Welcome to Episode 7 of Superman and the SoccerSmith's 4-4-2 Soccer Q&A. Better late than never! Here we go!
1. Superman (SM): Opening weekend is almost upon us. Which fixture are you most interested/excited to see as the MLS season gets underway?
SoccerSmith (SS): Here's my top 5 for Opening Weekend in no particular order: (1) LA Galaxy vs Chicago (3/6). The Fire made substantial upgrades this offseason and I'm curious to see how it'll translate in terms of on-field success. They get a big test out of the gates, and a positive result could really set the tone for their season. (2) Seattle vs New England (3/8). East meets West in a battle of powerhouse clubs from a year ago. Seattle is doubtlessly seeking more hardware after winning 2 of 3 major titles last season while New England just missed winning the MLS Cup. Lots of big names in this one too with Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo, Charlie Davies, and more. (3) FC Dallas vs San Jose (3/7). I see the Quakes as a potential sleeper this year after a disappointing 2014, and I want to see what they can do against a playoff team like FC Dallas. Dallas meanwhile got a new keeper in Dan Kennedy who could be poised for a huge season now that he's playing for a contender after years with Chivas USA. (4) Vancouver vs Toronto FC (3/7). Toronto brought in Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco this offseason. Are they finally a playoff team? They get an immediate test with a match against the Champions League-bound Whitecaps who finished 2014 as the top ranked Canadian franchise. (5) Orlando City vs New York City FC (3/8). The league's newest clubs debut against each other as Kaka, Mix Diskerud, David Villa and Brek Shea will all be on display.
SM: Yes to all of those and I'll add one more in Sporting KC vs. The New York Red Bulls. The return of Roger Espinoza coupled with an in-form Benny Feilhaber, Dom Dwyer, and Graham Zusi vs. Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Dax McCarty should make for some very entertaining watching.
2. SS: Portland just lost midfielder Ben Zemanski to a torn ACL. He will now join injured teammates Will Johnson and Diego Valeri on the Timbers sideline to start the season. Given how deep the Western Conference is shaping up to be this year, can Portland stay competitive despite this rash of injuries?
SM: We all know that the west is unimaginably competitive. Almost every team seems to be a legitimate playoff contender. Having said that, no team is immune to the injury bug and the biggest problem most squads have is depth. So if Portland can manage to not drop too many points early and stay mid-table until everyone gets fully fit, they can make a playoff run. However, if they dig themselves too deep a hole in the first part of the season, it could be a disastrous year for the Timbers faithful.
SS: My gut says it's too much to overcome, but soccer's one of the rare sports where you don't have to be the better team on a given day to come away with a win. If Portland gets some lucky/fortunate results early on, they can contend. That said, if I'm a betting man, I'm not picking Portland to finish in the Top 6 in the West this year. Right now I see them behind LA, Seattle, Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Vancouver, and my sleeper team, San Jose. So if they're going stay in the hunt, they'll need a lot to go right for them.
3. SM: Tommy Thompson is only 19 and has already had a loan spell, been called back, and earned a starting spot for San Jose. So far this preseason he seems to be vastly improved over his rookie year, accounting for several goals and assists so far. Can he be the spark that pulls San Jose out of the basement and back in playoff contention?
SS: So I picked the Quakes as my sleeper team in the West this year, partly because of Thompson, but also because of the moves they made this offseason and the fact that they caught a lot of bad breaks last year. We've seen glimpses of Thompson's playmaking ability both in the recent CONCACAF U-20 tourney, as well is in MLS, but I still don't think he's quite put it all together, and he might still be a year or two away from being a big-time playmaker. Fortunately, the Quakes are going to be more than just Thompson and Wondo this year. Adam Jahn had a monster preseason, Matias Perez Garcia will be in the mix all year in the midfield, the defense is revamped and healthy, and Swiss International Innocent Emeghara was brought in to boost the offense. I do think this will be a big year for Thompson's development and if he does make the leap, it just strengthens my previous argument about San Jose's potential in 2015.
SM: I like where you're going with this, and I'll raise you this: Tommy Thompson's major problem last season was his finishing. He'd make some incredible moves, get himself into space, and either scuff his shot or play a poorly-weighted pass. This preseason has seen him up his game quite a bit so far. If he can hold form and even improve, he could be the creative force to push this team forward and maybe into the playoffs.
4. SS: Preseason games are just exhibitions so you can't read too deeply into anything that happens during them, but give me one player and one team, whose performances have stood out, good or bad.
SM: Kaka and Orlando City. Orlando City already seem to have clicked as a team and are playing with a defined style, and Kaka's performances have been nothing short of masterful. Little wonder he's been named captain of the squad, his poise and leadership speak volumes.
SS: I'm going to go with San Jose's Adam Jahn. After getting limited to just 4 regular season appearances in 2014, his second season in MLS, Jahn exploded for 7 goals this preseason. Will he be a factor for the Quakes in 2015? That remains to be seen, but in terms of preseason numbers, Jahn was far and away the league's most prolific scorer. As far as teams go, I'm going to say Montreal. Despite an influx of new personnel, the Impact went down to Mexico and defeated Cruz Azul in an exhibition match and nearly pulled off a stunning upset of Pachuca in the Champions League before settling for a draw with two huge away goals. Is this a sign of things to come for the new look Impact? Regardless, they've certainly made a statement with their work south of the border.
1. SM: Hope Solo had been reinstated. Is this good as she's the obvious first choice keeper for the women or will her off-field antics be a more of a distraction than her play is worth?
SS: We haven't seen anyone really challenge Hope Solo for her spot as the number one option and with the World Cup looming, I think this a case of the U.S. trying to field the most talented squad. I would have to imagine that there have been some closed door meetings with Solo and the Coaching Staff to address her behavioral issues, and I'm sure the decision to reinstate her wasn't one that was taken lightly. My guess is that she's fairly committed to trying to win the World Cup, something she hasn't done in her career, and that she'll be on her best behavior through the summer. There's a lot of veteran leadership on this U.S. team, and I think that, provided no new scandals arise, they can handle the distractions that Solo's already created and move past them.
SM: Agreed. So long as she stays on her best behavior we should be fine. The squad is very deep with veteran leadership and I would also bet a week's pay on there being a long conversation between her, US Soccer and the coaching staff. With the Algarve Cup around the corner and the Women's World Cup this summer, here's to hoping she keeps her nose clean so she can also continue keeping clean sheets.
2. SS: If Chris Wondolowski's career were to end today, how would you remember him?
SM: I would like to say that I would remember his goals in the Gold Cup in 2013 or the various friendlies he's featured in. I would like to say that I'd remember his very impressive scoring record in MLS while playing for what some consider to be a sub-par team. I would like to say that I would remember the fire and passion he played the game with. Unfortunately the biggest thing I'm going to remember him for is the miss inside the 6 at the World Cup last summer. The guy was brought to Brazil because of his obvious talent as a goal poacher; someone who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. However when it came time to showcase said talent and carry his country into the next round, he missed a sitter. I still have a ton of respect for the guy, but anytime someone says 'Wondo' to me, that's the first thing that will come to mind.
SS: It's a shame that he missed that shot, and for the majority of U.S. fans, that's what he'll be remembered for. If he had somehow scored there, or atoned for the miss somewhere else in the match, he has one of the best stories in U.S. soccer history. Wondo was the 41st player drafted in 2005 after a successful career at Chico State. He wasn't picked until the fourth round going after players like Steven Rhyne, Sasha Gotsmanov, Benjamin Benditson, Mike Lookingland, Aaron Pitchkolan and Eugene Sepuya. Still, he made the squad starting his career with the original San Jose Earthquakes and moved with them to Houston. He played on two MLS Cup winning sides in 2006 and 2007, but saw just limited minutes. In his first 5 MLS seasons, he appeared in just 53 regular season matches scoring only 7 goals. And then things changed. Given a chance to play every day for the new San Jose Earthquakes in 2010, Wondo came out of nowhere lead the league in scoring. He followed that up two years later with a record tying 27 goals and a career high 7 assists. He played the majority of the 2013 season with a broken foot because that's just who he is, and barring a huge setback, he'll eclipse the 100 goal mark in 2015. There is not a player in the league who does more with less, and to me he's the epitome of American Soccer. He's the hardest working guy on the field, the consummate underdog, and yet he's found success everywhere he's played. You can argue that National Team success has eluded him, but he has 9 goals in 27 matches for the red, white and blue and if you want to nitpick, he has more national team goals for than Claudio Reyna (8 goals in 111 CAPs), Tab Ramos (8 goals in 81 CAPs), John Harkes (6 goals in 90 CAPs), Taylor Twellman (6 goals in 30 CAPs), Herculez Gomez (6 goals in 24 CAPs), Roy Lassiter (4 goals in 30 CAPs), Jermaine Jones (3 goals in 50 CAPs), or Benny Feilhaber (2 goals in 41 CAPs), and more than Freddy Adu, Juan Agudelo and Charlie Davies combined (8 total goals in 52 CAPs). There is only one player in U.S. Men's soccer history (Willy Roy) to score more goals in fewer appearances than Wondo and he retired from the international scene in 1973. My heart literally breaks for him every time I think of the Belgium game, but he's owned that miss, and to me, he's a guy you want to root for.
3. SM: Klinsmann is targeting yet another German-American in Ashton Gotz. The 21-year-old only recently broke into his mid-table side, Hamburger SV's, first team. Do you see him as a viable option at right back, or is Klinsmann showing a bit more of his European bias?
SS: Honestly I haven't seen much of Gotz so it's hard for me to really say if he's National Team material or not. I don't want to get too excited about his potential until he gets his citizenship paperwork sorted out. My understanding is there's some issues with that based on his relationship with his father or something. So yeah, until he's actually eligible, I have a hard time adding him into the conversation about who our right back should be. As for Klinsmann's bias, let's face it, if you play in the Bundesliga, and you're eligible to play for the U.S., Klinsmann's history suggests he's going to call you.
SM: I think we may have shared a brain on this one. It seems to me that if you're a young-ish guy who's playing any position in the Bundesliga (and almost any level of that particular league) and has even the loosest ties to an American family, you're probably going to get a call from Jurgen. I haven't seen this guy play either but he only recently broke into the first-team at a side that is currently involved in a relegation battle. I realize that doesn't always speak to the talent level of a player but this one seems a bit of a reach for me. Time will ultimately tell of course, but it seems to me that there are more viable options out there.
4. SS: The 25-woman roster for the upcoming Algarve Cup is out. What do you think of it? Any surprises?
SM: None that I can see. I like this squad. Carli Lloyd is a creative force in the middle, Tobin Heath is a threat on the wing, Ali Krieger and Becky Sauerbrunn along with Rampone and Klingenberg are as good as any defenders in women's soccer and Hope Solo, despite her off-field issues, is still the best woman between the sticks on the planet. Did I mention our forwards? Do I need to? Abby Wambach scores for fun at this tourney and with Alex Morgan, Christen Press, and Sydney Leroux all making the trip this is a squad I can get behind.
SS: The one thing that strikes me as being strange is that we're traveling with 10 defenders and just 7 midfielders. Normally, I'd think we'd have that the other way around. The only explanation I can think of is that we haven't settled on which defenders we're going to move forward with and this tourney is going to pair the ten down to a final seven or eight for the World Cup. The only real omission I noted was that backup keeper Nicole Barnhart isn't traveling with the team and we're instead sending Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher to back-up Hope Solo.
1. SM: Ronaldinho Gaucho has played on almost every stage imaginable. His current team in Mexico, Queretaro, is currently in 14th place in Liga MX. The 34-year-old has expressed interest in playing in MLS recently, would you like to see him here and if so, what team could use him the most?
SS: I'm kind of indifferent on Ronaldinho coming here. I don't think he should be aggressively targeted by teams, but at the same time, I don't think we should be turning him away either if he comes knocking on doors. He's getting up there in years, but he's obviously still good enough to play in Liga MX, which is arguably still a better league than MLS so that speaks to his abilities. I could see him being a fit with the Red Bulls to fill some of the void left by Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry or perhaps Orlando City alongside fellow Brazilian Kaka. Bottom line though, for the right price, there's probably not a ton of teams that would say no to his services.
SM: Personally I would love to see him in MLS. Ronaldinho brings something to the table that seems to be missing in a lot of leagues around the world nowadays: Flair. He's got more tricks up his sleeves than a ton of guys half his age and he's not afraid to use them. He tries things in games that most pros won't and more often than not he pulls them off. And I think that would be great for the MLS. A legendary guy who plays with a smile on his face and is a certified show-off? Sign him, MLS.
2. SS: Who is going to win the 2015 CONCACAF Champion's League?
SM: At this point I'd say Club America. They simply are too deep and seem to have the ability to turn it up a notch when it counts. I would love to say that DC United can turn it around or Montreal can make it happen but I just can't see either one pulling it off.
SS: After watching Leg 1, I think America is definitely looking like the favorite. They had no trouble dispatching a pretty good Saprissa team. That said, I wouldn't sleep on the other remaining Costa Rican sides as Herediano and Alajuelense are both proving to be tough outs.
That's all for this week, folks. Follow us on twitter at @cjleonard03 and @SoccerSmith15.