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2014 MLS Season Preview: Western Conference Primer

Portland Timbers Diego Valeri, Futty Danso, Will Johnson and the Portland Timbers hope to raise trophies in addition to log slabs in 2014. (Brian Murphy/Icon SMI)

By points per game, Major League Soccer’s Western Conference was still better than the East in 2013; however, Sporting Kansas City won the MLS Cup, and the New York Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield.

It was the first time since 2009 a team from the East took the regular-season title, and the first since 2008 that the West got shut out of both trophies. On top of that, lowly D.C. United won the U.S. Open Cup at Rio Tinto Stadium. Teams at the top and bottom of the West had major shake-ups in the offseason, with Real Salt Lake losing its head coach and Chivas USA its owners.

A number of key acquisitions make teams on the left coast as dangerous as ever, though. All nine franchises will be fighting to reverse the recent shift in trophies in 2014, led by the energized Portland Timbers, revamped L.A. Galaxy, and a Seattle Sounders team desperate to make its big spending last year pay off.

Here is a breakdown of the MLS Western Conference as the 2014 season approaches:

Marco Pappa Marco Pappa is back in MLS with Seattle after leaving Chicago for the Eredivisie. (VI-Images/Getty)

NOTEWORTHY NEWCOMERS

• Adolfo Bautista (Chivas USA): "Bofo" spent four seasons at Chivas de Guadalajara, where he scored 45 goals in 167 appearances and won the 2006 Liga MX Apertura tournament. His best days are behind him, but the 34-year-old might still have some goals left to give MLS this season.

• Gastón Fernández (Portland Timbers): Get ready for another Argentinian attacker in Timbers colors to challenge for Newcomer of the Year. Fernández will be the only true false nine in MLS, and La Gata brings extensive experience and a deft scoring touch inside the penalty area that should provide some thrills.

• Rob Friend (L.A. Galaxy): Bruce Arena has a knack for taking players toward the end of their careers and reigniting them with a second chance. Friend will be looking for just such an opportunity after two frustrating years in the 2. Bundesliga that also saw him drop out of the Canadian national team picture.

• Nicolás Mezquida (Vancouver Whitecaps): One of two Uruguayan signings for Vancouver in the offseason, the 22-year-old was on trial at Celtic in September. However, with zero caps at the senior international level, acquiring a work permit would have been a problem.

• Luke Mulholland (Real Salt Lake): A star in the USL and NASL for the last three years, Mulholland joined RSL after being named to the NASL Team of the Year in 2012 and 2013. Most recently, he played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, where he totaled 17 goals and 13 assists in 51 matches, primarily as an attacking central midfielder.

• Norberto Paparatto (Portland Timbers): If Portland had any weaknesses in 2013, they were in the back line. Paparatto provides a presence the Timbers could have used in defending set pieces last year, standing 6 feet, 4 inches tall, as well as some tidy foot skills that fit nicely into Caleb Porter’s ideal of building from the back.

• Marco Pappa (Seattle Sounders): He’s not exactly new to the league after five years with the Chicago Fire, but Pappa returns to MLS after having little luck in Holland. He showed well for Seattle in preseason and could be a major part of the midfield despite the early termination of his contract at Heerenveen that caused his return.

• Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi (San Jose Earthquakes): Pierazzi was a one-club man in his hometown at Ligue 1’s Ajaccio until January, when he joined San Jose. The holding midfielder will fill in the gap left behind by Rafael Baca’s departure and fit right into San Jose’s hard-hitting style.

• Samuel (L.A. Galaxy): This story should be familiar: a flashy Brazilian attacking player joins the Galaxy on loan. L.A. fans will be hoping to see Samuel's goalscoring form that helped Fluminense to the Brasileiro title in 2012 and the same impact that Juninho had in his initial MLS foray from Brazil.

• David Texeira (FC Dallas): The Young Designated Player signing spent the last three seasons at FC Groningen in the Eredivisie. After starting the majority of the team’s games in 2011-12 and 2012-13, he fell out of favor and only made six appearances in all competitions this year, scoring just once.

TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES

• Sigi Schmid got to keep his job as Seattle Sounders coach: After the team opened its wallet to bring in Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey, crashing out of the playoffs against their bitter rivals was not what Sounders management and fans had in mind. Many thought 2014 would see the first coaching change in the franchise’s MLS history, but Adrian Hanauer and Joe Roth saw fit to give Schmid another chance. It’s hard to see him getting one more if the results are similar this year.

• Jason Kreis left Real Salt Lake for New York City FC: Kreis built Real Salt Lake into a perennial MLS contender after a rocky start in the league, and he did it with nowhere near the budget and resources of Manchester City-backed NYCFC. He is currently spending an extended amount of time in England, learning from Manuel Pellegrini and his staff before taking on a new challenge in 2015.

• Óscar Pareja returned to FC Dallas…: It’s no surprise. The former academy director and legend as a player with Dallas was the only logical replacement for Schellas Hyndman, under whom Pareja served as an assistant from 2005 to 2011. In two years with the Colorado Rapids, the Colombian empowered his young players, who delivered the team back into the playoffs in 2013 after missing out in 2012.

• …Leaving the Colorado Rapids without a manager as the season approaches: Well, sort of. Shortly after Pareja left for Dallas, the Rapids announced Pablo Mastroeni’s hiring as special assistant to technical director Paul Bravo, which feels like a label waiting to be peeled off before revealing him as head coach. Colorado opens against New York on March 15, though, and we’re still waiting for that revelation.

• The Vancouver Whitecaps had an awkward time in the transfer market: 2013 Golden Boot winner Camilo Sanvezzo showed up at Querétaro’s training ground despite being under contract with the Whitecaps. After three weeks, during which the Whitecaps insisted Camilo was still theirs, he finally completed the transfer. Then, No. 7 overall MLS SuperDraft pick Andre Lewis had signed with the New York Cosmos, as it turned out, before the draft. MLS scrambled to reassure fans that, should he make the roster, Lewis would indeed play for the Whitecaps in 2014 on loan from the NASL side.

• MLS stepped in to purchase Chivas USA from Jorge Vergara: After an atrocious 2013 season from results and public relations perspectives, Chivas USA belongs to the league. Jorge Vergara handed the flaming baton to MLS in mid-February, and the league appointed longtime executive Nelson Rodríguez as the franchise’s president on Feb. 26, until new owners are found who will keep the team in Los Angeles but build a new stadium.

Jason Kreis The MLS Western Conference will be a different place without Jason Kreis manning RSL's sidelines. (Ray Stubblebine/EPA)

BIGGEST QUESTIONS ENTERING 2014

• Can RSL pick up where it left off after Kreis’ departure?: Kreis’ right-hand man for six seasons, Jeff Cassar, is now in charge and has promised continuity. But Kreis created and executed the master plan for the team, along with general manager Garth Lagerwey, who is entering the final year of his contract. Where is the team headed?

• What’s the deal with the Rapids’ coaching position?: Mastroeni is a clear candidate to fill the vacancy. Colorado received plenty of advance notice that Pareja had no intention to return in 2014. Why hasn’t the front office pulled the trigger on naming a new head coach?

• Will the Sounders pull it together after their epic 2013 collapse?: Perhaps Clint Dempsey could be forgiven for taking time to settle back into MLS after joining without a proper preseason. Perhaps Obafemi Martins needed some time off after playing an outrageous schedule over the past 12 months. Maybe not having a roster settled until beyond the first match hurt team chemistry, as did Eddie Johnson’s reported antics after Dempsey joined. Will there be more excuses in 2014, or will big-spending Seattle finally reach its potential?

• Similarly, will Dempsey get back to top form in time for the World Cup?: A discouraging end to last season left Dempsey with barely anything to show for his time in rave green. Nagging injuries didn’t help, but his loan spell at Fulham hasn’t gone as planned, either, and he missed out on having a full preseason again to sit on the bench in England. With only three months until the World Cup, is it too late for Dempsey to carry the U.S.’s burden in Brazil?

• What will Porterball 2.0 look like?: Caleb Porter engineered the most impressive turnaround in MLS history by winning the regular-season Western Conference title with the Portland Timbers. The changes he made in the offseason reinforced the style of play we saw last year, and with international competition coming in the CONCACAF Champions League, new challenges await. Can Portland replicate or surpass its 2013 success?

• Will Chivas USA’s off-field saga have an on-field effect?: Players are supposed to focus between the white lines to the exclusion of everything else, but the reality is big changes have an everyday effect. First-year manager Wilmer Cabrera will have to work hard to keep his players happy in an ever-changing environment. Of course, it can’t get much worse than last year’s results, but what will the ongoing search for a new owner and stadium do to the team’s performance on game day?

SI Now: One-on-one with MLS star Landon Donovan
On Tuesday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated soccer writer Brian Straus sat down with LA Galaxy forward Landon Donovan to discuss MLS opening weekend, his future with the Galaxy and his hopes for Team USA in the World Cup.

POTENTIAL WORLD CUP CALL-UPS

• Costa Rica: Álvaro Saborío (Real Salt Lake), Rodney Wallace (Portland Timbers)

• Honduras: Victor Bernárdez (San Jose Earthquakes), Marvin Chávez (Colorado Rapids), Johnny Leverón (Vancouver Whitecaps)

• Iran: Steven Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps)

• Nigeria: Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders)

• United States: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Landon Donovan (L.A. Galaxy), Omar González (L.A. Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH (Top 5 make playoffs)

1. Portland Timbers

2. L.A. Galaxy

3. Real Salt Lake

4. Seattle Sounders

5. FC Dallas

6. Colorado Rapids

7. Vancouver Whitecaps

8. San Jose Earthquakes

9. Chivas USA
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