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The Western Conference is charging forward: Can the Dynamo keep up?

The Western Conference promises to be much better than it was in 2017. In a changing league, Houston have to keep up.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, MLS’s Western Conference had a rough go of things. The top five clubs out east all would have finished first in the west, a dramatic turn from years of western dominance. Until Toronto FC swept the league en route to their 2017 treble, no current Eastern Conference team had won MLS Cup since the Crew in 2008, and before TFC, the Red Bulls were the only east club to win the Supporters’ Shield in the 2010s decade.

Reasons for the west’s 2017 decline are myriad. TFC’s rise into a true juggernaut coincided with the Chicago Fire and NYCFC growing into top-tier sides on the backs of elite No. 9s. Atlanta United finished with the fourth-best goal differential in MLS history, in contrast to the west’s expansion team, lowly Minnesota. The west’s top clubs had their own struggles — reigning Shield winners FC Dallas flopped hard, the Galaxy were terrible, Colorado fell back into oblivion after 2016’s second-place finish, and neither Portland nor Seattle enjoyed especially smooth regular seasons.

Sporting KC were one of the best defensive teams in league history, but they scored just 40 goals in 34 games, 17 less than the Dynamo. This power vacuum opened the door for the Diego Valeris (aka the Timbers) to win the conference, and a rejuvenated Seattle to cruise to the MLS Cup final again. It also allowed for bunker and counter Vancouver to nab the third spot, the rebuilding Dynamo to finish fourth, and a San Jose team that had a -21 goal differential to sneak into the sixth-spot.

Fittingly, Seattle got wrecked by Toronto in the final. The Sounders were good enough to compete with the Reds, but by losing handily in the final east-west battle of the year, they gave us a microcosm of the difference between the conferences.

It should be different this season. The influx of TAM and GAM and the increasing value of younger talent has improved the quality of the league and left those unwilling to keep up behind, meaning the intense parity that defined the first 21 years of MLS will decline. Going into 2018, more teams west of the Mississippi are realizing it than in the east. 2017 will prove to be a key transitional year for that development. 2018 will be the first manifestation.

While uncertainty still plagues a couple of Western Conference members — the Rapids enter with a new coach and without a core attacking piece, and Minnesota are unproven — the 10 others are varying levels of legit. Some will live up to their potential and some won’t, but it’s going to be competitive. A look at all of those teams, and how they compare to the Dynamo:

Seattle Sounders: They haven’t done much upgrading this offseason, but they didn’t need to — they are elite in this league as long as Nicolas Lodeiro is running the show in attack. Questions lie in the aging Chad Marshall-Roman Torres center back pairing and whether one of Nouhou Tolo or Waylon Francis is able to replace departed left back Joevin Jones.

Portland Timbers: Fanendo Adi, injured for the home stretch last season, will be back, and the reigning MVP Valeri, fresh off an utterly dominant 2017, heads an attack featuring an acclimating Sebastian Blanco and Darlington Nagbe replacement Andy Polo. New coach Giovani Savarese needs depth down the spine, but the Timbers appear ripe for improvement.

FC Dallas: The collapse last year will live on in the memories of the 2016 Shield champs for a long time. They have shown to be one of the league’s best organizations, though, still with plenty of starting-level talent and an academy churning out young guys at a faster rate than any in the league. If Pareja goes back to his roots and plays the kids, they’ll be young and fun again.

Sporting KC: Sporting are MLS’s answer to the Kansas City Chiefs. They’re solid-if-unspectacular every season, they excel at fundamentals, and they thrive on a familiar core. Peter Vermes is Andy Reid, Benny Feilhaber (now at LAFC) is Alex Smith (now in Washington), and starting d-mid Ilie Sanchez, acquired in 2017, is third-year cornerback Marcus Peters (just as controversial, too). They’ll defend really well and go far in the U.S. Open Cup, but they are unproven at forward. Now we’ll see if Diego Rubio can be Patrick Mahomes.

Vancouver Whitecaps: They’re tall, compact and disciplined. They won’t score a lot or give up many goals. They will attack hard on the counter. So, in a nutshell, a classic Carl Robinson Whitecaps team. Kei Kamara was acquired to get on the end of all the crosses they’ll put in, a clear reaffirmation in these beliefs. Vancouver will steal too many results to get left behind.

San Jose Earthquakes: Mikael Stahre takes over a team with all sorts of attacking talent. They are young, flexible, and could go in all sorts of directions this season. San Jose’s success comes to down to the promising Tommy Thompson-Jackson Yueill midfield and how well they create an attack based around Chris Wondolowski, who can only play as a second striker.

Real Salt Lake: RSL missed the playoffs last year, but when Mike Petke settled in after the Gold Cup break, they were off to the races — had they not lost close games late on, they could have played Vancouver in the knockout round. Their young core is together and they have their No. 9 in Spaniard Alfredo Ortuño. Expect big things from them this season.

LA Galaxy: They were a flaming pile of trash last year, but the Jermaine Jones-types that sunk them are gone with quality starters in to replace them up and down the lineup. Ola Kamara is the starter up top, at least until Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrives on a TAM contract, and the dos Santos brothers are cleared for lift off. The Galaxy are back.

LAFC: This year’s Atlanta are here, led by Bob Bradley, Carlos Vela and a dominant backline. We can’t be sure of this team until they actually get a midfield (the DP slots and TAM are there to do it), but they look good enough to compete from day one.

Where do the Dynamo fit in this? Unclear. After an absence-filled season where they came out firing and made the Western Conference finals, there weren’t obvious year-to-year improvements made. Players will grow, but not in the clear and publicized way some on the teams listed above will.

They found a deal for Cubo Torres (good work, by the way) and trusted Mauro Manotas as the long-term starting striker. Alex went to South Korea and Ricardo Clark signed for Columbus, elevating Eric Alexander to a full-time starting No. 8 role. Chris Seitz and Joe Willis will compete for the goalkeeper job. Alejandro Fuenmayor is a good find for an aging and injured backline. They traded for Darwin Ceren to back up Juan David Cabezas.

A guess at what they’ll start with in March:

They’re going to need Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis to play more, and Manotas will have to show he can keep up the goal-scoring pace he established in more limited appearances in 2017 and 2016. Somewhere around 13 goals would be a realistic expectation for the Colombian.

Tomas Martinez will create. He should be the distribution fulcrum of a team that has to find a way to give space to their speedy front three while staying flexible enough to produce attacking opportunities from possession. Their success this season will come down to whether they can evolve as a team and become more effective at the core elements of modern soccer: Pressing and passing.

Last year, they relied on the front three to force turnovers high up the field early in games before retreating and conceding possession in the hopes of counter attacking. As a result, they often tailed off as games went on, becoming too conservative and rendering the early outbursts moot. Wilmer Cabrera has to be willing to keep players higher up the field and develop a more coordinated pressing system. They won’t be Atlanta United, but they don’t have to be. Pressing, to some unique extent, is a necessity for every club in the world.

The organization that comes with that shape (which we will look more at as the season starts) should then lend itself to possession patterns and organization, which have to be clearer this season. I wrote about it back in May, and my general points have not changed much since then. The Dynamo have to be willing to set up angles and movement when they’re on the ball, allowing their distributors to distribute and their runners to run.

2018 will be a big test. These are the keys to keeping up with a much-improved Western Conference.