The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend:
11) SKC v RSL: Can one of these early frontrunners seize the initiative in the Supporters’ Shield race?
Saturday night offers an enticing matchup at Livestrong Sporting Park as the top teams in MLS, each sitting atop their conference with 15 points, do battle. Undefeated Sporting are built on pace, athleticism and relentless pressing, an intriguing contrast to Salt Lake’s somewhat more cerebral, possession-loving approach. Can RSL’s experience give them an advantage in loud, hostile territory?
10) Who will win the coaching duel between Peter Vermes and Jason Kreis?
In another encouraging sign of the league’s generational growth, two men who once starred on MLS fields are now two of its leading sideline generals. Vermes likes to set the tone with a 4-3-3 shape and forward-leaning mentality, but may elect to tweak his X’s and O’s to cope with Kreis’ diamond midfield. Keep an eye on Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi, their coaches’ on-field proxies.
9) How will Seattle fans greet the Rapids’ Brian Mullan?
Ever since the hard-working winger broke Sounders speedster Steve Zakuani’s leg with a rash tackle a year ago, the incident has been a lightning rod among SSFC supporters. This weekend, we’ll see if class wins out, as Mullan makes his first appearance at CenturyLink Field since the incident. Zakuani himself has moved on, and he's been urging fans to do the same.
8) And will Oscar Pareja get the tactics right against the wily Sigi Schmid?
Colorado’s coach has effectively transformed the Mile High Club’s stylistic DNA in just a few short months. Yet his decision to field Drew Moor in midfield last week raised eyebrows and he’ll have little margin for error against the seasoned Sounders at their deafening home ground.
7) Can San Jose slow down the red-hot Red Bulls?
Just before the conference leaders meet in KC, their closest pursuers will tangle in North Jersey in another compelling matchup highlighted by the league’s three leading goalscorers: Henry, Cooper and Wondolowski. With 14 goals in five matches, RBNY are striking at a furious clip – and probably need to keep it up, given the loss of center back Wilman Conde to a groin injury. For their part, the Quakes may travel without hamstrung targetman Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon.
6) Will Montreal maintain momentum?
Last week the Impact garnered their first MLS victory in franchise history, and coach Jesse Marsch immediately urged his team to kick on and continue their progress. Next test: a two-games-in-five-days road swing through Dallas and DC.
5) Can Clyde Simms cover for Shalrie Joseph and lead New England to a win against his former team?
The Revs are the latest squad to find themselves on the wrong end of an MLS Disciplinary Committee decision after the instrumental Joseph was suspended for this week’s home match against D.C. United due to his tackle on Dallas midfielder Ricardo Villar. That means Simms, who still owns a house down the street from the capital club he called home for seven years, will have to pick up the ball-winning slack in the center of the park – while also keeping tabs on the deadly Dwayne De Rosario.
4) Are Toronto FC and Philadelphia about to push the panic button?
The league’s last winless teams, TFC and Philly have sorely tested their passionate fans’ patience and desperately need three points from their home games this weekend. These are the moments when the crowd’s role as 12th man can become particularly pivotal, so their respective opponents, Chivas USA and Columbus, will need to be mindful of the environment they are entering.
3) Who will rediscover their swagger when LA and Portland meet at the Home Depot Center?
These two squads just haven’t looked like themselves lately, though the Timbers’ Cascadia rivals might note that even at their best, PTFC have never truly shown their teeth away from JELD-WEN Field. The Galaxy will hope David Beckham is close to full speed as they try to reassert the home dominance that has deserted them this year.
2) Will new Fire defender Arne Friedrich step up in what’s expected to be his MLS debut?
With only three games apiece, we’ve seen less of the Dynamo and Fire than any others in the league, and the biggest of Sunday’s many questions revolves around the Chicago back line following Cory Gibbs’ long-term knee injury. The big German newcomer hasn’t played a competitive match in nearly a year and for all his quality, he now faces a steep learning curve.
1) Who's this week's hot pick for MLS Fantasy Soccer: Manager?
Houston more or less gave up on Dominic Oduro after he missed a glaring scoring chance in last year’s season opener, shipping him to Chicago for Calen Carr. The Dynamo might not recognize him now, though, as the “Birdman” finally seems to have put it all together with the Fire. He says he takes no extra motivation into Sunday’s meeting against his old team, but we know better.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.