Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers

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.

Premier League roundup: Foxes, Spurs pace the PL, New club in drop zone

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Riyad Mahrez (R) and Kasper Schmeichel (L) of Leicester City celebrate their team's win in the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Say it again, folks: Leicester City isn’t going away.

The Foxes went into the Etihad Stadium and battered Manchester City on Saturday, and now lead the table by five points. Leicester is ahead of fifth place Manchester United by 13 after a 3-1 win over City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

We also have a new second-placed team, and a new side in the drop zone as well. Let’s run through the eight games we caught Saturday from the United Kingdom.

Manchester City 1-3 Leicester CityRECAP

Robert Hugh scored two goals and Riyad Mahrez had one sandwiched in between as the Foxes continued their surprising run at the top of the league with a comprehensive win over Man City. Sergio Aguero pulled one back late because, well, he’s Sergio Aguero. City blew a big chance to state their title claim.

Stoke City 0-3 Everton – RECAP

Mark Hughes has watched his Potters give up three goals for the third-straight match, and the Potters fell to 1W-1D-3L during the most recent injury absence for Geoff Cameron. Meanwhile, the Toffees got goals from three different players in the first half in moving up the table.

Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Watford – RECAP

Spurs kept knocking, and finally broke through when Dele Alli‘s cross found ex-Burnley back Kieran Trippier. It was a dominant win for the new second-place Spurs, while Watford is 10th.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Norwich City at Villa Park on February 6, 2016 in Birmingham, England.
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Aston Villa 2-0 Norwich City – RECAP

The visitors left Villa Park in the drop zone after falling to goals from veterans Gabriel Agbonlahor and Joleon Lescott. Norwich trails Newcastle by a single point.

Swansea City 1-1 Crystal Palace – RECAP

Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Hennessey were the stars here, though the first bested the latter on an early free kick to make it 1-0. Scott Dann tied it up, and Hennessey made several saves to make sure Palace picked up a point for the first time in six PL matches.

Southampton 1-0 West Ham United – RECAP

Maya Yoshida put Saints up early, and Southampton was able to hold off the Irons despite going down to 10 men thanks to Victor Wanyama‘s sliding takedown of Dimitri Payet in the 53rd minute. Southampton has pulled to within a pair of points of sixth-place West Ham.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at St James' Park on February 6, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
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Newcastle United 1-0 West Bromwich Albion – RECAP

Nothing’s easy for the Magpies, who dominated possession and shot attempts but only beat the Baggies once. The goal belonged to Aleksandar Mitrovic off another slick feed from reenergized Jonjo Shelvey, and the Magpies are one point clear of the drop zone.

Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland – RECAP

Playing without a sick Jurgen Klopp didn’t seem like a problem when Roberto Firmino scored a goal and set up Adam Lallana for another. Sam Allardyce‘s Black Cats provided a shock late, though, as Adam Johnson and Jermain Defoe picked up goals to keep Sunderland within four points of safety.

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 25 15 8 2 47 27 20 7-4-1 8-4-1 53
Tottenham Hotspur 25 13 9 3 45 19 26 7-4-2 6-5-1 48
Manchester City 25 14 5 6 47 26 21 9-1-3 5-4-3 47
Arsenal 24 13 6 5 37 22 15 7-3-2 6-3-3 45
Manchester United 24 11 7 6 31 21 10 6-4-2 5-3-4 40
West Ham United 25 10 9 6 38 29 9 5-5-2 5-4-4 39
Southampton 25 10 7 8 33 24 9 7-2-4 3-5-4 37
Everton 25 8 11 6 46 34 12 4-4-5 4-7-1 35
Liverpool 25 9 8 8 32 36 -4 4-5-3 5-3-5 35
Watford 25 9 6 10 27 27 0 5-3-5 4-3-5 33
Stoke City 25 9 6 10 24 31 -7 5-2-5 4-4-5 33
Crystal Palace 25 9 5 11 26 30 -4 4-2-7 5-3-4 32
Chelsea 24 7 8 9 32 34 -2 4-4-4 3-4-5 29
West Bromwich Albion 25 7 8 10 23 32 -9 4-4-5 3-4-5 29
Bournemouth 24 7 7 10 29 39 -10 3-4-4 4-3-6 28
Swansea City 25 6 9 10 24 33 -9 4-5-4 2-4-6 27
Newcastle United 25 6 6 13 26 44 -18 4-5-4 2-1-9 24

Norwich City 25 6 5 14 28 48 -20 4-3-5 2-2-9 23
Sunderland 25 5 5 15 30 49 -19 3-3-6 2-2-9 20
Aston Villa 25 3 7 15 20 40 -20 2-4-6 1-3-9 16

Official: Vardy rewarded for stellar season with new 3.5-year contract

Leicester’s Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring against Manchester United, his eleventh consecutive goal in the Premier League, during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Manchester United at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. Vardy becomes the first man to score in 11 consecutive English Premier League soccer matches after finding the back of the net against Manchester United today.(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
AP Photo/Rui Vieira
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Jamie Vardy has been handsomely rewarded for his stellar 2015-16 Premier League season, in the form of a brand new three-and-a-half-year contract that will keep the 29-year-old striker at Leicester City until the summer of 2019, the club announced on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

So back off, Chelsea and Liverpool and Manchester City and anyone else who might have dreamt of poaching the 18-goal-scorer (so far) this summer; the Foxes’ star man is staying put.

According to numerous reports, Vardy’s new deal will pay him more than $115,000 per week, nearly doubling his previous $65,000-per-week contract, which he signed at the start of the 2014-15 season.

When you score goals like this, on top of having already broken the Premier League record by scoring a goal in 11 consecutive games, you’re bound be paid like one of the world’s top strikers, which is exactly what Vardy’s been this season.

From non-Football League side Fleetwood Town, to top of the Premier League and title favorites, to financially set for the rest of his life… all in less than 48 months’ time.

Southampton 1-0 West Ham: Yoshida, Saints overcome Wanyama red

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and West Ham United at St Mary's Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Southampton, England.
Charlie Crowhurst / Getty Images
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  • Yoshida strikes early
  • Wanyama sent off for third time this season
  • Another clean sheet for Forster

Maya Yoshida‘s early goal held up despite Saints playing with 10 men for nearly 40 minutes, and Southampton beat visiting West Ham United 1-0 at St. Mary’s on Saturday.

Victor Wanyama took a straight red card for cleaning out Dimitri Payet, but Saints closed down the Hammers to move with two points of the visitors’ sixth place in the Premier League table.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Adrian made sure Saints couldn’t take an early lead as he got vertical to stop Cedric‘s eighth minute header.

He couldn’t stop Yoshida, though, who ran to the door step to finish off a good bit of combination play and suspect West Ham spacing.

Fraser Forster kept up his hot play when he two-handed Winston Reid‘s header of a Payet free kick. A corner kick followed, but merely produced a Saints counter.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Mark Noble slipped Enner Valencia through early in the second half, but a low shot spun right to Forster.

Then Wanyama lost his head, and picked up a straight red card for a sliding through Payet. It was the second-straight fixture between the sides that saw referee Mark Clattenburg send Wanyama off.

Reid and Collins were confused on a Forster goal kick, allowing Shane Long to put a shot over the goal.

An absolutely gorgeous dribble from Oriel Romeu freed up Charlie Austin for a chance to salt it away in the 88th minute, but Austin’s blast flew past the goal.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ranieri refuses to believe Leicester is title favorites, but they are

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The entire globe is talking about Leicester City being the favorites to win the Premier League.

Their manager Claudio Ranieri is having none of it.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Following Leicester’s stunning 3-1 win at fellow title-contenders Manchester City on Saturday the Foxes are five points clear of second-place Tottenham Hotspur.

Ranieri, 64, is refusing to accept his team are the title favorites — bookmakers have slashed their odds on winning the title and now make them the favorites at 13/8 — despite having a sizable lead with 13 games to go.

“I don’t believe them,” Ranieri said. “They said I was first to be sacked! But I hope they are right.”

Up next for Leicester is the small matter of a trip to Arsenal next Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), who will be five points behind the Foxes if they beat Bournemouth on Sunday.

Ranieri spoke to Leicester’s website about his side keeping their focus and keeping their dream alive.

“We know it’s a crazy league. We have to try in this crazy league but there are some big teams who have to win. We enjoy of course and we want to fight, but without pressure. For us it’s important to play and continue in this way because it’s a strange league,” Ranieri said. “We are alive and we want to fight. We go to Arsenal next and I hope we will concentrate as well as we have in the last two matches and continue our dream.”

With a 13-point gap over fifth-placed Manchester United as things stand, Leicester look almost nailed on to at least qualify for the UEFA Champions League which is something they’ve never done before.

A quick reminder of Leicester’s odds of winning the PL title at the start of the season: 5,000/1. If they manage to stay the course and pull this off it would be the biggest shock in PL history. Period.

While all the other title contenders have to play in the Champions League, Europa League and domestic cup competitions, Leicester only has 13 more games this season and that means their players will stay fresh and focused. They have no pressure and are playing with the freedom of a team who have no worries. They ere expected to battle against relegation this season and last year they only escaped the drop with a remarkable run of seven wins in their final nine games. This season it is so completely different.

Don’t listen to Ranieri. They can do this and given City’s stumbling form and Arsenal’s erratic finishing of late, they should be the favorites.