The 2011 Major League Soccer season kicks off Tuesday, and while teams have attempted to address all of their respective offseason needs, some questions still linger. Here's a look at the biggest question for each MLS team entering the season:
Will the lesser names produce greater results?
Among those gone from the Fire roster last season are Brian McBride, Freddie Ljungberg, Nery Castillo, Wilman Conde and C.J. Brown. Among those in are defenders Cory Gibbs, Jalil Anibaba and Josep Mikulic and forwards Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari. Chicago swung for the fences with some player moves last season and missed and has instead restocked with some lesser-known commodities. Gibbs, an oft-injured veteran with national team experience, and Anibaba, perhaps the top rookie center back in the league, will be relied on to protect rising second-year keeper Sean Johnson. The Uruguayan strike tandem of Chaves and Puerari might not be as potent as national team stars Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, but the two will be counted on for offensive production. If the majority of the new names don't deliver, coach Carlos de los Cobos might not make it past the summer.
How big of an impact does new coach Robin Fraser make?
Fraser is a connoisseur of defense. A star in his playing days and a magician as an assistant coach in Real Salt Lake (the league's top defensive unit in 2010). Fraser's task in his first year at the helm at Chivas is turning the back line from a weakness to a strength. Chivas made great strides in the offseason, bringing in veterans Heath Pearce and Jimmy Conrad and drafting Akron and United States U-20 standout Zarek Valentin. The next step for Fraser is translating those moves into success on the pitch for a team that had the third-worst goal differential in the league last season.
Can the MLS Cup champions repeat?
Like any champion in any sport, climbing the ladder the following season can be tougher than the original ascent. Colorado's case is interesting, though. With no major defections, the imminent signing of Hull City striker Caleb Folan and the addition of former Seattle winger Sanna Nyassi, means last year's MLS Cup champion actually improved and gained depth in the offseason. A number of things went the Rapids' way down the stretch and in the postseason, but there's no doubting the team's determination and chemistry. Despite being champions, expect the "no respect" card to be played all season.
Who makes the leap from role player to star?
For the last few years, Columbus has run everything though playmaker extraordinaire Guillermo Barros Schelotto. With a full complement of role players around him, the Crew was consistently one of the top sides in the league. Now that he's no longer in Columbus, somebody -- whether it's Robbie Rogers, Eddie Gaven or even Emmanuel Ekpo -- needs to take a career leap and assume a much bigger role to keep the team from falling off the list of Eastern Conference contenders.
How many goals can Charlie Davies score?
United completed an overhauling of its roster, but the most intriguing move was adding Davies on a yearlong loan from FC Sochaux. After being removed from first-team competitive soccer for more than a year in the aftermath of the October 2009, car accident that almost took his life, Davies is on the comeback trail. What remains to be seen is how long it takes for him to regain any semblance of the form that used to make U.S. soccer fans downright giddy. An in-form Davies would make United one of the stronger offensive teams in the Eastern Conference, but if he and new acquisitions Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya can't deliver up top, the team could face some of the same offensive pitfalls it did a year ago.
Will the personnel gambles pay off?
The reigning Western Conference champions let the likes of Dax McCarty, Heath Pearce and Jeff Cunningham leave in the offseason and received little in return for them. While there are a number of young pieces in place for a successful season, Schellas Hyndman no longer has the depth afforded to him a year ago. Considering the team will have to work CONCACAF Champions League games into its plans as well as a 34-match league schedule, the margin for error and injury is minuscule at best.
Will new additions help prove 2010 to be a fluke?
Last season was the first since the franchise relocated from San Jose to Houston that the Dynamo failed to make the playoffs. The club has taken a number of measures to ensure that doesn't happen again, upgrading defensively with the additions of Hunter Freeman, Kofi Sarkodie and Jermaine Taylor. The team also brought back Dominic Oduro and added rookie Will Bruin and Jason Garey to the front-line mix with veteran Brian Ching. Injuries, misfortune and an aging defense were three major factors in 2010. With good health, a restocked roster and a move to the Eastern Conference, Dominic Kinnear's squad is being pegged as one in line for a major improvement this year.
How much is left in Juan Pablo Angel's tank?
With Edson Buddle off to Germany, the 35-year-old Angel (acquired in the Re-entry Draft) is the key man for the Galaxy this season. Still one of the most feared strikers in the league, Angel is bound to get strong service, whether it's coming from fellow designated players Landon Donovan and David Beckham or elsewhere. If he can capitalize on that service and come close to replicating, or even exceeding, Buddle's production from a year ago, the Galaxy has to like its chances of making a run to MLS Cup. The issue, though, is that Angel's non-penalty-kick goal totals have decreased every season he's been in the league, and four of his 13 tallies a year ago were from the penalty spot. That's Donovan's job in L.A., so for Angel's season to be a perceived success, he'll have to get it done in the run of play.
Can Shalrie Joseph stay on the field?
The last thing the Revolution needs is for its captain to miss more time. Joseph, the team's workhorse and one of the league's top overall talents in central midfield, was arrested during the team's preseason stint in Orlando (for trespassing at the team hotel) and could face disciplinary action from the league. Last season, he missed the first three games with a hip flexor strain and five more after having to enroll in the league's substance abuse rehabilitation program. For a club looking to prove it's absence from the postseason in 2010 was an anomaly, Joseph needs to be on the pitch as much as possible.
Will the recent off-field drama present a distraction?
From a talent standpoint, the Red Bulls should be the hands-down favorites to win the Eastern Conference. The recent shake-up among the technical staff could have a negative impact on the squad, though. Popular longtime assistants Richie Williams and Des McAleenan were unceremoniously fired two weeks before the start of the season, and the current coaches -- manager Hans Backe and assistant Jan Halvor Halvorsen -- have a combined one year of MLS coaching experience between them. The Red Bulls have all the tools for a success-filled season; it'd be a shame if a poorly-timed personnel decision comes back to haunt the club.
Has the front office gotten the roster right this time?
After an expansion season that had its ups and downs, the Union treated its roster as if it were a teardown house. Among those jettisoned from PPL Park since the team's inception to the league were 11 players who started at least one game in the inaugural season and 15 players in all. At last count, 10 players not with the team a season ago are under contract for the Union this year -- and the club still has up to eight roster slots it can fill. There's something to be said for admitting mistakes and cutting losses, but there's also something to be said for giving things time to develop. The Union certainly is proficient in the former and hopes to be able to embrace the latter after completely replacing its goalkeeping corps and adding attacking threats like Carlos Ruiz and Chris Agorsor.
Is the defense good enough?
The Timbers have made it known that they want to play an attractive style of soccer. They've gone to great lengths to bring in top-tier attacking talent by luring Kenny Cooper back to MLS, drafting Hermann Trophy winner Darlington Nagbe, acquiring former U.S. youth midfielders Sal Zizzo and Jeremy Hall and signing 25-year-old dynamic Colombian striker Jorge Perlaza. Whether the Timbers have to score two or three goals a game to win remains to be seen. The projected starting back line in front of Troy Perkins is comprised of Rodney Wallace, Eric Brunner, Futty Danso and Steve Purdy. The group is short on MLS experience and could either be a real soft spot or a pleasant surprise that makes Portland better than the average expansion side.
Can lofty expectations be met?
The pieces are in place for a title run one on at least one front, and expectations are as high as the Rocky Mountains. They were last year, too, though, and RSL fizzled out of the postseason in the opening round. After reaching the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals and entering the MLS season as one of the prohibitive favorites to win MLS Cup for the second time in three years, anything short of at least one trophy will be seen as a major disappointment.
Is Chris Wondolowski a one-year wonder?
After scoring seven goals in five seasons primarily as a reserve, Wondolowski emerged as perhaps the most unlikely golden boot winner in league history with 18 goals last season. He carried San Jose to within a game of MLS Cup and kept defying detractors who called his success a fluke. Now he's out to prove that 2010 was no joke and that he's not only a bona fide MLS star, but also a potential option in the U.S. player pool. If he does, San Jose should be just as threatening, if not more, than it was last year. If he doesn't, the Earthquakes might face some offensive deficiencies.
Will the Sounders regret the expansion draft yet again?
For all the star power on Seattle's roster, it was Nyassi's influence down the stretch that helped the team capture its second consecutive U.S. Open Cup and make a push to the playoffs. His ability to stretch a defense with his pace and width, either as a starter or a substitute, added a necessary aspect to the team's attack. Nyassi isn't the second coming of Lionel Messi, but after the Sounders lost eventual all-star Sebastien Le Toux for nothing in the 2009 expansion draft, one has to wonder if they will be kicking themselves for letting the Gambian wind up in Colorado (via Vancouver) with nothing to show for it.
Can the current center back corps get the job done?
For all the buzz surrounding SKC -- between the new branding, the emergence of Teal Bunbury, the introduction of DP-signing Omar Bravo and supposedly remarkable new LIVESTRONG Sporting Park soccer-specific stadium on the horizon -- the team still has a sizable hole in central defense. With Conrad lost in the Re-Entry Draft, the team formerly known as the Wizards is looking at a potential starting center-back combination of imminent Brazilian signing Julio Cesar and Matt Besler with Shavar Thomas and little else in the way of depth behind them. Without reinforcements, that's potentially a glaring underbelly in what could otherwise be a promising season for Kansas City.
Can TFC management keep its high-priority players happy?
There's a discouraging trend developing north of the border, and unfortunately for Toronto FC it involves two of the team's most indispensable players and Canadian internationals. Top scorer Dwayne De Rosario and top defender Adrian Cann have both made their contract frustrations public, with De Rosario's situation dating back to the end of last season. He even attempted to a secure a loan to Celtic FC back in December to the surprise of team management. As for Cann, he bolted team training camp last week because of his contract dispute. Considering its current roster, TFC might struggle even with those two in the lineup. Without them -- or without them playing to their full capabilities -- the Reds could be in for some troubling results.
Are there enough goal-scorers on the team?
The Whitecaps drafted U.S. U-20 forward Omar Salgado with the first-overall pick in the SuperDraft, but barring a FIFA exemption, he won't be able to play for the team until he turns 18 in September. That leaves Atiba Harris, Davide Chiumiento and former FC Zurich forward Eric Hassli, the club's first designated player, as the lone striker options currently on the team's roster. Hassli's resume isn't that of the typical DP, and unless Whitecaps management knows something the general public doesn't, and Harris -- more of a winger than a true striker -- is on his way to becoming this year's Wondolowski, there might be some major issues up top for Vancouver. As solid as its defense is billed to be, the expansion side has some questions to answer in the attacking third.
Avi Creditor is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.