Key questions facing the Eastern Conference
As a bitter chill grips the Northeast and Midwest, Major League Soccer's 14 teams have made their way to the warm climates in California, Florida and, in the case of the New England Revolution, Bermuda. All 14 are looking not only to get the rust off from a lengthy offseason, but to address key questions every team has heading into the 2008 season.
There are six weeks to go before the opening weekend, and several teams still have roster moves to make, but there are still questions to be answered and position battles to be waged in the coming weeks.
Here is a look at some key questions facing MLS teams during training camp, starting with the Eastern Conference:
How will Marcelo Gallardo fit? Argentine playmaker Gallardo was the club's biggest offseason acquisition, but incorporating him into the squad may be tougher than expected. Gallardo's defensive deficiencies could force D.C. to play a 3-5-2 to provide the support Gallardo needs behind him, but it remains unclear if D.C. is still suited for running the 3-5-2 after scrapping the formation last season.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
Is Adam Cristman ready to start? The departure of Pat Noonan has left the starting forward slot across from Taylor Twellman in the hands of Cristman, who showed some good qualities as a rookie last season. Can he carry the load for a full season? Is he better suited for a bench role at this point in his career? The Revs aren't exactly loaded with forward options, meaning Steve Nicol and Co. had better sign one before the season starts.
NEW YORK RED BULLS
Which player will new coach Juan Carlos Osorio deal? The Red Bulls still have several needs to address in the transfer market, but what does seem clear is that Osorio will have to make some tough decisions. He has a deep stable of forwards, some of whom could fetch something in a trade. He also has a surplus of central midfielders and central defenders. Could Osorio deal a Carlos Mendes or Seth Stammler or Francis Doe to help address the club's need for a left winger or left-footed defender? It is entirely possible.
Which forwards will the Fire keep? Chicago doesn't have a marquee striker, but the Fire do have a deep crop of serviceable forwards. It is a crop that will have to be thinned out after the recent signing of Costa Rican striker Andy Herron. With Herron, Chris Rolfe, Chad Barrett, Calen Carr and rookie Patrick Nyarko all in the mix, and with the Fire still searching for another forward, it is safe to say that at least one or two forwards will be dealt or waived. With clubs like San Jose and Houston desperate for forwards, Chicago could wind up scoring a good package for a player like Barrett or even Herron, who had been rumored to be on the trade block even after Chicago acquired his rights from Columbus last month.
KANSAS CITY WIZARDS
Will the revamped defense work? Wizards coach Curt Onalfo was giddy at the MLS draft as he looked at the list of defenders he had scored. After unloading veterans Nick Garcia and Jose Burciaga, Onalfo knew that his youngsters would be key to the Wizards making the playoffs for the second straight season. Onalfo will spend much of the offseason trying to fit the pieces around defensive leader Jimmy Conrad. The process of retooling a defense is never easy and it gets even tougher when rookies are involved.
Who will start in the back? Yes, the club's need for a goal scorer is a more pressing issue, but that isn't something likely to be addressed in camp. The Crew do have a handful of candidates for their central defense and must determine who will start. Marcos Gonzalez's departure leaves Crew head coach Sigi Schmid to choose between Chad Marshall, Ezra Hendrickson, Andy Iro and Danny O'Rourke. It's a deep group, but all four have issues. Marshall is coming off a serious concussion, Hendrickson is 36, Iro is a rookie and O'Rourke is a converted midfielder.
How much roster shuffling will Toronto do? Mo Johnston's move from head coach to what is essentially a general manager's role means he will have more time to wheel and deal. The question is whether Johnston will really be as busy on the trade front as last year. The club has a good nucleus and had a stellar draft, meaning Johnston could choose to focus on international signings in the coming weeks rather than picking at the MLS trade market. One question that appears to have been answered already is whether rookie Julius James could step in and start. James has been a standout early on for Toronto and will head into the season as a rookie of the year favorite. The biggest question for TFC is who will be the team's playmaker, but that won't be answered in training camp.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.