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Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into the weekend

Starting XI: August 3

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

11) After all that wheeling and dealing, which teams improved themselves the most – and the quickest?

A huge trade for Chivas USA, new Designated Players in Chicago, Columbus, Seattle and New York – almost everyone around the league entertained an offer or two as the international transfer window closed and front offices pondered how they could make things better for the season’s closing stages. New arrivals will now be challenged to get on the same page as their new colleagues and contribute soon.

10) Another important Friday night match: Can the Red Bulls hold off hot Houston?

The weekend kicks off as New York visit BBVA Compass Stadium for a big-time clash between the Eastern Conference leaders, which will likely also mark Tim Cahill’s league debut. While RBNY are still smarting from last week’s 3-1 upset loss in Montreal, the Dynamo haven’t lost since a 4-2 shellacking by the Impact on June 23, outscoring opponents 13-2 in a 5-0-2 stretch which has seen the Orange prosper in a new 4-3-3 shape.

READ: Houston, New York collide with first place on the line

9) Can Montreal knock off another Eastern rival at Stade Saputo?

The Quebecois are doing their best to make themselves at home in their refurbished ground, including a few attention-grabbing ambushes of very good teams (see No. 10). They have every chance of doing the same to Philadelphia on Saturday, though they must do so without striker Marco Di Vaio, who has flown to his native Italy for a match-fixing hearing.

8) Are the playoffs still within Philly’s reach?

Don’t look now, but the once-hopeless Union have a winning record under interim manager John Hackworth (right) and sit just nine points out of the East’s fifth and final playoff spot. It’s a tall order, and this weekend’s trip to Montreal represents a tricky challenge. However, with Jack McInerney in form and so much renewed optimism around the Union camp, anything is possible.

7) Can Portland take revenge for the 5-0 whipping FC Dallas laid on them last month?

When the Timbers wilted in Texas on July 21, some called it the most lopsided match of the MLS season so far. The memory of that result alone should raise the temperature at JELD-WEN Field a bit on Sunday night. Speaking of which, FCD seem to be bringing a bit of home with them, as a heat wave is washing over the Pacific Northwest this weekend.

6) How will the Revs begin their PS (post-Shalrie) life?

New England’s stunning shipment of iconic midfielder Shalrie Joseph to Chivas USA was the biggest headline of a news-heavy week across the league. The tough Grenadian midfielder defined the Revolution’s identity for nearly a decade and he himself admitted he thought he’d retire in the club’s colors, but salary and tactical considerations prompted coach Jay Heaps (above, left) and his staff to turn the page. A new era begins against Sporting KC on Saturday.

LISTEN: Taylor Twellman reacts to Jospeph's trade on ExtraTime Radio

5) How will Frank Klopas fit Álvaro Fernández into the Fire lineup?

The Men in Red recently pulled off a head-turning trade of their own to acquire the creative midfielder from the Sounders; now they have to find the best combination of their substantial midfield and attacking options. Seattle fell in love with the skillful Uruguayan known as “Flaco,” and Klopas (above, right) and the Fire brain trust hopes that Chicago soon will, too, perhaps as early as Saturday’s clash against Toronto.

4) Will a return to RFK help D.C. United snuff out a two-game losing skid?

United’s consistency and hard work was rewarded with a stint in first place earlier this summer, only for two straight losses – both of them shutouts – to send them sliding down the charts in the tumultuous East. Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Pontius and the rest of the Black-and-Red attack need to rediscover their movement and dynamism in order to break down an organized Columbus squad at RFK Stadium on Saturday night.

3) Can Oscar Pareja get his Rapids in the right state of mind to knock off RSL?

Pareja mixed up his team’s practice regimen this week in an effort to lift the gloom around Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in the wake of a winless July. He should have no issues with motivation for Real Salt Lake’s visit, even though twin 2-0 wins over Colorado earlier this season have already ensured that Real will win their sixth straight Rocky Mountain Cup.

2) Who can best handle the MLS-CCL juggling act?

Toronto and the Sounders kicked off their CONCACAF Champions League campaigns in fine style with convincing home wins this week, while RSL endured a classic “CONCACAF night” in Costa Rica, suffering an ejection and a defeat to Herediano. A smaller group stage means a tighter margin for error in this year’s edition of the regional tourney, while continuing to severely test the depth, focus and motivation of the MLS squads involved.

1) Can LA or Seattle lay down a marker in Sunday’s primetime clash on ESPN2?

After some severe wobbles, these two finally seem to be asserting themselves as the Western Conference aristocrats everyone expected them to be this year. A playoff vibe will be in effect at noisy CenturyLink Field, where hosts and visitors alike will try to make a statement of intent loud enough to reverberate all the way into the postseason.