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11/23 5:00pm
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Eastern Conference Championship

Starting XI: Who has the edge on semifinal weekend?

Thierry Henry and Nick De Leon

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

The biggest 11 questions as we look ahead to the MLS conference semifinals this weekend.

11) Do the Galaxy have it in them to repeat?

LA insisted there were "no underdogs in the playoffs" ahead of Thursday night's Knockout Round game against Vancouver, and they can claim to be right after the Whitecaps pushed them to the edge before falling on two second-half goals. But most expected more from the defending champs, who have barely three days to rest before the Supporters' Shield-winning Earthquakes hit town for the first leg of the Conference Semifinals on Sunday (9 pm ET; ESPN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com)

10) Will Landon Donovan keep letting his game do the talking?

Or perhaps more accurately, when will the rest of us let him? The Galaxy and US national team hero's existential fatigue has pundits chattering, which is in itself a compliment to LD's legacy. Whatever happens in the offseason, he owes it to himself to make a few more memories in these playoffs.

WATCH: Galaxy players react to win

9) What did the Quakes learn from Thursday night?

LA-San Jose features two extraordinarily clutch teams, plus it's an old rivalry, which makes it even more difficult to predict. But Frank Yallop and Co. will probably take heart — and detailed notes — from the frustration Vancouver provoked at the Home Depot Center. Yallop also has more offensive weapons capable of unsettling the Galaxy.

8) Will the California Clasico's scoring fireworks continue?

San Jose and LA racked up an extraordinary 16 total goals in their three meetings to date this year. MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski played in only two of those games and bagged a goal in each, though he remains the prime danger man for Omar Gonzalez and the Galaxy, whose angry words about the Quakes' style following their last meeting will likely set the tone for what promises to be a bruising series.

7) Can Seattle jump all over Real Salt Lake tonight, like RSL did to them a year ago?

When these teams met at this stage last season, their potent offenses ran rampant in the home legs and the Sounders came up barely, achingly short. This time the seeding is reversed, putting the onus on Fredy Montero (whose usual strike partner Eddie Johnson remains a doubt due to an adductor injury) and his mates to pile on the goals in the first leg on Friday (10 pm ET; NBCSN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com)

6) Or will defending be the difference on this go-round?

Neutrals are hoping that this series is as much fun as last year's. But in their three 2012 meetings to date, Claret-and-Cobalt plus Rave Green and Emerald Blue have added up to just one goal. The likes of Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Michael Gspurning and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado are eager to continue that trend.

5) Will the schedule swap prove influential in the United-Red Bulls series?

WATCH: Scouting the DC-New York series

You'd expect some griping and grousing ahead of this Atlantic Cup postseason matchup on Saturday (8 pm ET; NBCSN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), and flip-flopping the venues due to the ravages of Hurricane Sandy has only amplified that. D.C. United fans are angry to have lost the home-field advantage they earned in the regular season, while Red Bulls supporters need only point out that many of them are still without power several days after the storm's departure. The hubbub will grow deafening should overtime be necessary on Wednesday.

4) Can New York's stars overcome the young United collective?

Old enmities aside, this series may well hinge on whether New York stars like Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Rafa Márquez can prove difference-makers against a D.C. side with almost no postseason experience.

"They've got more World Cup games than I think we have playoff games," United coach Ben Olsen told the Washington Times. "I kind of think that's what this is about right now: a team versus some really experienced, good individuals."

3) Can battle-hardened Houston pull another smash-and-grab on Sporting KC, this time over two legs?

The Dynamo laid down a marker with their professional dispatching of Chicago on Wednesday, and on Sunday they begin a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Championship with a Sporting side that may benefit from 180 minutes of play to show their quality instead of just 90 (3:30 pm ET; NBC, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

2) Can SKC's Peter Vermes outwit one of the most successful coaches in MLS playoff history?

That would be Dominic Kinnear, whose San Jose and Houston sides have always been predictably powerful and direct yet regularly baffle the opposition in knockout situations. Vermes has stuck with the same tactical blueprint for most of the past two seasons — will a new wrinkle or two be necessary over the week ahead?

1) Which heroes will we be talking about on Monday?

It's tricky to predict who will step up and create big postseason moments. Will Bruin and Mike Magee stood out in the Knockout Round, now the spotlight searches for the next wave of clutch performers.