On Wednesday, I took a look at the potential pitfalls for four Eastern Conference contenders. Now, I shift to the west with a look at some of the top contenders in the Western Conference.
Seattle Sounders: Managing aging stars
Seattle are a team loaded with talent, but general manager & president of soccer Garth Lagerway and head coach Brian Schmetzer have a potential time bomb on their hands. Osvaldo Alonso has been the heartbeat of the club on the field for nearly a decade, and Clint Dempsey took the organization to another level. Both, now, seem likely to find themselves on the field less, either to save their aging legs (32 and soon to be 35, respectively) or, more frightening for the Sounders, their aging legs aren’t playing well and Schmetzer has to pick other players over them.
It’s always an awkward time when stars start to get phased out of a squad — no matter how obvious it is to you and me, it’s never that obvious to the player — and it’ll be a dangerous precipice for the Sounders' staff to walk. It’ll take an impressive showing of man-management by Schmetzer to escort his club into a new era.
LA Galaxy: Curbing inconsistency
I’ve already explained why I’m high on the LA Galaxy, but head coach Sigi Schmid and his team definitely shouldn’t assume success is a given. It depends on the performance on a historically undependable personality. Giovani dos Santos has all the ability in the world, but you never really know what you’re getting from him. He drifts out of games for long periods of time. It creates serious problems for his teams and is a main reason why he’s bounced around in his career. If your central-attacking fulcrum isn’t sharp, it’s tough to calibrate. He has the goal of making Mexico's World Cup roster in front of him so I expect him to have a great start to the season, but I’d never put my house on a creative playmaker showing up ready to play.
Also, assuming the Zlatan Ibrahimovic rumors are true, the inclusion of a world star creates a headache of its own. I know it sounds counterintuitive to suggest a top player would be hard to include, but referring back to the dinner-table metaphor (when you start a new job at work, or you go with your partner to meet their friends. You take your seat at the table and you try to catch on to the conversation. What’s your role in the group? Who makes the jokes? Do you try to keep the conversation flowing? Sometimes it goes perfectly, but sometimes it’s super awkward), imagine if Beyoncé is sitting at the table. You really have to think about who makes the jokes. It could either be absolutely amazing or the worst experience of your life.
Real Salt Lake: Ensuring progression
Nobody in Sandy wants to be on this list, as they’d rather fly under the radar. But general manager Craig Waibel and his staff have put together a good team. Justen Glad is on the verge of becoming a top center back in the league; Danny Acosta has the pieces to be a good left back; Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman can still perform at elite levels; Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Joao Plata are all nasty; and Luis Silva, despite a lack of goals, acts as a smooth linkup player for the three darting attackers to combine with. If opponents sleep on Real Salt Lake, Mike Petke’s group will slide up the standings.
With that said, RSL feel a little like the odd man out of the West group. Savarino-Rusnak-Plata isn't as sexy as Ibrahimovic-dos Santos-Alessandrini. Savarino, Rusnak, Glad and Acosta are still young guys with room to grow. They are exciting, but they haven’t really proven anything yet. RSL is putting a lot of faith in their young players progressing and any assessment of RSL pushing to the top depends on their young stars still getting better. If RSL finish below the playoff line, we will probably be able to look back and say we asked too much of a young group of guys.
FC Dallas: Chemistry
I don’t know what FC Dallas are doing this preseason, but I hope it involves a lot of campfires and s'mores. Whatever caused their collapse in 2017, it wasn’t good. And whether it was a symptom or a cause, the team chemistry had to have taken a hit. Head coach Oscar Pareja still has the core of the team we all thought could win the West, so the soccer parts aren’t as much a concern as the chemistry.
It’d be silly to forget about Dallas in 2018. I’ll gladly take any team with a spine of Matt Hedges, Kellyn Acosta and Mauro Diaz, possibly the best at their respective roles in the league. The team as whole right now, though, feels a little like a giant combustible engine, doesn’t it? If they work through their troubles, Dallas could fly. But it’s generally harder working through belief issues than sorting out any of the Xs and Os.
Sporting Kansas City: Finishing chances (obviously)
Sporting Kansas City return the same back six that led the league in every defensive category in 2017. They have the foundation to contend but will they? Is there a shortcoming that could undermine their success?
I don’t know.
It’s tough to predict either their style or their personnel since Peter Vermes has evolved as a manager over the years. His earlier Sporting KC teams revolved around energy and directness. Last year, however, SKC both dropped their defensive line and led the league in passes per possession.
Their 2017 stats tell a distinctive story. Sporting led the league in goals against, but finished 18th in goals. It’s very possible that pressing less led to scoring less as winning the ball farther back on the field forces you to go farther to score. It’d be easy to say they simply need to score more, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. They finished 11th in expected goals with a total of 47.85, ahead of teams like Columbus and Vancouver. The fact that they only scored 40, may point to the fact that its not the style or overall quality of play, but the players finishing the chances.
Vermes has already added attacking midfielder/winger Yohan Croizet and winger Johnny Russell to the attack, and reports suggest Chilean international Felipe Gutierrez could arrive to add more power in the midfield. All are good players, but none are out and out goal scorers. Sporting still have a clear need.
To put all of it in perspective, finishing chances can often be a fluky part of soccer, and what happens in one season does not necessarily translate to the next season. Creating chances is a more reliable metric of future success. And teams in 2018 rarely look to strikers to do all of their goalscoring anyway. So it’s not necessarily imperative for Sporting to find a proven goalscorer. At the same time, a natural finisher always helps, and hopefully Sporting won’t be left to look back and wonder what could have been had they found the striker they’ve been searching for.
As with the East, in stopping at five teams, it’s not suggesting the other clubs in the West don’t have the ability to make a run. If any of the other seven teams put together a deep playoff run, we shouldn’t be surprised.
I should also note that I have a lot of faith in Bob Bradley's coaching abilities, but without knowing how LAFC will play or who will be playing in the midfield, it's tough to include them on this list.