Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into MLS weekend

1. How will the “also-rans” conclude their campaigns?

Six of this weekend’s contests pit playoff sides against non-qualifiers, the sort of matchups that can play out in a number of directions. While it might seem obvious that the Cup-chasing sides would have far more motivation to perform at their best, those who miss out on the playoff party face a long, long offseason and many prefer to have a satisfying final performance linger in the mind.

2. How now, New York?

What a long, strange year it’s been in Red Bull Country. Fluctuating from imperious frontrunners to drama-plagued underachievers, Han Backe’s side made playoff qualification about as complicated as possible before finally booking their ticket with Thursday night’s 1-0 win over Philadelphia. It’s a hard road from the lower end of the wild card bracket to MLS Cup. And yet, this team is far more talented than the New York squad that did exactly that in 2008.

3. Will C.J. Sapong make a triumphant homecoming to DC — and help keep Sporting tops in the East?

Sporting KC rookie Sapong grew up 40 miles southwest of RFK Stadium and even spent some time in a D.C. United uniform as a guest player for one of the club’s youth academy teams (though not quite enough time to qualify as a Home Grown). On Saturday, he returns as the odds-on frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, and a key cog in Sporting’s efforts to secure a top playoff seed and make a run at MLS Cup. United’s beleaguered back line will not relish defending the big striker.

4. Can Wondo do it again?

Chris Wondolowski, with 15 goals, is one behind D.C.'s Dwayne De Rosario in the race for the Golden Boot. Can the San Jose marksman snag a couple against FC Dallas on Saturday? He scored twice against FCD last time they met. This weekend, the Earthquakes are not playoff-bound, so there is little to play for other than pride and Wondo's Boot chase.

5. What’s in store for the final regular-season MLS match at Robertson Stadium?

The Dynamo will say goodbye — in the regular season, at least — to their atmospheric old venue on Sunday. Though they could play there again, depending on how the weekend shakes out. A win could push Houston up to a higher seed, and could, if results fall favorably, actually give them top spot in the Eastern Conference and homefield advantage through the playoffs. Considering the Galaxy have good reason to rest their marquee players and the fact that the fit and experienced Dynamo are finding a late-season rhythm, don’t be surprised if Houston come up big.

6. Can Dwayne De Rosario buck the odds and earn an MVP nod?

DeRo joined the MLS pantheon of tragic heroes in United’s 1-1 draw with Portland on Wednesday. He shook off ankle and shin injuries to score a goal and threaten on countless near-misses, almost willing his team to the victory they needed. Almost. The Black-and-Red fell short in the end, and history shows that league MVPs invariably come from playoff teams. Yet if anyone can overcome that, it’s De Rosario and his season’s superb second half.

7. How will Landon Donovan’s quadriceps affect the Galaxy’s playoff prospects?

LA’s excellence is no accident: Bruce Arena’s well-constructed, deep side has piled up results even when deprived of their leading lights this year. However, success in the postseason calls for “difference-makers,” and Donovan certainly ranks near the top in that category. On Thursday, he returned to match action for the first time in three weeks, subbing on in the Galaxy’s 1-0 win over Motagua in CCL action. Will he play against Houston on Sunday night? And how quickly can he crank back up to top speed?

8. Will the Whitecaps claim another scalp when the Rapids rumble into BC Place?

No matter what happens in their visit to Vancouver this weekend, Gary Smith and the Rapids will have a chance to defend their MLS Cup title: They have secured a Wild Card berth. Still, the Mile High Club have won just one league match in the past two months, and apparent discontent between Smith and technical director Paul Bravo is surely not helping matters. Meanwhile, the ‘Caps have enjoyed life in their glittering new home — two straight wins — and could make things difficult for the uneven Rapids.

9. Will the Crew sneak into top spot in the East?

Columbus went on a devastating slide in September, failing to win in the month. Yet, after two straight victories in October, they still have a shot to finish first in the East. They take on a Chicago side on Saturday that resurrected their season with a second-half run, just missing out on the playoffs. If the Sporting result goes the right way and the Crew win, Robert Warzycha's side would secure the top spot and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. On the other hand, they could lose, watch Houston win on Sunday, and slide into the Wild Card zone. Either way, the key is striker Andrés Mendoza, who has an outside chance at the Golden Boot if he were to light up the Fire for four goals. 

10. How can Dallas and RSL rediscover the magic?

The sky seemed to be the limit for RSL and FCD a few months ago. But lately RSL — winless in their last five — and Dallas look a great deal more vulnerable than their records indicate. Dallas’ attacking chemistry and decision-making have been sketchy, and Real seem to have forgotten their iron will to win. Saturday’s clashes with San Jose and Portland, respectively, represent one last chance for fine-tuning and form-finding.

11. Who is this year’s MLS Cup dark horse?

The league’s last two champions have been unheralded, to say the least: Both RSL and Colorado qualified for the postseason at the last moment, becoming low seeds who overcame the odds to grab their hardware. Statistical probability would suggest it can’t happen yet again. But the likes of Houston, Columbus and even New York — who, despite their struggles, remain the “best team in MLS history, on paper” — might still fancy their chances. Only time will tell.