Starting XI: San Jose and RSL battle for Western supremacy

The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend.

11) What do this week’s transactions portend for the second half of the season?

The Timbers fired coach John Spencer on Monday, and on Wednesday Toronto terminated Dutch winger Nick Soolsma’s contract by mutual consent while Whitecaps playmaker Davide Chiumiento (pictured at right) returned to Switzerland in a transfer to FC Zürich. Brace for more such notable moves as teams seek to improve their squads with the midsummer grind setting in.

10) Will Chivas USA and the Union find ways to build on their US Open Cup defeats?

The rich got richer in Wednesday’s Open Cup semifinals, as two clubs at the back of the MLS pack fell to playoff contenders Seattle and Sporting Kansas City. Head coaches Robin Fraser and John Hackworth must now maintain their players’ intensity and motivation levels, whether they manage to climb up the league standings or not. Chivas host the Timbers on Wednesday, and Philly look to win their fourth league game in five against Montreal at PPL Park on Saturday.

9) Can the Earthquakes use their home-heavy schedule to lock down the Supporters’ Shield?

After eight weeks away from Buck Shaw Stadium, Western Conference leaders San Jose return to their intimate home this weekend for a top-of-the-table clash with Real Salt Lake, the first game of a stretch run featuring nine of their final 15 games at the compact venue at Santa Clara University, where they haven’t lost since last August. These two also lead the chase for the league’s best record.

8) Can Sporting stake their claim to greatness?

WATCH: Sporting KC advance to USOC final

Kansas City nearly reached the promised land last season, falling to Houston on home turf in the Eastern Conference final. Zusi, Kamara, Sapong & Co. have been feverishly driven this year and their Open Cup run means that they’ll have at least one more chance to play at Livestrong Sporting Park with hardware on the line. Continued excellence at Columbus this weekend, and over the next five months in general, could well vault them into the MLS aristocracy.

7) Did RSL execute another steal by acquiring Justin Braun for a conditional 2014 SuperDraft pick?

He’s a hometown boy, an eminently talented striker who’s struggled with injuries since an offseason move to Montreal, where many expected him to have a breakout year and perhaps even earn another glance from the US national team. Garth Lagerwey has a history of astute pickups, though it’s up to Braun to make Real’s general manager look like a genius once again.

6) Will Gavin Wilkinson start his second tenure as Portland’s gaffer with a win over the Galaxy?

The New Zealander played for, then coached the Timbers during their final years in the second division before moving upstairs to the GM position with Spencer’s arrival. Now he’s the interim boss until PTFC select a new coach, tasked with coaxing the best out of the roster that he helped construct. His first opponents: none other than the defending champs at JELD-WEN Field on Saturday night.

5) Can Barry Robson prove he’s a worthy replacement for Davide Chiumiento?

Coach Martin Rennie has gotten a lot right during his brief tenure in Vancouver, guiding the ‘Caps to a playoff place at the season’s halfway mark. Yet neutral fans and skill connoisseurs across the league were dismayed to see the explosive, mercurial Chiumiento return to his native land without a fight. He leaves a creativity gap which needs to be filled by Robson, the newly arrived DP who has yet to fully find his feet in a new setting, and dynamic rookie striker Darren Mattocks.

4) How much longer will FC Dallas’ misery continue?

FCD got to celebrate the signing of an MLS record-tying seventh Homegrown player this week, Kellyn Acosta, underlining the club’s growth into a youth powerhouse. The senior team’s dispiriting winless slump drags on, however, and on Friday, the North Texans completed a startling move to shake things up, trading for Julian de Guzman, the Canadian international who has largely underperformed during his stint as a Designated Player in Toronto. A Saturday night tangle at Colorado is FCD’s latest chance to break their duck.

3) Can Patrick Nyarko fuel the Fire’s “#PickPat” campaign with a strong performance on Saturday?

PREVIEW: Chicago set to host Vancouver

Credit to Chicago’s communications department for using Twitter to lobby MLS All-Stars coach Ben Olsen to grant an ASG roster spot for Nyarko, the tricky winger who is so influential to his team’s attacking fluidity. If he really wants the effort to succeed, however, the Ghanaian needs to bolster his current total of two goals and three assists, starting against Vancouver at Toyota Park.

2) Have the Sounders, spearheaded by Eddie Johnson, truly turned the corner?

They were getting nervous in Seattle before last week’s 2-1 home defeat of Colorado ended a nine-game league winless run, and a thorough beating of Chivas USA in Wednesday’s US Open Cup semifinal really got the good vibes flowing again. The Rave Green are surely delighted to see “EJ,” their showcase winter acquisition, justifying the assets sacrificed to bring him to the Northwest. Another hurdle beckons on Sunday with a visit to New York, who are undefeated at Red Bull Arena.

1) Is this the week that D.C. United finally find their way in Houston?

Tuesday’s unveiling of an ambitious new ownership group has Black-and-Red hearts soaring in the nation’s capital, especially as their team remains in joint possession of first place in the East. This weekend, D.C. must travel to perhaps their most daunting destination: the sweltering Bayou City, where they’ve never, ever beaten the Dynamo. Goal-shy of late, the Orange are still unbeaten in seven games at their new BBVA Compass Stadium.

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.