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Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into MLS weekend

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

11) Are the defending champs getting short shrift in the postseason discussion?

Inconsistent Colorado have been eclipsed by Western rivals LA, Dallas and Seattle this season, in points as well as perception. Victories like last week’s in Philadelphia should sit up and make the rest of the league notice, though. Speed merchants Sanna Nyassi and Omar Cummings have been dynamite up top and goalkeeper Matt Pickens looks capable of carrying his team. Columbus, perhaps the league’s hottest team, will test their credentials at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Friday night.

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10) But who’s willing to bet against Robbie Rogers, Eddie Gaven and the Crew right now?

They’ve won at home, on the road, in defensive standoffs and wide-open goal fests. There’s been locker-room drama as well as admirable team spirit. Through it all, the Columbus Crew have remained at or near the apex of the Eastern Conference table. Wingers Rogers and Gaven are seasoned veterans at age 24 and as they showed in Sandy, Utah, last week, they can wreak havoc on even the best defenses.

9) Can their Emirates Cup win really reignite New York’s title challenge?

Red Bulls defender Tim Ream called Arsenal FC’s preseason tournament “semi-legitimate” this week, but his team undoubtedly needed something to escape their winless rut leading up to the surprising success in London. Image-conscious New York can certainly benefit from a lesson in the values of winning ugly, especially going into Saturday’s road game against Real Salt Lake.

8) Is Jason Kreis overreacting, or is Saturday’s match really a “precipice” for RSL?

Real’s back-to-back losses constitute a serious slump in Kreis’s eyes, who said, “If we lose three straight, it would be devastating” after Wednesday’s 2-0 setback in Kansas City. Is the RSL boss nudging his troops to buckle down, or heaping unnecessary pressure on a side that looked exhausted at times against Sporting? Either way, it makes New York’s visit to Rio Tinto Stadium one to watch this weekend.

7) Can D.C. United netminder Bill Hamid hold his nerve against Toronto FC at RFK Stadium?

Hamid’s call-up for next Wednesday’s friendly against Mexico is one of the most compelling stories of Jurgen Klinsmann’s first US national team roster, with the 20-year-old goalkeeper reacting joyously to the surprise news as the entire DC sports community buzzed. Yet Hamid’s focus can’t waver one bit in United’s must-win match against TFC on Saturday. Those who’ve followed his rise over the past year or two will have few doubts about this one, but it bears noting.

6) Will the thrill of victory help ease TFC’s heavy legs?

With 19 points from 24 league matches, even the hardiest optimists among Reds fans would concede that the playoffs are a distant dream for Toronto. On the other hand, Aron Winter’s revamped side just weathered an intense cross-continental road trip, advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League group stage with a gritty win in distant lands, and should feel bullish about playing the spoiler role down the stretch, starting in DC.

5) Can Diego Chara and the Timbers build on that stunning demolition of the Galaxy?

Wednesday’s 3-0 mauling of the league leaders at JELD-WEN Field stands out as one of the results of the season thus far. Even with their substantial home-field advantage, Portland’s recent form had shown little to suggest they’d be the ones to end LA’s 14-game unbeaten run. Now John Spencer’s squad, which is 1-6-2 away from JELD-WEN, must strive for similar success in San Jose, the first stop on a tough three-game road swing.

4) How will the Galaxy respond to this week’s adversity?

As David Beckham noted, LA’s commendable streak had to end sometime. Now he and his mates must immediately shake off the Portland loss, because a hot, motivated FC Dallas side are dropping into the Home Depot Center on Saturday. A win would draw the visitors level with the Galaxy for top spot in both the Western Conference and overall league standings. LA have been so steady for so long, yet their commanding lead has almost dwindled away. It’s gut-check time in SoCal.

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3) Who is going to finish all those scoring chances for the new-look Fire?

Veterans Pável Pardo and Sebastián Grazzini already look like classy additions to Chicago’s midfield and should prosper in Vancouver on Sunday. But last week, striker Dominic Oduro displayed the wastefulness in front of goal that once led a veteran MLS journalist to compare him to a luxury sports car with no steering wheel. If the Birdman can’t finish for the Fire, coach Frank Klopas must find someone who can.

2) Can Milton Caraglio help the Revolution pull off another Lazarus routine in ’11?

Steve Nicol and the Revs used to make a habit of treading water until late summer, then suddenly find momentum and storm deep into the postseason. That plan isn’t supposed to work anymore, but New England have shown new life over the past fortnight and this week’s capture of Argentinean striker Caraglio, the club’s first-ever Designated Player, could help make the most of a relatively friendly schedule featuring seven of the campaign’s final 12 games at Gillette Stadium.

1) Are Seattle ready for the marathon ahead of them?

Congratulations to the Sounders for reaching the group stage of CONCACAF Champions League — but as their tired bodies are already reminding them, no good deed goes unpunished. League, Cup and international matches will come thick and fast for SSFC now, testing the squad’s depth, fitness and focus. What a huge statement it would be if Seattle could earn a positive result at Livestrong Sporting Park on Saturday, where Kansas City remain unbeaten.

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