Starting XI: Top 11 questions heading into Conference finals

Can Sporting KC defend their house? Can the Galaxy topple RSL?

The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into this weekend’s slate of conference finals.

11) Can Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy top the drama of their heart-stopping MLS Cup 2009 clash when they meet again Sunday?

RSL’s upset, penalty-kick shootout win over LA in that memorable ‘09 title bout brought surprise hardware to the Wasatch Front and crystallized a collective confidence that elevated Jason Kreis and his men into the MLS elite. Meanwhile, the Galaxy felt as if their destiny was denied on that chilly night in Seattle and they’ll relish the chance to take revenge on their own home field.

10) What is David Beckham’s status?

A seemingly innocuous tangle with Dane Richards in the first half of Thursday’s win over New York left the 36-year-old Englishman grimacing in pain for the rest of the night, yet he still gutted out a memorable performance highlighted by the corner kick delivery that created Mike Magee’s goal and calmed jumpy nerves at the Home Depot Center. Will his iron will, perhaps combined with further doses of the smelling salts he was seen sniffing after his knock, be enough to overcome an aching body this weekend?

9) Will Jámison Olave and Nat Borchers heal in time to bolster Real Salt Lake’s defense?

RSL might not have been nearly as ruffled by the Sounders’ desperate waves of attack on Wednesday had they been able to call on even half of their unyielding central defensive duo, both of whom are nursing quadriceps strains sustained in leg 1 of the Seattle series. In 2011, when both halves of “Bor-Lave” start, Salt Lake have a winning record, and when they don’t … they don’t. It’s a safe bet the Utah club’s training staff is working overtime to get them fit for the conference final.

8) Can anyone top Tony Beltran’s acrobatic block of Jeff Parke’s shot on Wednesday?

Sometimes the goal that matters the most is the one that doesn’t go in. As it turned out, Beltran was saving his team’s season when he threw his head in the path of Parke’s goalbound volley in the 36th minute on Wednesday, deflecting it away from an empty net to keep the score at 0-0 as halftime approached. Such plays win championships, and given the conference finals’ array of attacking stars there will probably be further need for defensive heroics.

7) Which of these glittering midfields will win the West?

Sunday’s nightcap in Carson figures to offer up a range of compelling matchups, especially in the center of the park. Javier Morales vs. Juninho, Kyle Beckerman vs. David Beckham, Will Johnson vs. Landon Donovan, Andy Williams vs. Mike Magee: The side at the wrong end of any weaknesses or mismatches can expect them to be exploited in the HDC pressure cooker.

6) Which holding midfielders can deliver the best “water-carrying” under Sunday’s unforgiving spotlight?

Thursday night’s tussle in LA underlined the importance of midfield anchors: The Galaxy keenly felt Juninho’s absence in the early going, while New York looked like a different team after Teemu Tainio’s early departure with a hamstring injury. Now Juninho and Beckerman will be pivotal to their squads’ prospects out West, while the Eastern Conference Championship could hinge on how well the likes of Adam Moffat and Júlio César patrol the spaces in front of their back lines.

5) Can Sporting’s home fans make the difference?

Anyone who remembers Wizards home games at the cavernous Arrowhead Stadium – seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? – probably find the rich playoff atmosphere at Livestrong Sporting Park simply unrecognizable from the old days. The club’s immaculate new digs, snazzy rebranding and jet-fueled young roster have ignited a KC fan base which will surely want to dial up the noise even further when Houston visit on Sunday.

4) Do KC have the mental discipline needed to blunt the Dynamo’s main weapon?

Houston’s set-piece prowess is the worst-kept secret in MLS. However, the Union found out that limiting the concession of fouls and corner kicks against the Orange is harder than it looks on paper, as they allowed themselves to be beaten by Brad Davis’ sterling free-kick service to the many tall heads of his teammates. Kansas City’s back line, especially center backs Matt Besler and Aurélien Collin, must keep their wits about them as they defend Brian Ching and the rest of the Dynamo’s athletic forwards.

3) Might Ching’s rejuvenated playoff mojo prove decisive?

Over the years, Ching has become synonymous with big-game performances – since 2001, he’s taken part in every MLS Cup Playoffs save two – and the big Hawaiian added to his exploits this week with the series-clinching header against Philly, his eighth career postseason goal. He and Davis, two of only four holdovers from the Dynamo’s last championship-winning side in 2007, know what it takes to deliver the goods on this stage and his perceptive assist on Calen Carr’s first-leg strike shows what a bag of tricks he’ll bring to Kansas city this weekend.

2) Who gets the starting nod from Dominic Kinnear: Carr, or Carlo Costly?

Carr and his contributions for Houston, which capped a lengthy recovery from the lingering aftereffects of a concussion, constitute one of the more inspiring backstories of these playoffs. His searing pace enables Kinnear’s system to work at maximum effectiveness and he’s kept Costly, a star brought in for his finishing, in a substitute role thus far. KC will need to prepare for the different looks presented by their contrasting skills.

1) How will Geoff Cameron and the Houston rear guard cope with Sporting’s dynamic forward corps?

With a forward-leaning 4-3-3 shape and an emphasis on the speed and athleticism of Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury, KC boss Peter Vermes has fashioned his young front line into a real force. They are a side capable of punishing any hesitation or disorganization among the Dynamo defense. They’ll also pose danger on set pieces, where Graham Zusi has quietly become a sterling service provider worthy of comparison with Davis.

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.