Five thoughts coming off the weekend action around the world:
1. U.S.' starting midfield. Stuart Holden's unfortunate injury against Manchester United will sideline him for up to six months and rule him out for the U.S.' upcoming friendlies against Argentina (March 26) and Paraguay (March 29). His absence gives U.S. coach Bob Bradley a temporary reprieve in what was becoming an increasingly difficult choice and huge logjam at central midfield. Holden was enjoying a superb season at Bolton and making a strong case for consideration as someone around whom Bradley could potentially build the U.S. midfield.
The current first string, even before Holden's injury, would appear to be Michael Bradley (a backup at Aston Villa) and Jermaine Jones (a starter for Blackburn). However, that leaves both Maurice Edu (a starter for Rangers) and Holden (a starter for Bolton) on the bench if Bob Bradley sticks to his usual 4-4-2. The coach has experimented lately with a five-man midfield, but even allowing for the extra spot, Michael Bradley would still be in position to start ahead of at least one of the three players ensconced as key starters at their clubs. That's not to say that the younger Bradley shouldn't be a starter, but given his father's own long-mandated criteria that players need to be playing consistently at the club level to be considered for the national team, one is left wondering when exactly we'll see Bob Bradley at least experiment with a lineup featuring Edu, Jones and Holden as the starting midfield.
2. U.S. striker prospects. The U.S. is certainly not alone in its perennial search for a truly top-class forward, and for now much still rests on the young shoulders of the still-developing Jozy Altidore. However, if Saturday's action in MLS was any indication, the U.S. striker pool just got a whole lot deeper.
First, there was a welcome return to competitive action from Charlie Davies, whose comeback from a near-fatal car crash continues to defy all logic. Davies scored twice (once on a penalty) for D.C. United in its 3-1 win over Columbus. While Davies didn't display the same level of threat, explosion and quickness as he did pre-injury, he looked much more mobile and fluid than expected given the nature of his injuries. D.C. teammates familiar with Davies from his pre-injury days estimate that he is at about 70-75 percent of his former capacity. It's still far too early to make any projections for his international career, but if he can get back to around 90 percent of his ability, then he'd certainly be in the reckoning for the national team.
Of course, the other player to keep an eye on is Red Bulls youngster Juan Agudelo, who scored his first MLS goal, against Seattle, with an exemplary finish with the outside of his boot. Agudelo is in the midst of a meteoric rise, becoming the youngest player, in U.S. history to score in a senior international (he was 17 against South Africa in November 2010) and generally making observers wonder why he wasn't given more playing time in the 2009 U-20 World Cup for a disappointing U.S. squad.
Although a cautious approach is usually wise with young players, there's much to admire about Agudelo and a skill set that suggests he's a legitimate impact player. He's very active and has far more sophisticated technical ability than other previously ballyhooed U.S. forward prospects (such as Eddie Johnson and Altidore). More important, Agudelo has a fearless approach with the willingness to be direct and run at defenders -- an all-too-rare trait for U.S. forwards in general. It remains to be seen if Agudelo can develop into a pure goal scorer, but his pace, skill and creativity suggest that he'll still contribute at the international level even if he doesn't.
3. Fernando Who? In January, when Liverpool reluctantly sold the talismanic Fernando Torres to Chelsea, the question on many fans' lips was whether the two players brought in to replace him, Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, would be up to the task. Now, in late March, there's no question that in Suarez alone, Liverpool has a dynamic replacement who's already made the Anfield faithful forget their former idol.
In five Premier League games (four starts), Suarez has contributed two goals and three assists, hit the post twice and impressed with his movement, elusiveness and creativity. Even more important is the fact that Suarez has displayed a hunger and apparent willingness to fight for the shirt. That's in stark contrast to Torres, who admitted that he'd found it hard to get motivated in his last few months at Liverpool after losing faith; he told the Spanish sports daily Marca that the Chelsea offer turned out to be "like a light bulb coming on in a long, dark passageway."
4. Fernando Who (Part II)? When Chelsea spent $115 million on two players in the January transfer window, the plan was for Torres to add juice to the attack and for Brazil international David Luiz revitalize the defense. That plan has worked ... sort of, as it's all been down to just the one man -- Luiz.
The former Benfica defender has shown exemplary composure on the ball. Based on early impressions, he appears to be Chelsea's finest signing in years. He still has room to improve in terms of pure defending, but he has simply oozed class in his distribution from the back. If that's not enough, he's also a goal threat, popping up to contribute two goals in four games, one of which was a sumptuous strike against Man United that most forwards would have been proud of.
5. The latest big name in Seattle. With Blaise Nkufo becoming the latest designated player to flame out of Seattle, the Sounders have now turned to 30-year-old Argentine Mauro Rosales to help spice up what is surprisingly becoming an increasingly impotent attack. Rosales, who formerly played for Ajax and River Plate, is a quality signing who showed star potential at the 2004 Olympics when Argentina won gold, but has never really hit the heights projected for him despite carving out a solid career in Europe and Argentina. Still, he should combine with Steve Zakuani to give Seattle arguably the most dangerous pair of outside midfielders in MLS. Rosales is replacing Uruguayan Alvaro Fernandez, who has been distinctly average in his MLS career. All that remains is for Seattle to find a capable forward partner for Fredy Montero.