Connolly: One-two punch
Since most teams in Major League Soccer employ a two-striker system out of either a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2 formation, the importance of having a good front-runner partnership is imperative.
All one has to do is look at the Chicago Fire to understand to understand such a point. While Dave Sarachan's side was well-rounded throughout the lineup, and included several National Team players in the defense and midfield, it was the Ante Razov-Damani Ralph pairing that powered the side to win the U.S. Open Cup and Supporters Shield by scoring a combined 25 of the team's 53 goals.
Going into the 2003 season, no one would have expected such numbers out of Ralph or the Razov-Ralph combo. Maybe this year's Ralph will come from the MLS Draft in the form of Matt Taylor (Kansas City) or Joseph Ngwenya (Los Angeles). Then again, the league's starting strikers will look much different, whether a rookie comes in and lights it up or not, since Brian McBride (Fulham) and Clint Mathis (Hannover 96) are now in England and Germany respectively. Will a new signing such as Jovan Kirovski with Los Angeles or Fabian Taylor with the MetroStars fill that void left behind by last year's eighth and 13th leading scorers?
It's impossible to know at the moment. But what we can do is look at the striker duos for all 10 teams. Maybe once it is all laid out, it'll be easier to help predict which teams will and will not be able to score on a regular basis in the coming seven months.
Here is a look at the likely striker partnerships heading into the 2004 season, listed by the amount of points each twosome totaled last season:
Chicago Fire likely duo: Ante Razov and Damani Ralph
Success in '03: 25 goals, 12 assists
Additional partner-in-crime: Nate Jaqua
Comment: Both strikers finished in the top 10 in scoring last season, and are primed to again. This duo is aided by a superb midfield behind them, which includes the services of the ultra-creative Any Williams, whose 7 assists led the squad a year ago.
New England Revolution likely duo: Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman
Success in '03: 25 goals, 11 assists
Additional partner-in-crime: Joe-Max Moore
Comment: The St. Louis connection is young, no-nonsense, and willing to do whatever it takes to find the back of the net. What's intriguing is that Noonan and Twellman only started three matches together up front due to injuries Twellman and the fact that Steve Nicol used Noonan as a wide midfielder for much of the season. If both players stay healthy, and receive the type of service that is expected from attacking midfielder Jose Cancela, it is likely that New England will score as often as any team in the league.
Colorado Rapids likely duo: Chris Carrieri and John Spencer
Success in '03: 17 goals, 13 assists
Additional partner-in-crime: Zizi Roberts
Comment: Tim Hankinson's move to put Carrieri into a deeper-lying position as a withdrawn striker during the spring helped pay dividends, as this duo became the heart-and-soul of the team, and helped kick-start the team's winning streak at the beginning of the summer. Should his playmaking skills continue to develop, Carrieri could find himself involved with the National Team.
San Jose Earthquakes likely duo: Landon Donovan and Brian Ching
Success in '03: 18 goals, 8 assists
Additional partner-in-crime: Jamil Walker
Comment: Ching is a better complement to Donovan than Walker due to his size and ability top play with his back to the goal. Had he not ruptured his Achilles tendon in mid-August, he might have reached double-digits in goals scored after knocking home six goals in his first 15 games. The continuing maturity of Arturo Alvarez, the emergence of Brian Mullan as a right midfielder and the re-signing of central midfielder Ronnie Ekelund will help the San Jose strikers immensely once again in 2004.
Columbus Crew likely duo: Edson Buddle and Jeff Cunningham
Success in '03: 15 goals, 11 assists
Additional partner-in-crime: David Testo
Comment: McBride was not only the team's best player, but also a leader in the locker room and one of the hardest workers on the side. His loss will be tremendous for the Crew, yet it will give Buddle and Cunningham a chance to finally gel as a duo. Should this twosome stay healthy, which was not the case last year, they will surely total as many goals as any other pair of strikers in the league.
Los Angeles Galaxy likely duo: Jovan Kirovski and Carlos Ruiz
Success in '03: 15 goals, 5 assists
Additional partner-in-crime: Joesph Ngwenya
Comment: Ruiz has proven himself to be the league's most dangerous goal-scorer by tallying more goals (39) than any player in Major league Soccer over the past two years. Getting to play alongside a strong and experienced forward like Kirovski should only help continue his success. The knock on Kirovski over his career has been consistency. But when he's on, he is ON, and is capable of putting up impressive numbers over a short period of time, both as a goal-scorer and as a playmaker from a withdrawn position. Should this duo gel, L.A. could easily find itself back amongst the league leaders in the standing.
Dallas Burn likely duo: Jason Kreis and Ed Johnson
Success in '03: 10 goals, 2 assists
Additional partner-in-crime: Toni Nhleko
Comment: Injuries affected both players in '03, as the two started only a combined 31 games. While South African striker Nhleko will surely push for playing time, Johnson really established himself during the off-season by scoring four goals for the U.S. at the World Youth Championships to win the Golden Boot, as well as see time with the U-23s last month at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. And he still hasn't turned 20 yet. For Dallas to climb out of the cellar for new manager Colin Clarke, this duo has to click, and Kreis needs to once again be amongst the league's scoring leaders.
D.C. United likely duo: Ronald Cerritos and Alecko Eskandarian
Success in '03: 7 goals, 4 assists (includes Cerritos' stats with Dallas)
Additional partner-in-crime: Jaime Moreno
Comment: With both Freddy Adu and Santino Quaranta in the mix, this could be an ever-changing partnership up front. Perhaps Earnie Stewart gets in a game as a front-runner, as well. It feels as though Cerritos has been around forever, but he just turned 29, and has many years ahead of him. But the key is Eskandarian. Should he follow-up on his successful stint with the U-23s in February and blossom as a second-year professional, this duo could prosper, and make it increasingly difficult for Adu to get playing time up top.
MetroStars Likely duo: Fabian Taylor and John Wolyniec
Success in '03: 5 goals, 2 assists
Additional partner-in-crime: Mike Magee
Comment: Mathis and, to some extent, Moreno and Andrzej Juskowiak, have been replaced by the signing of Taylor, who is a 23-year-old Jamaican international. His quickness and goal-scoring skills should complement Wolyniec, who is good at stretching the defense as more of a target player up top. The service this duo will receive from Amado Guevara, who is as creative in the center of the midfield as any player in MLS, newcomer Joselito Vaca and second-year pro Eddie Gaven should be amongst the best in the league.
Kansas City Wizards likely duo: Davy Arnaud and Josh Wolff
Success in '03: 5 goals, 1 assist
Additional partner-in-crime: Matt Taylor
Comment: Arnaud and Wolff combined for three goals in Kansas City's 4-3 victory over Portuguese club Marinhense on March 9, which bodes well for Bob Gansler's side in the wake of injuries to Preki (broken leg) and Igor Simutenkov (Achilles tendon). Injuries prevented Wolff from making much of an impact in his first year with the club, as he was only able to make nine starts in 13 appearances. His return to his old form is the definitive X-Factor for this team.
Four quick ones
Questions for D.C. United midfielder Earnie Stewart
Most underrated on your team: Ryan Nelsen.
Most underrated player in MLS not on your team: John Spencer.
Player I'd most want to trade jerseys with after a match: Marco van Basten.
Do you remember watching Eric Wynalda score in the first MLS game?: Yes. I was in Holland.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet. Send any questions to Marc at firstname.lastname@example.org.