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.

Bayern signs Germany midfielder Goretzka from rival Schalke

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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich signed Germany midfielder Leon Goretzka on Friday on a free transfer from Bundesliga rival Schalke effective from next season.

Bayern said the 22-year-old Goretzka signed a four-year deal from July 1 through June 2022.

Schalke, which Goretzka joined in 2013 from hometown club Bochum, said the player informed the club this week of his wish to join Bayern when his contract expired.

[ MORE: Bundesliga scores ]

“We think we did everything in the last months to convince Leon to stay with us,” Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel said. “In the end, it wasn’t enough.”

Schalke had long been engaged in trying to get Goretzka to extend his contract, but was aware of reported interest from Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Liverpool.

“We’re very happy that Leon Goretzka, a German international with big potential, has decided in favor of Bayern despite big-name international competitors. This way it’s ensured that Leon Goretzka remains in the Bundesliga,” Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said.

Goretzka scored 19 goals and set up 13 more in 130 appearances for Schalke.

The club had previously expressed its displeasure with Bayern making public statements about its player after Goretzka was praised by sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic and coach Jupp Heynckes.

Heidel said “we don’t need to hear every day from the Munich people how good our player is.”

Goretzka has six goals in 12 games for Germany.

Pele hospitalized overnight in Brazil

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The most famous soccer player in the world had a scare last night as he was hospitalized in Brazil for “severe exhaustion.”

Pele, 77, was set to travel to London this weekend to be honored by the Football Writers Association, though it looks like that trip has now been postponed.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, Pele collapsed and was taken to a hospital in Brazil where he has undergone a series of tests which appear to point to severe exhaustion,” a FWA statement said. “He remains on fluids while doctors monitor his recovery.

“Thankfully, there is no suggestion of anything more serious than exhaustion.”

Here’s to hoping Pele makes a full recovery.

[MORE: USMNT centerback heads to Championship club]

USMNT centerback Carter-Vickers heads to Ipswich Town on loan

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Cameron Carter-Vickers has a new club to call home for the next five months or so after a rough first half of the season.

Tottenham announced Friday morning that it had loaned the U.S. Men’s National Team centerback to Championship club Ipswich Town for the rest of the season. Carter-Vickers spent the first five months of the season at fellow Championship side Sheffield United, starting 17 times though he struggled recently as Sheffield won just one game he played in during the month of December, losing three and drawing one.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Carter-Vickers was then recalled earlier this week and now has a new home with a mid-table Championship club, with a new chance to impress. Hopefully Carter-Vickers can recover his form and continue to grow, potentially latching on to another Premier League side next year or breaking into the Tottenham first team.

There’s another interesting American tie-in to this. Carter-Vickers appears to be a short-term replacement for Ipswich Town’s Tommy Smith, who the club states is headed to join the Colorado Rapids ahead of the 2018 MLS season.

Sanchez, Mkhitaryan transfer still up in the air

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The player-swap/trade/transfer between Arsenal and Manchester United still appears to be heading towards completion, but it was further delayed Friday.

Multiple reports in England state that while Alexis Sanchez seems set to move to Manchester United, Henrik Mkhitaryan has yet to agree to move the other way, as talks between the player’s agent and Arsenal continue. Mkhitaryan was seen training at Manchester United’s practice facility on Friday, and because the latest delay, both players would be unable to debut for their new teams this weekend after missing the Premier League registration deadline.

[MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks]

Arsenal hosts Crystal Palace Manchester United travels to Burnley, both on Saturday at 10 a.m. (Watch Arsenal live on CNBC, Manchester United live on NBCSN, and both live on NBCSports.com)

The London Evening Standard reports that Mkhitaryan would command a $242,000-per-week salary but that as of Friday morning he had yet to undergo a medical for the transfer. Arsenal reportedly still wants a transfer fee included for Sanchez, while Manchester United would prefer to just swap the two players.

It’s also looking as if that won’t be Arsenal’s only business in the transfer market. While it seemed like a far-fetched rumor at first, the links between Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Arsenal have only grown stronger in the past few days, and the Gabon international appears to be in the Gunners sights. It appears that Bordeaux’s young striker Malcolm is now off the table.