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MLS 2017 Western Conference preview

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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.

It’s another Zlatan day, as Galaxy star rips Vela, talks Area 51

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic took a shot at his rivals and his league in one fell swoop.

Perhaps Major League Soccer’s hit is down to proximity and not intent, but the LA Galaxy star certainly didn’t disguise his feelings when asked whether LAFC star Carlos Vela is the best player in the league.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Vela, 30, has lit MLS on fire to the tune of 19 goals and eight assists in 19 matches, driving the second-year squad to the top of the Western Conference.

Zlatan and the Galaxy’s seasons have trailed behind, relatively speaking. The third-place Galaxy are 12 points behind LAFC, with Ibrahimovic contributing 13 goals and three assists in three fewer games.

“29, he’s playing in MLS and he’s in his prime. When I was 29, where was I?”

Herculez Gomez replies that Ibrahimovic was in Europe (Vela turned 30 in March. At 29, Ibrahimovic scored 21 goals in 41 appearances for AC Milan, on loan from Barcelona. At 30, he scored 35 in 44 for Milan).

“Big difference, exactly.”

Vela, for what it’s worth, spent 2005-17 in Europe. Anyway, here is the exchange.

But wait, there’s more.

Zlatan was also quizzed on Area 51 while in a scrum. For those who may not know, Area 51 is a classified United States military facility in Nevada which has long been speculated as the home of extraterrestrial testing and scientific experimentation.

He doesn’t need to worry about going there, because he has his own Area 51 and there is only one Zlatan.

Who will make Ballon d’Or final three?

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When Luka Modric won the Ballon d’Or last summer, marking the first victor neither named Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo since 2007, it threatened to signal a new era for the trophy in more ways than one.

Ronaldo didn’t win the honors, finishing second, but Messi was inexplicably left off the final ballot altogether.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Could this be the year that neither makes the top three? Probably not, but it could be the first time Ronaldo fails to make the list since Barca swept the honors Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi in 2010.

So while most of us are not thinking of the award right now, Ronaldo has it on his brain. It’s no surprise that Marca, known for its backing of Real Madrid royalty, has thrown his name in the mix as a “favorite” given his scudetto with Juventus. That it mentions his performance in the UEFA Nations League is a little goofy — it was a two-match summer — but such is life.

Ronaldo and Messi are deadlocked on five Ballons d’Or, the most ever, and Messi’s year was superior to his longtime rival. Both won their leagues and Messi did not claim domestic honors at the Copa America — in fact he was not his phenomenal self — but Messi scored 12 goals in 10 Champions League appearances before Liverpool stunned Barcelona prior to the final (Ronaldo’s Juve lost to Ajax).

Marca proffers this “I don’t care but obviously I very much care” from CR7:

“I don’t live with an obsession about awards,” Ronaldo explained. “My numbers don’t lie, this year I’ve won three titles and I’ve been good in the Nations League. What else can I do?”

Ronaldo, it should be noted, was still incredible last season. He scored all three goals as Juventus erased a 2-0 first leg deficit in the UCL Round of 16 versus old rivals Atletico Madrid, then scored in both legs of the side’s exit via Ajax. And he likely would’ve won the top scorer’s prize in Italy had he not missed six matches through injury and rest.

Messi again breached the half-century mark in goals, scoring 51 times in all competitions for Barcelona. He chipped in 22 assists and also missed six matches between the UCL and La Liga.

Are there three players who could surpass both to make a new final three?

It would be stunning if Liverpool and Netherlands center back Virgil Van Dijk was kept off the top three, while Sadio Mane may have a Champions League crown and Africa Cup of Nations victory. And you can follow the Luka Modric logic to a land where treble- and Nations League-winning Bernardo Silva is in the discussion (Raheem Sterling was also great).

Kylian Mbappe had probably the best-looking season on Earth, scoring 39 times with 17 assists in 43 matches and navigating the attention that came with Neymar’s long-term absence by shouldering the burden to great success. We made the argument that his 19 goals and six assists in 23 Neymar-free matches is one of the prime reasons he’s be worth almost any transfer fee.

Also remember that the odds of the captains of international teams having enough ballots without Ronaldo and/or Messi named is very difficult to imagine.

Still, Messi, Mbappe, and Van Dijk seems like the final three to us. What do you think?

LIVE — UEL second legs will determine possible Wolves opponents

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Wolverhampton Wanderers will find out its first Europa League opponent on Friday, and the field will be winnowed with a bevy of second qualifying round second legs on Thursday.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

Malmo, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Rangers, Legia Warsaw, and Hajduk Split are the biggest names in play on Thursday, with only the Polish side failing to hold an advantage after the first leg.

American forward Romain Gall is in the mix for Malmo, though he’s been an unused sub of late for the Swedish powers. That could change today, with Malmo in Northern Ireland with a 7-0 advantage over Ballymena United.

You can follow the dozens of ties by clicking the link above.

Klopp: Liverpool has all answers it needs even without transfers

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Claiming Liverpool has “solutions for all the situations” that could arise over the course of a season, manager Jurgen Klopp insists that the UEFA Champions League winners need not buy anyone this transfer window.

Of course, Klopp could still spend and admits that he has at least one position he’d like to strengthen by the end of the window.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

He also continues to play down the idea that Liverpool will spend big annually, naming Manchester City as one of four sides which can continue down that path on the day Juventus sealed the addition of reported Reds target Matthijs de Ligt.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“People talk about it like, ‘Now another £300m or £200m’. There are maybe only two clubs in the world – it looks in the moment like Barcelona and [Real] Madrid can do the same – City and PSG that can do it every year. I’m happy with the team, we are really happy.”

Klopp has claimed that injuries and youth progression make Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rhian Brewster transfer-like additions to the squad. Perhaps he’s been told that there’s not a lot in the budget this summer.

However, he’s also said that Liverpool has to “splash the cash” to compete with its rivals, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was all more Cheshire Cat talk ahead of a purchase.