No Parke should be no problem for D.C. United

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As D.C. United writes new chapters in its worst-to-first saga, some of the characters we thought would play prominent roles have started to fade. Eddie Johnson’s not producing goals, Christian Fernández has already parted ways with the club, while Fabián Espindola’s earned an involuntary break for kicking Felipe Martins.

Jeff Parke, however, was off to a decent start with his new team before a foot injury sidelined him for the last five games, an absence the team’s been able to take in stride thanks to rookie Steve Birnbaum. Now, with news that Parke could miss “several more months,” United may have to relay on its rookie defender for longer than originally anticipated.

From the league’s website:

On Thursday, a team representative suggested that more information on Parke’s injury would be available in the coming week, though sources also confirmed to MLSsoccer.com that the steady center back’s ailment may keep him out for several more months.

In Birnbaum’s five starts, United’s gone 3-1-1, with the team’s only loss coming to the league-leading Sounders (1-0, June 28). Having allowed only five goals in that time, United’s slightly (and insignificantly, statistically) reduced the team’s goals allowed rate in Parke’s absence.

We hit on this after D.C. won in Toronto, but with Parke in focus, it bears repeating. Parke may be “steady,” but he’s not so great that he should take time away from Birnbaum, provided the number one pick has proven he can do the job.

During the last five games, Birnbaum’s shown the first signs he can play at this level. Perhaps those five games will prove aberrational, but for now, there’s reason to think D.C.’s no worse off.

MLS Preview: Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact

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No question that two of the league’s most interesting teams will be at Stade Saputo on Saturday, when the surprising Montreal Impact meets the young and surprising Philadelphia Union.

Montreal has been highly organized and far more adept at collecting points than anyone might have expected under Marco Schallibaum, an MLS newbie who is proving that foreign managers with no experience in the league can sometimes quickly find their feet. (He’s bucking a general trend that says otherwise, one now playing out more typically at Chivas USA.)

Don’t let Montreal’s fourth-place standing in the Eastern Conference fool you; in terms of points per game (2.0), only one other club has done so well. The fact that Montreal is fourth is reflective of Major League Soccer’s unstable scheduling practices; while the Impact has played just 10 matches, some clubs have played as many as 14.

And consider that Montreal keeps getting healthier. Captain Davy Arnaud (pictured, on the right) should return from the concussion issues that has kept him out recently. Midfield teammate Felipe and underrated outside back Jeb Brovsky (who will be wearing a mask) could be in for a return to the lineup.

And now it looks like veteran Italian center back Alessandro Nesta is healthy enough to get back on the field.

A busy May around Stade Saputo means that some Impact regulars can surely use a break. Then again, Justin Mapp is having the kind of season that has eluded the once-promising midfielder in recent years, so you hate to see any mounting momentum slip away. And second-year man Andrew Wenger is benefitting from regular playing time.

Philadelphia never earns many style points, but Hackworth’s young team is grinding out points at a surprising rate, currently fifth in the East. So many of the close wins are about MLS scoring leader Jack McInerney and those great instincts near goal, used to wonderful effect in accumulating a league-leading five game-winners.

But grinders or no, Hackworth’s team is chalk full of interesting parts.

Brazilian playmaker Kleberson needed time to get fit, but he has helped stabilize the Union’s midfield possession.

Conor Casey, now healthy again, has linked with McInerney to form a solid forward pairing.

McInerney played a more withdrawn role last week, proving that he can be more than a pure goal scorer.

In the back, young goalkeeper Zac MacMath hasn’t always been perfect, but the mistakes are coming at a slower rate than years past.

In center backs Amobi Okugo and Jeff Parke and in outside backs Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis, the defense has solid parts to build around, even if the cohesion has not always been there.

Few would have picked these teams as playoff favorites as the season begin in March, but they both have the look of one now, especially in Montreal’s case.

Kickoff is 7 p.m.; the official match preview from MLSSoccer.com is here.

Major League Soccer team previews: SEATTLE SOUNDERS

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Significant additions and subtractions: Fredy Montero and Jeff Parke are gone. That’s the club’s best all-around attacker and defender. They have great depth, but those are huge blows to the top of Seattle’s depth charts.

Add in the likely departure of Christian Tiffert and Seattle’s lost a key player at each level of the field. The German Designated Player is not in camp and looks on his way out.

They’re the casualties of an offseason that’s required general manager Adrian Hanauer to do some significant salary cap manipulation. It’s also why the losses haven’t been offset by big arrivals. Djimi Traore should be valuable in defense while Shalrie Joseph’s addition looks more like cap games than significant addition.

Strengths: The midfield. Osvaldo Alonso, the league’s best midfielder, is complemented by the “all the little things” value of Brad Evans. Mauro Rosales is an elite playmaker when healthy, while a returning Steve Zakuani could make up 60 percent of Montero’s goals. Mario Martínez is also ready to step in, and there’s still a chance we’ll see all five players in the same lineup. Rosales can always be pushed up to play with Johnson.

Goal prevention may continue to be a strength despite the loss of Parke. The keys were always Gspurning, Alonso, and Sigi Schmid’s tactics, all of which remain in Seattle.

Pressure points: Eddie Johnson scored 15 goals. Montero had 13. After that, Seattle’s scoring charts drop all the way down to five. Zakuani and David Estrada could pick up the slack, but if they don’t, Seattle’s in big trouble, especially when Johnson’s away on national team duty.

And despite goal prevention being a possible strength, you have to wonder about the back line. They lost Parke, Adam Johansson can be exploited, and Leo Gonzalez can be had for pace on the left. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado is no longer an MLS-elite center back. Will opposing teams figure out a way to exploit this?

In MLS, every team has to accept some weaknesses. Seattle will continue to wager they can paper over theirs.

source: Getty ImagesDifference maker: Osvaldo Alonso is the team’s best player, but the difference maker is Johnson. He needs to duplicate (or perhaps, improve upon) his 2012. Else, Seattle could have a shocking season.

Johnson has the talent, but he’s also going to be pulled in two directions by the international calendar. If he only plays, say, 24 games this year (instead of last year’s 31), can Seattle replace his contributions?

A scenario: Johnson regresses a little. Maybe he tires, gets hurt, or the league adjusts. Maybe all of the above. And let’s say Estrada and Zakuani can’t replace Montero’s scoring and Johnson’s regression. None of these assumptions are outrageous.

When things go bad, these are the scenarios that transpire. And right now, there’s a scenario where this team just isn’t that good.

Potential breakout player: People forget how good Zakuani was. That’s understandable. It’s been almost two years, but Zakuani was the most dangerous wide man in the league. If he can hit the 10-goal mark he touched in 2010, Seattle’s biggest problem is solved.

Bottom line: There are a lot of questions, but Seattle doesn’t need answers now . They just need them in time to compete in November.

They’ll find them. With this team’s track record and the talent they carry over, they’ll find a way to protect the defense and augment Johnson.

The bigger moves may come this summer, when Seattle may have one (or two) open Designated Player spots. Fans complain the club hasn’t been aggressively using their financial might, but if Schmid can stabilize in spring, Hanauer can be ambitious in summer.

Come November, this team will again be a contender to come out of the West.

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

Major League Soccer team previews: PHILADELPHIA UNION

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. MLS first kick is March 2.

No. 6 in the East is the Philadelphia Union:

Significant additions and subtractions: After two injury-slowed years, Conor Casey is healthy and motivated by the sounds of it. If the former Colorado Rapids striker, who moved east in an offseason trade, can find 2010 form (he hit 13 times, tied for sixth best in MLS) the Union will have that veteran finisher so dearly missed last year.

Along with popular forward Sebastian Le Toux, who remains the team’s all-time leading scorer despite a year away, is back thanks to a January trade with New York.

Elite center back Carlos Valdes has been loaned to a Colombian club; Jeff Parke, acquired from Seattle in December, isn’t quite of Valdes’ quality, but he’s a reliable MLS defender.

And then there’s Freddy Adu, who isn’t yet technically gone, but he’s certainly not with the team, either. Keep reading.

Strengths: everything to like and not to like is contained in the brat pack of wonderful young talent around PPL Park: Zak MacMath, Jack McInerney , Roger Torrres, Antoine HoppenotAmobi Okugo, Sheanon Willliams are all 22 or younger. The Farfan brothers, Michael and Gabriel, are just 24. Most of them have MLS All-Star potential.

Of course, they are still young. Head coach John Hackworth, blessed with ample patience and equipped with plenty of experience working with younger types, is the right guy to have around them, to nurse them through the inevitable boo-boos and rough patches. That said, there will be mistakes and rough patches.

There’s plenty of playmaking potential in Torres and Michael Farfan. And with Casey and Le Toux around, the 20-year-old McInerney need not feel the crushing pressure of having to arrive as a scoring force now.

Guys like Casey, Parke and Brian Carroll add some wizened stability to a locker room full of youth.

Pressure points: When Hackworth talks about roster “constraints” and “challenges,” we all know what he’s talking about: Adu, whose career wanderings continue. Hackworth wants to move on without the mercurial playmaker, but the club is hog-tied until it can get Adu’s DP salary off the books.

We are all assuming center back Bakary Soumare still looks like the game-changer we knew in Chicago, but it has been four years since he ruled as such a force at Toyota Park.

The talented MacMath, 21, had more than his share meaningful mess-ups last year. It seems naïve to believe he’s completely past all of them.

There still may be some hangover effect of 2012, and what an odd year it was around PPL Park. Then-coach Peter Nowak tore apart a playoff team, one that seemed to be on the rise. Things clearly were strained behind the scenes and Nowak was fired in June, later to get tangled in a nasty lawsuit with the club.

Hackworth must find the best spot for young Okugo, who filled in splendidly at center back in 2012 but seems set to occupy a holding midfield role for ‘13.

source:

Difference maker: LeToux (pictured right) departed Philadelphia a year ago and got completely lost. He scored five goals while moving coast to coast mid-season, from Vancouver to New York. Perhaps being back in his happy place at PPL Park, where Le Toux struck for a whopping 25 goals between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, can make an All-Star of the Frenchman once again.

Potential breakout player: It could be Michael Farfan – but only if he can hold off Torres as Hackworth’s creative influence. Farfan had some remarkable moments last year but the final production (one goal, five assists) must improve. It should, considering the measurably better striker in front of him now.

Bottom line: Last year was all about stabilizing a listing ship; now with a full off-season (short as it was) and with a talented young roster more to his liking, Hackworth can try to move things forward. Whether his team has enough experience to get there … we’ll see.

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Seattle Sounders

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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.)

Seattle finally flung one monkey off its back in 2012 when the club saw its first postseason triumph. Unfortunately, the glow of their Western Conference semifinal win over Real Salt Lake lasted only a few days, their lopsided loss at Home Depot Center three days later recasting the club’s lingering question: Can the team get done it in the playoffs?

It’s a strange, old-timey question that invites quips about sample size and confirmation bias. Regardless, the critique remains: One of the most talented teams in Major League Soccer has yet to truly push for an MLS Cup, something fans noticed after the team fell flat in LA.

This year, despite some major departures, expectations are the same. Seattle wants to content for this year’s title.

Here are some questions that will need to be answered:

  • Who replaces Fredy Montero?

You know he would have given you double-digit goals. And you know he would have been one of the team’s assists leaders. But now that Fredy Montero’s gone, you know Seattle have to replace him.

David Estrada’s work rate and versatility make him a good complement to Eddie Johnson, but Mauro Rosales could also be slid into a true No. 10’s role. Mario Martínez can come in, as could Steve Zakuani. You could even push Christen Tiffert forward while deploying Brad Evans in central midfield.

It’s too early to tell what Sigi Schmid will do, but he has options. The Sounder boss may need a few months of regular season play to see how his team develops.

  • Can Christian Tiffert’s adjustment continue?

Dropped into Major League Soccer half way through last season, the former Kaiserslautern midfielder went through an adjustment period, often struggling with the physicality of the whistle-shy league. By the end of the season, Tiffert’s game had adjusted, but his body had not. He seemed rundown by pace and intensity of the league’s last three months.

Amid all those hurdles, Tiffert showed skills that could perfectly complement Osvaldo Alonso’s, his ability to get to and win second balls rounding out what could be MLS’s best midfield. But with Fredy Montero gone, Tiffert’s going to have more of a presence going forward, adding the ability to create through the middle to his already excellent crossing.

  • Will Jeff Parke be missed?

Salary cap issues meant something had to give. Unfortunately, that meant more than losing Fredy Montero. Seattle also lots their best defender, with Jeff Parke traded to Philadelphia in December.

Patrick Ianni looks set to slide in next to Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, but with Parke gone, the performances of Alonso and goalkeeper Michael Gspurning become even more important. Last year, the duo were the key components of the league’s second-best defense, but with Parke gone, we’ll see how valuable to new Union defender was to last year’s success.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

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