Five-a-side: Questions I want answered in MLS today

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1. Can the Galaxy right the ship?

I think it’s fair to say today’s biggie (Galaxy vs. New York Red Bulls) is more “biggie” for the home side, the Galaxy.

Hans Backe’s men will get their suspended star (Rafa Marquez) and their injured star (Thierry Henry) back in the rotation soon enough. So it’s really just about holding serve for now. Even if the Jersey Boys can’t do that, there’s no psychological scarring afoot; If they do take an L.A. beat down at the Home Depot Center, well, that’s what everyone more or less expects, right?

But what if L.A. loses? What if all that controversial rest for Robbie Keane and David Beckham (who remained at home while the rest of the side went up to Seattle for a mid-week match) fails to pay dividends? If Dax McCarty bombs around the midfield as he did for New York last week, if goalkeeper Ryan Meara keeps surprising us with un-rookie-like work, if Markus Holgersson’s good day at center back last week gets to be more of a habit, then a point (or three) for the Red Bulls is hardly out of the question (especially given the continued distressed state of the Galaxy defense).

2. Is Eddie Johnson about to go on a run?

The NBC crew is in Seattle for this one, Seattle’s second game in four days. Johnson has found goal in two consecutive matches. Fredy Montero also struck an absolute stunner in Wednesday’s win over L.A.

But we expect Montero to score. Some of us thought he might score in bunches this year. But one missing piece around CenturyLink has always been a reliable second threat. Can if be Johnson, who hit 15 with Kansas City in 2007 in his last pass through MLS? If so, catching San Jose for Western leadership won’t seem nearly such a tall order.

Don’t forget, Peter Nowak is in the stands for this one.

3. Can Portland crack the code?

The Timbers were stale as quick-sale bread on the road last year, gaining just 12 of a possible 51 points. But the expansion side remained stubbornly in the playoff chase most of the way thanks to a reasonable home record. Things aren’t falling their way so far at Jeld-Wen in 2012, with a concerning 2-2 mark. Today’s contest against Columbus, a club near the bottom in the East, is a jim dandy spot for Timber Joey to fire up that crazy chain saw a few more times.

Of course, Kris Boyd could assist the chain saw celebratory cause; three goals in eight matches isn’t awful, but it’s not scoring-table leadership stuff. In general, the Timbers need a leader or two to rise – of this thing could tailspin before anyone knows it.

4. Did Vancouver’s Martin Rennie stumble onto something special?

You remember all the talk about No. 1 draft pick Omar Salgado being a project as a target striker? Well, strike that. All of it.

He’s not a project any more, perhaps. Nor is he a target man. Not for now, at least.

Salgado has played out wide left for manager Rennie lately, and the man is really looking in the mood. Of course, that means leaving someone significant on the bench today against West-leading San Jose. Eric Hassli scored in the midweek Canadian Championship match, so he seems unlikely to take a seat. So is it Camilo? Or Sebastien Le Toux? We’ll see.

5. Will Sporting Kansas City show any rust?

I’ve already expressed some fear for Montreal in their visit to well-rested SKC. But is there another way to look at tonight’s match at Livestrong? Is it possible that Peter Vermes men might be rusty, having last played 14 days previously?

Could be that the time off a momentum buster. Again, we’ll see. By the way, the expansion Impact is 0-5-1 so far on the road while allowing 13 goals.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.

At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

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Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

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The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.