The top 11 questions heading into the weekend...
11) Is this US national team squad good enough to win the Gold Cup?
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann did not hesitate to lay out exactly that goal when he released his roster on Thursday, showcasing a group rich with MLS pedigree which appears to be one of his most attack-minded to date. If past history holds up, the answer will hinge on whether they can deliver against defending champions Mexico – without the services of several top US stars.
10) And what should Canada expect from their team in this tournament?
Still hurting from their last World Cup qualifying campaign and well off from the inception of the next, Les Rouges find themselves in an extended period of transition. That reality was reflected in interim coach Colin Miller's roster, which left off veterans like Dwayne De Rosario and Atiba Hutchinson in favor of less familiar youngsters.
“We haven’t gotten in to make up the numbers, for sure,” said Miller, promising competitiveness in a bearish group which includes Mexico and Panama.
9) Which clubs are most hamstrung by Gold Cup call-ups?
Those forced grins on the faces of technical staffers across the league are a sure sign that Gold Cup season is here. It's a time when individual MLS excellence is often rewarded, but typically at a cost to their teams, who face up to a month without some of their best players. San Jose, Real Salt Lake and LA – where coach Bruce Arena railed this week against the midseason call-ups that he says “skew the competition” – are some of the harder-hit sides.
8) Can Colorado's Cinderella shot-stopper Clint Irwin hang on to his starting job?
Arena might find some solace in the Rapids' situation. They looked well and truly cooked when their early-season injury epidemic claimed dependable goalkeeper Matt Pickens, only for Irwin to rise from obscurity and claim the No. 1 role with some inspired netminding that kept Colorado competitive. Now Pickens is ready to contend for his old place while Irwin must prove it still belongs to him, starting with the Mile High Club's difficult trip to the Eastern Conference-leading Montreal Impact Saturday (7 pm ET, Univision Deportes, MLS LIVE).
7) Can MLS' underdogs keep barking?
Toronto FC and D.C. United have been adrift at the bottom of the standings long enough that many had already written off their seasons weeks ago. Don't look now, but TFC have gone undefeated in their last three matches and United, when you factor in their promising US Open Cup campaign, are 3-1-1 over the past fortnight or so. Can they keep the good vibes going at home Saturday against Real Salt Lake and Vancouver, respectively?
6) But when is Ryan Nelsen going to stop swapping and start stamping?
...His personality on TFC, that is. One could argue that the flinty New Zealander already has in some ways, but his persistent desire to shop for talent upgrades has lent the Reds roster something of a transitory feel. At some point – hopefully this season – Reds fans need to see the core of a lineup that they can get to know, love and support with their customary fervor.
5) Who has more to prove when Dallas visit Philly?
One team hungry for recognition hosts another freshly dethroned from the league's top spot at PPL Park on Saturday (5:30 pm ET, NBCSN). Most denizens of these two sports-crazed metropolises can reel off the hateful history between their gridiron football teams – if this one reaches those intensity levels, the national-TV audience will have plenty to be entertained by.
4) How will the Revolution manage this week's quick, intense cross-country road trip?
The 450 miles or so New England traveled to battle D.C. United in the US Open Cup in Boyds, Md., on Wednesday is a modest journey by MLS standards. But shortly after that 3-1 loss they headed to the airport for a coast-to-coast flight ahead of Saturday's match at Chivas USA (10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE). Coach Jay Heaps tweaked his lineup in Boyds, likely with an eye towards improving his squad's freshness in Southern California.
3) What's it going to take for Houston to break their slump?
It's been seven weeks since the Dynamo tasted victory in MLS play, a stretch of six games in which they've scored just two goals. On Sunday (2 pm ET, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes) they drop in on the New York Red Bulls, another team who appear to be coasting a bit at the moment, for a significant Eastern Conference duel.
“Maybe it'll take a fluky goal, a deflection, an own-goal or something,” said winger Andrew Driver, “and as soon as that one goes in I think the confidence in the whole team will come back.”
2) What does Graham Zusi's new contract mean for the MLS Cup race – and for the USMNT dreams of other young domestic talents?
Sporting Kansas City welcome the Columbus Crew to town on Saturday (8:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE) with high spirits thanks to the news that their prized midfield schemer has signed on for at least several more years. It should leave Zusi more focused than ever on bringing a championship to the City of Fountains – and buoy the hopes of MLSers seeking to win Klinsmann's favor without moving abroad.
1) Will the first California Clasico of 2013 be as much fun as last year's?
One of the league's oldest rivalries, San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy is almost always a compelling spectacle and, in recent years, the NorCal editions have been staged in larger venues as a result. Stanford Stadium will be rocking on Saturday night and neutral fans will hope for more of the offensive fireworks that made the Quakes' 4-3 win so much fun a year ago. LA partisans might prefer a result like the 3-1 win on Nov. 7 that pushed them past San Jose in the playoffs, however.