MLS 2008 Western Conference Preview: Contenders, Dark Horses, Filler, and C.H.U.D.s

Having already unloaded all my caveats in yesterday’s Eastern Conference Preview, there’s nothing to do here, but get to it. For your convenience, here are the resources borrowed and applied in creating what comes below: WVHooligan’s most current list of off-season player movement and Climbing the Ladder’s best guess at starting elevens for Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Western Conference sides. The same labels will apply as well: Contender, Dark Horse, Filler, and C.H.U.D. For your convenience, here’s a copy/paste on the meaning of the terms from yesterday:

“The first two are pretty obvious – e.g. ‘Contender’ attaches to a team with a clear shot at the title, while ‘Dark Horse’ flags a team with the talent and depth to steal the title, but only provided good form and luck through ‘08. For ‘Filler’ teams, the playoffs are within reach, but the title…well, it ain’t gonna happen. Finally, ‘C.H.U.D.s’ – aka, ‘Cannabalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers’: these are the teams that will suffer through a season in the confines of MLS’s cellars, only coming out from time to time to feast on the flesh of the living.”

So, let’s get to it…teams are listed in descending order from Contender to C.H.U.D.

HOUSTON DYNAMO – Contender (sigh)
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Franco Caraccio, Bobby Boswell, Tony Caig
OUT: Joseph Ngwenya, Nate Jaqua, Zach Wells, Ryan Cochrane
The Situation
Excuse the sigh, but there’s just something about the possibility of a Houston three-peat that leaves me feeling…off. But the damnable rub is, they deserved the last two and would probably deserve #3 as well, assuming they get it. The Dynamo are simply a good team. When starters like Brad Davis, Brian Ching, or Brian Mullan go down, in come Stuart Holden, Corey Ashe, Richard Mulrooney – hell, even Kyle Brown – to replace them; they’re fine in defense and they settled the last of their depth issues when Caig came in. They’re like the Borg, but dressed in orange and without all the cybernetics. I’m so confident they’ll make the playoffs that I’d take on any form of dare in the event they don’t (bring it on, people). But even within what will certainly be a grueling season, I think they’re likely as anyone to lift MLS Cup. Even more than these guys…

CHIVAS USA – Dark Horse
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Raphael Wicky, Alecko Eskandarian, Atiba Harris, Jim Curtin
OUT: Preston Burpo, Jason Hernandez, Ramon Nunez, Laurent Merlin
The Situation
Chivas re-stocked in the right places and held onto the league’s hottest ‘keeper. Even if I’m not totally sold on Eskandarian and Harris as depth at forward – though the former sells me more than the latter – I still expect both players’ strike-rates will improve if only because Chivas’ midfield service tops Real Salt Lake’s. And with Wicky on board, a good midfield got a little better. And the defense is nothing to sniff at either. And…there is no other “and”…I don’t quite know what makes these guys tick, but they do, generally. Now, I can usually accept things I don’t understand, but there’s something about Chivas that seems a little off to me even if I can’t explain it. Not to make this section all about me, but I had these guys filed under Contender until I wrapped up the Real Salt Lake portion below; I put them down as Contender some time last week. But I just can’t get myself to believe it. So, welcome to Dark Horse status, guys. All I can say is prove me wrong.

FC DALLAS – Filler
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Duilio Davino, Andre Rocha, Brek Shea, Eric Avila
OUT: Carlos Ruiz, Denilson (whew!), Clarence Goodson, Chris Gbandi
The Situation
Another bubble team for me: I had them down for Dark Horse only minutes ago, but the nagging sense that they lack something that can’t be taught prompted me to downgrade them to Filler. That something? Self-belief. That said, I’m somewhere between 80 and 90% certain they’ll make the playoffs. All the touchy-feely aside, two concrete questions hang over the team: first, will Davino bring stability to what has long been the most reliably unreliable defense in MLS? Second, do they have the consistency they’ll need in the attack with Carlos Ruiz gone? I know “el Pescadito” didn’t bring a ton of goals with him to Dallas, but, in order to appreciate what Ruiz does for a team, you can add the attention he drew from other teams to the 7 goals he scored last season. According to Climbing the Ladder’s post, Ricardinho becomes the heir apparent, but the highly-useful Abe Thompson and speedy Dominic Oduro wait in the wings. I like just about everything about this bunch on paper, but having dubbed them a serious year nearly annually since 2000, I’m finally to the point where I need to see to believe.

Player Moves I Grok
IN: Ian Joy, Kenny Deuchar, Dema Kovalenko, Jamison Olave, Matias Cordoba, Nat Borchers, Tony Beltran
OUT: Alecko Eskandarian, Eddie Pope, Chris Brown, Jack Stewart, Richie Kotschau, Atiba Harris, Chris Lancos
The Situation
All the talk about seeing and believing makes me blush as I type the following: this team looks like RSL’s best chance yet of making the playoffs. They’re certainly showing ambition and, to some extent, belief in building a winner can accidentally become reality. The virtue of being hard to beat counts as the key here; from there it’s just a matter of scoring enough goals to make good. To turn that around, if anything keeps out RSL this year, it will be on the offensive end. And, as much as the team he built impresses me, questions remain about Jason Kreis’ coaching abilities (and, OK, Garth Lagerwey helped build the team). There are also the teams above them to consider; I can see RSL overtaking Dallas, or even Chivas USA – crazy talk, I know. I can also see them spending another year in full-time fuck-up mode. Call this my stretch for the Western Conference…damn it…now I’ll be pulling for it to happen…remember that when I write about them…you have been warned.

Player Moves I Grok
IN: Christian Gomez, Raphael Gomes, Jose Burciaga Jr., Ciaran O’Brien, Tim Ward
OUT: Nicolas Hernandez, Jose Cancela, Brandon Prideaux
The Situation
Another bubble team for me, due mainly to the West’s interminably baffling intra-conference inter-relations – or, in plain English, the more I look at this, the less sense of have of whom will do what out West. But I put them all the way down here for one, major reason: if these guys can’t get another forward, or keep the ones they have healthy, they’re going to quietly end the season at some as yet undetermined point prior to the final – possibly prior to the end of the regular season. If they can click, though, and make Denver what it was a couple years back – i.e. one of the toughest places to visit in all of MLS – they could make some serious noise. My essential ambivalence on the Gomez trade definitely enters into the equation: he has yet to really shine in pre-season, which goes back to some doubts I’ve quietly harbored that his heart isn’t in Colorado. Put it all together and it seems Colorado fits a familiar description: wild card team.

Player Moves I Grok
IN: Carlos Ruiz, Greg Vanney, Sean Franklin, Julian Valentin, Brendon MacDonald, Alvaro Pires, Ely Allen
OUT: Joe Cannon, Chris Albright, Cobi Jones, Clint Mathis, Gavin Glinton, Ty Harden, Quavas Kirk, Kevin Harmse, Kyle Martino, Kelly Gray…did they keep anyone?
The Situation
Were I not embarrassed to do so I’d introduce a fifth label just for LA.: call it “Too Big to Fail,” kinda like Bear Stearns. A full year of Beckham seems too big to fail; Donovan seems to big to fail. And yet, I can so readily see it happening. Even so, Climbing the Ladder’s post has my knees knocking on this call; with so much being made about “Ruiz! Donovan! Beckham!…and, um, some other dudes,” it’s too easy to forget crucial players for the Galaxy, guys like Chris Klein, who has made right-back his position, and old hands like Vanney and Abel Xavier in the back. They’ll all keep this young team settled. More than that, however, I saw good things from a few rookies/youngsters during LA’s Asian tour – especially Franklin, Allen, and Valentin. Against that, though – and, again, this is big – a Xavier/Vanney back-line is vulnerable to speed like your homework assignment to water and Pires and MacDonald in the middle strikes me as a wretched idea. Having come within inches of chickening out, I’m going to make this still another stretch: LA doesn’t make it, sunk by rookie mistakes and inadequacies….and then, all Hell breaks loose. Seriously, I wonder what will happen; the freak-out could be enormous. That said, I’m something like 75% sure I’ll eat this one, the call on RSL, and, after that, it’s between the Rapids and FC Dallas.

Player Moves I Grok
IN: Everyone….I’m not going to list them…so there. OK, except Ronnie O’Brien.
OUT: Nothing from nothing leaves nothing…
The Situation
Though they built a solid, if unspectacular, roster through the expansion draft, San Jose simply hasn’t added enough to make it through the season ahead. Yeah, I know they won the Carolina Cup, but that’s before the inevitable injuries arrive. They have some useful players and I don’t doubt they’ll win a few – hell, I won’t be surprised if they finish higher than Toronto, if not a couple others – but joining MLS as an expansion team ain’t what it used to be. Maybe next year…or the next….just make careful notes of what RSL did over that franchises short life-time and do the opposite.

11 Responses

  1. […] just posted a Major League Soccer 2008 Western Conference preview over on that site and that feels like plenty. See where I fit the Rapids into that grand […]

  2. Spend a few seconds deciding whether to comment here or on your rapids The Offside blog…

    Gotta start with San Jose. I was a huge fan of C.H.U.D. and the sequel Bud the CHUD so I love the comparison. The Quakes’ advantage is going to be exactly what made LA a playoff contender last year — the rules to get into the playoffs in the first place. The Quakes will suck but there will be enough wins for them to slip in there. In fact, I think I remember reading an interview with Yallop who layed it out. They need 10 wins. I think thats do-able with their current lineup.

    As for Chivas, Dark Horse seems about right since they died twice in the playoffs when Ante went down. Ideally the new guys are gonna fix that but they are still unproven. Also, when Guzan leaves, its going to hurt.

  3. Hey Melissa. Either place is fine. I hover over both like the worried parent I am.

    It’ll be interesting to see what the Quakes will do. I’m still half way toying with heading over to U of P this weekend to check them out in person, but with life bringing the hate these days, I might have to take a rain-check.

    If I do make it, though, you’ll be the first to hear about it.

  4. If they can keep up what they did at the Carolina Cup then they’ll be fine in-season. Most of the guys on the roster are under 26 too so I hope that means not-too-serious injuries in the coming months.

  5. BTWs. The voting process for Seattle’s MLS team has opened.

    The voting process requires registration, and one of the questions is “What is your zip code?” I’m guessing an zipcode in the Seattle, or perhaps northwest region, is required to vote. After entering the appropriate info, I received a congratulatory email saying I was “qualified to vote” with a unique link to submit my vote.

    Text from the vote page is pasted below:

    “Choose between three names OR WRITE-IN YOUR FAVORITE NAME. Fans will be allowed one vote per unique, valid e-mail address. The names are…

    Seattle Alliance: A bond or connection; an association to further the common interests of the members.

    Seattle FC: FC is a common international soccer acronym that stands for football club.

    Seattle Republic: An association in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote; a body of persons freely engaged in a specific activity.

    Write-In Vote: For fans who are passionate about another name.

    Voting ends on March 31st at 11:59pm.”

  6. Thanks, RP. That’ll be my local – well, MLS local – come 2009. May as well join the fun…and see they get a proper frankin’ name!

  7. Seems like a forced option test set of names to me. One would almost have to vote for FC so as not to seem twee.

    I know co-owner Drew really wants to push the supporters/members thing, but should branding your club to the general public by choosing a name either so generic (FC) or GM-bean-counter-esque that it essentially has no marketing flair (Alliance/Republic) be priority #1?

    Question: Are people in the Republic of Fleece, Flannel and Java really so caught up in a special brand of togetherness that they would vote for Alliance or Republic? Each seems better served as a name for a supporters groups rather than the team. All in all, Emerald City FC sounds better every day.

  8. Seattle Republic has got to be the worst excuse for a sports team name since the USFL…or that XFL abomination that crawled from the Earth a while back. Making matters worse, it has “wuss” written all over it. Yeah, both Republic and Alliance came out of some process that was compromised at best and unholy at worst.

    I don’t know what they’ll end up with and, on a personal level, won’t care all that much. I just don’t want to have to defend the name or explain it to people because, good Lord, I can’t defend a name like Seattle Republic.

  9. I’m loving the fact that my Dynamo are looking great for this season, even with the all the tournaments, I know we have a strong chance to “threepeat”.

    But I do wonder where most of the excitement/story is gonna come from for the west.

    In the west i think we all see that Hou/Chivas will get top spots so the real competition comes between LA, Dallas, RSL, Colorado for the last spot (the fourth is going to an eastern team much like last year).

    I find myself envying the East, DC, NE, NY, KC and chi-town all have the 1st/2nd place potential so this will be far more exciting to see (well towards the end of the season anyways) who’s where for the playoffs.

    I’m gonna call it right now.

    1. Dynamo
    2. Chivas
    3. RSL
    4. NE
    1. DC
    2. Chicago
    3. NYRB
    4. KC

  10. Cool. I’m as willing to buy that as anything I typed, anyway. And I love that you left off Dallas and slipped New England to the fourth Western seed and all that means for their season. Fascinating.

    The only point with which I’d quibble – and this is 1) purely hypothetical, and 2) will be proved or denied by events – is the East picking up the West’s fourth seed. I’m not saying your prediction is off so much as I’m thinking it’s too hard to say with both conferences being a shoot-out. Based on that, and this is contrary to some things I’ve written before, I’m expecting the West to hold onto their fourth spot when the Eastern clubs take too many points off one another.

    Still, won’t be the least surprised to be proved wrong. Going to be a really interesting season.

  11. Jeff, as always a terrific post. I absolutely agree with your rating of the Gals. They are going to score goals, no doubt, but with that back line, they are going to give up a TON as well. Lots of 4-3 and even 5-4 games. Hey, no one’s ever out of it. HDC becomes the Coors Field (ca. 1995) of MLS. Lalas’ head will be on the chopper by summer, seriously damaging the comedy quota (Think of the rest of us AEG. Don’t do it!!!).

    As for your rating of Dynamo, how could I disagree? The team is seriously good, and like you said, Resistance is Useless.

    In all honesty though, as the three of us on Nutmegged will point out in a series of posts today and tomorrow, there are some serious questions in the back right, especially with Bobby Boswell. If Ching goes down and Wondo and Caraccio don’t develop as expected, there could be a lot of frustrating 1-0 and 1-1 games ahead.

    Chivas, how good will they be when Guzan goes to Europe this summer? When Razov breaks down again? They’re good, but as Gyzan goes, they’ll go.

    Candystripers are scary to predict, and may be scary to watch with hackerissimo Davino in their back line. Still, a full year of Kenny Cooper? A full year of Oduro? No pescadito distractions? I’m like you, though, I’ll believe it when I see it.

    RSL and Colorado? I know you like the Rapids for some reason Jeff, but I see very little coming from both teams. I think RSL will be improved, but don’t see much from the Rapids until Clavijo gets axed.

    High comedy moment that I’d love to see: In a last desperate move, Lalas in June tries to trade Gullit for Clavijo. Paramedics are called to the HDC. OJ-like drama.

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