Claudio Bieler, Matteo Ferrari

MLS Preview: D.C. United at Sporting Kansas City

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Safe to say that March didn’t get served up as ordered for Sporting Kansas City or for D.C. United, two favorites to claim this year’s Eastern Conference crown.

Sporting KC, whose flag flew high through the last two regular seasons but kept losing wind in the playoffs, took a fresh tactical approach. Minus two of his high-pressure energizers (who left for greener EPL pastures), manager Peter Vermes took his foot off the schematic gas pedal. They now prefer a little more patient possession, a little less go-go-go pressure all over the field.

But the early returns were marginal, just two wins for SKC over five games in March.

That was double D.C. United’s win total (although United played one fewer match.) Still, three wins in nine matches between them is not what anyone expected – and then some. (The MLS standings are here.)

That makes tonight’s match at Sporting Park (a fairly rare Friday kickoff, set for 8:30 p.m. ET) fairly important – as important as April contests can be, considering we are only now at that point where an increasingly early-starting MLS season would have begun in years past.

So, we’ll mark both clubs down as “Works in progress.” And surprisingly so.

D.C. United’s chances didn’t look awesome in this one based on recent trips into the heartland. The Black and Red have not won in Kansas City since 2007, 0-4-3 since then. Yesterday’s news that Dwayne De Rosario will miss the match – yes “De Ro” has been tame in two appearances this year … but still – won’t help a bit. Somewhere in there lurks the 2011 league MVP; the breakout won’t happen in this one, as De Rosario is out with an adductor strain.

Ben Olsen’s team is having trouble scoring goals, with just two so far. Like De Rosario, Chris Pontius has had trouble releasing the hand brake this year (not just unfortunate for United, but for the young attackers ability to get onto Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team radar.)

A night against one of Major League Soccer’s top defenses (guided by newly minted national team man Matt Besler, but strong all the way around), is hardly an opportunity to invigorate an offense. Olsen is likely to add an extra defensive midfielder alongside Perry Kitchen, sitting back in a 4-2-3-1 the way United has in other road matches, looking for a slower, lower-scoring match.

It’s also something Vermes’ teams have found difficult to break down; the SKC manager has even complained about the “bus parking” recently. (Seriously, coach Peter … more “figuring it out,” less belly-aching about it, please.)

It would surely help if Benny Feilhaber can rise the way he did in last week’s two-assist night, as Sporting upended previously unbeaten Montreal. Graham Zusi has been, well, Graham Zusi so far in 2013, looking much like the man who led MLS in assists last year. If Feilhaber can gain the consistency, giving defenses that much more to deal with, SKC should be off and running.

In a lot of ways, this game will be about the clubs’ off-season choices on striker.

United chose to stick with the continually underwhelming Lionard Pajoy, who works hard but has ultimately failed in accomplishing a striker’s main mission, scoring doggone goals! Pajoy has nine in 36 matches with Philadelphia and United over two years. It’s just not good enough; and yet, there he is.

SKC, meanwhile, went out and collected Claudio Bieler. The sample of evidence remains small, but so far so good. The Argentine veteran (pictured above) has three goals in five contests and looks like exactly the right fit – a nice package of skill bundled up with a real strikers’ instinct – to increase the output around teeming Sporting Park.

The Major League Soccer preview is here.

Report: Chelsea making first waves in $88m Bernardo chase

MONACO - NOVEMBER 22:  Bernardo Silva of Monaco  during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between AS Monaco FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC  at Louis II Stadium on November 22, 2016 in Monaco, .  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Monaco has slapped a massive price tag on Bernardo Silva, and The Times says that isn’t stopping Chelsea.

Antonio Conte is trying to land the 22-year-old Portuguese attacker according to the report, which says that the Blues are already chatting up the Ligue 1 outfit.

[ MORE: Wenger’s Sutton pitch worry ]

Silva has six goals and seven assists in France’s top flight this season, adding another three in the UEFA Champions League. He did not appear at EURO 2016 thanks to a hamstring injury, as Portugal won the Henri Delaunay Trophy.

Chelsea is ready to spend $88 million on the right winger, who can also play in a attacking center mid role. From The Times:

Monaco would like to secure a minimum of €80m (£68.4m) for Bernardo, who is comfortable operating on either the left or right wing or as a number 10. With Barcelona, Real Madrid and both Manchester clubs also expressing their interest Monaco, who play Manchester City in the Champions League on Tuesday, believe a money-spinning auction may develop.

Transfer prices can be hard to predict, but is Silva the sort of talent that will tempt nine figures? We’ve been surprised before, and at his age it’s possible, but color us skeptical.

AEK Athens beats Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) AEK Athens defeated Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0 in an ill-tempered game on Sunday that saw 12 yellow cards and two dismissals.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win of season ]

Astrit Ajdarevic scored the only goal in the 34th minute with a free kick that deflected off Olympiakos defender Manuel da Costa.

Olympiakos’ athletic director Francois Modesto was sent to the stands for protesting about the lead-up to AEK’s goal. His team’s central defender Alberto Botia was dismissed after a second yellow card in the 75th for pulling an advancing AEK forward’s jersey.

Despite the defeat, its second of the season, Olympiakos has a 10-point cushion over second-place Panionios, which beat 10-man Iraklis 1-0.

PAOK, a 4-0 winner over Veria, remains in third place, one point ahead of Panathinaikos, which beat Asteras 5-0 on Saturday. AEK is joint fifth with Xanthi.

PSG drops points against Toulouse days after massive UCL win

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 14:  Julian Draxler of Paris Saint-Germain looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and FC Barcelona at Parc des Princes on February 14, 2017 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Just days after its massive (and somewhat unexpected) beatdown of Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain failed to close the gap on league leaders Monaco.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win ]

PSG settled for a 0-0 draw on Sunday at the Parc des Princes against eighth-place Toulouse, leaving the Parisian side three points behind Monaco through 26 rounds of action.

[ MORE: Bielsa returns to Ligue 1 with Lille ]

Despite holding the visitors to just three shots (one on target), Toulouse managed to contain a rampant PSG attack, which posted four goals midweek in their rout of the Blaugrana.

PSG’s first strong chance came in the 14th minute when Lucas Moura’s effort was saved in the bottom corner by goalkeeper Alban Lafont.

Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani may have had the game’s best opportunity to break the deadlock when the Uruguayan attacker struck the post from inside the penalty area.

Unai Emery’s group will be back in action on Feb. 26 when PSG travels to Dimitri Payet and Marseille.

Wenger worried over Sutton’s pitch heading Monday’s clash

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 16:  Pundits Paul Merson (4L) and Matt Le Tissier (2L) take part in a training session alongside Paul Doswell manager of Sutton United (L) and players during a Sutton United FA Cup media day on February 16, 2017 at the Borough Sports Ground in Sutton, Greater London. Sutton United are due to face Arsenal in the Emirates FA Cup Fifth round on 20 February.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The story of Monday’s encounter between Arsenal and fifth-division Sutton United will be whether the minnows can overcome the mighty Gunners.

[ MORE: Mourinho pleased with United’s “attitude” against Blackburn ]

However, Arsene Wenger already fears a bigger challenge within the game, one that concerns his players’ safety.

Sutton’s 5,000-seat Gander Green Lane features an artificial surface, which is largely uncommon for English and most European venues regardless of club standing.

“First of all the pitch. Secondly their enthusiasm. Thirdly that we are not ready mentally for a big fight and think subconsciously that it doesn’t matter,” Wenger said ahead of Monday’s FA Cup meeting in South London.

In preparation for their meeting with the U’s, Wenger had his side train on their own indoor artificial field on Friday.

“Look, ideally we would like to play on a normal pitch. Competition is as well to deal with what you face, and we’ll face an unusual pitch and we’ll have to deal with it,” he said.

“We practice inside [on Friday] because we have an artificial pitch. It’s not the same as it’s a dry pitch, and at Sutton I’ve heard that’s a wet pitch, they water it before the game. So it will be much quicker than what we have.”