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.

What to Watch For: MLS 2021 Season

Photo via SI

What to Watch For: MLS Top 10

  1. Austin FC
    • Let us start with the obvious. There is a new team on campus, Austin FC. After years of the city of Austin pushing for a new club, they were met with their reward. This is a side that has great potential to make waves in the Western Conference. This club was put together with a great mix of MLS veterans and key Designated Players with the biggest signing being Tomas Pochettino, who tore up the Argentine Primera Division. Austin FC could be a force to be reckoned with and their first match will be a must-watch.
  2. The Return of King Josef
    • After missing all of the 2020 season with an injury, Josef Martinez will make his way back to the pitch with his first match in Orlando. The 2018 Golden Boot winner and prolific striker for the five stripes will look to take this season by storm. While he has struggled with the departure of Pity Martinez and Miguel Almiron, he is as true as a number nine as a striker can be. Atlanta has made key signings to help support the experienced Venezuelan. Atlanta United will be looking to have a much better season by their standards. After a finish in 12th place in the East, the 2018 MLS Cup winners will look to hit the ground running at Exploria Stadium.
  3. Defend the Crown!
    • The Columbus Crew demolished the Seattle Sounders en route to winning the 2020 MLS Cup. Their club MVP and superstar signing, Lucas Zelarayan carryied them to the title. After ending the season on a high, the Crew will look to maintain focus and defend their title. Their quality of play has caught the eye of many, and they will have a target on their backs in the Eastern Conference. The front office was able to make the right signings and keep the majority of that winning lineup. But can they maintain the same quality they showed in the 2020 season, or will the defending champions find the East to be a tough hill to climb?
  4. Started from the Bottom, now they are where?
    • To say that FC Cincinnati have had a rough start to their MLS Campaign would be an understatement. Leading into their third season, the club decided to make some real moves that could possibly pay off and show they belong in this league. Their glaring issue since their inception to the league has been their lack of offense. But with the signings of Luciano Acosta and Brenner Souza da Silva, Cincy could start to find the back of the net more frequently. The biggest issue they could be facing is that the rest of the East has made plenty of moves to put their name beyond the playoff line. Did FC Cincinnati do enough?
  5. Looking to continue raving
    • After losing their second MLS Cup in quite a fashion, the Seattle Sounders found themselves in an out-of-body experience. While they have struggled in the previous finals, the league had never seen them get kicked around they did in Columbus, Ohio. The Sounders have lost some key players that have led them to their success, layers like Jordan Morris (injury), Gustav Svensson (transfer), Kelvin Leerdam (transfer), and a few others. Head coach, Brian Schmetzer will look to rebound quickly from dramatic loss and show that Seattle can still be a force. But the rest of the West will be salivating at the opportunity to pick on a wounded club.
  6. Not to be Loony
    • Minnesota United took a massive blow against the Sounders as Seattle mounted an incredible comeback in the 2020 Western Conference Final. Minnesota will be looking at that match as a learning lesson. They were the better club for the first 70 minutes of the match, then Seattle happened. But Adrian Heath has helped make fantastic moves for the club with the loan signing of Ramon Abila. While they have lost Kevin Molino, who was their undeniable superstar in the postseason, the Loons will look to keep that fire in the bellies that was lit on that night in Seattle.
  7. Not yelling Timber
    • After a dramatic loss at Providence Park on penalties, the Portland Timbers saw themselves on a bitter drive back to their homes as they were quickly knocked from the MLS Playoffs. They lost Sebastian Blanco due to injury and never really quite recovered. But now they have healthy players, just dominated their CONCACAF Champions League opponent and found the appropriate roles from some of their signings from last season. The Timbers could find themselves a real contender in the West. Yimmi Chara has dominated in the CONCACAF Champions League with a hat trick in his last match. Diego Valeri continues to show why he is one of the most elite midfields. The biggest thing to watch for with Portland is their defense. They were in the higher end of goals allowed in the Western Conference and with the fire power in the West, that could be their downfall.
  8. All he is quacked up to be
    • The Lions in Orlando finally saw their first playoffs only to see themselves dispatched to the New England Revolution. With Daryl Dike on loan to Barnsley, Orlando needed a new striker. Well after months of speculation and teasing on social media, they made the big announcement of signing Alexandre Pato. The well-traveled Brazilian will look to show why he was worth the signing. After having different stints with Chelsea, Villarreal and Sao Paolo, Orlando wanted to take a chance on the 31-year-old. While not performing like he was in his early days, he is hoping to have a similar type of impact that Zlatan Ibrahimović or Carlos Vela made upon their signings. While Daryl Dike is drawing interest from European clubs, they have yet to actual sell him. Could they be keeping him on the backburner in case Pato does not work out?
  9. Wondo Watch
    • There was speculation that the MLS All-Time leading goal scorer could have played his last season last year in San Jose. Not so fast MLS because Chris Wondolowski resigned a one-year contract with the Earthquakes. San Jose made a great push for the playoffs and after an exciting match against Sporting Kansas City, they sadly were their own worst enemy as three poorly-taken penalties were easily saved and SKC moved on. Wondo will be looking to add at least another trophy to his case and go out with a bang. Keep an eye on him because you could be watching the final season of an MLS Legend.
  10. On the hunt for 30
    • The plans for Sacramento Republic to join the league were put to a halt after their primary financial supporter pulled out of the deal. MLS Commissioner, Don Garber wants this league to have 30 clubs. He has recently announced that St. Louis and Charlotte will soon join the league, where will he turn to find that number thirty? Could it be in the Valley of the Desert in Phoenix? They have shown plenty of promise after winning the Western Conference in the United Soccer League last season. What about San Diego? Yes, it would be another California club but any team that is coached by the GOAT of MLS in Landon Donovan does get their say. Whoever it will be, the next big move for the Commissioner will be promotion/relegation. Could we see it happen in our lifetime? Who knows?

Johnny’s Surprise of the Week: Jeremy Swayman

Photo by Fred Kfoury III

Heading into the 2021 NHL season, the Boston Bruins were stacked in the goaltending department, and one did not have to look deep into the numbers to recognize it. After all, the duo of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak combined to win 44 games, compile eight shutouts and amass a 2.26 Goals Against Average (GAA) with a .924 Save Percentage (Sv%) during the shortened 2019-20 campaign. 

A new season, however, did not necessarily mean identical production could be expected. Well, sort of, anyway – heading into Apr. 15 action, the duo compiled a 2.42 GAA, .909 Sv%, 17 total wins and two shutouts. The problem for the pair was not in their inconsistencies on the ice, but in the health issues off of it – the 35-year-old Halak is sidelined under COVID-19 protocol, while the 34-year-old Rask has been forced to the pine due to upper-body injuries. 

The injuries, coupled with the age and everyday grind of an NHL campaign, transformed a significant strength into a potential long-term weakness. For a Boston squad attempting to stay above the postseason picture in what is a crowded MassMutual East Division, leaning on their top-of-the-line offense definitely would have been a consideration. A trade for a depth goalie at the trade deadline even could have made sense. 

Instead, the Bruins kept it homegrown, and boy, could they be in good hands if their past few games are any indication.

Enter, Jeremy Swayman. 

While casual fans might not recognize the name right off the bat (or stick), those within Boston’s front office certainly do. After being selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Swayman put it all together with Providence this season. In nine games played with the AHL club, Swayman compiled an 8-1-0 record with a 1.89 GAA, .933 Sv% and one shutout. 

The elite production, coupled with the injury woes on the parent team, made it only natural for the 22-year-old to be called up as an injury replacement for the ailing goalie pair on Apr. 5. In his debut against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on Apr. 6, Swayman made 40 saves out of 42 attempts to scoop up his first career NHL victory. Less than two days later, Swayman held a potent Washington Capitals’ offense to a pair and picked up his second win. Although Swayman lost in a rematch against Philadelphia on Apr. 10, the Anchorage, Alaska native bounced back and prevailed over the Buffalo Sabres in the shootout on Apr. 13. 

Collectively, Swayman has amassed a 2.22 GAA with a .926 Sv% in four games played (four GS). Dating back to Apr. 6, Swayman’s GAA ranks 10th out of 26 goaltenders to play at least three games. His Sv%, meanwhile, is tied for 10th (Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck). While these rankings are definitely impressive, Swayman has been even better when looking at his save and ice time totals over the stretch. How so? His 112 saves rank third. His total time on the ice (TOI) of 243:34, meanwhile, ranks fourth

At this point, the proof is in the pudding. Swayman, through only a handful of starts, has not only been productive, but durable and reliable, too. 

However, let’s take it a step further. 

Dating back to the 1979-80 season, Swayman is one of only 21 goaltenders to possess a GAA less than 2.25, compile a Sv% greater than .925 and win three of their first four contests to start off their career before they turned 23 years old. Other notables on the list include Hellebuyck, John Gibson, Henrik Lundqvist, Semyon Varlamov and Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

What about among all goaltenders to ever don the Bruins’ sweater to start off their career? When specifically looking at Boston goaltenders, Swayman is one of only two to achieve the feat (Scott Bailey did it during the 1995-96 season).

This is not to say that anyone and everyone should pencil in Swayman as a surefire top goaltender like the others mentioned. However, Boston, with their age and injury concerns atop the goaltending tandem, are definitely not complaining. 

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