Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into the MLS weekend

The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:

11) Do Peter Nowak and the Chicago Fire ever wonder what might have been?

Peter Nowak epitomized the Fire from Day 1. His quality in midfield, allied with inspirational leadership in the locker room, helped Chicago race out of the gates in their first year of existence with a 1998 MLS Cup win that gave the lie to the term “expansion team.”

Now the Polish legend is confidently building a new legacy from the ground up in Philadelphia, while his old club has since gone through a succession of coaches and playing styles. Did the Fire miss a chance to hand him the keys to their franchise? Both parties may ponder such thoughts when the Union host Chicago at PPL Park on Saturday.

10) Can Luke Rodgers hack it on a muggy night in Houston?

Visiting the Houston Dynamo on a warm evening at Robertson Stadium just might be one of the toughest challenges in MLS. The Orange can get right in the opposition’s face on the venue’s firm, compact playing surface, and the Bayou City’s heat and humidity can be quite unpleasant. Temperatures are expected to reach 91 degrees on Saturday, so expect the night to be a steamy one. It’s a hurdle that an ambitious team like the Red Bulls must overcome.

9) But is the Dynamo offense ready for prime time?

Houston’s front line has been explosive at times, though still overly reliant on set pieces. Beating New York will take a consistent, coherent attacking performance from the midfield as well as the strikers. Brad Davis’ ability to conjure up chances amid the Red Bulls’ talented engine room will be crucial.

8) Which Crew alumnus will come back to haunt them next?

Columbus coach Robert Warzycha made a big, brave decision to disassemble a championship contender over the winter and rebuild his team in his image. It was an understandable move, but it also led to a number of players getting shipped out to new destinations, players who inevitably have some extra motivation when they face their old squad. Steven Lenhart was one such case, and he played his best game in an Earthquakes uniform last week as San Jose pummeled the visiting Crew to end their seven-game unbeaten run.

Now Warzycha and his men must travel to Portland to play in the league’s newest lion’s den, JELD-WEN Field, where the Timbers are 4-0 in league play — and ex-Crew member Eric Brunner will be eager to prove a point.

7) Are Robin Fraser’s Goats for real?

Let’s be honest: Chivas USA have always had a tough time wrestling the spotlight away from the photogenic Galaxy in the Home Depot Center’s “hallway rivalry.” The Galaxy enjoy ample resources, a globally known brand and a 10-year head start in the battle for hearts and minds in Southern California, which has no doubt helped prompt Chivas’ confrontational new “real vs. artificial” marketing campaign. But what really makes this weekend’s SuperClásico so compelling is the Goats’ present form. After a slow start, Robin Fraser’s side has reeled off several impressive results and is well-positioned to make a major statement against their illustrious neighbors.

6) Will Sporting be in real trouble by the time LIVESTRONG Sporting Park opens?

Kansas City were always going to have a tough time negotiating their season-opening marathon of road games caused by the new stadium’s final phase of construction, but Peter Vermes surely didn’t think it would be quite this difficult for his side. Now 1-5-1 and 11 points off the pace in the East, last-place SKC run the real risk of drifting away from the postseason-chasing pack before LSP debuts on June 9. With a trip to Seattle’s imposing Qwest Field, it doesn’t get any easier this weekend.

5) Can the Revolution become the first squad from the East to “do a Chivas USA” and win on the Left Coast?

No one expected Chivas to be the first to overcome the “Jet Lag Effect” by beating New York at Red Bull Arena, but Fraser’s bunch stunned the league last week and proved that success can be earned on cross-continental trips. San Jose just notched their first 2011 home win, but Benny Feilhaber, Shalrie Joseph & Co. may be on the verge of finding their stride as they visit the South Bay on Saturday. They should at least do better than their last Cali trip, a 3-0 pasting at the hands of Chivas three weeks ago.

4) Which versions of Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas will show up at Pizza Hut Park on Sunday?

Two of the most talented teams in the West, RSL and FCD have both weathered the loss of influential South American playmakers in recent weeks by circling the wagons and cranking up the intensity, though they’ve forfeited a few style points in the process. Neither Jason Kreis nor Schellas Hyndman will apologize as long as the standings points keep stacking up, but the creativity gaps left by Javi Morales and David Ferreira need to be addressed eventually.

3) When is Conor Casey going to open his 2011 account?

Speaking of weathering, the Rapids have done well to endure a string of injuries and a tough road swing while keeping pace in the West. But this week’s CONCACAF Champions League draw provided a timely reminder of the additional demands ahead, when international play kicks off later this summer. Colorado need their burly targetman to find his form, and begin finding the net. Toronto FC’s uneven defense looks like an inviting target this weekend.

2) Can D.C. United get through their “bye weekend” unscathed?

A week off from league play arrives at a perfect time for United, who saw starting strikers Josh Wolff and Charlie Davies pull up with muscular strains during the first half of last week’s 1-1 draw with the Rapids. But freshly crowned Dutch Eredivisie champions Ajax Amsterdam are hitting RFK Stadium for an international friendly on Sunday, and the rest of Ben Olsen’s squad must balance the excitement of the high-profile occasion with the need to conserve resources for the work ahead, including three tough Western trips over the next month.

1) Will the SuperClásico live up to history and expectations?

It’s not the oldest or deepest rivalry, but proximity alone — and the stormy relationship described above — makes Chivas-Galaxy a fiery, compelling showdown. Once again, it’s being broadcast to the nation on ESPN2 in a nighttime setting that should inspire some fireworks from big-timers like Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Alejandro Moreno.


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