Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into First Kick

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

11) How about that CONCACAF Champions League?

Of course, everyone in MLS is gearing up for an eagerly anticipated First Kick weekend of league action. But Wednesday night’s dramatic CCL clashes in Toronto and Seattle surely gave the rest of the league some goosebumps – and underlined the many reasons to chase a berth in the regional competition, whether through strong MLS performance or, like the Sounders and Reds, via domestic cup success.

10) Can LA recover in time for RSL’s visit?

The schedule-makers did the glitzy Galaxy no favors this week. While Seattle and TFC are idle, Bruce Arena’s men face a quick turnaround from their Wednesday night CCL quarterfinal scramble on the firm turf of the Rogers Centre to Saturday’s league curtain-raiser against a sharp Salt Lake side. Perhaps LA will be energized by the sight of their 2011 Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup championship banners being raised at The Home Depot Center.

9) Is Arne Friedrich the Fire’s missing piece?

Chicago have quietly been locking down the big German defender over the past few weeks and, conveniently enough, the club’s bye weekend gives Frank Klopas & Co. extra time to sort out the big German’s paperwork and familiarize him with his new team. Could Friedrich and his 82 international caps be the final ingredient for a dark-horse contender in the East?

8) Can D.C. United shut down Sporting’s familiar faces at RFK on Saturday night?

The nation’s capital is a familiar place for several KC stars: C.J. Sapong grew up in Northern Virginia and wore United’s colors at youth level, Graham Zusi – whose involvement in Saturday’s season opener is in doubt due to a quad strain – made his name at the University of Maryland and Bobby Convey started his pro career as a teenage prodigy with the Black-and-Red in 2000. Ben Olsen’s side can improve their prospects a great deal by limiting the trio’s attacking impact.

7) Who will shine brightest in the meeting of top 2012 SuperDraft picks at BC Place?

Not to take anything away from the rest of a genuinely talented college crop, but this year’s draft was clearly headlined by Darren Mattocks and Andrew Wenger – the only question was which one Montreal would select with the top pick. Wenger’s versatility won out for coach Jesse Marsch, and Mattocks may relish the chance to show what the Impact missed out on when his Whitecaps host their cross-Canadian rivals on Saturday afternoon.

6) How will the Rapids’ Oscar Pareja project look on its official debut?

Colorado’s Colombian boss made magic as a youth academy honcho in Dallas and he’s seeking a rapid renaissance, so to speak, with his implementation of a rhythmic, pass-happy mindset for the Mile High Club. But led by no-nonsense center back Chad Marshall, the visiting Crew are an organized outfit that would love nothing more than to slap some cold reality into the team that ended their 2011 season in the Wildcard round.

5) Which rebuilding side needs a positive result more at Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday night?

The Earthquakes and Revolution both suffered plenty last season, and both responded with some promising tweaks and additions. Both also showed well during preseason, lending a bit of momentum to their respective climbs towards the prosperity of old. Nothing, however, pumps confidence into the veins like a win on opening day.

4) Can Kenny Cooper come good on his Big D homecoming?

Whether through choice, conflict or circumstance, some players manage to compile a long list of former clubs as their careers progress. New York’s new striker has now worn the colors of eight clubs on two continents since Manchester United spotted him at the Dallas Cup youth tournament and signed him as a young lad, yet FC Dallas will always be his hometown club and he’ll surely have ample motivation to find the net in front of a national TV audience in Frisco on Sunday.

3) Will Chivas USA restore their manager’s faith when the Dynamo hit town?

First Kick is usually way too early for anything like a “statement game,” but that’s more or less what the Goats’ opener has become after they got trounced 5-0 by San Jose in their final preseason tuneup. Robin Fraser called his side out in the aftermath of that massacre in Portland – and what better way to respond than with a strong performance against the defending Eastern Conference champs? A lengthy injury list won’t help, though.

2) Can the kids in Philly handle the JELD-WEN Field pressure cooker?

Peter Nowak’s Union got younger this season, but they believe they’ve also gotten better. A Monday night opener in Portland, where the home fans will have their intimate downtown venue packed to the gills, should test Philadelphia’s resolve. Veterans like Brian Carroll and Danny Califf must regulate the tempo and keep from getting dragged into a Timbers-style track meet.

1) Who is this weekend’s fantasy must-have?

Time is running out to pick your lineup for the first round of MLS Fantasy Soccer: Manager – do you have your top squad selected? This week, D.C. United winger Andy Najar gets our nod for your Starting XI. The slick Honduran is reasonably priced given his attacking qualities, he’s surrounded by dangerous colleagues in the D.C. front line and SKC, Saturday’s opponents, might fancy an end-to-end slugfest.

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.