Preview: Who's challenging LAFC in the Western Conference?
If the past two seasons are anything to go by, then we can expect another shake-up in the Western Conference in 2023.
LAFC were top of the pile at the end of the regular season and claimed the Supporters’ Shield - this after finishing outside of the playoff places in ninth a year earlier.
In fact, the top four last season - LAFC, Austin, FC Dallas, and LA Galaxy - all missed out on the playoffs in 2021. Meanwhile, the top four from 2021 - Colorado Rapids, Seattle Sounders, Sporting KC, and Portland Timbers - all failed to make the postseason in 2022. For the Sounders they were absent from the MLS playoffs for the first time in their history (they joined the league in 2009)!
When we look at the numbers, it is quite staggering at the turnaround. The points improvement for last year’s top four reads like this:
And then we compare it to the top four from 2021 and their collective, calamitous fall from grace.
Now, while LA Galaxy and Portland were a little more modest in their up and down movement, one thing is clear, the Western Conference is unpredictable.
If, as the fallen four would have us think, their 2023 season will be a marked improvement, then who makes way?
Nashville has stepped back across to the Eastern Conference, allowing St. Louis City SC to take their place in the West for their debut in MLS as the 29th franchise. Nashville finished fifth last season, missing out on fourth courtesy of fewer wins (13) than LA Galaxy (14).
But of the top seven from last year, that still leaves the two LA teams, plus the Texas pairing in Austin and Dallas, as well as Minnesota United and Real Salt Lake, and they will again expect to be in the mix come October 21st.
And of those perennial strugglers, such as San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo FC, what of them in 2023? Houston had upheaval in 2022, on and off the field. Pat Onstad was relatively new as the GM, while head coach Paulo Nagamura did not even last his first season, getting fired with five games to go.
They have a new and vastly experienced head coach in Ben Olsen, and they will have a lot of new faces. Gone are 14 players from last season, some permanent, others loaned out, while incoming hope comes in the form of Paraguayan attacking midfielder Iván Franco, plus Brazilian Artur from Columbus Crew.
There is a new man in charge of San Jose Earthquakes. Former FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez stepped into PayPal Park after assisting Gregg Berhalter at the FIFA World Cup. He is the man Quakes fans hope can bring about a much-needed change of fortunes to a side which has missed the playoffs in eight of the last 10 seasons.
The Quakes finished bottom of the Western Conference, not helped by a defense which leaked 69 goals - the second most of any team in MLS last season (D.C. United gave up 71).
And then there are the Vancouver Whitecaps, who will have a second season with Vanni Sartini as head coach. He took 2022 to assess his squad and - after watching them miss the playoffs by just four points - has conducted quite the overhaul in the offseason. At the time of writing, 13 players had gone through the door marked exit, including last season’s top scorer Lucas Cavallini, and veterans such as Florian Jungwirth, Tosaint Ricketts, and Jake Nerwinski.
Brian Schmetzer and the Sounders will have already had some competitive soccer to whet their whistles, playing in the FIFA Club World Cup after claiming the CONCACAF Champions League last year. That success, and the extra load which came with it, was clearly a factor in their season fizzling out. They will have learned from that, and normal service is expected to resume in 2023.
Same goes for Sporting Kansas City, who will welcome back a fit again Alan Pulido. He missed the entire 2022 season after undergoing knee surgery. Meanwhile, Portland Timbers could certainly point to some off-field distractions surrounding ownership as to why they faltered last season, but the fact is the often-cyclical nature of MLS means no side can take things for granted.
Question marks remain as to whether the Rapids can return to that top table. The 2021 squad was meddled with and too many parts removed, leading to what transpired in 2022. Additional, needed pieces have been added during this offseason. The spine appears stronger, but the leaning toward purchasing ‘prospects’ or players seeking a fresh start often favors the upgrade on outgoing players approach. And road results certainly need to improve on 2022 if this side is to revive the idea of being a perennial playoff club.