Editor’s Note: The 2019 MLS Eastern Conference preview will post on Tuesday.
Like last year, the MLS Western Conference is wide open. The Sounders are aging in important positions, but still look like one of the best teams in the conference. LAFC need one of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta or Andre Horta to provide the defensive awareness in midfield they lacked after Kaye went down with a major injury last year. The trio of FC Dallas, Portland and Sporting KC looks as intriguing as ever.
So, we’ll take a look at the seven top West contenders, roughly in order of how good each projects to be in 2019.
With Chad Marshall now 34 and Ozzie Alonso in Minnesota, it feels like the Sounders are approaching the end of an era. They will face questions about defensive depth (particularly with the Waylon Francis trade and Nouhou overseas rumors) and how to integrate Jordan Morris with Raul Ruidiaz up top, but Seattle have the elite talent to make a run. We’ll see if they do the thing where they suck until July and then do a complete 180°.
LA’s attack promises to be one of the best in the league again. It will be interesting to see how Bob Bradley splits playing time between Adama Diomande and Christian Ramirez — Diomande likely will see the majority of minutes, but Bradley can easily swap if either goes on a dry spell. LA will count on young defenders Lamar Batista and Eddie Segura to replace Laurent Ciman next to Walker Zimmerman on the backline, with 35-year-old Dejan Jakovic possibly the starter to begin the season.
Coming off an MLS Cup run, Portland always have one goal: Keep Diego Chara healthy. At this point everyone can see how much worse the Timbers are when their Colombian defensive midfielder is not in the game. They haven’t made many major moves this offseason, outside of letting defenders Liam Ridgewell and Alvas Powell go. Coaxing high-volume attacking production out of Sebastian Blanco is another of the Timbers’ eternal puzzles.
It’s a youth movement in Dallas, as the offseason focus has been on playing and counting on Homegrowns like Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira. New manager Luchi Gonzalez was previously the academy director (under the late Fernando Clavijo, RIP). Such lineup fixtures as Maxi Urruti, Roland Lamah, Maynor Figueroa, Victor Ulloa and Tesho Akindele are out, ushering in a revamped FCD team.
Sporting Kansas City
Trading Ike Opara was a gamble, though they did receive a robust sum of allocation money in return. Peter Vermes needs Spanish center back Andreu Fontas, for whom they paid a hefty transfer fee, to step seamlessly next to Matt Besler. Watching trade acquisition Kelyn Rowe in the midfield as a creator will be fun.
Houston finished ninth last season, admittedly, but with Juan David Cabezas back in defensive midfield full time and Matias Vera joining him, the Dynamo could return to 2017 conference finals form. Mauro Manotas continuing his dominance from last year and Alberth Elis aiming to prove his worth to potential overseas suitors could net Houston some goals. The defense remains a question mark, but Cabezas will help and they acquired real competition this off-season. Age is the biggest concern on the backline.
I came close to excluding the Galaxy, who are trying to skirt league rules and play with four Designated Players, and throwing Real Salt Lake in here instead. But Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes that difficult, given his status as arguably the league’s best player. LA have the pure talent to slip into the playoffs despite defensive woes, and manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto has an impressive pedigree.