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2018 Western Conference Previews: San Jose, Seattle Sounders, Sporting KC, Vancouver

Our last batch of Western Conference previews. We picked one of these four clubs to have a breakout year. And another to be a massive flop.

Can Seattle lock up another Western Conference Championship in 2018?
John Babiak, @Photog_JohnB

San Jose

2017 Record: 13-14-7 (WTL), 46 points, 6th in WC

Goals For: 39, 10th in WC

Goals Against: 60, 9th in WC

Three key additions

Magnus Eriksson, Joel Qwiberg, Jacob Akanyirige

Three key subtractions

David Bingham, Marco Ureña, Victor Bernardez

General thoughts

Once upon a time, gentle reader, we could write one of these previews on San Jose and just pencil them in as below the playoff red line, easy peasy. A few talented players on the squad, like Chris Wondolowski or Aníbal Godoy, would be flanked by aging players like Victor Bernárdez or Simon Dawkins, and a few young question marks like Fatai Alashe or Tommy Thompson. Dom Kinnear would play dreadful bunkerball, wasting the creative talents of his few playmakers, and San Jose would miss the playoffs.

Kinnear was fired in June of 2017 and San Jose took off the training wheels. Instead of boring football, San Jose swung the pendulum to the other side entirely and came out in attack mode. If San Jose went behind 1-0, they doubled down and threw even more players forward. Thus the reason the team was only one game under .500 but had a -21 goal differential: if San Jose fell behind, they didn’t mind giving up two or three more goals, so long as they were throwing the kitchen sink at their opponent offensively. In other words, interim coach Chris Leitch’s coaching style was a photo negative of Pablo Mastroeni’s.

There have been many changes this season. The team is now helmed by former Swedish League coach Mikael Stahre. The lineup has been purged of several replacement-level players like Cordell Cato and Marc Pelosi. The players the team added in 2017—like Jahmir Hyka, Danny Hoesen, Jackson Yueill, and Nick Lima—look ready to breakout this year. The Quakes handed the starting goalkeeper job to 24-year-old Andrew Tarbell, who looked enough good in his 11 starts for the club to sell last year’s starter David Bingham to the LA Galaxy. And they’ve signed two talented Scandinavians (Magnus Eriksson and Joel Qwiberg), three USL players (Jimmy Ockford, Luis Felipe, and Chris Wehan), and three Homegrowns (Jacob Akanyirige, Gilbert Fuentes, and JT Marcinkowski). Akanyirige gets special mention here because he’s just 16 years old.

Qwiberg slots in at left back, while the club’s other Swede, Eriksson, will start as the right attacking wing. He’s very good at the football.

Add to that some other key pieces like string-pulling midfielder Valeri Qazaishvili (Vako for short) and defensive breakout talent Florian Jungwirth, and you have a sneaky good team that could really cause havoc in the Western Conference. There is, of course, the possibility that so much change might cause the team to struggle early on as they find their identity. But you can say that about any team going through the middle stages of a rebuild.

Many pundits play it safe when doing season previews for any sport. The ‘safe’ pick that you’ll see from soccer pundits in MLS is to peg a team only one or two slots above or below where they performed the previous year. That’s smart and rational. I ain’t havin’ that. The Quakes are going to be good this year. You best be prepared.

Predicted finish in Western Conference: 1st


Seattle Sounders

2017 Record: 14-9-11 (WLT), 53 points, 2nd in WC

Goals For: 52, 3rd in WC

Goals Against: 39, 2nd in WC

Three key additions

Waylon Francis, Magnus Wolff Eikrem, Really nobody else

Three key subtractions

Brad Evans, Joevin Jones, Jordan Morris (tore his ACL and is likely out for the season)

General thoughts

Seattle is a good team and has a track record of success. But it’s aging rapidly, and GM Garth Lagerwey has decided that the late 2017 additions of Nouhou Tolo and Kelvin Leerdam are essentially enough. Other than the departure of veteran centerback Brad Davis, there were really no significant moves in or out for this team. But still, this Seattle Sounders team is no spring chicken.

Sounders roster, by age.

There’s lots of talent on this roster: Cristian Roldan and Kelvin Leerdam and Nicolas Lodeiro are all fantastically talented. And so are Chad Marshall and Roman Torres and Clint Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso. It’s just that those last four are all at an age where teams shouldn’t count on them to give you 2,000 minutes or more. And yet the Sounders don’t seem to have a lot of depth behind those four.

I think it likely Ozzie Alonso won’t regularly start, and Seattle will let Roldan be a lone defensive midfielder alongside new signing Magnus Wolff Eikrem in something like a 4-4-1-1, with Dempsey as the second striker. Sounders also can plug in Gustav Svensson or Victor Rodriguez or Harry Shipp in midfield without much drop-off in quality.

The alternates at centerback are a little less clear. The team has a few backup fullbacks, but the only true centerback besides Torres and Marshall is Tony Alvaro. He’s only got 1,100 minutes in MLS over two seasons, so it’s not clear if he’s ready to step in regularly if either player is injured or while Torres is off at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. I imagine Seattle will sign another player, but I also can foresee centerback being a problem if the Sounders have any injuries.

I imagine Seattle is gearing up for a mid-summer transfer bonanza to help power the team to the finish line. Whether they’ve set themselves up well enough through the first 17 matches of the season to allow them another run through the playoffs is as much in the hands of the team trainers as it is in the hands of the athletes themselves. The Rave Green went to MLS Cup in 2016 and 2017. They’ll make the playoffs again, but I’m not going to pick them to return to the League Final for a third consecutive trip.

Predicted finish in Western Conference: 5th


Sporting Kansas City

2017 Record: 12-9-13 (WLT), 49 points, 5th place in WC

Goals For: 40, 9th in WC

Goals Against: 29, 1st in WC, 1st in MLS

Three key additions

Felipe Gutiérrez, Yohan Croizet, Johnny Russell

Three key subtractions

Benny Feilhaber, Latif Blessing, Erik Palmer-Brown

General thoughts

After finishing 5th in 2016, and finishing in 5th again in 2017, it would be safe (or lazy) for me to just write that Sporting will finish 5th again in 2018. They lost a few pieces, added a few pieces, kept most of their core players together, and will essentially be the same thing in 2018 that they have been for the past several years. They’re a possession-based football team that places a closely-spaced 4-3-3—so closely spaced that it plays like a 4-2-3-1. They get great defense by not letting their opponent have the ball much. This is especially true at home, but mostly holds up on the road as well.

Except, I have doubts. The pieces they lost weren’t really replaced. And the assumption that the guys they have on the roster will be fine in an MLS that keeps getting better is a bit dangerous. The whole Western Conference reloaded in the offseason, but not SKC.

They lost Benny Feilhaber, and fine, you could argue he was on the decline and it was time to cut bait on the 33-year-old. He had a mediocre 2017 which produced only 5 goals and 3 assists. They lost youngster Latif Blessing to the expansion draft and Homegrown Eric Palmer-Brown to Europe. They let holding midfielder Soni Mustivar go. Fine fine fine. All replaceable.

The replacements? Therein the problem lies.

First, the attacking forward that will replace Blessing in the lineup is either Khiry Shelton, Johnny Russell, or Dániel Sallói. Shelton showed promise in 2016, but underperformed for NYCFC in 2017 and mostly sat on the bench. In three seasons of watching him play, he strikes me as fast and aggressive, and capable of putting a move on to burn his man. He also makes terrible decisions in the final third: he likes to shoot from bad places, often wildly. He doesn’t pass. The other option is Johnny Russell, who came on a transfer from English Championship side Derby County.

Here are his stats with them:

From whoscored.com

He was great in 2015-16, but A) that was a while ago, and B) those stats are trending in the wrong direction. He conjures images for me of Kevin Doyle at best or Jay Simpson at worst. The other possibility to play at right forward is Dániel Sallói. He’s great! He’s 21! He could be a breakout star! He’s also split his time for the past two years in USL, so maybe he’s not ready to make the big jump. One of these three will be starting every game alongside Diego Rubio and Gerso Fernandes—both of whom were pretty good and can score goals and create chances. That is, if they have somebody in the midfield to feed them the ball and control the game.

That used to be Feilhaber, but for 2018 it will be Roger Espinoza and Ilie Sanchez, along with one of two new additions: Felipe Gutierrez or Yohan Croizet. Sanchez and Espinoza are both really talented and capable of driving this team’s engine, but they’re also not top-tier midfield creators—or at least they haven’t been to this point. If Vermes puts Croizet in the #10 spot, however, Felipe could take Espinoza’s spot and considerably upgrade SKC’s 8 position.

Gutierrez has been playing as holding mid for Real Betis and FC Twente in Holland. In four seasons with those teams, he has just 6 goals and 6 assists. Croizet comes to Kansas from Belgian Pro League side Mechelen. Mechelen sits in dead last in the table, and Croizet has zero goals, zero assists in 15 appearances. In 2016, he had 28 appearances, 3 goals, 2 assists. None of that is impressive—not the team, not the league, and not the player’s production.

The defense, however, will work. You’ve got 2017 MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara partnered with USMNT centerback Matt Besler. Your fullbacks are Jimmy Medranda and Graham Zusi. 2017 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Tim Melia minds the posts. If you can get the ball back from Sporting at all, getting into a position to do something against them in the final third is damned near impossible.

All that said I think SKC finishes... 4th. Just a smidge better. But 5th is totally possible too. They will improve in some ways and regress in some ways and in the end it’ll leave them in the same spot once again. It might be boring, but it gets you to the games in November.

Predicted finish in Western Conference: 4th


Vancouver Whitecaps

2017 Record: 15-12-7, 52 points, 3rd in WC

Goals For: 50, 3rd in the WC

Goals Against: 49, 5th in the WC

Three key additions

Kei Kamara, Brian Rowe, Efráin Juárez

Three key subtractions

Fredy Montero, David Ousted, Matias Laba

General thoughts

When the Colorado Rapids regressed in 2017, it was to be expected. Sure, the defense was spectacular in 2016, but also, the Rapids won a lot of games by one goal and a lot of games in the final 15 minutes. Also, their goal differential of +7 didn’t indicate that a 2nd place finish was warranted.

Vancouver was the opposite. They finished 8th in 2016 with a fairly ho-hum season and a -7 goal differential. That set up an improbable rebound in 2017. Sparked by some new acquisitions like Tony Tchani, Brek Shea, and Fredy Montero, the Whitecaps were better. More importantly, they won their close games more often than they lost, going 10-7 in games decided by only one goal.

But they only improved their goal differential slightly to a +1. In 2017, two other MLS teams missed the playoffs with neutral or slightly positive goal differentials. Vancouver’s margin for error on another good season is wafer-thin. So let’s see what they did in the offseason.

They lost 13-goal scorer Fredy Montero to Sporting Lisbon. They cut defensive midfield beast Matias Laba. They sold their starting GK for the past half-decade to DC United. They also let go of key midfield cogs Christian Bolaños and Mauro Rosales. They brought in a d-mid at the end of 2017, Nosa Igiebor, and cut him offseason. They let go of two regular backline defenders, Jordan Harvey and Sheanon Williams. In total, they let go of 17 players.

So who do they have coming back? They signed Brian Rowe to either be keeper or push Stefan Marinovic for the position. They picked up 33-year-old Kei Kamara to be the starting striker. Tony Tchani is back in the midfield. Some think he’s a quality d-mid in MLS, but color me underwhelmed with his work over the past two seasons. One of their key players from 2017, Yordy Reyna, was involved in a suspicious death back of a teenage girl in Peru over the break. Efráin Juárez joins the team from Monterrey, but word is VWFC want to move him from center back to midfield, so that’s interesting.

On the other hand, Ali Ghazal and Alphonso Davies are very, very good. Their backline core of Kendall Waston, Tim Parker, and Marcel de Jong are also quite good.

On the other-other hand, depth is also a worry. They added seven guys to the roster from their USL team, Whitecaps 2. Maybe that’ll be fine, but maybe not. Also, this team will lose Waston and Reyna to the World Cup for about a month. Typically players coming back from a major international tournament are pretty exhausted and their performance falls off as a result.

Put it all together—the roster turnover, the uncertainty in several positions, their depth, their World Cup players, and their thin margins for error to begin with—and I smell regression for this team.

Predicted finish in Western Conference: 11th