Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into the weekend
The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend.
11) Can Paul Mariner earn his first victory as an MLS head coach against the club where he made his name?
Toronto FC’s new boss became a legend during his playing career in England, then carved out a reputation as a top coach with Steve Nicol’s quality Revolution sides of the ‘00s. Now he’s finally gotten a chance to run his own show in MLS, and will make his home debut against his former employers as New England visit BMO Field on Saturday.
10) Or will the Revs put a stop to their road woes?
Jay Heaps’ charges have been lions at Gillette Stadium (4-1-2) and lambs on the road (1-6) this season. Making your home ground a fortress is a laudable achievement, but as of now it looks like this team’s playoff prospects will hinge on their ability to secure results elsewhere. Three points should be the goal on this week’s excursion to last-place Toronto.
9) Are LA finally figuring it out?
A week ago we wondered if three conference matches in seven days would make or break the haggard Galaxy. Taking six points from the first two games – especially the 3-2 win they ruthlessly stole in Salt Lake after trailing RSL early on Wednesday night – answers that question reasonably well, although Vancouver’s Saturday night visit to the Home Depot Center is another must-win as the MLS Cup champs look to haul themselves up the table by pegging back the teams they’re chasing.
8) And will the Whitecaps start their own three-game test on a sharp note?
Vancouver’s strong start has turned out to be more than a flash in the pan. Martin Rennie’s club is capable of playing some of the prettiest, most effective soccer in the league and now it’s time to show they can sustain the same quality under pressure with five straight away games, starting with three against Western Conference rivals LA, Colorado and Chivas USA.
7) How do Real Salt Lake respond to Wednesday’s shocker?
Up 2-0 at their Rio Tinto Stadium home in the first half, Real looked set to dump a few more shovelfuls of dirt on the 2012 Galaxy’s grave, but their sudden swoon means the hardest questions are now being asked of them. Another tough customer hits town this weekend, with the never-say-die San Jose Earthquakes capable of snatching first place from RSL with a victory on Saturday.
6) Do Sporting KC have what it takes to weather another withering welcome?
Wednesday night’s SKC-Seattle clash at CenturyLink Field had all the fire and nastiness of a playoff game, and Peter Vermes’ men navigated it reasonably well in earning a 1-1 draw. Up next: a trip to PPL Park, where the Philadelphia Union and their interim manager John Hackworth are desperate to end a six-game winless skid.
5) What’s it going to take for FC Dallas to escape their tailspin?
Ten weeks. That’s how long it’s been since FCD tasted victory of any kind, in any competition (a win over Montreal way back on April 14). Yes, injuries have played a role in the team's struggles, and so have indiscipline (a league-leading five red cards), lack of attacking invention and a league-worst 26 goals conceded (tied with hapless TFC). Now Chivas USA visit Frisco for something approaching a must-win – or “don’t-lose,” at the very least – game for FCD.
4) Can the Impact whip another MLS power in their new Stade Saputo home?
The background to Saturday’s Houston-Montreal game has been overshadowed by major rivalries elsewhere, though the “Je me souviens” (I remember) headline on the Impact’s website leaves no doubt about the mindset of the home team. Mindful of the soap opera that ensued after they grabbed him in the expansion draft last winter and forced the Dynamo to trade for the homesick striker, the Quebec club is eager to give Brian Ching (right) a harsh welcome – and earn a second straight home win in the process.
3) Will patchy Chicago find a way past the resilient Crew?
The aesthetic merits of Columbus’ style of play under Robert Warzycha are ripe for debate, but this much is certain: The man and his team don’t like to give up goals. Only one team has allowed fewer tallies than the 13 given up by the Crew thus far, an indication of how sturdy Andy Gruenebaum and his back four have been. They tend to stay especially compact away from home, so Marco Pappa and the Fire attack will need to be vibrant and creative at Toyota Park on Saturday.
2) Can the Timbers ambush the Sounders in the hottest, most spiteful matchup in Cascadia, and maybe the entire league?
One side mocks the other as “customers” (thus not fans), while epithets like “scum” are hurled back in the other direction. Both seem nearly as entertained by their counterpart’s failure as their own team’s success, a sign of a deeply rooted rivalry if there ever was one. Yes, it’s time for the first Portland-Seattle match of the season, and for the home side, it comes at a pivotal moment: The Timbers can use some inspiration as they look to rebound from a very rough spring.
1) Or will a long-running East Coast derby steal the Pac Northwest’s thunder?
Immediately after Sunday’s Stump City showdown on ESPN, NBC Sports Network gets to broadcast an equally tasty matchup in the form of the latest Atlantic Cup battle at Red Bull Arena. New York vs. D.C. United was the first true rivalry in MLS history, and the jovial contempt between their fans has ensured that the Red Bulls and the Black-and-Red will duel in front of a sellout crowd.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.