Five-a-side: the questions I want answered today in Major League Soccer

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1. Can Kansas City pass its stiffest test yet?

Peter Vermes’ team is perfect in seven so far. But the “so far” in this case has been seven nicely spaced matches. Wednesday saw SKC take care of business in its first mid-week contest of 2012, a 3-1 win on the spongy turf of Vancouver’s BC Place. So Saturday’s quick turn could require a couple of lineup adjustments, possibly moving away from its core 11 for the first time this year to mitigate fatigue.

Portland has issues this year, having already lost twice at Jeld-Wen Field, although the place figures to be no less intimidating.

Sporting Kansas City stands a stout 19-4-11 over its last 34 matches. We’ll see if the first bout with fixture congestion (and the passionate song of the Timbers Army) can dent that impressive mark just a little.

2. Can Torsten Frings inspire something better from Toronto?

The German veteran quickly established himself as the heart of soul at BMO upon his late 2011 arrival. So Frings’ early March injury was terrible timing as Toronto attempted to build momentum from its Champions League triumph.

Now, rather than stretching any momentum, everyone around Toronto FC would be delirious just to notch a win. They sure won’t be picky about what an initial victory looks like. Winless in its first five, Aron Winter’s club is off to one of the worst starts in MLS history. So Frings’ return for Saturday’s contest against Chicago (3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network) can’t come a moment too soon. Winter could insert his most important man into midfield (possibly replacing Designated Player Julian de Guzman, who was benched last week) of in defense (possibly replacing pretty much anybody, since the entire back line is an utter disaster.)

3. What do we make of German international Arne Friedrich?

Signed by Chicago last month, he was fit and healthy enough to make an MLS debut last week. Only, it was a disheveled mess of a match, interrupted twice by nasty weather and finally halted entirely after 65 minutes.

There’s no doubt Friedrich is a heady center back (pictured). But what does he still have after a series of injuries hastened his Bundesliga departure? And what about communication issues like the one everyone saw last week that cost a goal against Houston? One center back stepped forward while one remained in a holding stance; Houston pounced and had enough for a 1-1 draw in Illinois. The Fire remains an intriguing team, more so from this week’s Chris Rolfe acquisition. Contributions from Friedrich make things at Toyota Park worth watching even further.

4. Galaxy revival, or just a one-off stop?

Bruce Arena’s back line certainly looked better last week from the introduction of newcomer David Junior Lopes. But nobody would put one-win Portland in the “toughest of tests” category.  So tonight’s contest at Dicks Sporting Goods Park outside Denver should be telling.

Oscar Pareja’s team is coming off two losses, although both were on the road. Back home now, they continue dealing with two significant injuries:  Captain Pablo Mastroeni remained sidelined with post-concussion symptoms while Conor Casey nears a return from his Achilles tear of almost a year ago.

Even without those two, Colorado at home is a better test for the Lopes-led back line that what Portland offered last week. (A full match preview is here.)

5. Can Houston keep building on a good start?

The Dynamo’s bright start is flying below radar. A 2-1-1 record off four road matches is fairly strong stuff – it just doesn’t look so spiffy until you stop and think about how elusive road success can be in MLS. Remember, Sporting Kansas City claimed victory just once last year during that killer 10-game stretch to open the season.

Houston is getting some of its midfield blocks back as Adam Moffat comes off suspension for today’s game against struggling Columbus. On the other hand, Colin Clark remains suspended and valuable man Brad Davis remained in Houston, making progress but at least a week from his return. So, baby steps for the Orang midfield, but everything else looks strong for Dominic Kinnear’s road warriors.

Celtic’s Griffiths tears into Rangers chairman after “gulf” comments

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Celtic star Leigh Griffiths took the Old Firm bait and promptly swallowed the fisherman.

If you missed it, Rangers chairman Dave King said Celtic should’ve been even further ahead of their rivals given the setbacks handed to Rangers, who finally climbed back to the Scottish Premiership this season.

Celtic went unbeaten, drawing just four of 38 matches and finished 39 points ahead of Rangers on the table.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

If Celtic won all 38, they could’ve finished 47 points clear of Rangers. So, we guess the gulf could be bigger.

Here’s what Griffiths had to say:

“What was the gulf? 30-odd points. How does he expect that to be bigger? They were touting at the start of last season that they were going to win the league and this and that.

Joey Barton was coming up and saying he was going to be the best player in Scotland – he lasted a few months. In the first [Old Firm] game, they got hammered 5-1 and they got hammered 5-1 at the end of the season. So, the gulf couldn’t be any bigger. This season, they’ll be trying to bridge the gap.

“Ultimately it’s about what we do and if we are at our best nobody in Scotland can live with us.”

It was absurd talk from King, who doesn’t need to amp up one of the world’s best rivalries and also doesn’t have a leg to stand on considering the dominant season from the Bhoys. Wow.

San Jose adds Designated Player from Legia Warsaw

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Valeri ‘Vako’ Qazaishvili is the latest MLS Designated Player, as the Georgian will hit the pitch for San Jose this season provided his visa and ITC go through.

Qazaishvili comes from Legia Warsaw after five seasons with Vitesse in the Eredivisie. The 24-year-old attacking midfielder has been capped 24 times, and scored in Georgia’s 2-2 draw with Moldova earlier this month in World Cup qualifying.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Equally adept at right or left wing, Qazaishvili posted a goal and two assists for Legia following his transfer from Vitesse. He scored 28 goals and added 13 assists in 121 matches for the Dutch side.

From SJEarthquakes.com:

“We were looking for a player, a younger, offensive player, that really excites the fans and has the possibility to stay with us for a long period of time. That’s what we found with Vako,” said Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli. “We wanted a player that knows how to take on a defender one-on-one, that sees the goal and that also wants to bring a spark to our game.”

San Jose sits seventh in the Western Conference table, and only two teams — Colorado and DC — have scored fewer goals in MLS. Jahmir Hyka and Cordell Cato have been fine, but San Jose needed a better chance creator.

Qazaishvili, in theory, fits the bill. If he has half the impact of fellow Legia export Nemanja Nikolic, San Jose is cooking with gas.

Transfer rumor roundup: Van Dijk to Chelsea, Ox to Anfield

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More and more players are being linked with Manchester United, but — believe it or not — the Red Devils aren’t the only club seeking talent.

DiMarzio is reporting that Antonio Conte is close to securing the services of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, insisting the Dutch back is Conte’s top choice ahead of Juventus power house Leonardo Bonucci (which isn’t to say there isn’t room for both). The price? An eyebrow-raising $77 million.

[ MORE: Confederations Cup scenarios ]

Meanwhile, Conte is selling talented Bertrand Traore outside the Premier League. A solid season on loan at Ajax upped interest in the 21-year-old striker, and L’Equipe says it’s a $22 million move to Lyon for Traore.

How much do you think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is worth? Liverpool may think his value is as high as $32 million, as The Independent reports that Arsenal is prepared to sell the Southampton Academy product to the attacker-heavy Reds.

Meanwhile, Serge Gnabry‘s wild journey looks to have another stop despite a purchase from Bayern Munich this summer. Gnabry was one of Germany’s heroes at the Olympics and left Arsenal for Werder Bremen last summer. He thrived, and earned a deal to Bayern, but Kicker brings quotes from a Hoffenheim player that are hopeful of a loan for this season.

Messi offers to pay $558,000 to avoid 21-month jail sentence

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi has offered to pay an additional fine of 500,000 euros ($558,000) to ensure he avoids a 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud that a judge is expected to suspend, a Spanish state prosecutor said Friday.

State prosecutor Isabel Lopez Riera told The Associated Press the fine-for-time deal was presented by Messi’s lawyers to the judge who will rule on whether to suspend Messi’s sentence – as is widely expected. Lopez Riera said she has told the judge that her office is not opposed to the deal.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Lopez Riera said Messi’s lawyers have made a similar offer for the Barcelona player’s father, Jorge Horacio Messi. He is offering to pay 360,000 euros ($402,000) to avoid his 15-month sentence for helping his son cheat on his taxes.

In Spain, prison sentences under 24 months for first-time offenders can be suspended by a judge.

The government attorney representing Spain’s Tax Office in the case will also be able to weigh in on the proposed deal. As state prosecutor, Lopez Riera is impartial in the case as a defender of the public interest.

Last year, a court in Barcelona found Messi and his father each guilty of three counts of defrauding tax authorities of 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million) from 2007-09. The unpaid taxes were from money made through endorsement deals, not Messi’s salary paid by Barcelona.

Messi was fined 2 million euros and his father 1.5 million euros. Both were originally sentenced to 21 months, but his father’s sentence was later reduced to 15 months.

In the last two weeks, Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and former Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho have been accused by a Madrid-based state prosecutor of having defrauded Spain’s Tax Office of millions of euros (dollars) in unpaid taxes.

Both have denied wrongdoing.