Assessing MLS offseason needs in the Western Conference
The offseason is a time for change, and there are now 21 clubs gunning for the Seattle Sounders to take home MLS Cup in 2017.
With the arrivals of Atlanta United and Minnesota United, MLS just became a bit more challenging and with the offseason in full swing teams must now gear up to add as much talent as possible before preseason begins.
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PST finishes its two-part series (check out the Eastern Conference here) by examining the Western Conference and what each team needs to do to be a playoff contender in 2017.
The league’s stingiest defense (32 goals conceded in 34 games) was just enough to finish second in the West during the regular season, but when push came to shove and they needed a goal (or two) against the Sounders in the playoffs, the cupboard was bare for Pablo Mastroeni. Thus, the lack creativity, in all of the four attacking positions, wide and central, must be addressed this winter. They’ll get by just fine without Jermaine Jones — Sam Cronin was fantastic this year — and hopefully fill his place in the starting lineup with a no. 10.
What do you advise for the team that has it all (two deep at just about every position)? Mauro Diaz (torn achilles) will likely miss a sizable chunk of the early season, but the trio of Carlos Gruezo, Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa should be able to bridge the gap until the Argentine magician returns. Former Swansea City winger Roland Lamah has already been inked to bolster FCD’s attack out wide — a glaring need prior to his signing this week — just as Ecuadorian left back Anibal Chala has done defensively — another would-be need. With the CONCACAF Champions League group stage on tap in 2017, Oscar Pareja will require a two-deep roster at every position, and he’s got two-plus months to spare with most of his squad already in place.
Newly-named head coach Wilmer Cabrera has some work to do. Let’s work backwards here. Here’s a list of things the Dynamo don’t need: starting goalkeeper — Tyler Deric and/or Joe Willis are fine; one starting center back, in theory — Keyner Brown is expected to win a starting job; starting defensive midfielder, about half the time — Ricardo Clark and Eric Alexander are mostly fine, when they’re healthy, which isn’t all that often; attacking Swiss army knife — Andrew Wenger; legitimate star striker in the making — Mauro Manotas, when given a modicum of service, is a lethal goal-getter. That’s five-ish contributors Cabrera can count on from day one. They Dynamo are halfway to fielding a full starting 11.
With the departure of Robbie Keane this winter, it’s Giovani dos Santos’ team now. As such, a strong center forward capable of holding the ball up and bringing Dos Santos, who’ll be at his best when playing underneath a mobile monster, into play. Perhaps you think that’s Gyasi Zardes, who’ll be back after breaking his foot at the end of the summer, which, sure, maybe. That means the Galaxy need a winger or two. If Jones is the “answer” at defensive midfield, there’s still a question at defensive midfield. The 35-year-old played in nine (regular-season) games in 2016 (he played in 18 the year before last). Also of importance: finding a permanent positional home for Sebastian Lletget. Theory: we’re about to see a wave of signings from LA Galaxy II, the club’s southern California breeding ground of young talent, ushered in by former II head coach, and new Galaxy head coach, Curt Onalfo.
Adrian Heath has plenty of building to do, again. Through the expansion draft and early-offseason trades, he’s managed to fill out the following spots on the field: two defensive midfielders, Collen Warner and Mohammed Saeid, who’ll fit perfectly into his 4-2-3-1 system. That’s just about it. The Tim Ream rumors are intriguing and would certainly fill a need at center back. As far as MLS veterans (and free agents) go, Marco Pappa, Chance Myers, Dominic Oduro, Will Johnson and Marvell Wynne would also be largely cost-effective options just about everywhere on the field.
A revolving door at the heart of defense was the Timbers’ most glaring weakness in 2016. Liam Ridgewell has been largely fine since arriving in 2014, but he endured nearly a half-dozen different partners at center back after Nat Borchers (ruptured achilles) was lost for the season. Steven Taylor wasn’t the answer, and he’s already left the club after three short months. Jack Jewsbury and Ned Grabavoy have retired, which means Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe (not that Caleb Porter will play him there ever again) are the only central midfielders capable of playing behind Diego Valeri. They’re two or three starting-caliber center mids from having a deep enough squad to get through a 34-game season. If Lucas Melano isn’t going to be the outside-in winger the Timbers have so handsomely paid him to be, they’ll have to figure out who starts opposite of a poorly miscast Nagbe on the wing. Advice: bring back Rodney Wallace.
Real Salt Lake
It’s time to rebuild the defense and midfield at Rio Tino Stadium. 19-year-old center back Justen Glad was one of the breakout stars of 2016, so there’s a solid building block in place in the back, just as Kyle Beckerman and Sunny provide in midfield. Glad reads the game and reacts extremely well, so RSL would do well to pair him with a strong physical presence who can dominate the game in the air and break up play in front of the backline. The departures of Javier Morales (expected) and Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez (unexpected) mean a new no. 10 and a wide attacker capable of combing with Joao Plata and Yura Movsisyan, as Martinez did so well in 2016, likely sit near the top of Jeff Cassar’s wish list this holiday season.
San Jose Earthquakes
Goalkeeper David Bingham, midfielders Anibal Godoy and Darwin Ceren, and forward Chris Wondolowski are about the only players on the ‘Quakes’ roster whom you could say would start for half of the league’s teams. Translation: this might be the worst roster in MLS — worse than the Dynamo, because at least some of Houston’s promising talent is still young — and much work lies ahead for Dom Kinnear.
Despite the fact they’ll be the defending champions, the 2017 Sounders will probably look quite a bit different than the 2016 edition. For starters, Clint Dempsey is expected to slowly return to the field beginning with the U.S. national team’s January camp, which means he’ll be in the starting lineup once healthy and fit, which means the “where does he fit in?” question must once again be addressed, this time by Brian Schmetzer. Andrea Ivanschitz and Nelson Valdez are gone, which leaves just Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Alvaro Fernandez as attackers returning from this year’s improbable title run. Beyond that, at some point Osvaldo Alonso is going to have to be replaced in the long-term — Cristian Roldan will extend his career by a year or two, if paired together — or, at the very least, a ready-made replacement must be added to the roster in the event of Alonso missing a month with injuries.
Sporting Kansas City
When Krisztian Nemeth left Kansas City a month before the start of the 2016 season, he took not only the 10 goals and six assists he tallied the season prior, but more importantly, the secondary scoring and creation threats to Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber. With Feilhaber operating deeper and deeper as his career unfolds, Sporting desperately require an attacker who’s comfortable playing in between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines. Midfield depth is also a serious concern after the retirement on Paulo Nagamura, who was the only reserve central midfielder on the roster in 2016. Will Johnson would be the perfect backup at multiple spot in Sporting’s midfield, which means he’d get the 20-24 appearances he presumably desires.
On paper, the Whitecaps possess quite an impressive, talent-rich roster. In practice, very few of those pieces actually fit together into anything resembling a cohesive unit. If they’re going to continue trying to play fast — why wouldn’t you with Kekuta Manneh and 16-year-old Alphonso Davies? — they’re going to need a striker who can, 1) finish from 12 yards and in, and 2) keep pace with those blazing fast wide players. Many of the pieces are in place to replicate the Montreal Impact’s counter-attacking juggernaut with three defensive-minded midfielders in the center and speedsters on the wings — Matias Laba is as good as the get right in front of defense, and Russell Teibert should be able to play as the most advanced of the three, pressing high and reducing the workload of those behind him. A new temper for hot-headed Kendall Waston probably wouldn’t hurt, either.