The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:
11) Is anyone from the East really capable of troubling the Western elite?
The accordion-like Eastern Conference standings just tightened up again this week, with seven clubs within eight points of new frontrunners Sporting KC, and the race looks set to run down to the wire. Yet all look flawed in one way or another when compared with the Galaxy and their nearest pursuers in the West, fanning concerns about the competitive balance of the playoffs. Can any of them state their case in the final three weeks?
10) Will Sporting Kansas City find the steel they’ve been missing?
Sporting have the talent to make a deep run but to do so, the youngish side will have to figure out the veteran skill of closing out matches and securing results. This weekend KC fly west to the Bay Area for a reasonable test of that progress against the fading, but still feisty, Earthquakes.
9) Can a suddenly-scoring Sébastien Le Toux carry Philadelphia into the postseason, and beyond?
After a breakout 2010 featuring 14 goals, Le Toux found himself seriously snakebit around goal earlier this season, with one score in his first 22 games. Now that drought is just a memory as Philly’s favorite Frenchman has reeled off nine strikes in the Union’s last eight matches, including two textbook finishes in Thursday’s 3-2 win over D.C. United. His coach, Peter Nowak, jokingly credited Le Toux’s resurgence to his entry into “the twitter,” and if he keeps it up against Chivas on Sunday, Union fans will dream of laughing all the way to MLS Cup.
8) How can Ben Olsen improve his young, unsteady back line?
Touching on his team’s inability to win consecutive games this season, United’s leader admitted last week that inconsistency is “a little bit of who we are right now,” and the D.C. defense has epitomized that trait. With Brandon McDonald suspended, Dejan Jakovic battling a hamstring issue and Ethan White fighting through rookie blues after a tough night against the Union, no one but Olsen – and maybe not even him, either – is exactly sure who will anchor the back four in Columbus on Sunday.
7) Can Columbus hang in there?
As if their injury situation and six-game winless skid weren’t tough enough, the Crew had further reason to rue their luck after Wednesday’s 2-1 setback in Kansas City was decided by a tight penalty-kick decision and an own goal. Coach Robert Warzycha must somehow rally the troops, because despite topping the Eastern Conference for weeks this summer, the men in yellow are now at risk of dropping out of the playoff places entirely. Sunday’s home tussle with United, their last regular-season home game, looms large.
6) Did Kyle Beckerman’s stunning headbutt cripple Real Salt Lake’s chances against the Galaxy?
Though it happens to almost everyone at some point in life, RSL’s crucial captain could hardly have picked a worse time to lose his cool when Chicago midfielder Dan Paladini barged into him with a late challenge barely 10 minutes in at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday. Beckerman’s headbutt not only removed him from that match, but also sidelined him for Saturday’s game in LA, a must-win if the Utah side is going to defy the odds and catch the Supporters’ Shield leaders. Others in claret and cobalt will need to step up, big-time.
5) Can John Spencer defy conventional wisdom and steer Portland to a playoff berth?
As a young, uneven expansion side with a tough schedule down the stretch, the Timbers look like the most unlikely member of the wild-card-chasing pack. That Spencer has put his team in a position to contend to the very end is a major talking point in and of itself. On Sunday in Vancouver, PTFC will have to overcome their usual road struggles, the suspension of their influential “Captain Jack” Jewsbury as well as the many intangibles powering the Whitecaps on the debut of their gleaming new home at BC Place.
4) What’s the next twist in the Red Bulls saga?
Amid changes to the club’s name, identity and home stadium, New York has somehow retained a penchant for drama dating back to the MetroStars days and the latest chapter revolves around Rafa Márquez. Is Hans Backe’s team really better off without the league’s third-highest-paid player in the lineup? That’s what many RBNY fans have concluded from recent results and it’s only one of the challenges facing Backe as the squad heads to Toronto.
3) Who’s looking over their shoulder at Chicago?
Even with the league’s massive growth, one reality from the early days of MLS remains: Momentum can be worth more than position at this stage of the season. Few have more of it right now than the Fire, winners of five of their last seven (including their US Open Cup exploits) to bring the playoffs within reach. However, the Open Cup is also complicating preparations for this weekend’s trip to improving Houston, where Frank Klopas may have to rotate his squad to be fresh for next week’s USOC final in Seattle.
2) Have the wheels come off for FC Dallas?
FCD’s long CONCACAF Champions League journey to Panama turned nightmarish on Wednesday as little Tauro FC snatched three goals in the final quarter of an hour for a 5-3 win, Dallas’ sixth and final loss of a sullen September. The faint hopes of gaining a boost from playmaker David Ferreira’s return from injury seem to have been scotched, so it looks like young Brek Shea will have to prove his MLS MVP credentials by dragging his team back to form, starting in the thin air of Colorado on Saturday night.
1) Meanwhile, can Seattle “suck it up” again this weekend in the trip to Gillette Stadium?
Sigi Schmid’s succinct description of the Sounders’ job requirements this week could become a legendary catchphrase if his team can sustain their sterling efforts on all fronts. There are still a few games left to be played, and the Sounders need only glance south to Dallas to see the dangers of accumulated fatigue. Saturday night’s clash with the last-place Revolution might not seem daunting, but it’s another cross-continental flight to meet another physical foe on what will probably be wet, fast artificial turf.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com