Western Conference preview for '05

who has had a few adjustment issues of his own -- will have to help keep the club's young players focused, especially those coming from Mexico. He'll get some help from MLS veteran and two-time MLS Cup Champion Ezra Hendrickson and Mexican national team veteran Martin Zúñiga.

Despite the club's expressed intent to play an attacking style, goals will not come easy. At the ripe old age of 24, Arturo Torres is the elder statesman on Chivas USA's front line, joined by 23-year-old Matt Taylor and 22-year-old Isaac Romo. All three have shown flashes of brilliance during their brief careers, but none has seen significant first team action, and with the caliber of defense across the league, they could run into some tough times in the early going.

At the other end of the field, Chivas USA's defense is shaky at best. Hendrickson, for all of his good qualities, is not among the best central defenders in the league, and when he filled in for Ryan Nelsen at the back last season, United's rearguard was noticeably weaker. Costa Rican international Douglas Sequeira and former Fire man Orlando Perez are also on hand, and if newly acquired Ryan Suarez regains the form and consistency that made him a Rookie of the Year finalist in 2001, the Chivas USA defense could yet be successful.

With Ramírez and former Kansas City Wizard Francisco Gomez on duty, the midfield looks to be the most sound area for Chivas USA. Former CD Guadalajara players Hector Cuadros and Francisco Mendoza have also impressed in preseason. With Zúñiga currently injured, the goalkeeping duties fall to rookie Brad Guzan, a large physical presence with impressive athletic ability but a lot still to learn.

Colorado Rapids

If new Rapids head coach Fernando Clavijo has his way, the days of the Rapids relying on Joe Cannon for points are over. Clavijo has overhauled the Rapids lineup this offseason, bringing in several attacking options to complement Cannon and take some of the pressure off the Rapids defense.

Last year, Haitian striker Jean Philippe Peguero led the Rapids with seven goals, the lowest total of any team leader in MLS. This year either Peguero or MLS veteran Wolde Harris will serve as a target man with Jeff Cunningham running at the defense and creating chances for himself and his strike partner. Former Earthquakes and Crew striker Luchi Gonzalez is also in the mix. In the midfield, Henderson and Mastroeni are joined by Kyle Beckerman and Martin Morales, with experienced pros like Mark Chung and Leo Cullen also ready to contribute.

Just as he did last year, Cannon will win some games for the Rapids. The difference this year is that he won't be required to do so. Central defender Nat Borchers is another year older and another year wiser (with some U.S. national team experience under his belt), and Israeli youth national team veteran Guy Melamed joins him in the middle. Though Mastroeni is penciled in to play the midfield, he could well end up in defense, where he has featured for the Rapids in the past. Steady presence Ritchie Kotschau is back for another season with the Rapids, and talented rookie Hunter Freeman is expected to line up on the right.

FC Dallas

FC Dallas have the most improved roster coming into the 2005 MLS season, and that added talent and leadership ought to make them the most improved team on the field.

Just days prior to the start of the season, head coach Colin Clarke made his biggest splash by acquiring striker Carlos Ruiz from the Los Angeles Galaxy. Ruiz will join Eddie Johnson to form the most dangerous strike partnership in the league. When those two and top back-up Cornell Glen are out for national team duty, though, the club could run into trouble, as Bobby Rhine and rookie Abe Thompson are their replacements. Arturo Alvarez and Eric Quill could also see time up front.

In another big move, FC Dallas made a draft-day trade to acquire veteran midfielder Richard Mulrooney, who helped the San Jose Earthquakes win two MLS Cup titles. Mulrooney joins 2004 team MVP Simo Valakari in the center of the park, with Ronnie O'Brien again ready to whip in crosses from the right and Alvarez poised to make a breakthrough on the left. Alvarez will battle with Quill for playing time.

The club has also vastly improved on defense, as Greg Vanney has been brought in to anchor a back line that includes several promising youngsters. The buzz around the team is that 2004 first-round draft pick Clarence Goodson could be ready to jump into a starting role alongside Vanney in central defense, and 2005 first-round draft pick Drew Moor has been very impressive in preseason. Veterans Steve Jolley, Chris Gbandi, Philip Salyer and Carey Talley are also in the battle for places. Jeff Cassar and Scott Garlick are competing for the goalkeeping duties in a battle where the club can only win.

Los Angeles Galaxy

The Galaxy cleaned house this offseason, and now the Green-and-Gold have as many new players as holdovers from last season. For the most part, Steve Sampson's acquisitions seem wise.

In the absence of former league MVP Ruiz, a quintet of players are set to battle for a spot up top. Former San Jose Earthquake Landon Donovan has played forward for most of his MLS career, so it's likely he line up here alongside Alan Gordon. Joseph Ngwenya, the Zimbabwean striker who performed admirably in his rookie year in 2004, and Ednaldo "Naldo" da Conceicao, a 6-foot-3 target man, will challenge for Gordon's place, and Jovan Kirovski could also play up front if Sampson decides to drop Donovan into the midfield.

With the additions of Donovan, Guatemalan national team captain Guillermo "El Pando" Ramirez and Brazilian Paulo Nagamura, the club also has a wealth of options in the midfield. All three can play in the middle, but it appears Kirovski will be the first choice as an attacking midfielder, with Nagamura behind him and Pando on the left. Cobi Jones will man the right side yet again, with Peter Vagenas, Ned Grabavoy and Josh Gardner ready to come in off the bench.

In defense, half of the back line has been replaced. Sampson used his connections in Costa Rica to acquire national team defenders Pablo Chinchilla and Michael Umaña. With Umaña on the left, Chinchilla and Jamaican Tyrone Marshall in the middle and Chris Albright on the right, the Galaxy are poised to have an all-international rearguard, which bodes well for the club after a 2004 season that saw injuries and inconsistency take their toll. Kevin Hartman, who has been between the pipes for more victories than any other goalkeeper in MLS history, is the unquestioned starter in goal.

Real Salt Lake

Of the two expansion teams, Real Salt Lake appears better equipped to compete and succeed immediately. At the very least, they'll score goals. Two of head coach John Ellinger's biggest acquisitions this offseason were the league's all-time leading scorer, Jason Kreis, and Clint Mathis, the only man in MLS history to score five goals in one game. RSL also has Jamaican international Andy Williams in an attacking midfield role with rookie Jamie Watson and Botswana international Dipsy Selolwane ready to come in and perform.

Apart from Williams and veterans Brian Kamler and Evan Whitfield, the RSL midfield corps is largely unproven. Luke Kreamalmayer has impressed in preseason, but his success has not come against stiff MLS competition. Trinidad & Tobago international Marlon Rojas could prove to be a force on the left, either in the midfield or defense, but since he's never played in MLS, the jury is still out on whether he'll be a difference maker.

At the back there is a mix of proven veterans and youngsters looking for the chance to become proven veterans. Eddie Pope is the anchor, with Nelson Akwari set to play beside him and try to show he is an every-day defender. Brian Dunseth, who returns to the U.S. after playing in Sweden, is another option in the middle once he is healthy, and Matt Behncke and Rusty Pierce are also likely to see a lot of playing time. In goal, D.J. Countess is a highly touted stopper, but he has yet to prove himself professionally. Ellinger, who coached Countess with the U.S. under-17s, has faith in him, and that may be enough to boost Countess' confidence and performance.

San Jose Earthquakes

The Bay Area club's back line has the ability to keep the ball out of the net, and the front line has the ability to put the ball in the net, but the midfield is a question mark. Both Ronnie Ekelund and Richard Mulrooney have departed and have been replaced by rookie Danny O'Rourke and third-year player Ricardo Clark. Clark appeared to be a rising star in 2003, when he was a finalist for the Rookie of the Year award, but he faded in 2004. O'Rourke may be untested, but the consensus at the 2005 MLS SuperDraft was that he was the most prepared to come out of college and contribute immediately. In the outside midfield spots are Brian Mullan and Brad Davis. Mullan is a proven performer, and Davis is looking to regain the good form he lost a year ago.

At the back, Pat Onstad is a rock in net for the Quakes. Eddie Robinson, Troy Dayak, Ryan Cochrane and currently injured Danny Califf could all slot into the central defense, while captain Wade Barrett has the left side locked up. Robinson, Dayak and Califf have all had recent injury problems, but a fully healthy Earthquakes rearguard would, on paper, be one of the best in the league.

Up front, Ronald Cerritos and Dwayne De Rosario both have the ability to create goals for themselves, but Cerritos is not the same player he was when he became the Quakes' all-time leading scorer in 2001, and De Rosario has been off and on and will miss time with the Canadian national team. Brian Ching, the Quakes' biggest threat, will also be out of action when Bruce Arena calls him into the U.S. national team. If opposing defenses are allowed to focus on Ching, it could be a long year for the Quakes, but if he's given some space, his pure finishing skill could lift the club into the playoffs.

Jason Halpin is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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