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The Throw-In: Five who must step it up in 2011

PHOENIX – The days here in MLS preseason camps have been long, but they’ve been a blast. From parades of trialists and rookies looking to impress, to catching up with veterans we know well and hearing their thoughts on their teams’ chances, it’s been a fun few days trekking around the Valley of the Sun.

As of Thursday morning, I’ve gotten a good look at five different teams with five wildly different challenges as First Kick 2011 approaches. The Crew are re-purposing, the MLS Cup champion Rapids are reinforcing, Real Salt Lake are fine-tuning, Chivas USA are rebuilding and the LA Galaxy are re-focusing.

That’s a big swing in objectives for each squad. Still, one theme that I’ve found that has been consistent in each team is that there’s one particular guy in the fold, one key player who must step up big-time in 2011 – a guy who must assert himself in order to give his team the best chance of success.

Here are five we’ve identified over the past week:

Columbus: Robbie Rogers

Crew coach Robert Warzycha says that many of his younger players had the luxury of playing behind the “shield” of veteran leaders like Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Gino Padula and Duncan Oughton. Now, with all four gone, younger players like Rogers, Eddie Gaven, Chad Marshall and William Hesmer have inherited the keys to the yellow sedan and it’s their turn to drive.

In my mind, none of that quartet has more to prove than Rogers (above), who has shown glimpses of his enormous potential over four seasons but will never have more pressure on him than he will this year, when he essentially must carry the offense on his back.

Warzycha has been pushing Rogers into more of a feature role this preseason, and the 23-year-old knows he has plenty to prove, including putting himself back into the US national team picture.

“A lot of [young] players kind of look up to me in certain ways,” he said. “I’ve had some games internationally and played in some big games. I’ve got to be one of the guys who steps up and to be able to calm the game down and just take charge.”

[inline_node:324893]Real Salt Lake: Will Johnson

Let’s be honest: RSL don’t have much tinkering they need to do. They’re a week away from the unofficial start to their season in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, and they’ve been in anything but preseason mode during their time in Arizona.

We know what we’re getting from almost everyone in RSL’s starting lineup. Arguably the only guy who has yet to carve his niche is Johnson. We know he’s quick, we know he’s unafraid to make challenges and we know he likes to see the ball.

What we don’t know is how good he can be. If the 24-year-old can keep building his confidence and developing his game on a team that provides support at every other position, there’s only one direction for the Canadian international to go.

Colorado: Anthony Wallace

So key was the Floridian to Gary Smith’s plans that the Rapids coach swung a deal with Portland to re-acquire his left back after seeing him selected in November’s Expansion Draft. Wallace is only 22, and has the potential to become one of the better left backs in the league.

But on a Rapids back line that may be the most unheralded in MLS, the former US youth international is also its junior member and the one who must prove he belongs.

“He’s found a good home, I think he feels comfortable, he’s been able to get some good minutes in games under his belt,” said Smith, “and the fact that he’s now been involved in a championship-winning team can do no harm whatsoever for his confidence.”

[inline_node:108471]LA Galaxy: Chris Birchall

The Galaxy back line can be soft at times, as they’ve shown at inopportune moments over the past 12 months, and LA also need a reliable link-up man to playmakers like Landon Donovan and Juninho. Enter Birchall – or rather, re-enter Birchall.

The English-born Trinidadian international has been in the Galaxy’s midst for nearly two years, but has yet to truly cement himself as the guy who will play that role. But with Dema Kovalenko gone, the holding midfielder spot is truly the 26-year-old Birchall’s to lose. There’s an argument to be made that he will be the most important man on the field for LA this season.

Chivas USA: Heath Pearce

Let’s be fair, it’s been mere days since Pearce turned in his horizontal red-and-white stripes for vertical ones. But the fact that Robin Fraser admits he’s been admiring the former FC Dallas man from afar for “two or three” years speaks volumes about the respect he has for him.

That also means the US national-team fullback must become a leader and contributor immediately and help be part of the rebuilding process at Chivas USA, something Fraser will demand of him.

“I’m confident that he’s going to come in and show well and work hard,” said Fraser.

The bar has been set, Heath; your ‘stache is needed immediately on Avalon Boulevard.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.