Previewing Major League Soccer's Western Conference with NBC's John Strong

Seattle's Clint Dempsey (center) and Portland's Darlington Nagbe (left) will be among the top stars to watch in Major League Soccer's Western Conference this year. (Ted S. Warren/AP file photo)

Earlier this week, you saw the Philly Soccer Page’s in-depth preview of the Union’s Eastern Conference rivals. Today, let’s focus on the Western Conference. It is stacked full of stars, and has some of Major League Soccer’s most popular teams.

To analyze the big storylines, I talked to someone who knows the teams out there better than almost anyone else: John Strong, NBC’s lead MLS play-by-play voice. As many of you know, before NBC hired Strong last year, he called Portland Timbers games on local TV up there. So he has seen a lot of the teams and players that will be making an impact in the West this season.

Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Let’s start with one of the teams you’ll have in the opening game of the season on Saturday, the Seattle Sounders. They are stacked with stars, especially Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, and they have some other big new pieces in Marco Pappa and Kenny Cooper.

But they also got rid of Eddie Johnson and Mauro Rosales, and there have been some reports out there that those two were not such great presences in the locker room. Given all the big names the Sounders have now, it seems like they could be in for spectacular success or a spectacular destruction this year. What’s your view of them heading into Opening Day?

If you’re looking for a buzzword for them. I think it’s chemistry. That was the word we heard a lot coming out of their camp after last season, both on the field and off. You look at the roster and some Sounders fans think there’s less talent there now. But if you look at chemistry, and read between the lines, it might be addition by subtraction.

If you look at Eddie Johnson, he has the talent but he had a hard time clicking with Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and whoever else. A different group of players may have more success. Preseason is wonderful and important, and you do a lot team building - but it’s still preseason. Once it actually counts things can be very different.

You mentioned Dempsey and the benefits of team-building in the preseason. How significant will it be that he wasn’t around for that time, but was instead on loan to Fulham because Jurgen Klinsmann wanted him playing in Europe during the winter?

I think it’s a really good question. It’s a question we’ll ask Sigi Schmid and we’ll ask Clint. I totally understand the line of thinking that for Clint Dempsey - given the weird way that he missed the preseason and parachuted into Seattle - to stay in top form as he builds for the World Cup, what better way than to go on loan to a team in the Premier League?

But there’s the old saying you can never go home again. It was a different Fulham team he arrived back to. And he wasn’t playing a lot. The fact that there are a lot of new faces in Seattle, [and] you’re going to have not even one full practice with him. That can’t not affect things.

Whether that has any bearing on this team’s success over the whole season may not be an issue, though. Clint Dempsey is obviously a very good player. Everybody knows about him, and it’s his second season in Seattle.

Before the loan to Fulham was announced, as people were talking about how much Dempsey seemed to be struggling at the end of last year, one of the things that kept coming to my mind was when Tim Cahill came to New York [in 2012]. He parachuted in there in August, and it didn’t really click for him. Then he had the benefit of a full offseason and a preseason with his teammates, and he was spectacular last year.

It’s a long-winded way of saying I don’t have an answer. And absolutely, early in the season, it’s one of the things we will keep a sharp eye on with Seattle.

Seattle has two monster games right out of the chute, facing Sporting Kansas City on Saturday and Michael Bradley’s Toronto FC next Saturday. And luckily for you, both games are on NBCSN. If things don’t go well early for coach Sigi Schmid, how much is he going to be on the hot seat?

I think Seattle is one of the ownership groups where they are calm, they’re forward- thinking - they don’t strike me as a group that would make a panic move early in the season.

As much talk as there was about whether Sigi would survive the winter, unless it was obvious he was the problem, that he had lost the locker room, I think Sigi Schmid deserves a better benefit of the doubt from us.

It’s a testament to how high the expectations are in Seattle that many teams in MLS would love their season last year, going out in the semifinals. So I think Sigi deserves a little bit better than to all of a sudden go week-by-week with the Sword of Damocles over his head.

That being said, I think he knows they’ve got to get it right this year. Losing in the playoffs is one thing, losing in the playoffs to your biggest rival [to Portland in last year’s Western Conference semifinals] is another. I never believe that a coaching change midseason is the right move unless it absolutely is on the coach and he is the one problem.

It’s easier to fire the coach than the players, though. Some of the problems may be solved by moving out Johnson and Rosales, as we’ve discussed. But Obafemi Martins is still there, and I’ve heard - as have many others - that he had his share of locker room issues too. How much does he have to step up this season?

I think it’s a fair question. I think the pressure is on Obafemi Martins - last year it was 6 goals in his first 10 games and then two in his last 10. And he struggled to get on the field during the playoffs with his groin injury.

Clint Dempsey has to step up too. He’s only got a World Cup, with the entire nation watching, to be at his best for - and he’s only going to be at his best if he’s at his best for Seattle.

I think we draw too many conclusions from the first month of the season, though. It’s hard sometimes in sports to have that long-term patience. Just because Seattle gets off to a slow start doesn’t mean that in September, October and November they won’t be fine. But I think all of us are watching Seattle early this year.

Let’s move to Seattle’s biggest rival, the Portland Timbers. It’s the team the Philadelphia Union will open their season with. Portland rarely ever loses in the raucous environs of Providence Park, and it’s not just because of the crowd.

They have arguably Major League Soccer’s best midfield, with Diego Chará and Will Johnson backing up Rodney Wallace, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe. And they have a rising star of a coach in Caleb Porter. The Timbers are my pick to be the best team in MLS this year. You’ve seen them up close far more than I have, though, so how good do you think they can be?

Portland was the second best team in the western conf last year - you can’t say they were better than Real Salt Lake. And maybe they were second best team in the whole league, with apologies to Kansas City and New York.

They haven’t lost anything and they’ve added a little more quality and international experience at centerback and forward. I’m not convinced by [Argentine striker] Max Urruti - I know they think he’s the best option. But that was already a really complete team and they’ve only made themselves better this season.

I think the challenge for Portland is they’ll have the target on their back from week one. If they get in one of those games where they are stringing together 80 passes in a row on the edge of the attacking third and they can’t find a way through, how do they get a goal out of that?

I’m going to be keeping a close eye this year on Darlington Nagbe. He’s a player that perhaps I’m biased towards, because I’ve watched him grow up. He’s already technically one of the best players in MLS. His challenge is showing it on a week-by-week, game-by-game, minute-by-minute basis. If Darlington Nagbe plays to his full potential the Timbers could be scary good.

Outside of that, it’s an awfully good team. We know they have the home field advantage and there could be another epic encounter between the Timbers and Real Salt Lake in the playoffs. That is their Darth Vader they will have to deal with at some point.

You talk about RSL as being the Timbers’ nemesis, but they suffered a huge loss in the offseason when manager Jason Kreis left for New York City FC. His replacement, Jeff Cassar, was hired from within to preserve the way Kreis did things.

But RSL will probably be without Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Álvaro Saborío for an extended period this summer because of the World Cup. Could they take a step back this year?

Real Salt Lake and D.C. United are my two big teams that I’ll be paying close attention to at the start of the season.

How much credit do coaches deserve? Do they get too much? We are quick to blame them when things go wrong. We’re going to find out in real time with Real Salt Lake this year. How much of their success was due to Jason Kreis, his brilliance as a coach and a man-manager and a constructor of a team? And how much of it was the players?

If they come out and they’re struggling because they’ve lost their leader, we’ll have the answer. At the same time I know they are hanging their hats on keeping continuity with Jeff Cassar. And maybe the coach isn’t as important in soccer as in basketball or football. It’s going to be a really interesting thing to watch.

Until I see otherwise on the field, Real Salt Lake are still above the Timbers, and they are still one of the premier teams this season.

Let’s move on to the Los Angeles Galaxy. This may seem odd, since they’re one of Major League Soccer’s flagship teams, but I almost feel like they’ve flown under the radar this winter. They didn’t make a flashy signing, but they still have three of MLS’ best players in Omar González, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. What are your expectations for them?

The thing with the Galaxy is I put them in the same category as Seattle: teams that underachieved by their own lofty standards last year. They have a prideful coach and they are not going to take this lying down.

Whereas the issue for Seattle was chemistry, the issue for Los Angeles was supporting cast. In Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, you have potentially the most dangerous striking partnership in MLS, and they had a great supporting cast before. David Beckham was part of that and Mike Magee was part of that. It was the “other guys” that would kill you. Then Keane and Donovan would flip the switch and you couldn’t touch them.

What’s the impact going to be of World Cup call-ups? Will Donovan and González be tired? The only thing that would shock me with L.A. is if they are like last year and they are just plodding along. The number of goals they let in late in games last year to drop points was really shocking.

I would expect them to come back with a vengeance this year, because if there’s three guys in the league I would not want to come at me angry, it’s Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Bruce Arena.

Finally, let's look at the other four teams in the West: the Vancouver Whitecaps, San Jose Earthquakes, Chivas USA and FC Dallas. It seems that any of them could jump up and grab that fifth playoff spot. Which of them do you think is most likely to be the dark horse?

If Oscar Pareja was still coach in Colorado, there’s no question I’d say the Rapids. They were a really good team in the second half and it was like the invasion of the Pod People when they played Seattle in the playoffs - a weird version of themselves. With Pablo Mastroeni, if he’s the coach, you’re keeping some continuity, but it’s not the same thing.

Dallas and Chivas USA, I have no idea what to expect out of them. Vancouver similarly, every year there are just so many changes - even though they think they have some continuity now with [new manager] Carl Robinson.

The one team I’ll nominate that wouldn’t shock me to make some noise is San Jose. They are a crew that was humbled last year, and I was surprised how far they fell  back - though they roared up in the second half of the season and fell short of the playoffs.

Chris Wondolowski is another one of those guys who I wouldn’t want to have angry with me - to say nothing of Steven Lenhart. It’s still a team where if Rotue 1 isn’t working for them, they don’t have a great Plan B. But when route 1 is working for them, they are really hard to stop.