The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend.
1) It’s one week until First Kick 2012. Do you know where your team is?
As we’ve noted before, even the most intense preseason matches are still, well, preseason. Nonetheless, the past week’s results around MLS suggest that some squads are more ready than others. For example, Vancouver look like world beaters. And New England are retooled and refocused. There was once a time when teams could afford to ease into the spring calendar and hone chemistry for an autumn rally. But in a tight, 19-team league, those days are gone.
2) What about the trio of CONCACAF Champions League participants, whose season kicks off even sooner?
The MLS standard bearers in CCL’s knockout rounds stride into next Wednesday’s quarterfinal first-leg matches in varying states of mind. Seattle have gone 5-0-2 in preseason, showing enough quality to suggest they can stand toe to toe with Mexican powerhouse Santos Laguna. Toronto FC, who have had a relatively short preseason, are feeling cautiously optimistic after reaching the final of the Disney Pro Soccer Classic. The LA Galaxy remain proven winners, but injuries and absences create doubt ahead of a trip to Toronto’s sold-out Rogers Centre.
HIGHLIGHTS: TOR 3, DAL 0
3) Can the Galaxy get it together in time?
LA were the toast of the offseason, especially after engineering the returns of Edson Buddle and Juninho. Yet the consensus 2012 favorites don’t quite look like the finished article yet. Landon Donovan is fighting off bronchitis, Robbie Keane only just re-joined the squad and the back line looks paper-thin, having allowed – by the clubs’ own lofty standards – a substantial number of goals in preseason. Saturday’s Desert Diamond Cup meeting with New England may prove instructive.
4) Is TFC rookie Luis Silva the real deal?
It might be too early to label Silva as the preseason Rookie of the Year frontrunner, but there’s little doubt that the rookie out of UC Santa Barbara has already turned a few Red heads with his displays in the attacking midfield role. Will coach Aron Winter let the 23-year-old direct his 4-3-3 system against the defending champs on Wednesday?
5) Has Jay Heaps got this coaching thing figured out already?
History shows that the answer is probably “No” – there are just too many wrinkles to the job that the Revolution’s new boss will have to learn the hard way. Ben Olsen, his old rival in D.C., can confirm as much. Still, Heaps has the Revs looking sharp so far and the renewed optimism he’s inspired around the club will go a long way this season.
6) Can David Ferreira heal in time to lead FC Dallas on opening day – or should he even try?
Schellas Hyndman knows how important his Colombian playmaker is, but the veteran Dallas coach is in a tough position as he watches Ferreira’s uneven recovery from last year’s serious ankle break. Some chippy challenges at the Disney Pro Soccer Classic dinged up the midfielder’s Achilles, too. FCD may decide it’s better to soft-pedal Ferreira this spring than to risk a setback.
7) Will Frank Yallop’s motley crew of Earthquakes spring a surprise or two in the West?
Most of the 2012 buzz around the Quakes has revolved around their march to a new stadium. In the meantime, however, Yallop & Co. are quietly constructing a decent-looking roster — boosted by some underrated surplus parts from other MLS clubs and the finally healthy Ike Opara — that could sneak up on the stacked Western Conference. Yet goals have been fairly scarce in preseason, a recurring worry for fans.
8) Is Hamdi Salihi the poacher D.C. United have been searching for?
When Salihi was introduced to the media on Feb. 20, United GM Dave Kasper prompted guffaws when he quoted the Albanian as saying, “Look, if I live outside the city, I don’t want a cow near me,” with regards to his apartment search. His two goals in two Carolina Challenge Cup victories have Black-and-Red fans thinking about another species, too, one D.C. have been craving for years: “a fox in the box” to finish off the chances that United usually create with regularity.
9) Are the Crew’s South Americans ready to seize the spotlight?
Columbus are watching closely to see if new arrivals Milovan Mirosevic and Olman Vargas can assume the responsibilities that are expected of them in ’12. Preseason performances have been promising, but still inconclusive. More consistent seasons – both in terms of performance and injury avoidance – from Emilio Rentería and Tony Tchani may prove just as influential.
10) Will the Whitecaps be this year's "greatest show on turf"?
No one has pegged them to storm from worst to first under new boss Martin Rennie. Not yet at least. But with their aggressive approach and embarrassment of attacking options — they had enough firepower to nonchalantly waive former US international Lee Nguyen on Thursday — the boys from BC almost surely will be easy on the eye this season and the fast surface at BC Place could play host to some real fireworks shows.
11) Will your fantasy team win you a real trip to the 2013 MLS All-Star Game?
The league re-launched its fantasy game this week, which means you have a week now to dig into the players to find out who will help you the most. The winner of MLS Fantasy Soccer: Manager will get a VIP trip to the 2013 MLS All-Star Game. Each week this season, No. 11 is going to be a suggestion of the must-have player in your Starting XI. This week, I'd go with Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry, who seems poised to start the season with a bang after a solid winter loan stint in England. He could wreak havoc on FC Dallas' back line on March 11 (3 pm ET, NBC Sports, GET TICKETS).