Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into playoff weekend

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

11) Can Real Salt Lake make the most of their home leg?

RSL hold the MLS record for longest home unbeaten streak, a 29-game span built at what the club like to call their "fortress," Rio Tinto Stadium. Yet Real have not utilized their home-field advantage when it counts the most: witness last year’s second-leg draw with FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals and the heartbreaking second-leg deadlock with Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League final earlier this season. Owners of a 5-8-4 road record this season, RSL probably need a victory when Seattle – who ended the aforementioned streak in May – visit on Saturday night (10 pm ET, FOX Soccer, TSN2; live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

10) How badly will the Sounders miss Mauro Rosales in leg one?

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid elected to keep his first-choice squad sharp by playing most of his starters in the regular-season finale against Chivas USA, though the decision backfired somewhat when the influential Rosales sustained another knock to his troublesome right knee. The Argentine maestro will miss out on Saturday’s game, but hopes to be healthy enough for the second leg in Seattle on Wednesday.

9) Which side’s veterans will seize the day?

Real finished the season on a down note compared to their early dominance. Still, head coach Jason Kreis can rely on a bevy of battle-tested performers from his 2009 MLS Cup-winning squad like Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Nick Rimando, who understand what’s required in the “second season.” The Sounders haven’t reached that promised land yet, but Schmid has, and he will place his trust in seasoned personalities like Kasey Keller, Álvaro Fernández and Osvaldo Alonso.

8) Which stars will shine brightest in the latest installment of #NYvLA?

New York vs. Los Angeles: It’s the major-market matchup (dubbed the “one percent derby” on Twitter this week) that excites both fans and advertising execs. Sunday afternoon’s Western Conference semifinal first leg at glittering Red Bull Arena (3 pm ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes; live chat on MLSsoccer.com) brings together several of the league’s most recognizable icons, and while David Beckham’s Galaxy look like the more complete unit, the game-changing talent of Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez are potential aces in the hole for the underdog Red Bulls.

7) Can the enigmatic Red Bulls attack carve out enough chances against Omar Gonzalez and the superb LA defense?

The Galaxy back line was far and away the stingiest in MLS this season, but Henry and his mates actually carved out two decent results against the Supporters’ Shield winners, including a 2-0 home win against a shorthanded LA side in September. But the Galaxy should surrender few looks at goal on Sunday, making it imperative that TH14 and Dane Richards, his likely strike partner should Luke Rodgers remain sidelined by injury, fully exploit any openings they’re given.

6) Can Rodgers’ knee heal in time for him to renew hostilities with Landon Donovan?

New York’s feisty English striker was none too impressed with Donovan’s behavior when these teams met at The Home Depot Center in May, and he used some choice expletives to express his disapproval to the media. Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe indicated on Friday that Rodgers would be able to return for Sunday’s matchup, and if true, his buzzing presence should amp up the game’s intensity as well as the danger posted by the Red Bull strike force.

5) How far will Peter Nowak take the Union on their maiden postseason voyage?

Nowak built and guided some of the most talented teams of the 2000s during his time at the helm of D.C. United, winning the 2004 MLS Cup and a Supporters’ Shield in 2006. His ’05 and ‘06 teams crashed short of the finish line, however, losing at home in the playoffs with some observers wondering whether his hard-nosed style had drained the squad. On Sunday, when the Union host the Houston Dynamo at PPL Park (5 pm ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes; live chat on MLSsoccer.com), he will look to chart a different course as he leads Philadelphia into their first-ever postseason match.

4) Can Philly shut down the Brad Davis pipeline?

As Davis goes, so goes the Dynamo offense, especially when it comes to the crosses and set piece deliveries that provide so much of their scoring. That particular department has been an Achilles heel for the Union, who risk being eviscerated by the MLS MVP candidate’s dangerous left foot should they make poor decisions in their own defensive third.

3) Who will win the important physical battles at PPL?

Both Nowak and Houston coach Dominic Kinnear have built their teams from the bottom up, adding attacking flourishes atop a rock-solid foundation of bruising, committed defensive play. It’s a formula which has won many an MLS Cup over the years, and portends a pitched battle for ball possession in the center of the park on Sunday. The side that sets the tempo stands to reap the benefits.

2) Are Sporting Kansas City ready for the big time?

Peter Vermes and his men have already put together a memorable season, charging from the league-worst hole they occupied in June to top spot in the East on the strength of their beautiful new Livestrong Sporting Park home, and making lots of new fans along the way. Now, with the momentum of a five-game winning streak, they have a chance to achieve something special – but it will require cool heads and clutch performances from a young team, starting against defending champions Colorado Rapids at the mile-high elevation of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Sunday night (7:30 pm ET; FOX Soccer, TSN2; live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

1) Can the dogged Rapids keep going?

Their recent form hasn’t exactly been dazzling, but Colorado just keep finding ways to get the job done. The champs’ experienced, athletic roster has helped them overcome injuries to key players like Pablo Mastroeni and Conor Casey, and even on their off nights they remain capable of conjuring up slick sequences like the one that created Omar Cummings’ game winner against Columbus on Thursday night. They’ll present Sporting with some awkward matchups in Commerce City, where mercifully, there’s no more snow in the forecast.

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.