The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend.
11) Three rivalry showdowns on one day: Which one will shine the brightest?
If it seems like the “R” word is being tossed around MLS more often these days, it’s no accident. The move to a weighted schedule cut down on travel miles, but it also gave us more than a few extra installments of local and regional grudge matches like Saturday, which features the LA-Chivas USA SuperClasico (10 pm ET, TeleFutura), I-95 antagonism with New York-Philly (2:30 pm ET, ESPN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com) and a Rocky Mountain Cup duel between RSL and the Rapids (10 pm ET, MLS Live).
10) Who can seize, or maintain, momentum in the last round of play before the All-Star break?
Not only are there three big-time rivalry matches, every single one of this weekend’s eight league matches are intra-conference, effectively doubling their value as the season’s second half unfolds. It’s very easy to both gain and lose ground quickly from here on out.
WATCH: Henry’s goal sinks Chicago
9) Did Thierry Henry already score the MLS Goal of the Week winner – and can he do more damage against the Union?
Amid all the hue and cry regarding the early-afternoon start time of Wednesday’s match between the Fire and the Red Bulls, Thierry Henry quieted everyone for at least a moment with his breathtaking half-volley winner, deciding a game of few chances and ending his own 11-week scoring drought with one lash of his supposedly weaker foot. Philadelphia's All-Star defender Carlos Valdés must lead the efforts to stifle similar magic at Red Bull Arena on Saturday afternoon.
8) Will the latest SuperClásico be another shootout, or a defensive grind?
Chivas USA are surely hoping it’ll be the latter. With a measly 12 goals scored, Robin Fraser’s side has little business being in the playoff hunt, but they’re just four back – with three games in hand – of their Home Depot Center hallway rivals, who sit fifth in the West. Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy’s role in all this has earned him an All-Star nod, and he’ll need to be at his best against a red-hot David Beckham.
7) Who can turn things around at Rio Tinto Stadium?
Both Real Salt Lake and Colorado enter the second RMC meeting of the year with just one win in their last five games, and both will have to face their near-neighbors without crucial midfield presences Kyle Beckerman and Jeff Larentowicz, respectively. Interestingly, these clubs’ overall record against one another presently stands dead even at 8-8-7.
6) Can anyone keep in touch with the streaking Earthquakes?
San Jose must visit Vancouver’s BC Place for a tricky clash with the Whitecaps on Sunday evening (7 pm ET, MLS Live). Then the league leaders only have to leave Northern California once in five games between now and Labor Day, which represents a great chance to consolidate their position – and help Chris Wondolowski chase not only another Golden Boot, but also Roy Lassiter’s single-season scoring record.
5) What’s it going to take for New England to snare a positive result in KC?
At their best, Lee Nguyen, Benny Feilhaber and the rest of the Revs have looked every bit as good as, if not better than, those around them in the playoff hunt. The reason they’re not in better shape than they are? The rarity with which they’ve done so away from Massachusetts. This weekend presents a journey to the “Blue Hell” of Livestrong Sporting Park (8:30 pm, MLS Live), another chance to earn just their second road win of the year.
4) Which way is Montreal’s season headed?
Jesse Marsch’s men are an inconsistent bunch, but a postseason berth is not out of reach and the recent injection of overseas acquisitions suggests more is expected. Well, now’s the time for a move. After a daunting trip to Houston on Saturday (8:30 pm ET, TSN in Canada/MLS Live in the US), “L’Impact” host French club Olympique Lyonnais and play four out of their next five league games at home, with a short trip to New England their only road date in August.
WATCH: Wilkinson reacts to latest Timbers’ loss
3) Where’s the “new coach bounce” in Portland?
Toronto and Philly have seen midseason coaching changes pay dividends in the form of renewed hope and improved results. The Timbers, however, are 0-2 since Gavin Wilkinson stepped in as interim boss after John Spencer’s dismissal, and while there have been encouraging signs, chaotic defending remains a bugaboo. All the same, this weekend’s visit to FC Dallas (9 pm ET, MLS Live) is a most winnable matchup for PTFC.
2) Can Brek Shea and FC Dallas figure things out in time to salvage something from a tough 2012?
FCD are part of a three-way logjam at the foot of the league standings, and the stresses of life at that end of the table rose to the surface in the Hoops’ heart-wrenching loss at San Jose. That's when the team’s talismanic winger jawed at coach Schellas Hyndman on his way to the bench, subbed off after another uneven display. It’s been quite a while since we saw a happy, effective Shea. His snakebitten team needs him, pronto.
1) How will D.C. United respond to that 4-0 thrashing in Houston?
A first-half red card to the goalkeeper rarely sets any team up for success. Yet coach Ben Olsen was satisfied with neither his team’s response to Bill Hamid’s ejection nor overall mentality against the marauding Dynamo last week. On Saturday, the Black-and-Red will look to bounce back in Columbus (7:30 pm ET, MLS Live), where they haven’t won in nearly five years, and must do so without Hamid as well as steady defender Robbie Russell.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.