Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into the weekend

Kasey Keller

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The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into this week’s slate of league matches.

11) What can Portland and D.C. do with their games in hand?

United and the Timbers are the only MLS sides yet to play their 32nd game, and both playoff chasers desperately need to take maximum points from it. Problem is, everyone is keenly aware of this necessity, raising the pressure both inside the locker room and out. These are young teams only lightly sprinkled with league veterans, and their composure will be pivotal over the next nine days.

10) Is it déjà vu all over again in D.C.?

D.C. United’s worst-ever 2010 campaign was painful for club supporters, but only marginally more than the ’08 and ’09 seasons that saw United lose out on the playoffs thanks to insufficient results in their final games. After Wednesday’s gut-punch loss in Vancouver, many D.C. fans fear similar heartbreak all over again, as United – who have yet to win two in a row in ’11 – must prevail in their last three matches to be reasonably assured of making the postseason, starting against Chicago on Saturday.

9) Can Real Salt Lake regain their rhythm in time?

RSL are stuck in one of their worst stretches, results-wise, since Jason Kreis took the helm four years ago, even though Javier Morales has returned to action and a playoff spot is secured. Friday night’s Rocky Mountain Cup match at Colorado offers a chance to restore some badly-needed momentum while simultaneously robbing their heated rivals of the same.

8) Just how big will Seattle’s salute to Kasey Keller become?

As if they weren’t already packing the house this year, the Sounders announced this week that ticket sales for their final regular-season home game against San Jose on Saturday have topped 60,000 – an amazing number which stands to grow further with walk-up fans on game day. The massive crowd is eager to pay tribute to goalkeeper Kasey Keller as he prepares to end his legendary playing career, and the Earthquakes will need a superlative effort to cope with the emotions of the night.

7) And is Keller really, truly, totally sure he wants to walk away in the midst of SSFC’s CONCACAF run?

So far, the 41-year-old shot stopper has insisted that when the MLS season is done, so is he. But might he reconsider as next spring’s CONCACAF Champions League quaterfinals, for which Seattle have already qualified, approaches? Will the club quietly make the case that his safe hands and veteran leadership will be more important than ever at that critical moment? Such thoughts may percolate in Keller’s mind this winter.

6) How does Bruce Arena approach LA’s final games?

The Supporters’ Shield finally belongs to the Galaxy, and on Sunday night they’ll have the added joy of parading it in front of their hallway rivals Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center. With a crucial CCL decider against Motagua in Honduras on Oct. 20, LA’s coach still has some decisions to make, however, as the boss seeks the optimal balance between granting rest and maintaining momentum.

5) Meanwhile, can JPA play SuperClásico spoiler on Sunday?

Watching the Galaxy’s Supporters’ Shield celebrations up close will surely irk Chivas striker Juan Pablo Ángel, who started the year as LA’s leading striker before being jettisoned to make room for midseason signing Robbie Keane. A fierce competitor like Ángel will be dying to make his mark on this clash and mar the moment for his old team.

4) Are FC Dallas back on the upswing?

One game does not necessarily undo a month of struggle, but the relief was palpable after FCD’s 2-1 win over Chicago on Wednesday. Beyond the playoff berth it clinched for his team, coach Schellas Hyndman will be hoping that victory restores some self-belief as well. Saturday’s visit by Vancouver gives FCD an opportunity to continue their renewal ahead of Tuesday’s decisive CCL clash with Toronto.

3) Will the Revolution find a way to make life difficult for Columbus?

Columbus occupy a strange spot in the tightly-packed Eastern Conference: still in contention for top honors but also well within reach of those behind them should they falter. Like United in Vancouver on Wednesday, they should expect to take maximum points from Saturday’s visit to last-place New England, but a prickly bunch like the Revs is still capable of tossing a spanner or two in the Crew’s gears.

2) Do Philly take care of business with a win over Toronto this weekend?

Sounders fans may argue that their team was nursing a US Open Cup hangover, but the Union’s 2-0 win at CenturyLink Field last Saturday was an assured performance that spoke volumes about Peter Nowak’s men. Now they host TFC at PPL Park needing a win or a tie to book their first-ever MLS Cup playoffs ticket – but with his team on a seven-game unbeaten streak, Nowak will probably push the pedal to the metal to lock up the East’s top seed.

1) Who will grab the Golden Boot??

Three players are tied for the league lead with 14 goals and two more are close behind with 12, setting up another close finish for the MLS scoring crown. Quakes hitman Chris Wondolowski has gotten hot again, but his team closes the year against two tough opponents. Dwayne De Rosario is United’s talisman and has an extra game left, though he just logged some hard miles with Canada’s national team. Thierry Henry scored last week but he, like his team, remains a mercurial performer. Stay tuned…