Once more into the breech, dear friends. Having run our spyglass over the roiling waters of the East, we now turn our attention to what lurks in the briny depths of the West. To wit . . .
1. Chivas USA
They've got a damn good starting eleven--as evidenced by last year's fantastic league finish, but beyond that things get a touch dicey. Eskandarian and Cunliffe coming off the bench up top isn't bad, but the midfield and defense are borderline anorexic. That wasn't so much of an issue last year with only two competitions on the docket, but a few extra fixtures and some folks missing in the summer for the Olympics and World Cup qualifying might stretch them. Add in the uncertainty surrounding Brad Guzan (will he jump ship in the summer or not?), and Preki's going to have some questions to answer. Then again, nobody expected the kind of results he got last year, so I'm tempted to think that they may have another decent run in them. Much hinges on keeping Guzan in the net.
2. Houston Dynamo
Talented? Absolutely. Proven winners? Check. Depth? Um, well, sure--the midfield is stacked. Offensive threats? Uh, well--there's that midfield again. Houston are unquestionably among the best in MLS, but I'm thinking back to that oh-so average start they had last year, before Ngwenya showed up and started racing about, pulling defenses out of shape and creating space for that ever so talented midfield to operate in. Where's the pace up top now? Add to that the worrying signs that Ching looks more and more a spent force and you've got to wonder if the boys in Orange will look like the 2007 playoff juggernaut or the lot that struggled for goals in the early going. Regardless, if the defense continues to keep the goals out, they'll still be a force to be reckoned with.
3. FC Dallas
Like much of the West--hell, like most of MLS, questions abound about what sort of beast Steve Morrow thinks he's building in the hinterlands of Frisco. Even money says that his Arsenal heritage is what's driving the acquisition of younger and younger players. News flash, Mr. Morrow--you're not Arsene Wenger. That tendency towards youth, however, is balanced by some gray heads in key spots (Davino, Ricchetti, Sala). There is unquestionably talent on the books for the Hoops, but I've still got some major questions about Morrow as a coach. I'm just waiting for the "You don't know what you're doing" chants to ring out around Pizza Hut Park.
4. Real Salt Lake
RSL have the whiff of a possible playoff contender about them and have made some interesting additions over the winter. They don't have a loaded roster, but they've got a bunch of decent players who will put in a lot of work on the field, and that will make them hard to beat. Will "hard to beat" be enough? Maybe--with the right man to lead them. I'm not sure that Kreis is that man, but we'll see how things play out.
5. LA Galaxy - Oy vey! Well, at least Alexi's got them set to dominate a 7 v 7 tourney. Hmm, better make that a 5 v 5. Fielding a competent eleven may be more of an issue. The 2008 Galaxy are bound to score goals with Ruiz flopping about and setting up free kicks for Becks, and Donovan continuing to step up to the "challenge" of MLS. The big questions will come when LA are still a struggling mid-table side round about July or so and the egos (not just the ones on the field!) start to become an issue. Chances of a spectacular Hindenburg-esque disaster? About 50-50.
6. Colorado Rapids
Question numero uno--how long till Clavijo gets the axe? Their starting midfield boasts some real quality and the back line is reasonable, though probably not up to snuff in the current incarnation of MLS. That said, I've gotta ask (1) who's going to stick the ball in the net and (2) how long will they put up with Clavijo's clown show? Has he really done enough to strengthen an underperforming side? If Clavijo is gone by early summer, making way for the triumphant return of John Spencer, they might have a shout at the playoffs seeing as how the West isn't a particularly deep field. If they stick with him, it's looking like yet another disappointing season at the Dick.
7. San Jose Earthquakes
How many days do we have till kickoff, and how many players do the Quakes have on the books? It's tough to call the Quakes until we know what else they'll be bringing to the party. And they better be bringing some more guys, cause at the moment, a modest injury crisis might see them struggling to field eleven players. The funny thing is, they've got some pretty good pieces of the puzzle when it comes to defense and midfield, and they're set in the nets. The biggest problem is that they're looking a bit like San Jose pariah Landon Donovan--thin up top. It always seems to take a new team a few months to gel, and that might be enough to doom the Quakes, though they may still be able to scrape their way off the bottom once Yallop gets them firing on all cylinders and lands himself a quality striker or two. And therein lies the rub. It may be tough to beat Yallop's boys, but the inability to find the net might lead to a lot of draws in place of victories.
So that's the West from my uninformed, loutish perspective. Chivas and Houston should detach themselves from the rest of the pack, but that pack will be a muddled lot behind them. I suspect that Dallas will have enough to separate themselves from the scrum beneath them, but after that, all bets are off. The remaining four might play out in any order, though I'm fairly confident that RSL won't be at the bottom yet again.
Well, boys and girls, we've now pulled out all the entrails and read all the runes for the two conferences. What say we meet back here tomorrow to lay out something resembling a table and take a stab at who's going to the playoffs this year? (At least until MLS HQ changes the playoff rules again, mandating Beckham Rule II-- the Galaxy must get an automatic playoff berth, no matter how dismal their regular season record.)