Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into the MLS weekend

Hans Backe

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The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:
 
11) Which teams are really the fittest in MLS?

It’s easy to praise a team’s conditioning levels as its wingers are racing from endline to endline and strikers chase down lost causes during match play. But true fitness means more than just work rate — it also entails rapid recovery as games pile up over the course of a long, draining season. Six teams play two matches this week, some in hot conditions with less than 72 hours in between. Those that can maintain something close to their best will prosper.

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10) So what’s left in New York’s tank?

One fascinating aspect of MLS expansion is its effect on scheduling. Lengthy, multigame road trips that once would’ve raised eyebrows are now commonplace. Witness the Red Bulls’ weeklong western swing from Portland to Seattle and now on to Chicago for Sunday’s clash with the Fire — it’s clearly testing Hans Backe’s shorthanded squad in multiple ways. After Thursday’s dispiriting loss to the Sounders, RBNY’s display in Chicago will speak volumes about the Red Bulls’ mindset, especially in defense.

9) And are the Fire prepared to take advantage of their visitors’ travails?

Chicago will not get a better opportunity than this weekend to waylay a strong team at a weak moment. New coach Frank Klopas has bulked up his team’s previously suspect defense, but the Fire’s whopping 10 draws (half of which took place at Toyota Park) highlight his next priority: finding a formula to finish more scoring chances.

8) Can the California Clásico live up to its hype without Landon Donovan?

SoCal vs. NoCal has always been a tasty culture clash, but this rivalry didn’t really catch fire until Donovan crossed the divide in 2005, an unthinkable transgression for Quakes fans. Lando will be gearing up for the USA-Mexico blockbuster down at the Rose Bowl while his club takes its 5-2-3 road record into cozy Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday, where the bile may be flowing even in his absence.

7) Who is going to pick up the scoring slack in Philly?

The Union’s 6-2 thumping of Toronto FC at BMO Field on May 28 seemed to herald an attacking breakout for Peter Nowak’s side, but they’ve scored just twice in their four matches since. Carlos Ruiz remains a streaky, unpredictable hitman and Sébastien Le Toux is stuck on one goal after scoring 14 a year ago. Maybe well-traveled Macedonian newcomer Veljko Paunovic is the answer.

6) Can Portland take the heat?

The Timbers and their noisy fans have made JELD-WEN Field into something of a fortress. But on Saturday Portland must visit FC Dallas and come to terms with a more primordial homefield advantage: the relentless, searing Texas sun, even at evening matches. Forecasted temperature for kickoff time at Pizza Hut Park is 93 degrees — that’s almost 10 degrees above Portland’s high for the entire month of June. Timbers striker and Dallas native Kenny Cooper will need to lead by example.

5) Can Sporting KC maintain momentum despite Ryan Smith’s sudden departure?

“We’re learning how to lock it down,” said Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes after a 0-0 draw in Philadelphia that showed his team at its least ambitious. Sure, fatigue is a real concern — Saturday’s home match against Vancouver is SKC’s fifth game in 16 days — but so is offensive impotence. Aside from that four-goal explosion in Dallas on June 12, Sporting have scored just one goal since Memorial Day, and Ryan Smith, one of their most dynamic forwards, just returned to England for the rest of the season.

4) When are D.C. United going to make their move?

Compared to their agonizing 2010, Ben Olsen’s D.C. United side has made major strides in just about every department this season. Yet even as he and the United front office have emphasized the long-term nature of their rebuilding project, qualifying for the playoffs was a stated goal — and a 2-2-3 home record probably isn’t good enough for that. The Dynamo visit RFK this weekend; next week it’s the Union. Victories against these conference rivals would be a massive boost for D.C.’s hopes.

3) Which of the “Frustrated Five” can end their road futility this weekend?

Five MLS teams have yet to win a league match away from home: New England, Vancouver, Portland, Toronto and (perhaps most surprisingly) Houston. All five are on the road this week, and in some fairly daunting situations. Suffice to say that this is one category no one wants to be a part of.

2) Is Tom Soehn turning the Whitecaps into must-see TV?

When Vancouver yanked the plug on coach Teitur Thordarson and replaced him with director of soccer operations Tom Soehn at the end of last month, it prompted mixed reactions from fans of Soehn’s last club, D.C. United, who experienced a roller coaster of highs and lows during his tenure. But if Soehn’s influence leads to more of the silky team soccer the Whitecaps showed on Alain Rochat’s gorgeous, match-winning goal against Philly last week, they’ll turn into a neutral’s favorite very quickly.

1) Can Colorado find victory in Ohio before visiting Obama?

The Rapids are road warriors, holding a better record away from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park than inside it, but this weekend’s travel still poses a challenge. Gary Smith and company visit the Crew — who’ve only lost one home game this year — on Sunday night before hightailing to Washington for a Monday date at the White House to receive congratulations from President Obama for their 2010 MLS Cup heroics. Scheduling compromises are inevitable when trying to mesh calendars with the Commander-in-Chief, but this itinerary leaves little margin for error.