For each naive narrative we identified in the Eastern Conference, we had one to match in Major League Soccer’s West, though in our defense, the conference went through a lot of changes last winter. The league’s biggest star was leaving LA. One of the best players in league history went on walkabout. A contender from the Rockies was forced to shuffle the deck, while one of 2012’s failures was rolling the dice on a college coach. Add in the continued skepticism about whether Goonies ever die and the Western Conference was impossible read.
That didn’t stop us from making assumptions, but in a season where the Portland Timbers would go from eighth to first, most people’s prognostications were destined for failure.
That doesn’t mean we can’t look back and learn our lessons. We did the East earlier tonight. Here are Western Conference story lines we were dwelling on in the 2013 preseason:
1. Landon was in Cambodia;t the Galaxy was destined to replace Becks with another star – Would it be Ricardo Kaká? How about Frank Lampard? One way or another, the league’s big-ticket franchise has to replace David Beckham. It was Hollywood, after all, and with Landon Donovan off finding himself in Cambodia, getting another name on the marquee was inevitable. Come November, LA would be ready to challenge for a third straight title. What happened: Donovan came back early in the season, meaning the most significant time he’d miss would be during the summer Gold Cup. The player that eventually took Beckham’s Designated Player spot was already in-house: defender Omar Gonzalez. After finishing third in the regular season, the Galaxy’s title run came to an end in the conference semifinals.
2. Real Salt Lake was rebuilding; don’t expect very much – Jamison Olave? Gone. So were Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson. The success cycle was finally turning against Real Salt Lake, and after three attempts to defend their 2009 title, the team was forced to break up its core. RSL would take a step back in 2013. What happened: The exact opposite. Though they slipped into second at the end, RSL spent much of the season looking down on the Western Conference. Olave, Espindola and Johnson had been with the team since they claimed MLS Cup in Seattle, but having been cast off in the offseason, the true core of RSL became clear. The likes of Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales got Kreis back to the final, where the team lost in 10 rounds of penalty kicks.
3. Chivas USA was going to be an unmitigated disaster – After Robin Fraser’s team left fans in a coma, Jorge Vergara decided to take the team back to its roots. An emphasis on latino players returned, one that saw the club cast off talent at a discount rate while trying to homogenize its squad. What happened: Though the team became a running joke, some of the soccer was actually pretty good. At least, it was good compared to expectations the team would be one of the worst in MLS history. Instead, Chivas USA would win six games, claim 26 points, but still finish bottom of the Western Conference.
4. Caleb Porter? You mean the guy who couldn’t get Team USA to the Olympics? – Portland went into 2012 expecting to make the playoffs. Instead, they slipped to eighth, firing John Spencer midseason. In his place, Portland brought University of Akron head coach Caleb Porter into the professional ranks, but having failed to qualify the U.S.’s under-23s for London 2012, Porter was better known for his international failure than his collegiate success. What happened: Within months, Porter had eared all doubt. Portland went on to finish first in the West, eliminating the rival Sounders in the Western Conference semifinals. Along the way, Porter earned Coach of the Year honors, putting his name in the conversation as one of the best coaches in Major League Soccer.
5. With the rest of the West in flux, San Jose was looking pretty good – LA needed to replace Beckham. Real Salt Lake was dismantling. Seattle was about to say goodbye to Christian Tiffert (remember him?), and Vancouver had undermined their team in the middle of the 2012 season. The rest of the West’s playoff teams had significant doubts, but San Jose? For the most part, they managed to keep the band together. The Earthquakes were set for another season at the top of the Western Conference. What happened: We underestimated the loss of Simon Dawkins, whose production from wide was never replaced. Chris Wondolowski’s record-setting production regressed, as did the rest of the squad’s. With the possible exception of goalkeeper Jon Busch, every San Jose regular took a step back in 2013. The results led to Frank Yallop’s early departure.
Between our Eastern and Western Conference lists, is there anything we can learn? Probably not. Every year, we’re going to make predictions (that’s just what you do in the preseason), but our crystal balls are really cloudy. Between the parity in Major League Soccer, teams’ abilities to shake things up in the summer, and the nature of a league where making the playoffs (not winning the league) is the priority, trying to read tea leaves will always be difficult.
If anything, last February’s narratives tell us no matter what we know now, 2014’s going to be an unpredictable season.