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The Eh Game

Three key questions facing each Canadian MLS team ahead of Saturday’s kickoff

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Can TFC's Ryan Nelsen transition from Premier League defender to MLS head coach?

Major League Soccer's 2013 season gets underway Saturday, and the three Canadian teams will all be in action that day. Toronto FC is in Vancouver to face the Whitecaps (6:30 p.m. Eastern, TSN/RDS2), while the Montreal Impact kick off their 2013 campaign in Seattle against the Sounders (10:30 p.m. Eastern, MLS Live). Each of the Canadian squads will be hoping for better results this year, as Toronto FC and the Impact both missed the playoffs in 2012, while Vancouver became the first Canadian team to make the MLS postseason but fell to the eventual-champion L.A. Galaxy in the first round. All of the Canadian teams face significant questions heading into the season, though. Here are three that stand out for each.

Montreal Impact:

Year in MLS: Second
Current head coach: Marco Schällibaum (first year)
2012 record: 12-16-6 (seventh in Eastern Conference)

How will Schällibaum adapt to MLS? Montreal has one of the most potentially interesting coaches in the league, as Schällibaum has a solid track record from managing Swiss clubs, but hasn't been a head coach since 2011. Since that time, he's been working as a FIFA coaching instructor in Qatar, Mongolia and South Korea. Schällibaum knows his soccer, but he'll first have to adapt to being back in a coaching role and then will have to adjust to MLS, which differs dramatically from most European leagues in everything from tactics to schedule. Hiring him is a high-risk move, but one that could potentially pay off if he can make the jump. It will be very interesting to see just how quickly he can get used to MLS, though.

Can Marco Di Vaio live up to the hype? Di Vaio's a huge name in Italian soccer circles, as he's played with massive clubs like Lazio and Juventus, and he's been effective in the not-too-distant past. His best extended Serie A stint may have been his four seasons with Bologna from 2008-09 to 2011-12, where he notched 65 goals in 135 appearances, and there were high expectations for his Impact tenure when he signed with the club last year. However, he significantly underwhelmed, scoring just five times in 17 appearances. Di Vaio will be 37 in July, so he doesn't have much time to turn this around. The question is if he can prove he's still capable or if his Impact tenure will go down as a disappointment.

Will the back line hold? There was plenty of hype about the Montreal defence heading into last year thanks to well-known players like Alessandro Nesta and Mateo Ferrari, but it didn't work out all that well. Nesta and Ferrari both battled injuries, and although players like Jeb Brovsky stepped in, the Impact still conceded 51 goals on the year (second-worst in the East, fourth-worst overall). They'll have to be better for Montreal's results to improve.

Toronto FC:

Year in MLS: Seventh.
Current head coach: Ryan Nelsen (first year)
2012 record: 5-21-8, last in Eastern Conference (and last overall)

Where do they go from here? In their six MLS seasons, the results have arguably only gotten worse for TFC. Their 23-point 2012 campaign was even more disastrous than the 6-17-7 record (25 points) they recorded in their first MLS season in 2007, and the bizarre stories that surrounded the team (from a record losing streak to an internal power struggle) didn't exactly make them look good. Yet, there have been positive signs; the team's academy has improved substantially, and they have quite a bit of young talent, so the future isn't all bleak. This could be a crucial season for TFC to show at least minimal on-field improvement, though. Selling future glory is a lot easier when the team isn't the worst outfit in the league.

How will they replace Torsten Frings? Replacing a captain is never easy. Replacing a big-name player who actually did well with TFC is even tougher. Frings' retirement earlier this week (thanks to a lingering hip injury) leaves the Reds with a big hole to fill, both in terms of leadership and in terms of on-pitch performance. While Frings' Toronto tenure probably wasn't as ideal as he would have liked, he was still one of TFC's best players when healthy and showed his versatility, serving effectively both in the midfield and on defence. His retirement leaves them with plenty of cap space, but Toronto's track record with big-money players proves that doesn't guarantee success.

Can Nelsen make the transition to coaching? Nelsen is perhaps the most unusual coach in MLS this year, as he was still playing at a high level with the English Premier League's Queens Park Rangers earlier this year when he was announced as the new TFC boss. Given Toronto FC's defensive issues last year (they conceded a league-high 62 goals), he'd have been an obvious target as a player, but as a coach, he's much more unproven. Nelsen's a big name that the players should respond to, but being a good player doesn't always make you a good manager. We'll see how he handles the change.

Vancouver Whitecaps:

Year in MLS: Third.
Current head coach: Martin Rennie (second year)
2012 record: 11-13-10 (fifth in Western Conference)

Can they get off to another hot start? The Whitecaps didn't play all that well down the stretch last year, but still snuck into the playoffs thanks to help from rivals. The main reason they made the playoffs was their impressive start to the 2012 campaign, though; Vancouver only picked up three wins and 13 points after July 3, the same as basement-dwelling TFC. Another strong start could be key to getting back to the playoffs, but if they instead start by continuing their late-2012 slump, that could be a significant blow to their postseason hopes.

Will Nigel Reo-Coker prove better than Barry Robson? Vancouver's brought in high-profile midfielders from English soccer before with disastrous results. Former Middlesbrough man Barry Robson was thought to be the key to the club's success when he came in midway through last year, but he never gelled with the side and was released by Vancouver earlier this month. Whitecaps' fans will be hoping Reo-Coker doesn't follow in his footsteps, and there's some reason for optimism there; Reo-Coker is only 28 versus Robson's 34, and he's shown great potential in stints with the likes of Aston Villa and Bolton. He seems eager to play in MLS and show that he's still at the top of his game. However, Reo-Coker has never been the most consistent player, and he hasn't always stuck with clubs for long. It will be interesting to see how he fits in with the Whitecaps.

How much does Y.P. Lee have left in the tank? One of the Whitecaps' best players last season was famed South Korean defender Young-Pyo Lee, who proved a consistent rock on the back line. However, Lee turns 36 in April and has already contemplated retirement; he elected to return for another year, but has said this will likely be his final season as a player. If he can live up to what he did last year, he'll be a key component for Vancouver, but if not, the rest of the defence will have to step up. Another solid performance from Lee would go a long ways towards getting the Whitecaps back in the playoffs, but 36-year-old players can't always be depended upon to be stars.

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