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2024 MLS Western Conference Preview: St. Louis CITY SC, LAFC lead the charge

2024 MLS Western Conference Preview: St. Louis CITY SC, LAFC lead the charge

Los Angeles FC has continued to set the standard in the Western Conference of Major League Soccer, but many challengers will be fighting to deny them a third-straight trip to the league final.

St. Louis CITY SC enjoyed a positive debut regular season in 2023, while the Houston Dynamo delivered a major bounce-back campaign under Ben Olsen. The Seattle Sounders will also be seeking a return to glory despite the loss of Nicolas Lodeiro to Orlando City.

The Colorado Rapids, LA Galaxy, and FC Dallas have all boosted their rosters with hopes of competing for silverware in 2024.

Here is a closer look at all 14 of the Western Conference clubs heading into the 2024 MLS season:

Austin FC

Players to Watch: Sebastian Driussi, Owen Wolff, Dani Pereira.

Route to Success: Diego Rubio provides the interchange from the striker role with Sebastian Driussi that Diego Fagundez used to provide from the wing. Rubio and Driussi can both rack up goals and assists, taking the pressure off Emiliano Rigoni to have a bounce-back season opposite Jader Obrian. Dani Pereira and Owen Wolff protect the back line and see out a return to the top for Austin FC.

Biggest Question: Is there sufficient help for Sebastian Driussi? Ideally, Rubio would provide the changes above while Rigoni improves but it’s at least as likely those two occurrences don’t come to fruition, in which case Driussi suffers through another lonesome year in attack. 

Colorado Rapids

Players to Watch: Djordje Mihailovic, Zack Steffen, Sam Vines.

Route to Success: Every player must buy into the Chris Armas project with the faith that Colorado is a completely new team. Zack Steffen can provide stability at the back that the Rapids haven’t seen since Tim Howard, aided by Sam Vines who would contribute going forward as well. Djordje Mihaolivic returns to MLS as the same creative master he left, providing chances for Rafael Navarro to prove his quality and a possible Kevin Cabral redemption arc.

Biggest Question: Any time there is significant turnover within a squad – especially when adding key pieces under a new coach – gelling as a team is of paramount importance. It’s easy to look at Colorado and think they have turned a corner by spending in the transfer market but will the squad be an easy puzzle for Armas to put together or will it still have missing pieces? Probably the latter.

FC Dallas

Players to Watch: Petar Musa, Bernard Kamungo, Nkosi Tafari

Route to Success: On paper, success looks as clear as day for Dallas. Petar Musa, Jesús Ferreira, Bernard Kamungo, and Paul Arriola link up for goals until Alan Velasco returns to boost powers further. Nkosi Tafari proves to be one of the best defenders in MLS, Iliaramendi and Paxton Pomykal snap into tackles in midfield, and Dante Sealy finally has his breakout year. Why can’t Dallas win the West?

Biggest Question: Nico Estevez is changing formation to a 3-4-2-1 formation in a similar style to Wilfried Nancy in Columbus. While potentially a masterstroke, any change in formation much less style of play will come with questions about whether the players can adequately adjust.

Houston Dynamo

Players to Watch: Hector Herrera, Sebastián Ferreira, Coco Carrasquilla

Route to Success: Sebastián Ferreira has to play like a club-record signing. After a decent 2022, Ferreira quickly lost his job to Corey Baird in 2023 under Ben Olsen and was shipped out on loan to Vasco de Gama. It looked like the writing was on the wall for his departure but 2024 may prove to be his second chance. He must take it. Seeing Amine Bassi contribute more assists is the other necessary step forward.

Biggest Question: Injuries have struck early in 2024 for the Dynamo. Nelson Quiñones is out for the season with a knee injury leaving Ibrahim Aliyu as the starting left winger. Captain Hector Herrera has sustained an injury in preseason as well but will need to return as soon as possible and fully fit. Everything runs through the Mexican in Houston.


Players to Watch: Dénis Bouanga, Hugo Lloris, Eduard Atuesta

Route to Success: The path to trophies for LAFC doesn’t differ heavily from what has seen the club reach four finals in the past two seasons. Starting with newly acquired World Cup-winning goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, the strong defensive structure will allow 2023 MLS Golden Boot winner Dénis Bouanga to punish opponents in transition. If Eduard Atuesta returns in the same form that saw him named to the 2019 MLS Best XI he could be key in re-establishing the Black and Gold’s ability to control games.

Biggest Question: Bouanga needs help. With just days until the 2024 season kicks off, LAFC still only has one designated player (DP) slot filled. The club remains in talks to re-sign Carlos Vela which would be a big step in providing Bouanga the support he has become accustomed to. Either way, signing a DP striker is a priority for the Black and Gold. Will they add one?

LA Galaxy

Players to Watch: Riqui Puig, Gabriel Pec, Joseph Paintsil

Route to Success: The Galaxy spent huge this offseason on two new designated players (DPs) – Gabriel Pec (official) and Joseph Paintsil (reported). New General Manager Will Kuntz has built a young team around star midfielder Riqui Puig. The five-time champions have one of the best midfield trios in the league and have improved defensively. If the new DP signings produce and the Galaxy can stay healthy, they’ll return to the competitive club we used to know. 

Biggest Question: Greg Vanney has three goalkeepers but no idea which one is his starter. Jonathan Bond began 2023 as the first-choice keeper but had some wobbly moments leading to 22-year-old Novak Micovic starting the final two games of the season. Then in the offseason, John McCarthy was signed as a free agent to add competition. All three have been given minutes in preseason but a decision is yet to be made on who will be called the number one.

Minnesota United

Players to Watch: Emanuel Reynoso, Teemu Pukki, Bongokuhle Hlongwane

Route to Success: A top-class creative player feeding a clinical finisher is a simple but effective formula in MLS. Robin Lod returns with a big season as Bongokuhle Hlongwane builds on his from last year. They’d have to concede fewer goals with the addition of Victor Eriksson in front of Dayne St. Clair too.

Biggest Question: Who will be the next Minnesota United manager? The Athletic reported that MNUFC is closing in on Manchester United assistant Erik Ramsay as their new head coach. Assuming that goes through, Minnesota will have appointed the youngest manager in MLS history (32) just days before the season kicks off. If not, they’ll begin without one.

Portland Timbers

Players to Watch: Evander, Santiago Moreno, Juan David Mosquera

Route to Success: Phil Neville leads a defensive revolution with his new Canadian trio of Maxime Crépeau, Kamal Miller, and Zac McGraw. Evander takes another step forward to form a deadly partnership with Felipe Mora aided by Santiago Moreno and Antony flying in from the wings.

Biggest Question: Phil Neville has made the playoffs in just one of his three managerial seasons in MLS with Inter Miami. The Timbers have handed him the reigns but is he equipped to coach a winning team in MLS? He’ll have to prove it in 2024.

Real Salt Lake

Players to Watch: Chicho Arango, Diego Luna, Fidel Barajas

Route to Success: If RSL succeeds in 2024 it will be behind Diego Luna and Chicho Arango – both of whom would likely make MLS Best XI in that scenario. Pablo Ruiz returning healthy to control the midfield with Braian Ojeda, Matt Crooks hitting the ground running, Anderson Julio and Carlos Andrés Gómez ramping up production significantly, plus Fidel Barjas providing the cherry on top by adding a memorable debut season are all seen in the crystal ball of success for RSL.

Biggest Question: In theory, Diego Luna manifesting his goal of being the top goalscorer and assister on the team in 2024 is fantastic. In practice, it’s much harder. Nobody – especially myself – doubts the talent of Luna but relying on any 20-year-old as the focal point of your team is a risky endeavor. It remains so for RSL and will likely make or break their season.

San Jose Earthquakes

Players to Watch: Cristian Espinoza, Carlos Gruezo, Ousseni Bouda

Route to Success: Success for San Jose starts with the acquisition of a DP #10 to facilitate chance creation from midfield. With that, Cristian Espinoza is given more freedom and space, Jeremy Ebobisse will see more chances, and Benji Kikanovich or Amahl Pellegrino will prove their worth at left wing. The midfield finds an ability to control games, the defensive additions hit, and the Earthquakes are all of a sudden competitive.

Biggest Question: As currently constructed, the Earthquakes are fully dependent upon Cristian Espinoza. If opponents can shut down Espinoza, they should be able to shut down San Jose. 

Seattle Sounders

Players to Watch: Pedro de la Vega, João Paulo, Yeimar Gomez.

Route to Success: Wins don’t look more assured for any team in the West than they do for Seattle. Retaining their entire starting XI from 2023, chemistry and quality should increase in 2024. The signing of Young DP Pedro de la Vega provides a huge boost in attacking talent. Danny Musovski and Nathan provide more depth with a host of younger players eager to make a difference. It all tastes like a devastating recipe.

Biggest Question: Jordan Morris was the only Sounders player to score 10+ goals in 2023 and he only reached that milestone due to a hot start, scoring eight goals in his first six games of the season. The Sounders are strong throughout their team with a ton of depth, but whether they have one player who can put the team on their back remains to be seen. In truth, it may not be necessary.

Sporting KC

Players to Watch: Alan Pulido, Erik Thommy, Jake Davis

Route to Success: Peter Vermes – the longest-serving manager in MLS – provides a classic 4-3-3 possession-based template system that capitalizes on SKC’s best players. Alan Pulido will work with Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi to overload the wide spaces and create goals. Goals win games. Ideally, Erik Thommy thrives in the #10 role.

Biggest Question: Where are the signings? SKC was reportedly in the market for Kellyn Acosta but lost out to Chicago, leaving fullback Zorhan Bassong and midfielder Memo Rodríguez as their only signings of the offseason. A DP #10 could transform this team into a true contender but until then they’re reliant upon a skilled but injury-pone striker to compete at the very top.

St. Louis CITY SC

Players to Watch: Eduard Löwen, Sam Adeniran, Joakim Nilsson

Route to Success: Joao Klauss and Sam Adeniran continue building their developing partnership. Chris Durkin slots into midfield seamlessly, providing tactical flexibility in formation for Eduard Löwen to operate as the #10. Joakim Nilsson shows why he was brought in from the Bundesliga last year and Roman Bürki only has a slight dropoff.

Biggest Question: After winning their first five games last season, St. Louis went under .500 in all competitions for the remainder of the year. In fact, they finished last in the 2023 Western Conference expected goals (xG) table. Then they lost in the first round of the MLS Playoffs in embarrassing fashion. This raises all the unavoidable questions; Was 2023 a fluke? Will we see a regression to the mean in 2024? Will St. Louis suffer second-season syndrome?

Vancouver Whitecaps

Players to Watch: Ryan Gauld, Andrés Cubas, Pedro Vite

Route to Success: Vancouver relies on the Ryan Guald and Brian White duo that has transformed into a devastating trio in 2024 with the addition of Damir Kreilach. They must carry the load. Pedro Vite and Ali Ahmed hopefully take big steps forward to dictate midfield with Andrés Cubas and Alessandro Schöpf.

Biggest Question: Defensive quality is lacking. Yohei Takaoka had an underwhelming debut MLS season in goal in 2023. The central defenders have been given help with the addition of Bjørn Inge Utvik but still don’t inspire intense confidence. All that and the fullbacks are the true concern in defense.

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