LA Galaxy defender Sega Coulibaly, left, and Los Angeles FC forward Kwadwo Opoku vie for the ball during the second half of an MLS playoff soccer match Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Los Angeles. Los Angeles FC won 3-2. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

The MLS is Set to Return: Western Conference Preview

Major League Soccer returns Saturday after a three-month break. Defending MLS Cup winners LAFC look to become back-to-back champions, while newcomers St. Louis City SC joins the west to expand the league with a first match against Austin FC.

The new MLS Playoff format has received a lot of criticism. Nonetheless, it’s here with a brand new expansion that will see nine teams from each conference qualify for the postseason, a wild-card round and a best-of-3 series in Round 1.

Austin FC

What likely can be called a cinderella season, Austin FC came to prove a point in 2022.

After finishing 12th in the west in their inaugural season, Austin FC jumped to the second spot last year behind an MVP performance from goal-scoring machine Sebastián Driussi. He scored 21 goals for Los Verdes to lead them to an MLS Cup semi against-eventual winner LAFC.

After Claudio Reyna’s stepping down as sporting director into an advisory role due to issues with the USSF involving his son, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Gio Reyna, and USMNT World Cup manager Gregg Berhalter, former club director of player personnel Sean Rubio takes the sporting director job.

Los Verdes lost defender Ruben Gabrielsen and midfielder Felipe Martins, also loaning out Jhohan Romaña. However, they added seven players (Will Bruin, Amro Tarek, Adam Lundqvist, Leo Väisänen, Matt Bersano, Gyasi Zardes, Sofiane Djeffal) during the offseason to help the squad and add depth in all areas of play.

Expect to see the oaks back in the postseason as an MLS Cup contender.

FC Dallas

Dallas was eliminated in the Western Conference semis against Austin FC, but the squad looks stronger than ever.

Like Austin FC, Dallas finished 11th in 2021. The Toros came back last year and finished 3rd in the West behind Jesús Ferreira’s impressive 18 goals, putting him in the top five goal-scorers last season and tying the most in a single year for FCD.

FC Dallas lacked the depth of attack needed to support their superstar forward. Ferreira now has more help up top with the additions of Jesús Jiménez via a swap with Toronto and Herbert Endeley from Indiana University.

Amet Korca, Sebastien Ibeagha and Geovane were also brought in to bolster the defense, while club legend center-back Matt Hedges moved on to Toronto FC.

The Toros can easily repeat their success and make the postseason again, but they need another strong Ferreira performance.

Minnesota United FC

The Loons barely scraped into the postseason after a 6th place finish in 2022.

Since 2019, Minnesota has made the playoffs, but not in an impressive fashion. This season may be no different (or worse) as they are currently without all-star midfielder Emanuel Reynoso, who led the team in goals (10) and assists (6) last season.

Reynoso received a suspension without pay from the MLS due to his absence in pre-season training with Minnesota. According to head coach Adrian Heath, Reynoso has remained in Argentina during the preseason due to personal matters, and the club is hopeful he will return soon.

To soften the blow, the Loons acquired midfielders Miguel Tapias and Mikael Marques to help stop any potential bleeding in his absence. Defender Ryen Jiba also comes in from USL side Union Omaha.

At its worse, Minnesota can slip into the new playoff format as a 7th or 8th-place team, but a top-six finish is realistic with Reynoso.

St. Louis City SC

The West introduces a new club with the 2023 season. St. Louis City SC joins the MLS for its inaugural season and it kicks off with a brawl against Austin FC.

Sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel has given former New York Red Bulls assistant Bradley Carnell a reasonably mixed batch to implement the “Red Bull way”.

Nonetheless, St. Louis impressed in the preseason, drawing their first match 2-2 against 2022 MLS Cup finalist Philadelphia Union and beating Inter Miami 4-0 in the second. They averaged around 2 goals per game with 8 players scoring at least once and kept 2 clean sheets

Keep an eye out for midfielder Eduard Löwen and winger Indiana Vassilev who both racked up minutes during preseason play. Former Borussia Dortmund keeper Roman Bürki is the team captain, with veteran Tim Parker as vice.

With a 1-2-3 preseason record, don’t count St. Louis out from producing a few surprises this season.

LAFC

The MLS Cup champions return for the 2023 season, looking to retain their title.

Finishing 1st in the West last season and 11 points clear was impressive from a club that finished 9th a year prior. Of course, the addition of Real Madrid legend Gareth Bale, even though it was a short spell, was important to their success in the final, as he scored the goal that led to a penalty shoot-out victory.

Nonetheless, the departure of their prior season’s top goal scorer Cristian Arango (18) to Pachuca was more important. LAFC made some signings during the offseason, bringing in USMNT center-back Aaron Long, Stipe Biuk from Croatia, and midfielder Timothy Tillman.

LAFC is a force to be reckoned with after winning the MLS Cup, but they would be content with adding another trophy to their cabinet. The CONCACAF Champions League is in their future along with other league cups to extend their dominance unto Liga MX teams.

Expect another top performance from the kings of the MLS.

Colorado Rapids

Colorado had a rather unsuccessful campaign, plummeting from 1st in 2021 to 10th in 2022.

The Rapids were dismal in finishing last season, ranked 10th in xG created per match, 23rd in shots allowed per possession and 21st in goals prevented per shot on target.

Manager Robin Frazier had to act fast to stop the bleeding, and that’s exactly what he did. They sent away veterans Gyasi Zardes and Mark-Anthony Kaye and brought in LA Galaxy’s Kevin Cabral along with winger Calvin Harris.

Frazier raided Europe, signing midfielder Connor Ronan (Wolverhampton Wanderers), defender Andreas Maxso (Brondby IF), full-back Alex Gersbach (Grenoble), Cole Bassett, returning from loan spells at Feyenoord and Fortuna Sittard, and loanee keeper Marko Ilic.

The Rapids may slip into the postseason if the new signings produce and help out, effective immediately.

Houston Dynamo FC

Houston is hoping that new owner, Ted Segal, and new manager, Ben Olsen, will produce some magic after finishing 13th in the West last season.

That was the fifth consecutive season that the Dynamo miss the postseason, only making it twice since being back-to-back runner-ups in 2011 and 2012. The Dynamo will hope that their new signings can, at least, give them a necessary boost to finish in the top half of the conference.

During the offseason, Houston let go of Adam Lundqvist, Matías Vera (loan) and Memo Rodriguez. From the departures came defenders Tate Schmitt, Djevencio Van Der Kust (loan), Franco Escobar and Brad Smith. For midfield and attacking stabilization, Amine Bassi and Ivan Franco (loan) were brought into the club along with midfielder Artur from Columbus.

At its most successful, we can see Olsen’s men in the playoffs, but finishing in the top half of the West would be more obtainable.

LA Galaxy

LA Galaxy returned to the postseason after missing it for two consecutive years, only to be eliminated by eventual MLS Cup winner and rival LAFC.

Club president Chris Klein was suspended from the league for violating MLS salary cap rules. In addition, a ban from the MLS rendered the Galaxy unable to sign players outside of the U.S. and Canada, and a couple of fines and salary reductions added the cherry on top.

The Galaxy lost wingers Kevin Cabral and Samuel Grandsir but kept Brazilian Douglas Costa. They also lost young star Julián Araujo to Barcelona. Dejan Joveljic remains in the squad after impressing last season alongside Chicharito, but for LA Galaxy to challenge their LA rivals, manager Greg Vanney needs to figure out how to fit his team on the field, which should be easier with fewer wingers to work with.

We can picture LA Galaxy in the playoffs again, but LAFC owns the rivalry.

Portland Timbers

The Timbers finished 8th last season, one point off from making the postseason behind 7th place Real Salt Lake.

Portland has been noisy during the offseason with movement in management and ownership, in a sense. President of soccer Gavin Wilkinson left the club, leaving the door open for a Ned Grabavoy takeover. Heather Davis is the new CEO, taking the job from Merritt Paulson (although he still owns the club), and we saw Chief Business Officer Mike Golub depart as well.

One significant signing for the Timbers came from Danish side FC Midtjylland in midfielder Evander. This addition helps Eryk Williamson and Diego Chara on the attacking side of the midfield. Defensively, the Timbers need more consistency from Larry Mabiala, Zac McGraw and Dario Zuparic, who let 53 goals last season.

The Timbers can return to the playoffs if all their important pieces remain healthy and manager Giovanni Savarese can create a cohesive unit.

Real Salt Lake

RLS barely made it to the playoffs last year, and may still be pondering what could have been had they beaten Austin FC in the first round.

Since then, Sergio Cordova, the man who had the up 2-0 against Los Verdes (before losing in penalties) left for Canada, along with defender Aaron Herrera. RSL signed Andres Gomez from Millonarios for a club-record transfer fee until 2027. Defender Brayan Vera also joins the team along with loanee midfielder Moses Nyeman from SK Beveren.

The loss of Herrera will put more pressure on Vera and Andrew Brody as the outside backs. Pablo Mastroeni will look forward to the return of Damir Kreilach (back surgery), Jefferson Savarino and Daniel Musovski at the helm of the attack.

RSL can show out and make it into the new 9-team playoff picture.

San Jose Earthquakes

After finishing dead last in the West last season, the Quakes parted ways with Matias Almeyda and brought in Luchi Gonzalez as head coach.

San Jose let in 69 goals last season, ranking them 28th in goals allowed, so GM Chris Leitch went all out on acquiring defensive pieces. Outside-backs Carlos Akapo and Miguel Trauco were brought in, along with center-backs Rodrigues and Jonathan Mensah from Columbus. Gonzalez also welcomed Carlos Gruezo from Bundesliga side Augsburg to bolster the midfield.

For the Quakes to take off this season, they need Gruezo and Mensah to show their MLS experience and commit more to the attack. With the depth of Jackson Yueill and Benjamin Kikanovic in attack, and new keeper Daniel from Internacional, San Jose has the potential to give teams some problems.

The Quakes will look to make the playoffs, something they’ve only done twice since winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2012.

Seattle Sounders FC

The Sounders were the first teams in the MLS to feature at the Club World Cup in Morocco after winning the CCL last season. Although an impressive accomplishment for U.S. soccer, they were underwhelming in the league, finishing 11th last season and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Seattle welcomed Heber from NYCFC in the offseason to add much-needed attacking depth to the squad. The injuries were a major part of their poor 2022 campaign, so the main concern will be a healthy team.

If all goes well in Seattle and players remain healthy, the Sounders will return to the playoffs.

Sporting Kansas City

Sporting Kansas was linked with the great Cristiano Ronaldo, but maybe finishing 12th in the West in 2022 scared him off to Saudi Arabia?

The club has been keeping an eye on injured Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda and is hopeful they will return in 2023. Meanwhile, The signing of defensive midfielder Nemanja Radoja may prove to be important in strengthening the core of the defense. SKC also brought in German defender Tim Leibold from Hamburg SV, Robert Castellanos, and Chris Rindov from Maryland.

SKC will look to William Agada to produce another masterclass from last season, scoring eight goals and two assists in less than 1,000 minutes of play.

If injuries don’t haunt SKC, a postseason appearance is well in their future.

Vancouver Whitecaps

The Whitecaps missed the postseason, finishing 9th in the West.

Parting ways in Vancouver are striker Lucas Cavallini and defenders Marcus Godinho, Jake Nerwinski and Uruguayan Mathias Laborda. Cavallini was the Whitecaps’ top scorer last season, so alternate options Brian White and Ryan Gauld, who led in team assists last campaign (5), have big boots to fill in the attack. Sartini may also look to Deiber Caicedo who returns from a knee injury or natural forward Cristian Dajome.

Registering 40 goals last season, the Whitecaps need some more attacking firepower. There is a forward option, but a goal-scoring prospect like Cavallini is yet to be found to properly bolster the attack, while new Japanese keeper Yohei Takaoka gets comfortable with the squad.

If the Whitecaps can manage to find their No. 9, the glory of a playoff position may be in sight.

Western Conference Table Predictions

  1. LAFC
  2. Austin FC
  3. Seattle Sounders
  4. LA Galaxy
  5. Colorado Rapids
  6. FC Dallas
  7. Minnesota United FC
  8. San Jose Earthquakes
  9. Houston Dynamo FC
  10. Portland Timbers
  11. Sporting Kansas City
  12. St. Louis City SC
  13. Real Salt Lake
  14. Vancouver Whitecaps

About Alexander Gonzalez

Check Also

Inter Miami Comfortably Brush Orlando City Aside 5-0

As soon as El Clásico del Sol went underway, the Herons dominated. Everything that left …