The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:
11) Who benefits most from Hurricane Irene’s ominous journey north?
The Eastern Seaboard is nervously awaiting the arrival of a massive storm system that’s being described in historical terms and has already influenced MLS. Three games have been postponed, and the LA Galaxy already took advantage of their scotched trip to New York by fielding several starters who otherwise would’ve been rested against Alajuelense in Thursday’s 2-0 CONCACAF Champions League victory. Perhaps the Revolution and Red Bulls in particular will be glad for a little extra time to work on their current issues.
10) Is Labor Day on anyone’s mind?
Others will have their break next week. After a busy August across the league, only two games (RSL vs. Philly and LA vs. SKC) will take place over Labor Day Weekend, giving many MLS players the equivalent of a holiday just before the season’s critical final stretch. Mindful of this, some coaches may urge their squads to up the tempo in Saturday’s action.
9) How will Chicago, Seattle and Dallas balance weekend league action ahead of next Tuesday’s US Open Cup semis?
Sounders FC and the Fire have the benefit of home matches before next week’s USOC semifinals, while FCD must play another tough road match in Kansas City before heading north to face Seattle. Dallas and Seattle have found a decent rhythm amid multiple competitions, while Chicago interim coach Frank Klopas, whose side will host the underdog third-division Richmond Kickers, may elect to prioritize his team’s last shot at 2011 glory and rest a few starters against Colorado on Saturday.
8) When might San Jose switch their focus to regrouping for next year?
Injuries, inconsistency and the family-leave absence of Steven Lenhart have taken a major toll on San Jose, as reflected by a 12-game league winless streak dating back to June 11. Now it appears that recent reinforcement Edmundo Zura, the Ecuadorian just brought in on loan to boost the front line, is well short of fitness and may not be able to provide the instant impact expected. The Quakes are seven points out from the last wild-card playoff berth and coach Frank Yallop might be better served by addressing the foundations of a better 2012.
7) Who will snag homeward-bound gringo Sammy Ochoa?
Chivas USA have sat atop the MLS allocation order for months, and apparently justified passing on the likes of Benny Feilhaber and Freddy Adu because of salary concerns and a desire to bolster their Mexican/SoCal identity. Well, Ochoa could be right in their sweet spot and add a useful bit of attacking nous to the Chivas' playoff push. That said, there are plenty of other MLS teams that could use his skills right now, and there's always the chance he'll fall — or be traded — to a team further down the rankings.
6) Can Portland really kick on and book an unexpected ticket to the postseason?
Call it the Stoke City blueprint: Like the English club, the Timbers enjoy a strong home-field advantage and score most of their goals on set pieces, delivering the ball into dangerous areas where their tall bodies can win headers and second balls. The Timbers’ style is aggressive and uncomplicated — and it’s working. John Spencer’s men have hauled themselves into the playoff picture, and if they make it, they’ll be an awkward opponent for anyone.
5) Is the postponement of Saturday’s Timbers clash at RFK Stadium a boon, or a bummer, for D.C. United?
After Sunday’s disappointing loss in KC, Chris Pontius said he and his mates were eager to wash away the memory this weekend. Yet set-piece challenged United may be thankful to have extra time to prepare for the Timbers’ aerial attack. DC have allowed a league-leading 11 headed goals this year. Ben Olsen & Co. must mend this flaw before it derails their own playoff ambitions.
4) Isn’t it time for Houston to win a road match, too?
The Dynamo might be another stretch-run sleeper, picking up momentum with a five-game unbeaten streak headlined by impressive victories over Seattle and Real Salt Lake. Amazingly, the Orange have hauled themselves into an automatic playoff berth despite remaining winless on the road. With trips to KC, Columbus, Dallas and Portland down the stretch, Houston can’t afford to let this continue. Three points from Saturday’s trip to Vancouver would be a reasonable first step.
3) In what direction are RSL headed?
Losing four of five has left the Real juggernaut somewhat adrift. That stunning 3-2 loss in Houston prompted coach Jason Kreis to speculate darkly about wholesale changes next year, while leading players are urging calm and composure. Salt Lake are still on track to make the playoffs, and as their 2009 MLS Cup title run proved, once you get that far, it’s a whole new ballgame. A road win over Chivas USA this weekend would surely ease Kreis’ stress.
2) Who will win the battle of young guns at Livestrong Sporting Park?
Saturday’s FCD-SKC match might well turn out to be a preview of a higher-stakes meeting at the end of the year. Both squads have shown an ability to play quick, attractive soccer while grinding out results as well. Emerging talents like Brek Shea, Marvin Chávez, C.J. Sapong and Graham Zusi — to name just a few — will look to push the pace, though Dallas legs may be heavy following Thursday’s delayed completion of their CCL match in Toronto.
1) Can the Crew finally find success in the “Sigi Bowl”?
Sigi Schmid led Columbus to the 2008 MLS Cup championship, then pulled up stakes for the Pacific Northwest to take over the expansion Sounders … and has simply owned his old club ever since. This weekend, the Crew travel to Seattle in search of their first-ever win against Seattle and their former boss, giving extra edge to an already-compelling matchup at CenturyLink Field.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @cboehm