Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into MLS Combine

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

 11) What date(s) have you circled on the 2012 MLS calendar?

It’s finally here, or perhaps “already” is more accurate, given that this year’s schedule was actually released more than a month earlier than the 2011 version. That means more time for fans to buy tickets, plan road trips and get excited. And an intensified focus on regional rivalries means more meetings with the ones you love to hate.

10) How will the unbalanced schedule play out, in competitive terms?

After two years of everyone playing a perfectly symmetrical, home-and-home slate, a growing league conceded to the strains involved with traveling across this vast continent and placed more emphasis on conference matchups. This also leads to variety within teams’ schedules, which may develop into an intriguing subplot or two as the season plays out.

9) Where will you be on Saturday, Sept. 15?

The lucky ones will be at JELD-WEN Field in Portland, where the Timbers will host Seattle in an always-compelling Cascadia Cup clash, one which also happens to be the first MLS regular-season match to appear on network television since 2008. The game marks the league’s debut broadcast on NBC, a historic moment which also represents valuable progress in the constant pursuit of a bigger stage and greater exposure.

8) What do Jurgen Klinsmann, Sepp Blatter and the rest of the world think of this, the longest season in MLS history?

MLS teams will first kick a ball in anger on March 7 when Toronto FC host the Galaxy in the first leg of their CONCACAF quarterfinal meeting, and the MLS Cup 2012 takes place on Dec. 1, a whopping 269 days later. An already grueling campaign is now truly a marathon, and those who have previously critiqued the length of the league’s offseason have less of a leg to stand on (by comparison, the current English Premier League season will run 274 days).

7) Who will be the MLS Combine’s dark horses?

The 2012 MLS Combine kicks off Friday in South Florida, where more than 60 young hopefuls will try to make an impression on the ranks of MLS coaches and decision-makers gathered for the occasion. Limited training time and unfamiliar teammates only add to the pressure and make grading the talent an uncertain science. But every now and then a sleeper rises, like an upwardly trending George John did three years ago.

6) Is Dom Dwyer the next Steve Zakuani?

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare the University of South Florida striker (pictured above) to his fellow Londoner, the entertaining Seattle Sounders winger who is the only other Brit to join MLS through the Generation adidas program. Yet both men are speedsters with an eye for goal, and Dwyer seems capable of making the rapid transition to the pro level just as Zakuani did.

5) What tops new head coach Oscar Pareja’s to-do list in Colorado?

Dallas’ loss was the Rapids’ gain this week as FCD bid a sad goodbye to the Colombian, who served the Texas club well as a midfield schemer before building their youth academy into one of the league’s best. He may have to do some roster chopping if he wants to turn Colorado into his type of rhythmic, pass-and-move outfit. Meanwhile, there’s lots of room for growth in the youth system at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, which has so far sent just one player to the senior squad.

4) Is the MLS Home Grown player system evolving?

“Nobody can deny the time, effort, money and coaching we put into developing [the] player.”

Those were the words, via twitter, of Portland Timbers owner and president Merritt Paulson with regards to the Timbers’ first-ever Home Grown player, Brent Richards, who signed with the senior team this week. Richards’ HG status sparked a good deal of debate among pundits, but Paulson was quick to explain and defend his franchise’s claim, which included financial support of the striker’s youth club. Home Grown rules are already complex, and look likely to become even more so as such situations proliferate.

3) Has anyone been as desperately unlucky as Omar Gonzalez this week?

LA’s rock-solid defender waited so long for that call from US national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann, only for his involvement in this month’s USMNT training camp to last barely a day as he jetted off to Turkey on Wednesday to join FC Nürnberg (on a winter camp of their own) on a short-term loan. And then he picked up a torn left ACL in his very first practice with the German Bundesliga side – in a collision with fellow US international Timmy Chandler, no less. It's a shockingly tragic turn of events for him, the Galaxy and the national team.

2) Is George John gone, and if so, where?

Not one, but two young center backs suddenly departed January camp this week, as John also found himself drawn across the Atlantic, reportedly due to a potential move to English luminaries West Ham United. It’s not a done deal yet, but the switch would mark another turning of the page from FCD’s Western Conference-conquering side of just two seasons ago.

1) What is running through Brian Ching’s head at the moment?

Temperatures dropped as low as a gasp-inducing two degrees below zero (Fahrenheit, anyway) in Montreal this week, a far cry from the balmy setting the Impact's Expansion Draft pick enjoyed on his recent homecoming trip to Hawaii. Nonetheless, the veteran striker has stepped back from his retirement threats and says he’s ready to report to his new team’s preseason camp despite his clear desire to return to Houston. All the same, it’s safe to say this tale hasn’t concluded just yet.

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.