2021 MLS season preview: Western Conference

As the world attempts to return to normalcy with the wide release of COVID-19 vaccines, Major League Soccer returns for what should be a full season of MLS play after COVID-19 drastically altered the 2020 season. The season was halted two games into the season and there was a MLS is Back Tournament to ease the league back into play.

For this preview and the Eastern Conference preview from Johnny Crane that will come out tomorrow, I will list out each club in order of my projected finish and give a brief outlook.

13. Real Salt Lake

2020 record: 5-10-7

This club took a step back last season after making it to the Western Conference Semifinals in 2019, finishing second to last place in the conference. They struggled to score last season as they were tied with Inter Miami and D.C. United in fourth-fewest goals scored in the MLS. Despite adding journeyman Rubio Rubin to be their primary striker, RSL will once again have difficulties finding the back of the net consistently, marking another rough season in the post-Nick Rimando era.

12. Houston Dynamo

2020 record: 4-10-9

The Dynamo have vastly underachieved in recent years despite bolstering talented front lines. Now, they come into the 2021 season without their two main scorers over the past couple seasons in Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis. However, their defense and midfield gets a boost in former New York Red Bulls defender Tim Parker and midfielder Joe Corona. Despite this, the Dynamo lack true scoring pieces and should only barely escape the basement in 2021.

11. Vancouver Whitecaps

2020 record: 9-14-0

Oddly enough, the Whitecaps were the one club in the MLS last season that did not draw in a single match. They showed some promise with wins over LAFC, Minnesota United and New England. However, a -17 goal differential doomed any hopes of them making the postseason. Caio Alexandre is a promising young midfielder that looks to add some creativity to the Whitecap’s inconsistent attack. However, they still lack the talent to compete in a loaded Western Conference and will finish at the bottom once again.

10. Austin FC

2020 record: N/A

The new kids on the block make their debut in the Western Conference after last season, the two new clubs (Nashville SC and Inter Miami) debuted in the Eastern Conference. They added Argentinian midfielder Tomas Pochettino to become their dynamic No. 10 playmaker as they look to take a page out of Nashville’s book and make the postseason in their first year in the MLS. With some solid pieces added in the expansion draft, including Nick Lima, Andrew Tarbell and Alexander Ring, expect Austin FC to be competitive and make a push for a postseason spot while coming up a few matches short.

9. San Jose Earthquakes

2020 record: 8-9-6

This is possibly the final season for San Jose superstar striker in Chris Wondolowski, the MLS’s all-time leading goal scorer. They look to make one more push for postseason success after losing a heartbreaker in penalty kicks to Sporting Kansas City in the first round last season. Despite losing Lima to Austin FC, Cristian Espinoza and Jackson Yueill are dynamic playmakers that can make the Quakes dangerous in any given match. San Jose will be a fun and chaotic club to watch as they will narrowly miss the playoffs with a struggling defense.

8. LA Galaxy

2020 record: 6-12-4

A -19 goal differential was what the LA Galaxy had last season, putting them toward the bottom of a Western Conference that they have owned for most of their existence. Signing Chicharito did not have the impact the Galaxy had hoped for, scoring only two goals in all of last season. He looks for a bounce-back year in 2021 as he is paired with the 5’6 striker in Cameron Dunbar in hopes of a rejuvenation of the Galaxy attack. With a potential breakout season for midfielder Efrain Alvarez, the Galaxy will just miss out on a playoff spot.

7. FC Dallas

2020 record: 9-6-7

FC Dallas suffered the same fate in each of the last two seasons, losing at CenturyLink Field in Seattle to the Sounders in the Western Conference Playoffs. Now, they head into a 2021 season with many question marks. Prospect Brian Reynolds was sold to AS Roma this offseason while club mainstays in Michael Barrios and Reto Zeigler left the club, leaving a void in leadership. While Dallas still has good contributors in Paxton Pomykal and Matt Hedges, they will barely scrape by the west and become the last team to make it into the postseason.

6. Colorado Rapids

2020 record: 8-6-4

Despite playing the fewest matches out of any club last season due to COVID-19 issues, the Rapids still found themselves in the postseason by a comfortable margin. Cole Bassett broke out last season with five goals and five assists and Kellyn Acosta has cemented himself as one of the most consistent midfielders in the MLS. While keeping their squad intact for this season, expect the Rapids to contend in the west while keeping their long-term outlook bright. Unfortunately for Colorado, the top five in the west will be too much for them to compete with in 2021.

5. Sporting Kansas City

2020 record: 12-6-3

While SKC lost some major pieces this offseason in Matt Besler and Gerso, they still mostly return the squad that finished first in the west last season. Tim Melia gives SKC one of the league’s best options between the posts and Alan Pulido, despite sustaining minor injuries throughout last season, scored six goals while dishing out five assists in only 12 matches. With these two returning, SKC should be a contender in the west once again.

4. Seattle Sounders

2020 record: 11-5-6

The Sounders have dominated the west in recent years, winning the conference finals in four of the past five seasons. However, after getting blown out 3-0 by the Columbus Crew in the 2020 MLS Cup Final, the Sounders have lost some of their mojo. They lost three key players this offseason in Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam and Gustav Svensson along with losing star Jordan Morris for an extended period of time with a torn ACL he suffered while on loan with Swansea City. The Sounders will fall from the top of the conference, but will still be contenders with Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro manning the front line.

3. Minnesota United

2020 record: 9-5-7

The Loons blew a 2-0 lead to Seattle in the 2020 Western Conference Finals and their first deep postseason run was cut short. However, the future is bright in the north as playmaker Emanuel Reynoso returns after dishing out a MLS playoff record seven assists in three matches. Minnesota lost dynamic scorer Kevin Molino but returns Robin Lod while adding Wil Trapp to bolster the midfield. With the immense talent Minnesota returns, expect a full push from the Loons to make it to the club’s first MLS Cup Final.

2. LAFC

2020 record: 9-8-5

Last season, LAFC disappointed greatly in a season that saw superstar Carlos Vela suffer a knee injury that forced him to miss two months of action. LAFC’s backline was porous, allowing the seventh-fewest goals in the MLS in 2020 as they slipped to seventh in the west. This season, Vela looks to be back at full force with Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez (who could return from a loan this summer) creating a deadly attacking trio. LAFC will contend for the MLS Cup once again, but a leaky backline will ultimately cause them to fall short once again this season.

  1. Portland Timbers

2020 record: 11-6-6

The Timbers are an inconsistent bunch as it is difficult to gauge how good they will be from a match-to-match basis. This season, however, I see the Timbers rebounding from their disappointing loss to FC Dallas in the playoffs last season to dominate the west in 2021. Sebastian Blanco returns after missing almost all of 2020 with a knee injury and his attacking mates, Diego Valeri and Yimmi Chara, will combine to form one of the MLS’s best offenses. With Steve Clark being a reliable goaltender and Diego Chara manning a strong midfield, the Timbers are my pick to hoist the 2021 MLS Cup.

Published by Sean Clark

I am an aspiring sports journalist at Northern Arizona University. I am very passionate about sports such as football, soccer and basketball and I'm excited to use this platform to write about the sports I love.

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