The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:
11) Do Sporting Kansas City know that their killer road trip isn’t quite over yet?
The long-awaited debut of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park on Thursday represented a watershed moment for a franchise and its fans, even if both Sporting and the Chicago Fire produced performances that did not quite match the new stadium’s beauty in a 0-0 draw. But SKC must immediately leave their gorgeous home, as a Sunday date in scorching Dallas requires them to hit the road again for their 11th away match of the season. Anything less than total commitment will leave them sitting ducks for an in-form FCD squad.
10) What should Fire fans expect from their 2011 squad?
If you’d offered new coach Frank Klopas and his men a 0-0 road draw before they took to the lush LIVESTRONG pitch to face an extra-motivated Sporting side on an emotional night, they’d probably have taken it gladly. But the way the match unfolded should leave the Fire feeling uncomfortable. The attack still didn’t click, even against 10 men, and late on Bratislav Ristic courted disaster with a lusty tackle on Omar Bravo inside the Chicago penalty box that was ignored by a charitable non-call from referee Michael Kennedy. To craft a winner, Klopas has to blend his team’s disparate traits into a coherent whole — which is looking like a tall task. Sunday’s visit to Columbus will be instructive.
9) Have Columbus replaced LA Galaxy as the new drama capital of MLS?
Speaking of the Crew, who would’ve thought that the “yellow football team” would become such a hotbed of intrigue this season? And on taskmaster coach Robert Warzycha’s watch, no less! The furor around Andrés Mendoza’s decision to ignore Jeff Cunningham and take Wednesday’s penalty kick against Real Salt Lake stunned teammates and fans alike, and is only the latest example of some questionable behavior from the Peruvian DP.
“Between him and the coach, his teammates and the fan base, there seems to be incident around every corner he turns,” Crew technical director Brian Bliss told the Columbus Dispatch afterwards.
Is Mendoza disrupting a solid locker room collective, or adding a spark of unpredictability to a workmanlike unit? The answer may hinge on whether the Crew keep winning games like Wednesday’s.
8) Is anyone going to score at PPL Park on Saturday afternoon?
The league’s top two defenses meet in Chester, Pa., this weekend, and while Real Salt Lake and the Union are both eminently capable of playing slick attacking footie, circumstances may transpire against a barnburner. The forecast calls for warm, muggy weather with thunderstorms lurking, and RSL are at the tail end of a weeklong Eastern road trip that may prompt some tired legs.
7) What is RSL’s mental state at the moment?
Wednesday’s comeback loss in Columbus was the latest of several gut punches for Jason Kreis’ side, whose imperious spring form has faded into memory thanks to injuries, international call-ups — and probably the inescapable gravity of MLS parity as well. It’s so difficult to climb to a dominant position in this evenly matched league, and even harder to maintain it. Can Real regain their stride in Philly, or will the hard-nosed Union land another blow?
6) When are the Rapids going to do something other than draw a match?
Colorado’s recent results chart features more ties than a men’s haberdashery — six straight in league play. Granted, three of those were testing Eastern road matches, but it still adds up to the sort of mediocre form that is probably not good enough for the defending champs, especially given the competitiveness of the Western Conference. Yet Gary Smith would probably be happy with another deadlock at Portland’s JELD-WEN Field this weekend.
5) Will Red Bull Arena turn into a meat grinder on Friday night?
Two longtime regional rivals with undermanned squads, both stuck on winless skids: The weekend appetizer between New York and New England looks like a blood-and-thunder type of match from where we’re standing. It’s up to the likes of Thierry Henry and Revolution forward Rajko Lekic to bring some elegance and guile to this gritty occasion.
4) Is the Jet Leg Effect here to stay?
It’s been discussed at length already, and it remains a powerful predictor of results: MLS squads simply aren’t traveling well over long distances this year. In fact, seven clubs remain winless on the road. D.C. United recently bucked the trend with a win over the Timbers and a creditable 0-0 draw in LA on the same trip, but this week’s contenders are up against it: RSL, San Jose, Toronto and Chivas USA face long journeys to daunting venues.
3) Can the Earthquakes continue their improbable late heroics?
This week, MLSsoccer.com’s Geoff Lepper wrote about San Jose’s penchant for late rallies: Frank Yallop’s side has scored its last nine goals in the final 40 minutes of matches, a major ingredient in their five-game unbeaten streak. These stats suggest admirable levels of spirit and fitness, but this weekend’s visit to face United at a hot, muggy RFK Stadium — where a new playing surface has just been laid — seems like a poor occasion for leaving it late.
2) Will Sounders fans bring the hate when Vancouver visit?
Seattle vs. Portland is a captivating cultural contrast that fuels the Sounders-Timbers rivalry, but there’s a third Cascadia club north of the border, too. Will the Qwest Field legions summon the same enmity when the struggling Whitecaps hit town on Saturday night? They’d better: Vancouver are craving their first win since opening day and the Sounders would be a supremely satisfying scalp for them to snare.
1) Do TFC have a ghost of a chance against LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center?
This week’s “mission impossible” award goes to the Reds, one of the aforementioned teams yet to taste victory away from home, who must face the league-leading Galaxy in Carson, Calif., on Saturday night. The Galaxy are saying all the right things about avoiding complacency in this match, but they’re missing Landon Donovan and Donovan Ricketts as well as Juninho, a pivotal midfield presence who’s getting married back in his native Brazil. It’s still a long shot, to be sure, but don’t write off Toronto just yet.