Collen Warner

MLS Team of the Week — Stars of Week 25

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Week 25 of the 2015 Major League Soccer season is in the books, and 27 goals in nine games later (including a couple five-spots — looking at you, LA Galaxy and Toronto FC), we can finally say it’s stretch-run time in MLS.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Week 25 MLS coverage | Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

Unsurprisingly, the Galaxy and TFC land multiple players in the Week 25 Team of the Week — as do the San Jose Earthquakes — with the former nabbing an unheard of (but wholly warranted) four of eleven spots. Robbie Keane scored twice and set up two more goals; Giovani dos Santos scored one, set up another and was a terror for 90 minutes; Sebastian Lletget matched Dos Santos’ output and threw in a succulent backheel flick to tally his assist, just for good measure.

[ WEEK 25: LA 5-1 NYCFC | TFC 5-0 ORLRSL 2-0 SEA | VAN 1-0 FCD | CLB 3-2 SKC ]

David Bingham recorded to clean sheets last week as the Earthquakes won twice by a combined score of 7-0, on the back of three goals scored by Chris Wondolowski. Tasked with marking Kaka for the entirety of 90 minutes, TFC midfielder Collen Warner did exactly that while also accumulating 100 touches of the ball (TFC had a man advantage for 54 minutes).

Thoughts? Questions? Agreements? Disagreements? (Of course not.) Leave them in the comments section, as always. I’m not afraid to defend my picks.

[ MORE: 2015 MLS Team of the Week archive ]

MLS Team of the Week — Week 25

Goalkeeper: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)

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Defenders: Maynor Figueroa (Colorado Rapids), Demar Phillips (Real Salt Lake), Robbie Rogers (LA Galaxy), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps)

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Midfielders: Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Sebatstian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Collen Warner (Toronto FC)

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Forwards: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

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Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Real Salt Lake

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

What an eventful off-season this has been around Rio Tinto, across all levels of the franchise.

First came the personnel upheaval as one of the league’s more stable clubs turned its roster on its head. GM Garth Lagerwey and manager Jason Kreis, recognizing that things had gone a little stale, dropped some bold moves as quickly as possible into December. Gone were bedrocks Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson.

Later, in moving to recreate some of that bedrock stability, playmaker Javier Morales saw his contract extended.

But as preseason drills began, some “wobbly” returned club with the out-of-nowhere announcement  that ownership was in flux.

Salt Lake City may represent one of the smaller markets and may dwell in a so-called fly-over state, but Rio Tinto Stadium is certainly no boring place at the moment. As far as on-field activity, here’s what Jason Kreis and Co. need to address in preseason:

  • What the 2013 back line looks like, especially early while dealing with injury?

Jamison Olave, a lineup staple at Rio Tinto for the last four seasons, is gone, now in New York. Nat Borchers had recent quadriceps surgery and his return is perhaps the biggest mystery clouding preseason camp. Truly, club officials don’t seem to have a good handle on whether this is a long-term process or something shorter.

Chris Wingert has a broken foot, which might not be as concerning but for the pile-up of injury and roster attrition around it.

Chris Schuler and Tony Beltran will be the stability providers early, with steady veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando providing the calm reassurance and useful information from behind. Still, Kreis will need to sort out the best defensive structure and personnel rotation, probably with Plan A, B and C to account for various scenarios.

  • Where is Robbie Findley’s head?

With Espíndola gone and Costa Rican international Alvaro Saborio likely to miss matches here and there for international operations, Findley sets up as a major part of the goal-scoring plan around Sandy this year.

That would be fine if this was the same Findley who left Utah back in January of 2011, having hit for a respectable 29 goals over four seasons. But is he the same guy?

Things did not go well in Findley’s efforts to elevate his career abroad; slowed by injury, the 27-year-old striker never gained a foothold at Nottingham Forest.

There are wincing parallels here to Edson Buddle, who left for Europe about the same time as Findley, experienced a similarly flawed outcome and then returned to MLS a different, lesser figure.

Findley says confidence remains high. We’ll see, and we know that confidence means everything for strikers. So, how is Findley’s? And how can Kreis manage matters in preseason to reinforce it?

  • What, exactly, are the expectations for 2013?

We cannot look at a team with U.S. international Kyle Beckerman (pictured), Morales, Rimando, Borchers, Beltran and Olave as a team in rebuilding mode. But with key components gone and with Borchers’ availability in question, the club does seem to be in some level of transition.

Kreis must decide how much, and how soon, to mash the gas pedal, how much to demand. There’s a sweet spot between aiming too low and setting unrealistic expectations, therefore setting up the side for disappointment.

If things fall right, RSL remains a contender. But if a couple of things go wrong, they may need to downshift and look for smaller victories, at least for the time being.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: San Jose Earthquakes

Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: New England Revolution

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No one will begrudge Jay Heaps a learning curve. Being a first-year head coach is challenging enough – and doing so last year at rebuilding New England was always going to be a tough climb.

But it’s fair to ask for progress this year following a deflated 2012 campaign, one where playoff aspirations were drifting from view by August.

The attacking elements are all there. But Heaps, a former defender, and his staff have some ground to make up in that wobbly defense if they want to avoid missing the playoffs a fourth consecutive season.

Considering that this time last year Heaps (right, with Saer Sene) was running his first professional practices – Ever! – he’s presumably better equipped to answer the burning questions heading into preseason camp in 2013:

  • Where is the defensive leadership?

A lot of that depends on an important sub-set of that question: who is in goal?

Matt Reis remains the longtime incumbent, and he seemed to kick the game up a notch after a mid-season benching in 2012. On the other hand, Bobby Shuttleworth has always been a bright understudy, so the position may not be exactly “up for grabs,” but it’s no lead pipe lock for Reis, either.

Some of the Revs’ defensive frailty in 2012 could be pinned on lack of communication and leadership in the back. No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Farrell has the physical tools to be a central defensive force at Gillette Stadium, but is he ready mentally?

Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston (and perhaps even third-year man A.J. Soares) are getting to places in their careers where they can’t just be “players,” where they need to reliably be voices, instructors on the field.

Someone has to take command back there.

  • Where do all the fascinating midfield parts fit it?

Andy Dorman is back for his second Revolution “go round,” and there are lots of ways Heaps can use the midfield veteran, coming off a moderately productive five-year stay in Scotland and England.

What of Lee Nguyen, who was so effective after being claimed on the cheap 11 months ago from Vancouver that U.S. international Benny Feilhaber was deemed surplus at Gillette? (Yes, it was surely more complicated than that with Feilhaber, but same difference as it relates to Nguyen and the bigger personnel puzzle going into 2013.)

And then there’s lefty specialist Juan Toja, one of the truly intriguing figures in MLS going into this 18th season. We know the guy can play. The questions with Toja have always been along the lines of “Where’s his head at?”

Dorman and Nguyen are fairly versatile, willing and able to play centrally or out wide. Toja tends to drift inside, even when stationed ostensibly on the left, so perhaps a little less so on his end. With all that, there are talented, younger men to factor in, too.

Of course, it’s not all about attacking. Somebody’s got to screen and support that iffy back line – and Clyde Simms or Stephen McCarthy can’t do it all themselves.

  • What does the forward depth chart look like?

If you can’t find a quality forward around the Revs’ ongoing training camp in Casa Grande, Ariz., you aren’t looking very hard. It’s on Heaps and staff to make some order within the stack-up of striking ability.

Saer Sene is coming off knee surgery, but team officials say it’s “so far, so good” on his rehab. The club’s first double-digit goal scorer since Taylor Twellman (Sene had 11 last year) probably won’t be at top speed by the club’s March 9 opener, but he seems on pace to be there soon after.

He and Honduran international Jerry Bengtson, who had his moments after last year’s late-summer signing, seem like options Nos. 1 and 2.

But Diego Fagundez is a bright young prospect, and Dimitry Imbongo might be as well. Plus, the team’s first two draft picks, Donnie Smith and Luke Spencer, may have something to say about it.

And let’s not forget that Heaps could use Dorman, Nguyen or Toja somewhere along a front line, depending on the formation.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: New York Red Bulls

Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Montreal Impact

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Only one of MLS’s last seven expansion teams have reached the playoffs in their first season, a success ratio that advises first-year franchises to be modest in their expectations. Montreal was not. The mid-season acquisition of Designated Player Marco Di Vaio (pictured) symbolized the ambition owner Joey Saputo brought to Major League Soccer. When his team didn’t make the playoffs, head coach Jesse Marsch lost his job.

With talents like Felipe, Patrice Bernier, and Alessandro Nesta on the roster, new head coach Marco Schällibaum has a team that’s capable of finishing in the East’s top five. His ability to steer them into the postseason will start with himself.

  • Can Schällibaum avoid imported coach syndrome?

The premise would be xenophobic if it hadn’t become an MLS truism (and it may still be xenophobic): Coaches without experience in North America have had little success in the league. Last season, Toronto’s Aron Winter became the latest example when his Reds stumbled to a record-setting (in a bad way) start to the campaign. Hans Backe’s inability to get a talented New York team to their promised land could also be evidence of this phenomena.

The rule’s not an absolute. When Englishman Gary Smith became Colorado’s coach in the middle of the 2008 season, he’d only been working in the country for five months. Just over two years later, he was lifting the MLS Cup.

The key is adaptation. Too many coaches have tried and failed to impose the ideas they’re importing. If Schällibaum approaches his new job with an open mind, there’s no reason he can’t eventually leverage his 25 years worth of head coaching experience.

  • Can they cut down the goals?

For much of the year, Montreal played a conservative style you don’t readily associate with shipping goals, but by season’s end, only one Eastern Conference team (Toronto) had conceded more. With Nesta, Nelson Rivas, Houssan Camara, and Matteo Ferrari, the Impact should have been better at goal prevention.

A full year of Troy Perkins in goal may help, as might the season’s experience gained by 24-year-old midfielder Collen Warner. Aiming for more possession may cut down the defense’s exposure, but ultimately, Schällibaum going to have to figure out how to shave off about 20 percent of Montreal’s 51 goals allowed.

  • Will the intensity be there?

Between normal expansion woes, early season stadium renovation, the late arrivals of Di Vaio and Nesta, and injuries to players like Rivas, Ferrari and number one pick Andrew Wenger, the Impact were a much weaker team at the start of the season than they were in the final months. Unfortunately , because of schedule that front-loaded their games, their strongest point of the season coincided with a point where their competitors had matches in hand. The timing was terrible.

But those expansion woes also contributed to a lack of intensity throughout the season. The team was in “building” mode for the first half, consolidating mode in summer, and were too far back for a real chase at the end. There was a never a point where the team really kicked it into gear.

If Montreal’s going to make up the 11-point gap that kept them from fifth, they’re going to have to find a stride early in 2013 season – a stride they never found in 2012. Teams like Houston can go months while trying to figure things out, but given Montreal at their best are playoff contenders, they can’t afford to spend the earlier part of 2013 figuring out what they have.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: New England Revolution