Starting XI: Top 11 questions for Week 17 in MLS

Will Johnson

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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) Who comes out of Sunday’s Sounders-Timbers clash smiling?

How big is this match? Here’s just a small example of what it means to fans: After some of Portland’s beer-fueled supporters turned out to be slightly less vocal than usual in their last afternoon home match, a 3-2 loss to D.C. United over Memorial Day Weekend, one Timbers Army member proposed the “Sober Saturday Challenge” for July 9, a pledge to abstain in advance of Sunday’s visit by the Sounders in order to greet the Timbers’ No. 1 rival with maximum noise and energy.

It's an impressive sacrifice, considering Portland's renowned appreciation for microbrews. But hey — anything for the team, right?

10) So who gets left with a hangover?

When Mamadou Danso’s set-piece goal earned Portland a 1-1 draw in Seattle on May 14, it looked like the latest achievement for the expansion side, a satisfying stalemate on their most hated adversary’s home turf. But the Timbers have won just one of seven league matches since, while the Sounders have lost only one. It’s a truism that records count for little in rivalry games, yet this heated chapter of the Cascadia Cup might have a knock-on effect.

9) Can Colorado learn how to win at home again?

If the Rapids are serious about defending their 2010 MLS Cup crown, they’re going to have to improve on a 2-2-5 home record that stands in jarring contrast to the Mile High dominance of successful seasons past. Saturday’s visitors, the Vancouver Whitecaps, are experiencing textbook expansion struggles and should — should — be straightforward prey.

8) Can “Goals for Goals, Take 2” help inspire DC at Red Bull Arena?

A few philanthropic D.C. United supporters hatched a clever idea ahead of the season’s first DC-NY meeting: Fans pledged a donation to United for DC, the club’s charitable arm, for each goal scored against their longtime Atlantic Cup enemies.

That didn’t work out so well, as the Red Bulls sucker-punched United with a 4-0 ambush at RFK Stadium. But the plan is back for United’s trip north this weekend, which has been given an extra edge by the recent Dwayne De Rosario-Dax McCarty trade between the clubs. DeRo will surely be eager to keep the contributions flowing by lighting up his former team.

7) How will New York’s goalkeeping conundrum be solved?

At various moments in their MLS careers, Greg Sutton and Bouna Coundoul have made the acrobatic look routine. Lately, however, they’ve been doing the opposite, costing the Red Bulls points and giving their fans ulcers. The club is openly shopping for an upgrade but in the meantime, someone has to mind the nets. Is there any confidence left in either of them?

6) When are the Galaxy’s strikers going to start pulling their weight?

Steady, stout, two points clear at the top of the overall league table: There are not many MLS teams playing better than the LA Galaxy right now. But there are definitely MLS attacks which are playing better than LA’s, with wasteful finishing a particular bugaboo. Chicago, who have neither scored nor allowed more than one goal in a match since May 28, can be expected to keep it tight when they visit the HDC on Saturday, so inspiration may be needed from Juan Pablo Ángel and his front-line mates.

5) Is FC Dallas-Real Salt Lake the league’s most underrated rivalry?

This matchup has quietly grown into one of the most compelling in MLS — call it the Kreis Cup, perhaps, in honor of the current RSL coach and former Dallas Burn goal king. Last year’s playoff series pulsated with tension and quality, and now the duo are set for back-to-back matches in league and US Open Cup play. If Kreis or his FCD counterpart Schellas Hyndman prioritize Tuesday’s USOC quarterfinal, Saturday’s lineups will probably be tweaked.

4) Can anyone beat Sporting KC?

What a difference a home makes. A five-game losing skid in May suggested that Sporting were in a tailspin, but now that Livestrong Sporting Park has opened its gates to the long-suffering road trippers, they can’t seem to lose. With just one win in their last five, Chivas USA face a daunting task in their visit to arguably the hottest side in MLS.

3) What cooled off the Quakes?

San Jose suddenly find themselves at the other end of the spectrum from SKC. An eight-game unbeaten streak in all competitions has been followed by a four-game winless skid for Frank Yallop’s side. Greater consistency is needed if the boys from the South Bay truly want to contend in a stacked Western Conference, though Philadelphia will be a tough get at Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday.

2) What’s up Peter Nowak’s sleeve this time? And will we see hints of it this weekend?

Dependable left backs are something of a commodity in modern soccer — just ask the US men’s and women’s national teams, who’ve been tortured by the position this summer. So the Union’s trade of Jordan Harvey to Vancouver for allocation money on Thursday seemed puzzling on first glance. Is Nowak plotting a sensational return to the 3-5-2 formation he used in D.C. United’s 2004 MLS Cup-winning campaign? Or is a pricey newcomer about to join Philly from points abroad?

1) Can Toronto FC compete in Houston on Saturday?

Injury-stricken TFC remain winless on the road this year and Wednesday’s 5-0 loss at New York ranks as one of the club’s worst-ever moments. Head coach Aron Winter was startlingly defiant afterwards, though, defending his squad about as robustly as possible given the result. Now his players need to summon similar gumption against the Dynamo at sweltering Robertson Stadium.