The 2011 MLS season will kick off with a match between the Seattle Sounders and the Los Angeles Galaxy on March 15. Leading up to that game, SB Nation editors will be previewing each of the 18 teams. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

MLS 2011 Previews: SB Nation Editors Give Team-By-Team Analysis

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MLS 2011 Preview: Chicago Fire Ready To Bust Out The 3-5-2

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

Second-year coach Carlos de los Cobos seems determined to use a 3-5-2 formation in 2011. Sean Johnson is a no-brainer to start in goal. The entire back line looks to be made up of newcomers as Jalil Anibaba looks to be a lock at LB and Josip Mikulic and Cory Gibbs have been receiving the bulk of the pre-season first team playing time at CB and RB respectively. It seems that Kwame Waston-Siriboe and Dasan Robinson are the respective backups for Mikulic and Gibbs in de los Cobos’ mind.

While the defensive set will be foreign to causal Fire fans, it looks like the midfield will feature five familiar faces. Gonzalo Segares will start at LM with Marco Pappa next to him as an attacking midfielder. This combination will be important because Segares can shift back on defense when required and Pappa is comfortable working on the wings and playing the role of LM. Team captain Logan Pause will play his preferred position of DM while Baggio Husidic will play slightly ahead of Pause. Patrick Nyarko will maintain his RM spot. The Uruguayan duo of Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari will play the forward positions.

The only possible wrinkles in a Starting XI of Johnson; Anibaba, Mikulic, Gibbs; Nyarko, Husidic, Pause, Pappa, Segares; Chaves, Puerari is Nyarko has been seeing some time at the forward position and Bratislav Ristic certainly earned a starting role from his playing time last year. Look for Ristic to be the first player off the bench this season when he isn’t starting. Ristic can play almost anywhere on the field and his flexibility will give de los Cobos a lot of tactical options so the Fire can adjust to any opposing game plan.

Which new player(s) will have the biggest impact?

It is looking like Jalil Anibaba will have the biggest impact from day one. His speed is one of the big reasons the Fire believe they can even attempt to operate the 3-5-2 in an effective manner. If the two new international strikers Puerari and Chaves don’t have big impacts, Chicago is in for a long season.

Which player(s) will be felt the most?

The loss of C.J. Brown will be felt the most, no doubt. Brown played with the Fire for every season the team existed. His presence will be deeply missed and it will be surreal for many fans when he is not even on the sideline, listed in the program, or around at all.

In terms of on the field play, it is debatable as to who will be missed from 2010. Wilman Conde, Brian McBride, C.J. Brown, Justin Mapp, John Thorrington, Stefan Dimitrov, Peter Lowry, and Tim Ward all played multiple years with the Fire, started the 2010 season with the team and will not be there in 2011. Freddie Ljungberg, Collins John, Nery Castillo, Krzysztof Krol, Julio Martinez, and Deris Umanzor are players that joined the team at one point in 2010 and will be there in 2011. Each one of those players brought their own significant problems to the table. Some brought more problems than others but no player is a total loss. Any positives the best of the bunch brought to the table in 2010 is equally matched by a 2011 team that has a wide open possibilities for the starting XI.

At what point is this season considered success?

Trophies dictate ultimate success. This team could finish in first or last more than any other team in the MLS. It is impossible to dictate the goalposts for ‘moral victories’ at this point for the 2011 Chicago Fire.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

Jalil Anibaba. I hate to pin it on a rookie but that is what Carlos de los Cobos is doing with the 3-5-2 formation. If Jalil is very successful, the team will be shutting down the opposition and staying in games. If Jalil is not successful, de los Cobos will likely scrap the 3-5-2 and we could see another year of lineup changes and a lack of a real team taking the field for the second year in a row at Toyota Park. Much of the fan base is already closer to ‘fire Carlos de los Cobos’ than they are ‘Carlos de los Cobos is a great coach’. If the team struggles, those cries will get louder adding an unpleasant tone around the team.

Will the ‘Kings of the Cup’ make a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup?

One big difference between the 2010 team and the 2011 team will be a certain level of hunger. Say what you will about players like C.J. Brown and Brian McBride but they were very content with their careers and they had every right to be. Many of the players on this year’s team will be playing professional soccer for the first time in their lives or at least have the biggest opportunity of their lives in front of them. I hope to see that energy on the field in tournaments and reserve games especially. I hope Carlos de los Cobos puts out his best squad for the U.S. Open Cup but where substitutions have to be made for rest, I think the Fire have the right personnel to make a run based on depth and youth. The Fire will not dominate like a sledge hammer but a scrappy and underrated squad could surprise.

- Report by Tweed Thornton of Hot Time in Old Town (Chicago Fire blog)

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MLS 2011 Preview: Columbus Crew Start Their Rebuilding

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

On the surface, the Crew will play a 4-4-2 as in previous years; because of the many personnel changes this offseason, however, the team’s style may be very different. William Hesmer is the presumptive starter in goal, with Sebastian Miranda playing right back and Shaun Francis on the left. Andy Iro and Chad Marshall are the first-choice center backs. Midfield is a bit harder to anticipate. Cole Grossman played holding midfield in the Champions League, but seemed a bit lost at times; meanwhile fellow rookie Rich Balchan has generated some buzz with his play and versatility and may be a more viable candidate to fill Brian Carroll’s shoes. Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven are the likely starters on the wings, leaving - for now - Emmanuel Ekpo to try and create from the center. Andres Mendoza and Emilio Renteria should start at forward, although Jeff Cunningham and Justin Meram have set ambitious goals for themselves and should not be counted out. Dilly Duka and Leandre Griffit are options in the midfield, with the former being another player who has reportedly impressed in preseason.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

The team has so far not signed a marquee name, so "biggest impact" may be a relative term. Right back Sebastian Miranda impressed with his debut against Real Salt Lake, demonstrating an understanding with Robbie Rogers that could give opposing wingers fits. Rich Balchan is another name that has garnered a lot of attention. After being described - by himself as well as others - as primarily a right back, he has played almost every defensive position in preseason and done so capably. Julius James, signed as a backup to Chad Marshall, could find himself starting if the two-time Defender of the Year is sidelined for any significant time with concussion-like symptoms.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The Argentine’s presence on the field dictated how the team would play, and the success they have had, over the past four years. He made fouling the Crew a dangerous proposition, and the rest of the team was built to allow him to work his magic from a forward’s position. Now that Schelotto is gone, the team is having to restructure its identity. Where before the team often fielded two defensive-minded central midfielders in order to give Schelotto space to operate, now players like Duka, Ekpo or Gaven have an opportunity to direct the attack from midfield, with two more traditional in-the-box forwards acting as targets. Brian Carroll is another player whose absence may be painful at times, particularly in light of the changes at the front. The ripple effect of playing two forwards means that more pressure will be placed on the one remaining holding midfielder - where rookie Cole Grossman has played thus far.

At what point is this season considered success?

With no CONCACAF Champions League campaign - and apparently no SuperLiga - to complicate the schedule, the Crew will be judged almost entirely on their playoff success. Since their magical MLS Cup run in 2008, the team has lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons (albeit to the eventual champions each time), and it is the memory of these failures which must be erased. Simply making the playoffs is an expectation at this point, not the mark of a successful season - although, given the turnover on the roster, an argument could be made that simply repeating the past is an accomplishment. Other achievements, like the Eastern Conference Championship, a Supporters' Shield, or a deep run in the Open Cup, would be welcome but cannot excuse a third early exit from the playoffs.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

"Central Midfielder" - stated this way because, thus far, there is no clear indication who will fill this role. If the team can find someone - either a returning player or new signing - who can orchestrate the attack and elicit great performances from his fellow players then the Crew could make a lot of noise late in the season. There are a lot of talented players on this roster, but many of them - like Robbie Rogers, Andres Mendoza and Emmanuel Ekpo - seem to be burdened by their potential. The team’s ability to help these and other players deliver on their obvious talent will determine whether 2011 is a season to remember, or a failed experiment.

- Report by Matt Bernardt of Massive Report/Columbus Crew Examiner

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MLS 2011 Preview: Philadelphia Union Bolster Goalkeeping, Offense

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

The Union will most likely keep the majority of their starting lineup from the last eight games of the 2010 MLS season. Goalkeeping was one of the problems for the Union in 2010 and it was also a position of change during the offseason. Chris Seitz, Brad Knighton and Brian Perk all tended the net for the Union during their inaugural season but none returned to the Union for the 2011 season. Seitz was taken by the Seattle Sounders in the Re-Entry Draft and then traded to FC Dallas only minutes later. Knighton was waived by the Union despite recording the team’s first ever shutout. In their places come Faryd Mondragon, Thorne Holder and Zac MacMath. Mondragon, a Colombian international, is a much needed veteran with European experience at a position that saw inconsistency and a lack of confidence last season. Holder is a relative unknown and wasn’t drafted in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft but he did play for a year at the University of Maryland, which is the qualifier for any goalkeeper and the Union (Seitz, Holder and MacMath all attended Maryland). He will back up Mondragon while fifth overall pick MacMath will see most of his time in Reserve League games.

A backline that seemed to have new life with the addition of right back Sheanon Williams receives an upgrade in the center with the signing of Colombian national team defender Carlos Valdes. The other three players (including Williams) remain as members of a group of only four defenders that return from a poor defensive 2010 season. Team captain Danny Califf retains his center back role and will partner with Valdes in front of Mondragon. Jordan Harvey, who played nearly every minute possible for the Union, stays at left back. Juan Diego Gonzalez-Alzate is currently the only defensive depth that the Union have as part of their roster. The 30-year-old Gonzalez-Alzate started all seven games he played in last year, before losing his starting role to the recently departed Michael Orzoco-Fiscal.

The midfield has grown stronger by addition through subtraction, along with the free transfer of former MLS MVP striker Carlos Ruiz. Losing Fred (New England Revolution in the Re-Entry Draft), waiving Toni Stahl, trading Andrew Jacobson and not retaining Eduardo Coudet have made the midfield not only significantly younger but also relieved plenty of its congestion. Sebastien Le Toux, last year’s points leader in MLS, will probably be moved out wide to accommodate having Ruiz on the field alongside Danny Mwanga. Former Columbus Crew central midfield stalwart Brian Carroll will provide needed consistency from the team’s holding midfield position, while Justin Mapp is set to continue to play on the left side, as he did after a trade with the Chicago Fire midseason. Amobi Okugo looks as though he has made major steps forward in his development from last year and could easily see time early on. Depth comes in the form of Kyle Nakazawa, Michael Farfan, Levi Houapeu, Chris Agorsor, Home Grown Player Zach Pfeffer and veteran Stefani Miglioranzi.

Ruiz, Mwanga and Jack McInerney lead the Union’s attack, which was dependant upon Le Toux to both create and score goals in 2010. Mwanga lived up to his selection as the number one overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, scoring 7 goals and developing a nice rapport with Le Toux. To improve the play of the forwards the Union brought in Guatemalen striker Ruiz, a prolific scorer during his time in MLS. Backing up the two is 18-year-old McInerney who showed promise in the small amount of time he had to play last year. Head coach Piotr Nowak utilized a 4-2-2-2 for much of last season and will probably do the same in 2011. Mondragon (GK), Harvey (LB), Valdes (CB), Califf (CB), Williams (RB), Mapp (LM), Carroll (CM), Okugo (CM), Le Toux (RM), Mwanga (FW), Ruiz (FW)

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?:

Mondragon will have the largest impact on the team, while Ruiz may impact the team beyond just his typical goal-scoring ways. Mondragon gives the Union something they desperately lacked in 2010: a consistent goalkeeper. After dealing with Seitz for most of the season, Nowak made the change to back up Knighton, who managed to keep most shots out of the net. Still, Knighton was clearly not a No. 1. He was somewhat indecisive on crosses and not the most confident goalkeeper, but he was excellent on one-on-ones and did give the Union their first-ever clean sheet. The most important part of the addition of Mondragon is his ability to control a backline. If any defender, be it countryman Valdes or veteran Califf, makes a mistake Mondragon will make i be known that it is not acceptable. Union fans should look forward to a goalkeeper whose mouth is always yelling out organizational orders to the players in front of him.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

The loss of Michael Orozco-Fiscal hurts the Union dearly. Though no longer a starter with the signing of Valdes, Orozco-Fiscal was important because of his ability to play the fullback position, along with being able to cover at center back. After releasing rightback Cristian Arrieta, losing Shea Salinas (a reserve rightback) and not drafting a defender in the SuperDraft, the Union were left with only six defenders on their roster. The team could not come to terms with Mexican club San Luis on either a new loan deal or a permanent transfer price for Orozco-Fiscal. That leaves the team with only Juan Diego Gonazalez Alzate to cover all four defensive positions. With the Union’s trip to Houston to face the Dynamo less than two weeks away, it’ll be interesting to see what the Union do to replace Orozco-Fiscal and get depth behind the four starters.

At what point is this season considered success?

This team is built for the playoffs but missing out on the playoffs would not be the end of the world for the Union. An improvement to close to 40 points would be satisfying, though slightly disappointing, for a 2011 season finish. Last year the Union nearly made a real push for the playoffs late but by the time that a run of good form came along mathematical elimination was close. The Union will be one of many teams that are borderline playoffs. If they do make them then the way that Nowak has built the team will benefit it for a long playoff run.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

The popular name to say for this question would be Mondragon but I'll go with fellow Colombian, Valdes. It's been an interesting offseason for the Union defense and Valdes represents the direction that the team has gone in. Experienced and Colombian appear to be music to Piotr Nowak's ears.

Valdes is apparently of a high enough quality that the Union felt it was fine not to meet the asking price of San Luis to either extend center back Orozco-Fiscal's loan or to keep him on a permanent transfer. The 6'0", 176-pound Valdes will partner with Califf in the center of the Union's defense, giving the team its largest center back pairing since Toni Stahl stood alongside Danny Califf in the opening game of the 2010 MLS season.

One of the team's worst problems last season was an inability to keep major mistakes out of the middle of the defense, deep into the final third. Califf would occasionally slip up, as did Gonzalez Alzate in his starting role and it wasn't until Orozco-Fiscal was given a chance with Califf that the defense started to gain consistency (along with the emergence of Sheanon Williams as a starting right back).

If Valdes is able to help keep the backline's play consistent, then the problems of 2010 should not return and a playoff run should be expected, not questioned.

Where does Zac MacMath fit into the Union’s plans this season?

MacMath finds himself in a great place for a 19-year-old goalkeeper. Nowak chose to forgo solving a couple of glaring problems that the Union had by selecting MacMath fifth overall. Continuing the Union’s fascination with Maryland goalkeepers, MacMath brings top American talent to the position for the Union. He has Mondragon to tutor him in the finer points of goalkeeping, Holder to make sure he’s not rushed into action and the return of the Reserve League to play in and benefit from. The highest level of competition that MacMath will most likely see in 2011 will be a possible start in an USOC match.

How many goals will Carlos "El Pescadito" Ruiz score?

His ability to put the ball in the back of the net is undeniable but Ruiz will not net double digits for the Union. What’s more reasonable is to believe that he will score between 5-7 goals. His time away from the Los Angeles Galaxy has been a time of a serious lack of league goals, no matter what country or league he has played in. It’s probably better to believe that Mwanga will improve to hit double digits in goals, rather than think that Ruiz will immediately come in and get at least 10 league goals for only the second time since 2006.

- Report by Scott Kessler of Brotherly Game (Philadelphia Union blog)

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MLS 2011 Preview: Sporting Kanas City Has Sights Set On Playoffs

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

Leading into the preseason, many people thought they had a good idea as to who would make up about half of the starting XI on opening night against Chivas USA. The one thing that people couldn't seem to agree on, though, was who would start at forward, because that was an area that was believed to have a lot of depth and players vying for playing time. A month later, it still remains a talking point, but now, it’s because of the injury situation at the forward spot.

Teal Bunbury suffered a dislocated elbow on Feb. 15 and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks, so that puts First Kick in some doubt for the newly initiated United States national teamer. He has said recently he expects to be available for the season opener, but unless he’s 100 percent and there is no risk of re-injuring that elbow, it would be slightly silly to rush him back; especially with such a marathon season this year. Fellow forward Ryan Smith, who came to the team last year and quickly dazzled the league with his creative dribbling ability and old Arsenal playing style. As someone who gave the defenders of MLS fits last year, Smith was often subjected to brash tackles, so injuries obviously mounted, given his slender frame. It was unexpected coming into preseason that he was injured and would still be unable to participate in his first practice, even now, so he is in serious doubt for the opener.

Based upon recent lineups used by Sporting KC technical director/head coach Peter Vermes, I would expect that Kei Kamara will man the right flank in Vermes’ 4-3-3 formation, with newly signed designated player Omar Bravo on the left, and goal-scoring binger Birahim Diop in the middle.

Up until the trade of Jack Jewsbury to Portland Timbers on March 1, I did believe there would be a bit of competition for a starting spot in the midfield. Davy Arnaud will be team captain for the second straight year, so he’s pretty much locked into the starting lineup; especially as a tough-nosed "Vermes kind of guy." Where there was a potential question were the other two spots. Incumbent holding midfielder Stephane Auvray had a fairly successful first season in MLS in 2010, when healthy. It was always likely that he would start the season in that same spot, but after Jewsbury looked to be having a strong preseason, it was a slight possibility. Craig Rocastle was a late-season revelation in 2010, going from thug-minded destroyer with a reputation of yellow and red cards, to decisive, composed and a threat in attack and a force in defense. With Jewsbury gone, March 19 will likely see that same starting trio as much of the second half of 2010.

The SKC backline is about as Jekyll and Hyde as any unit you’re bound to find in MLS. The fullbacks, Michael Harrington and Roger Espinoza, will man the right and left sides of defense, respectively, as well as any rightback-leftback tandem in the league. Their play in 2010 was beyond superb, so they are seriously locked into starting roles and will be counted upon to not only replicate a successful 2010, but improve upon it once again, as they are just 24 and 25 years old, respectively. That’s the Jekyll. The Hyde is the absolute gaping hole in the center of defense. You could ask five different fans their center back pairing for opening night, and very likely get five different answers. The candidates: Shavar Thomas, Matt Besler, Brazilian trialist Julio Cesar Santos, Gambian trilaist Omar Colley and rookie draft pick Mike Jones. It could any combination of those five players, with Jones being a extremely unlikely. Of the group, Besler could potentially have the highest upside, but consistency and occasional toughness have been a nagging issue for him. That said, he should get a chance to make claim to a starting spot before anyone else. We’ll go with Thomas and Besler to start opening night; at least for this exercise.

Manning the area between the sticks will once again be Jimmy "The White Puma" Nielsen. Nielsen’s first season in MLS was marginally successful, and when he was re-signed during the offseason, it was a foregone conclusion he would be the starter in 2011.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

When you splash the cash for a designated player in MLS, you had better get a lot of bang for your buck. SKC agreed to a DP contract with Mexican international forward Omar Bravo last summer, but allowed him to stay with his now former club Chivas Guadalajara for the rest of 2010 on loan.

Having just turned 31 in the last week, Bravo still looks to have quite a bit left in the tank, seeing how his game is predicated around speed, which is something you lose as you get older. Bravo has long been known as a creative "genius" (as told by some) who sees and attempts things that most players would never even dream of. It is that creative spirit that Kansas City so dearly lacked in 2010, so Bravo will be heavily relied upon to provide that from day one of his MLS career. Already this preseason he has played all three of the forward spots in the 4-3-3, and spent a bit of time at the attacking midfielder spot, as well. Expect to see much more of that variety from the new Mexican star.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Even to outsiders, it’s fairly obvious that the loss of defender Jimmy Conrad during the offseason leaves a huge hole in the center of defense (already discussed). Agree with not re-signing the 8-year veteran or not, (and I happen to agree) losing the luxury of week in and week out being able to pencil in one half of your central defense without even a thought is bound to hurt a bit. If Matt Besler can step up and make a regular starting spot his own, that will go a long way to filling the void.

At what point is this season considered success?

It’s "Playoffs or Bust" for KC in 2011. Quite simply, this is Vermes’ second full year as head coach with the team, and fifth as technical director. After he fired Curt Onalfo and appointed himself head coach in August 2009, he put himself on the clock. The team was vastly overhauled between his interim spell to finish 2009 and his first full year in 2010. He signed almost half of a new roster, brought in his players that he wanted to coach to play the way he wanted to play, and had varying degrees of success doing so.

If SKC fails to reach the playoffs in 2011, especially with the newly formatted and expanded playoff structure, the year won’t be considered not a success, but a failure. By the end of the season, once some new players have had upwards of 30 games with their new teammates, this team should begin to click and there is no reason they can’t make a lengthy run in the MLS Cup playoffs. Don’t call your bookie and bet them to win the Cup, but also don’t be surprised if they’re still playing in the middle of November.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

The team really is "all in" on Bravo. We saw what the team was capable of in 2010 without him, and it was rather uninspiring. That would obviously be the reason the front office made a big push to sign a DP in the offseason, and the right one, as well. Fair or not, Bravo will either be rejoiced or made the goat in six months’ time.

Can they survive an epic 10-game road trip to start the season?

If we are being objective here, it’s going to be a real test. It’s not just ten games on the road; it’s a New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Colorado four-game stretch from late-April through the month of May.

That said, Jack Jewsbury might have said it best at the beginning of the preseason: "the way we look at it is: we have 34 games and there's 17 on the road, no matter how you break them up." Avoiding too many injuries will obviously be a very big key, as well as getting off to a good start against a somewhat weaker first handful of games against Chivas, Chicago, Vancouver, Columbus and New England.

How will the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup affect Sporting KC?

The 2011 version of the bi-annual competition will hit Kansas City the hardest of all MLS teams; at least as far as key players and starters go. That’s just the price you pay for having a largely international mix of players, as KC does.

Stephane Auvray (Guadeloupe), Craig Rocastle (Grenada), Shavar Thomas (Jamaica) and Roger Espinoza (Honduras) all helped their respective international teams qualify for the tournament last summer, while Teal Bunbury (USA) will surely be in the mix for the American roster, as well. That’s five plays that, when healthy, will be counted on for significant contributions as starters. Obviously, depth will be a big key in surviving up to a month without each player.

Recently signed trialist Scott Lorenz will back up Espinoza at leftback, the carousel of forwards should survive without Bunbury for a period of time, Santos or Colley could potentially step in for Thomas for a bit, but depth in the midfield is seriously lacking at the moment. Meaning, a long run by Guadeloupe and/or Grenada in the competition could cause serious problems for the players’ club team.

- Report by Andy Edwards of The Daily Wiz (Sporting Kansas City blog)

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MLS 2011 Preview: New England Revolution Might Not Be As Bad As You Think

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

It would appear that Steve Nicol is now married to the 4-4-2 after last season, and his team will be built on a strong foundation in the back. Matt Reis will certainly get the nod in goal and hopefully re-stake his claim as one of the best in the league. All-star Kevin Alston and new signing Didier Domi will start at right and left-back, respectively. In the middle things are looking a little hazier, but the veteran duo of Darrius Barnes and Ryan Cochrane looks most likely to begin the season as the preferred pairing. The engine room in midfield was set in stone the moment Ousmane Dabo signed the dotted line, as he will pair with Shalrie Joseph and give the Grenadian license to bomb forward whenever he desires. Sainey Nyassi should have his traditional right-wing spot, but the left-wing is far from definite. Marko Perovic will probably play there, but for much of last season he spent time up top, in which case Chris Tierney would be the favorite to start on the left. Up front, Ilija Stolica is likely to be paired with Zack Schilawski, unless the Revs pull off a major signing or choose to have Perovic leading the line rather than Schilawski.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

Didier Domi may be able to bring some needed stability and leadership to the back line, but it will be Ousmane Dabo whose presence will be most telling. The 34-year-old Frenchman has played everywhere and played well, and Steve Nicol will call on his ability to hold the ball and dictate tempo, two skills the Revolution were sorely lacking last season.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Though they’ve been without him for two seasons already, the retirement of Taylor Twellman slammed the door shut on any hopes of seeing his prodigious goalscoring talents again. Despite making great strides in improving an incredibly poor defense and shoring up the midfield, the Revs have done virtually nothing to make any noticeable improvements to their strike force and we may be looking at another season light on goals. Twellman’s absence will continue to be felt by the New England offense.

At what point is this season considered success?

After the debacle that was last season, success could be defined by conceding just a goal per game or fewer. If the Revolution are contending for a playoff spot in the last match of the season then the campaign could be considered acceptable, but a success would be reclaiming their place among the league’s elite and making a run into the playoffs.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

Undoubtedly Shalrie Joseph will be the barometer for this team’s success. Last season he had a stuttering start to the campaign, nursing injury and then serving a suspension. It wasn’t until the last third of the season or so that he began hitting his stride, dictating play and scoring goals. It’s no coincidence that the Revs started competing in league matches and had a decent run of results at that time. When Shalrie is marauding forward, completing passes and imposing his will on opposing midfields, the Revs are nigh-unstoppable.

Will the Revs defense really improve?

After conceding a league-worst 50 goals last season, plugging a leaky defense was a major priority for the Revs front office. They went out and grabbed Ryan Cochrane in the re-entry draft, and then made Cal defender A.J. Soares their first pick in the SuperDraft. They replaced the departed Cory Gibbs and Emmanuel Osei with Didier Domi and Franco Coria, and re-signed Seth Sinovic to help build on the foundation of Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes. But will it be enough? Houston fans have been spouting that giving up Cochrane was no real loss. Soares has looked great in preseason, but he’s an uproven rookie in an unforgiving league, and precious little is known about Coria. The answer to this question could mean the difference between improvement and a long, long season.

Where will the goals come from?

Ever since Taylor Twellman went down with his career-ending concussion the Revs have been bereft of a consistent scoring threat. Now that the Twellman era has officially ended, many fans expected the Revolution to go out and bring in a proven scorer. Instead, they’ve elected to stick with their current strike force and only added draftee Alan Koger. These forwards only accounted for about 12 to 15 goals (depending on who you define as a forward) last season, so prospects certainly don’t look any better. No matter what the Revs have done to fix their defensive woes, they still won’t make it back to the playoffs if they can’t score.

- Report by Steve Stoehr of The Bent Musket (New England Revolution blog)

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MLS 2011 Preview: DC United Will Benefit From Competition

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

D.C. United’s team this year will legitimately have competition at every position. This is a significant contrast to last year’s team, whose starting lineup generally consisted of whichever players weren’t concussed, had the healthiest hernias, and the most uncracked ribs. At the goalkeeper position, Pat Onstad is likely to be the starter at First Kick, but will step aside once sophomore homegrown player Bill Hamid is ready to go full-time. D.C.’s defense is certain to return at least two starters from last season in Dejan Jakovic and Jed Zayner. At the left back position, veteran Marc Burch, who missed all but four matches last season, is in competition with former Carolina Railhawk defender Daniel Woolard. They will be joined in the back by impressive rookie Perry Kitchen in the center. United’s midfield has the most questions, due mostly to its improved depth. The only absolutes are newcomer Dax McCarty and 2010 rookie of the year Andy Najar. The rest of the midfield could see any combination of Clyde Simms, Branko Boskovic, Chris Pontius, and Santino Quaranta. At the top, Charlie Davies will be the eventual starter once he proves that he is fit and capable. In the mean time though, Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya could start the season together, or they could be joined by Pontius.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

The acquisition of McCarty could be huge. He’ll provide aggression, work ethic, quick-thinking, and the direction that’s been lacking since the departure of Ben Olsen himself. And Davies could be the 10-goal scorer to help D.C. improve upon its record-setting goal-scoring futility last year.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

If we’re talking strictly on the field, the answer is none. Troy Perkins, Pablo Hernandez, Danny Allsopp, and Christian Castillo all had very disappointing seasons. Off the field though, D.C. could miss the leadership traits of Jaime Moreno. They’ll be looking for Wolff, Quaranta, and McCarty to step up to fill the void as veteran leaders.

At what point is this season considered success?

Using the word "playoffs" is very tempting, but might still be a bit too optimistic for a team that finished in last place in 2010. Still, United has improved enough, and the rest of the Eastern Conference has debilitated enough, that D.C. should be expected to compete for one of the three guaranteed spots in the East.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

United may live and die at the feet of Boskovic this season. He arrived in D.C. late last season, and failed to make his mark, while showing lots potential. With a full preseason under his belt, if Boskovic can show the form that helped him captain the Montenegran national team to hand England its first ever shutout in New Wembley Stadium during Euro Qualifying last year, United could do very well.

Will United’s youth hold it back?

Its true that United is young. No one will deny it. But the team didn’t get younger just to get younger. Olsen has specifically added hard-working and intelligent young players who can grow together and who fit the possession-oriented system the team has always strived to display. McCarty and Kitchen are a big part of that. Being younger also means being faster. United’s team speed has improved drastically, and with Davies, Ngwenya, Najar, and Pontius towards the top of the formation, opposing defenses are going to have to be very careful.

- Report by Martin Shatzer of Black And Red United (DC United blog)

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MLS 2011 Preview: Toronto FC Has Some Major Work Ahead

Who do you think will be starting at First Kick?

Good question. This needs a huge "At the time of writing" asterisk as I hope to god, there's more players and new signings on the way. As it stands, going by players who are actually signed and in camp, this is the best we've got to fill out Aron Winter's preferred 4-3-3 formation.

In goal, Stefan Frei. One of the few unproblematic positions, Frei is a solid MLS calibre goalie, though his distribution skills will be tested with TFC's renewed emphasis on keeping possession.

In Defense, Adrian Cann and Nana Attakora were a very good center back partnership last year, and should be starters again. Unfortunately 2010 MVP Cann is currently sitting out in a contract dispute, so I'll put Home Grown player Doneil Henry with Attakora in the middle. The full back positions are where there's real question marks, hopefully some trialists, draft picks or academy kids will stake a claim, but for now, it's probably Ty Harden and Dan Gargan, which is less than ideal.

In Midfield, Julian De Guzman should fit well into Winter's new system and he'll be joined by Dwayne De Rosario as the attacking midfielder. Those two are definites, the third spot, probably another deep lying player, is up for grabs though Nick LaBrocca is getting an extended look in pre-season.

Up front, Maicon Santos will be the central striker and he showed enough last year to suggest he could be very good. Again though there are question marks out wide, Jacob Peterson will take one of the spots and for the other I'll have to go with someone who isn't even signed yet, Dutch winger Javier Martina who's been given a lot of playing time in pre-season. The side has a strong spine with Frei, Attakora, De Guzman, De Rosario and Santos, but the other positions are in serious need of an upgrade, so hopefully reinforcements are on the way.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

What's Dutch for "to be announced"? A lot of last year's squad were let go, and the replacements so far are less than convincing. Nathan Sturgis could be a dependable squad player, but will never be described as an impact player, and hasn't impressed Winter so far in pre-season. Javier Martina, a young Dutch winger who still hasn't been officially announced as signed has looked exciting in pre-season, but has "mercurial and frustratingly inconsistent winger" written all over him. I'm seriously going to go with TBA, as there's got to be someone better coming soon, there has to be.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Chad Barrett. Most of the players let go from last year's squad will not be missed at all. Barrett's not a superstar by any means, but he will be missed. He's always had a great work rate and done all the extra stuff well, and last season he added an improved strike rate to that to become one of the most important players on the team, it's no coincidence that things went seriously wrong with Preki's team last year when Barrett was injured. For a team that's always struggled to score goals, getting Barrett's replacement right will be a huge factor.

At what point is this season considered success?

TFC are basically an expansion club again, and seem to be thinking a bit more long term than they have before, so my expectations for this season are appropriately low. Making the playoffs would be a huge success, what would be satisfactory? For me, I'd say whatever's considered good enough for the new management group to retain the confidence of supporters and management so we don't have to start all over again, again. To give some realistic targets, I'll say any 2 of reaching 40 points (probably not good enough for even the new easy playoffs), finishing above Vancouver, or retaining the Voyageurs cup and then making the Champions League group stage would be considered successful.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

As proven over the last couple of years, a good or even great year for Dwayne De Rosario doesn't automatically translate to a good year for TFC, so I'll go with Julian de Guzman. So far he's been a disappointment with TFC not seeing the form he's previously showed for Canada and Deportivo La Coruna in Spain, but his ability to find space and make himself available as an outlet for the defence, and then move the ball on quickly is going to be a crucial factor in making Winter's more patient possession based system work. Also, with three up front, TFC could often find itself out-manned in the middle so his positioning and ability to break down opponent's attacks will be just as important. Should a DM be a DP? Maybe not, but for better or worse he is, and for TFC to be successful, he'll have to play much better than he did last year and really earn it.

Does the Emperor actually have clothes? (Or, Is Aron Winter the new Ruud Gullit?)

Aron Winter was certainly a crowd pleasing big name to bring in as Technical Director and head coach, and since arriving in January, he's definitely talked a good game. After Preki's more pragmatic and defensive approach last year, talk of attractive attacking football was like catnip to TFC fans, and he seems very confident that he can compete quickly and be successful within his initial three-year contract. I have plenty of confidence that his long term impact will be very good, setting in place a system and philosophy that can be shared all the way from the first team down through to the youngest academy teams, which will pay dividends for years to come, even after his departure. Short term though, when it gets down to the day to day managing of an MLS squad, with all the limitations that imposes, I definitely have doubts. Though he was a great player, and Ajax is a great place to learn as an assistant, he's untested as a head coach, and the trialists he's brought in have been distinctly underwhelming so far. Will he be as successful as he thinks, and more importantly will he be able to make the adjustments and compromises that will be needed, or will the limitations of MLS, the salary cap, the overall talent level and the more physical style of play frustrate and defeat him before we even get to see the long term benefits?

Can TFC win anything with kids?

Alan Hansen famously said you never win anything with kids, but TFC will be hoping that he's wrong as it looks like we're in for a serious youth movement in Toronto. A lot of emphasis and investment continues to be made in TFC's academy, with hopes that Aron Winter and fellow Dutch coach Bob de Klerk can translate their experience at Ajax into success here and provide the new players for Toronto and Canada for years to come. Most supporters were probably thinking that all this would be in the future, but given the lack of experienced players currently in the squad, it seems like the kids will have a big part to play this year. So far in pre-season, 2011 Super Draft picks Demetrious Omphroy and Joao Plata have played a lot, as have academy players Ashtone Morgan, Matt Stinson, Oscar Cordon and Kevin Aleman who starred with Canada's under 17 team at the recent world cup qualifying tournament. Given the current bare bones squad size, I'd expect quite a few of those players to be signed up to the first team and be challenging for starting positions, throw in young Dutch winger and Ajax academy graduate Javier Martina who looks to have won a starting place on the left wing, and TFC could have a very young squad. The experience should help the kids contribute in the future, which is the real goal here, but if a few of them can't step up and play well this year, 2011 is going to be a long season.

- Report by Duncan Fletcher of Waking the Red (soon to launch Toronto FC blog)

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MLS 2011 Previews: New York Red Bulls Look To Build On Near-Miss 2010

Who do you expect to be in starting XI at First Kick?

Despite his eccentricity, Bouna Coundoul will be in goal for the New York Red Bulls on March 19.  The Senegalese international is an entertaining but occasionally fear-inducing presence between the sticks for New York; he's capable of playing out of his mind (see last year's game at home against Kansas City) and losing games almost single-handedly (away to Chivas USA).

In front of Couldoul the standout defensive rookie of 2010, Tim Ream, will start alongside Mexican captain Rafael Márquez.  The former Barcelona man played much of his first half-season in MLS as a defensive midfielder, but Hans Backe's plethora of options in central midfield and comparative lack of quality at centreback means Márquez will move to the backline for 2011.  The right back spot is up for grabs as the Red Bulls have been trying out the former Tottenham midfielder Teemu Tainio on the right side of defense to possibly replace the amazingly consistent Chris Albright.  On the left, Roy Miller will continue to start, much to the annoyance of the Red Bull Arena faithful.

Backe has been setting the Red Bulls up in a 4-1-3-2 during pre-season, with Tony Tchani the deep man in midfield behind (from left to right) new signing Jan Gunnar Solli, Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere, and Jamaican speed demon Dane Richards, who has been in a rich vein of from since last August.  The strike pairing up top, assuming that the Red Bulls' team is fully fit or nearly so, should be Thierry Henry and Juan Agudelo.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

Most of the Red Bulls' fans are looking forward to watching the team's two new Homegrown players, Sacir Hot and Matt Kassel.  However, the two youngsters are unlikely to see much playing time this season.

Instead, English striker Luke Rodgers and the Norwegian midfielder Solli are the two key additions to the Red Bulls' side for 2011.  The former should bring some badly needed pace to the New York attack, while Hans Backe is hoping that the latter will fill the big hole on the left side of midfield.  Henry has lost a step or two, and though Juan Agudelo will probably start in the attack both he and Henry have had injury problems recently, giving Rodgers the chance to make a name for himself in MLS if he can stay fit and firing.

Solli has been frequently compared to Joel Lindpere, and the Red Bulls will be in great shape if the Norwegian midfielder can replicate his Estonian teammate's first season for New York.  He hasn't been great wide on the left in pre-season, but may have the chance to operate in a more familiar central role as the season progresses.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

This is very easy: Juan Pablo Ángel.  The Red Bulls do not have a player with the same combination of consistency, experience, and leadership in their attack -- for all of Henry's quality as a footballer, he has not been consistent in MLS and has been plagued with injuries in recent seasons.  Seth Stammler, John Wolyniec, and Mike Petke will be missed, both for their commitment over the long haul and their connections with the fanbase, but Ángel was undoubtedly the best player for the Red Bulls from mid-2007 until Henry and Márquez arrived last year.  He may not be in good enough shape to be on top form for a full season any more, but the Red Bulls will miss their former captain's aerial ability and leadership.

At what point is this season considered success?

When the Red Bulls have a trophy to display at Red Bull Arena.  It really is that simple, and probably won't matter what trophy.  Winning is the club's goal, and Red Bull have put plenty of money towards achieving it.  A US Open Cup, the Supporters' Shield, or MLS Cup -- whatever form it may take, Red Bulls fans want to win some kind of competition, and after the disappointment of last season the pressure will be even higher to finally put some silverware in the club's trophy cabinet.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

It's very tempting to say Bouna Coundoul, but the Red Bulls' fortunes will probably be more closely linked with the form of midfield dynamo Joel Lindpere.  He marshals the team in the middle of the park, helps out the defense, sets up goals, and scores a few spectacular ones.  Lindpere is also an iron man who plays hurt and works harder than anyone else on the team.  Unfortunately, he's not the most creative (which is also true of the team as a whole) and like all players is prone to the occasional bad game.  What makes him so influential, particularly this season, is that Hans Backe has moved Lindpere further up in the attack; instead of playing as a holding midfielder or an auxiliary left winger, he is effectively the Red Bulls' #10, an attacking midfielder.

Which of the Red Bulls' young players will make the biggest impact in 2011?

Much was made of Tim Ream's brilliant first season in MLS, and as discussed above Red Bulls fans are excited about the club's homegrown players, but not nearly as much attention has been focused on New York's first draft pick from 2010, Tony Tchani.  The University of Virgina midfielder won a national championship in college, but spent most of the first half of the Red Bulls' 2010 season as a bit-part player and only got a string of starts in the US Open Cup qualifiers.  However, Tchani grew from a competent defensive midfielder who struggled with his passing early in the season to a midfield general by the latter part of the campaign.  There were several games in the late summer and early fall when he completely bossed the center of the pitch: covering defensively, winning the ball back, and starting attacks.  He has the potential to be starting in a top-flight European midfield by his late twenties, and the Red Bulls will be in great shape if he can continue to progress this season as he did in the last.

How will Thierry Henry and Rafael Márquez fare in their first full season in MLS?

This is everyone's favorite question -- perhaps because they want the answer to be "badly."  Neither Henry nor Márquez played brilliantly in 2010, but the Mexican captain was far more consistent and durable than his former Barcelona teammate, who never hit any kind of form.  Both should be fully fit for the coming season, although Márquez's season will almost certainly be interrupted by the Gold Cup this summer.  They should have adapted to the style of play and refereeing in MLS by now, but that doesn't guarantee good performances either.

For Henry, success will depend a lot on the service he receives and who he is paired with in New York's attack.  Playing alongside Juan Agudelo, given the young American's technical skill, will probably be more potent than if Henry were alongside Luke Rodgers or Salou Ibrahim, and he may suffer from New York's lack of midfield creativity.  Márquez has a great partner at the back in Tim Ream, but will have to improve his ball security and toughness to avoid some of the cheap giveaways that cost goals in 2010.

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MLS 2011 Preview: Houston Dynamo's Remade Defense Could Speed Recovery

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

4-4-2 (Midfield Diamond)

Zach's Lineup & Thoughts:

Hall

Chabala - Taylor - Boswell - Freeman

Cruz - Palmer - Cameron - Davis

Ching - Garey

Goalkeeper: Tally Hall should be the opening day starter but that doesn't mean that he's not being pushed. Tyler Deric has been very strong all pre-season and it look like both men are capable of being starters in MLS, which is a luxury for the Dynamo. That said, Hall was signed a couple seasons ago to take over for Pat Onstad when he retired and it's his job to lose.

Defense: We know Bobby Boswell will start in the central defense and I'm pretty confident that Jermaine Taylor will start beside him, but veteran Eddie Robinson is in the mix as well. Just who Kinnear puts on the field against Philadelphia is either a closely guarded secret or the head coach hasn't decided yet. Hunter Freeman seems the logical choice at right back given his experience but Kofi Sarkodie has looked capable so far as well. On the left side, Mike Chabala and Andrew Hainault have both been talked up for the position and while Chabala is probably the likely choice, there is no room for error from anyone on the back line. Plus, there's Jordan Graye as well...basically, Houston has options. After last season's struggles, Kinnear likely won't hesitate to make changes if he feels a player isn't doing the job he expects.

Midfield: Brad Davis will start on the right, Geoff Cameron will stop at the top of the diamond and Lovel Palmer will sit in the defensive mid role. That leaves the left side of Kinnear midfield diamond. Colin Clark would be your starter if he was ready but he's not expected back until April. So the battle for a starting spot likely comes down to Danny Cruz and Corey Ashe. Both have pace, both have show the ability to make plays, but Ashe tends to be a little stronger defensively. I think you'll see them interchanged depending on the opponent until Clark is healthy.

Forwards: Brian Ching will start as long as he's healthy. Who will join him up to is the big question. Jason Garey has made a case for the job and so has Will Bruin. Cam Weaver hasn't looked as good as the two of them, but that's not a shot at Cam, the competition has just been extremely tight. Dominic Oduro was added to the mix last week after testing the waters in Europe, so he gives the Dynamo a speed option up front. My gut feeling is that Ching and Garey will start to open the season.

Jordan's Lineup & Thoughts:

Hall

Chabala - Taylor - Boswell - Freeman

Cruz - Palmer - Cameron - Davis

Oduro - Ching

It was known all offseason that there were three key areas that the Houston Dynamo needed to fix; a weak defense, goal-scoring forwards, and an impact central-attacking midfielder.  While the expected starting XI halfway addresses those concerns, the updated roster shows that two of those three areas have been fixed.  With regards to the starting line-up, there are a few things that are certain: Brian Ching will start when healthy, Brad Davis, Lovel Palmer, and Geoff Cameron are locks in the midfield, Bobby Boswell will be the starting centerback, and Tally Hall will start in goal.

The other five positions are still up in the air.  Until Colin Clark returns to full fitness, Danny Cruz will likely start at right wing with Corey Ashe being brought on late in games.  The only wildcards with this position are whether or not Francisco Navas Cobo, Josue Soto, or Alex Dixon are used at some point in the season and if rookie defender Kofi Sarkodie’s speed and attacking instincts will land him a substitute’s spot in the midfield.

Most of the team’s questions heading into the offseason were aimed at the second worst defense in the league.  Dominic KInnear and co. answered those questions after offloading some of the older players in favor of younger, more athletic talent.  The departure of Richard Mulrooney, Adrian Serioux, and Ryan Cochrane made room for Hunter Freeman, Jordan Graye, Jermaine Taylor, and Kofi Sarkodie.  Eddie Robinson, Andrew Hainault, and Mike Chabala are all still around, but there is competition for the starting spots.  Jermaine Taylor, with his experience and pre-season displays seems poised to join Bobby Boswell in the center of the defense.  Hunter Freeman looks to have taken the starting right back spot from Hainault, though strong showings from Sarkodie could see Freeman moved the left back position, pushing 26 year-old Chabala to the substitute’s bench.  Robinson and Hainault are likely to be starters when the schedule becomes more congested, and will bring experience and the desire to become regular starters with them.  Experienced defender Graye is a bit of a wildcard, but will continue challenging for a spot.

The (temporary) retirement of Pat Onstad opened the door for young ‘keepers Tally Hall and Tyler Deric to fight for the starting spot between the pipes.  Hall won the fight, but Deric proved he has the skills to pressure Hall and be a goalkeeper for the future.  The acquisition of Evan Newton brings depth to the goalkeeping group, though the first-year goalie is not likely to see too much action.

The only other point of real debate left is who should start alongside captain Brian Ching.  While Oduro may not be a popular choice, the Ghanaian has MLS experience and is the only forward with true speed.  Oduro may be best suited as a substitute who can stretch the defense, but I would not be too surprised if Kinnear starts the fast forward at the start of the season.  Now, if Oduro doesn’t start?  Well, that’s when things get really fun.  After his hattrick against SMU in the preseason, rookie Will Bruin is making a strong case for a starting spot.  It’s not too often rookie players are relied upon so quickly, but Coach Kinnear has to like what he sees in the young forward.  Jason Garey, the former Columbus Crew forward, also has impressed in preseason and could fill in as a starter when needed.  The one forward who has failed to live up to expectations (two seasons running now) is Cam Weaver.  The lanky forward has been inconsistent, at best, and continues to frustrate fans.  Weaver seems to be one of those players who can play well when he gets his confidence, but he must find that confidence somewhere quickly if he wants to see minutes for this Dynamo team.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

Zach: Jermaine Taylor and Hunter Freeman. While the Dynamo offense had some issues at times last season, it was the defense that was the achilles' heel for Houston. The addition of Taylor and Freeman give Kinnear two experienced defenders that should held solidify the back line. Taylor is a big, strong defender who is good in the air and very calm on the ball. Freeman is positionally strong and can get forward and join the attack, something Kinnear likes to have his fullbacks do with regularity. If the defense can return to form, the offense will find goals.

Jordan: This has to be a three-way toss up between Geoff Cameron, Will Bruin, and Jermaine Taylor.  I think Taylor may edge out the lead because he can help shore up what was a terrible defense that cost the team multiple games. Far too many times the Dynamo gave up points late in games last season, but it looks like Taylor could be the player who, alongside Boswell, tightens things up and gets the defense back to its hardnosed style of years past.  Bruin looks to be one of those rare rookies who comes into the league and can immediately make an impact.  He was an unexpected pick-up in the SuperDraft and has shown nothing but class and poise.  On top of that, he is scoring goals and the preseason from open play, something the Dynamo struggled with last season.  I know Geoff Cameron isn’t a new player (and I hate when people say getting someone back from injury is "like a new signing"), but Cameron’s return from his PCL injury last season could make or break Houston’s season.  Cameron has looked good in preseason and seems more comfortable in his attacking role.  He will have to create attacking runs and learn how to control the game from the midfield, but, if he can do that and score more than a few goals, he will be the biggest impact player this season. 

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Zach: Pat Onstad. Nothing against Hall and Deric but losing your veteran goalkeeper is never an easy situation for a team to deal with. Fortunately the Dynamo knew this day was coming and have been preparing. Other veterans will have to step in to the leadership role that Onstad filled but the key the season might be how quickly Hall, whom I expect to start, get comfortable with his defense and how well they communicate. There will be a couple bumps in the road but things should work out fine in the end.

Jordan: It may be a bit harsh to say none, but that really seems to be the case with the Dynamo ahead of the 2011 season.  The departure of a number of older and ineffective players helps this team in a number of ways.  First, it opened up valuable roster spots and even more valuable salary cap space.  Secondly, it gives the younger guys an opportunity to show their skills and fight for playing time; competition always brings out the best in players.  And lastly, it created an environment where some of the young guys from the SuperDraft, Supplemental Draft, and Dynamo Academy system can come in and get actual playing time.

At what point is this season considered success?

Zach: Playoffs, nothing less will do. After missing the playoffs for the first time last season, getting back in the mix for the MLS Cup is the goal, plain and simple. Kinnear and Chris Canetti have spent the offseason retooling this roster around getting younger and more athletic. Not making the playoffs would be a huge failure in the eyes of everyone involved with the Dynamo.

Jordan: After last season’s disappointing record and missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the 2011 season will be considered a success if the Dynamo can make and challenge in the playoffs.  Now that the team is in the Eastern Conference, along with the new playoff structure, the Dynamo should have little problem making the playoffs, but only time will tell if the team has enough to challenge and make a MLS Cup run. Ultimately, the most important mark of success for this season will be if the team can win games and create a buzz ahead of the new Houston Dynamo stadium opening in 2012.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

Zach: I'm not sure that Brad Davis' performance will be indicative, but there is no player more essential to the success of the Dynamo. The offense runs through Davis and when he's on the field, the team creates goals and are dangerous on set pieces. With Davis off the field, it really feels like the offense is a little lost. Is Davis stays healthy and effective, the Dynamo will score goals. If he's lost for an extended amount of time, someone will have to step up or things could get very dicey.

Jordan: Brad Davis, no questions about it.  The veteran winger is the key to Houston’s attack.  In the offseason, Davis scored goals from set pieces, the penalty spot, and open play, along with creating a number of assists.  Whenever he was subbed off so that Coach Kinnear could take a look at other players, the Dynamo offense looked slightly impotent and significantly robust.  If Davis can stay healthy, then the Dynamo have a real chance at scoring goals and winning games.  If he goes down with a season-threatening injury the way Cameron did in 2010, the it could be another painful season for Dynamo fans. 

Can Geoff Cameron be an effective central attacking midfielder?

Zach: I think the answer to this question is more about when than if. Cameron has the tools and has shown flashes of brilliance in the pre-season, the key is going to be consistently doing the job game in and game out. Cameron has to be dangerous and effective in order to prevent defenses from trying to key on Brad Davis. The more directions the Dynamo can attack from the better and if opposing teams are having to concern themselves with Cameron getting space and either finding open teammates or scoring goals himself, it will make everyone else around him that much better. This is still a work in progress. Missing so much of last season prevented Cameron from being able to settle in to the new role so the pressure will be on to make that position is as fast as possible.

Should Brian Ching still start for Houston?

Jordan: I know this question will anger longtime fans of the Dynamo, those who feel that the team’s captain can do no wrong and should play every minute of every game, but I think it has to be asked.  Last season Ching picked up a series of injuries, culminating in a hamstring injury that forced him to miss a spell of games and, likely, was the prime reason Bob Bradley did not take him to the World Cup in South Africa.

here’s no denying that, when healthy, Ching is a fantastic player and is the lifeblood and leader of the Dynamo.  The problem is, he’s not 100% healthy all the time, and is looking like he won’t be 100% fit most of the time.  It’s only preseason, but Ching already has picked up another hamstring injury and has missed a number of practices, scrimmages, and friendlies.  If the forward continues to be plagued with hamstring issues, then questions will have to be asked about Ching’s health and if something structurally is wrong with his hammies.  

So what’s the answer to the question?  Well, I think Ching should start, when he is 100% fit, but that means he cannot and will not start every game.  If anything, I think that Will Bruin and company have shown that they can score goals and win games with Ching out of the line-up, something that should comfort Coach Kinnear.  So what does that mean long term for Ching?  Well, I think his time this season has to be limited to the big games.  Think of it as a role like Ryan Giggs of Manchester United.  The 37 year-old winger still has skills and influences every game he plays, but at his age he cannot play every single game.  So, he is played in major games and in times where injuries have thinned out the squad.  Is it hard for a competitor like him to not start every game?  Sure, every major athlete wants to play every minute of every game, but at some point, as both an aging player (or an injury-plagued player) and as a leader, you have to recognize that you are more important in certain games and at certain times at 100% than you are at 75% all the time.  So, the big question is, can Brian Ching handle not starting every game?  

-Report by Zach Woosley - Dynamo Theory and Jordan Wise - SB Nation Houston
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MLS 2011 Preview: Colorado Rapids Work On Defending MLS Cup

Who do you see in the starting XI for First Kick?

If the line-up isn’t the exact same basic defensive 4-4-2 that we saw for the MLS Cup final I will be amazed. Matt Pickens will continue to man the goal as the Rapids really have no viable other options, with the back four of Anthony Wallace - Drew Moor - Marvell Wynne - Kosuke Kimura. Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz will hold the middle of midfield while Casey and Cummings will be the strikers up top. The interesting question is who will start on the wings. With Brian Mullan’s advancing age he may be usurped from his starting spot by Sanna Nyassi or Wells Thompson if either of them outshow him in preseason. Jamie Smith will no doubt remain the left midfielder, his service is the best on the team; a very important assett on a team that utilizes strikers as much as the Rapids do.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

Most likely, Nyassi. The band is very much still together from last season and of all the offseason moves he is the most likely to contribute on the first team on anything resembling a regular basis. If the Rapids would go ahead and sign Caleb Folan already, I could probably say him since he would immediately be the late in the game striker substitute with Mac Kandji still out.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

The only real loss the Rapids had over the offseason was Julien Baudet, our coveted big defender who created chaos in the box. They replaced him with Tyrone Marshall but the intangible things that Baudet brought to the pitch such as a very vocal and spirited attitude on the field of play might be the biggest losses.

At what point is this season considered success?

Colorado front office member Jeff Plush said it best, the Rapids want to be greedy. The fanbase will consider this season a success if they manage to get some Silverware. The Open Cup, another MLS Championship, even a chance at the Supporters' Shield would do it. As long as there is another shined trophy on our mantle at the end of the season it will be a success. We know now that this team is good enough to win trophies.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

Colorado obviously added some pep to their offense when they added Nyassi and probably Folan to the mix, but Gary Smith’s system will still run through his strikers. The team tends to go as the Casey/Cummings tandem goes - you will most likely see no members of this team who aren’t strikers scoring more than four or five goals - and they will probably need to score a combined 30 goals again in order to keep the team in the upper echelons of the league. Unless Nyassi, Smith, Mullan or Thompson suddenly become spitfires from the wings the team will need every goal from them that they get. With both seeming to get better every year they play together, it shouldn’t be a problem for the Rapids.

What’s to stop this team from turning back into the team that swooned through summer last season?

Quite simply - and I still think that most people have not realized this - this is not the same team that the Rapids were in mid-2010. Since Mehdi Ballouchy and Colin Clark were traded for Kandji and Mullan, the team had a new-found ability both on the pitch and mentally within themselves. Nothing establishes that point more than the last few games of the season and playoffs. Before the two trades the Rapids had gone several seasons without coming back from a deficit to win a game, a statistic which stunk up the atmosphere every time the Rapids went down. They never won games when they conceded first and you could tell the team knew that stat was on their backs every game. After the trade, they finally broke that terrible streak, against the LA Galaxy IN LA of all places! They came back against Columbus in the playoffs to force penalties and win that playoff game. They came back in the MLS Cup Final against a team that was supposed to be the best in the league at holding a lead, FC Dallas. This is and has been a new Rapids team with a new mentality and they will not be the same on and off team from last year.

What’s the biggest weakness of this team?

The strength of the team is the fact that while it is not a group of Super Stars put together with random other players acting as glue like New York, every player has good talent and very few weaknesses to exploit. The biggest problem with the team is most likely the exploitable nature of the left side. Left Back Wallace showed some fantastic stuff last season but is very clearly still young and learning the ways of the game. After all, it was his terrible coverage that allowed such an easy goal for David Ferreira in the final. Smith will start in left midfield as well, the worst midfielder on the team by far in terms of defending. If a team wants to try and get a quick goal on the Rapids, it would suit them best to attack from the left.

- Report by Chris "UZ" White of Burgundy Wave (Colorado Rapids blog)

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MLS 2011 Previews: FC Dallas Hopes To Keep Momentum

Who do you see in the starting XI for First Kick?

The biggest strength of the FCD lineup heading into 2011 is the defense. Dallas allowed the fewest goals per game in team history last season and they return everyone except Heath Pearce from last year’s team. There’s a depth that not many teams can match and when Daniel Hernandez is added, Dallas is just plain tough to score on. They’ll look to attack down the wings with Shea and Chavez while freeing up space for David Ferreira to pick out the deadly pass or shot.

That said, here's who I seeing starting for First Kick: Hartman; Jackson, Loyd, John, Benitez; Hernandez, Chavez, Alexander, Shea; Ferreira, Rodriguez.

Which new player will have the biggest impact?

For FC Dallas, it’s tough because there are almost no new players. I’m going to say Andrew Jacobson. Jacobson is a new player for FCD coming from Philadelphia and I’ve been pretty impressed with him so far. While things didn’t quite work out for him in Philly, I think Jacobson is very well suited to play in Dallas 4-1-4-1 system in either Eric Alexander or Daniel Hernandez’s role.

Which player’s loss will be felt the most?

Without a doubt, Dax McCarty. Dax’s skill set worked very well as the box to box midfielder in front of Daniel Hernandez and Eric Alexander hasn’t quite shown the consistency yet to play at a high level. Some may say the loss of Heath Pearce will be significantly felt, but with Zach Loyd and Jackson on the squad, Dallas won’t miss a beat at right back.

At what point is this season considered success?

Now this is a tough question for a Dallas fan to answer. Last year was the best season in team history, but no trophies were won. I think it’s going to take a trophy for the season to be considered a success at this point.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

Dallas will live and die by how well Brek Shea and Marvin Chavez play on the wings. Dallas has, without a doubt, a championship caliber defense, but to be a top MLS team they will need Shea and Chavez to put fear into the opposition defenses and keep the double teams off of David Ferreira. When Chavez and Shea play well, it opens up the middle for the MLS MVP Ferreira to work his magic and Dallas is almost impossible to beat.

Who will be a breakout player for FCD this year?

Watch out for FCD homegrown forward Ruben Luna. The Mexican U20 International forward will be thrust into a bigger role for Dallas this year as either the second or third forward and could get 5 goals this year.

Can Dallas repeat their unprecedented success of last season?

I think as long as Kevin Hartman and Daniel Hernandez can stay fit, Dallas will be a tough team to beat. They set the MLS record for unbeaten games in a row last season with both of these guys fit and a defensive six of Kevin Hartman, Zach Loyd, Jair Benitez, Ugo Ihemelu and George John is a scary good unit. People may question whether Dallas has the goals in them to go as far as last season, but they may not need many goals to achieve theirs this season.

- Report by Daniel Robertson of Big D Soccer (FC Dallas blog)

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MLS 2011 Preview: Chivas USA Seem To Be Trending In Right Direction

Who do you see in the starting XI for First Kick?

As much as almost any team, Chivas USA is a very different side than the one that closed out the 2010 season. MLS veterans like Alejandro Moreno, Jimmy Conrad, Andrew Boyens and Simon Elliott have been brought in along with younger talents like Heath Pearce, Tristan Bowen and Zarek Valentin. How they will all fit together is still an open question, but it wouldn't be surprising to see most of those guys in the starting lineup when the season opens on March 19 against Sporting Kansas City. It also appears as if new coach Robin Fraser is toying with the idea of employing a 4-1-4-1 formation.

One of the few holdovers who is a clear starter is goalkeeper Zach Thornton. The much traveled keeper is the clear No. 1. Assuming forward Justin Braun is healthy by the start of the season, he also seems to be an obvious choice. Of course, Braun has yet to play in a preseason match after leaving the United States National Team camp with an injury. Paulo Nagamura has played only sparingly, as well, but will almost certainly start in the central midfield if he's deemed fit.

Of the newcomers, Jimmy Conrad and Heath Pearce are clearly starting material. Zarek Valentin has been playing with the starters and seems to be the preferred choice at right back. So far, it seems holdover Michael Umana will be the player to fill out the back line.

Joining Nagamura in midfield could be any number of players, but we'll go with newcomer Marcos Mondaini at center mid and Francisco Mendoza and Jesus Padilla out wide. If Braun starts, Bowen would seem to be a solid partner up top.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

Pearce has got to be the best player the Goats picked up in the off-season, but Conrad's performance will have the biggest impact. If, as many teams apparently believed, he's really lost a step and is not up for the challenge, that will create a huge potential problem in the central defense. But there's reason to believe that a return to Southern California could be the thing Conrad needed to bring him back to life. If the 34-year-old can get back closer to the form that made him a perennial MLS Best XI while also serving as a mentor for players like Valentin, that would be a huge boost for a team that was among the worst defensive sides in MLS last season.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

It was easy to forget just how good Jonathan Bornstein was during his five seasons with Los Rojiblancos. He made 123 appearances, chipped in nine goals and helped lead the Goats to the playoffs in four of those seasons. Even if Pearce is a solid replacement at left back, Bornstein was versatile enough that he could have contributed somewhere else. More importantly, at least as it pertains to this question, Bornstein was really the only quality player to leave in the off-season.

At what point is this season considered success?

For a team that made the playoffs in four of their six season in existence, simply getting there seems to be setting the bar a little low. But the Goats fell so far, so fast last year that  just being a playoff team should qualify as a significant success and even contending for a playoff spot would probably be enough to satisfy many.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

The one player on this team opposing coaches are going to gameplan for is Braun. As his invitation to the USMNT camp indicates, he's at least on the radar for national team duty. After a breakout year in which the 23-year-old scored nine goals and had three assists in about 2,100 minutes, he's clearly the main cog of their offense. But as last year showed, just because he's putting up numbers doesn't mean the Goats are winning.

A better indicator of success will most likely come in the form of how many goals Chivas USA is allowing, and the man who seems to be at the center of that equation is Conrad. If Chivas USA makes the playoffs, it will likely be because Conrad is being hailed as the leader of a remade backline. If the conversation is about another lost season, it's likely going to be at least partially blamed on the trust placed in a 34-year-old center back.

What will it take for Chivas USA to viewed independently of others?

Chivas USA supporters understandably bristle at the idea of playing in the shadow of the LA Galaxy, especially considering the relative successes over the past five seasons, but the reality is the perception exists. Chivas USA plays in a facility that is clearly viewed as the home of another team, bears the crest of a city in which they don't play and are literally named after another team. The only thing that is going to change that is sustained winning, and not just in the regular season.

For all the regular-season success Chivas USA have enjoyed, they've never won a playoff series, and their trip to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals last year was easily the best run in any tournament. A long post-season run probably isn't in the cards this year, but there are signs that Chivas USA is closer to establishing their own identity. The Corona sponsorship is one sign. The investment in proven MLS talent is another. The ability to retain a promising coach like Robin Fraser would be one more indication this team is ready to stand on its own. All of those things will help form a real foundation that will help establish this team in the eyes of the not-already-converted.

Who's the player we should watch closely?

There's no question that Chivas USA aims to be a team Mexican-Americans can rally behind. Thing is, they've never really had a Mexican-American star. So far, they've had lots of players with Hispanic surnames, and even a few that have been good, but the players most closely associated with Chivas USA have been guys like Sacha Kljestan, Jonathan Bornstein, Brad Guzan and Justin Braun. Jesus Padilla seems to be the player that could possibly change that.

The San Jose, Calif. native is as Mexican-American as they come, moving with his family to Mexico at 14 so that he could play for the CD Guadalajara (Chivas) academy. In parts of four seasons, he made 23 Primera appearances before being loaned to the MLS team in 2009. Last year, he really started to emerge, quietly scoring six goals in just under 1,400 minutes.

Padilla has mostly been coming off the bench in preseason, and could very well start off the season that way. But his ability to play both wide midfielder and forward seem to bode well for his chances at seeing plenty of playing time. In any case, it would seem to be a potential public-relations coup if Padilla emerged as a bona fide star.

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MLS 2011 Preview: Real Salt Lake Has Eyes On #TheQuad

Who do you expect to be in the starting XI?

RSL will stick with their 4-4-2 with the pinched diamond in the middle. I think the lineup will be the same one we saw at the end of the 2010 season, at least for the first month of the season. Then it will be all bets are off as some players will have a chance to earn a spot. Nick Rimando in goal is a no brainer, the backline rotation that worked so well last year with Chris Wingert, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Tony Beltran (rotating Robbie Russell).

The midfield will be interesting this year but I believe you will see Ned Grabavoy, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Will Johnson as the starting 4 to kick off the season, they are a known quantity but like last year expect Andy Williams (who looks more fit than ever), newcomer Arturo Alvarez, and Collen Warner all to demand attention and playing time. Up top I expect we will see a lot of Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola, with a dose of Paulo Jr. tossed in. It will be interesting to see how Jason Kreis and staff use Alvarez, a lot of talk about him playing up top of the formation as well.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

Alvarez, since he is the only new player on the roster, but I would have to include Paulo Jr. as well since he saw very limited MLS action last year. Arturo brings a very offensive minded style of play and will provide a left foot that can strike and serve. The question is how well he will adapt to the RSL style of play. Paulo Jr. is pure energy. No matter the situation, he brings a creativity and electricity to the pitch each time he steps on it.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Robbie Findley, without a doubt when you lose the leading scorer in your team's history it hurts. Robbie’s speed forced teams to adjust how they played against RSL and neither Saborio nor Espindola have that type of speed. Paulo Jr. might but only time will tell who if anyone can fill the shoes of Findley (31 goals, 13 assists in under 6,000 minutes over four seasons).

At what point is this season considered success?

It will be hard to replicate the four-loss season of 2010, but expectations are high for RSL as they are positioned to win multiple trophies (CCL, US Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield, and MLS Cup). I have to say anything less than two trophies this year will probably be looked at as disappointing to many fans, I can only say #TheQuad is possible but will be a difficult challenge.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

Olave, in 2010 he played within himself and under control and was named the MLS Defender of the Year. In 2009 RSL’s defense allowed 35 goals to be scored against them, in 2010 that number was a league leading 20. In 2009 Olave was sent off three times with red cards, in 2010 that number was zero. If Olave can stay healthy and in control he will be the MLS defender of the year again in 2011.

What impact will RSL’s depth have on their lineup in 2011?

I do think you will see some of the younger players make solid cases for minutes; Jean Alexandre is a physical beast in the midfield and has the grit and determination to be a solid d-mid when Kyle is out (Gold Cup this summer).  Warner will probably see a lot of action this year, his reputation grew with his performance in the CCL match against Cruz Azul last year, and this year he added a couple inches in height in the off season as well. A huge question mark will be the development of both Luis Gil and Nelson Gonzalez as both will look to impress the staff and get minutes with the first team.

Who will be the biggest surprise on the RSL roster in 2011?

For me it is going to be a toss-up between Warner and Paulo Jr., as both players have shown flashes of being something very special. Both were guys who filled in a bit in MLS action last year, but used the CCL to showcase their talent. This year there will be no CCL group stage for RSL but expect that they will make a real run at the U.S. Open Cup and these two guys could use that as a launching pad for first-team MLS action. Collen brings a unique vision to the pitch as we saw against Cruz Azul in the final Group A match last year. Some great passes and the ability to score big goals in big matches will surely have a lot of people paying attention to the second-year player in 2011. Paulo Jr. was Mr. Excitement whenever he hit the pitch in 2010. He made just two CCL appearances but managed to score three goals in those matches, including two against Cruz Azul at Rio Tinto Stadium. He may have only seen 65 minutes of MLS action last year, but expect those numbers to climb in 2011.

- Report by Denzel "denz" Eslinger of RSL Soapbox (Real Salt Lake blog)

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MLS 2011 Preview: Portland Timbers Not Acting Like An Expansion Team

Who do you expect to be in the starting XI on First Kick?

John Spencer has been pretty adamant that every player is vying for a starting position. Given that the Timbers have been recently promoted to MLS I’d say that for the most part that’s true. Most players coming in have probably, or will probably be given an equal shot at earning a place on the starting 11. There are a few of exceptions, however.

First, Kenny Cooper will most definitely be an immediate starter. To put it bluntly, the Timbers didn’t go through all the stress and waste an allocation spot on a player they have planned for the bench. At the press event introducing Cooper, Spencer even said as much.

Second, everything I’m hearing coming out of training is that Darlington Nagbe is a beast of a player. I would expect him to perform very, very well in this upcoming season and, at this point, I’d be ready to declare him as being on the first team.

Finally, and I’m not terribly confident in this, but I’d say Kerrea Gilbert will probably be in the starting 11. While he’s still hung up in England and has been unable to train with the team, my guess is that the Timbers really liked what they saw when they decided to sign him. As such I feel like he is a lock for the team, at least in the beginning pending performance.

My projected line up is as follows: Perkins; Wallace, Danso, Brunner, Gilbert; Zizzo, Moffat, Lowry, Nagbe; Cooper, Johnson (Perlaza/Umony depending on if they get signed)

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

As a promoted team, there’s been plenty of new players. I think the easiest ones to pick out will be Cooper and Perkins. Each player is coming in with a wealth of MLS experience despite having a rough 2010. As such, I believe/hope that each will want to show the world that they’re still capable of playing top class soccer and will perform as such.

Some other players I’m really excited to see play are: Sal Zizzo - Once hailed as the future of USMNT midfield. Peter Lowry - Been impressed with his play at Chicago. Eric Brunner - Huge center back. Never got into the first team with Columbus, hopefully given the time here he can be rock solid for us.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Whatever secret CM that was supposed to be "best in the league" that never came to be. Apparently the deal just never came to be and our midfield is weaker for it. Additionally, the loss of Dax McCarty is hurting as well, but I like Wallace as well so I don’t think I’d be keen to make the switch again. The only other player I feel that we may have missed an opportunity on is Alex Nimo who won’t be joining the Timbers in 2011. I’m not sure what happened but I liked the player. He was young, very loyal, and some budding skills I’d have liked to see us continue to grow. It’s a shame that won’t be happening.

At what point is this season considered success?

As a promoted side there’s very few out there who are expecting the Portland Timbers to do very much this season. I’m not one of those people. The ultimate goal for any team in MLS is to win the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. For the Timbers this is no different. Spencer has said it. Gavin Wilkinson has said it. I even think Merritt Paulson has said it. I’m right there with them. Winning these two trophies is the primary way to be considered a true success within the league. That said, to temper my enthusiasm a little bit, I would say that getting into the playoffs would be an acceptable first year in MLS. Also, if we were to win the U.S. Open Cup, especially against the Seattle Sounders, that would be just gravy.

As a newly promoted team can the Timbers expect a difficult season?

Hard to say. Of the last five MLS teams to enter MLS, four have done terribly their first year. This kind of lends to the credibility that new MLS teams are at a disadvantage. The singular caveat here is that the Porltand Timbers are not a new team altogether like those four other teams were. Like the Seattle Sounders, the Timbers have been a team, in its current incarnation for about a decade with history going back to the 1970s. So while there are certainly new team members, and our stadium is getting a nice make-over, the staff and everybody involved with making the team over the last few years is still around. This creates an air of stability that I believe can affect play on the field.

Will the lack of a DP negatively affect the 2011 team?

Possibly and I only say this because we don’t know who the mystery CM that was hinted at last year is. As such, it’s a little difficult to judge how the lack of a DP will really affect the team. Additionally, I’m of the mind that, while a DP certainly won’t win trophies, bringing in somebody who can play at a higher level than is typical of MLS and getting them to mesh with the team appropriately can certainly benefit the team as a whole. Landon Donovan for Los Angeles is a perfect example of this. His very presence on the team raises the quality of all other players. The Portland Timbers will be without one of those kinds of players for 2011, at least an obvious one. One of our current players may turn out to be DP-quality without actually be a DP.

- Report by Geoff Gibson of Stumptown Footy (Portland Timbers blog)

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MLS 2011 Previews: Vancouver Whitecaps Haven't Settled Much

Who do you expect to be in the Starting XI?

So far in training camp, head coach Teitur Thordarson has juggled his formations aggressively. However, in his exhibition games against first-class opponents the Whitecaps have shown a preference for a relatively conventional 4-4-2 using a withdrawn striker: it could be called a 4-4-1-1 of sorts. Meanwhile, very few places in the starting lineup have been set in stone. Joe Cannon has struggled to get healthy and the Whitecaps have gotten a good showing from second-division starter Jay Nolly in goal, so even that position may be up for grabs.

The only sure things appear to be Swiss-Canadian Alain Rochat at left back, Jay DeMerit at centre back, Jonathan Leathers at right back, Terry Dunfield and John Thorrington in central midfield, Shea Salinas on right wing, and Davide Chiumiento as a withdrawn striker. The rest is by no means certain. Former New Zealand Olympian Michael Boxall and surprisingly impressive SuperDraft pick Bilal Duckett have been seeing a lot of action in defense, although the second central defender will probably wind up being Greg Janicki. Russell Teibert is probably the favorite to pin down the left wing position though Nizar Khalfan and Gershon Koffie are giving him a hell of a time. And Atiba Harris will probably be our starting striker up top, but that might change if Brazilian trialist Camilo da Silva Sanvezzo continues to impress. For that matter, Philippe Davies and Jeb Brovsky may yet challenge Thorrington for a spot in central midfield, while Wes Knight is looking good enough to make Jonathan Leathers uncomfortable at right back.

Which new player(s) will have the biggest impact?

With an expansion team, where to begin! The season may rise and fall on the success of Harris. As Vancouver's only proven MLS goalscorer, Harris is being asked to play out of his comfort zone as a target man on the end of long balls rather than a winger. Harris is a big player and has shown some quality in pre-season; if he can approach the 10-goal mark, the Whitecaps might have a surprisingly strong first season. If, on the other hand, Harris struggles, it's hard to see where the goals will come from.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

The Whitecaps have retained almost all their key players from the 2010 USSF D2 campaign. The biggest, and virtually only, loss is that of veteran central midfielder and captain Martin Nash. Even at 35 years old, most Whitecaps fans thought Nash would have something to contribute in MLS. He was perhaps Vancouver's most valuable player last year and, in addition to being a sublime passer, was a first-class dead ball specialist. However, Nash elected to retire in the off-season and took up a coaching role with the Whitecaps, leaving Vancouver without a clear taker of free kicks or corners.

At what point is this season considered a success?

The casual fans in Vancouver would probably be hard to satisfy with anything less than a playoff appearance, but the die-hards are taking a more jaded view. Given Vancouver's inexperienced players and lack of scoring punch, the best we can hope for from the Whitecaps is that they are credible: that they at least chase a playoff spot and give any team in Major League Soccer a scare on any given night. The spot where we're most hoping to make some noise is in the Voyageurs Cup, where victories over our Canadian rivals Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton could give us a CONCACAF Champions League spot and some meaningful soccer to cheer for even if the playoffs fade away.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

The strikers in general. Be they Harris, Sanvezzo, Long Tan, Davide Chiumiento, or whoever you like. Vancouver's defense will be good enough when they gel, and their midfield looks promising. But nobody has any faith in this team's ability to finish off scoring chances. If the strikers are better than expected then that will be what sees the Whitecaps into challenging for a playoff berth. If not, then another off-season of hoping for a veteran forward awaits us.

Which returning second-division player will make the biggest impact on the Whitecaps?

Chiumiento is probably the most promising second-division Whitecap: anybody who's been called the Swiss Ronaldinho has to have some quality and Chiumiento has constantly stood out even in opposition match reports as a diminuitive but talented player who can strike terror into opposing defenses. But Chiumiento played only 118 minutes last year: it's questionable just how much of a returning player he really is.

Of those who played a core role in last season's team, Terry Dunfield is likely to be the most important. He's a hard-nosed central defender who tackles viciously and picks up his share of cards but can also pass like a dream, hit the ball well on a free kick, and play first-class defense. A veteran of the lower tiers of the Football League, Dunfield joined the Whitecaps last year and became an instant star. Every indication is that he'll be given a chance to keep that up in MLS, where he'll be expected to go box-to-box and make life difficult for opposing attackers while also contributing to the offense. The question with Dunfield is injury: he was healthy last year but he had a history of knee problems in England.

Which Whitecap has the most to prove in 2011?

Last year, 20-year-old midfielder Philippe Davies played more than 1,500 minutes for the Whitecaps, mostly at right wing. Though not the quickest player and clearly raw, Davies showed plenty of quality as a passer combined with surprisingly good defensive player which won him a contract as Vancouver's first ever home-grown player. Davies isn't expected to get much playing time to start 2011, as former Philadelphia Union man Shea Salinas has been a revelation in midfield. However, those of us who saw him in 2010 know his quality, and certainly Teitur Thordarson wasn't afraid to rely on him. Davies took corners and free kicks semi-regularly; both skills we're lacking with the retirement of Martin Nash. Moreover, though he played last year as a right winger he is natively a central midfielder. If either Dunfield or Thorrington struggle, Davies could be in line to stake his claim to a starting place.

- Report by Benjamin Massey of Eighty Six Forever (Vancouver Whitecaps blog)

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MLS 2011 Preview: LA Galaxy Appear To Be Going All In

Who do you expect to be in the starting XI at First Kick?

Bruce Arena likes his 4-4-2 and there are a few things that seem pretty set. Donovan Ricketts in goal, Todd Dunivant at left back, Omar Gonzalez at centerback and Sean Franklin at right back. You can also bet on Juninho in the center of the midfield and Juan Pablo Angel at striker. After that, it’s a toss up. David Beckham will start, but he could be in the center or on the right of the midfield and Chris Birchall could be in either spot as well. Paolo Cardozo has come on strong to battle for a midfield spot and Michael Stephens could play anywhere in the midfield. Landon Donovan is an obvious starter, but in the midfield or at striker? If he’s in the midfield then Chad Barrett gets the nod at striker. There are a lot of questions for the Galaxy and odds are they spend a good chunk of the season moving guys around to figure out what works best.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

This one goes to the biggest name to join the Galaxy and the team’s new DP, Juan Pablo Angel. The Colombian may be 35 years old, but he hasn’t had any problems scoring in MLS even as he’s gotten older. Last season Angel scored 14 times to bring his total to 62 in 113 matches since moving to MLS. There isn’t another proven goal scorer on the LA roster unless the team goes with Donovan at striker so Angel will carry a heavy load and will need to be both healthy and sharp. Without many options up front, Angel will be counted upon to capitalize on the chances he gets and how he goes will likely be how the Galaxy attack goes.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

The reason that Angel’s addition is so important for the Galaxy is because of the loss of Edson Buddle to Ingolstadt of Germany’s second division. In 2008 Buddle scored 15 times, but had an injury plagued 2009 season before scoring 17 times last season as the only real goal scorer on the Galaxy. Almost all of the Galaxy attack went through Buddle and he carried a big load for a team devoid of goal scorers. Whether Angel can fill the void left by Buddle and whether any of the other striker signings, Barrett and Adam Christman, can contribute at all will go a long ways to determining LA’s success in 2011.

At what point is this season considered success?

There’s only one thing the Galaxy are aiming at in 2011 and that’s the MLS Cup. LA is an old team who has traded away key pieces to the future to win now. With David Beckham in the last year of his contract, Landon Donovan looking at a move to Europe and Juan Pablo Angel up there in age, the Galaxy are going for it this season. They may not be the best team on paper and expecting a MLS Cup is a reach for even the best team, but LA has positioned themselves to go after one thing and one thing only after losing in the 2009 MLS Cup on penalty kicks and in the Western Conference Finals last year after winning the Supporters' Shield.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

Whoever is playing central midfield next to Juninho. As the season went on last year, Juninho had next to zero support in the center of the midfield and against good teams that was exposed. If another team was strong in the midfield Juninho had to be fantastic or the Galaxy would be dominated in the center of the park. LA has been playing a bunch of different players in the central midfield spot next to Juninho in the preseason and will keep trying different players even once the season starts, but whoever is there needs to hold his own or the Galaxy will be beaten by good teams like they were at the tail end of last season.

Do the Galaxy have the pace to compete?

One of the problems with being older is you usually lack pace and the Galaxy have a lot of players who weren’t overly fast before they got old. Beckham was never a speed burner and neither was Dunivant. Angel doesn’t have eye popping speed and Gonzalez’s biggest issue as a centerback is his lack of pace. There are only two players in contention to start for LA that can possibly be considered speedy and that’s Franklin and Donovan. The Galaxy can easily be outrun so how do they counter that? It might not be possible.

Does age matter?

LA may not be as old as some like to joke they are, but they’re hardly the youngest of teams. Two of their most important attacking players, Angel and Beckham, are 35. Their left back, Dunivant, is 30. A player who will get time at centerback, Gregg Berhalter, is 37. Jovan Kirovski gets time off the bench for the team and is 34, while Frankie Hejduk is 36. Can a team who will depend on so many older players, at least for stretches, withstand the tolls of a long season and a postseason plus some CONCACAF Champions League matches and the U.S. Open Cup?

- Report By Ryan Rosenblatt of SB Nation/Soccer

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MLS 2011 Preview: Seattle Sounders Have Eyes On Multiple Prizes

How do you see the starting lineup shaking out?

Whether you call it a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 doesn't matter, as the Seattle Sounders will certainly use a target forward as they are three deep this season (as opposed to one in 2010) and the wingers will be as high as withdrawn forward Fredy Montero both offensively and defensively. Seattle will return to the CDM/CM pairing (likely Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso) rather than last season's less preferred CDM/CDM paring of Alonso and Nate Sturgis. There are several players who could slide in as starters as well with Patrick Ianni, Erik Friberg, Nate Jaqua, O'Brian White and even Mike Fucito offering Sigi options late in training camp. Danny Earls and Michael Tetteh should see starts in League play as well.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?:

No new players in the starting lineup but O'Brian White and Erik Friberg should get a lot of playing time. White could challenge as the comeback player of the year, except that he'd be coming back from high expectations and merely average performance.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Sanna Nyassi, not for his talent on the pitch but because of how that will adjust substitution patterns. This will shift the speed quotient on the right as Seattle starts the slower but much more technically capable Alvaro Fernandez with speed demons like Mike Fucito and O'Brian White as late substitutes.

At what point is this season considered success?

Seattle fans expect trophies, but this year it better be more than an Open Cup. An MLS Cup Final appearance is probably good enough, or a final week possibility at the Supporters' Shield. If Seattle gets 50-plus points, goes deeper in the Playoffs and makes the Group Stage of the CCL things will be just fine, though frustrating.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

Brad Evans. Last year his time as a forward probably showed how frustrating the game can be. He missed wide open shots from spaces that he created through brilliant runs. If in 2011 his late runs into the box result in goals, or he gets assists from shifting the attack from wing to wing at the top of the circle, Seattle will be a dangerous team finally realizing its capability in the attack.

What is the expectation for the Sounders in the CCL?

With a deep lineup that has speed on the offense and solid defenseive options Seattle has the opportunity to break out of the Group Stages, though their success will be determined by whoever is the keeper. Most Sounders fans see a very deep team, and since the Open Cup and CCL are so much about depth, the team has the opportunity to do things that few MLS sides do. The first 70 minutes in Monterrey showed that Seattle has the depth to win in Mexico. The next six showed that those dreams end quickly.

Who will win the Cascadia Cup?

Seattle, handily. While this Cascadia derby will get a ton of hype that will only be because of what is happening off the pitch. During the two-year head start Adrian Hanauer built a team challenging for multiple major trophies while the goals of the other Cascadia sides is to hopefully make the MLS Cup Playoffs. Think of it this way: How many non-Sounders would be on a Cascadia Best XI? Jay DeMerit, Kenny Cooper and... yeah, that's it. Even on in the second XI for a Cascadia team it would include as many Sounders as the other two teams, but with Seattle being clearly better up the spine in both of those exercises I expect at least seven points in the 4 matches.

- Report by Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart (Seattle Sounders blog)

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MLS 2011 Preview: San Jose Earthquakes Try To Build On Surprising 2010

Who do you expect to be in starting XI at First Kick?

In general, San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop has been sending out one of two variations of the 4-3-3 formation during much of the 2011 preseason. When going with the two-striker approach -- a 4-3-1-2 formation -- Ryan Johnson and Steven Lenhart are supported up top by Chris Wondolowski in a withdrawn forward role. Sam Cronin anchors the defensive midfielder role while Bobby Convey and Joey Gjertsen play on the left and right wings respectively. When utilizing a lone-striker formation -- a 4-2-3-1 set-up -- one of Lenhart or Johnson retreats to the midfield and Wondolowski pushes out to the wing replacing Gjertsen. Room in the midfield allow Khari Stephenson to pair with Cronin in the center of the field. In all variations of the Earthquakes formation, the defensive back four has remained consistent (not taking into account injuries) with Ramiro Corrales, Jason Hernandez, Brandon McDonald, and Tim Ward going left to right. Goalkeeper Jon Busch is cemented at the number one for the foreseeable future.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

A lot is expected of Lenhart as the newest Earthquake to take on the target forward responsibilities demanded by Yallop’s tactical system. With very few changes expected in the list of 18 players that will dress each week in the early part of this season when compared to 2010, Lenhart will be asked to be the difference maker for an offense that was overly reliant on Wondolowski for its scoring punch. He has already proved in the preseason that he can play well alongside the more established Earthquakes, and he should have plenty of opportunities to score in double digits in 2011.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

The biggest name player to leave in the offseason was Brazilian designated player Geovanni. A victim of cost cutting by the Earthquakes, the attacking midfielder never really delivered in his time with San Jose, and the team qualified for the postseason despite his presence. More likely to be missed in 2011 is speedy winger Arturo Alvarez, now with Real Salt Lake. The El Salvador International with the deadly left footed shot -- and no right foot shot to speak of -- allowed the Quakes to push forward in attack and often surprise defenses on the counterattack. With his scoring and passing stats somewhat lacking in his tenure in San Jose, the loss of Alvarez should be relatively minimal in the upcoming season.

At what point is this season considered success?

The Earthquakes captured the final spot in the 2010 playoff qualification standings -- tied with MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids on points -- and will be satisfied to accomplish much the same in 2011. While the team seems poised to make the playoffs with pretty much the same roster as last season, a step forward to a top three in the conference and a guaranteed berth in the playoff semifinals will mark the 2011 season as a success.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

If Wondolowski can get some help in tallying goals for the Earthquakes in 2011 -- he scored greater than half the team’s goals in 2010 -- a playoff berth will be well within reach. Look for Lenhart’s scoring total to be a barometer of whether the offense is doing its job in 2011. Defensively, the Earthquakes will rely on the deft goalkeeping of Busch. Very much solid and often spectacular between the posts, while sharing playing time with expansion draft selected Joe Cannon, Busch will need to have another fine season in goal for the Earthquakes to make up for their lack of a potent offense.

Will Wondolowski defend his scoring title in 2011 and take home a second Golden Boot award?

While Wondolowski is certainly capable of putting up big numbers again this season, no one with the team wants him to have to do so. And even though forward Johnson did well in a providing role in 2010, he’ll be called upon to more closely duplicate his 2009 campaign as the team’s go-to goal scorer. Lenhart, entering his fourth year in MLS, should also do much to lessen the responsibility on Wondolowski to be the chief producer. Add in a full season from midfielders Khari Stephenson and Joey Gjertsen, along with the potential set-piece potency of centerback Ike Opara, and the Earthquakes goal scoring distribution with most likely even out in 2011. Perhaps with opposing defenses being concerned about mulitple attacking threats, and unable to key solely on Wondolowski, he will again challenge for the MLS goal scoring crown.

What happens in 2011 if Busch suffers the same injury fate as Cannon?

In a weighted lottery in January, San Jose was awarded the rights to late Generation adidas signing David Bingham, a junior goalkeeper from the University of California. While a great talent at the college level, many expect Bingham to need time as Jon Busch's understudy for at least this season, and perhaps for some time after. Bingham is battling with Andrew Weber, who made two starts in the 2009 season for the Earthquakes before being released by the club early last season and resigning this preseason, for the back-up spot behind Busch. If either is needed early in the season, expect Weber to get his chance in goal, but Bingham has already a fine preseason with the team, and could be ready to be an effective starter later in 2011. However, make no mistake, the Earthquakes will be hoping Busch stays healthy for the entirety of the season, and they don't need to rely on an untested goalkeeper to lead them to the playoffs.

- Report by Robert Jonas of Quake, Rattle and Goal (San Jose Earthquakes blog)

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MLS 2011 Previews: SB Nation Editors Give Team-By-Team Analysis

The 2011 MLS season officially kicks off almost exactly three weeks from today with a match between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders at Qwest Field on March 15. Leading up to that day, SB Nation will be running a series of previews on each MLS team.

We'll start off by going through the Western Conference in no particular order and finish up with the Eastern Conference. The previews will be posting over the course of the next couple weeks.

For each preview, we asked people who cover the teams (most of them as the editor of a SB Nation site) to answer five questions and asked them to answer two of their own questions. We wanted to know who would start, which additions and subtractions would have the biggest impacts, at what point the season would be considered a success and whose performance would be most indicative of the team's.

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