Starting XI, Week 27

Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into Week 27

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

11) What sort of fight will the Revolution put up in Portland on Friday?
The weekend’s tablesetter features a team with one of the league’s worst road records visiting a venue that creates perhaps the most intimidating home-field advantage in MLS, but it still figures to be a compelling matchup for “Soccer Night in America.” New England have the big bodies – and brawler’s mentality – to battle the Timbers, and fellow Scottish coaches Steve Nicol and John Spencer should make the postgame press conference entertaining as well.
10) Who’s more fired up for a hot Saturday night at the RioT?
Speaking of firebrand coaches, two more of them will be attendance at Rio Tinto Stadium, where Sporting Kansas City and Peter Vermes will lock horns with Jason Kreis’ Real Salt Lake. Both men have turned to the “us against the world” motivational approach lately, and inspiration may prove decisive in what promises to be a tight, end-to-end contest.
9) Can a “back-to-basics” mentality staunch the bleeding for Chivas USA?
Robin Fraser’s side were torn apart by D.C. United’s counterattacking last week, so the first-year coach has focused on the fundamentals of team defending during training — which might hint at a closed-shop approach in Chicago. But Dominic Oduro and the Fire will be in no mood to settle for yet another draw after a season chock-full of them.
8) With that 13-game winless streak behind them, can San Jose open up the throttle?
Whether it was due to club president David Kaval’s scheduling of a “Burial Party” for his team’s three-month-long skid at Buck Shaw Stadium last Saturday, or simply the Earthquakes’ simpler, sharper play, San Jose’s 2-0 win over Chicago got the gorilla off their backs, and even nudged them back into the playoff discussion. A daunting fall schedule will require the Quakes to regain and maintain full speed if they want it to stay that way.
7) Can D.C. United keep stride without Chris Pontius?
Pontius lost nearly all of 2010 to injury, and his loss became one of the biggest “what-ifs” of United’s nightmare season. Now his club has lost him for another lengthy stint because of a broken leg suffered in the closing stages of possibly the creative left winger’s best game as a professional, DC’s 3-0 demolition of Chivas USA. Coach Ben Olsen needs Santino Quaranta, Austin da Luz or possibly Marc Burch to step up, starting in Seattle on Saturday.
6) And can Seattle get back on track despite a tricky fixture?
United are actually unbeaten in two visits to the Emerald City, thanks in large part to Pontius’ three goals in the ’09 and ’10 barnburners at CenturyLink Field. The Sounders had been building an aura of home invincibility this season, but last week’s quirky loss to RSL has deflated that a bit and Olsen’s road-savvy side will require an improved performance from SSFC.
5) Can Gary Smith and the Rapids turn the page?
Colorado’s coach has approached CONCACAF Champions League more modestly than his counterparts at other MLS clubs, but Tuesday’s 4-1 home thumping at the hands of Mexican outfit Santos Laguna has still got to sting. The challenges posed by juggling domestic and international competitions can be psychological as much as physical and the Mile High Club’s position in the standings is probably not secure enough to allow for a letdown in Toronto on Saturday.
4) How can Hans Backe stop the Red Bulls’ backslide?
The sort of pressure that long haunted San Jose has now settled over New York, where Backe’s squad now gone eight games and more than two months since their last league win. Confident Eastern Conference pacesetters not so long ago, RBNY have now dropped out of the playoff positions entirely and need inspiration from somewhere, be it Backe, Thierry Henry or perhaps the dependable Joel Lindpere.
3) Is FC Dallas a different team without Brek Shea?
Given the young winger’s exhausting August schedule and a gimpy groin that’s probably a byproduct of it, Schellas Hyndman is wise to sit Shea for a bit, though he’d miss this week’s visit by New York anyway because of suspension. Other FCD attackers need to fill the creativity gap left in his wake, and signs of that were not necessarily forthcoming in the Red Stripes’ underwhelming 1-1 draw with Tauro FC in CCL action on Wednesday.  
2) Which listing ship will get back on course when Columbus and Philadelphia clash?
The first 5,000 fans to enter PPL Park on Saturday will receive “rally towels” from a local healthcare provider, an apt door prize given both teams’ need for rapid recovery. Though theirs has featured generally more encouraging showings than New York’s, the undermanned Union’s winless drought has now run to eight games as well, while the Crew find themselves in an alarming three-game drought which has seen 12 goals allowed and one crippling, first-half red card.
1) Who can stop the Galaxy – or for that matter, Bruce Arena?
As if he doesn’t already own enough MLS honors, accolades and hardware, “The Bruce” is about to pass another former US national team boss, Bob Bradley, to climb into second place on the league’s all-time wins list for coaches. Despite encouraging signs at New York last week, Vancouver looks like a long shot to become the first team to beat LA at the Home Depot Center on Saturday – while the list of those picking the Galaxy to roll to another MLS Cup championship just keeps growing.