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2011 Western Conference preview: RSL, L.A. head another deep field

Just as was the case last season, the West in MLS appears to be the stronger of the two conferences. Not only does it contain the presence of the past two MLS Cup champions (Real Salt Lake in 2009 and Colorado in 2010), it also has the past two runner-ups in the Galaxy and FC Dallas. This season's addition of expansion franchises Portland and Vancouver add even more intrigue to the West as their heated Northwest soccer rivalry with Seattle will resume.

Click here for Steve Davis' Eastern Conference preview

WESTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish

1. REAL SALT LAKE2010 Record: 15-4-11, 56 points, plus-25 goal difference

Prominent comings and goings: Not much changed around the league's current rock of roster stability. The offseason was mostly spent re-signing key players or extending contracts. Arturo Alvarez was claimed on the cheap. Otherwise this is more or less the same team that won it all two years ago and is nearly identical to the side that finished second in the West last year.

The good, bad and noteworthy: RSL is the first MLS team to advance into the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. The men from Rio Tinto meet Costa Rican power Saprissa over two legs in March and early April. ... Three players return from MLS Best 11 seasons: center backs Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave and playmaker Javier Morales. In goal, the Galaxy's Donovan Ricketts claimed Best 11 honors -- but plenty of ballots checked the box next to RSL's Nick Rimando for his outstanding season. ... Jason Kreis remains the youngest coach to claim an MLS title but is no longer the youngest coach overall; D.C. United's Ben Olsen now wears that badge.

The man who matters: Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio was MLS Newcomer of the Year in 2010, hitting for a team-leading 12 goals. Armed with a year of MLS experience and a new deal that makes him, officially, a designated player, Saborio appears set for bigger things still.

Bottom line: Last year's surprising first-round playoff loss to Dallas provided ample motivation for the preseason. On the other hand, Kreis has already expressed reservations about the burdens of expectation for his talented club; With a potential place in the FIFA Club World Cup (for the Champions League winner), and a professed intent to take the U.S. Open Cup more seriously this go-round, there's a lot dangling out there for RSL.

2. LOS ANGELES GALAXY2010 Record: 18-7-5, 59 points, plus-18 GD

Prominent comings and goings: Juan Pablo Angel's move from New York to Los Angeles (in the league's first re-entry draft) was a huge offseason story. The veteran Colombian is an upgrade from Edson Buddle -- so long as he remains healthy. At age 35 that's no slam dunk. Even with Angel's addition the team got a little younger; Chris Klein and Eddie Lewis retired, while Dema Kovalenko wasn't invited back. Buddle's departure (to Ingolstadt in Germany) would be a pressure point but for Angel's arrival. And finally, L.A. is Chad Barrett's latest chance to prove himself a reliable forward.

The good, bad and noteworthy: This is probably David Beckham's last shot at MLS hardware; he is entering the last season of his landmark five-year deal. There's no question that Beckham's acquisition in 2007 has succeeded on the first intent, to ramp up MLS buzz. But the Galaxy had something else in mind, too: trophies. On this account, Beckham's failure to produce is difficult to conceal. ... Don't be surprised to see young Brazilian midfielder Juninho in a slightly more defensive role. He did well in limited time last year in more recessed areas. ... The team has depth on the back line and at forward, where Barrett, Mike Magee, Bryan Jordan and others will compete for the spot alongside Angel. (Unless Donovan plays there, which is possible.)

The man who matters: Beckham always gets the buzz, but this has long been Landon Donovan's team. The country's top player took a true winter respite for the first time since 2008-09, so he's fresh and eager. Donovan would love to repeat or top last year's assist total (a league-leading 16) while adding a few more goals (he had 7). In preseason Donovan played a variety of roles: as a left-sided midfielder, a second forward and as the offensive fulcrum beneath two strikers in a 4-3-1-2 arrangement.

Bottom line: Given Beckham's contract status and Angel's age, plus Gregg Berhalter's age, this year may be it for this version of the Galaxy. Significant changes are probably on the way next year, so it's MLS Cup or bust for L.A.

3. COLORADO RAPIDS2010 Record: 12-8-10, 46 points, plus-12 GD

Prominent comings and goings: This was a quiet offseason for the league champs, with only some reinforcements added for depth. Midfielder Sanna Nyassi will offer a change of pace on the right side. And veteran center back Tyrone Marshall will provide able cover for center backs Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne.

The good, bad and noteworthy: It seems counterintuitive, but most observers still fancy Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles in the West -- never mind that Colorado lifted the MLS Cup less than four months ago in Toronto. ... Veteran midfielder Pablo Mastroeni knows he'll have to parcel out the minutes carefully this year since Colorado could have 40-45 competitive matches through the season. That's a lot to ask of a 34-year-old central midfielder. ... Moor didn't get the attention of fellow Rocky Mountain men Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers at RSL, but he put together a substantial season. Moor played every minute of the regular season and the playoffs and he was an underrated element on the road to Colorado's first MLS Cup.

The man who matters: Conor Casey gets more press, probably because he's American or maybe because he looks like an MMA brawler. Still, Omar Cummings is the true danger man around DSG Park in suburban Denver. The speedy Jamaican international has 22 goals and 15 assists over the last two years. His slashing, diagonal runs are the perfect complement for the Casey's blunt force ways.

Bottom line: If Mastroeni remains healthy alongside Jeff Larentowicz, the Rapids' hardworking, hard-tackling midfield will make life hard on opposition once again. Still, it's hard to sneak up on teams when you play with the silver ball (the reigning MLS champs always use the special silver ball at home). How difficult is it to repeat? It has happened before in MLS, but only once since 1997.

4. FC DALLAS2010 Record: 12-4-14, 50 points, plus-14 GD

Prominent comings and goings: It was a strangely staid offseason in terms of replacing key components, especially before the announced signing of 18-year-old striker Fabian Castillo on March 7. A member of Colombia's under-20 side, Castillo was also apparently a target of Portuguese power Benfica. Dax McCarty, a major reason Dallas made it to the league championship game, got away with zero compensation. Atiba Harris was plucked in the expansion draft, Heath Pearce was traded away and Jeff Cunningham's option was declined. No one around the team seems too upset about Cunningham's exit; his goal scoring will probably be replaced so long as league MVP David Ferreira keeps breaking down defenses and arranging the pretty setups. Midfielder Andrew Jacobson and goalkeeper Chris Seitz were added from Philadelphia.

The good, bad and noteworthy: Dallas has quite a history with Colombian players (like Castillo). Leonel Alvarez may still be the best player to wear an FC Dallas shirt. Juan Toja and Oscar Pareja (now a valued assistant at Pizza Hut Park) were plucked from Colombia, as were Ferreira, striker Milton Rodriguez and left back Jair Benitez. ... The speedy Castillo will probably miss about six weeks while away at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. ... Former Chivas USA striker Maykel Galindo remains in camp on trial. ... Injuries bit both starting center backs in preseason, so goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, 36, needs to be as sharp as he was in last year's sensational season.

The man who matters: Since getting his feet set over the first few months of 2009 (his first MLS season) no playmaker has done it better than Ferreira. Beyond his assists (13 last year, second in MLS) his goals tend to be important ones. Ferreira struck for eight in each of the past two seasons.

Bottom line: Dallas lost three starters plus Cunningham, a lot of turnover for a team that came so close to winning it all. It's a bad year to lose so much firepower, as the West clearly looks stronger than the East this year. A lot appears to be riding on an 18-year-old talent who has yet to play a minute (Castillo).

5. SEATTLE SOUNDERS2010 Record: 14-10-6, 48 points, plus-4 GD

• Prominent comings and goings: The club lost several complementary parts or tier-2 starters (Sanna Nyassi, Nate Sturgis, Peter Vagenas and Tyrone Marshall) but retained the important core. Danny Earls, O'Brian White and draft pick Michael Tetteh will compete for backup roles, but it would have been nice to see Sigi Schmid and Co. reinforce some of the outside spots.

The good, bad and noteworthy: The team had trouble finishing in preseason. Sound familiar? It certainly will to Sounders fans, who watched their side created chances in sufficient quantity in 2010 only to flail and fail too frequently inside the penalty area. No member of the "big four" around Qwest -- Blaise Nkufo, Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani and Alvaro Fernandez -- has scored during the run of play in preseason. Alarming? You bet. Because at some point, the hollow cries of "It's just preseason," doesn't cut it. ... At the other end, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's return after an injury-interrupted 2010 will surely help. Behind him, goalkeeper Kasey Keller (recently turned 42) had a couple of uncharacteristic wobbles in 2010 but was otherwise effective.

The man who matters: The talk of Fredy Montero as league MVP reached a crescendo in late July, but died a long, slow and pitiful death afterward. Frankly, the young Colombian disappeared down the stretch. With apologies to Zakuani and Nkufo, as Montero goes, so goes the Sounders' offense.

Bottom line: All that fantastic support in Seattle goes hand in hand with pressure to perform. So it looks like a critical year for Schmid and for the current roster core. The club's expansion season (2009) was a surprising success. But there was zero progress in 2010, so improvement this go-round is essential. Short of that, changes could be on the way. Because the additions of expansion sides in Portland and Vancouver will add even more pressure; it's gonna get hot in the Pacific Northwest kitchen, for sure.

6. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES2010 Record: 13-10-7, 46 points, plus-1 GD

Prominent comings and goings: The exit door got a workout in the offseason. Arturo Alvarez and Joe Cannon were claimed in the expansion draft. And the club declined options on Geovanni (a Designated Player last year), Eduardo and Cornell Glen. Steven Lenhart and a few draft picks were the only notable additions. On the other hand, coach Frank Yallop is one who makes liberal use of the summer transfer window, so check back in July.

The good, bad and noteworthy: Yallop's plan for 2011 took a minor hit when Lenhart underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in early March. He is expected to miss the first week or two of the season, at least. Lenhart was a starter last year for Columbus but probably known more for his reckless, relentless style than for steady production (13 goals in 63 matches at Columbus). His injury probably means more early playing time for Ryan Johnson. ... Ike Opara's rookie season was on the right track but limited to 11 games due to a season-ending injury. His return to health for 2011 gives Yallop the option of using Brandon McDonald in the midfield. ... You don't hear a lot about Jason Hernandez, but he's a steady MLS center back. If Opara returns to pre-injury form (and there's no reason to think he can't), the center back position should be among the league's deepest, with Bobby Burling and McDonald competing for spots as well. ... With McDonald, Sam Cronin, Brad Ring and Khari Stephenson, Yallop has good options (but no great ones) for center midfield.

The man who matters: One of the truly intriguing questions of MLS 2011 revolves around Chris Wondolowski, who broke from the ranks of the anonymous to claim Major League Soccer's Golden Boot last year -- surely the most unlikely scoring champ in 15 MLS seasons. So, was it a one-year aberration or does the Earthquakes' attacker have it in him again? A good year of service from Bobby Convey would help tons.

Bottom line: There wasn't much of an offseason improvement initiative around Buck Shaw. Last year's attack was far too reliant on Wondolowski, who practically carried the team into a playoff appearance. Yallop simply must turn up a secondary threat, something that won't be easy without a true creator around.

7. PORTLAND TIMBERS2010 Record: N/A (Expansion season)

Prominent comings and goings: The roster is entirely new. Names to watch include Kenny Cooper, a consistent scorer for FC Dallas before two lost years in Europe, dynamic rookie Darlington Nagbe, former D.C. United defender Rodney Wallace and former Red Bull New York fullback Jeremy Hall.

The good, bad and noteworthy: If there was any doubt about Portland as a soccer town, fans erased them by snapping up 12,000 season tickets for the newly remodeled, downtown PGE Park. ... Coach John Spencer, an assistant for several successful seasons in Houston, says he doesn't intend to nurse along Nagbe, the league's No. 2 overall draft pick. Nagbe can play as much as likes, so long as he earns it, Spencer said. ... Nagbe will, however, miss the first game or two while recovering from surgery to correct a sports hernia. ... Several reports, unconfirmed by the club, say the Timbers are negotiating with Argentine playmaker Marcos Flores, now pulling the strings for Australia's Adelaide United.

The man who matters: For all the press headed toward Cooper and Nagbe, this side will only find success in 2011 if goalkeeper Troy Perkins can be better than in a failed stint with D.C. United. He appears to have it in him. After all, Perkins was third in the U.S. national team pecking order not so long ago. He lost his place at D.C. United midseason last year after a series of costly blunders.

Bottom line: Spencer insists that his team's goal, like pretty much every other club, is to make the playoffs. Seattle did so as an expansion side in 2009, but that was more "exception" than "rule" around MLS. Every other expansion side since 1998 has dragged the bottom in its first year. The Timbers will challenge for a postseason berth in 2011 only if Cooper or Nagbe can have a huge year.

8. CHIVAS USA2010 Record: 8-18-4, 28 points, minus-14 GD

Prominent comings and goings: The personnel changes are vast, but the one key fortification was at the end of the bench. Robin Fraser, a respected, high-value target among the league's assistant coaching ranks, now gets his chance in charge. The former No. 2 at Real Salt Lake wasn't shy about turning over the roster. Incoming talent includes veteran target man Alejandro Moreno, decorated center back Jimmy Conrad, young attacker Tristan Bowen, draftee Zarek Valentin and U.S. international Heath Pearce. Pearce is a real steal, filling the big void left by Jonathan Bornstein's departure.

The good, bad and noteworthy: Fraser is the team's third head coach in three year following Martin Vasquez's one-year run in 2010. ... There were times in the dismal 2010 campaign when Justin Braun was about all Chivas had, attack-wise. So it was a real blight on preseason prep that the fringe U.S. international missed the first few weeks, still recovering from an Achilles problem picked up in the January national team camp. The team's leading scorer last year (nine goals) didn't get into a preseason contest until March 8. ... Braun's absence showed as Chivas struggled to produce goals all preseason.

The man who matters: Conrad has always been a fellow of good humor, and he never dogged out Sporting Kansas City for letting him go in the offseason. Still, you have to think that's a big motivational burr in his shorts. He needs a big year in terms of performance and leadership. That's a big ask at age 34.

Bottom line: This is a side that never has formed a true identity. Fraser wants to build one around defense that's tough, smart and technically proficient -- a little like he was back in his playing days. Still, it's a long road, probably more than a one-year fix, especially on the attack.

9. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS2010 Record: N/A (Expansion season)

Prominent comings and goings: U.S. international center back Jay DeMerit highlights another new roster. Atiba Harris (from Dallas), Joe Cannon (San Jose) and John Thorrington (Chicago) were all former starters gathered in the expansion draft.

The good, bad and noteworthy: Say this for Whitecaps officials: They won't be rushed into imprudent personnel choices. With just 17 players signed for coach Teitur Thordarson as of March 8, this is the league's thinnest roster at the moment. ... If only the team were as strong elsewhere as it is at center back, where DeMerit will be on patrol next to former D.C. United man Greg Janicki. ... Just how good is the Swiss Super League? We'll know more soon, because Whitecaps technical director Tom Soehn, formerly the coach at D.C. United and now in charge of building Vancouver's side, plucked three players from Switzerland's top tier. ... FIFA rules say Omar Salgado, the league's No. 1 draft pick, can only play for the reserve side until his 18th birthday in September (because he was signed by a team outside his home country.) ... The Whitecaps will play at 27,000-seat Empire Field pending completion of a $563 million renovation to BC Place.

The man who matters: It took until early March for the Whitecaps to sign their first DP, veteran Swiss striker Eric Hassli. Once a consistent scorer for FC Zurich, he's been at relatively low ebb since a leg break in September 2009. At his best, he hit 21 times over 34 games in Zurich's title run in 2008-09. (Whitecaps teammate Alain Rochat was a member of that side, too.)

Bottom line: It's hard to see much initial success given the lack of depth, the current reliance on talent from U.S. Soccer's second tier and an alarming lack of attacking muscle. Vancouver's choice to build patiently might have been easier for fans to swallow but for one mitigating factor: MLS is about to pull the pin on a powerful, three-way Pacific Northwest rivalry. Portland's simultaneous arrival and the bitter border rivalry with Seattle adds pressure that could potentially alter the calculus of it all.

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