The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:
11) Which MLS sides can cope with that CONCACAF Champions League reality check?
MLS sides broke new ground in CCL group play last month, breaking the league’s long-running “Mexico jinx” with a flurry of victories south of the border en route to an impressive overall mark of 8-1-1. But September has been a very different story (2-7-1). Some clubs will likely persevere, while others are writing off their international dreams to focus on the final stretch here at home.
10) Who’s got the elixir for schedule congestion?
Those CONCACAF setbacks are part of a larger challenge at this stage of the MLS season: maintaining consistency even as games, injuries and suspensions pile up. All coaches like to talk about roster depth, but right now, results are showing which teams really have it. A skilled training staff with effective recovery techniques can make a huge difference, too. All 18 teams are in action this weekend ... and the next as well, with a bevy of midweek matches to boot.
9) How can Schellas Hyndman stop the slide in Frisco?
Few teams are showing the effects of hard mileage more than FC Dallas, who played their 40th game of the year on Wednesday night, a 2-0 CCL loss to Pumas UNAM. Essentially, FCD are now experiencing the weariness they would normally feel at the end of the season, and there’s little relief in sight.
“It’s been a long three months for us,” admitted Hyndman, whose lineup selections are presently based more on mere availability than form or tactics. Looks like the wily old coach will have to dig deep into his bag of tricks this fall, starting with Saturday’s Texas Derby against Houston.
8) Will Houston break their road winless streak in a rivalry game against weary FCD?
With upcoming trips to Dallas and Portland, the Dynamo have just two more chances to notch their first 2011 win away from Robertson Stadium – a breakthrough which would boost their postseason prospects as well as their confidence. They’re catching their Lone Star neighbors at an ideal time, but the Orange still must minimize the lapses in concentration that have bedeviled them all season.
7) Can the Philadelphia defense handle Sporting’s strike force in Kansas City on Friday night?
Peter Vermes’ side loves to attack in waves at Livestrong Sporting Park, usually via a forward-leaning 4-3-3 formation emphasizing speed and movement. SKC are averaging more than a goal a game in their last nine home games, and with first place in the East potentially on the line, the Union back line will need to maintain the organization and focus that helped earn clean sheets in Philly’s last two matches.
6) Will SKC or Philly overhaul the fading Crew for good this weekend?
The race for top billing in the Eastern Conference is far from over, but current leaders Columbus are basically clinging by their fingertips at the moment. It’s been a month since their last win and they’re clearly missing steady center back Chad Marshall and veteran winger Eddie Gaven. This is hardly the optimal time to welcome the league-leading Galaxy to town, but that’s who the Crew must face on Saturday.
5) Did Rafa Márquez just poison or motivate the Red Bulls locker room?
Not long ago, New York stood atop the East in dominating fashion, but you’d hardly know it now. The Red Bulls themselves described their only win of the past two months as ugly, and then Márquez, a DP whose experience is supposed to elicit leadership as well as sterling play, uncorked some controversial remarks about his fellow defenders after Wednesday’s 3-1 home shellacking by RSL. His words will surely be lingering in the air at Red Bull Arena when the Timbers hit town on Saturday.
4) Has Gary Smith got his priorities straight in Colorado?
The Rapids fielded a reserve-heavy lineup against Honduran side Real España in CCL play on Wednesday and duly lost 2-1 at home. Afterward, coach and players alike effectively conceded defeat in the tournament, citing a preference to defend their MLS Cup title. Logical, perhaps, given their slumping league form, but international opportunities don’t come along very often and Smith’s decision more or less elevates Saturday’s match against San Jose to “must-win” status.
3) Can the Whitecaps bid farewell to Empire Field in fitting fashion against Seattle?
This week’s installment of the Cascadia Cup rivalry takes the trophy-hunting Sounders to Vancouver, where the last-place ‘Caps are basically playing for pride (and 2012 roster spots). But the Canadians are actually on a two-game home winning streak, and they’ll be eager to exit their temporary home on a high as they move into the awe-inspiring confines of BC Place.
2) Are D.C. United going to outgrow their “soft, naïve” ways in time to make the playoffs?
United coach Ben Olsen was livid after his team conspired to draw Chivas USA 2-2 at home on Wednesday, and understandably so. Far too many of DC’s 11 draws should’ve been wins, and those dropped points may eventually deny them a postseason berth.
“We played like boys. … We played soft, naïve,” said Olsen. “Talent is not enough. I have been on terrible teams and won games because we had guys that would do anything – anything – to win a game.”
Don’t look now, but Saturday’s visitor to RFK Stadium is Real Salt Lake, whose roster boasts plenty of "those guys."
1) Can resurgent RSL still dream of catching LA?
A busy schedule only hurts when you’re losing, as Real have proven with four wins in 19 days this month. Jason Kreis and his men have weathered their share of adversity this season and seem to have girded themselves just in time for the stretch run, with the impending return of playmaker Javier Morales a timely boost. It’s a long shot, but a home win over the Galaxy on Oct. 1 could inject a bit of late drama into the Supporters’ Shield race.
First, though, RSL will have to take care of business against DC this weekend.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.