Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into holiday weekend

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

11) Who are the biggest surprises on Jurgen Klinsmann’s January camp roster?

JK threw several hunks of red meat in the direction of US soccer fans and pundits with his latest squad list, answering those who’ve been clamoring for young talents like Omar Gonzalez, while also rewarding the steadiness of a few established vets such as Michael Parkhurst. Few expected to see the marginalized Ricardo Clark, though – or even A.J. DeLaGarza, the canny Galaxy defender who has been labeled too small for the international level.

10) Are certain overseas Yanks earning unsavory reputations?

Their spirit and intensity has made them important players for both club and country, yet those qualities have also led Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones into a bit of trouble. This week, both US internationals have had their playing styles and track records examined thanks to Dempsey’s elbow to the head of Manchester United’s Phil Jones and Jermaine Jones’ stamp on the injured toe of rising Bundesliga star Marco Reus. Now USMNT fans must ponder whether their heroes are truly “dirty” players, or just uncompromising competitors.

9) Who will man the USMNT backline of the future?

Despite its “Camp Cupcake” moniker, January’s camp could feature some sharp battles among contenders for long-term succession in the US rearguard. Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson are two tremendously talented young netminders, while Geoff Cameron and Gonzalez head an intriguing group of center backs hoping to stake their claim as the Bocanegra-Onyewu axis grows longer in the tooth.

8) Who else will fill out this year’s Generation adidas class?

Only three 2012 GA signings have been finalized, but it’s a tasty-looking group thus far. Speedy Darren Mattocks has the track record to suggest he could equal or eclipse his Akron-to-MLS predecessors Steve Zakuani, Teal Bunbury and Darlington Nagbe, while winger Sam Garza developed a diverse toolkit at UC Santa Barbara and Andrew Wenger was a dominant force at several positions during his college career.

7) Are Club Tijuana the new “Fulhamerica”?

Fulham FC may have lost its mantle as the top gathering place for Americans Abroad. Arguably the most ambitious club in Mexican soccer, the Xolos are in the midst of a rise to prominence that, if fulfilled to its planned extent, will make the petrodollar-fueled “revolutionaries” at Manchester City look like slackers. And they’re doing it with a foot on each side of the border, as they reach out to both SoCal fans and players like Joe Corona, Edgar Castillo and Greg Garza.

6) Is Puebla the last-chance café for Eddie Johnson?

Another Mexican Primera División outpost with a sudden collection of Yanks, Puebla have brought in “EJ” alongside DaMarcus Beasley in the hopes that Johnson can jump-start a stalled career as successfully as his onetime US teammate. Exceedingly gifted yet enigmatic from the neck up, Johnson remains one of the most maddening prospects in recent US history, and he must seize the lifeline that los Camoteros have offered him.

5) How will the Union make space for their 11 international players in 2012?

Head coach Peter Nowak made light of the issue on his Twitter feed this week after his club’s latest foreign signing, Panamanian midfielder Gabriel Gómez. But as of now, Philly have 11 where only eight can go, and other clubs will surely bargain hard if the Union seek to trade for more international roster spots.

 4) How many more MLS careers will be cut short by concussions?

Devon McTavish quietly brought his MLS run to a close this week, with the same understated style that made him a pivotal utility man for D.C. United. Yet everyone around the league should be speaking loud and clear about the creeping epidemic of head injuries that cut short his pro prospects like so many others before him. As New England striker-turned-TV-analyst Taylor Twellman notes, awareness and understanding of this issue is still insufficient at all levels of the sports world.

3) Will Caleb Porter overcome the skeptics?

Can a college coach, even the most dynamic and successful one in recent history, inspire pro players? A surprising number of observers expressed major doubts about that when the Akron boss was appointed to the US U-23 job. Porter’s first camp wrapped up this week with positive feedback across the board, though most juries will remain in deliberation until there’s some match play with which to judge his young Yanks.  

2) Where will Rafa wind up?

It’s been a strangely quiet offseason in Red Bull Nation, with the notable exception of the transfer rumors swirling around New York’s DP and all-around lightning rod Rafa Márquez. The Mexican star’s playoff tantrum gave fans a bad taste to carry into the winter, and now he seems to be mulling moves to Brazil or back to his homeland, while the club insists he’s staying put. More drama ahead?

1) Are Ecuadorians the new Colombians?

Chivas USA plumped for battle-tested La Tri midfielder Oswaldo Minda this week, joining his compatriots Víctor Estupiñán and Joao Plata in MLS and underlining the constant expansion of the league’s talent search into previously underutilized markets. Value for money and hungry, athletic players have made Colombia a fertile recruiting ground for MLS clubs – and their southern neighbors might soon prove worthy of similar prominence.

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.