By Kyle McCarthy
With the start of the season looming a mere three weeks away, clubs across MLS are scrambling to fill pressing needs ahead of the upcoming campaign.
Some trouble spots, however, require more attention than others. This edition of the Friday Five highlights a few of the more intriguing selection posers and question marks faced by teams across the league as preseason preparations wind to a close.
1. Toronto FC's search for a defensive stopper. TFC director of soccer Mo Johnston has signed his fair share of successful players during his tenure as Reds supremo, but the former New York boss has also consistently failed to adequately address his side's obvious problems at striker and at center back. The search for a central defender should take precedence for the moment. With the talent Toronto boasts in its front six, a spot in the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference beckons with an iron-clad central defensive duo. Instead, the Reds are puttering along with the promising Nana Attakora as their lone starting-caliber option at center back and a group of other hopefuls (Nick Garcia, Emmanuel Gomez and Ty Harden) best suited as temporary cover. Carl Robinson probably represents the next best option, but the currently injured defensive midfielder's lofty spot on the central defensive depth chart is a sign that the quality in that department isn't adequate.
Despite the continuing problems at the back, the Reds haven't made a move to rectify the situation. A newspaper report out of Britain linked TFC with Canadian international Adrian Cann this week, but it's difficult to envision a former USL player who is currently on trial with Burton Albion as the answer at this level. If TFC doesn't make a decisive move to sign a composed central defender (and fill the glaring need at striker as well), the Reds will likely continue to underachieve and the lingering questions about Johnson's long-term future will continue to fester.
2. New York's central defensive quandary. Red Bulls sporting director Erik Soler imported a couple of Scandinavian-based players to address concerns at left back (Roy Miller) and central midfield (Joel Lindpere) and has another European-based player in camp to vie for the right back spot (Enar Jaager), but Soler hasn't tapped his European connections to shore up the considerable concerns in central defense. After conceding 47 goals last term, New York requires a steady, experienced international with acute positional awareness to strengthen the flimsy rear guard. Mike Petke will fall into the leadership role because of the dearth of options, while rookie Tim Ream holds the inside track to the other spot with Kevin Goldthwaite sidelined for another couple of weeks after undergoing adductor sugery on Feb. 4. Ream has impressed coach Hans Backe with his calmness on the ball and his distribution out of the back during training camp, but Backe's projected starting duo could be caught out for pace much like the assortment of centerback pairings tried in New York last season. Andrew Boyens, the next best option, wouldn't address the pace problem either. While the Red Bulls required plenty of reinforcements during the close season, Soler's reluctance to address the glaring need in defense could haunt a side that may not be ably to rely on Bouna Coundoul to save a mistake-ridden back four time and again.
3. New England's injury-riddled strikeforce. The complete list of healthy specialist strikers presently available to Revolution coach Steve Nicol: Kheli Dube and rookie Zack Schilawski. Taylor Twellman remains sidelined with a neck injury, while Edgaras Jankauskas took a cleat to his thigh early in training camp and has spent most of his time watching practice from the sidelines. Dube looks active and confident after receiving a new contract during the offseason, but Nicol said his side needs reinforcements quickly to help bolster its attacking depth. Three or four trialists will join the Revs on their trip to North Carolina next week as the Revs review their options. Concerns over Jankauskas' tendency to pick up niggling knocks and Twellman's uncertain future may force the Revs to acquire a contributor quickly or grapple with a desperate striker shortage at the start of the season.
4. Houston's replacement policy in central midfield. Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear remains calm about his central midfield options despite losing Ricardo Clark (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers) during the offseason. “We have Richard Mulrooney, who has played there before, and he’s one of the guys we missed at the stretch of the end of last year,” Kinnear told MLS Insider on Thursday about his deep-lying midfield choices. “I think Geoff Cameron can play in there, and he can also play as an attacking midfielder.”
Kinnear's confidence in Cameron (as an attacking midfielder and the next test of the Joba Chamberlain rule for a standout player switched to a different position because the team believes he could be even better in the new role) and Mulrooney (a steady veteran who has spent time at right back in recent seasons) hasn't stopped Houston from assessing other options. Former Crystal Palace and Southampton schemer Leandre Griffit spent time in camp, while Jamaican international Lovel Palmer will link up with the Dynamo this week for an extended trial after scoring from distance against FC Dallas during a brief stint in Florida last weekend. Bringing in additional competition for places will hand Kinnear the flexibility he requires if Cameron needs to drop into central defense or Mulrooney struggles to stay healthy.
5. Seattle's changing forward line. Sounders FC completed the long-rumored signing of Swiss international striker Blaise Nkufo on Thursday, adding yet another element to an evolving group of strikers. Fredy Montero remains a certain first XI choice, but there are persistent questions about whether Seattle can retain his services when the summer transfer window opens. Nkufo will provide the target man Sounders FC desperately needs after the World Cup, but his July arrival leaves a starting spot available for the opening stages of the season. Schmid has praised David Estrada's and Roger Levesque's contributions during training camp, though one wonders whether Nate Jaqua features Schmid's long-term plans with his inconsistent form and Nkufo's imminent arrival. Steve Zakuani can also play up front, but Sebastien Le Toux's departure to Philadelphia means the former Hermann Trophy winner will most likely have to play wide left. Another experienced choice would reinforce a collection of attackers that looks a player short at the moment.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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