Here's a look at the 11 biggest storylines heading into MLS Cup weekend...
11) What’s your favorite MLS offseason transfer rumor?
Lots of big overseas names have already been batted around in connection to the league: Kaká, Luis Fabiano, Frank Lampard, even managerial guru Pep Guardiola – and that phenomenon will continue all winter. After all, it serves a useful purpose for agents and tabloids. Fans, on the other hand, should keep a few grains of salt on hand at all times.
10) What’s next for Wondo?
After three years of sustained – and stunning – excellence, Chris Wondolowski has reached a major career summit with the capture of the MVP trophy. He’s still got other hardware to chase, of course, with the Earthquakes set to battle on multiple fronts next season. But San Jose’s hitman, who does without one of the aforementioned agents, is also seeking an upgraded contract as he approaches his 30th birthday.
9) Are changes ahead for the MLS youth-development structure?
Commissioner Don Garber offered some eye-opening thoughts on the uneven progress of the academy and reserve system during his annual State of the League conference call, revealing that the league’s “massive” investment in the initiatives – some $20 million per year – “has not yet paid off.”
It’s encouraging to see that level of commitment to the fledgling academy system. Yet Garber made clear that more concrete returns are expected, in the form of young players consistently contributing for their clubs as well as the US national teams.
8) Is the Payne-Mariner axis the right formula for Toronto FC?
With the capture of longtime D.C. United chief executive Kevin Payne to serve as president, TFC’s front office and technical staff now have some three decades of combined MLS nous to apply towards the process of rebuilding what can safely be described as the league’s sleeping giant. While it might take some time to see results, the Reds’ passionate fans have renewed reason for hope heading into 2013.
7) Who’s got the magic in tomorrow’s “Déjà Vu Cup” title bout?
This year’s MLS Cup offers the second back-to-back rematch in league history, and with the big game again taking place at the Home Depot Center, most pundits are predicting a similar result to last year’s Galaxy win. The onus is on Houston to change the pattern, but it could be argued that with key new faces like Boniek García and Ricardo Clark in the mix, they already have.
6) We know it’s David Beckham’s last MLS ride. Is it Landon Donovan’s, too?
Even after the many strong hints he’s laid down regarding his mental and physical fatigue, the idea of LD (right) calling it a day still seems almost incomprehensible. Every soccer fan in the United States should be hoping that Saturday won’t be the last glimpse of the native son who’s lit up the sport so brilliantly for so long.
5) Meanwhile, what does Brad Davis have in store?
The Dynamo’s lefty version of Becks missed out on last season’s championship game through injury, robbing both his team and the spectacle itself of one of the best passers in MLS history. The veteran knows how fleeting these opportunities can be – expect him to tear into this occasion with gusto.
4) Arena vs. Kinnear: Can one of these masterminds produce the tactical wrinkle that will win the day?
Two of the best coaches in American soccer history will prowl the HDC sidelines Saturday afternoon. Have they used the past two weeks of preparation time to prepare new tweaks, or will they adhere to the tried-and-true approaches that got them to this point?
3) Or will the Cup be decided by individual battles?
Beyond the formations and combinations, there are some pivotal “must-win” matchups in store. To name just a few: Houston’s big center backs must track Robbie Keane’s movements without unbalancing the rest of the back four. Galaxy midfield patroller Juninho cannot allow García to find space in the attacking end, just as Adam Moffat must shadow Donovan doggedly.
2) Can Houston be “Clutch City” again?
The Bayou City’s beloved Rockets earned that moniker in the mid-1990s with brave displays of cold-blooded shooting during the NBA Finals, and the battle-hardened Dynamo can create a similar legend. The result of a championship decider like this often hinges on how many of the 22 starters deliver their best performance under the season’s brightest spotlight.
1) So what’s your pick: Hollywood ending or Texas shootout?
Superstars, intrigue, incumbency, home-field advantage: So many factors seem to lean in LA’s favor. A great deal has to go right for Houston to overcome all that. But with their energy, famously hard edges and formidable collective spirit, Starting XI's crystal ball says that the underdogs will stun the Galaxy and turn rainy Tinseltown Orange on Saturday.