The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:
11) Who is ready to shine during United States soccer’s holiday calendar?
Many European leagues go dark during the Christmas/New Year’s Day holiday period. But in England, the pro game hits a fever pitch, shrugging off some of the coldest, nastiest weather of the year to play out a frenetic schedule of match action which has woven itself into the nation’s cultural fabric.
The same can be said about the next fortnight or so on this side of the pond. Thirteen MLS matches will take place over the next five days — often in front of bumper Independence Day weekend crowds — with another packed slate next weekend closely followed by US Open Cup quarterfinals for seven clubs. Hot weather makes it extra-draining, but it’s also a stage where big-game performers earn their keep.
10) Will Colorado extend their dominance of Independence Day?
Watching the Rapids is a holiday institution in the Mile High City. Fourth of July weekend has featured a Colorado home game since the league’s inception — and a massive fireworks show that helps snare some of the club’s biggest-ever attendance figures. Colorado almost always cruise to victory on or around the nation’s birthday, with an 11-2-2 all-time record, spread across occupancy at three different stadia. History does not favor the visiting Houston Dynamo on Sunday.
9) Which returning internationals will make the biggest impact?
The Gold Cup has drawn to a close, bringing relief to MLS coaches who missed key internationals last month. Keep an eye on the likes of Chris Wondolowski and Landon Donovan as they try to lift their clubs upon their return to MLS action.
8) Can D.C. United grab a handful of Philadelphia’s coattails?
There are lots of good matchups across this weekend, but Starting XI is particularly keen on Saturday evening’s I-95 showdown at RFK Stadium. New acquisition Dwayne De Rosario is the talk of the nation’s capital at the moment and the home fans are eager to see if his playmaking skills can unlock a Union back line — though head coach Ben Olsen has noted DeRo’s busy summer to date and may elect to use him as an impact substitute. A United win would make the top of the Eastern Conference standings look nearly as congested as the interstate connecting DC, Philly and New York.
7) Can anyone predict the outcome of Saturday’s decisive Nutrilite Canadian Championship match?
Toronto FC edged Vancouver in their league meeting on Wednesday and would seem to own the edge in their weekend rematch at BMO Field, a reschedule of the second-leg NCC clash that was abandoned after an hour of play due to nasty weather on May 25. Yet the Whitecaps had a surprise lead at that point and are arguably playing better soccer right now, while fragile TFC aren’t quite a convincing bet yet, with new DP signings Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans unavailable for another two weeks. Anyone who says they know how this one will play out is either a liar or a clairvoyant.
6) What’s really on John Spencer’s mind?
The Portland boss has been in fiery form following the Timbers’ 4-0 capitulation in Dallas last week, putting his team through extra work and threatening big changes to his starting lineup when a revitalized Sporting Kansas City hit town on Saturday. Portland haven’t won since May 21, a stretch that includes two losses and a frustrating draw at previously fortress-like JELD-WEN Field. But Spencer’s biggest change may be outside his control: Captain and set-piece maestro Jack Jewsbury is fighting through a hamstring problem that prompted a cortisone shot this week — never a good sign.
5) Will the Red Bulls live up to the hype at Stanford Stadium?
Since their MLS rebirth three years ago, the Earthquakes have hosted “showcase” matches at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum or, in the case of the New York Red Bulls’ visit this week, Stanford Stadium, to accommodate bigger crowds than Buck Shaw Stadium can handle. The cavernous college football facility is a special setting for the illustrious Thierry Henry and his mates — including newcomer Dax McCarty — which raises interest from casual Bay Area soccer fans, but also gives the Quakes an extra bit of motivation.
4) Can the Crew slow down the red-hot Hoops?
As the latest MLSsoccer.com Power Rankings show, FC Dallas are on a major roll. While he’s probably not done tinkering in search of the perfect blend, coach Schellas Hyndman has to be thrilled with his side’s mentality — they’ve won ugly, scrappy 1-0 matches, they’ve won 4-0 barnburners and all sorts in between. But Columbus, the most enigmatic team in the league right now, have the tools needed to keep pace with the Red Stripes and grab a positive result at Pizza Hut Park.
3) How can the Revolution overcome their ghastly history at Rio Tinto?
Two games, two losses, 11 goals allowed, none scored. That’s New England’s track record at Real Salt Lake’s home ground. While there’s no great shame in losing at a venue where the Utah club has been dominant almost from the get-go, the nature of those losses — combined with a 2-0 home loss to a reserve-heavy RSL side in Massachusetts earlier this year — should have Shalrie Joseph & Co. champing at the bit when they visit Real on Monday.
2) Do LA still own the Sounders?
While the Revs’ struggles at RSL make for ugly reading, the Galaxy’s recent mastery of Seattle is all the more galling for the Sounders, because it includes LA’s 3-1 aggregate win in the first round of last year’s MLS Cup playoffs. The Sounders have the wind in their sails thanks to an undefeated June, however, and will be eager to avenge that setback, as well as their opening-day home loss to the Galaxy, when they travel to the Home Depot Center for an Independence Day grudge match.
1) Is Brian Perk ready for his close-up?
The Sounders’ hopes against LA got a major boost when Galaxy goalkeepers began dropping like flies in San Jose last week. First Donovan Ricketts broke his wrist, then backup Josh Saunders was red-carded — which leaves young understudy Perk as LA’s only netminding option (sorry, Mike Magee doesn’t count). The former US youth international is undoubtedly talented, but faces an MLS baptism by fire on Monday.