Starting XI: Sizing up big Midwest, Cascadia showdowns

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

MLS TV Listings: Where to watch all the action in Week 30

11) When will Midwest soccer get its due?

Save the “flyover states” talk: the beautiful game has deep, deep roots in the heartland and tonight’s Kansas City-Chicago clash (8:30 pm ET, live chat on MLSsoccer.com) is a fitting celebration of that. It promises to be a compelling contrast of styles and the winner, should there be one, will own the impetus in the Eastern Conference.

WATCH: Last Sporting KC-Chicago meeting

10) Are the Fire ready to seize the stage?

Frank Klopas’ bunch hasn't drawn the spotlight quite as much as other contenders in 2012, but that may end soon. After some notable midseason changes, they’ve won seven of their last eight and own what could be a decisive game in hand on their East rivals. Beating Sporting on their own turf would make their title credentials impossible to ignore.

9) Can Columbus close their goals gap?

As Crew beat writer Craig Merz noted earlier this week, the Yellow Football Team must overcome an extra bit of headwind if they are to win a playoff spot. They sit well below their Eastern peers when it comes to tiebreakers, thanks to a dearth of goals and a resultingly low goal differential. That means they need to barrage the nets over their final four games, or make sure they snare every last point they can, starting against Philly tomorrow (7:30 p.m. ET, watch LIVE online).

8) Who’s riding...wait for it...the hot hand?

Take a look at MLSsoccer.com’s beautiful new Results Map. That colorful, info-rich document lays out who’s been stringing together results with the most regularity, and who’s limping towards the finish line. If San Jose, Sporting, LA, Chicago and D.C. can keep their current momentum, it could prove pivotal in the postseason.

7) And who will dodge an extra playoff round?

On a related note, there’s a race within a race as the likes of Real Salt Lake, Seattle and the Galaxy (West) and New York and D.C. United (East) try to snare the third seed and avoid the extra wear and tear of wild-card weekend, where the fourth and fifth seeds will battle for the right to face the conference champions.

READ: Current MLS standings

6) Can the also-rans do some road raging?

It takes a special kind of mentality to really embrace the spoiler role, especially in away matches. A certain degree of pride and simple cussedness is needed to match a playoff-chasing team’s intensity, and that’s what Toronto, Philadelphia and New England must display as they play their roles this weekend.

WATCH: Last Vancouver-Seattle meeting

5) Is Mauro Rosales the final piece for Seattle?

Leaving aside two losses to their 2012 bogey team, the Earthquakes, you have to go back to June 24 to find the Sounders’ last league defeat. And now they will likely welcome back Rosales, the man who makes their offense purr at full throttle, as they visit Vancouver tomorrow night (9 pm ET, NBC Sports Network in US, TSN2/RDS2 in Canada) in pursuit of an inside track on the Cascadia Cup. The Whitecaps defense has their work cut out for them.

4) Can D.C. keep winning by committee?

Honestly, did anyone expect to see United go 3-0 in the wake of Dwayne De Rosario’s season-ending knee injury? With only four goals scored during that stretch, it hasn’t been all that pretty, as coach Ben Olsen readily admits. Nonetheless, a range of contributors are stepping up to help the capital club dig out wins in playoff fashion. Up next: a wild Saturday night at Portland’s daunting JELD-WEN Field (10:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).

3) Will the Red Bulls get it together?

In some ways, it’s the same old story: a talented New York squad not attaining its potential. Even after one win in their last five games, a slide down the standings and another injury to Designated Player Rafa Marquez, there’s still time to fix the problems and chase the MLS Cup, though. That may hinge on coach Hans Backe finding the tactics that work best for his players, this week against an imperfect but dangerous Toronto FC (7 pm ET, watch LIVE online).

2) Is this the Last Chance Café for FC Dallas?

Given how hopeless things looked in Frisco just a month or two ago, just returning to contention is something of a moral victory for Schellas Hyndman and his team. There’s time to contemplate that later, however – at the moment FCD need results to stay on Vancouver’s trail for the West’s final playoff slot, and the Texans just happen to be traveling to league-leading San Jose this weekend (10:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).

1) What’s running through Martin Rennie’s head?

While Dallas are just happy to be here in the face for fifth, the ‘Caps and their coach may still be reeling from their queasy descent from the first-place heights reached earlier in the year. A 2-8-2 mark since July 11 casts a shadow over Rennie’s midseason transactions, and possession of a runaway league lead in fouls committed hints at lingering frustrations in the team. Seattle, of all clubs, will relish a chance to kick the Whitecaps while they’re down this weekend.