MLS: Sizing up the West at the season's midway point

MLS: Sizing up the West at the season's midway point

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MLS: Sizing up the West at the season's midway point

Outside of the top two or three teams, the Western Conference is once again a complete crap shoot.

Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas have separated themselves from the pack, while LAFC is proving to be a serious contender for the No. 1 seed.

Beneath the three best teams in the Western Conference is a collection of average teams still working on piecing things together.

Below is a look at where each team in the West stands at the halfway point of the MLS season.

Colorado Rapids

Best Player: Dominique Badji

It’s been a rough start to the Anthony Hudson era in Commerce City, but Dominique Badji continues to go along as one of the most underrated players in MLS.

Badji leads the Rapids with six goals and is tied for second on the team in assists with two.

Top Strength: After being the laughing stock of the league during their eight-game losing streak, the Rapids have turned things around recently. They won’t appease you with flashy attacking soccer, but the Rapids have looked organized in recent weeks and earned a trio of positive results.

If the Rapids can improve their defensive record, they stand a chance of putting together a decent second half of the season.

Top Weakness: Where will the goals come from?

Badji’s scored a fourth of the goals for the Rapids, while a hodge podge of others have chipped in.

If the Rapids want to bank in on their defensive structure, they need players like Joe Mason and Tommy Smith to provide more.

FC Dallas

Best Player: Maxi Urruti

Now that the magical unicorn Mauro Diaz is off the FC Dallas roster, Maxi Urruti slides into more responsibility in the final third.

Urruti has six goals and two assists in 16 games, but he is averaging 3.6 shots per game, as well as 1.1 key passes per contest.

FC Dallas’ defense deserves credit in this spot as well since they’ve conceded 19 goals and sit on top of the Western Conference.

Top Strength: FC Dallas’ attack was well-rounded with Diaz in the fold, but it wasn’t able to succeed in the final third without the strong back line led by Matt Hedges.

If Oscar Pareja’s team is going to lead the Western Conference for the rest of the season, the defense will carry it all the way.

Top Weakness: How FC Dallas replaces Mauro Diaz midseason might shape the complexion of the Western Conference.

The combination of Michael Barrios, Roland Lamah and Urruti is capable of creating chances, but they need a No. 10 to connect them all.

Houston Dynamo

Best Player: Alberth Elis

La Pantera is the driving force of the Dynamo attack, as he has eight goals and six assists.

It also helps the Honduran that Mauro Manotas pocketed nine goals into the back of the net, but Elis is the well-rounded playmaker that could wreak havoc on any defense if he wants.

Top Strength: What makes the Dynamo so dangerous is they can hit opponents from different angles, with Elis, Manotas, Romell Quioto and Tomas Martinez interchanging with one another.

The 33 goals scored by Wilmer Cabrera’s side are tied for second in the Western Conference with Sporting Kansas City. Only LAFC has more tallies.

Top Weakness: The Dynamo have two clean sheets in 2018, one of which came in the season opener against Atlanta United.

If they are to be taken seriously throughout the stretch run, the Dynamo need to tighten up their defense.

Elis, Quioto, Manotas and Martinez can score as many goals as they want, and sure they’ll win some games, but the old adage proclaims defense wins championships.

LAFC

Best Player: Everyone Who Has Started At Forward

Picking LAFC’s most dynamic player of the first half of its expansion season is tough because there’s been a revolving door up top.

Carlos Vela shined before leaving for the World Cup, Marco Urena was arguably the most underrated player in MLS to start the campaign before getting hurt, Diego Rossi’s turned out to be a terrific signing and no one can stop Adama Diomande from finding the back of the net right now.

Only Atlanta has a better attack in terms of goals scored, and once Vela and Urena return to the squad, there could be a dangerous rotation of scorers that doesn’t stop producing goals.

Top Strength: Since we’ve already waxed poetic about the attack, let’s talk about how impressive Laurent Ciman’s been at center back for the expansion side.

Of course LAFC’s best assets are up top, but defensive form is as important. With an experienced player like Ciman at the back, LAFC should be able to tighten things up under a manager who knows to deal with the MLS playoff push better than anyone.

Top Weakness: While it’s easy to look at LAFC and fawn over its success, there are concerns in goal with Tyler Miller’s play as he goes about his first stretch run as a starter. Of course any doubters will point to his time learning under Stefan Frei in Seattle.

The concession of road goals is a bit concerning as well, as LAFC let in 22 tallies on its travels so far.

LA Galaxy

Best Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

The man, the myth, the Zlatan is helping the LA Galaxy earn positive headlines in an otherwise disappointing season.

Ibrahimovic is moving his way up the Golden Boot race one must-retweet goal at a time, and for some he’s already exceeded expectations.

The Swedish superstar still can’t play center back and forward at the same time, but he’s keeping the Galaxy relevant in the playoff hunt.

Top Strength: The ability to just let the ball land at Ibrahimovic’s feet might be the best quality the Galaxy roster has at the moment since they’ve been so poor.

Once the Dos Santos brothers return from World Cup duty, we’ll get a sense as how well the Galaxy attack can click for long stretches.

If Ibrahimovic, Ola Kamara and the Dos Santos brothers play nice in the sandbox, the Galaxy attack will be a must-watch every week.

Top Weakness: If you’ve watched even 10 minutes of Galaxy soccer this season, you know what ends up in this section.

The Galaxy’s defense hasn’t received the necessary plugs to stop all the flood water from seeping through, and it might not recover for a while.

Playing in shootouts, like the one in the Cali Clasico on Saturday, might be appealing to neutrals, but it must infuriate Galaxy fans who are probably starting to realize Leonardo wasn’t that bad of a centerback after all.

Unless reinforcements come in, or the Galaxy miraculously fix their form in the back line, they won’t be any better than the No. 5 or No. 6 seed.

Minnesota United

Best Player: Darwin Quintero

Darwin Quintero is the electric scorer Minnesota United needed, and his hat-trick against Toronto FC on Wednesday should be the catalyst for more excitement in the Loons fan base.

The 30-year-old was a necessary addition after the poor luck with injuries to Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay at the start of the year.

Top Strength: The Loons are one of the teams in MLS right now that need as much attacking firepower to distract eyes from a trainwreck in defense.

Quintero, Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez form a nice foundation in the final third, but it’s never a bad thing for more contributors to develop.

Top Weakness: Francisco Calvo’s been thrown under the social media bus and then run over a couple more times for his performance.

The entire Minnesota defense is struggling, but Calvo’s taken the brunt of the blame. Giving up 33 goals and holding a -10 goal differential will lead to plenty of critics.

Also, the Loons need to right the ship on the road, as they are 1-7-0 on their travels.

Portland Timbers

Best Player: Diego Chara

Diego Chara is the most underappreciated player in MLS.

The Colombian midfielder is one of the key reasons why Portland achieved so much success in recent years.When Chara is on, the Timbers could feel like an impenetrable force to opposing attacks.

Top Strength: The other Diego in the Timbers starting XI is pretty damn good himself.

Diego Valeri has six goals and six assists, and he’s gotten help from Samuel Armenteros, Sebastian Blanco and the unlikely scoring dynamo Larrys Mabiala in the goals column.

Top Weakness: In order to become a legitimate MLS Cup contender, the Timbers need more out of their forwards, whether it be Armenteros or Fanendo Adi.

The Timbers have the potential to be one of the most complete teams in MLS, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see them playing in November and December.

Real Salt Lake

Best Player: Albert Rusnak

Real Salt Lake’s Slovakian playmaker averages 3.3 key passes and 2.6 shots per game.

While his numbers should be higher, Rusnak doesn’t show fear attacking defenders, and he’s starting to find a solid contributor up top in Homegrown product Corey Baird.

Top Strength: Real Salt Lake’s player development continues to impress, with Baird, Justen Glad, Danilo Acosta, Sebastian Saucedo and Brooks Lennon playing key roles.

Baird’s recent streak of form might be the most encouraging development, as his fearless play up top has turned him into a threat opponents must game plan against.

Top Weakness: Although they sit in fourth place, the Claret and Cobalt need to pump out more results on the road, as they are 1-7-1 compared to a 7-1-1 home mark.

Giving up 34 goals won’t help either, Outside of three clean sheets against struggling Seattle and Colorado, RSL’s lone shutout is against the New York Red Bulls.

San Jose Earthquakes

Best Player: Danny Hoesen

One of the few aspects of the game that hasn’t struggled is the attack.

Danny Hoesen has 10 goals off 24 shots on target, and he combines well with Chris Wondolowski, who despite the Twitter jokes about his Belgium miss, continues to find the back of the net in MLS.

Top Strengths: If the Quakes have anything to brag about, which is very little, it is their attacking prowess with Hoesen, Wondolowski and Vako leading the way.

However, it is mystifying for a team with 28 goals to have 12 points and sit on the bottom of the Western Conference.

Top Weakness: San Jose’s only wins have come against Minnesota United.

That’s embarrassing for a team that was supposed to turn it around under first-year boss Mikael Stahre.

The Quakes’ tendency to get into shootouts because of their poor defense isn’t conducive, and at this rate they’re the front runner to be the worst team in MLS.

Seattle Sounders

Best Player: Stefan Frei

The Sounders’ record doesn’t make Stefan Frei’s statistics look great, but he’s been a top performer for the underwhelming Sounders.

The 32-year-old has 60 saves and only conceded 19 goals, and he’s had quite a few games where he’s kept the Sounders alive, and he’s still capable of making ridiculous saves as we witnessed against Colorado on Wednesday.

Top Strength: The Sounders defense isn’t terrible, but the offense is.

The Sounders let in 22 goals over 16 games, which is the second-lowest total in the Western Conference.

However, the Sounders still have a minus-three goal differential. If the offense ever gets it all together, Brian Schmetzer’s team could be a candidate to make a surprising late surge.

Top Weakness: Someone let us know when the Sounders attack decides to wake up.

One goal and five assists from Nicolas Lodeiro isn’t acceptable neither is one goal and one assist for Clint Dempsey.

The situation would’ve been a lot more dire if Will Bruin didn’t produce five goals and four assists.

Sporting Kansas City

Best Player: Daniel Salloi

Sporting Kansas City’s attack has been fun to watch with so many intertwining pieces, and Daniel Salloi’s benefited from that with six goals and six assists.

Salloi is one of the best young players in MLS, and he should reach double digits in both offensive categories if he stays healthy.

Top Strength: The interchange between Salloi, Johnny Russell, Felipe Gutierrez and Khiry Shelton is so dangerous because everyone buys into Peter Vermes’ system.

There are going to be off days, but for the most part the Sporting KC attack is a well-oiled machine that could create even more chances if Yohan Croizet gets going.

Top Weakness: Croizet has been an underwhelming addition to the squad, but that’s not the top concern at the moment.

Sporting KC’s usually reliable defense conceded eight goals in the last three games, including four to Real Salt Lake on Wednesday.

If it continues to leak goals, Peter Vermes’ side might end up lower than expected in the playoff positions.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Best Player: Alphonso Davies

We’ve reached the point where every time Alphonso Davies gets on the ball, a sense of excitement comes about.

The Canadian winger leads the team in assists with seven, and he’s created numerous scoring opportunities for the sixth-place team in the Western Conference.

Top Strength: When the Whitecaps attack is clicking with Davies and Kei Kamara at the forefront, it threatens most teams, but there needs to be more consistency out of the unit.

Carl Robinson’s side is also exceptional on set pieces when Kamara and Kendall Waston are bruising in the box.

Top Weakness: The Whitecaps are the most frustratingly mediocre team in MLS and have been for quite some time.

Once they appear to be in the ascendancy of the Western Conference, they fall back down to Earth and erase the hope that things won’t reverse back to the struggles of the past.

The Whitecaps are one of the few teams that have been unable to lock down their home turf, as they are 3-2-4 at BC Place. A home mark like that won’t keep them above the red line for long.

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