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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Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday