Top five MLS picks on a stacked and packed schedule

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There’s a full schedule of nine MLS matches tonight, and there’s not a barking dog among them.

Eight of the nine come wrapped in intrigue, involving teams that will make the playoffs or still have a legitimate chance of punching their way in. (That is, we’re talking about something beyond the ol’ “mathematical” chance.)

Even the one match involving two sides realistically out of the playoff chase (Toronto at Philadelphia) has some intrigue; Philadelphia remains an interesting team (not to mention a well-supported one) for its young roster. Manager John Hackworth is using the lingering matches of 2012 to further evaluate the wealth of young talent at PPL.

Unless you’ve got all day and all night to watch MLS, you can’t see them all. Here are my top five picks for the afternoon:

1. Portland-Seattle: The Timbers’ season has been reduced to looking for those slivers of silver. “Lining” that is. Little ports of shelter from the storm of a season gone awry for the organization and its passionate supporters. In terms of slivers, a win over rival Seattle and the ability to lay hands on that Cascadia Cup would be a golden one.

Besides, Saturday’s contest from rockin’ and resplendent Jeld-Wen Field is on NBC, so pretty much everyone can see this one.

(MORE: Arlo White preview’s Saturday’s contest at Jeld-Wen)

2. New York-Columbus: Is Federico Higuain the new Thierry Henry? Perhaps the Colombian attacker will never displace “Mr. Arsenal” in terms of marketing appeal; Henry not only has that fabulous club resume, he’s got a World Cup and European Championship attached to his name, as well.

Still, no player was a bigger offensive force in August and into September than Higuain was in Columbus. Along with Jairo Arrieta, another shrewd Crew summer signing, they have propelled the men in yellow right back into the playoff race. This one from Red Bull Arena should be a September dandy.

3. Dallas-Vancouver: Dallas has been reborn during the time of DF. Soon as playmaker David Ferreira got back on the field, a formerly deflated Dallas side began to making a late playoff push. It may still be a bridge too far; we’ll see.

This much seems 100 percent certain: getting into the playoffs almost surely means catching Vancouver, the only team that appears realistically still within reach. And catching those struggling Whitecaps means winning tonight at a sold out FC Dallas Stadium. When it’s all said and done, we may know this one as the match that decided the Western Conference’s fifth and final playoff spot.

(MORE: Noah Davis tells you more about this one)

4. D.C. United-New England: United’s playoff chances took a major blow with Dwayne De Rosario’s season-ending knee injury. But hope persists around RFK, abetted by a fairly soft schedule. To wit: in comes New England tonight, and the hapless Revs are already looking to 2013. (Or, they should be if they aren’t.) If United can stay in the playoff hunt, three points tonight against Jay Heaps’ Revolution is an absolute must.

(Oh, new Revs midfielder Juan Toja might get into this one, so mark that down as another reason to check it out.)

(MORE: Who can step forward in De Ro’s absence?)

5. Chicago-Montreal:  Chicago just keeps quietly climbing the Eastern Conference table, now in second place. Chris Rolfe up front and Arne Friedrich in the back have (also quietly) established themselves as two of the really stable forces around MLS. Meanwhile, expansion Montreal, having a great summer, still has an outside shot at squeezing into post-season matches. The Fire needs a win to apply pressure on Kansas City for the Eastern Conference crown. Montreal needs a win to keep its head above playoff water.

Here is the complete schedule of matches tonight. Enjoy:

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Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alex Sanchez this weekend ]

The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.

Bellerin wants to represent Spain U21s despite Wenger’s wishes

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Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alexis Sanchez over the weekend ]

The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.

“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.

“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”

Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.

Roma boosts bid for 2nd in Serie A by beating Pescara 4-1

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PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.

[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]

Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.

Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.

There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.

Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.

Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.

Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.

Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.

Frank Yallop resigns as Phoenix Rising coach shortly after Drogba arrival

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The timing is a bit sudden and certainly leaves many questions up in the air, but Phoenix Rising will have to look for a new manager.

[ MORE: Chicharito talks heating up with LA FC ]

On Monday, head coach Frank Yallop resigned from his position with the United Soccer League (USL) club less than one day after former Chelsea legend Didier Drogba joined the organization as a player-owner.

With Phoenix seen as one of several lower-level clubs with ambitions of making the leap to MLS over the coming seasons, Yallop’s departure is surely a shock to many.

According to ESPN FC, Rising lead owner Berke Bakay was quite surprised by Yallop’s decision to step down, as was Drogba.

“Didier was as surprised and disappointed as we were that Frank is unable to continue coaching our Club,” Bakay told ESPN FC. “But, we all respect his decision to put his family first.

“Didier’s focus will remain on improving our team as a player and assisting our MLS expansion team ownership group as a co-owner. Frank will be helping with our international search for a new head coach.”

Rick Schantz, the current Rising assistant coach, will head the team’s managerial duties for the interim while the club completes a full search for a new manager.