Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Handicapping the MLS offseason: The Western Conference, Part II

So if we began with the West's five cake-toppers, the creme de la creme, those marching at the head of the column, now it's time for the stragglers. The teams which heeded the call to Go West Young Man but in some cases looked old, decrepit and tired instead and limped across the finish line in the worst of cases. But hope, much like Brad Friedel's legs, springs eternal. So take heed, take hope fans. 2012 is a new year for these four. And hopefully a very, very new year for those populating BC Place.

Er... what now?
Portland Timbers
How they finished: 11-14-9; 6th in the West; missed postseason
Where they're good: It's fitting we begin with Portland. If there's such a thing as a success story that closes the final chapter on the last day of the regular season instead of embedded somewhere in the playoffs, this is what we've got. The homefield advantage stole some thunder from Seattle's "12th Man" bit, making Jeld-Wen, for what it is, the closest thing to a roaring jet engine as we have in MLS. That helped. So did the reemergence of Jack Jewsbury and his pinpoint crosses and free kicks. Jewsbury is a traveled vet having done most of his heavy lifting in Kansas City, but the Timbers' captain had a career year with seven goals and eight assists. I doubt very much his ability to continue this pace, but it was nice to see. Darlington Nagbe appears to be a star in the making at best and a solid contributor to the starting XI at worst. I like this team toward the top, especially Diego Chara and Jorge Perlaza. Both had flighty moments but for a small-market team still splashing onto the scene, they'll do for now as attacking options. There were even times when Sal Zizzo, with all his pizzaz and assuredness coming forward, looked to be the next keen MLS call-up from Klinsi.

What they need: Like most expansion sides, the Timbers struggled to maintain control through midfield as the pace livened from lower rungs. A steady, calm influence to offset all the pace would be nice. As good as Jewsbury is in dead ball situations, he's equally unfit to push tempo in the run of play and looks lost at times when the flow quickens. No question that with the dearth of pure attacking talent, Portland's focus this offseason should be to reclaim a modicum of control in the middle. Attacker Kalif Alhassan perfectly embodies where Portland needs to improve. For all the raw talent he possesses, harnessing it and purifying it into a useable state proved elusive for the Ghanian who somehow failed to find the back of the net in 2011. All the pent-up energy in the world won't keep him from careening into a dangerous space, making all of Jeld-Wen crane forward only to watch him slip, knock on a poor through ball or just lose it. Kenny Cooper is a lost cause. He was a ball and chain for this group for most of the season, and his lack of ability to keep pace was exposed continually. At the back, I always thought Portland could've used an enforcer at CB. I'll never forget Eric Brunner's weak Rockettes scissor kick over Lamar Neagle's shoulder that gave away the ultimate game-winner against Seattle back in July. Come low and come hard.

Degree of difficulty rating: 6

San Jose Earthquakes
How they finished: 8-12-14; 7th in the West; missed postseason
Where they're good: It is incredible to think how bad - how miserably, nose-pluggingly bad - San Jose would have been without Chris Wondolowski. The only thing keeping butts in the seats in San Jose late in 2011 was Wondo's drive for the golden boot and perhaps a vague notion that soccer was being played. I think it was fitting that, despite tying with DeRo, Wondo lost the scoring title on a technicality. Seems to sum up San Jose's season in a neat package. The Quakes scored 40 times in 2011 and Wondo's strikes accounted for 40 percent of that total. No one player had as much impact on his team's final numbers, so no one player gets as much accolade from me. Not only was he doing it on a team that was inconsistent, fragmented from the first week of the season and constantly in flux, but he did it all year. He is neither the fastest player on the field nor the liveliest, but he is most often the smartest, which clearly works to his favor as the goal shark that he is. There are some pieces here to cause some moderate head nods. Khari Stevenson and Simon Dawkins in midfield both showed glimpses and Steven Lenhart, who was signed to an extension a week ago, made an able switch from Columbus as a player with a penchant for goals, scoring five times in 14 games after missing time from both injury and a personal leave.

What they need: To be fair, San Jose tanked out of the gate (like, tanked) and began normalizing to a degree as the season progressed, but that does not make this a good team. That Frank Yallop survived the year is something of a small miracle. Hell, the Quakes couldn't take a full three points from LA with Mike Magee in goal. It seems the front office noticed the stench. They offloaded their first-rounder from the 2012 supplemental draft in exchange for RSL's Jean Alexandre, whose most notable contribution in 2011 was being fined 500 smackers and then suspended a game for a reckless tackle. They also shuttled some money Vancouver's way for Shea Salinas, who was so good over the last two years that he was pawned off to Philly and then Vancouver in two consecutive expansion drafts. He is now in his second stint in San Jose. They were also forced to unload franchise cornerstone Bobby Convey, the 2010 comeback player of the year, after he ripped management by calling them unprofessional two days before the end of the regular season. San Jose brass promised major upgrades. They are not here, or not yet anyway. If anyone took that missive seriously, then I guess you'd have some room to be disappointed. But then, that's probably on you.

Degree of difficulty rating: 9

Chivas USA
How they finished: 8-14-12; 8th in the West; missed postseason
Where they're good: Admire Robin Fraser. Admire him, I say. Was Chivas much worse than their record? Could the Goats have been swept even further down the ladder? Impossible to say, but Fraser ably settled Chivas down toward the end of the season and began making headway. Enough so that, along with some of the acquisitions being brought in, 2012 might not totally suck. One corner of the HDC's loss is another's yadda yadda... but Juan Pablo Angel landing at Chivas USA was never supposed to happen. Angel never wanted to leave New York and never felt he fit in with the Galaxy. But the Goats? Chivas was just a right-place-right-time matter, and JPA finally began to look settled once he made the switch. The Chivas DP had seven goals in nine games, and re-signing him should be the top priority this offseason. The Goats have been busy, inking James Riley and Ryan Smith and re-signing Ante Jazic and keeper Dan Kennedy to shore up a back line that would've been the fourth-best in the East in terms of goals allowed. And of course there's the creative Nick LaBrocca, a driving force who can now call himself an MLS all-star.

What they need: It is inconceivable to me that the Chivas front office let Justin Braun walk off to Montreal with nary a whimper. Yes, he had a maddening quality about him that allowed him to disappear at times, but how deep up top do you think you are? Braun is a mercurial talent at worst, scintillating at best. Now Chivas will be hunting forwards, since both JPA and Alejandro Moreno are on the downward slope of their careers and the youthful talent just walked out the door. The loss of defender Zarek Valentin was equally puzzling. Jesse Marsch, a former Chivas midfielder, had to be seeing stars when a guy like Valentin, a man whose caliber does not usually show up unprotected to these parties, was available. And Chivas was willing to deal Braun, his former teammate, to boot. No brainers for Montreal and head-scratchers for Chivas. So now they've created some work for themselves. Gerson Mayen also walked out the door, though his departure wasn't as surprising. There is a kernel of hope in Chivas in the sense that there seems to be some forward motion, even if it's taking some time to bear fruit. But a bizarre few weeks are a step backward. If JPA walks, this offseason could get out of hand in a hurry.

Degree of difficulty rating: 7

Vancouver Whitecaps
How they finished: 6-18-10; 9th in the West; missed postseason
Where they're good: God bless you, Martin Rennie. I'm not a negative person by nature, and I swear the fact that I'm noting that Vancouver did indeed miss the postseason in 2011 isn't an ironic swipe. But this is the deepest, most abiding definition of ground-up project as I can conjure. Things are, however, beginning to lurch to life as we speak. Lee Young-Pyo, the third-most capped player in South Korean history, is making his way to Vancouver now. 34 or not, the fullback has made marks at PSV, Spurs and Borussia Dortmund. But even the good here has thorns. Davide Chiumiento spiked some memorable games with a blase attitude and seemed to bristle under Tommy Soehn. He's now out from under that yoke, but will anything change? Rennie is asking for even more creativity, which should play to his strengths. Gershon Koffie was a bright spot, but he's not a holding midfielder. Play him up. The inked up Eric Hassli had legitimate claims on both the newcomer and goal of the year honors, such was his season. He's the guy to build around. For now.

What they need: There are needs everywhere, but midfield is clearly the biggest. Young-Pyo's signing addresses part of the problem at the back, which should alleviate some trouble now that the four-man line consists of Jay DeMerit, Alain Rochat, Carlyle Mitchel and Young-Pyo, which isn't the worst defense in the league. But pairing somebody with Koffie was a headache all year. Peter Vagenas sucks, Jeb Brovsky isn't creative enough, Terry Dunfield is meh, etc... The sooner they can figure out a way to free up Koffie with somebody capable of holding back and organizing things, the better off they'll be. Rennie seems genuinely interested in creating some really attractive soccer, and there are maybe two or three pieces here capable of abiding. But Vancouver is still a few years and a few big moves away from doing something substantive. Snapping up Owen Hargreaves, as was rumored in August, would have been the kind of coup they needed to kick-start the process. That might be a while in coming.

Degree of difficulty rating: 9

Brief reminder of where we've been:

The Western Conference, Part I

And where we're going: The Eastern Conference, Part I

- Will Parchman

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