Previewing the Western Conference

RSL is poised to make a push into the upper echelon of Western Conference.

Real Salt Lake TV Analyst and MLS guru Brian Dunseth says nobody can definitively say what’s going to happen in the league this season. Well, he’s a quack. Take this column and transcribe it on stone tablets. I’ll preview the Eastern Conference on Thursday and RSL-FCD on Friday. But here’s a primer on the Western Conference.

Real Salt Lake stacks up with the upper echelon. Bold prediction, I know. But understand this: RSL finished 8-3-4 over the last four months with a +15 goal differential utilizing a utility-player-turned-striker. Luis Silva performed admirably with seven goals and three assists, but Alfredo Ortuno is the club’s number 9 for the future, on a club that didn’t have an eight-goal scorer last season (Silva, Albert Rusnak, Joao Plata, and Yura Movsisyan chipped in for seven each). Mike Petke has proven to enjoy competition over reputation. He has benched DPs… see Yura last season and Tim Cahill in 2014 (He went with Eric Alexander).

“It doesn’t matter if Messi comes onto this team. If someone is better than Messi. If Albert plays better than Messi, Messi is not going to play because he’s Messi,” Head Coach Mike Petke said before the club left for Orlando. “That’s probably a bad example, but you know what I’m saying. There’s always a competition at every position.” I’m convinced he’d bench Messi if he dogged it in 5v2.

Damir Kreilach will push Luke Mulholland for the box-to-box midfield position. Those were the main blind spots on a youthful team that now boasts 11  players under the age of 23. This year will be about taking that next step into the postseason.

The competition in the conference runs through the Pacific Northwest. Seattle Sounders enter 2018 seeking the club’s 10th straight postseason appearance. Jordan Morris’s ACL injury hurts their depth, but this team is stacked. It turns out Garth Lagerwey is good at his job. Seattle missed Morris for four months last year and lost one game.

By the way, the rivals in Oregon, Portland Timbers, finished first in the West. Last year’s MVP Diego Valeri enters a new system under Giovanni Savarese, but the core remains the same. If Fanendo Adi is on his game this team will be fine.

Beyond the wall, Vancouver Whitecaps are banking on Kei Kamara still being a top-flight striker. He scored 12 goals with New England, but there’s no guarantee he can continue this production. Carl Robinson’s cross heavy offense matches perfectly with Kamara’s skill set, but will he be up to the task?

LA Galaxy felt the heat from incoming LAFC. Sigi Schmid improved a club that finished with a league-worst 8 wins. The league’s all-time winningest coach signed midfielder Perry Kitchen and defender Jorgen Skjelvik to provide steel to a defense that gave up 67 goals in 2017 (most non-Minnesota United division). If the Galaxy can defend, they should be able to make the jump into postseason contention, especially if Zlatan Ibrahimovic joins the group.

Bob Bradley is a known commodity, and I expect them to go gung-ho into the season. He has alluded to as much by saying he’ll play three up top with Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. The questions will be asked in a defense relying on former MLS Defender of the Year Laurent Ciman. RSL will get their first crack at the expansion side on March 10, before it’s completely formed.

FC Dallas lost Kellyn Acosta for the first couple weeks of the season to a sports hernia. It’s possible this version of the team will start slow and close late. Oscar Pareja decided not to overextend FCD during in the winter months. He traded preseason in Argentina for Tucson.

Houston Dynamo lost a piece Sporting Kansas City yearns for: a striker. Erick Torres moved on, and now the load is on Alberth Elis to produce. Peter Vermes still has time to make his move.

San Jose Earthquakes edged RSL for the playoffs, but still decided they needed to get better. Wise decision. New DP Magnus Eriksson ought to take playing time and goals from Chris Wondolowski.To that end, will it be better for Wondo to come off the bench?

The Rocky Mountain Cup rivals Colorado Rapids improved with the additions of Edgar Castillo and a host of New Zealand/Championship players (Anthony Hudson is using the Doc Rivers mode of management). I’m skeptical; 0 goals in CCL play leaves me unconvinced his 3-5-2 will vault the Rapids into contention. In 2017, Colorado and DC tied for fewest goals in the league with 31 each.

Minnesota is banking on continuity ruling the day. Replace the first two matches with more respectable 3-1 scorelines, and the Loons have a better defensive record than the Galaxy.

RSL showed itself to be a club that can contend. In a more real sense, there’s no telling where all of these teams will finish. Everyone made moves, but it’ll take time until it’s known which ones pan out. I can say this with 100% certainty: It’ll be fun to watch.

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