The top 11 questions heading into the weekend...
11) Are Orlando City ready for MLS – and vice versa?
Congratulations to the fans, players and executives of Major League Soccer's newest member, who have doggedly and efficiently pursued – and now attained – a grand vision many scoffed at when Austin Aztex FC left Central Texas for Central Florida in 2010. Plenty of work remains to be done ahead of their 2015 debut, but don't forget that the rest of the league will also have to face a new opponent – perhaps with some flashy Brazilian flavor – in a subtropical locale.
10) No. 21 is set. Now which contenders are closest to Nos. 22, 23 and 24?
Commissioner Don Garber's specific revelation at the All-Star Game that the league will grow to 24 clubs by the end of the decade has set up an interesting race of sorts between expansion candidates. Who can set their ducks in a row fastest and most neatly? If Miami is generally seen as the frontrunner in the line to follow Orlando, that still leaves ample opportunity for the rest of the chasing pack.
9) Was El Gato the greatest goalkeeper in league history?
Kevin “El Gato” Hartman put down his gloves this week, closing out an illustrious run encompassing two MLS Cups, four clubs and too many statistical achievements to fit in this space. Mike Petke, the coach at his final stop in New York, said, “Kevin deserves to be remembered as one of the all-time greats” in MLS, and it's hard to overstate just how dominant the platinum-blonde shotstopper was in his prime.
8) Who will step up to take Chivas USA to higher ground, and how will they get there?
Say this much for the Goats: It might not have translated into success on the field, but their way of doing things is unique. The club parted company with a starting lineup's worth of players in one fell swoop on Thursday and there is likely to be plenty more comings and goings in the weeks and months to come.
7) Can you spot the future MLS stars battling in the NCAA Tournament?
American soccer's version of March Madness kicked off on college campuses across the nation on Thursday night with the opening round of the NCAA Division I men's soccer championship tournament. The win-or-else games of the next three weeks can become must-see viewing, and careful observers can catch glimpses of the talent that will serve MLS clubs – and the US and Canadian national teams – in the years ahead.
6) Sporting Kansas City's moment of truth is here: Can they beat their bogey?
On Saturday night at Sporting Park (7:30 pm ET, NBCSN, Univision Deportes, TSN2/RDS2 in Canada), the highest surviving seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs get a chance to vanquish the team that knocked them out of the last two postseasons running. With the series aggregate score at 0-0, there's never been a better chance for SKC to exact their revenge on the grizzled Houston Dynamo and book their club's first MLS Cup final trip in almost a decade.
5) But how exactly will that battle be won?
In the past, Houston have soaked up Sporting's pressure, hit them on set pieces and counterattacks and successfully held their ground down the stretch. But the current SKC squad looks every bit as hard-nosed as their Orange tormenters, and both teams' attacks display maddening streakiness. Starting XI expects this cagey series to be decided by a moment or two of individual brilliance from the likes of Boniek Garcia, Soony Saad, Brad Davis or Graham Zusi ... or perhaps even a less expected source.
4) Which injury concerns will get the trainer's nod this weekend?
Houston are sweating over Rico Clark and Will Bruin. Sporting wait to hear about the status of Peterson Joseph and Lawrence Olum. For Real Salt Lake, Álvaro Saborío is a glaring question mark. The Timbers aren't sure how much they'll get from Diego Valeri and his troublesome adductor issue. In games like this, important players tend to produce big moments, the trainer's table can prove almost as pivotal a battleground as the center of midfield.
3) Can RSL tune out the Timbers Army?
The visitors in Sunday night's Western Conference Championship (9 pm ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes) say they're eager to experience the cacophony and hostility of a massive match at JELD-WEN Field. And Jason Kreis and his squad are indeed an experienced, hardened unit. But when the hosts are pushing the tempo, balls are skipping treacherously on rain-slickened synthetic turf and Timber Joey is menacingly revving a chainsaw right behind your goal, keeping your head can get complicated.
2) Who will set the tone in Portland: creators or destroyers?
Down 4-2 on aggregate, the Timbers know they have to get forward and drag the Real backline out of shape. RSL say they can't afford to bunker, and would rather kill off the contest with a goal or two instead. All this suggests that the engine-room duel between Kyle Beckerman, Javi Morales, Will Johnson, Diego Chará and – if he can go – Valeri will be even more decisive than usual. If PTFC lose track of Morales, the curtain could drop early on this one, while Valeri and Johnson combining in and around Zone 14 would portend disaster for the Claret-and-Cobalt.
1) Where will the MLS party camp out in two weeks' time?
MLS Cup isn't just a trophy bout, it's also the centerpiece of a pretty darn good party. Depending on this weekend's results, the final on Dec. 7 could wind up taking place in KC, Portland or Utah. It's only a sideline to the action on the field, but plenty of people around the league are also eager to see which of these three unique venues will get to play host.