Starting XI: Will all those early offseason moves pay off?

Starting XI, Dec. 7

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The top 11 questions heading into a big weekend in the NCAA ranks and a few more days of silly season madness.

11) Will you be watching College Cup?

It doesn’t move the national needle like NCAA football or basketball, butt this weekend’s college final four tournament in Hoover, Ala., is practically a must-watch for MLS fans, given how many of its best players will go on to feature in the league. If you’ve missed out on the 2012 NCAA season to date, consider these three games a crash course in SuperDraft preparation.

10) Which of this weekend’s NCAA standouts could contribute right away as MLS rookies?

Predicting which college stars are “can’t-miss” pro prospects tends to be a tricky task, though there will be plenty of coaches attempting to do just that as they run the rule over the likes of Eriq Zavaleta (Indiana, right), Jose Gomez (Creighton), Ian Christianson (Georgetown), John Stertzer, London Woodberry and Patrick Mullins (Maryland).

9) Can a reshuffled Real Salt Lake keep the beat?

Jámison Olave, Fabián Espíndola, Will Johnson, Jonny Steele – some pretty influential faces have departed this week as RSL shed burdensome salary-cap weight. Head coach Jason Kreis is wagering that his team’s clear style and identity will ease the process of roster regeneration, so for now, “Believe” remains a particularly apt byword along the Wasatch Front.

8) Can Olave and Espíndola help build a new culture in New York?

Meanwhile, it looks like “win now” will remain the catchphrase at Red Bull Arena, as it does nearly every year. New sporting director Andy Roxburgh has already made some astute pickups for RBNY, and the RSL duo should help both on the field and in the locker room, though building a squad before naming a head coach is always a dangerous gambit. And chemistry questions still hang over a few Red Bulls incumbents.

7) Speaking of which, what’s up with Rafa Márquez?

He’s worn out his welcome with some New York fans, his original Mexican club Atlas wants to bring him in on loan and he himself supposedly wants to take them up on the offer. So far the only thing stopping him is the RBNY front office, who are keeping their cards close to the chest when it comes to Rafa (right).

6) How will “Act Le Toux” play out in Philadelphia?

One player who wanted to move on from RBA got his wish this week, as Sébastien Le Toux returned to his beloved Union in a sign-and-trade deal after a year in Peter Nowak-induced exile. The Philly front line can use his skill set, even if reunions of this sort have a mixed track record in MLS.

5) Amid all this movement, where will Freddy, Benny and Kenny find themselves?

Adu, Feilhaber and Cooper: From Chester to Foxborough, the Eastern seaboard is dotted with attackers facing uncertain futures amid their respective clubs’ overhauls. The writing’s not quite on the wall just yet, but it appears that all effectively offers would be considered for these mercurial stars.

4) Who’s headed overseas on loan this winter – and who isn’t?

Some players are exhausted at stage in the calendar and prefer to switch off for a solid month or so. Others, seeing rest as rust, go abroad in search of training and match minutes. Keep in mind that the Galaxy’s slow 2012 start seems to have made MLS execs wary of letting their top talent log winter miles in a foreign uniform.

3) Who will get the January call from Jurgen Klinsmann?

The so-called “Camp Cupcake” will be shorter this time, and probably a good deal more intense, which will make MLS standouts like Omar Gonzalez, Chris Pontius and Austin Berry that much hungrier for long-awaited US national team opportunities.

2) How do D.C. solve their Salihi problem?

As The Washington Post’s Steve Goff recently explained, D.C. United don’t see a place for Designated Player Hamdi Salihi (right) in their future but have limited options thanks to the Albanian striker’s guaranteed (and hefty) contract. It’s going to take some maneuvering – or some constructive dialogue – to fix this conundrum in the capital city.

1) Are the cap-strapped Sounders headed for a fall?

Rave Green-clad masses, hold your fire for a moment: This isn’t to say that Seattle will hit the skids completely in 2013. It’s just that the combined effect of extended playoff disappointment, maturing contracts and the loss of CONCACAF Champions League-earned allocation money has presented Adrian Hanauer and the SSFC brain trust with some vexing decisions in the months ahead. They’ve gotten so much right in their first four years – but keeping that momentum looks trickier than ever.