Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into MLS Week 14

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

11) How can Toronto FC lay their hands on a precious league victory?

Aron Winter doesn’t seem like the militant type, but TFC’s Dutch boss had better be preaching a “by any means necessary” approach as Sounders FC arrive for a Saturday evening clash. The Reds have won just two league matches all season and the last one was way back on May 7. While TFC's two road draws in the past week are laudable, the home fans need something to celebrate now and then in a rebuilding season.

10) Will Vancouver build on Eric Hassli’s stunner in Seattle last week?

If you think Hassli’s vicious, self-assisted, match-tying volley can’t be topped, put yourself in the big Frenchman’s shoes for a moment — and those of his teammates as well. Where do they go from here? That moment of magic at Qwest Field could galvanize the Whitecaps to shake off the expansion blues and end their lengthy winless streak when Philadelphia visits this weekend … or it might just end up being one point of light in a tough first season.

9) Is John Spencer just griping, or is there a method to his madness?

Last week, Portland's head coach raised the eyebrows of even the most grizzled MLS observers with not one, but two strong critiques of Abby Okulaja and his crew’s refereeing in the 1-0 loss to Colorado. Such rants are usually costly in terms of fines, and can even be distracting in some cases, but Spencer’s team claims to draw inspiration from the fiery Scotsman and a determined display against New York would bear that out.

8) How will Henry & Co. handle the rowdy confines of JELD-WEN Field?

An erudite Swedish head coach, well-traveled Scandinavians in midfield, a suave French legend as a striker and Designated Player, a returning Canadian playmaker: These are but a few examples of the Red Bulls’ jet-set sophistication. Yet in MLS none of them have experienced anything quite like JELD-WEN, where noise, a slick, speedy surface and compact confines aid and abet an enthusiastically direct Timbers side. Contrasts will clash in downtown Portland on Sunday night, and it could be quite a show.

7) Do D.C. United have the revenge factor in Utah this weekend?

Last July 31, D.C. United traveled to Rio Tinto Stadium to face a fearsome Real Salt Lake side, hoping against hope to re-ignite their troubled season and make a late push up the standings. The resulting 3-0 beating was the last straw for United’s brain trust and head coach Curt Onalfo was fired a few days later. This weekend’s trip offers brighter prospects, as Jason Kreis’ shorthanded and out-of-sorts RSL bunch must entertain a DC side which has shown real promise on the road.

6) Are New England really going to hang around in the cellar for another season?

Steve Nicol has worked wonders since becoming the Revolution’s head coach on a permanent basis in 2002. Until last year, the Revs had qualified for, and routinely advanced deep in, the MLS Cup Playoffs in every single year of his reign. Many of those seasons featured off-color starts like the one New England has made in 2011, but the next month of play — starting with the visit of a newly resilient Chicago outfit on Saturday — will be decisive for their prospects.

5) How do FC Dallas respond in the wake of that stinker against Sporting KC?

FCD lost a few tough games this spring, but last Sunday’s capitulation was their first true whipping of the campaign and this week’s trip to the Home Depot Center to face Chivas USA will require the rapid revival of focus and intensity. Head coach Schellas Hyndman told MLSsoccer.com that there wouldn’t be much collective evaluation of last week’s loss because “there are not enough moments in the game for us to highlight good things.” Perhaps FCD’s wily boss will have some motivational tricks up his sleeve in SoCal.

4) Are the Rapids ready to make a statement against LA?

Colorado capped a long run of draws with a scrappy, last-second win in Portland last weekend that gives the defending champs decent momentum as the league-leading Galaxy arrive on the Front Range. The Mile High Club will probably have to pry open a closed shop if they really want to snare another three points on Saturday, however. It’s a testament to LA’s quality that their two straight home draws are seen as a dip in form, but the squad is still quite shorthanded and Bruce Arena seems likely to take a defensive posture given the thin air and expansive field at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

3) Will Andrés Mendoza and the Crew summon their optimal “electricity” in Houston?

Consider this quote from the volatile Columbus striker, uttered in the wake of his team’s 1-0 home loss to Chicago: “Maybe we weren’t concentrating. There wasn’t the same electricity that there was in the previous match. Today, we did not play very well.”

It’s Mendoza’s job to make things happen around the opposition’s goal and he’s done that in spurts, though his offensive output (four goals) has been eclipsed by his propensity for drama. The Crew’s Designated Player needs to be a real live wire at Robertson Stadium this week, where an improving Dynamo squad and a heat index of 100-plus degrees await.

2) Can Kansas City keep packing the house for Sporting?

Everyone is in love with Livestrong Sporting Park since its MLS and international debut matches this month, from journalists and fans to the US national team and beyond. Yet the months ahead will be equally, if not more challenging for a local soccer community which needs to keep the glittering new house packed and help cheer SKC back into the playoff race, starting with road warriors San Jose on Friday night.

1) Are Steven Lenhart and the Earthquakes the league’s new road warriors?

Don’t look now, but San Jose are a game above .500 and haven’t lost since April 30. Most encouragingly for coach Frank Yallop, the team is showing strong chemistry and a positive mentality. With a couple of important absences due to the Gold Cup, Lenhart and several of his teammates have stepped up in a big way and Sporting KC will surely have a battle on their hands at LSP on Friday night.


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