Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into the 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 do Chicago and D.C. handle a 72-hour turnaround?

United and the Fire worked hard for limited returns in their 1-1 draw at Toyota Park on Thursday night, and both teams must now recover in time for Sunday night meetings with confident opponents in the form of Sporting KC and Toronto, respectively. Some lineup shuffling is surely in order, especially in a DC defense that looked exceedingly flatfooted for long stretches against Chicago and will be without hamstrung goalkeeper Bill Hamid.

10) Can Steve Cronin find himself?

Hamid’s painful reaction to his injury at the end of Thursday’s first half suggests that he could be sidelined for at least one match, perhaps more—an ill-timed setback for the Black-and-Red. Earlier this year, Cronin was brought in from Portland to compete with United’s Home Grown netminder, but the former Timbers hero hasn't been up to task in two relief appearances this month, showing rust and hesitation in allowing four goals in 126 minutes. DC’s playoff hopes may hinge on his ability to regroup.

9) Is Robbie Keane the man to push the Galaxy over the hump?

LA are 13-3-9, hold first place in the West and are five points clear in the Supporters’ Shield race, yet they still didn’t sit pat in the final stages of the summer transfer window, splashing out major cash on the Irish legend to address their shortcomings in front of goal. The scurrying striker looks like a good bet to make an impact—David Beckham aside, how many MLS signings have been greeted by crowds of fans at the airport?—but his new team’s expectations are clearly sky-high, so there’s limited time for acclimation.

8) Will San Jose become just another Galaxy punching bag at the Home Depot Center?

At its best, the California Clasico seethes with almost as much passion and antagonism as any other MLS rivalry, but Saturday’s installment looks pretty one-sided on paper. Winless in their last 11 league games, the Earthquakes enter the HDC beleaguered and shorthanded while LA—still unbeaten at home—are buzzing with excitement over Keane’s arrival. Quakes boss Frank Yallop will have to pull something special out of his hat for this one.

7) What’s left in JPA’s tank?

From a career standpoint, Juan Pablo Ángel is one of the best pure finishers the league has ever seen. But a misfiring season has made him an afterthought in SoCal, which surely burns the classy Colombian to no end. He may yet have something to offer Chivas USA, and motivation shouldn’t be a problem when his new club visits Colorado this weekend.

6) Who will win Saturday’s meeting in Foxborough? Anyone?

It’s all gone pear-shaped for New England and New York this year, but in differing ways. The Red Bulls are hardly out of contention for a playoff spot, but this summer’s slow slide down the standings is a stark contrast to early- season talk of a Supporters’ Shield. This week they visit a struggling Revs side whose late-July rally now looks like a mirage given the mistakes and letdowns of the past two weeks.

5) And what about the battle of set pieces likely to unfold in Houston?

Restarts often decide tightly contested clashes like the one likely to unfold between Real Salt Lake and the Dynamo on Saturday, and center backs like Bobby Boswell and Nat Borchers who can score off them are a nice weapon for any team. Expect plenty of jostling for position in the penalty boxes on free kicks at Robertson Stadium.

4) How much adventure will Seattle and FC Dallas allow themselves at Pizza Hut Park?

Draws have been a recurring theme in MLS this year and it’s hard to escape the likelihood of another one when these teams, both of whom are in the midst of CONCACAF Champions League group play, meet at “The Oven” on Saturday night. Forecasts indicate another lofty (97-degree) mercury reading at kickoff time and with an eye on midweek road trips next week, Sigi Schmid and Schellas Hyndman will likely preach tactical caution.

3) When are the Timbers and Whitecaps going to sort out their defensive fundamentals?

Expansion travails aside, it’s strange to see these teams repeatedly make basic mistakes in the back when head coaches John Spencer and Tom Soehn are such advocates of earnest, old-school soccer. The Cascadia clubs have all too often neglected crucial duties like tracking runners and closing down space around the penalty box, as their goalkeepers’ high goals-against averages indicate. That suggests a barnburner when they meet at JELD-WEN Field on Saturday.

2) Is the Eastern Conference mired in mediocrity?

It’s still August, and a whopping seven of the East’s nine teams have reached double digits in the draw column, headlined by Chicago’s MLS-record 15 deadlocks. One could argue that it’s a sign of balanced competition, but that holds little water given that Colorado—fourth in the West with 40 points—would be safely ahead of the pack if they switched conferences. Can a title contender really rise out of this quagmire?

1) Or will Columbus or Philadelphia state their case this weekend?

Sporting KC may yet have a say in the matter if they can continue their steady climb up the table, but so far the Crew and Union are looking like the best bets in the East, and they meet at Crew Stadium on Saturday. It could come down to a chess match between their hard-nosed Polish coaches, Robert Warzycha and Peter Nowak, where many fans will be hoping they go for broke despite their mutual tendency to favor caution and organization.