The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend.
11) Momentum: Who has it, and who can use it, as the league enters a quiet period?
There is a full slate of matches this holiday weekend in MLS, but the pace slows after that. Only two games take place across the entire league over the first two weeks of June as World Cup qualifying and a round of the US Open Cup takes precedence. Some teams are limping into this break, others will hate to break their stride, and all will keep working furiously to improve on their current position, both on the training ground and in the transfer market.
10) Are narrow fields the new “gridiron lines” of MLS?
They feel like distant memories now, but the widespread sight of American football markings on MLS fields once troubled purists and pundits. Now it seems that snug pitches are the scourge du jour, with visiting teams taking notice of the hemmed-in dimensions conspicuously chosen in Portland and Houston, both home to important matches on Saturday. Could discussion of those venues’ potential advantages prove more distracting than the tight touchlines themselves?
9) Is Marco Di Vaio the answer for the Impact?
Montreal’s truly unique culture has made the Impact’s debut MLS season particularly intriguing, and another layer was added with Thursday’s confirmation that the Italian striker will become the club’s first-ever Designated Player. Coach Jesse Marsch has made his expansion side – who visit Colorado this weekend in the first of three matches before Di Vaio (right) can make his earliest possible debut – tough to play against. Starting on or about June 27, attacking dynamism will be sought from a man who leaves his old club Bologna as a folk hero and a scorer of 142 career goals in Serie A.
8) Are Columbus ready to make their move?
The Crew made a big statement with that 2-0 midweek win in Seattle, running their unbeaten streak to four and offering a glimpse of their dangerous potential as Justin Meram and Emilio Rentería gave the counterattack teeth. They’ll feel confident when their Midwest rivals from Chicago enter Crew Stadium on Saturday night.
7) Meanwhile, what will be the result of the Sounders’ soul searching?
It’s a mark of the expectations, and pressure, around SSFC that two losses and a draw – after a 7-1-1 start – has Sigi Schmid getting downright Biblical, explaining that his club needs to “have a coming to the mountain” after the Crew loss. A road date with revamped, resurgent Chivas USA will test the Rave Green’s fervor nicely.
6) Can D.C. United confirm RFK Stadium’s fortress status with a rivalry win this weekend?
Every time they take the field at their home ground, United players pass a sign reading “Take Back RFK.” With a 5-1-2 mark thus far in 2012, D.C. boss Ben Olsen can credit his troops with following orders and second place in the Eastern Conference is the result. On Saturday New England visit the old bowl, where they’ve snatched their share of results from their I-95 nemeses over the years.
5) Who wants it most when the East’s stragglers lock horns at BMO Field?
The going remains tough in Philadelphia and Toronto, where even their own fans’ passion seems to be hanging heavy around the necks of nearly everyone on these two talented but underachieving rosters. This week’s Amway Canadian Championship success over Vancouver offers TFC yet another useful opportunity to turn the page on a winless start, while the Union are waiting expectantly for such a sign from their 2-6-2 team.
4) What’s it going to take for FC Dallas to break out of their slump?
An undefeated April has given way to a winless May in Frisco, and an injury-ravaged squad which hasn’t won since April 14 is clearly low on confidence heading into a tough trip to Real Salt Lake. Veteran goalscorer Blas Pérez must shake off the missed penalty kick that set the stage for this week’s comeback loss in Chicago.
3) Is it about to go from bad to worse for the depressed Galaxy?
After Wednesday’s gut-punch 3-2 loss to San Jose, the Galaxy have already lost seven matches and only two teams have allowed more goals than the 19 they’ve conceded over 12 games. (LA suffered only five losses in 38 regular season and playoff games en route to their MLS Cup 2011 championship.) Josh Saunders remains out indefinitely, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane have gone away to international duty, and a visit to Houston’s euphoric new stadium awaits on Saturday.
2) Can the “cardiac Quakes” keep it going in KC?
While known for its traditional resistance to statistical breakdowns, soccer – including this MLS season in particular – offers one strong trend: teams that score first usually win. Frank Yallop’s San Jose side, which now leads the league in points, prefers the hard way, though. They’re 3-1-3 when allowing the first goal, a leading indicator of their Goonies-like resilience, to borrow a thought from striker Steven Lenhart. On Sunday they visit suddenly struggling Sporting KC for a match that promises fireworks.
1) Do you trust netminder Andy Gruenebaum enough to hand him the keys to your MLS Fantasy Soccer: Manager lineup?
The Crew’s red-hot shotstopper has made 45 saves and conceded just 12 goals, and despite costing just $4.8 million, has racked up more points (66) than any other goalkeeper. If he maintains this form, he could prove one of the competition’s top bargains this year.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.