Neither Portland nor Colorado were seen in the MLS playoffs last year. Real Salt Lake was, but all would be forgiven if the Utah club slipped this year, given the roster makeover and the heavy leaning on so many kickers around Rio Tinto yet to reach their 21st birthday.
And yet, those three clubs also happen to occupy the Western Conference’s top three spots at the moment. Whether they keep their spots in the deliciously tight race, all three managers have already had outstanding 2013 campaigns.
It will be very difficult to separate these three … especially since someone like Philadelphia’s John Hackworth could make a late run and have something to say about all this before it’s over.
1. Portland’s Caleb Porter
It’s not just the way Porter has remade the team’s style into something far more watchable in 2013. And it’s not just the way Portland’s first-year manager has turned the Timbers’ win-loss ledger on its ears.
It’s also that Porter (pictured) was pretty much the architect of a roster spruce-up around Jeld-Wen Field. So, positioning his team thusly (most likely as a playoff team, still in reach for Supporters Shield) says good things about one of the best young minds in American soccer coaching.
He’s already gone a long way to making people forget about the 2012 U.S. Olympic fiasco. Porter himself says he learned lessons from all that; it’s really showing now.
2. Colorado’s Oscar Pareja
Forget about how a team that failed to make the playoffs in 2012 has positioned itself for a possible Western Conference crown, already having swiped the treasured Rocky Mountain Cup from Real Salt Lake and still in position to yank Supporters Shield positioning from its Mountain Time Zone rivals, too.
Let’s talk about that jaw-dropping litany of injuries around DSG Park earlier this year; literally half the projected starters were out for extended time, and yet Pareja and his men held things together, rallying to produce points steadily in the summer once young reinforcements had steadied themselves.
And the team is so frightfully young. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin, midfielder Dillon Powers and forward Deshorn Brown are all Rookie of the Year candidates. Defenders Chris Klute and Shane O’Neill would be, too, but each played one game in 2012.
3. Real Salt Lake’s Jason Kreis
What’s the deal with all the young guys in the mountain region? Because like Colorado, Kreis has a bunch of good ones at Real Salt Lake.
The club knew lumps were on the way after moving three respected, well-liked veterans and their salaries in the off-season. But in all honesty, the knocks just never arrived in force. While trusted types like Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and others held their level, Kries helped other veterans, like Ned Grabavoy, find the next level.
But the real achievement was in shepherding the young likes of Olmes Garcia, Luis Gil, Joao Plata, Yordany Alvarez, Sebastian Velasquez and Devon Sandoval, who found their feet quickly as regular, contributing parts around Rio Tinto.