The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend.
11) Who, if anyone, “won” this week’s Union-Timbers trade?
Sometimes the old cliché about “a change of scenery” can turn out to be a decent enough guide for personnel transactions like the one that saw two of the league’s most frustrated strugglers swap Danny Mwanga and Jorge Perlaza, two talented attackers who have had rough going of late. The salary picture remains murky on this one, but in a perfect world, mutual improvement would lead to a win-win situation.
10) Aron Winter is done. What does the Mariner era have in store for Toronto FC?
WATCH: TFC announce Winter's departure
With a week off for most of the league and the transfer window approaching, enacting trades and coaching changes like the one announced on Thursday in Ontario makes sense. It’s taken a long time to get the Reds faithful as frustrated as they are, though, and even with his impressive resume, new boss Paul Mariner faces a steep curve as he tries to turn around several years of underachievement.
9) Is our region home to the wildest World Cup qualifying ride in the world?
Europe and South America have always presented the planet’s highest caliber of competition, and maybe always will. Africa and Asia are full of quality, Oceania is totally unique. But CONCACAF qualifying? The mere words evoke strange mismatches and lush, exotic locales, obstacles both natural and manmade, opposition fond of limitless gamesmanship. It’s a 15-month blast, and it starts this weekend.
8) How will Canada cope with the Cuban challenge on Friday?
With an experienced, balanced squad and a friendly draw in Group C, coach Stephen Hart and Les Rouges have reason for real optimism in this cycle. Those sentiments will be put to an early test when they open their campaign in the heat of the Caribbean afternoon on a patchy, rutted field in Havana against one of the most mysterious teams in the competition.
7) Are the Yanks ready to make a statement?
The US national team hasn’t had cause to fear a foe the size of Antigua and Barbuda since, well, before star striker Jozy Altidore was born. While few will be doubting the final result, millions of US fans will be closely watching their meeting at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium on Friday night, eager for the dominant display that would suggest a smooth qualifying sail.
6) Is the US left back position cursed?
One spot on the field has turned out to be such a recurring irritant, and one with so many false dawns, for the Yanks over the years. Fabian Johnson’s recent displays were sensational until his injury in last Sunday’s pregame warmups handed the job to Edgar Castillo, who looked promising enough only to pull a hamstring on the training ground this week. Add it to the long list of USMNT question marks.
5) Do margins matter when David gets whipped by Goliath?
The US thumped Barbados 8-0 at this stage in the last World Cup cycle, and laid a 6-1 hurt on Cuba a few months later. Some wonder if they’ll reach those levels against the Benna Boys on Friday evening. It can be unsettling to watch CONCACAF’s minnows crushed into powder. But the long qualifying road is an egalitarian one, and every game is both an experience for the nations involved and a stage for fresh faces to stand out.
4) Is your DVR, and your personal life, properly braced for the torrent of summer soccer about to begin?
It’s probably OK that MLS has lightened its early summer schedule a bit, because when you combine it with the simultaneous arrival of World Cup qualifying and the European Championship, it means enough soccer watching to help slash workplace productivity, gobble up weekend hours and maybe even endanger some relationships across the nation. Don’t go crazy, OK?
3) Can Robbie Keane lead Ireland to a Cinderella run in Poland/Ukraine?
There hasn’t been an MLS player involved in the Euros in more than a decade, a streak brought to an end by the Galaxy striker’s pivotal role in this year’s underdog Irish squad. This weekend’s opener against Croatia poses a stiff challenge, one immediately eclipsed by other group clashes with Spain on Thursday and Italy on June 18.
2) You’re not going to miss Sunday’s Whitecaps-Dynamo game in Vancouver, are you?
WATCH: Kinnear on new DP signing
The full onset of the Euros and international qualifying action certainly offers a lot of visual stimulus. But the sight of these two aggressive, intriguingly contrasting MLS sides under the angled summer sunlight at beautiful BC Place should be a can’t-miss.
1) Is Eric Hassli ready to light it up after his bye-week wedding in Las Vegas?
Vancouver’s mercurial French hitman just tied the knot in the company of several teammates in Sin City, and even dropped the inevitable “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” line upon his return. Caps fans hope his nuptial bliss, perhaps combined with a bit of fire from Thursday’s All-Star ballot snub, will power him onto the score sheet against Houston.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.