Romain Alessandrini -- closeup -- 2018 opener
USA Today Sports Images

Seltzer: The 12 cornerstone players in the Western Conference for 2019

We already took you through the 12 teams in the Eastern Conference and their cornerstone player for the 2019 season, sans the obvious MLS-caliber superstars.

Don’t fret out West, we’ve got you covered. Here are 12 players who are keys to 12 teams’ success for next season.

San Jose Earthquakes 

Guram Kashia was the anchor to the Earthquakes backline, starting all 12 games he appeared in since his midseason move from Vitesse | USA Today Sports Images

Yes, new boss Matias Almeyda loves for his teams to attack and the Earthquakes have a host of potential weapons in the squad. One of the best ways to unleash your offense is to back them up with a reliable defense, something San Jose haven’t had since 2016. That's where center back Guram Kashia comes in. San Jose needs to determine (or find) the ideal partner for the midseason acquisition, a stingy fullback for his left flank and who should guard the gate in front of him. Build from the back to play up front.

Colorado Rapids 

Kellyn Acosta has been the linchpin to the Rapids midfield since his move from FC Dallas | USA Today Sports Images

There's no escaping that a ton of roster work needs to be done, on every level, at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Now, I'm one of those guys who believes that games (especially those that go to plan) are typically won in midfield. Rapids fans can gather hope for 2019 because their best player, Kellyn Acosta, operates from central park. As such, this offseason would be best spent building out in all directions from their influential No. 10 shirt.

Minnesota United FC

Darwin Quintero made an immediate impact with the Loons, scoring 11 goals and adding 15 assists | USA Today Sports Images

Okay, so a few of these are blatant no-brainers. Nearly every happy Loons episode from this past season involved Darwin Quintero. Minnesota were just 2-9 when their attack tornado didn't register a goal or an assist, and were a near-perfect 4-1 when his name made the score sheet at least twice. The good news is he should finally get to run wild alongside recovering wingers Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino next year. Now if the club can also assemble a back five to tighten up the defense behind Quintero, they might truly have a team to set that new stadium alight on a regular basis.

Houston Dynamo 

A healthy Juan David Cabezas is key to the Dynamo in 2019 | USA Today Sports Images

We all know the Dynamo's front line is right up there with the best in the league. We also know that, despite their prolific offense, Houston pocketed just over a point per game this season to miss the playoffs. What some may not realize is that they went 3-1-1, including a comfy U.S. Open Cup final cruise past Philadelphia, when defensive midfielder Juan David Cabezas worked at least a half in front of their shaky defense. If he stays healthy, Houston seem a great bet to rally in 2019. 

Vancouver Whitecaps FC 

If Kendall Waston returns, the veteran central defender will be the critical piece the Whitecaps build around | USA Today Sports Images

The Whitecaps missed the postseason this year despite solid production from their offense, which was paced by the top counterattack in MLS. Their main problem was an overly generous defense that allowed nearly two goals per game. What is the quickest way for the front office and new head coach Marc dos Santos to lower their goals against total and feed a rampant fast break? Easy. Build a solid backline around skipper Kendall Waston and more continuity in a defensive midfield that was constantly shuffled throughout 2018. Then again, the Costa Rica star has made a lot of noise about wanting to leave. Should that happen, Vancouver will literally need to bring in a new center piece for the defense.

LA Galaxy

Obviously, if Zlatan Ibrahimovic stays, he's the headline act that needs more support. If he goes, the Galaxy have a more than adequate center forward to carry on with in Ola Kamara. Meanwhile, the defense needs a major reconstruction and the midfield is very up in the air. So instead, let's discuss flank terror Romain Alessandrini, whose production rate remained steady in spite of a reduction in touches and shot opportunities. Any success revival script for the Hollywood crew should include getting their dual-threat winger on the ball as often as possible in 2019.

Real Salt Lake

Damir Kreilach's versatility is huge for Real Salt Lake going forward | USA Today Sports Images

Real Salt Lake are young and plucky and, well, inconsistent, which often comes with being the young and plucky sort. Along with time passing to grant experience to their youngsters, a great way to gain consistency next season is to find a regular, stable job for veteran Damir Kreilach. That's easier said than done. His best spot would likely be the No. 10 position, but that is Albert Rusnak's office. The Croatian vet can also operate box-to-box, but RSL's central midfield is rather slow when he's paired with Kyle Beckerman. He also works well as a false No. 9, which might seem ideal until you remember the Rio Tinto bunch went 8-4-5 in Corey Baird's last 17 starts. Because Kreilach has accounted for 15 goals and nine assists in 34 MLS starts, it's definitely a puzzle worth solving. 

FC Dallas

Pablo Aranguiz could be in for a breakout season with FC Dallas in 2019 | USA Today Sports Images

It's no secret that FC Dallas' season started going south when they waved goodbye to Mauro Diaz. In the 12 games he played, FC Dallas went 7-1-4 while scoring just under two goals per contest. After his summer departure, their attack turned inconsistent during a lukewarm 8-8-4 run, they slipped from first to fourth in the West and lost at home in the Knockout Round. They spent seven figures to land new string-puller Pablo Aranguiz, but only gave him 280 minutes down the stretch. Now they have a full preseason to integrate the youngster and hopefully regain their mojo using his talents.    

LAFC

After limited minutes in his first season at LAFC, a more comfortable Andre Horta could be key to LAFC's success in 2019 | USA Today Sports Images

Unlike FC Dallas, this year's expansion darlings didn't struggle their way to the regular season finish line. But just like their Western rivals, LAFC were ousted one game into the postseason after failing to make much use of a big summer addition to their midfield stable. Andre Horta didn't adapt to MLS quickly after his midseason arrival and was limited to just 319 minutes. The talented youngster should play a much bigger part in 2019, and there may even be a lineup place up for grabs if out-of-contract veteran Benny Feilhaber doesn't return. 

Seattle Sounders 

Jordan Morris' partnership with Raul Ruidiaz up front is critical for the Sounders in 2019 | USA Today Sports Images

Penalty shootout loss notwithstanding, the summer acquisition of Raul Ruidiaz worked a real charm. The Peruvian striker came on board in July, bagged 13 goals in 15 games, hassled opposing backlines to no end, opened space for Nico Lodeiro to terrorize and the Sounders enjoyed the best second half of a season in league history. It may have been the opening act, because hometown hero Jordan Morris and his defense-stretching speed is due back fit and ready for the preseason. And he says his internal fire is hotter than ever. Plugging him into the team that finished 2018 sounds like a total nightmare for MLS defenses. 

And while the final four are still chasing this year's MLS Cup crown, let's not leave them out our look toward next season...

Portland Timbers 

A confident Jeremy Ebobisse could be poised for a huge 2019 season | USA Today Sports Images

Most observers would probably find Portland to be the underdog left in the MLS Cup fight, and it's likely even more would find Jeremy Ebobisse to be the weakest starting striker remaining in the draw. It's understandable. At the same time, it's a fair bet that most also don't realize that the youngster has four goals and five helpers in his 10 career starts (including three in the playoffs) and the Timbers are 7-2-1 in those games. And the kid has done that while providing solid hold-up play with limited touches. From where I'm sitting, Ebobisse looks on a trajectory for a breakout 2019. 

Sporting Kansas City 

Diego Rubio had eight goals and six assists for SKC in 2018 | USA Today Sports Images

There's still time for him to author some heroics this year, but something tells me 2019 will be the year of Diego Rubio if SKC can just keep him on the field. He's quietly turning into one of the most efficient attackers in the league. Much was rightfully made about Ibrahimovic's monster season, which saw him manage 1.34 goal involvements per 90 minutes, the third best single season G+A rate in MLS history. Although he hasn't played enough minutes to meet the minimum requirement, Rubio's number for this season is 1.64 G+A per 90 — and he's done it without the four spot kicks buried by the Galaxy superstar. 


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