The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend slate of matches:
(11) Can Toronto FC find refuge on home ground?
Aron Winter’s rebuilding side stumbled through April, but showed signs of life in a timely 2-1 win over Houston at BMO Field last weekend. With just one point from their four road games to date, TFC must make BMO a stronghold if they want to improve their 2011 prospects, starting with Chicago’s arrival on Saturday night.
(10) Without Javi, can Real maintain?
Speaking of strongholds, despite the CCL loss, Real Salt Lake’s league home winning streak at Rio Tinto Stadium is very much intact. And with hurt and anger still simmering in the wake of Javier Morales’s serious ankle injury from a regrettable tackle by Chivas USA’s Marcos Mondaini, RSL can be expected to defend “RioT” as fiercely as ever when the Dynamo hit town this weekend. In the long term, the Morales absence calls for “creativity by committee,” if you will. At least RSL’s veteran depth gives Jason Kreis some options.
(9) Where do the Dynamo really stand?
Real’s indignant state could mean another tough road assignment for Houston, who have yet to win on their travels this year. This must be disappointing for head coach Dominic Kinnear, whose teams have always been founded, first and foremost, on resilience. Last year’s losing season was widely written off as an aberration, but the Orange are not quite back to their old selves just yet and they must face the league’s elite -- RSL, New York and LA -- in quick succession over the next two weeks.
(8) Does Sporting KC stand a chance against LA at The Home Depot Center on Saturday?
There’s so much to be excited about in Kansas City: a new identity, a gorgeous new stadium about to debut, a clutch of speedy, skillful attacking players. Yet Sporting find themselves in the Eastern Conference basement at the moment, leaking goals and losing matches. It might not be the ideal time to visit the league frontrunners, but if Peter Vermes gets his tactics right, the pace and movement of KC’s C.J. Sapong, Kei Kamara and the recently-returned Ryan Smith could spring what would be the upset of the season thus far.
(7) Can the Rapids produce another smash-and-grab at RFK?
Colorado and D.C. United matchups were once ruled by one simple law: the home team never lost. But that pattern was turned on its head last year as both sides stunned one another with 1-0 road wins, and Gary Smith’s Rapids will fancy their chances of securing a positive result on United’s turf this weekend. The defending MLS Cup champs are comfortable sitting in and waiting for chances to counter, which could create problems for a DC side which has often struggled to convert long stretches of possession into consistent menace around the opposition’s goal.
(6) Who leads the next crop of creators?
United have been robbed of Branko Boskovic’s quality, Dallas is missing their maestro, David Ferreira, Sounders FC are still steaming about the loss of Steve Zakuani and RSL’s frustrations regarding Morales have already been noted. But the flip side is that these injuries also offer opportunities for others to engineer chances and dictate matches. Rising stars like Chris Pontius, Andy Najar, Marvin Chavez, Brek Shea, Paulo Jr., Brad Evans and others can stake their claims now.
(5) Is Peter Nowak’s Union project proceeding on schedule?
Wednesday’s performance against the LA Galaxy was a largely forgettable one, but Philadelphia was resourceful enough to steal a scarcely-deserved 1-1 draw thanks to Danny Mwanga’s late equalizer. Nowak can be proud of the defensive solidity which has helped Philly climb into second place in the East, but the team’s uncanny ability to eke out results should not excuse their league-worst six goals scored. The Union need to conjure up some creativity this weekend against an FC Dallas team which has shown loads of grit, but limited polish, since losing Ferreira.
(4) Where did all the goals go?
MLS nets rippled with regularity over the first month of the 2011 campaign, paced by several five-goal -- and even a few six-goal -- matches in the early weeks. But the scoring has dried up noticeably. No match this month has featured more than three total goals and last weekend saw three scoreless draws. Perhaps it’s just happenstance, or defensive lessons finally being driven home -- or caution befitting a bigger, more competitive league.
(3) Is Chris Wondolowski heating up?
Last year’s surprise MLS Golden Boot winner grabbed a brace in San Jose’s first win of the season against Dallas on March 26. He didn’t score again until April 23, and it’s no coincidence that the Quakes slumped during the same period. Both team and player alike looked crisp and hungry in Vancouver on Wednesday, where “Wondo” found the winner with a beautiful back-heeled finish. This week, however, he’ll have to elude a well-organized Crew defense.
(2) When will the class of 2011 pass the road test?
The crazed fans from Portland and Vancouver have lived up to expectations and then some. Both expansion sides have enjoyed a massive lift from their home support, only to look like shadows of themselves in unfamiliar locales. This weekend presents the Timbers and Whitecaps with tough, but attainable, away contests: Vancouver jet across the continent to take on New England, while Portland meet hated neighbors Seattle in a must-see Cascadia Cup match at Qwest Field.
(1) Can Sounders and Timbers fans behave themselves in their teams’ first MLS meeting?
Given their fanaticism and long-running animosity, maybe not. But this rivalry – sarcastically dubbed “The Great Hipster Soccer Showdown” by The Wall Street Journal this week – has more wit and wisecracks than violence, and the busloads of Portlanders headed north to Seattle will be eager to prove they can outshout the Sounders fans in their own house. Add in the attacking weapons on both sides, and it points to an enjoyable spectacle for ESPN2’s national TV audience.