2011 Western Conference preview - the stars get in order! No, wait - the stars arrange!

Happy Deee-Lite Savings Time!

...what? I don't get to have Deee-Lite Savings Time? Is that what you're telling me? You've been on my ass like Fruit of the Loom, and I give you solid freaking gold like Deee-Lite Savings Time, and you throw it back in my face?

This isn't over. Not by a long shot.
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So I read just now that Major League Soccer Soccer has a fantasy game run out of Facebook. That reminded me of my Facebook game idea, which will make me rich. It's like Mafia Wars, only it's Hooligan Wars. You start with two or three guys who like to get drunk and get thrown out of games, and you eventually build up to run a mob of hundreds of hardened criminals who become the terror of WPS. Zynga and Facebook were made for updates like "Help me curbstomp the rival firm leader!" or "Oh no! Dan needs help charging the stewards! Click here to get your bonus!" Tell me you wouldn't play the hell out of it.

....yeah, I'm trying to avoid picking winners out of the West. In the words of both George W. Bush and Ron Jeremy, it's hard. Yeah, well, same to you, pal.
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I'm trying to remember when a defending champion has received as little respect as Colorado, and I'm drawing a blank. Usually I have little patience for winning teams who invoke phantom doubters and imaginary taunters in order to motivate themselves to play a game. But the Rapids...it's almost enough to make you forget how detestable they are. Don't believe me? Ask a Texan. Gary Smith has these guys playing textbook How To Win In MLS.

Except...they didn't. Seventh place overall, remember. They were only 12-8-10 in the regular season, and that was playing home games in the Estadio Hernando Siles of the Rockies. They came up big when they had to, which was a lot of toughness and tenacity and not a heck of a lot of watchability. Unless you're one of the untold millions of Rapids fans, of course.

Still, I shouldn't be looking like Nostradamus simply for looking at a bracket and going, "Gee, the Rapids have a good shot here." And I mean, literally like Nostradamus - my pro-Rapids picks were vague, hedged, and directly contradicted by things I'd written elsewhere.

If you think the Rapids were just lucky last year - good news! They're still lucky. Usually I hate it when teams don't improve, but with two expansion teams following an expansion team last year, it's nearly impossible for anyone to improve. The league's good teams are just trying to hold serve, and the bad teams are signing people like Carlos Ruiz. So the Rapids just needed to keep their core together in order to make a serious run at repeating, only this time with a better record. Done.

And yet people give them no respect. I mean, I read one preview which went on and on about their veteran leadership and how great Omar Cummings and Gary Smith are, and still only picked them to finish fourth in the West!

Wait, did I say "read"? I meant "wrote." *cough*

By the way, fourth in the West means a home wild card game against the league's #10 team (that's a win, Colorado could probably rest their starters), a home and home against New York (winnable), and a road game against whichever slug creeps out of the Eastern ooze. I'm THIS CLOSE to predicting them to repeat, just to be different. I'll pick them to go back to MLS Cup...and lose to one of the next three teams.
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Unlike the Rapids, the Burn - yikes, I still want to call them that. How embarrassing. Anyway, the Tornado did not keep Heath Pearce and Dax McCarty, moves that have ignited a minor storm of controversy.

And remember Brek Shea? Remember how he was going to become a breakout star? Remember how he was called up to the national team and was going to compete for a forward spot in the next cycle? Yeah, he's a central defender now.

*WOMP womp*

Yes, I'm aware the USMNT auditions for defender are almost as open as those for striker. And yes, I'm aware of the saga of Chris Albright. You might even want to keep Shea on your fantasy team, on the grounds that he will invariably Go Forward On Set Plays, and anyway when he gets his annual spitload of cards it will no longer be out of character for his position.

Wow. Why aren't I sending Dallas straight to the nether reaches of the Western Conference? Well, the last time I even implied that David Ferreira wasn't an MVP, who took my team and broke it over his knee. And I'm going to go ahead and assume Fabian Castillo is going to freaking tear it up.

Besides, Dallas still has Kevin Hartman. All of the above-named players could lapse into comical incompetence, and Hartman will single-handedly keep Dallas in games. Maybe a 0.62 GAA is just ridiculous to expect yet again, what with that being his all-time career high in a year that heavily favored goalkeeping. And, at the age of 36 Hartman may only have, what, five? Six good years left?

Usually I hate wacky moves where near-championship teams dump starters and move players around, but the Ferreira and Hartman could probably get nine BigSoccer posters to the playoffs. Assuming Fabian Castillo keeps up the high standards of Colombian players in MLS who don't have mustaches and don't play in New York (Alex Comas reference), Dallas will be lethal. They would take a third place prediction as an insult, and more power to them.
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So, who's the best team in MLS history never to win a trophy of any kind? Last year's Real Salt Lake is a serious contender for this seriously backhanded compliment. Yes, Salt Lake will have to win the CONCACAF Champions Cup in order to be invited back to the tournament. It could happen. They're good. They could be even better than last year.

And they still might not win anything. MLS is a nasty bitch sometimes.

As an aside - all those people who say MLS is boring and there's no excitement and there's nothing to play for - run that by the Lakers and the Wizards, who had a brawl in a preseason game last week. Maybe you don't care, but these guys do.

Of course, early returns put the blame on Roger Espinoza, who has a history of this kind of prickitude (I'm not one to award coolest Twitter status update ever awards, but this one has got to be up there). Responses out of Kansas City put some of the blame on Jamison Olave, a premise I for one have absolutely no trouble buying whatsofreakingever.

Yes, I know you hate him, "you" being correct for values where you!=Salt Lake fan. The difference between Olave and Espinoza is, if per impossible, MLS were to crack down on cheap-shotting hackery, Olave would still be the league's best defender, while Espinoza would be clean out of a job.

(Yes, I know Espinoza plays for the Honduras national team. Insult intentional. Maybe others blame US ineptitude against Ghana for CONCACAF not getting its extra World Cup spot, but at least the US did better than France.)

Is it a coincidence that before Olave joined Salt Lake, they had finished next to last, last, and last in their first three seasons? And that since then, they've become one of the most admired teams in the league?

Well, if it's not because of Olave, it's probably because of Javier Morales. Or Nick Rimando. Everything I said about Ferreira and Hartman probably goes for Morales and Rimando...only Rimando and Morales have rings.

We'll see if Salt Lake's defense was all the genius of Robin Fraser or not, but I think RSL has the best, certainly the most underrated, back line in the league. It's still amazing to me that Colorado let Nat Borchers return from Scandinavia and slink over to the Enemy, although presumably they're over it by now. If people outside Wasatchistan are ignoring guys like Morales, there's no way someone like Chris Wingert is going to get the credit he deserves.

If anything, I'm not gushing enough over them, if Steve Davis is anything to go by. I really have no business picking anyone ahead of them, except I'm a crushed-out, starry-eyed homer for the team I think will finish first. Besides, Salt Lake is just a TAD overdue to lose a game at home.
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For once, the Los Angeles Galaxy are very easy to understand. All those old guys that Bruce Arena keeps signing? Take Gregg Berhalter. It was made explicit this year what before was merely obvious - he's a coach. He's going to help make Omar Gonzalez into a star, or Omar will die trying.

Or take Frankie Hejduk. His last few games for the Crew - like, since 2008 or so - have shown his skills have all but totally eroded. But he's going to push Sean Franklin for his job every single week. And if it's not Franklin's job, it's De La Garza's. Or Dunivant's. The Galaxy have fought complacency over the past few years, and lost that battle often as not. Can you think of a guy better than Hejduk to clear out those cobwebs?

And if all else fails, Berhalter and Hejduk could step in and perform serviceably. That's not a good outcome for the Galaxy, but it could be much worse.

Then there's Juan Pablo Angel. He doesn't need to carry the Red Bulls anymore. Just like Chad Barrett doesn't need to carry Toronto anymore.

And the Galaxy have the best goalkeeping corps in the league, since, amazingly enough, no one's come calling for Josh Saunders yet. Ricketts won't start all but one game for the Galaxy this year, thanks to the Gold Cup, but the Galaxy lose less without their elite keeper than either Dallas or Salt Lake.

Anyway, here's a handy way to see how the Galaxy season is going. First game after the All-Star Game - if the Galaxy's starting lineup averages 30 years old or less? Start thinking trophies, plural. If not - start thinking semifinal playoff loss again.

Depth is only an issue if they have to go without Donovan for longer than the Gold Cup. I think he's going to come back from his offseason laying on the beach at peak form - and we're talking about the best player in the league, and the best American player since Gonsalves at least. And he's daring you to boo him.

"If Landon's the best American player ever, how come he missed the playoffs three years in a row?"

Sampson and Yallop. Man, why do you got to bring up old sh**?

Hey, speaking of old sh**t. You'd think I'd be concerned about another year of the Galaxy playing 10 v. 11, giving a starting spot week in and week out to David Beckham.

And you'd be right. In the playoff series against the Sounders, he's right as, forgive the expression, rain. Things go south against Dallas, and he's "Oh God, the pain, the pain, sub me out, agony, agony" like Rodney Dangerfield holding his arm in "Caddyshack."

Yeah, I'm saying he exaggerated. I'd say it to his face, if I thought he'd understand a word with as many syllables as "exaggerated."

Remember when they flashed that graphic up - it was probably against New York - that said without Beckham, the Galaxy were a pube short of invincible, but with him they were piss-bucket average? And Rob Stone said something like "Wow, despite the numbers and the evidence of our senses, it's so difficult to believe the Galaxy are worse with Beckham!" And yet, reality.

But this is his contract year, and clinical narcissists tend to play at their peak during contract years. It's not a coincidence that Real Madrid won nothing throughout Beckham's stay there...until his final year.

When, not coincidentally, his England career was at death's door. Like it is now. I have every confidence that David Beckham will, for a change, try his very best.

And if it looks like he's not at MLS level - I have every confidence that he will play up another injury until the transfer window opens, making room for one of the many Galaxy players who intend to contribute.

The Galaxy are finally in a good position when it comes to Beckham. Either he finally cracks the league's top two hundred players - which is all Los Angeles really needs from him at this point - or he takes another powder, and LA tears through the league again.

While we're here - when Beckham got his latest Jesus tattoo, most people thought, "What an awful person he is. What an awful, awful person David Beckham is." Me, I thought, "Wait a minute. Beckham is Christian?!" I mean, I would have bet a testicle and a half that after spending that much time with Tom Cruise, that would have been a tat of L. Ron. And I'd still bet that Beckham has seen the business end of an e-meter more than once. If he is a Christian, he's one of the worst since Alexander VI - just like if he gets his knighthood, he'll be the worst knight since Mordred.

Anyway. Western Conference and Shield for the Galaxy, and let's have them beat Colorado in MLS Cup.

(Unless it does turn out to be in LA. The Galaxy almost always go to MLS Cups outside Los Angeles, and have never gone to an MLS Cup at home. Why the Galaxy aren't begging to have Salt Lake host, I have no idea.)
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The Open Cup...well, I'm glad Seattle has made it relevant again. Or at least, more relevant. But because many MLS coaches treat the Open Cup as a painful chore

the Open Cup has become the trophy for those who are trying to gain legitimacy, or salvage their seasons. Chivas USA and DC United were semi-freaking-finalists last year.

Well, that's one good thing about expansion - more teams who could use the shot of class and history that the Open Cup brings. And a lot of those teams would dearly love to stick it to Seattle in any case.

Damn shame Vancouver isn't eligible, they'd be perfect for this.

Anyway, I was going to pick New York for this, on the ground that Hans Backe might think that nationwide cup competitions are legitimate enough to compete in - but I just read Roger's article about the 1960 Open Cup Final. Philadelphia is exactly the sort of fan base that could get excited about bringing a Cup back home, and the Union are exactly the kind of team that can take advantage of other teams either too distracted or incompetent to put up a challenge. Besides, isn't "Union" short for "Ukrainians"?