The top 11 questions heading into the weekend...
11) Who picks up the pieces in Seattle, and how?
Players and coaches talk about “statement games,” usually from the perspective of those on the winning side. Yet sometimes the term can also apply to those who come out second-best – and Thursday night's painful loss in Portland certainly leaves the Sounders looking at an uncertain future. What lies ahead for this expensive, but uneven roster? And will Sigi Schmid be the coach to carry it forward?
10) How can the Timbers surmount their next hump?
First MLS playoff appearance? Check. First playoff win and series win? Check, check. Now Caleb Porter and red-hot PTFC must find a way past Real Salt Lake (first leg Sunday, 9 pm ET, ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes), one of only two teams in the West they have yet to defeat in 2013. Will more of the same be enough to vanquish RSL like it did Seattle, or will Porter hatch another tactical tweak for the Western Conference Championship?
9) What broke RSL's unhappy run of home letdowns?
Speaking of humps, the joy (and a good bit of relief) was palpable at Rio Tinto Stadium after the home side maneuvered past the defending champions LA Galaxy in Thursday’s early match, ending their unwelcome tradition of unsuccessful results in must-win games at the venue. Whether it was skill, bravery, tactics or simply good fortune, that psychological breakthrough opens up a whole new ceiling for the Claret-and-Cobalt.
8) Who's taking the reins in Vancouver?
Whitecaps striker Darren Mattocks roiled the already unsettled waters around the club with some brash remarks on Jamaican TV this week, prompting a less-than-pleased response from the club's front office. And the coach's take? Well, VWFC remain manager-less in the wake of Martin Rennie's departure – and with Frank Yallop snapped up by the Chicago Fire and 'Caps assistant coach Carl Robinson only a write-in candidate at the moment, it's not at all clear who is on the current short list. Whoever gets this gig will have plenty waiting in their inbox upon arrival.
7) What's Yallop's Chicago plan?
The former LA and San Jose honcho is wading into the assets-evaluation process at his new club and, so far at least, sounds cautiously optimistic about the talent he's inherited from Frank Klopas. Whether he builds an “Earthquakes of the Great Lakes” or goes in a new direction entirely, the decisions made at Toyota Park will be fascinating to watch this winter.
6) What's DeRo's destination?
It was strange to see D.C. United, who narrowly avoided setting a league record for scoring futility this season, summarily part ways with the most accomplished attacking dynamo on their roster by declining Dwayne De Rosario's contract option for 2014. Certainly, salary-cap concerns played a part here. The fact remains that the veteran Canadian international could still prove a useful weapon in another team's toolkit next season.
5) Is Houston's hex on Sporting Kansas City still in effect?
Here we go again: For the third straight postseason, Sporting will face the Dynamo. Houston won both previous matchups despite being the lower seed on both occasions, slapping a substantial chip on the collective shoulder of SKC coach Peter Vermes and his squad. An assured display in Saturday's first leg in Houston (2:30 pm ET, NBC, Univision Deportes, RDS2) would lay the groundwork for a curse-breaker.
4) But is the Orange's gas gauge in red “E” territory?
Houston are known for scouring playoff foes into dust, but they're surely feeling a bit ground-down after a simply brutal stretch in their calendar. The team deserve plaudits for their brave matter-of-factness about it – “We always say we rest in the offseason,” noted defender Bobby Boswell – but there's little escaping the dangers inherent in facing a physical side like SKC on such limited rest this weekend.
3) Who's the answer up top for Sporting?
Vermes started five different players in his 4-3-3 formation's three forward slots during the two-game series against New England, than watched as his team's goals came from a center back, a left back and – just when it really, truly mattered most on Wednesday night – Claudio Bieler, the Designated Player who's been relegated to a substitute's role (at best) of late. So who starts on Saturday?
2) Has Omar Cummings earned a start, or is he best as a super sub?
Playoff heroes often arrive from unexpected places and for all his prior success with the Colorado Rapids, Cummings was hardly seen as a leading weapon for the Dynamo just a week or two ago. Witness his modest stat line during an injury-marred regular season: no goals, no assists, one start and three shots on goal in 190 minutes played. But with back-to-back deciders against New York, perhaps he deserves a chance to show what he can contribute over a full 90 minutes.
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1) Kinnear, Vermes, Porter, Kreis: Who's the craftiest coaching mind left in these playoffs?
As the margins for error keep shrinking in the so-called second season, the impact of the managers' decisions and evaluations grows as a direct result. This diverse quartet brings a wide variety of perspectives to the tasks at hand: Now we'll see who can be a difference-maker from the technical area.