Starting XI: Rennie's decision and Henry's hat-trick encore

Starting XI, Henry head of MTL, July 27

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

11) Can the Whitecaps gain ground on Real Salt Lake tonight?

The second- and third-place squads in the Western Conference meet at Rio Tinto Stadium tonight for the first of back-to-back league matches, matchups which could have a dramatic effect on the conference standings. It’s a great chance for Vancouver to close the five-point gap that separates them from RSL, who are about to wade into CONCACAF Champions League duties.

READ: 'Caps' Rennie offers ASG alternatives for greater flexibility

10) Will Jay DeMerit play 180 minutes in barely more than 48 hours?

MLS All-Star Game: Matchday 360

The gritty center back was the critics’ choice for most-important player in the AT&T MLS All-Star Game, playing a full 90 minutes because of Aurélien Collin’s facial injury despite Vancouver’s impending match. He’s dealing with a very quick turnaround for this crucial game, which just happens to be taking place at altitude as well. Will he start? ‘Caps coach Martin Rennie earns his pay on decisions like this.

READ: DeMerit goes the extra mile in victory vs. Blues

9) Can the Union take advantage of the All-Star afterglow at PPL Park?

Philadelphia’s gorgeous stadium was pulsating on Wednesday night and the home fans were in fine form, especially the Sons of Ben smart-alecks chanting and cheering in the River End. So much angst has enveloped the Union during their 2012 struggles, and this week offers a great chance to turn the page in a positive way as the Union welcome New England on Sunday.

8) Will Thierry Henry flambé the Impact again?

New York’s French star bagged his first – and hopefully for the Red Bulls, not his last – hat trick against Montreal earlier this season. This weekend brings his eagerly anticipated first match in Quebec, where a sell-out crowd at Stade Saputo is looking like a real possibility. Between him, Kenny Cooper and Sébastien Le Toux, the Impact backline had better be ready.

7) Will new Red Bull DP Tim Cahill tip the scales in the East?

RBNY hunted down their third Designated Player with amazing speed and secrecy last week, and while he’s not likely to see action in Montreal, the club’s fans can’t wait for his debut in the advanced midfield role behind that stacked arsenal of strikers. Now if that backline can just keep things tight enough…

READ: New signing Cahill practices for first time with Red Bulls

6) Is Sporting KC prepared to live without Aurélien Collin?

WATCH: Collin's Corner, All-Star edition

Kansas City, one of several teams hot on New York’s trail, must have been cursing their luck on Wednesday as they watched their All-Star center back crash to the turf with a facial injury that spells two weeks on the sidelines. Add in a groin injury to Chance Myers and midfield anchor Roger Espinoza’s absence on Olympic duty, and Peter Vermes’ squad suddenly looks shorthanded heading into a critical stretch that starts with Columbus’ visit to Livestrong Sporting Park on Saturday.

READ: Collin says he's ready to go despite facial fractures

5) Will the 2-1 friendly win over Swansea help the Rapids end their league slump?

Colorado have only one league victory since May, though at least they got a bit of cheer from a good exhibition performance against their English Premier League guests on Tuesday. Seattle hit Denver on Saturday night, the second of the Rapids’ 13 straight games against Western Conference opponents. It might wind up as a rebuilding year around Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, but if Conor Casey, Omar Cummings & Co. want to mount a playoff charge, the points are there to be had.

4) Will the Fire’s personnel moves pay off?

If it were a spy novel, it might be called the Sherjill Gambit: send one DP home on loan (Federico Puppo), do the same for another overseas acquisition (Rafael Robayo) and pick up another – one with question marks around him – from the international market (Sherjill MacDonald) in search of a late-season boost. Meanwhile, playmaker Sebastián Grazzini remains back in Argentina on a leave of absence. Oh, and there’s also the not-inconsequential matter of this weekend’s visit to the best team in MLS, the San Jose Earthquakes.

3) When, and how, are the Timbers going to stop the bleeding?

Having recently hit “rock-bottom,” in the words of interim coach Gavin Wilkinson, last-place Portland will face Chivas USA for the second time in 11 days. Tactics and mentality still seem a bit scrambled in the Rose City, but at least Chivas winger Ryan Smith, who has scorched Portland this year, assisting on all three of the Goats’ goals in their two previous victories over PTFC, will miss out due to a hamstring injury.

READ: After "rock bottom," Timbers rallying together

2) Will hot Houston break their winless track record in Canada?

WATCH: The Daily, July 27

The Dynamo racked up nine points – and nine goals – with three well-earned wins last week, powering a rapid climb up the East standings. Saturday offers a new challenge to overcome, as they visit Toronto FC. For some reason, the Orange have struggled above the International Boundary, going 0-4-3 all-time against Canada’s three MLS squads, and a resurgent TFC side should offer spirited resistance this time as well.

1) Surely David Beckham can’t make it back from London in time to play against FC Dallas … or can he?

Becks loves a big occasion, as he proved again this week by jetting back and forth across the Atlantic to play 74 quality minutes in the All-Star Game right in the midst of his hometown’s Olympic opening ceremonies. His involvement in the Galaxy’s Saturday night match in Texas would seem impossible, but coach Bruce Arena was coy on the matter, merely saying, “It hasn't been finalized.” Like his shoe sponsor, maybe “impossible is nothing” for Beckham.

READ: Beckham crosses Atlantic to log impressive shift

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.