Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into the MLS weekend

Hassli and Ream in Starting XI

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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’s ready for the final sprint?

Some are coming off long breaks and others have been quite busy, but every single club in Major League Soccer is active this weekend, which marks the onset of the season’s business end. As temperatures drop and matches dwindle away, urgency increases, with almost everyone eager to secure or improve their position for the postseason. It’s full throttle from here until MLS Cup, amplifying clutch performances as well as mistakes.

10. Will those long layoffs add up to rest, or rust, for this weekend?

Portland’s last MLS match was on Aug. 24, DC have been off since Aug. 21 and New York’s break dates back to Aug. 20, while other squads have had lesser but still notable amounts of down time. Fresh legs and refreshed minds are a benefit, but sloppy execution can sometimes crop up as well.

9. Is Friday’s Rapids-Galaxy clash a meeting of the present and future champs?

Right from the beginning of preseason, LA have walked, talked and spent like MLS Cup favorites, and their performances have vindicated that status. Beating the current title-holders would have symbolic as well as standings value, though Colorado could reap similar rewards from a defiant display of their own bona fides at the Home Depot Center on Friday night (11 pm ET, FOX Soccer).

8. How will the “six-pointers” play out?

Five of this weekend’s games feature playoff-chasing teams who would benefit almost as much from denying points to their opponents as from snaring them for themselves. That figures to ratchet up the pressure even further in the matches at Seattle, Philly, KC, San Jose and Chivas USA.

7. Who will grab the MVP race by the horns?

As MLSsoccer.com’s “Climbing the Ladder” noted earlier this week, MLS Most Valuable Player nods tend to go to leading members of top teams, putting the likes of Landon Donovan, Brek Shea and, perhaps, Fredy Montero in pole positions. Other deserving candidates like Kyle Beckerman, Thierry Henry and Dwayne De Rosario may find that the best thing for their own candidacies would be a swift climb up the standings by their teams.

6. Where in the world is Charlie Davies?

Given his early-season performances for D.C. United and the iconic status derived from his dazzling – and abruptly, stunningly suspended – US national-team career, it’s hard to believe how anonymous Davies has been over the past couple of months as nagging injuries and spotty contributions have kept him on the bench. DC’s postseason hopes would benefit greatly from a return to form.

5. Can Real Salt Lake strike a blow against Seattle’s Supporters’ Shield hopes?

With its playoff seeding implications and likelihood of end-to-end play, RSL vs. Sounders shapes up as one of the tastiest-looking matches on this week’s docket. Given the nearly flawless footy LA are playing right now, Seattle probably need a home win to keep pace with them in the race to the Shield, while a loss could be devastating on that front.

4. Is the Union defense vulnerable to a Portland pounding?

The shorthanded Philly back line and rookie goalkeeper Zac MacMath just leaked four goals at home to an eighth-place side (New England). Now it has to handle the bruising challenge posed by the Timbers’ aerial bombardment, and also remain alert to the movement of Jorge Perlaza and assorted wide players. On the other hand, the Timbers still have just one road win to their credit all year.

3. How will the Crew respond to that shellacking in Seattle?

Robert Warzycha and his men have tried not to dwell on last weekend’s 6-2 whipping at CenturyLink Field, but will need to prove as much to themselves and their home fans in Saturday’s Trillium Cup meeting with Toronto, a rivalry game they’ve never lost. Perhaps the loss in the Emerald City gave Warzycha a clear picture of his team’s strengths and weaknesses before the home stretch. But now Columbus need a win.

2. Can Sporting Kansas City get serious?

How ironic that a no-nonsense Jersey guy like Peter Vermes finds himself at the helm of such a wide-open, gun-and-run – and apparently naïve – Sporting side. Few MLS clubs have scored more goals than KC, just as few have allowed as many at the other end, including several in galling, last-minute fashion. Entertainment-wise, they look like a neutral’s favorite, but they might well need to grind one out when Houston visit this weekend.

1. Can the Red Bulls finally see the light at the end of the tunnel?

New York have been ice-cold for weeks, as reflected by their steady slide down the standings. But they’ve had three weeks off from match play to regroup, and important veterans Luke Rodgers, Jan Gunnar Solli and Frank Rost are finally making their way back to full fitness. All that should translate into an assured victory over visiting Vancouver on Saturday as the Red Bulls try to reassert themselves in the playoff hunt.

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.