Getty Images

MLS 2017 Western Conference preview

Leave a comment

The new Major League Soccer season is approaching fast.

Like, it starts this Friday fast.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 season previews

With that in mind it’s time to take a closer look at all 11 teams in the Western Conference as new boys Minnesota United boost the ranks of the “power conference” which provided six of the top nine teams in MLS in 2016.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 schedule

Below is a what you need to know about each team heading into the 2017 campaign.


Colorado Rapids

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 23: Tim Howard #1 of the Colorado Rapids stands in the goal against the FC Dallas at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 23, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)


Record in 2016:
15-6-13 – 2nd in MLS’ Western Conference, 2nd overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup Conference finals)
Offseason evaluation:
It was a case of not having too much to do after such a successful season. Jermaine Jones leaving was a blow, however bringing in Alan Gordon and talented youngster Bismark Adjei-Boateng will bolster the squad. The Rapids are aiming for another solid season led by a brutish defense and the goals of Kevin Doyle and Shkelzen Gashi. 
Key player:
Tim Howard – Struggling with injury over the offseason, Howard may miss the first few weeks. That said, his presence for an entire campaign should have a huge impact on Colorado’s chances of making another deep run in the playoffs.
Coach:
Pablo Mastreoni – A wonderful season in 2016 for Mastreoni’s men as he took the Rapids from shambles in 2015 to the brink of the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. Just keep on trucking. Things are heading in the right direction in Commerce City, Colo. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Rapids will start the season well off the back of their 2016 success, then fade badly to just hang onto a playoff spot.


FC Dallas

FC Dallas, 2016 Supporters Shield winners (Photo credit: FC Dallas / Facebook)
Record in 2016: 17-8-9 – 1st in MLS’ Western Conference, 1st overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup Conference semifinals)
Offseason evaluation:
Dallas had another superb season in 2016 but came up short in their quest for MLS Cup, despite winning the Supporters’ Shield. Losing Fabian Castillo to Trabzonspor was a blow and with Mauro Diaz out long-term they’ll have to rely heavily on Javier Morales and Cristian Colman in the early months of the season. Overall, Oscar Pareja’s plan has been to get in younger talent to replace experience. Let’s see how this works but it promises to be another exciting season in Frisco, Texas. They look incredibly strong once again.  
Key player:
Kellyn Acosta – The young U.S. national team product is growing in confidence and will be a key man for FCD with his versatility. Also, with Diaz out for so long, Dallas need as many contributors as possible to chip in with goals and assists. Over to you, Colman, Akindele and Urruti. Acosta will continue to keep things ticking over. 
Coach:
Oscar Pareja – He is working wonders in Dallas and adding plenty of young attackers in the offseason will add even more intrigue to his team. He’s put together a fun team to watch.
Vague 2017 prediction:
FC Dallas will make another deep run to the playoffs. If injuries are kind to them, MLS Cup is a real possibility.


Houston Dynamo

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 08: Erick Torres #9 of Houston Dynamo works the ball in the second half against the San Jose Earthquakes during their game at BBVA Compass Stadium on August 8, 2015 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: 7-14-13 – 10th in MLS’ Western Conference, 19th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
Lots of change in Houston and it was needed. The Owen Coyle experiment didn’t work out and after moving out Giles Barnes, Will Bruin and Sheanon Williams, the Dynamo will go with a young squad. That’s a lot to ask in a stacked Western Conference but Leonardo and DeLaGarza coming in from LA will provide some experience. Once again, all change at the Dynamo. 
Key player:
Erick “Cubo” Torres – He has returned from his loan spell at Cruz Azul and it looks like he will get his chance to lead the Dynamo’s attack. Now, can he fulfill his obvious potential?
Coach:
Wilmer Cabrera – Promoted from their USL affiliate, the former Chivas USA coach will try to galvanize the group and get them heading in the right direction. He has perhaps the toughest job in MLS.
Vague 2017 prediction:
Houston will finishes in 10th position in the West after making a brief midseason run towards the playoffs.


LA Galaxy

CARSON CA - AUGUST 9: Making his MLS debut Giovani Dos Santos #10 of the Los Angeles Galaxy congratulates Gyasi Zardes #11 after he scored a goal against Seattle Sounders during the first half at StubHub Center August 9, 2015, in Carson, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: 12-6-16 – 3rd in MLS’ Western Conference, 6th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup Conference semifinals)
Offseason evaluation:
It’s been a huge shift in the offseason for LA with Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Alan Gordon and Landon Donovan (after his second coming) all moved on. Plus, Bruce Arena was out the door to the U.S. national team. Simpy put, the times they are a changing. Can LA’s talented youngsters help the transition go smoother than expected? Six Homegrown players are on the roster with Gyasi Zardes the main man, plus Jermaine Jones’ arrival will add some experience alongside Sebastian Lletget and new DP Romain Alessandrini from Marseille to help out star man Giovani dos Santos.
Key player:
Giovani dos Santos – This is his team now. The Mexican star has shown flashes of brilliance after arriving in MLS midway through 2015 but with Keane and Gerrard gone, Gio is front and center. With 20 goals and 21 assists in his 47 games so far for LA, he could be the new face of the league. 
Coach:
Curt Onalfo – Promoted from LA Galaxy II, Onalfo was the safe hire in a time of transition for the five-time MLS Cup champs. It will be intriguing to see how these young players develop under his tutelage. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
LA’s bold new plan will hit a few speed-bumps in the early months but then, predictably, they’ll finish the season strong and make a deep run in the playoffs.


Minnesota United

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08: Orlando head coach Adrian Heath salutes fans during an MLS soccer match between the New York City FC and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. This was the first game for both teams and the final score was 1-1. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: N/A
Offseason evaluation: 
It has been a busy few months years up in the Twin Cities. They have finally arrived in MLS with plenty of roster changes, a new coach and a new stadium being built and ready for 2018. Like pretty much every expansion franchise, it’s tough to know how this first season will go. There is a real mix of international talent on this roster and no big-name DPs. Kevin Molino links up with Adrian Heath once again and will provide pace and nous, while international defenders Francisco Calvo and Vadim Demidov will play in central defense. 
Key player:
Miguel Ibarra – He burst onto the scene a few years ago with his goals in NASL which earned him a USMNT call up in 2014 but his career stalled after moving to Liga MX. Now, everything is in place for him to lead Minnesota into a new era alongside his potent partner from the NASL days, Christian Ramirez.
Coach:
Adrian Heath – He will be desperate to prove doubters wrong after he was fired by Orlando last season. Heath built an exciting team in Orlando and the hope will be that Ibarra and Ramirez will translate their attacking success seamlessly to MLS. That said, you can clearly see that Minnesota is working on a small budget and with a squad full of players from smaller European leagues it will be intriguing to see how they adapt to the rigors of MLS as the Loons play in the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium for the 2017 campaign. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Early struggles will give way to some key midseason additions and the Loons will finish the campaign challenging for the playoffs.


Portland Timbers

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 6: Diego Valeri #8 of the Portland Timbers celebrates after scoring within the first minute of the first half against the Columbus Crew SC on December 6, 2015 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Portland defeated Columbus Crew SC 2-1 to claim the MLS Cup title. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: 12-14-8 – 7th in MLS’ Western Conference, 12th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
Portland have added two key players in the offseason in David Guzman and Sebastian Blanco and plenty of experience elsewhere as they try to rebound from not making the playoffs. Nobody really expected that failure but after not winning on the road throughout 2016, the outcome was always clear. Jewsbury, Grabavoy and Borchers all retired to leave Caleb Porter will plenty of work to do to rebuild his roster. 
Key player:
Diego Valeri – The Argentine attacker will have even more freedom this season after the arrival of Guzman and he should link well with Blanco and Nagbe to feed Adi. He has won so many games for the Timbers over the past few seasons.
Coach:
Caleb Porter – A really big year for the former Akron coach as he looks to shake off the tag of the Timbers being “one season wonders” after they won MLS Cup in 2015. Once again, he needs to improve the defensive play of Portland. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Portland will be an offensive powerhouse, blowing teams away early in games. Expect a trip back to the MLS postseason.


Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata (8) gestures while walking during an MLS soccer game against New York City FC Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Sandy, Utah. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) DESERET NEWS OUT; LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; MAGS OUT
Record in 2016: 12-12-10 – 6th in MLS’ Western Conference, 9th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round)
Offseason evaluation:
The big news was Javier Morales leaving RSL after a decade, he will be replaced by young Slovakian playmaker Albert Rusnak. He has a DP deal and big shoes to fill at the Rio Tinto. There were sweeping changes in terms of the roster with Liverpool youngster Brooks Lennon arriving on loan as RSL got a lot younger, but Beckerman, Rimando and Movsisyan are still around. 
Key player:
Joao Plata – He will be the spark in the RSL offense and he is capable of moments of magic. Now, can he string it together for an entire season? 
Coach:
Jeff Cassar – The jury was out after his first season as RSL started well but faded badly in the final few months of the season. The Utah outfit have been loyal to coaches but if Cassar’s side start poorly he could be on the hotseat rather quickly.
Vague 2017 prediction:
RSL will battle through the season and pick up unexpected wins like they usually do. Don’t expect a playoff spot.


San Jose Earthquakes

SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 06: Chris Wondolowski #8 of San Jose Earthquakes looks to pass the ball towards the goal against Colorado Rapids during the second half of their MLS Soccer game at Avaya Stadium on March 6, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Record in 2016: 8-12-14 – 9th in MLS’ Western Conference, 17th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
Massive amount of change this offseason as Goodson, Goitom and Emeghura were all let go plus Stewart, Lenhart and Barrett all moved on too. New GM Jesse Fioranelli has big plans for San Jose. Marco Urena will support Chris Wondolowski, while Panamanian defender Harold Cummings will add strength to the backline. 
Key player:
Chris Wondolowski – He just keeps doing it. Wondo is a predator and as long as San Jose create chances he will be there to finish them. 
Coach:
Dom Kinnear – This is a very big season for Dom. After seeing San Jose struggle badly in 2016, especially away from the Avaya Stadium, he has a new GM and it appears a new approach is needed. A veteran MLS coach will need his veteran striker Wondolowski to get him back in the playoffs.
Vague 2017 prediction:
San Jose look likely to struggle once again and they will be outsiders for the playoffs. Wondo can’t do it all, you know.


Seattle Sounders

Seattle Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro (10) exults as FC Dallas midfielder Carlos Gruezo (7) lies on the turf at the end of an MLS soccer western conference semifinal playoff match Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016 in Frisco, Texas. Though Dallas won 2-1, Seattle advanced in the playoffs on aggregate score. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Record in 2016: 14-14-6 – 4th in MLS’ Western Conference, 7th overall in MLS (Won MLS Cup 2017) 
Offseason evaluation:
The reigning MLS Cup champs have momentum on their side and Clint Dempsey back fit and ready to roll. They lost plenty of defenders in the offseason with Zach Scott retiring and Tyrone Mears moving to Atlanta United. Adding Will Bruin and Harry Shipp will add depth to their midfield and forward options, but Seattle is set in terms of goals and assists. 
Key player:
Nicolas Lodeiro – What an impact the Uruguayan playmaker made after arriving in MLS last season. He will be handed the keys for the Sounders once again and alongside Dempsey it will be fun to see it all play out.
Coach:
Brian Schmetzer – He’s a hero in Seattle. Simple. Replacing Sigi Schmid in 2016, he had a tough job on his hands but his team gained momentum and were exhilarating to watch throughout their glorious MLS Cup run. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Seattle will build on their success of 2016 and go deep in the playoffs once again as Lodeiro and Dempsey feed Morris.


Sporting Kansas City

Sporting Kansas City's Connor Hallisey, left, and Dom Dwyer react after Dwyer's second-half goal against the Seattle Sounders during the second half of an MLS soccer match Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star via AP)
Record in 2016: 13-13-8 – 5th in MLS’ Western Conference, 8th overall in MLS (Knocked out in MLS Cup knockout round) 
Offseason evaluation:
Not much changed at SKC over the offseason. Brad Davis retired but Peter Vermes was able to keep the core of his squad together. Gerso Fernandes is the big offseason addition as the striker comes in as a DP with plenty of experience in Europe. 
Key player:
Dom Dwyer – He remains their main man up top after scoring 16 goals in 36 games last season. He needs more support and it looks like he has it this season. Could soon be playing for the USMNT too. 
Coach:
Peter Vermes – He rallied his squad to clinch a playoff spot last season and Vermes will be hoping for much more than that in 2017. Besler and Zusi are his go-to guys and he needs Fernandes to hit the ground running. Level-headed, Vermes knows what he is doing.
Vague 2017 prediction:
SKC will make a run towards MLS Cup and will feed off the disappointment of last season. They’ll get the balance right between defense and attack.


Vancouver Whitecaps

VANCOUVER, BC - MARCH 6: Kekuta Manneh #23 of the Vancouver Whitecaps looks on as Donny Toia #25 of the Montreal Impact plays the ball during their MLS game March 6, 2016 at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Montreal won 3-2. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

Record in 2016: 10-15-19 – 8th in MLS’ Western Conference, 16th overall in MLS (Did not qualify for playoffs)
Offseason evaluation:
They have been trying to rebuild and rebound from a bad 2016 which saw them fade dramatically in the second half of the season. Losing playmaker Pedro Morales was a blow but they have lots of talented attackers this season. 
Key player:
Fredy Montero – If he can get anywhere near the kind of form and production he had in Seattle then Fredy will be a hero in Vancouver.
Coach:
Carl Robinson – A big, big year for Robinson. After a solid start to life as an MLS head coach in 2015, things unraveled in the second half of last season. Badly needs a good start to 2017 to get things going in the right direction. 
Vague 2017 prediction:
Vancouver will be sniffing around the playoff spots all season long. Watching Montero, Bolanos and Manneh play together could be a lot of fun at BC Place.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Leave a comment

A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Leave a comment

This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
1 Comment

Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.