Indispensables: Who are the franchise players in MLS' Western Conference?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

They're the most important players in their squads, but as one team knows too well, franchise players are not easy to find.

We already took inventory of the East. Now it’s time to look out West and identify each team’s most essential piece - the most important players to a team’s short- and long-term hopes.

In some cases, teams may have a number of players who could be a franchise’s cornerstone. For the others, though, the choice is more difficult.

Here are our picks for the franchise players in the Western Conference.

Colorado Rapids – Tim Howard

Colorado has never been a team that’s going to shellshock you. Its star players have been the perfect types for the way Colorado wins. First Jermaine Jones in central midfield and then Howard, the U.S. national team goalkeeper. If Colorado is going to repeat its successful 2016 season, it’s again going to be about a stout, organized defense that keeps the team in the game. That will all depend on Howard, who can keep the Rapids organized and is also more than capable of making the “special save” to keep his team in the game. Zac MacMath proved he was a quality MLS goalkeeper, but the Rapids paid a premium to get Howard’s leadership in net.  

FC Dallas - Mauro Diaz

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

We saw last season what happens when FC Dallas has to play without its No. 10, Mauro Diaz. It may have cost the Hoops the elusive American treble. Dallas has done the best it can to find a replacement for the first half of the season, but you can bet FCD won’t be the same until Diaz is back in the lineup. He’s just too good, and so much of what Dallas does is centered around his passing and movement in the middle of the field. When he’s back, Dallas goes right back to the top of the list for MLS Cup contenders.

Houston Dynamo – None

It’s not for lack of trying, but right now the Houston is still seeking the player that’s going to be The Man for the team. The Dynamo wanted it to be Cubo Torres, and it still may be under Wilmer Cabrera. Or maybe it’s Mauro Manotas, Alberth Elis or Romell Quioto, but as of today, the Dynamo don’t have that franchise player on the team. Cabrera’s job is a tough one. He has to develop a system in Houston and generate some momentum. A big part of that is going to be about finding the right player to lead the way.

LA Galaxy - Giovani dos Santos

The rebuilt Galaxy has been tuned around dos Santos as the most important player on the field. He’ll pair with Gyasi Zardes up top eventually, but we’ve seen how effective the Mexican national team star can be when given a bit more freedom to float and create through the middle of the field. When a franchise as successful as the Galaxy starts to change over its roster and you’re the centerpiece of those plans, well then, you’ve inherited the franchise player from a slew of big names: Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham, to name a few.

Minnesota United - Kevin Molino

The expansion side paid a hefty price of $650,000 for the former Orlando City midfielder. Maybe even too much, in the eyes of most MLS observers. But he will pay off for Minnesota if he can recreate the numbers of last season with Orlando and perhaps exceed his influence by playing an expanded role with United. Molino could play as a free-floating winger that comes inside to combine with the striker. He might play underneath as a No. 10. Wherever he lines up, Adrian Heath & Co. brought him to Minnesota to be the marquee player for Minnesota.

Portland Timbers - Diego Valeri

There are important pieces around Valeri in Portland. Fanendo Adi and Darlington Nagbe, especially, might have a shout for this distinction. But when Portland is at its best it is because Valeri is showcased and shining. He is the director of an orchestra that, when in sync, has proven to be an MLS Cup winning side. Nagbe, Adi and newly-acquired Sebastián Blanco will be asked to play important roles, and Diego Chara is charged with keeping things clean in front of the back line, but Valeri is Caleb Porter’s most valuable asset.

Real Salt Lake - Kyle Beckerman

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The day may soon be coming when someone else takes this throne. Perhaps it will be Albert Rusnák, Joao Plata or even one of the younger players coming through RSL right now – Sebastian Saucedo or Jordan Allen. But while you can see some depth at spots in the attacking third of the field, there isn’t anyone on the roster able to step into Beckerman’s No. 6 role and keep things organized the way the veteran does. Not only that, there is perhaps no player in MLS more closely tied to a franchise than Beckerman. He is the club in so many ways, and that probably won’t change until he steps away from the game.

San Jose Earthquakes – Chris Wondolowski

There may be players from whom San Jose is going to ask bigger things in 2016, but when finding a consistent goal-scorer is the most challenging part of building a roster, and when you have a forward that has scored 11 goals or more in each of the past seven seasons … well, he’s your franchise player. Wondo just keeps scoring. The tally is up to 113 over the past seven seasons, not including postseason goals, and until teams can figure out a way to stop him, Wondo will be the most important player in San Jose.

Seattle Sounders - Nicolas Lodeiro

At the beginning of last season, the easy answer to this question would have been Clint Dempsey. By the end of the season, it was Nicolas Lodeiro raising MLS Cup with the Sounders and he had undoubtedly inherited this crown. Dempsey will be back with Seattle this season and his health will be an important factor in the fate of the Sounders, but Lodeiro is now the franchise player for the defending champions. A playmaking midfielder who connects things so well in the final third, Lodeiro will only become more influential with Dempsey on the field, and the former Boca Juniors No. 10 will try to match the effect he had on Seattle when he arrived from Argentina last year.

Sporting Kansas City - Dom Dwyer

This may be one of the tougher calls in MLS. Benny Feilhaber was an MLS MVP candidate. Matt Besler and Graham Zusi are as close to the Kyle Beckerman-like status with a franchise as you will find in MLS. Yet, when it comes down to it, Dwyer may be the hardest player to replace in Kansas City. We’ve seen Sporting look for more goals to complement its target striker, and that was the focus of this past offseason, but over the past three years, Dwyer has proven to be one of the more consistent goal-scorers in MLS. His 50 goals and consistency (96 games played out of 102 possible) gives him the edge in this category.

Vancouver Whitecaps - Fredy Montero

Some props have to be given to Kekuta Manneh, who has proven to be one of the top young players in the league, and Matías Laba, who is perpetually underrated, but for all of Vancouver’s talent, the Whitecaps have lacked a marquee player to bring it all together – at least since Camilo departed after the 2013 season. The hope is that Montero can fill that role, as he did for Seattle during his last stint in MLS. Manneh will benefit from a pure goal-scorer up top and the youngster Alphonso Davies may grow into the face of the franchise, but Vancouver hopes it’ll be Montero leading the way.

More: The franchise players in MLS' Eastern Conference

Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.