Wiebe: Grading the Western Conference field ahead of the playoffs

Last week, because all six postseason places were basically locked in, I graded the Eastern Conference Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs field's regular-season resumes.

This week, ahead of Knockout Round clashes on Wednesday and Thursday, the Western Conference gets the red-pen treatment. Before you rip me to shreds in the comment section, I'll repeat my grading mantra from last week:

The MLS regular season isn’t pass or fail, but it's darn close.
The way I see it, if you’re one of the eight teams who won’t qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs – the bottom 40 percent of a league that strives for competitive parity – that constitutes a failing grade. Best-case scenario for those who exceed expectations, but fall just short of the postseason, is an incomplete.
And while the 12 who emerge from an eight-month, 34-game grind naturally get a passing regular-season grade, their final marks vary. Expectations are not universal, and success as it’s measured in 2016 terms looks far different in LA or Seattle than it is in Philly or Colorado.

Got it? Good. Let’s take a closer look at the 2016 playoff field in the West and see whose grade card is occupying a prime spot on the fridge and whose got "lost in the mail."

FC Dallas

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2016 expectations in 140 characters

Papi's project rolls on, w/ Fabi and Mauro providing the magic, Hedges the steel and a cadre of young Homegrowns stepping up. MLS Cup? Maybe!

The Good

Expected to be one of the league's best teams after years of steady progress under head coach Oscar Pareja, FC Dallas did the double – US Open Cup and Supporters' Shield – the first time since 1997 that the club added fresh silverware to their trophy cabinet. No matter how the playoffs pan out, there's no doubt 2016 is a season that will go down in FC Dallas and MLS lore.

They did it without anyone hitting double-digit goals, but six players – Maximiliano Urruti, Michael Barrios, Tesho Akindele, Mauro Diaz, Fabian Castillo and Walker Zimmerman – scored more than four as FC Dallas spread the love and stacked points from March through October. One-time FCD SuperDraft picks Zimmerman and Matt Hedges settled in as one of MLS's best center-back tandems, Homegrown Kellyn Acosta established himself as one of the league's top two-way midfielders and a legitimate US national prospect, and the previously injury prone Diaz (5 goals, 13 assists) logged the most minutes of his MLS career and is a likely Best XI choice.

Thanks to their ability to effectively balance three competitions, FC Dallas can also look ahead to a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Arabe Unido next spring. The treble is within reach, which isn't something many MLS teams have ever been able to say credibly.

The Bad

Few teams in MLS can afford to lose a Best XI selection without warning, but somehow FC Dallas managed to weather the dramatic departure of Castillo and still snag a couple trophies and the top overall seed in the playoffs. The midseason move was an emotional blow, as Castillo joined the club as an 18-year-old, became like a son to Pareja, developed into one of MLS's most dynamic attackers and pushed his way into the Colombian national team pool while in North Texas.

That Castillo's transfer to Trabzonspor didn't upend FC Dallas' season is a credit to Pareja and environment he's created in Frisco. Now, can they somehow defy the odds and make an MLS Cup run without Diaz, lost for the remainder of 2016 and a sizeable chunk of 2017 after suffering an Achilles injury in the second-to-last match of the regular season?

Regular Season Grade: A+

FC Dallas are MLS's undisputed 2016 valedictorian, and can cement their place in league history with an us-against-the-world run to MLS Cup and what would be a mythical treble. What a story that would be...

Colorado Rapids

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2016 expectations in 140 characters

Pablo is back with more tricks up his sleeve, including Swiss league Golden Boot winner & Jermaine Jones. The defense is good. Playoffs plz.

The Good

Western Conference worst to almost first. The Rapids have been inspiring standings double takes all season long. Don't even try to pretend you saw this 21-point improvement coming. A playoff berth would have been more than enough to make 2016 a success, then Pablo "The Philosopher" Mastroeni led Colorado to within one result of the Supporters' Shield and a Knockout Round bye.

The Rapids did it with defense – Axel Sjoberg has a real shot at Defender of the Year as the steadiest of a group of no-nonsense backliners – and opportunistic scoring a la FC Dallas (i.e. nobody in double-digits). Add in nine games of absolute brilliance from Jones, a half a season of Tim Howard between the pipes, a cadre of water-carrying vets, Micheal Azira's rise from waived to indispensable and a couple young players making "the leap" in Marlon Hairston and Dominique Badji and you've got the recipe for Colorado's memorable, if not flashy, 2016 success story.

The Bad

Jones only played nine games thanks to a knee injury and Copa America duty. Zac MacMath saw the starting job he waited so long for disappear when Howard made his own Mile High move. Marco Pappa, expected to the string-puller in central midfield, never got going. Designated Player Kevin Doyle's .25 goals/90 is tied with C.J. Sapong for the worst mark in the league among starting center forwards. Mastroeni is out of contact after this season, and doesn't yet have a new deal.

Honestly, those are all nitpicks.

Final Regular Season Grade: A+

Bravo. Just bravo. It pains me to give out anything over an A, but the Rapids – like FC Dallas – deserve it.

LA Galaxy

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2016 expectations in 140 characters

As always, the Galaxy have the firepower to be league's best. As always, the regular season is simply a means to an end. In Bruce they trust.

The Good

It says something about LA that they can finish third in the Western Conference, lose just six games, see Giovani dos Santos explode for 14 goals and 12 assists while Robbie Keane, Gyasi Zardes and Steven Gerrard bounce in and out of the XI because of injury and international duty ... and have 2016 be perceived as below average. That's how blindingly impressive this club has been since Bruce Arena took over in 2008.

Individually, dos Santos made magic in his first full MLS season and kept LA rolling along without Keane, Jelle Van Damme adapted without a hiccup and is a Defender of the Year candidate, Ashley Cole might be the league's best left back, Sebastian Lletget looks to be a big part of the Galaxy's future and Emmanuel Boateng impacted the first team after making the jump from LA Galaxy II.

Plus, the LegenD is back after Landon Donovan was coaxed out of retirement.

The Bad

All those draws (league-high 16) kept LA from making a Shield run and avoiding the Knockout Round. Keane had his least productive MLS season (10 goals, 2 assists) by far, as injuries limited him to 17 games, and he never really seemed to click with dos Santos. Injuries robbed Zardes of a full campaign, and may keep him from playing in the playoffs and US-Mexico. Nigel de Jong didn't stick around (but it's all good because LA get valuable 2017 flexibility).

Final Regular Season Grade: B –

I like to imagine Arena's eye roll and obvious disdain after reading this article: "Regular-season grades? Who is this bozo? That's just dumb. Talk to me on Dec. 11."

And you know what? Bruce is right. For LA, it doesn't really matter what happens between March and October. In the Race to Seis, it's MLS Cup or bust.

Seattle Sounders FC

Wiebe: Grading the Western Conference field ahead of the playoffs -

2016 expectations in 140 characters

With Oba and Deuce doing Oba and Deuce stuff, anything is possible. Even finally capturing an elusive MLS Cup. Jordan Morris, too? Fun times.

The Good

Nicolas Lodeiro. Jordan Morris. An incredible run (8-2-4) to finish the season in the playoff field.

In late July it appeared 2016 was going to be a throwaway year (more below) for a club accustomed to playoff seasons and obsessed with getting over the MLS Cup hump. And yet here the Sounders are, a few short months later, with reason to believe they can lift the Cup on Dec. 10 thanks to the connection between Nico and JMo Smooth, resurgence of Osvaldo Alonso, emergence of Cristian Roldan and return of Roman Torres.

Props also go to Chad Marshall for another strong season – it's like MLS clockwork at this point – as well as Stefan Frei in net.

The Bad

The bad started with Obafemi Martins' unexpected preseason exit. Gone was arguably MLS's most dangerous forward, a huge loss in itself made even bigger by Clint Dempsey's seemingly telepathic relationship with the Nigerian. With Oba-Deuce broken up and Morris forced into a starting role, Seattle lost 12 of their first 20 games and Sigi Schmid, the only head coach the club had known in MLS, lost his job.

Then, when things started getting a little better, Dempsey was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. That could have (should have) torpedoed Seattle's 2016 season, and yet...

Final Regular Season Grade: B

Think back to January. Would fourth place in the West by the skin of their teeth and months of misery have been acceptable? Nope. So while the Sounders' recovery is an incredible story and the signing of Lodeiro and development of Morris give the club plenty of reason for postseason hope – not to mention a much brighter 2017 – this year is still a disappointment in relative terms.

Think about it this way: the Sounders were a gifted student flirting with a failing grade for most of the regular season, then somehow managed to claw their way into a passing grade they can be happy with, if not hugely proud of. You take that B and see what happens in the playoffs.

Sporting Kansas City

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2016 expectations in 140 characters

Another year, another shot at glory w/ group that brought club back to prominence. High-pressure, baby! Cool, but who replaces Nemeth's goals?

The Good

Sporting were arguably the league's best team ... for the first five weeks of the season. After that, it got pretty murky for a club that now expects to compete for silverware year after year.

Among the positives: a 16-goal season from Dom Dwyer despite limited service and uncertainty on the wings, Jacob Peterson's career year as The Answer to a question Sporting hoped wouldn't be asked, Saad Abdul-Salaam becoming a starting outside back in MLS and another shot in the playoffs (though on the road in the Knockout Round) ... and that's about it.

The Bad

Sporting have just three wins since the end of August and had to battle for the honor of going on the road in the Knockout Round, and they got knocked out of the US Open Cup and CCL group stages unceremoniously.

None of their signings – Justin Mapp, Brad Davis, Diego Rubio, Nuno Coelho – really worked out, and certainly nobody was able to replace the production of Krisztian Nemeth. The old hands, meanwhile, had up-and-down years as Matt Besler and Graham Zusi were in and out of the lineup thanks to international duty, injury and (sometimes) form, while Benny Feilhaber was relatively quiet until a late-season explosion fueled by second assists.

Needless to say, there are a lot of questions to answer (insert Jacob Peterson joke here) this offseason.

Final Regular Season Grade: C

Yeah, they passed, but they're far closer to detention than the honor roll. Sporting have some serious ground to make up to avoid a failing grade in 2017.

Real Salt Lake

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2016 expectations in 140 characters

A return to the playoffs after a frustrating 2015. Yura-Burrito-Plata becomes one of MLS's top tridents. Kids come good, vets hold the line.

The Good

As April turned to May, it looked like RSL's poor 2015 might have been a blip on the radar, a down year of transition leading into yet more small-market success. Yura Movsisyan, Burrito Martinez and Joao Plata were terrorizing opposing defenses, Justen Glad and Aaron Maund were establishing themselves as a viable (and even standout) center back tandem, Jordan Allen looked like a future senior national teamer and the veterans (Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Javier Morales) were rolling right along.

You'll notice that's past tense. Because of injuries and lack of form, things went downhill after that. Still, a playoff berth is a playoff berth, especially after the disappointment of 2015.

The Bad

Morales, the league's most potent and consistent No. 10 since 2008, seems to finally be slowing down after a four-goal, four-assist season in a formation that doesn't play to his strengths. Beckerman is still effective, but has lost a step and doesn't seem completely settled in the 4-3-3 either. It didn't help that Sunday Stephen, who covered the ground the other two couldn't, went down with an injury in June and never really returned to the lineup.

RSL's results have been poor since late June, and they collected zero wins in seven to end the regular season and scored two goals in their last six. They're limping into the playoffs thanks to Portland's no-show in Vancouver, and the future of head coach Jeff Cassar remains up in the air.

Final Regular Season Grade: C +

RSL were cruising right along, safe with a solid B or maybe even a B+, until the wheels fell off in the middle of the campaign. You can't flop in the most important part of the season and expect to be satisfied with your final grade.