Aside from the Seattle Sounders occupying pole position, the early-season Western Conference hierarchy is still sorting itself out heading into Week 7.
With that context, the Extratime crew recently debated which club can lay claim to being the second best out West. As you can imagine, a few possibilities were kicked around based on early returns from the 2021 MLS campaign.
Check out the full clip below and a few teams they highlighted, with co-hosts Calen Carr, David Gass and Andrew Wiebe making the case for different sides.
Gass went with Sporting Kansas City, last year’s regular-season winner in the Western Conference. Peter Vermes’ group is currently in second place on 13 points.
“I feel pretty comfortable saying it’s SKC,” Gass said. “Even with the issues they have at center back, I think \[Alan\] Pulido is getting into form and even if he’s not, he’s still a great chance creator for this team. They’ve got options in the center, \[Daniel\] Salloi’s starting to get goals, and if it’s not him, they’ve got options there as well. Jaylin Lindsey and Graham Zusi, that gives you a little bit of depth at fullback now that they didn’t have.”
As Gass highlighted, SKC aren’t without flaws. But they’ve scored three goals in back-to-back games and have Pulido and midfielder Gianluca Busio as game-changers. Winger Johnny Russell is still rounding into form, too.
“I don’t feel great about any of these teams, but I still think SKC,” Gass said. “Overall quality as well as performances right now, that’s my second-best team in the West.”
Those two forces alone are extremely powerful, Carr said, even if LAFC’s taken just two wins from their first six games.
“We see Vela coming back into the team, we see Rossi coming back into form and we see what they can do,” Carr said. “I still don’t think they’ve hit their best level yet.”
That’s all on top of LAFC’s midfield foundation, with the deep-lying Eduard Atuesta firmly among the league’s best. And at center back, Eddie Segura and Jesus David Murillo give them a sturdier defensive resolve than they had for most of last season.
“I like the way this team is going to find their form and we’re just starting to see a peek at that,” Carr said.
Wiebe likened Portland to a stock that’s on the rise, highlighting what last year’s MLS is Back Tournament champions can become.
“I think it’s the Timbers because when I think of best, I think of whose level … has the most potential to rise,” Wiebe said. “And to me, their growth can be exponential, whereas I’m not sure other than LAFC, because of Carlos Vela, any of the other teams in the West have that potential to make a huge jump.”
Portland’s biggest challenge will be injuries, with attackers Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda still working their way back from season-ending knee setbacks in 2020. Then, the hits have just coming in 2021 — they entered last weekend’s 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy with nine players out.
Gass pushed back somewhat, remaining more unconvinced that head coach Giovanni Savarese’s team can reach its full potential.
“It’s a good team,” Gass said.” There’s a ton of talent, I get what you’re saying. When everyone is healthy and fit, there’s a chance that this could be one of the most talented rosters in MLS. But you can’t just go there right now and say they’re currently the second-best team in the Western Conference.”
The Dynamo were also highlighted, with Carr giving his old team some love. They currently sit fourth in the West and have taken points from both Sporting and LAFC at BBVA Stadium.
This start comes in contrast to the 2020 season, in which Houston finished bottom of the West during head coach Tab Ramos’ first year at the helm.
“I’ve been impressed with the Dynamo,” Carr said. “I picked them to be in the playoffs, I think just barely, but they’ve gotten off to a good start so far. There’s at least a path forward for them.”
Carr pointed to offseason signings that are moving Ramos' project along. Center back Tim Parker, midfielder Joe Corona and forwards Fafa Picault and Maxi Urruti are some hallmarks of those efforts. Along the same lines, Gass contended that they're a couple of big moves away from being cemented at the top.
“They didn’t go out and spend big money and I would still like to see, maybe eventually they go out into the market and be a little bit more aggressive,” Carr said, “but the moves that they’ve made so far in the offseason, you have to say – you go man for man and the moves that they’ve brought in, and you're like, ‘OK, wow, this has definitely improved the side already.’"