The 2011 Major League Soccer season is upon us and while all 18 teams will harbour desires of making the playoffs, or even claiming the MLS Cup, reality will soon set in and some teams will find they are just not equipped to get the job done.
In part one of this MLS season preview, we look at the Western Conference, the more powerful of the two in recent years - supplying six of the eight playoff qualifiers last year, and all four of Cup finalists the last two seasons.
1 Real Salt Lake
2010 record and finish: 15-4-11 (2nd place in Western Conference)
Already through to the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League - the first Major League Soccer team to do so - Salt Lake remains the model to which all other MLS teams should aspire. Emphasizing home-grown players over expensive imports, the lineup remains largely the same as the one which won it all in 2009, including 24-year-old Canadian international Will Johnson, whose influence grows by the year. After being surprisingly upset in the first round of last year's playoffs, Jason Kreis's team should be revved up to do better this time around.
2 Los Angeles Galaxy
2010 record and finish: 18-7-5 (1st place in Western Conference)
Only one result matters for the Galaxy this season - winning the MLS Cup. With David Beckham approaching the end of his landmark five-year deal with the reigning Supporters Shield holders, this is the year to put aside all the off-field distractions and focus on the on-field product in an attempt to finally achieve something tangible during his North American adventure. Will that happen? Well, all the pieces appear to be in place, including former New York Red Bulls striker Juan Pablo Angel, who will likely partner former Toronto FC hitman Chad Barrett up front. It will be up to coach Bruce Arena to make sure this talented squad plays up to its potential.
3 Seattle Sounders
2010 record and finish: 14-10-6 (fourth place in Western Conference)
The best-supported team in MLS, Seattle is getting hungry for postseason success after getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs in each of its two years of existence. With goalkeeper Kasey Keller having decided that this season is his last kick of the can before retirement, the pressure is on the Sounders to take the next step in their development this season and challenge for the Cup, although goal-scoring seems to be their Achilles heel coming into the season, with their collection of strikers struggling to find the net in preseason. It remains to be seen if they can turn it on when it really counts.
4 Colorado Rapids
2010 record and finish: 12-8-10 (5th place in Western Conference)
The reigning MLS champion will be in tough to defend its title - only one team has done so in the past 14 seasons - so don't count on it. However, in midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz, Colorado has one of the best engine rooms in the league, and their combative, hard-working ways will ensure that the team has a chance to win every time it takes the field. Unfortunately for the Rapids, that will be upwards of 40 times this season, what with CONCACAF Champions League involvement to go alongside 34 league games and a U.S. Open Cup run, so squad depth could be tested.
5 FC Dallas
2010 record and finish: 12-4-14 (3rd place in Western Conference)
An unlucky extra-time own goal from winning it all in 2010, Dallas returns to make amends this time around, but looks less equipped to do so. The losses of Dax McCarty, Atiba Harris, Heath Pearce and Jeff Cunningham removes much of the team's firepower, although incoming 18-year-old Colombian striker Fabian Castillo will be counted upon to pick up the slack. Still, Dallas still has playmaker and 2010 MLS most valuable player David Ferreira to fall back on, and that should be enough to return the club to the playoffs and once there, as in 2010, anything can happen.
6 San Jose Earthquakes
2010 record and finish: 13-10-7 (6th place in Western Conference)
The Quakes lived and died on the finishing talents of Chris Wondolowski last year, and it already seems they will need more of the same if they are to return to the playoffs. With few attacking additions in the off-season, the man who scored a league-leading 18 goals last year, after tallying just seven in his previous five seasons, will be relied upon to provide the offensive fireworks, but it remains to be seen if a secondary source of goals can be found, which will be crucial if San Jose is to take the next step in its development as a Western contender.
7 Portland Timbers
2010 record and finish: N/A
Like any expansion side, the Timbers arrive on the scene claiming that making the playoffs is their goal for 2011. Unfortunately for them, it's never quite as easy as that, with only Seattle managing to turn the trick in the last 10 years. Still, in former FC Dallas hitman Kenny Cooper, back on this side of the pond after a season and a bit with Munich 1860 in Germany, and forward Darlington Nagbe, the second overall pick in the draft, Portland brings its share of attacking intent, and with 10 teams making the postseason this year, that may just be enough for first-year head coach John Spencer.
8 Chivas USA
2010 record and finish: 8-18-4 (8th place in Western Conference)
Southern California's other club nearly disappeared off the radar last season, falling to second worst in the league under first-year coach Martin Vasquez after three straight playoff appearances under predecessor Predrag (Preki) Radosavljevic. Still, there's another new regime in place at the Home Depot Center, with former MLS defender Robin Fraser in the hot seat. He has much work to do, especially with a team that offered little going forward last year, although the job at hand may be a little longer than one year in the making.
9 Vancouver Whitecaps
2010 record and finish: N/A
Despite the inevitable high hopes that accompany any expansion franchise on its first foray into a new league, the reality is that most are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges coming its way. A lack of offensive firepower seems to be the Caps' weakness at present, and the success or failure of the club's first designated player, French forward Eric Hassli, will determine how much of a problem that is, especially with Omar Salgado, the No. 1 pick in the draft, sidelined until his 18th birthday in September. While the playoffs appear the longest of long-shots, don't count out the Whitecaps to claim some scalps along the way, especially as they start to gel as the season progresses.