MLS Western Conference preview: Real Salt Lake leads deep field

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WESTERN CONFERENCE: Projected order of finish

1. REAL SALT LAKE2009 Record: 11-12-7

• Prominent comings and goings: Not many changes for the reigning champs. In fact, manager Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey made a strategic choice to keep things mostly "as is." Kreis believes individual development in younger players will lead to collective improvement. The club did address a hole at striker alongside Robbie Findley with the addition of Costa Rican international Alvaro Saborio. Clint Mathis' trade to Los Angeles (requested because of family reasons) does depress the depth in midfield. Yura Movsisyan, usually a near-miss waiting to happen, left for Europe as well.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: RSL finished with a 9-1-5 record and plus-23 goal difference at home last year. On the road: a 2-11-2 mark and minus-15 goal difference. That's significant because the wretched road form nearly kept RSL out of the playoffs entirely, which would have meant no glorious, milestone title run -- which could have meant sackings, franchise upheaval, etc. But Kreis' side did win in the playoffs at Columbus and Chicago, so maybe it located the formula -- finally. ... Assuming Findley and Saborio start, Fabian Espindola may be the best No. 3 striker in the league.

• The man who matters: Big center back Jamison Olave finally made progress last year in maintaining the discipline and concentration needed of a top-flight defender. He has the physical tools to dominate, especially with steady Nat Borchers and underrated Chris Wingert alongside -- as long as he keeps his head.

• Bottom line: Cornerstone midfielder Kyle Beckerman leads a unit full of mid-level MLS worker bees and young talent. They proved in 2009 that a team thusly constructed (a stockpile of good talent but no pricey stars) can rule. Now we see if "standing pat" is a philosophy that can keep RSL on top.

2. SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC2009 Record: 12-7-11

• Prominent comings and goings: Like RSL, the Sounders' general offseason attitude amounted to "keep the party going." They did lose Sebastien Le Toux to expansion Philadelphia. Jeff Parke, formerly of Red Bull New York, joins an impressive list of candidates vying to provide defensive depth.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Where Brad Evans fits best is a question being asked around Qwest Field. He can play pretty much anywhere in the midfield. Bob Bradley even experimented with him at right back for the national team. ... If anybody wonders whether Kasey Keller can remain effective at age 40, remember he's two years younger than Houston goalie Pat Onstad, who is still doing fine. ... Fredy Montero garnered perhaps less pub last year that Seattle's other Freddie (Ljungberg). Still, Montero's 12 goals and seven assists aren't bad at all. And his strikes included a couple of boffo highlight-makers. Montero will also be partnered this season by veteran Swiss striker and FC Twente goal-scoring machine Blaise Nkufo, who'll join the Sounders after the World Cup. ... The team set an MLS attendance mark last year. With a little bump in capacity (which is strategically restricted by cordoning off upper areas), the Sounders can probably establish a new standard this year, too.

• The man who matters: Don't be fooled by feisty Swedish attacker Ljungberg's modest two-goal total. He added so much to the Sounders' attack, holding possession when needed or mashing the gas pedal on the counter when opportunity arose. Plus, his ability to draw fouls and generally stir up trouble (including a few spats with officials) always keeps things interesting.

• Bottom line: Manager Sigi Schmid continues to attract young talent. His team once gain seems to be anchored with an attractive mix of young and old. It worked in 2009 and should again this year assuming good health for Keller and Ljungberg.

3. COLORADO RAPIDS2009 Record: 10-10-10

• Prominent comings and goings: The Rapids added talent and toughness in two offseason midfield acquisitions from New England: Jeff Larentowicz and Wells Thompson. An abundance of quality defenders allowed Colorado to make the move; parting ways with Cory Gibbs doesn't sting because of plenty of reliable cover at center back. Three quality backups also moved on: Ty Harden, Jordan Harvey and Jacob Peterson.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Even with Gibbs' departure, you can't swing a corner flag around DSG Park without hitting a worthy center back. Drew Moor, Scott Palguta and Julien Baudet are starter-quality candidates. Plus, Pablo Mastroeni or Larentowicz can deploy there comfortably. ... Conor Casey tends to absorb all the attention, but you could argue that Omar Cummings' contributions on attack (eight goals, 12 assists) were more valuable. His ability to stretch defenses vertically is paired perfectly with Casey's effective hold-up play.

• The man who matters:Matt Pickens, signed in midseason last year, provides the kind of stability in goal not seen around Denver since Joe Cannon left in 2006. Preston Burpo was limited and Bouna Coundoul was just too erratic and too much of a gambler. Pickens is solid, if unspectacular; creating core stability front to back.

• Bottom line: Manager Gary Smith has slowly built the team he wants and now has all the elements in place -- even if a few remain on the mend. How a bustling, talented midfield core heals will say plenty about 2010 prospects. Larentowicz, Mastroeni, Jamie Smith and Colin Clark all are recovering from offseason surgery. That's pretty much the entire first-choice midfield. If they all get back to 100 percent effectiveness, backed by the underrated, versatile Nick LaBrocca, playoff soccer could well return to Colorado.

4. LOS ANGELES GALAXY2009 Record: 12-6-12

• Prominent comings and goings: Beckham is still with the team, technically. But with a projected September return from a ruptured Achilles tendon, you really have to wonder if he'll see the field in 2010. Otherwise, after a big offseason of turnover a year ago, winter stability reigned this time. Role players Stefani Miglioranzi and Stefani Miglioranzi were the only subtractions. Meanwhile, Mathis arrived from Real Salt Lake to add another midfield option (although he's currently returning from injury). A pair of young Brazilians may compete for time: Juninho, a 20-year-old central midfielder, and Leonardo, a 21-year-old central defender.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: The MLS runner-up would probably be picked higher but for Beckham's absence and Donovan's uncertain status. Donovan will miss a chunk of the season because of the World Cup. And who knows what will happen in the summer transfer window, when Everton (or someone else) could try to woo the top American. ... The starting back five (four defenders and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts) can rival that of any MLS team. ... With just a pinch more seasoning, center back Omar Gonzalez could soon challenge as class of the league at that spot.

• The man who matters: It's all on the peerless Donovan to supply the offensive thrust. But if anyone is up for the job, the unstoppable reigning league MVP, just back from a ballyhooed spell at Everton, surely is it. Over 121 MLS matches since 2004, he has struck at a prodigious rate of more than one goal every other game. So there's no reason to think Donovan can't hit for 15 or so this year, even if he misses a few games while on World Cup duty.

• Bottom line: Donovan and this hardy rear guard are a great place to start. But the rest of the midfield leans toward old and slow (or is untested in MLS). Depth at forward is troubling, too. Still, they'll win their share based on being tightly organized, limiting defensive errors and getting shrewd match management from Bruce Arena.

5. FC DALLAS2009 Record: 11-13-6

• Prominent comings and goings: Manager Schellas Hyndman spent more than a year tinkering with personnel, getting the mix just so, and seemed to have things settled late last year. He did kick veterans Pablo Ricchetti and Dave van den Bergh to the curb; they didn't seem on board with the long-term plan. Kevin Hartman was signed to push incumbent 'keeper Dario Sala.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: FCD's late-season run at the playoffs topped the league's October headlines last year. A splashy 6-3 win at L.A. sparked a 5-1-0 run, which nearly pushed the Texans into the playoffs. ... Offensive fireball David Ferreira, holding mid enforcer Daniel Hernandez and steady distributor Dax McCarty provide sturdy central midfield balance. ... Heath Pearce may land on the U.S. national team in South Africa for his ability at left back, so it's interesting that he hasn't unseated Jair Benitez for the spot with Dallas. Pearce starts on the right.

• The man who matters: Golden Boot winner Jeff Cunningham (17 goals and eight assists) was on a mission late last year, with almost all of his tallies coming over the season's second half. His ability to strike so prolifically (or something close to it) will be critical this year as the depth at striker falls off considerably after the 33-year-old sniper.

• Bottom line:Kyle Davies and George John are promising center backs surrounded by tested veteran fullbacks, so the defense looks much stronger than last year's leaky outfit (47 goals allowed, tied for second worst in MLS.) But if management can't find another striker (slumps and injuries do happen), this team simply isn't built to prevail in low-scoring tussles.

6. HOUSTON DYNAMO2009 Record: 13-8-9

• Prominent comings and goings:Stuart Holden (England's Bolton) and Ricardo Clark (Germany's Frankfurt) were among the league's most notable offseason losses. Adrian Serioux is back for his second stint at Houston, although making five moves since 2005 is hardly a good sign. Jamaican midfielder Lovel Palmer, fast, rangy and competitive, should fit right in, possibly pairing with Geoff Cameron or challenging him for time at holding midfielder.

• The good, bad and noteworthy:Luis Angel Landin's bid for redemption, after landing in 2009 unfit and ineffective, is off to a bad start. He was hurt early in the preseason, adding yet another obstacle. Without a breakthrough year, the young Mexican striker is in danger of becoming the league's most notorious Designated Player bust since Denilson. ... Cameron, such a revelation at center back last year, will get a chance to fill Clark's big shoes as a holding midfielder. ... Tenth-year midfielder Brian Mullan finished without a goal for the first time in his career in 2009. He turns 32 in April and has a lot of miles on the tires. He's been impressively durable, especially for someone who outworks almost every opposing midfielder, but you do have to wonder if he can continue to hold up.

• The man who matters:Brad Davis is the quintessential MLS Steady Eddie, stellar in league play but unable to break into national-team prominence. His contributions will never be more important than in 2010. Davis can always play wide on the left, but could also be used centrally to provide the offensive push that Holden took overseas. Davis' set-piece delivery will continue to be critical; several of his MLS-leading 12 assists came off free kicks and corner kicks last year.

• Bottom line: Underrate a Dominic Kinnear-managed side at your own risk. That said, Holden and Clark represent huge losses. The Dynamo have been a West power since moving out of San Jose in 2006 -- but with question marks around the park, the field may have finally caught up.

7. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES2009 Record: 7-14-9

• Prominent comings and goings: Unhappy with the attack, manager Frank Yallop and GM John Doyle embarked on a midseason renovation project last summer that leaned heavily on mid-level internationals. They picked up the theme over the winter by importing forward Eduardo and midfielders Javier Robles and Joey Gjertsen. Shea Salinas was the only prominent offseason loss (unless you count Darren Huckerby, who retired because of injury in the middle of 2009.)

• The good, bad and noteworthy: It's the third season for Earthquakes 2.0; time for playoff soccer. At the very least, the Bay Area bunch can't afford a third consecutive last-place finish in the West. (San Jose's two-year record is 15-27-18, with a minus-20 goal difference over 60 matches.) ... In Jason Hernandez, Bobby Burling and, especially, Brandon McDonald, the Quakes have a terrific trio of young defensive building blocks.

• The man who matters: Mercurial midfielder Bobby Convey simply has to do more. He should be a guy on the bubble, at the very least, for a spot on the U.S. World Cup roster. In reality, he was never a candidate, having failed to make any real mark last year for San Jose. Some of that was about his role: a central midfielder first, then a left back and sometimes a forward. Hardly a recipe for success. Now he's back at his most natural spot, left midfield. It's on him to make it happen.

• Bottom line: Yallop remains a highly respected figure around MLS. But you wonder if the experience at Los Angeles (a real mess, only some of which was Yallop's fault) damaged his ability to negotiate the inevitable hurdles. Consider that 43 men have lined up for the Earthquakes over two seasons. Yes, expansion sides need time to filter out the real deals from the fool's gold. Still, 43? Yallop simply has to find the formula this year. San Jose isn't the new kid anymore; two teams have been added since the Earthquakes 2.0 rolled out in the 2008 season.

8. CHIVAS USA2009 Record: 13-11-6

• Prominent comings and goings:Preki was effective, to be sure, but always seemed like a duck out of water at Chivas USA, a team that prefers to build around its Mexican roots. So, Preki is out as coach and Martin Vasquez is in. How the team will cope without center midfield linchpins Paulo Nagamura (transferred to Tigres) and Jesse Marsch (retired to become an assistant coach with the U.S. national team)remains to be seen. Add the departures of starting defenders Shavar Thomas and Carey Talley, plus second-leading scorer Eduardo Lillingston, and you see a team that is starting pretty much from scratch. Salvadoran international Osael Ramirez and Costa Rican international journeyman Michael Umana figure prominently in the plan.

• The good, bad and noteworthy: Vasquez certainly is an intriguing choice, having worked alongside Juergen Klinsmann at Bayern Munich, and having played in early MLS years. ... Center midfielder Michael Lahoud hardly looked like a rookie in spot duty last year. He's likely to get ample opportunities to impress in 2010. ... Heralded U.S. international Jonathan Bornstein seems set to return to left back after moving into the middle in 2009 emergency duty.

• The man who matters:Sacha Kljestan finally found solid footing late in 2009. But he was utterly adrift for much of the season, a real head-scratcher considering his promising emergence in 2008 (which nearly saw him spirited off to Celtic in Scotland.)

• Bottom line: Vasquez is putting an amazing amount of faith in two strikers, Jesus Padilla and Maykel Galindo, who combined for five goals and two assists in 2009. In fairness, they were both limited in starts. Still, it looks like a major gamble. Depth throughout the field looks problematic. And can anybody explain why Claudio Suarez and Ante Razov remain on the books?