The 10 MLS storylines U.S. national team fans should be following in 2016
Although it seems only recently that the Portland Timbers went into Columbus' MAPFRE Stadium and scored two goals in the first seven minutes to win the 2015 MLS Cup, the domestic league begins anew in just two weeks.
Soccer never stops, does it?
The 2016 season brings new faces on new teams -- now with free agency! -- as well as old stalwarts holding down familiar spots. It also brings a host of questions related to the United States national team, so here are 10 MLS storylines national team fans should be following as MLS First Kick draws closer.
Can the ice between MLS and Jurgen Klinsmann thaw?
Before we focus on specific players, let's take a moment to pull back a bit. The best thing for the future fortunes of the U.S. national team is a vibrant, productive MLS. But right now, MLS remains in a growth mode, and it might stay that way for many years to come, which means what's best for the league and what's best for the red, white, and blue don't always mesh.
This, in turn, leads to some predictable and understandable tension between the respective leaders. But the sniping needs to stop. Both Don Garber and Jurgen Klinsmann have made their points -- repeatedly. An occasional disagreement is fine, but the public PR battle is tiresome and counterproductive.
Will Jermaine Jones play again?
When we most recently saw the U.S. central midfielder on an MLS field, he was pushing referee Mark Geiger during a first-round playoff loss to D.C. United. The incident earned Jones a six-game suspension that begins when he signs with a club. The New England Revolution offered Jones a contract he called a "joke," and the 34-year-old remains in limbo.
Moving to another MLS team would require a trade, which seems unlikely. A move abroad would still be subject to the six-game ban. The Revs are stronger with Jones on the field, but the suspension and his numerous injuries make handing Jones the millions of dollars he wants a significant risk in frugal MLS. Jones will see the field in 2016 -- he's too important to Klinsmann's squad, despite arguments to the contrary -- but when he does is anyone's guess.
How will Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley fare in Year 2 at Toronto FC?
Although TFC reached the playoffs for the first time in club history in 2015, the season was far from a success for the squad with the highest payroll in the league. Still, the attack led by the two U.S. veterans along with league MVP Sebastian Giovinco produced 58 goals, and that's good enough to tie for second in MLS.
Newcomer Altidore posted 13 in 25 regular-season appearances, a respectable -- though not spectacular -- figure, while Bradley added five goals and six assists. The duo, who've been playing together for their country since 2003, started only 17 games together the past season. More reps in 2016 will reap benefits in MLS and for the U.S.
How much will Jordan Morris play in Seattle?
A lot more now that Obafemi Martins left for riches in China, that's for sure. In January, Morris spurned the Bundesliga's Werder Bremen for his hometown team, a move that was nothing less than a coup for MLS. The 21-year-old forward should feature frequently on a front line that includes American teammate Clint Dempsey and Paraguayan Designated Player Nelson Valdez.
The better question might be how quickly can Morris develop new skills? In his nine caps with the American team, he has shown world-class speed and a goal scorer's knack for being in the right place at the right time. The next step, however, is to figure out what to do when defenses stop his go-to move. Having Dempsey as a mentor will help with his creativity.
Will any goalie step up?
While neither Tim Howard nor Brad Guzan are impressing on their clubs, Klinsmann should be concerned about the lack of a third option at goalkeeper. Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid, who will miss four to six months with another knee injury, haven't developed consistency. Nick Rimando is on the wrong side of 35, and Luis Robles, 31, isn't getting any younger, either. The San Jose Earthquakes' David Bingham played well while posting a shutout against Canada in early February. Others such as Steve Clark and Clint Irwin could force their way into the conversation with strong MLS seasons. Even so, right now, you'd have to say the third-string shirt is up for grabs.
Can Mix Diskerud bring out his elbows?
The central midfielder with the flowing locks joined New York City FC with a great deal of fanfare but struggled to find his way in 2015, as he scored just three goals in 27 appearances. He spent time on the right side of the formation, pushed wide by Frank Lampard and a hair superior Andrea Pirlo, and the emergence of Kwadwo Poku means playing time will be harder to find in new coach Patrick Viera's starting XI.
Klinsmann continues to call Diskerud into camps, but he wants to see him use his elbows, which is code for getting physical and playing with the edge he too often lacks. Although the 26-year-old brings a certain skill set to the field, he floats in and out of games. With Darlington Nagbe and Lee Nguyen making strong impressions in the January camp, Diskerud needs to step up or risk disappearing.
Is this the year Juan Agudelo reaches his potential?
First, a goal. That's not the type of shot you attempt, much less score on, without a rather large amount of Kanye West-like belief in your own abilities. Agudelo lacks neither imagination nor skill, but he has been inconsistent. He is now 23 and settled with a team and a new family. He should be playing his best soccer. We'll see if he gets there.
In April, he scored against Mexico in a tally that required a smart run, a brilliant first touch and a good deal of patience before he unleashed a shot. It was a mature goal. Being audacious can only carry a player for so long.
What is Kellyn Acosta's ceiling?
Pretty quietly, the 20-year-old has become one of MLS's best homegrown player success stories with FC Dallas. A key cog on recent American U17 and U20 squads, Acosta earned his first full national team cap in the 3-2 win over Iceland in January. He played left-back and impressed after a rocky first few minutes.
Klinsmann believes Acosta can also play right-back, and Acosta worked his way into the FCD starting lineup as a defensive midfielder. That's some impressive versatility. With the Americans weak at fullback, those positions will be his easiest route to more minutes, but we'll see if playing a different position for club and country slows his progress.
Who is the next Matt Miazga?
In 2015, the New York Red Bulls Academy product surprised MLS by being one of the best center-backs in the league, which he parlayed into a multi-million dollar offseason transfer to Chelsea.
One young player potentially poised to mimic Miazga's rapid rise is Real Salt Lake's Justen Glad. The 18-year-old defender started five games the past season and looks set for more time in 2016. Two other players to watch are the LA Galaxy's Jose Villarreal and the Revolution's Kelyn Rowe. Both are speed attackers with a flair for finishing who could break out in big ways.
Will Benny Feilhaber finally get a call to return to the U.S.?
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.