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.

FIFA subjects 2026 Morocco World Cup bid to fresh scrutiny

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Morocco’s World Cup bid is facing fresh scrutiny this week with the arrival of another delegation from FIFA after an initial task force found deficiencies in the proposals for the 2026 tournament.

In a downbeat conclusion to the visit by the FIFA inspectors last week, Morocco’s bid leader acknowledged it had to improve the quality of the submission made to FIFA in March because inadequacies were identified by football’s governing body.

[ MORE: UCL semifinals predictions ]

The previously unplanned second inspection of Morocco is an indication of the more rigorous process introduced by FIFA following criticism in 2010 that World Cups were awarded to the riskiest nations in 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar).

There will also be closer scrutiny of human rights of the bidders before the vote on June 13 when Morocco is currently due to be taking on a joint challenge from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Associated Press revealed last week Morocco did not declare its anti-LGBT law to FIFA in the human rights risk assessment included in the bid book. The documents – along with the North American submission – will now be scrutinized for any gaps by human rights experts.

“That process involves an expert third-party assessment of the robustness of the human rights content of both bids that will directly inform the administration’s own evaluation,” Rachel Davis, who sits on FIFA’s human rights advisory board, told the AP.

“We are confident that the process will result in a fair assessment of the human rights situation in all four countries involved in the bids, and a roadmap for how to deal with any deficiencies that FIFA will then require the successful bidder to commit to.”

Davis, who is managing director of the Shift human rights organization, said an evaluation of the human rights in the bidding nations will be included in a report to the FIFA Council, which will also assess the verdict of the evaluation task force. A bid with low scores can be blocked by the council from advancing to a vote of up to 207 football nations at the FIFA Congress on June 13.

While Morocco has said it needs to spend almost $16 billion on infrastructure for the 48-team World Cup, including building or renovating all 14 stadiums, North American does not require any tournament-specific building work. Morocco bid president Moulay Hafid Elalamy said at the end of the FIFA inspection that officials “made some remarks on the conditions of some of the stadiums.”

The new batch of technical staff being deployed from FIFA HQ to Morocco did not make a similar follow-up visit to North America after the task force inspected the rival bid’s facilities this month.

“Following the visit of the 2026 bid evaluation task force to Morocco last week, it was decided to have an additional working visit this week to complement the initial analysis of the task force and clarify some aspects of the bid,” FIFA told the AP.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Watch Live: Everton v. Newcastle

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Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both sitting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream Everton-Newcastle ]

Sam Allardyce and Rafael Benitez have both been around the block a few times but at the moment Allardyce is under pressure and Benitez is working miracles with four wins on the spin as the newly-promoted Magpies have stayed solid defensively all season.

In team news Everton start Tosun, Walcott and Bolasie in attack with Wayne Rooney in midfield.

Newcastle make one change with Islam Slimani making his first start for the Magpies as he comes in for Dwight Gayle.

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UEFA Champions League semifinal predictions

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With the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League to kick off over the next few days, let’s take a look at both games and predict which teams will make it to the final in Kiev on May 26.

[ MORE: Champions League scores

Liverpool or Roma? Real Madrid or Bayern Munich?

Here’s the lowdown as two eagerly anticipated games take center stage across Europe.


Liverpool vs. AS Roma
First leg: Apr. 24, 2:45 p.m. ET at Anfield
Second leg: May 2, 2:45 p.m. ET at Stadio Olimpico

This should be one heck of a tie with defending optional for both teams but both have very different ways of playing. Jurgen Klopp will unleash the fluid trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on an often brittle Roma defense but the Italian giants have a giant in their own up top in the shape of Edin Dzeko. How Virgil Van Dijk and Liverpool’s defense deal with the threat of Dzeko will likely decide the outcome of this game. Liverpool will look to feed off the famous Anfield atmosphere to wrack up a big first leg lead before they head to Roma for Leg 2, and I fancy Salah to blow his old team away in the first leg. Liverpool to advance 4-2 on aggregate.

Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
First leg: Apr. 25, 2:45 p.m. ET at Allianz Arena
Second leg: May 1, 2:45 p.m. ET at Santiago Bernabeu

A proper heavyweight clash as Bayern and Real do battle knowing that whoever wins will be the favorites in the final. Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life (again) after a slow start to this season and Zinedine Zidane’s side made hard work of it against Juventus in the last round but are on course for a third-straight UCL trophy. As for Bayern, they have been in imperious form and you feel like Robert Lewandowski can get the better of Real’s center backs. Expect this to be a tight game with extremely high quality from both teams. Real being at home in the second leg is a big advantage. Real Madrid to advance 3-2 on aggregate. 

Cologne’s Hector extends contract despite likely relegation

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COLOGNE, Germany (AP) Germany defender Jonas Hector has shunned reported interest from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund by extending his contract with Cologne – despite the club’s almost certain relegation from the Bundesliga.

Cologne, eight points from safety with three games remaining, says its 27-year-old captain has signed a two-year extension to 2023 instead of using a release clause in his contract.

Hector, who has been at the club since 2010, says, “It wouldn’t have been a problem to switch to another club after this season but it didn’t feel right for me. I belong to Cologne and want to tackle the new season with the team and the fans behind us.”

Cologne sporting director Armin Veh says Hector’s decision is, “a great signal for the team, the club and our fans.”