Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into MLS weekend
The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:
11) How much pressure is on the New York Red Bulls?
Hans Backe’s star-studded side has only lost twice in 2011 and presently owns 17 points, a league-leading goal differential and first place in the Eastern Conference. But they’re still just a nose ahead of Philadelphia in the standings, who have a game in hand, and the always-tough Dynamo are lurking just a few points back. New York’s big names and lofty payroll inevitably raise expectations, the squad must handle what is shaping up as a draining, drawn-out race down the stretch. A positive result in Vancouver on Saturday is a must.
10) Can the Whitecaps catch a break?
Vancouver haven't won a league match since opening day. And on Wednesday, just when it seemed as though a breakthrough was at hand in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, it was the weather’s turn to kick the ‘Caps in the shins as the referees called off the game in Toronto with the visitors up 1-0 in the second half — 30 minutes from a trophy. If only TFC’s BMO Field home had an all-weather, artificial-turf surface…
9) In what direction are Toronto FC really headed?
After some truly listless performances from Toronto this spring, head coach Aron Winter has tightened things up. Last week’s scoreless draw in Colorado is the type of result any defender can feel proud of, though casual fans probably weren’t dazzled. So the Reds have righted the ship — but the TFC faithful desperately want a playoff contender, and right now their team is wedged into the lower end of a mid-table logjam in the East. Goals and wins are needed, though both will be tough to come by against Philly on Saturday.
8) Will Carlos Ruiz be fired up for his Toronto return?
El Pescadito’s list of former MLS teams is long enough that he might not derive much motivation from occasions like this one. However, the Red Patch Boys and the rest of the hardcore TFC support may have a few choice chants for the Guatemalan who had a brief, disappointing stint in Toronto three years ago before being shunted to the exit when Dwayne De Rosario arrived. Ruiz left MLS and visited a series of distant lands (Paraguay, Mexico, Greece) before the Union lured him back to North America. Saturday is his last Philly match before joining Guatemala for Gold Cup duty.
7) Can Sporting KC be the next team to steal points from a trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park?
The difficulties encountered on Kansas City’s stadium construction-enforced run of road games surely have Peter Vermes’ players asking, “Are we there yet?” Colorado and Toronto are the last two stops before Livestrong Sporting Park opens next month, and while both will be tough asks for the team presently stuck in the league’s basement, there is reason for hope. Mile-high DSG Park is supposed to be a fortress for the Rapids, but they’re actually winless (0-1-2) in their last three home games.
6) How do Chivas USA bounce back from a disappointing SuperClásico?
The Goats entered last week’s Los Angeles derby on a high, only to be frustrated by the Galaxy in a 1-0 loss that exemplified the relentless effectiveness of Bruce Arena’s league-leading side and extended Chivas’ lengthy winless streak against their neighbors. This weekend’s trip to Columbus should be less daunting, as the previously-solid Crew have lost form in recent weeks.
5) Who will take the next battle for El Capitán?
LA’s SuperClásico is a fascinating rivalry, yet they’ve also got a good thing going down in Texas. Besides that large piece of artillery known as El Capitán that represents the Lone Star Rivalry, there’s the enmity generated by the contrasting styles of the state’s two largest cities, which are a good deal more different than is readily apparent to outsiders. Though FC Dallas have just one win in eight all-time trips to Robertson Stadium, expect a hot one in the Bayou City on Saturday — in the stands, on the thermometer and on the field.
4) Where is Real Salt Lake’s next goal going to come from?
On balance, RSL have responded admirably to the dispiriting loss of Javier Morales, maintaining an undefeated record since his longterm injury on May 7. Yet with two scoreless draws since that 1-0 win over Chivas USA, the goals have dried up big-time, and attackers Álvaro Saborío and Arturo Alvarez have departed for their national teams. RSL coach Jason Kreis may have to field holding midfielder Jean Alexandre up top against Seattle this week. The Sounders should also be wary of big men Nat Borchers and Jámison Olave on set pieces.
3) How can Portland possibly keep up their scintillating home form?
Fueled by adrenaline, expansion sides have raced out of the gates before, but the Timbers might just be for real. JELD-WEN Field is like few venues in league history: frenzied fans, compact dimensions and usually drenched in Pacific Northwest drizzle. On Sunday, D.C. United stand to have just as many problems coping with it as previous visitors. United have won just one road match this season and they face two motivated alumni in Rodney Wallace and Troy Perkins.
2) Will the real Revolution please stand up?
The longest-tenured coach in MLS by some distance, Steve Nicol has molded New England into a perennial competitor with a clear style and philosophy over the years. But the Revs just haven’t quite been good enough of late, with workman-like displays interspersed among too many underwhelming ones. And now their main midfield engines, Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber, are set to leave for Gold Cup play after the Galaxy’s Saturday visit.
1) Who will be bitten hardest by the Gold Cup bug?
MLS should be mightily proud of its massive contribution to the region’s showcase international tournament, a record 32 players spread among 10 of the Gold Cup’s 12 squads. Conversely, it’s a major headache for the club coaches who are left to fill the gaps. For some it’s quality lost — the aforementioned Revs will be hard-hit by the absences of two pivotal players. For others, it’s quantity — Sporting will lose four important bodies. And for the New York Red Bulls, it’s both — five of the team’s best are departing.