MLS preview: New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union

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Saturday’s proceedings at the beautiful ground along the Delaware River means a lot for one team, at least.

Philadelphia has been done since June – and that is no exaggeration. This season went sideways pretty quickly, with manager Peter Nowak gone by June and ugly lawsuits dropping soon thereafter. So they’ve been playing for roster spots for months now at PPL Park.

Quite the contrary situation for New York; Saturday’s contest could significantly swing playoff positioning and, therefore, playoff fate.

Kickoff: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, PPL Park, NBC

(Official league preview is here)

On Philadelphia:

  • The team has so much young talent, so it’s still worth watching. Start with Jack McInerney, who recently turned 20. The future looks splendid for John Hackworth’s young striker, who has eight goals and is finishing strong in his third professional season. (Yes, third; he has 17 when he made his first Union appearance in 2010.) McInerney had scored in four consecutive matches before being blanked (but did nail the post) last week by Eastern Conference champion Kansas City.
  • Unfortunately, two of Hackworth’s most promising young men are doubtful: outside back Sheanon Williams has ankle and Achilles issues and defender Gabriel Farfan has an ankle problem as well. Gabriel’s brother, Micheal Farfan is available. He’s been steady enough as a creative influence this year that Freddy Adu (remember him?) has had trouble getting minutes. Super-sub rookie Antoine Hoppenot has four goals, all off the bench.
  • Adu, by the way, wasn’t in the 18-man game-day roster for the team’s mid-week loss to Sporting Kansas City. That cannot be a good sign for one of U.S. Soccer’s most mercurial figures.

On New York:

  • Leave it to the Red Bulls, a club that looks alternately cursed or mismanaged, depending on the day of the week, to throw a monkey in the wrench when success seems tantalizingly close. Just as the team was steaming into the home stretch, the Red Bull European hierarchy decided the time was right to change out general managers. Sure, why not? Then came curious statements that left coach Hans Backe on unstable footing. Again, why wouldn’t you? I mean, he’s the first coach to guide the team into the playoffs three consecutive years. So, that guy’s gotta go, right?

(MORE: Dax McCarty addresses timing and tumult)

  • The game is critical for playoff positioning. If the Red Bulls lose or tie, they’ll have an extra playoff match to content with – which means one extra chance for the league’s most visible franchise to lose. And it would mean playing Wednesday and then again quickly thereafter. Oh, if they lose or draw and Houston wins New York will travel for that elimination match. The standings are here. The key is avoiding 4th and 5th place; the first three teams dodge that first-round elimination match.
  • Chris Wondolowski is going to win Major League Soccer’s MVP award. But if someone has a competing case, it is surely Thierry Henry (pictured), who has 14 goals and 12 assists. Those numbers are better than Dwayne De Rosario’s from last year (13 and 7), and “De Ro” won league MVP honors. Oh, and some of Henry’s goals this year have been, uh, what’s the word … oh, yes! “Awesome.”
  • With Wilman Conde out for personal reasons and Brandon Barklage injured, looks like Connor Lade, Markus Holgersson, Rafa Marquez and Heath Pearce will be the Red Bull’s back four (right to left). Somewhere in front of them will sit midfielder McCarty, one of the underrated men of MLS this year.

Bottom line:

New York stinks on the road this year (4-7-5, minus-8 goal difference). Don’t be shocked if Philadelphia, decent over the last month as a spoiler, manages a draw or even a win.

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