The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into this week’s slate of league and international matches.
11) Who will make the shortlist in the Supporters’ Shield race?
The MLS table is clumping into cliques: those at the bottom who are already looking to 2012, a middle group still seeking a postseason berth and the select group at the top trying to keep pace with LA, the Supporters’ Shield frontrunners for most of the year. Seattle and FC Dallas seem capable of sustaining a challenge on that front, while Colorado, Real Salt Lake and Columbus have faded.
10) Do the Union have enough defensive depth?
Peter Nowak can be as coy as he wants in talking about his rearguard selections for Saturday’s big trip to Salt Lake, but there’s little escaping Philly’s shortage of bodies along the back line. Top defender Carlos Valdés — who has started every game but one this year — is suspended due to yellow-card accumulation, so it looks likely that Danny Califf’s center-back partner will either be someone playing out of position (like Sheanon Williams or Stefani Miglioranzi), or someone making their first start of the season (Juan Diego González). Not ideal.
9) Can Sporting KC — or anyone else, for that matter — slow down the Galaxy?
Last month’s 3-0 shellacking in Portland is looking more and more like an aberration as Bruce Arena’s team just keeps cranking out results in. LA do have one of the league’s toughest fall schedules, including several testing road trips like Monday’s visit to Livestrong Sporting Park, but Landon Donovan has been cleared to take part in that match instead of the US-Belgium friendly next week.
8) What lessons can be drawn from the Earthquakes’ Zura episode?
San Jose’s loan deal for Edmundo Zura imploded this week, sending the Ecuadorian striker home to his club El Nacional due to poor fitness — and raising the ire of frustrated Quakes fans. GM John Doyle deserves credit for making the tough call and absorbing the subsequent public-relations hit, but future moves will now be subjected to extra scrutiny. Desperation from their 13-game winless streak may have compromised the club’s decision-making process — a big no-no in the inherently-hazardous international transfer market.
7) Texas vs Nuevo León: Who earns bragging rights in this weekend’s cross-border battles?
MLS and Mexico’s Primera División will switch from battling in CONCACAF Champions League to a slightly less heated setting this week, as Tigres UANL and CF Monterrey take on FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo, respectively, in international friendlies. Both games underline ongoing efforts to foster sporting ties between the Texas clubs and their counterparts from Nuevo León, the prosperous Mexican state located just across the Rio Grande which is home to some of the nation’s most passionate footy fans.
6) Can Canada finally get it right during this World Cup cycle?
The Canadian national team’s confounding inability to join the CONCACAF elite has driven its fans to distraction over the years, with a range of factors hampering the Canucks’ progress on the international stage. But with two clubs, and a host of players, benefiting from involvement in MLS, coach Stephen Hart and his squad have reasons for optimism as 2014 qualifying begins this week. Opening against Caribbean minnows St. Lucia and Puerto Rico should give the Reds a chance to ease into form and renew an attack that was toothless during the Gold Cup.
5) What is it about international duty and Dejan Jakovic’s hamstrings?
The D.C. United standout injured his left hamstring in Canada’s final warm-up match before the Gold Cup in June, putting him out of commission for both club and country for more than a month. Now the talented 26-year-old has tweaked his right hammy on the eve of World Cup qualifying action, raising questions about his fitness down DC’s home stretch — just when he and Brandon McDonald seemed to have answered the club’s center back issues.
4) Can Los Ticos recover their lost swagger?
Skillful and spirited, Costa Rica have always been one of the most inspiring stories in CONCACAF, routinely booking World Cup trips and challenging regional powers Mexico and the United States despite a population of less than 5 million. But the Ticos played with little of their usual joy in this summer’s Gold Cup, and never really recovered from that uncharacteristic 4-1 pounding by Mexico in Group A play. With a movement towards youth and a new coach en route, Álvaro Saborío & Co. will be eager to start a new story against the US on Friday night.
3) Should Jurgen Klinsmann have reached out to Rodney Wallace?
The young fullback’s choice of national teams (Costa Rica or US) was a hot topic during his impressive rookie season with DC, and one that he steadfastly avoided discussing, amid quiet entrées from both sides. An injury-plagued 2010 saw him slip out of the international picture, only to pop up on the current Ticos roster. He’s expected to make his debut during this FIFA fixture date, and a strong showing might leave US fans wishing he’d been considered for the Yanks’ problematic left back position.
2) Are the miles adding up for Brek Shea?
It’s been a whirlwind season for FC Dallas’ all-action winger, and a physically intense one, even for a 21-year-old. The MLS MVP candidate leads FCD field players in minutes played and with Dallas contending for honors on multiple fronts, plenty more will be expected of him. So while he may be one of the most exciting new faces for USMNT fans at the moment, Klinsmann and his staff may regulate Shea’s playing time more carefully than they would otherwise prefer in the Costa Rica and Belgium friendlies.
1) Is this Kyle Beckerman’s moment?
After floating on the margins of the US picture for several years, RSL’s midfield general finally seems ready to parlay his MLS excellence into a meaningful national team run. It’s revealing that Klinsmann has allowed him to play in Salt Lake this weekend and join the USMNT in Brussels for the match against Belgium next week — now it’s up to Beckerman to strengthen his case with a strong showing on European soil.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @cboehm