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Western Conference up for grabs as key players prepare for potential moves

The news in the MLS West has been about players leaving, or preparing to leave, instead of new faces to get excited about. The talk is of Sacha Kjlestan and Kenny Cooper making sure their passports are in order, when folks aren’t gossiping about when/if David Beckham will return, and/or when he’ll leave again.

Will the Earthquakes make the playoffs? They could finish fourth in the conference, and still be sitting at home watching post season play.

Here’s a quick look at the MLS West, with teams listed in alphabetical order.

Chivas USA
Despite losing some serious talent to injury and their starting goalie to greener pastures, Chivas USA battled their way to second in the MLS West in 2008. In 2009, it’ll come down to keeping their starters on the field if they’re to reach the playoffs for a third straight year.

The midfield, with Sacha Kljestan, Jonathan Bornstein, and Jesse Marsch is solid, but they’ll miss Francisco Mendoza. The addition of Ante Jazic will help the defense.

Up front, it’s all about the disabled list. Can Maykel Galindo return to the 2007 version that scored 12 goals? Can Ante Razov stay healthy and productive?  Alecko Eskandarian?

Justin Braun had a pretty strong rookie year, and will be pushed by Mexican import Eduardo Lillingston.

The Rapids are a perennial also-ran, and 2009 looks to be another chapter in the same old story.

Pablo Mastroeni is the strong man in the middle. Wingman Terry Cooke is in double digits in assists every year, helping the likes of Conor Casey up front. Colin Clarke is a good midfielder as well. But the defense is weak, even with Cory Gibbs.

Christian Gomez has returned to DC, and Colorado has no new Big Name.

Coach Gary Smith was hired midway through last season, and somehow went 5-4-2 with this team. If he finishes over .500 in 2009, he’s Coach of the Year.

FC Dallas
Here’s another team that missed the playoffs in ‘08, yet come into ‘09 with basically the same team as last year.

The main additions: Dave van den Bergh, from New York, and David Ferreira from Clube Atletico Paranaense, will counted on in midfield to help Kenny Cooper score another 18 goals, and maybe make fans forget Juan Toja.

Beyond that, there’s Jeff Cunningham (with something to prove) at forward, and a pretty slow group of guys on defense. It could be a long, hot summer for coach Schellas Hyndman.

The question: How much will they miss Dwayne DeRosario?

Brian Ching is back, as is Brian Mullin and Rico Clark and Richard Mulrooney and Eddie Robinson and Wade Barrett and even the ageless Pat Onstad, but De Ro was the spark that got this team moving ever since the Spartan Stadium days.

In ’09, Stuart Holden moves into that spot in midfield, and he’s not bad. And they have that strong core group that’s picked up a few trophies along the way.

Houston lost only 5 regular season matches last year. This is still a good team, a playoff team.

Los Angeles
Bruce Arena has rebuilt the backline of the LA Galaxy, looking to end a two year playoff drought.

Jamaican international Donovan Ricketts is now in goal. Tony Sanneh turns 38 this year, but will be counted on to anchor the defense. Todd Dunivant at left back will help. MLS vet Dema Kovalenko will add some toughness in midfield.

Landon Donovan returns, as does David Beckham (July 18). It’ll be another interesting summer full of locker room soap-opera drama in Carson, CA, but remember, both those guys can really play. So can Eddie Lewis out left.  When you add in Edson Buddle (15 goals in ’08), offense is not a problem.

If LA had even a mediocre defense last season, they wouldn’t have missed the post season. This year should see an improvement.

Real Salt Lake
This team went 10-10-10 in 2008, and scraped out their first ever playoff spot. The same group of guys returns this year.

Kyle Beckerman is the brawn in midfield, while Javier Morales looks to get forward. Will Johnson is also one to watch. Yura Movsisyan is dangerous up front, along side the speedy Robbie Findlay.

Yes, Clint Mathis is still on the roster. So is Andy Williams.  A second trip to post season might have to wait awhile, as other teams have gotten stronger while RSL stayed the same.

San Jose
This team has come pretty far in just one year, but it still has a ways to go.

San Jose took a couple steps forward over the off-season, after taking a couple steps back. Francisco Lima and Ronnie O’Brien are gone, but Bobby Convey (a nine year vet at age 25) and Simon Elliott will be counted on to stay healthy and improve the midfield. Ramiro Corrales will be busy as well; if he winds up playing left back, you know the midfield is finally where coach Frank Yallop wants it to be.

The reliable Joe Cannon is in goal, helped by the likes of Nick Garcia and Jason Hernandez on defense. But up front, San Jose is still hoping for someone to step up.

With Darren Huckerby in the line-up, the ‘Quakes looked like a playoff team last year, but they couldn’t overcome their pre-Huckerby losing ways. With four of their first five games at home in ’09, they’re looking to start a lot stronger, and go a little farther than they did in ’08.

The Sounders have come as close to an European-style promotion as you’ll find in MLS. Six players from the USL1 Sounders are on their roster, including Sebastien LeToux, a striker (24 goals in 54 matches) who’s now listed as a midfielder, looking to support newcomer Colombian Fredy Montero and MLS vet Nate Jacqua.

Kasey Keller’s in goal, and folks around the  Bay Area can tell you how a Big Time Goalkeeper can help keep a team in a game, or even a playoff race, but the names in front of him remind you this is an expansion team. Tyrone Marshall and James Riley are the familiar names on defense.

Freddie Ljungberg? Still out with that hip injury. Ask about the rest of the team and you hear a lot about how many tickets they’ve sold.

There’s a lot of excitement in Seattle, but Sounders fans should remember that it took Sigi Schmid three years in Columbus to build that team into a champion.