Strugglers to verge of MLS playoffs: Portland, Colorado, Philadelphia

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The 2012 MLS season was one to forget for the Portland Timbers, Colorado Rapids and the Philadelphia Union.

All three sides finished outside the playoffs and many were questioning what direction the teams were heading in.

Fast forward 12 months… and nobody is debating where all three franchises are heading. Appearances in the 2013 MLS playoffs loom, although all three still have a little way to go to cement their spot.

And after a huge rebuilding process at all three teams, it’s hard not to admire all the hard work put in place to turn their fortunes around.

So let’s take a look at where they stand right now and rate their chances of mounting a series challenge for MLS Cup.

1. PORTLAND TIMBERS

When Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson took over the reigns following John Spencer’s departure, the Timbers were in ruins. Yet 12 months later they’re challenging for the Supporters’ Shield under Caleb Porter. Shrewd trades and transfer, plus Porter’s excellent tactical nous, has seen Portland become of the most exciting teams to watch in the league. Argentine DP Diego Valeri  and captain Will Johnson have been at the heart of everything, but Porter has got the most out of the likes of Rodney Wallace, Ryan Johnson and Darlington Nagbe.  Yet despite their regular-season dominance, the Timbers Army will want to see a good showing in the playoffs as the Rose City club aims to make the MLS playoffs for the first time since they arrived in the league back in 2011. Safe to say, that monumental goal will be reached this season. The big test will be when the playoffs arrive in PDX.

2. COLORADO RAPIDS

Oscar Pareja’s rebuilding of the Rapids has gone incredibly well this season. But last year many questioned whether or not the long-time FC Dallas assistant coach was the right man for the job. A talented core of rookies and academy prospects has been the overriding success story at Dicks Sporting Goods Park. Teenage defender Shane O’Neill, rookies Dillon Powers, Deshorn Brown and Clint Irwin are the pick of the first year MLS players. Pareja’s side gave up plenty of soft goals in 2012 but now they look solid and composed and goals are flying in from plenty of different names. Brown has seven, Harris has five and Powers has four goals. Having the experience of Edson Buddle and Drew Moor around is vital to the young guns down the stretch. The Rapids are on a roll but the playoff success could be a step too far for Pareja’s youngsters.

3. PHILADELPHIA UNION

John Hackworth’s vision for the Philadelphia Union has come to fruition this season. When he took over from Peter Nowak last year, much like Portland putting Wilkinson in charge, many questioned the ambition of the club. But Hackworth’s previous work with the US national teams at youth level helped Philly to develop their strong core of local talent. Young US players like Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams to name a few have all excelled for the Union, who currently sit fourth in the East, five points into the playoffs. Like the Rapids they have experience with Chris Albright, Jeff Parke, Conor Casey and Brian Carroll around. That mix will help them stay in the playoff hunt as the end of the season nears. What happens then is anybody’s guess. But the clubs future dream is to have a starting lineup made up of Philadelphia based players, and Hackworth is the right man to nurture and deliver that. The future, for all three of the mentioned franchises, is looking bright.

Baroni fired by Serie A basement club Benevento

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BENEVENTO, Italy (AP) Benevento fired Marco Baroni and named Roberto De Zerbi its new coach after becoming the first squad in Serie A history to lose its first nine matches of the season.

The southern Italian club is the only team in Europe’s five major leagues without a point.

[ MORE: Ronaldo wins Best Male Player at FIFA awards ]

Benevento also announced it fired sporting director Salvatore Di Somma.

The moves on Monday came a day after a 3-0 home loss to Fiorentina.

The Gazzetta dello Sport reports that Benevento will have to pay Baroni 800,000 euros (nearly $1 million) as part of an anti-firing clause in his contract.

Baroni guided Benevento up from Serie B last season.

De Zerbi last coached Palermo nearly a year ago before being fired by the Sicilian club.

It’s the second coaching change in Serie A this season, after Diego Lopez replaced Massimo Rastelli at Cagliari last week.

MLS Cup Playoffs: Atlanta hosts Crew, Whitecaps take on Earthquakes

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34 rounds of MLS action are in the books, and now the real fun is set to begin this week.

The MLS Cup Playoffs have arrived, and 12 teams are firmly in the running to hoist a trophy in December.

[ MORE: PST talks to Justin Meram ahead of the Crew’s playoff run ]

While Toronto FC, New York City FC, the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers will each have the opportunity to watch the first round from their homes, the action all starts on Wednesday and Thursday.

Here’s a look at what to expect when the knockout round begins.

Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls — Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Fire were one of the most intriguing stories for much of the regular season, but Veljko Paunovic’s side enters the postseason limping. Lucky for them, the Red Bulls have been just as inconsistent throughout the course of 2017 — which already saw Jesse Marsch’s club lose in the U.S. Open Cup final.

Paunovic and Co. have lost eight of their last 15 matches, which doesn’t bode well entering the home stretch of the schedule. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls have won just two of their last 10 matches. The Harrison side should be well-rested though for Wednesday’s encounter after starting a mostly second-tier squad in Sunday’s season finale against D.C. United.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. San Jose Earthquakes — Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. ET

The Whitecaps looked to be a sure-fire club destined for a bye in the first round, but things didn’t fall their way on Decision Day. Now, Carl Robinson’s side faces an Earthquakes side that is simply unpredictable.

The Quakes have the second-worst road record in the Western Conference when it comes to acquiring points — holding eight in points 17 matches. However, Chris Leitch has instilled a new-found belief amongst the squad that gives the California side a puncher’s chance.

Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew — Thursday, 7 p.m. ET

These two sides haven’t met since July 1, so all bets are off about these teams knowing one another. Since that point, Atlanta and Columbus have been two of the hottest sides in MLS and the former moved into a new stadium — which has given opposing sides quite the difficult time.

In their last 10 matches combined, the clubs boast just one loss, which Atlanta suffered at home against Minnesota United. There’s no reason not to expect a great one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC — Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET

Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC side enters the playoffs winless in their last five, while their counterparts are unbeaten in six. The MLS postseason is often about which team is in the best form at the right particular moment, and right now, it doesn’t look like Sporting KC has luck on their side.

It’s also hard to not pay attention to the fact that the Dynamo have lost just once at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2017, which came on September 9 against the Colorado Rapids.

Carabao Cup preview: Man City hosts Wolves, Chelsea meets Everton

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All eyes will remain on the 11 Premier League sides left in this season’s Carabao Cup, but could a potential upset(s) shake the balance of power in the competition?

Norwich City and Leeds United will be among the teams seeking an upset in the tournament as they take on Arsenal and Leicester City, respectively, on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Cristiano Ronaldo captures Best Male Player at FIFA awards ]

Meanwhile, fresh off of Ronald Koeman‘s sacking, Everton must regroup quickly when they head to Stamford Bridge to take on Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea. The Toffees have taken just eight points in their first nine PL matches, leaving the Merseyside club in the relegation zone.

The Blues are aiming for their sixth League Cup title this season, while Manchester United could also achieve the same feat with the crown.

Here’s the slate of matches for the Carabao Cup Round of 16.

Tuesday (All fixtures kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET)

Swansea City vs. Manchester United
Bournemouth vs. Middlesbrough
Bristol City vs. Crystal Palace
Leicester City vs. Leeds United
Arsenal vs. Norwich City
Manchester City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wednesday (All fixtures kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET)

Chelsea vs. Everton
Tottenham Hotspur vs. West Ham United

Report: RBNY midfielder Felipe, NYCFC’s Harrison could play for USMNT

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The U.S. Men’s National Team has seen a rise in dual nationals representing the Stars and Stripes in recent years, and that trend could continue with two of MLS’ most promising midfielders interested in enhancing their international careers.

[ MORE: PST names Best XI for the 2017 MLS season ]

According to MSG Network’s Kristian Dyer, New York Red Bulls midfielder Felipe Martins is in the midst of a finalizing his American citizenship, while New York City FC attacker Jack Harrison has spoken with U.S. Soccer about potentially representing the U.S..

Martins already has his green card — which opened up an international slot for the Red Bulls this season –but obtaining citizenship in the near future would make him eligible for selection for the USMNT ahead of the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle.

The 27-year-old had also previously applied for permanent residency in Canada back in 2013 while Martins was with the Montreal Impact, however, his aspirations to represent the nation never transpired.

Meanwhile, Harrison recently represented the England Under-21s in October, but he too could be on track for U.S. citizenship over the next few years if he remains in MLS.

[ MORE: Justin Meram talks Crew’s good form, facing Atlanta and more ]

In Dyer’s report, he notes the rising interest in Harrison from English clubs, though, and a potential move back to the United Kingdom would hurt the former Manchester United academy member’s chances of joining the USMNT.

Harrison is only in his sophomore season with NYCFC, but the young Englishman has garnered plenty of attention after scoring 14 goals and adding 13 assists thus far for the Bronx side.