michael Lahoud has been moved up to the wing, and with new Goat Ryan Smith, there is a speed and dynamism that was not part of the attack last season. Miller Bolanos' signing came under the radar, but he could really become a legitimate star in the league if he settles. So while there aren't any sure things, I think these moves will pay off.
The question comes with the defense. I'll write more about this in a separate post in the next couple of days, but bringing in John Valencia and James Riley should help the defense in 2012. Still, even with the offensive struggles in 2011, the defense was a big problem for Chivas, as they either let in goals very early in matches or gave up leads and lost points. If the defense improves significantly in 2012, there's no reason why they can't make the playoffs. But the defense will need to do their part in order to make the postseason. Is it a risky call? Sure. But Chivas don't get a lot of good press - I think they can sneak up on a lot of teams and MLS watchers.
4. FC Dallas
I think it's hard to place Dallas heading into the season. By July, they looked like a team that could compete for MLS Cup. By October, they seemed like a broken team that was stretched way too thin. Still, although I think there could be a residual effect of that end to last season, FCD is going to have a lot of key talent. Brek Shea was the most impressive player I saw live in MLS in 2011, hands down, and while he may still have some growing pains in his play, he looks like a very special player. 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira is back after breaking his ankle early in 2011, and he should help settle the team's attack. Plus, they signed Panamanian international Blas Perez, who I think will be a good player and will adjust to MLS nicely. With a really dynamic forward, their attack should be even better.
There are a couple of concerns for this team. Coach Schellas Hyndman seems to squeeze an awful lot out of his players, but considering his squad rotation last season it seems he likes a small core group and is reluctant to branch out. Dallas has signed a very large amount of homegrown players, but none have really gotten into the first team so far and they cut several homegrown players loose this offseason. I think Hyndman has gotten a lot out of a team with a limited ceiling, but for the survival of his best players he will need to give them a rest.
The other concern for FCD is in regards to their best players. George John is returning to the club with his tail between his legs as his second attempted transfer to England has failed. He seems desperate to go to Europe and it will be interesting to see how his overtures abroad will affect his status with the team, and what his mindset is in going back once again to Dallas. In addition, if Shea rises to the heights he had at his peak last season, transfer speculation will follow him as well. Will these transfer rumors be a problem for the cohesion and focus of the club? If they are, it could derail Dallas' season. Still, I think the talent on the squad means they will make the playoffs again in 2012.
Ok, here are Rachna's middle three for 2012, in no particular order: