Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into MLS weekend

Juan Pablo Ángel - April 2, 2011

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The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:

(11) How much will the absence of a true target forward hurt FC Dallas?

The real question is: Does it really matter to have a center forward when a team is focused on counterattacking soccer like FC Dallas? FCD were the best transition team in MLS in 2010 and they were clinical in their last trip to DC. Fabián Castillo, who started as the lone striker and scored against LA last weekend, is more of a winger than a target man. But he can probably keep up with Brek Shea and Marvin Chávez on the counter better than Milton Rodríguez and Ruben Luna.

(10) How good is the Chicago Fire’s “Colombian Eto’o” - Cristian Nazarit?

Fire manager Carlos de los Cobos considers the 20-year-old striker to be a true No. 9 and a perfect fit for MLS with his size and power. With Gastón Puerari clearly preferring to operate closer to midfield and leading scorer Diego Cháves proving to be a smart player with his runs and positioning, Nazarit may be the perfect complement. Will lack of service from midfield hurt the entire forward corps, though?

(9) Will the third showing of the Feilhaber-Joseph midfield pairing in New England look more like the win vs. Sporting KC or the loss vs. Chivas USA?

As they showed against the Houston Dynamo in midweek, the defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids will likely not be too interested in possession at Gillette Stadium, which should play into the hands of the Revolution. That will give New England a chance to establish a rhythm and get their big names a lot more time on the ball. Chivas USA held the reins last weekend and the Revs suffered. Things should change on Saturday.

(8) How much will D.C. United’s forward corps depend on Andy Najar?

The DC midfield is not necessarily known for its passing abilities, but last season’s Rookie of the Year may be the most apt to serve a good ball as he showed in midweek. Josh Wolff and Charlie Davies are experienced and smart enough to make the right runs. When they receive the ball in stride they can be deadly. If the service is barren, they will be anonymous. 

(7) What forward combination will Real Salt Lake use against Chivas USA?

The question arises because of concerns about Álvaro Saborío’s surgically repaired knee, Paulo Jr.’s hamstring and Fabián Espíndola’s mental state after he missed several chances in the return leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final. That leaves Salvadoran Arturo Álvarez, who is a natural winger and a support forward at best. And Álvarez will only be around a few more weeks before he gets called up by El Salvador to the Gold Cup. Young Conor Chinn is the emergency option. 

(6) Will a win against the Seattle Sounders be enough for the pundits to take the Columbus Crew for real?

Analysis of the Crew this season consistently centers around the long list of veteran players who departed in the offseason and how the club is expected to suffer. Columbus head coach Robert Warzycha has proven tactically shrewd and flexible with a new single-forward alignment that has allowed for the introduction of attacking midfielder Dilly Duka - arguably the most influential “new face” of 2011. And Warzycha has not been afraid to bench designated player Andrés Mendoza. With a victory against Seattle, the Crew should join the ranks of contenders. 

(5) Who does Houston’s Dominic Kinnear start at forward in Toronto?

After a productive stretch of games by the pairing of Will Bruin and Cam Weaver, the Dynamo forwards hit a wall against an organized Colorado Rapids side on Wednesday. With Brian Ching on the mend and ready for more minutes, veteran Jason Garey quietly biding his time and new acquisition Koke eager to show his European credentials, change could be in the offing. Fresh legs should be expected given the pace and intensity of the high-pressure Dynamo playing style - especially with a road game following a midweek match.

(4) Can Philadelphia’s vaunted defense play as effectively missing potentially two of its four regulars?

They’ve posed for photos together and they’ve been the subject of feature pieces. But the four-man back line that has started every regular season match to date for the Union — Sheanon Williams, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdés and Jordan Harvey – will not be intact in Portland. Harvey’s out due to suspension. Califf’s participation is in question due to a bout with illness. For all the talk about Michael Farfan’s positive spot duty at left back against last weekend, it will be a very different test in the House of Pane.

(3) Does Chivas USA’s Robin Fraser know RSL well enough to devise a plan to beat them on Saturday?

Except for Álvarez, Fraser knows what makes each Real Salt Lake player tick following four seasons as an assistant under Jason Kreis. This matchup is made for the tactically savvy of observers and fans: What tweaks does Fraser make to take advantage of weaknesses in RSL, of which he is intimately familiar? Some clubs already disrespected the Goats this season. A victory at Rio Tinto would change perception in a big way.

(2) Can the Thierry Henry-Luke Rodgers strike partnership in NY continue to keep starlet Juan Agudelo on the bench?

It’s remarkable that US national team fans are unmoved by the fact that arguably the best young American soccer player in history has just 145 more minutes in MLS regular-season action than what he has accrued with the senior US national team — and that he has just as many goals for each (2). But Agudelo continues to ride the bench in MLS. It’s unprecedented in American soccer history.

The results, the goals and the goal-scoring opportunities created have proven that Rodgers is likely the most fitting complement to Henry. Agudelo, who has similar characteristics to Henry’s and even scored a Henry-esque goal vs. DC, is a spark off the bench for now. But if Rodgers is in the starting XI to stay, what might it take for Agudelo to unseat the Designated Player before a potential starring role in the Gold Cup?  

(1) Will Juan Pablo Ángel celebrate a goal against the New York Red Bulls? How hard will he fight to get one?

World soccer rarely presents fans with a match in which a star player faces the club where he became a legend. In the case of Juan Pablo Ángel, it's an extra special case that can’t even compare with Real Madrid icon Raúl nearly crossing paths with Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League. Raúl went to a lower-profile club in Schalke 04. When the LA Galaxy picked Ángel in the Re-Entry Draft, it was like Raúl going from Real Madrid to Barcelona.

Considering that Ángel’s departure from New York was seemingly acrimonious and that his family is still out on the East Coast, you have one of the most intriguing dramas to unfold on any MLS field. Any goal, especially if it’s celebrated by the Colombian, will only increase anticipation for Ángel’s August 28 return to Red Bull Arena.