Ten most intriguing figures in MLS
U.S. fans are eager to see what Juan Agudelo can do with the Red Bulls
Juan Pablo Angel could be an upgrade over Edson Buddle for L.A.
San Jose's Chris Wondolowski will need to prove he's not a one-season wonder
Preseason started early this year around MLS, a reflection of season openers moving forward about two weeks. So most teams are into their preseason routines now, with trips ahead to Florida, Arizona or other places where the weather is more suited to soccer and less to Winter X Games.
To prime things, here are the 10 most intriguing figures for the coming 2011 campaign (listed alphabetically):
1. Juan Agudelo, F, NY Red Bulls: Funny thing about all the hoopla attached to America's scoring protégé du jour: he has yet to start an MLS regular season match. A reasonable account in two national team appearances has everyone stoked to see how far the 18-year-old forward can go. First question, how much will he even play? Red Bulls coach Hans Backe said Agudelo can man outside attacking spots as well as striker, which helps in dispersing minutes. But Backe also warned about overexposure and over-the-top expectations, especially if Agudelo has some early success and Europe beckons. "It's so, so easy that you lose focus on your game," Backe said Friday from New York. "We definitely have to do some things to protect him a little this year."
2. Juan Pablo Angel, F, L.A. Galaxy: For all the hype and hysteria surrounding the Galaxy over the last few years, titles and trophies have proved painfully elusive. Can Angel be the missing piece at the Home Depot Center? He replaces Edson Buddle, and while the former Galaxy hit man struck at an impressive rate, it wasn't Angel-esque. Aside from being a more well-rounded forward, Angel put away 58 goals in 102 games over the last four years, usually for lesser teams. Buddle meanwhile struck 42 times in 97 games in the same period. One question: Can Angel, 35, hold up adequately? (If we knew the answer, he wouldn't be so intriguing in 2011.)
3. Robin Fraser, Chivas USA coach: Chivas USA might be known as the most dysfunctional club in MLS if only Toronto hadn't so stubbornly hoarded the dubious distinction. Attempts to establish an identity at Chivas USA have failed miserably. Now comes Fraser, formerly the highly regarded assistant to Jason Kreis at Real Salt Lake. Players are already talking about more purposeful practices under Fraser, who hopes to emulate Kreis' success. He's got his work cut out; Chivas USA's threadbare roster looks nothing like Kreis' capable assemblage at the moment.
4. Sebastien Le Toux, M/F, Philadelphia Union: Since 2008 no one in MLS had a higher combined goal-assist total than the Frenchman's last year. Le Toux's breakout season (14 goals, 11 assists) is even more impressive considering the expansion team around him last year. He probably would have been the league MVP if Philly had sneaked into the playoffs. No one works harder and that, as much as the scoring, has endeared him to Philly's demanding sports fanatics. Not at all bad for a guy left unprotected the previous season by Seattle.
5. Darlington Nagbe, F, Portland Timbers: The top MLS draft pick, Omar Salgado, remains a project; check back in three or four years. But check back in three or four months on Nagbe, and we should have a good idea on the overall No. 2. Nagbe wears the look of a mature goal scorer already. Rookie forwards can certainly excel in their freshman MLS seasons: Danny Mwanga in Philly and Steve Zakuani in Seattle, the previous No. 1 choices, set a brisk pace. Now Portland's Nagbe may be partnered with returning man Kenny Cooper in Portland, so there's intrigue all across the front line.
6. Merritt Paulson, Portland Timbers owner: Remember how Seattle Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer was the toast of the MLS town a couple of years back? Well, he's still a cool fellow and all ... but he's so 2009. Portland and Vancouver are going to boost the league profile and collective energy the way Seattle and Toronto did in recent years, and that's largely about Paulson. The Portland Timbers exist in MLS today thanks to his aggressive movement on PGE Park -- they kicked baseball out of there! -- and to his ability to get city leaders in Portland on board. Not bad for someone who was a midlevel exec at NBA Entertainment just a few years ago.
7. Tim Ream, CB, New York Red Bulls: Let's talk about the tremendous burden of expectation: It's one thing to handle the job when no one expects it; it's totally different when everyone expects it. Ream was the outta-nowhere man in 2010, accelerating from completely unknown to Rookie of the Year finalist in record speed. Throw in a couple of mature, impressive nights in the U.S. shirt and, well ... let's see what his sophomore MLS season brings.
87. Paul Tamberino, MLS Competition committee member: Mark down 2010 as the year MLS officials began to grudgingly concede that officiating needs some dents pounded out. You know what they say: admitting you have a problem is half the battle. Tamberino's task is now the other half, having just joined the MLS competition committee as a director. Formerly the U.S. Soccer Director of Referee Development, he will remain in close/proximity to the body that assigns referees to MLS matches. He's also now the tip of the spear for planning and implementation of strategies to improve MLS quality, a big part of which is improving performance from the men in the middle. (Hint: Just call the darn fouls, guys, and don't acquiesce to this mess about MLS being a "physical league.")
9. Aron Winter, Toronto FC coach: Toronto FC has been place where attractive soccer goes to die, which is a shame considering a loyal audience that matches a sophisticated knowledge of the game with a laudable "rock on!" attitude. The newly appointed Dutchman has made it clear that the previous TFC ways -- kick and rush under early managers, defend and foul under the latest one -- offended his soccer sensibilities as much as the rest of ours. Assuming he can get disgruntled star Dwayne De Rosario on board, the action should look better around BMO, at very least.
10. Chris Wondolowski, F, San Jose forward: The world is full of one-hit wonders; It's Wondolowski's job in 2011 to stay off that list. He was the league's improbable Golden Boot winner last year with 18 goals in 28 games. That came after a career that included just seven goals in five years. (Not a misprint!) So, will he prove to be more "Beatles," prolific over a longer period? Or more "Baha Men," who gave the world Who Let the Dogs Out and then disappeared? The Earthquakes had better hope he keeps it up; while "Wondo" hit 18 goals in 2010, the rest of the team contributed a paltry 16.
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