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Starting XI: Top 11 questions for Week 19 in MLS

The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:

11) Can the Sounders move past that 7-0 pasting from Manchester United in time for next week’s dicey trip to Panama?

The Rave Green have been as hot as any team in the league, but their collective confidence may have taken a hit when Wednesday’s friendly careened out of control in the final stages. But as it turns out, Seattle have this weekend off because Philadelphia’s league visit was rescheduled to allow the Union to take part in the World Football Challenge — a blessing, given next week’s CONCACAF Champions League qualifier against Panamanian club San Francisco. Sigi Schmid really earns his paycheck at times like this.

10) Will Chicago avoid a similar fate?

Saturday’s tilt at Soldier Field is still just a friendly, but the Fire will be keen to keep pace with Manchester United for all 90 minutes. Maybe some old-fashioned Midwestern heat will slow down the Red Devils, whose display of superlative talent in Seattle made a mockery of the term “preseason form.”

9) What benefits can MLS clubs reap from their international friendlies?

Summer visits from top European clubs aren’t a favorite of every MLS coach — see Bruce Arena’s comments from earlier this week — and results like the Seattle-Man. United match can pose problems. But regardless of the score lines, competing against the world’s best gives reserves and youngsters a valuable experience that can help them further down the line, especially if they’re called off the bench to provide depth in league play.

8) Who will make the most of the All-Star break?

We won’t name any names here, but quite a few MLS squads have looked simply knackered lately. Yet league dynamics require them to push through the heat and fatigue, as August has often proved a pivotal period in terms of momentum and playoff positioning. So while many elite players are facing off against English champions Manchester United, their colleagues will be catching their breath at home, looking to regenerate for the stretch run.

7) How will the Rapids overcome the loss of Conor Casey?

Sounders fans still lamenting the loss of Steve Zakuani might call it karmic retribution, but Colorado have every reason to be frustrated by the long-term loss of their talismanic target man to a blown Achilles on CenturyLink Field’s temporary grass surface last weekend. The Rapids rebounded with that impressive 4-1 pounding of the Red Bulls on Wednesday — highlighted by breakout star Sanna Nyassi's hat trick — but Casey’s absence may show its effects further down the line. Caleb Folan should get ample chances to show his worth, starting with the Revolution’s visit on Saturday, but the big Irishman has struggled to duplicate Casey’s goal-scoring prowess and hold-up play all year.

6) Can Aron Winter really make the 4-3-3 work in Toronto?

Based on evidence to date, the answer is no. But the formation is almost sacred in Dutch coaching lore and Winter has essentially turned over his roster in midseason in search of the right pieces. He says he saw positive signs in the 1-0 loss to Dallas, and a trip to steamy Kansas City offers the next test. New DPs Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans will need to be lively to blunt Sporting’s speed and movement.

5) Who will triumph in Saturday’s battle of grinders at Crew Stadium?

They’re not quite mirror images, but Columbus and Portland share plenty of similarities: size, spirit, emphasis on set pieces and hard-nosed coaches preaching a dogged, physical style. Expect blood and thunder when they meet on Saturday, which will make for a battle of attrition given the heat wave that will keep the heat index in the high 90s, even for an 8 pm kickoff.

4) Cunningham Watch: Does Moreno’s record fall this weekend?

There probably won’t be news helicopters hovering overhead or breathless TV reporters milling around outside Crew Stadium to provide live updates, but there are nonetheless plenty of MLS observers anxiously waiting to see if, and when, Jeff Cunningham will break Jaime Moreno’s all-time league scoring record. Last week the Jamaican-born former US international graciously ceded the spotlight to Crew legend Brian McBride on his induction into the club’s Circle of Honor, but Cunningham is due for his own moment in the sun — as is the Columbus attack, which has scored just one goal in the past four matches.

3) Has the Vancouver fiasco placed a valuable chip on RSL’s shoulder?

Real Salt Lake are certified members of the MLS elite, but coach Jason Kreis and his club seem to prefer adversity. Just as he did during his own playing career, Kreis loves to use perceived slights to motivate his squad, so the weekend rainout in Vancouver — where RSL suspected that Monday’s friendly with Manchester City was a higher priority for the Whitecaps than their league clash with Real — may serve him well in the long run. Expect Salt Lake to be fresh and fired up for San Jose’s visit on Saturday.

2) How will Houston reload?

The Dynamo shook things up with their big trade with the Timbers this week, and they’re clearly making room for a significant signing. Houston have managed to clamber within reach of the Eastern Conference leaders despite uncharacteristic inconsistency and a woeful road record, and Dominic Kinnear will be looking for signs of renewal in this weekend’s visit to Chivas USA.

1) What’s the next chapter in the RBNY drama?

New York fans tend to be both demanding and long-suffering, and now they’re practically in open revolt after Wednesday’s clanger in Colorado. The Red Bulls have shown so much promise this season, but they’ve obviously been underachieving for months and troubling questions are being asked about their team spirit. Saturday’s home clash with in-form FC Dallas now looms as a statement game.

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