Major League Soccer returns this weekend, kicking off the 24th year of the ever-growing North American league. As usual, there’s a plethora of storylines to follow, especially in the Western Conference.
Can Matias Almeyda make the San Jose Earthquakes into a playoff contender? Is Sporting Kansas City even better than last year, when it won the conference? And what do we think of the tandem of Guillermo Barros Schelotto on the sideline and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top for the LA Galaxy.
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We’ll dive into all that and more, in our Western Conference preview (teams are listed by order of their 2018 regular season finish):
Sporting Kansas City - The Western Conference’s best team over the course of the regular season may be even better now. The club acquired MLS veterans Kelyn Rowe and Rodney Wallace, and added Hungarian international defender Botond Barath while keeping the core of the squad together.
Star player: Matt Besler. It’s hard to pick just one player but Besler is definitely the first player on the team sheet every week thanks to his rock solid defending.
Realistic expectation: Competing for the treble: the U.S. Open Cup, Supporters Shield and MLS Cup.
Seattle Sounders - Jordan Morris returns to a squad that kept its very talented core together and seems likely to challenge for the best in the West again.
Star player: Raul Ruidiaz. The Peruvian striker scored 10 times in 14 games after coming last summer. With Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro, they can be a feared front three.
Realistic expectation: Seattle should contend for the Western Conference and even MLS Cup. They’ll go as far as Chad Marshall can take them.
LAFC - Bob Bradley led LAFC to one of the best expansion seasons ever, and they’re set up for another strong season. Eddie Segura replaces Laurent Ciman and the front three of Diego Rossi, Adama Diamonde, and Carlos Vela should produce plenty of goals.
Star player: Carlos Vela. The Mexican hasn’t always performed for El Tri but last year he scored 14 goals and had 13 assists for LAFC.
Realistic expectation: Contending for the Western Conference title, and it should host a playoff game or two.
FC Dallas - It’s the start of a new era as Luchi Gonzales takes over the helm. FC Dallas is expected to use a lot of young, homegrown players this season, which will be exciting for the future. But it could lead to some tough times in the present.
Star player: Jesse Gonzalez. The USMNT goalkeeper became the team’s regular starter, and with Matt Hedges and Reto Ziegler in front of him, they form a formidable foe in the box.
Realistic expectation: FC Dallas will probably miss the playoffs this year, as young potential stars get more first team minutes.
Portland Timbers - Like most of the Western Conference contenders, the Timbers didn’t make wholesale changes. Should Diego Valero continue his MVP-level form and Giovanni Savarese continue his strong management, the Timbers can make another run at the title.
Star player: Diego Valeri. There are plenty of talented players on the Timbers but none comes close to Valeri’s level. He’s been a consistent star for the last five years and Portland will always have a chance to win as long as he’s on the field.
Realistic expectation: Savarese always seems to get the best out of his teams, and the Timbers can certainly compete for MLS Cup once again.
Real Salt Lake - Mike Petke’s side has one of the league’s best attacks, with potential to score from anywhere across the front three. However, there are still questions of how far those attackers can take this team, which includes the aging but ever steady Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando.
Star player: Albert Rusnak. The Slovakian international was slightly less productive last season, but perhaps with a full offseason he’ll be able to raise his level again. He’s one of the most dangerous left wingers in the league.
Realistic expectation: Miss the playoffs. RSL didn’t make any major signings this offseason, and considering how they barely snuck in last season, it will be a tougher road ahead for them in 2019.
LA Galaxy - There’s a new head coach - Barros Schelotto - a new general manager - Dennis te Klose - and Zlatan has a new contract. The Galaxy upgraded in central midfield and at centerback, and look primed for a winning season.
Star player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The big Swede is now 37-years old, but he proved last year he can still be one of the world’s best goalscorers. Don’t take your eyes off this man.
Realistic expectation: Host a playoff game. The Galaxy should be back in the playoff picture with a new coach, mentality and some better players in the side.
Vancouver Whitecaps - The Whitecaps are in full rebuild mode, with a new coach, Marc Dos Santos, and 15 new signings. While LAFC and Atlanta proved that finding chemistry can occur quicker than expected, it still could be a tough season in Vancouver as some players adjust to a new system and teammates.
Star player: Hwang In-beom. The South Korean midfielder joined the Whitecaps this offseason on a Young Designated Player contract. While playing in MLS will be a test, his experience with the South Korean National Team at such a young age should give him a leg up when settling into the competition. In-beom could be the league’s next great attacking midfielder.
Realistic expectation: Missing the playoffs. It’s likely going to be a tough season in Vancouver, but perhaps a piece or two will prove they’re worth holding onto in the future.
Houston Dynamo - The Houston Dynamo secured the 2018 U.S. Open Cup, but their league form last season was much worse. They recorded just two away wins, a mark Wilmer Cabrera will look to improve upon. The Dynamo have added two new defensive pieces, but will it be enough.
Star player: Alberth Elis. The young Honduran attacker is one of the best strikers in MLS, and he even had double-digit assists last season. He’ll need to up his goal tally this year though to bring Houston back to the playoffs.
Realistic expectation: Missing the playoffs. The Dynamo have some new pieces but it’s unclear if it’s enough. On the back line, Maynor Figueroa and DaMarcus Beasley are both older than 35 and new signing Aljaz Struna is untested.
Minnesota United - The Loons, ahead of the opening their new soccer specific stadium, made significant upgrades defensively and to their spine. Jan Gregus signed as a Designated Player and the team added Ozzie Alonso and Ike Opara.
Star player: Darwin Quintero. One of the top attackers in the league, Quintero will be the central point of Minnesota United’s attack, with his pace and dribbling ability a nightmare for defenders.
Realistic expectation: Fighting for the last playoff spot. Minnesota’s acquisitions are impressive but it’s unflear whether they can form a successful unit.
Colorado Rapids - Anthony Hudson’s first season in Colorado was pretty much a disaster, and it appears he’s learned that MLS experience is more important than talent from abroad. However, his new star signings Kei Kamara and Benny Feilhaber are on the wrong side of 30.
Star player: Benny Feilhaber. The former USMNT midfielder is on his 3rd team in as many years, but in Colorado he’ll be relied on to connect the lines of defense and midfield as well as play wingers into space.
Realistic expectation: Miss the playoffs. Colorado didn’t make the investments needed to push for a playoff spot.
San Jose Earthquakes - The ‘Quakes are the most intriguing team in the league this season. With Almeyda in charge, the squad has a fresh look and a new mindset.
Star player: Christian Espinoza. The young Argentine attacker joined from Villarreal in the offseason.
Realistic expectation: Fighting for a playoff spot. Almeyda likely won’t be able to flip the script completely, but the Quakes should make significant strides this season.