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MLS Western Conference Preview

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Major League Soccer returns this weekend, kicking off the 24th year of the ever-growing North American league. As usual, there’s a plethora of storylines to follow, especially in the Western Conference.

Can Matias Almeyda make the San Jose Earthquakes into a playoff contender? Is Sporting Kansas City even better than last year, when it won the conference? And what do we think of the tandem of Guillermo Barros Schelotto on the sideline and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top for the LA Galaxy.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

We’ll dive into all that and more, in our Western Conference preview (teams are listed by order of their 2018 regular season finish):


Sporting Kansas City – The Western Conference’s best team over the course of the regular season may be even better now. The club acquired MLS veterans Kelyn Rowe and Rodney Wallace, and added Hungarian international defender Botond Barath while keeping the core of the squad together.

Star player: Matt Besler. It’s hard to pick just one player but Besler is definitely the first player on the team sheet every week thanks to his rock solid defending.

Realistic expectation: Competing for the treble: the U.S. Open Cup, Supporters Shield and MLS Cup.


Seattle Sounders – Jordan Morris returns to a squad that kept its very talented core together and seems likely to challenge for the best in the West again.

Star player: Raul Ruidiaz. The Peruvian striker scored 10 times in 14 games after coming last summer. With Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro, they can be a feared front three.

Realistic expectation: Seattle should contend for the Western Conference and even MLS Cup. They’ll go as far as Chad Marshall can take them.


LAFCBob Bradley led LAFC to one of the best expansion seasons ever, and they’re set up for another strong season. Eddie Segura replaces Laurent Ciman and the front three of Diego Rossi, Adama Diamonde, and Carlos Vela should produce plenty of goals.

Star player: Carlos Vela. The Mexican hasn’t always performed for El Tri but last year he scored 14 goals and had 13 assists for LAFC.

Realistic expectation: Contending for the Western Conference title, and it should host a  playoff game or two.


FC Dallas – It’s the start of a new era as Luchi Gonzales takes over the helm. FC Dallas is expected to use a lot of young, homegrown players this season, which will be exciting for the future. But it could lead to some tough times in the present.

Star player: Jesse Gonzalez. The USMNT goalkeeper became the team’s regular starter, and with Matt Hedges and Reto Ziegler in front of him, they form a formidable foe in the box.

Realistic expectation: FC Dallas will probably miss the playoffs this year, as young potential stars get more first team minutes.


Portland Timbers – Like most of the Western Conference contenders, the Timbers didn’t make wholesale changes. Should Diego Valero continue his MVP-level form and Giovanni Savarese continue his strong management, the Timbers can make another run at the title.

Star player: Diego Valeri. There are plenty of talented players on the Timbers but none comes close to Valeri’s level. He’s been a consistent star for the last five years and Portland will always have a chance to win as long as he’s on the field.

Realistic expectation: Savarese always seems to get the best out of his teams, and the Timbers can certainly compete for MLS Cup once again.


Real Salt Lake – Mike Petke’s side has one of the league’s best attacks, with potential to score from anywhere across the front three. However, there are still questions of how far those attackers can take this team, which includes the aging but ever steady Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando.

Star player: Albert Rusnak. The Slovakian international was slightly less productive last season, but perhaps with a full offseason he’ll be able to raise his level again. He’s one of the most dangerous left wingers in the league.

Realistic expectation: Miss the playoffs. RSL didn’t make any major signings this offseason, and considering how they barely snuck in last season, it will be a tougher road ahead for them in 2019.


LA Galaxy – There’s a new head coach – Barros Schelotto – a new general manager – Dennis te Klose – and Zlatan has a new contract. The Galaxy upgraded in central midfield and at centerback, and look primed for a winning season.

Star player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The big Swede is now 37-years old, but he proved last year he can still be one of the world’s best goalscorers. Don’t take your eyes off this man.

Realistic expectation: Host a playoff game. The Galaxy should be back in the playoff picture with a new coach, mentality and some better players in the side.


Vancouver Whitecaps – The Whitecaps are in full rebuild mode, with a new coach, Marc Dos Santos, and 15 new signings. While LAFC and Atlanta proved that finding chemistry can occur quicker than expected, it still could be a tough season in Vancouver as some players adjust to a new system and teammates.

Star player: Hwang In-beom. The South Korean midfielder joined the Whitecaps this offseason on a Young Designated Player contract. While playing in MLS will be a test, his experience with the South Korean National Team at such a young age should give him a leg up when settling into the competition. In-beom could be the league’s next great attacking midfielder. 

Realistic expectation: Missing the playoffs. It’s likely going to be a tough season in Vancouver, but perhaps a piece or two will prove they’re worth holding onto in the future.


Houston Dynamo – The Houston Dynamo secured the 2018 U.S. Open Cup, but their league form last season was much worse. They recorded just two away wins, a mark Wilmer Cabrera will look to improve upon. The Dynamo have added two new defensive pieces, but will it be enough.

Star player: Alberth Elis. The young Honduran attacker is one of the best strikers in MLS, and he even had double-digit assists last season. He’ll need to up his goal tally this year though to bring Houston back to the playoffs.

Realistic expectation: Missing the playoffs. The Dynamo have some new pieces but it’s unclear if it’s enough. On the back line, Maynor Figueroa and DaMarcus Beasley are both older than 35 and new signing Aljaz Struna is untested.


Minnesota United – The Loons, ahead of the opening their new soccer specific stadium, made significant upgrades defensively and to their spine. Jan Gregus signed as a Designated Player and the team added Ozzie Alonso and Ike Opara.

Star player: Darwin Quintero. One of the top attackers in the league, Quintero will be the central point of Minnesota United’s attack, with his pace and dribbling ability a nightmare for defenders.

Realistic expectation: Fighting for the last playoff spot. Minnesota’s acquisitions are impressive but it’s unflear whether they can form a successful unit.


Colorado Rapids – Anthony Hudson’s first season in Colorado was pretty much a disaster, and it appears he’s learned that MLS experience is more important than talent from abroad. However, his new star signings Kei Kamara and Benny Feilhaber are on the wrong side of 30.

Star player: Benny Feilhaber. The former USMNT midfielder is on his 3rd team in as many years, but in Colorado he’ll be relied on to connect the lines of defense and midfield as well as play wingers into space.

Realistic expectation: Miss the playoffs. Colorado didn’t make the investments needed to push for a playoff spot.


San Jose Earthquakes – The ‘Quakes are the most intriguing team in the league this season. With Almeyda in charge, the squad has a fresh look and a new mindset.

Star player: Christian Espinoza. The young Argentine attacker joined from Villarreal in the offseason.

Realistic expectation: Fighting for a playoff spot. Almeyda likely won’t be able to flip the script completely, but the Quakes should make significant strides this season.

State of play in CONCACAF Nations League

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Well, well, well…

Canada’s controlling 2-0 defeat of the USMNT on Tuesday adding some intrigue to the final two match days of the CONCACAF Nations League next month

[ USMNT-CANADA: Time for change? | Player ratings ]

Mexico nearly provided another shock at Azteca thanks to a relative inability to break down Panama, but young stunner Jose Juan Macias scored for the fourth time in three caps to lead El Tri to a 3-1 win on the night.

Roberto Alvarado saw his 28th minute goal canceled out by pre-halftime own goal, and Mexico had better than 75 percent possession when Macias bagged his winner. Rodolfo Pizarro rounded out the scoring in stoppage time.

Here’s where we sit in the battle for four semifinal spots. The semifinals and finals will be staged in June.

Group A

Canada’s defeat of the USMNT means the Yanks need to make the most of the Canucks visit to the Orlando next month and smash Cuba in the Cayman Islands. Overall goal difference is the second tie breaker, and the Yanks are four behind Canada. A two-goal win in Florida would mean the Yanks would simply need a victory over Cuba to advance to the semifinals. Canada advances with a draw against the U.S., while Cuba has already be relegated to League B.

Group B

Mexico now has six points to Panama’s three and Bermuda’s three. El Tri will visit Panama next and can clinch a spot in the semifinals with a draw or better. Even if Panama beats Mexico, Tata Martino’s men would need to get nothing from Bermuda at Azteca to fail to make the semifinals. Bermuda needs Panama to beat Mexico before getting a blowout win at Azteca. Not looking good.

Group C

Honduras is onto the semifinals. Whether Martinique or Trinidad and Tobago, both on two points, can avoid relegation by getting a superior result against Honduras in November. Honduras heads to Martinique before hosting T&T.

Group D

Curacao had five points compared to its rivals two each and can advance to the semifinals with a home defeat of Costa Rica. If Los Ticos claims the three points, then it will have at least a two-goal advantage on Haiti heading into a home finale.

Three things from ugly USMNT loss in Canada

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We were warned after Couva that perhaps, somehow, the United States men’s national team still had some ways to go before really hitting rock bottom.

It seemed absurd, but after 10 months of the Gregg Berhalter era, which followed the least interesting manager search of all-time, perhaps the warning was needed and should’ve been heeded.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT had no answers and no options on Tuesday in Canada, showing no urgency and getting bossed off the pitch against a team which may not qualify for the Hex.

Time for a change? It’s not insane to consider it. The team Berhalter rolled out, with several players who aren’t even standouts in MLS, was inept in Ontario.

Either the plan or players the problem, and both point one way

Canada’s John Herdman and his desperate team were ready for a fight, and the visitors apparently thought their talent and reputation would win the day.

Nuh-uh.

The book on Canada was electric attackers and suspect defense, so what did Gregg Berhalter spring for his opening salvo? No pressing on the back line and two plodding center backs. Tim Ream could work with an athlete like Matt Miazga. Aaron Long, too, but Berhalter put both players together (Long certainly grew into the game).

The result was that Alphonso Davies was shifted mainly to the side of the field with Daniel Lovitz, and man did he run wild.

So did Canada’s midfield who out-worked the Yanks up-and-down the center of the park. It was sad, and littered the match with doubt heading into the break.

Granted the U.S. is short several injured players and lost Jozy Altidore just before the international break, but Berhalter had no answers on his bench, or at least couldn’t manufacture one.

And that’s a huge part of the issue here. If you don’t have any sugar, might wanna prepare something other than cookies.

He removed Christian Pulisic at the hour mark, who had been poor and reportedly sick (see below) but still represents the best playmaker in his pool. Aside from the Chelsea man’s missed 1v1 duel with Borjan, there were no real attacking moments.

This was so bad, and absolutely according to plan by Herdman. No, not Tata Martino this time… John Herdman.

There is every reason to doubt Berhalter right now, and just as many to think that U.S. Soccer hierarchy wouldn’t consider remedying the situation on account of pride.

Given the way national team soccer works, it would not be off-color if the federation pulled the chute on Berhalter. The only possible excuse is injury, but Berhalter knew what he had in this camp and still rolled this plan out there in Toronto.

Pulisic frustrated, off-color, sick, and subbed?

Christian Pulisic didn’t have to do much in Friday’s demolition of Cuba, and he couldn’t do much of anything on Tuesday when asked to carry the team.

The Yanks were absolutely bamboozled in the first half which often had the match asking Pulisic to run wild once the ball actually found its way to him.

But he was dispossessed too often in any event, and missed a necessary goal when Jordan Morris sent him alone 1v1 with Milan Borjan. Yeah, that’s a Champions League goalkeeper with Milan Borjan, but this is the pride and joy of the program and it’s best product maybe ever.

Still, for Berhalter to pull him after 60 minutes begs the question of whether there’s an injury here. If not, well, there are a lot more questions than answers.

EDIT: Berhalter said after the game that Pulisic had been struggling with flu-like symptoms.

Davies roars, Steffen saves USMNT from blowout

While the Yanks’ best players wasn’t in rhythm, Canada’s was borderline symphonic.

Former Vancouver Whitecaps phenom and current Bayern Munich youngster Alphonso Davies was a problem for the Americans from Moment No. 1, and the only thing that could slow him was a 53rd minute leg injury.

Davies had the U.S. back line on its toes all night, and cooked Tim Ream early in the match before doing the same to Aaron Long on a play the Red Bulls man did very well to recover and slide to safety.

Fortunately for Gregg Berhalter, Zack Steffen is used to being put in bad positions due to his starring stint on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf. The goalkeeper made a phenomenal 1v1 stop on Davies in the first half and was often forced to command his box under duress.

USMNT player ratings from a dismal night in Toronto

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Oh no.

The United States men’s national team had its worst performance since, well, last month.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

Were there bright spots? Well, at least one.

Let’s dig into an ugly 2-0 loss to the Canadians in Toronto.


Starting XI

Zack Steffen — 8 — Couldn’t do much on the goal, and was the only reason this wasn’t a blowout.

Daniel Lovitz — 5 — Couple of nice slide tackles. Steady enough on a bad day.

Tim Ream — 4 — Slipshod after two-straight notably good caps.

Aaron Long — 4 — Some really good moments and joined Steffen in saving the day despite a few glaring errors, and almost made amends for Yedlin’s awful effort on the goal. That said, out to lunch on Cavallini’s second.

DeAndre Yedlin (Off 73′) — 3 — Another unforgivable lack of attention and intensity on a conceded goal at the back post from Yedlin. Really, really poor.

Michael Bradley — 4 — Poor on the opening goal. Industrious but a step slow on the evening. Not what we expected from TFC’s captain at BMO Field.

Weston McKennie  — 3 — Left all his momentum somewhere between Friday and here. A step back and one that begs if he knew the plan.

Cristian Roldan (Off 73′) — 3 — An awful giveaway would’ve put the Yanks down 1-0 if not for Steffen’s heroics. Not on the level.

Christian Pulisic (Off 60′)  — 4 — Maybe his worst day in a U.S. shirt, bodied up often before missing a point blank chance to give the U.S. a lead. Berhalter said after the game that the player was suffering from the flu, so he gets an extra point for gutting it out.

Jordan Morris — 6 — One of the few bright spots in attack, should’ve had an assist on Pulisic’s missed xG.

Josh Sargent (Off 73′)  — 5 — Industrious but on an island.

Substitutions

Paul Arriola (On 60′) — 6 — Made some decent plays but isn’t a game breaker and didn’t have an outlet for his efforts.

Gyasi Zardes (On 73′) — N/A — This was the time to bring him on, hoping his athleticism and work rate could provide something that was missing.

Nick Lima (On 73′) — N/A — Deserves to start over either full back.

Disheveled USMNT out-muscled by Canada

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Gregg Berhalter’s doubters found a lot of fuel for their fire as the United States men’s national team was out-worked, out-thought, and out-played in an embarrassing first loss to Canada in over 30 years.

Alphonso Davies and Lucas Cavallini scored for the Canadians in a 2-0 win at BMO Field in Toronto, as Christian Pulisic was removed after 60 minutes.

The Canadians now hold the keys to the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals after improving to 3-0 on the campaign to the Yanks 1-1.

[ MORE: Time for a change? | Player ratings ]

Mark-Anthony Kaye lasted less than 10 minutes with a hamstring injury as Canada was forced into subbing one of its top midfielders early in the fray.

And Davies was all over the U.S., and could’ve had a breakaway were it not for a ridiculously poor offside flag when Ream tried to play him offside.

Davies forced Steffen into a save on a bounding shot in the 12th minute. He then cooked Tim Ream but was stifled by Long.

That’s when Cristian Roldan made an unfathomable back pass to Davies, only to be bailed out by Steffen and then Davies pushing the rebound wide of the far post.

The U.S. finally got pressure on goal in the 18th minute as Pulisic set up Jordan Morris for a left-footed shot that was diverted for a corner kick.

Pulisic had two chances in the last 15 minutes of the half, but both didn’t reach the keeper.

The second half saw some early promise but it became property of the hosts when Davies tore down the left of the pitch following a sleepy pass reception from Morris. Davies turned two defenders but one of them, Long, recovered to make a fine last ditch sliding tackle.

Jonathan David should’ve made it 1-0 as Richie Laryea fed the Gent man, who had taken advantage of Long but couldn’t get the ball inside the near post.

At the other end, Morris fed Pulisic for a point blank chance but the out-of-form Chelsea man rifled a shot right at Milan Borjan.

Long grew into the game and made another fine intervention when Davies was sprung down the right at the hour mark.

Berhalter then took off a sick Pulisic for Arriola, and the Chelsea man was visibly emotional on the bench.

There wasn’t much time to stew on that, because Canada scored.

Bradley bungled a ball in his own third and Ream couldn’t get purchase on his clearance. Canada sent the ball to the back post, where Yedlin was absent for another lazy concession in a U.S. shirt.

Morris headed a Yedlin cross to Borjan in the 72nd, but Canada right back at it when Long misjudged a lost 50/50 ball from Ream and Steffen made an outstanding save on David.

Cavallini put the game to bed when Ream and Long made a pair of hesitant plays in the U.S. third.