David Beckham and Fredy Montero (Starting XI)
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Starting XI: Sizing up Sunday's MLS Conf. Championships

With the playoff field down to four teams, here are the 11 biggest questions going into the conference finals:

11) What’s next for RBNY?

Postseason disappointment has become a fall ritual for New York, and as has been the case so often in the past, many around the club are now bracing for another wave of turnover. A new executive staff already took the reins in New York, Hans Backe's contract has not been extended and only a select few players can be sure they’ll return in 2012

“It’s normal with the Red Bulls, there is changes all the time,” said midfielder Joel Lindpere after Thursday night’s crushing loss to D.C. United.

10) And has the window closed for Real Salt Lake?

The Utah club has developed a keen awareness of the difficulty of building, then maintaining a championship contender, especially within the RSL tradition of thrifty spending and a particular playing style. After the talk of this season being their prime moment, now Real face a delicate, and potentially eventful, offseason.

9) Is anyone really comfortable betting against the champs?

This winding LA season has presented its share of obstacles. But few other teams have figured out the balance between clutch superstars and role players this adeptly and the suffocation of San Jose was a chilling reminder. It’s been said here before, and as long as Bruce Arena is in charge, it’s likely to be said again in the future: At their best, the Galaxy are always a contender.

8) Will anyone from this week’s vanquished teams get a consolation prize from Jurgen Klinsmann?

After taking in the weekend’s club results, the US national team coach will announce his roster for the upcoming friendly in Russia. He’s made clear his intention to leave out players still hunting for the MLS Cup, which should open up a spot or two for those whose season is over.

7) And which venues will get to host the USMNT’s just-announced slate of Hexagonal home games?

The US have a daunting start to next year’s final round of FIFA World Cup qualification, opening with three of their first four matches on the road, including the vaunted visit to Mexico City. That makes it even more important that US Soccer select five domestic locations that will give the team the best possible home-field advantage.

6) Can D.C. really keep this up?

Here’s a puzzler for Central Winger and his fellow metrics gurus: How can United keep losing so many important bodies and still be advancing towards MLS Cup? De Rosario, Woolard, Najar, Korb, Hamid – nearly half the starting lineup has been unavailable to coach Ben Olsen over the past three months, but still the Black-and-Red have found a way.

5) Have the Dynamo built the best home-field advantage in MLS history?

Aside from a summer exhibition match against Spainish side Valencia, Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium has never witnessed a Dynamo defeat. In fact, it hasn’t even seen that many visiting teams score at all, with the Orange allowing just 12 goals in 18 league and playoff games there this year. The near-constant heat and humidity, tightly placed stands and the home team’s bruising mentality have no equal in MLS.

4) Is Sunday’s lineup a tough choice for Sigi Schmid, or a no-brainer?

After struggling to break into a starting role for much of this year, Sounders winger Mario Martínez ended a vexing playoff-series drought with one wondrous stroke of his left foot at Rio Tinto Stadium on Thursday night. It remains to be seen whether his coach looks to him again in LA on Sunday (9 pm ET, ESPN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), or decides that Mauro Rosales’ hamstring has healed enough to make him the first choice at right midfield.

3) Will United’s Houston hex continue?

The Dynamo are very good at home, yet even that doesn’t fully explain D.C.’s uninterrupted tradition of woeful results in the Bayou City. United are 0-8-1 all-time in South Texas. The good news for Olsen and his crew is that they don’t have to win on Sunday (4 pm ET, NBCSN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), with a draw or even a one-goal loss likely to set them up nicely ahead of a week’s rest and the second leg at RFK Stadium.

2) And what about Seattle’s Galaxian mental block?

For one reason or another, the Galaxy have typically gotten the better of their Western Conference counterparts on big occasions, most notably in the 2010 MLS Cup playoffs. But 2012 saw a change, as the Sounders got two wins over the SoCal club. Now, having finally reached an unprecedented stage in the MLS playoffs, the Sounders must now make another leap of similar proportions if they’re to knock off the reinvigorated defending champs.

1) What will you do with your extra time this weekend?

With both conference final leg-one matches on Sunday, for the first time in months there are neither MLS nor international games to take in Friday or Saturday. It’s not quite cold turkey, but it does serve as a reminder to appreciate the final five games of stateside soccer in 2012. Because it’s a long winter ahead.


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