Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into MLS Week 12

Peter Vermes

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:
 
11) Can DC United overcome the odds in LA on Friday night (11 pm ET; FOX Soccer)?
 
Friday's clash of MLS originals at the Home Depot Center is the seventh Friday match of 2011, and thus far the home teams have gone 4-1-1 in these weekend preludes. Add in the fact that the league-leading Galaxy are unbeaten in six home matches this season and haven’t lost to DC at the HDC in six years, and the task facing Ben Olsen and his men looks rather daunting. But United are on a high after last Sunday’s historic win in Portland, and apparently both Charlie Davies and Dax McCarty will be in available after overcoming muscular injuries.
 
10) Does Sporting vs. Toronto qualify as the proverbial “six-pointer”?
 
OK, so promotion/relegation obviously isn’t happening in MLS any time soon. But as members of last year’s D.C. United side will tell you, being out of playoff contention by Fourth of July weekend is a discouraging ordeal in its own right. These two struggling sides are already desperate for wins and both have surely circled Saturday’s meeting at BMO Field as a prime opportunity for three points.
 
9) What exactly does playoff form look like in the new MLS, anyway?
 
There’s a time-worn approach to success in FIFA World Cup qualifying: Win at home, draw on the road. It used to work just fine in MLS, too — D.C. United and Real Salt Lake each won just two away games in league play all year in their MLS Cup-winning campaigns of 2004 and 2009, respectively. But in the 18-team league of today, results are more precious, and playoff races tighter than ever. No one is even quite sure how many points will be required to make the postseason. Road heroics like those seen last weekend — when away teams enjoyed a 4-0-5 record — could prove pivotal down the line.
 
8) Who is best prepared to win ugly this month?
 
Clubs capable of accumulating decent results in the dog days of summer — a period of short-handedness, fatigue and packed schedules — will be rewarded at the end of the season. With so many MLS squads shorn of international participants starting this week, the Gold Cup has opened this phase earlier than usual and many coaches will need to prioritize results over aesthetics at one point or another.
 
7) How did Steve Nicol reel Shalrie Joseph back in?
 
Choosing between club and country is a deeply personal decision and most coaches keep a respectful distance. That being said, it’s not hard to imagine New England’s canny boss putting just the right word in Joseph’s ear to help convince the talismanic field general to stay with the Revolution instead of joining the Grenadian national team for Gold Cup. Now it’s up to the rest of the Revs, who are 1-3-1 in their last five league matches, to prove to Joseph that he hasn’t merely swapped one long shot for another.
 
6) Is Robert Warzycha on the hot seat in Columbus?
 
Monday brought the league’s first coaching changes of the season as the decision-makers in Vancouver and Chicago lost patience with their teams’ poor starts. Some have speculated that similar pressure is descending on Warzycha and the Crew, who stumbled through a winless May after going undefeated in April. That seems a bit far-fetched given the Hunt Sports Group’s traditional preference for stability, but Andrés Mendoza’s situation needs to be sussed out, and a decent result at New York would certainly brighten the collective mood.
 
5) How will the Chicago Fire mark Frank Klopas’ head-coaching debut?
 
Clubs that change managers often see an uptick in performances as players scramble to impress the new boss and make a fresh start. But this can soon fade, because a team’s personnel and personality rarely transforms overnight. The Whitecaps marked Tom Soehn’s first game in charge with lots of energy, but soon reverted to the same old glitches that have plagued them all season. Klopas is a Fire legend, and both he and his squad will be eager to make a statement at home against Seattle.
 
4) Can FC Dallas reel off another substantial streak?
 
Schellas Hyndman’s boys are in a groove right now, having navigated to a 4-0-3 record over a busy May stretch featuring some tough opposition — and bizarre Texas weather. June presents FCD with a lighter, easier schedule, at least on paper, and the spirit and cohesion that keyed last year’s MLS Cup run seems to have re-emerged. FCD embarked on a record 19-game unbeaten streak about a year ago, and they’re already eight games into a new one as they prepare to host New England on Saturday.
 
3) How will Jason Kreis pull Real Salt Lake out of their mini-funk?
 
Even when RSL were riding high a few months ago, their head coach kept an even keel, warning that adversity would hit eventually. Sure enough, victories — and key starters — have simultaneously disappeared along the Wasatch Front. It’s bad enough that midfielder Will Johnson said, “I feel like I’m jumping ship right now,” as he departed for Canadian national team duty. Real are still averaging nearly two points per game, but with so many injuries and absent internationals, Kreis’ man-management skills will be sorely tested this month, starting with Vancouver’s Saturday visit.

2) Can Portland find a formula for road success?

DC put the sword to the Timbers’ impressive home winning streak last weekend, so perhaps it’s time for the Oregonians to overcome their corresponding lack of away success. Portland have taken just two points from five road games, which is somewhat surprising given that their strengths — set pieces, wing play, athleticism — should travel well. Detail-oriented head coach John Spencer will be sweating the small stuff on this weekend’s trip to Chivas USA, a team which might be vulnerable to the Timbers’ approach.

1) How will the “relocation derby” play out when Houston visit San Jose?

The old Earthquakes reluctantly left the Bay Area to become the Dynamo in 2005, a move as wrenching for players and coaches as it was for their fans. Dominic Kinnear & Co. made a home in the Bayou City, but when San Jose returned to MLS three years ago, there seemed to be little in the way of bad blood when the two sides met — Quakes fans reserved their bile for visits from former hero Landon Donovan and the Galaxy instead. But this season, San Jose got caught up in FC Dallas’ “We All Hate Houston” campaign, so maybe this rivalry is taking on an extra edge.