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Tracking MLS Coach of the Year race: Jason Kreis, Caleb Porter and Oscar Pareja will make this a tough, tough call

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Neither Portland nor Colorado were seen in the MLS playoffs last year. Real Salt Lake was, but all would be forgiven if the Utah club slipped this year, given the roster makeover and the heavy leaning on so many kickers around Rio Tinto yet to reach their 21st birthday.

And yet, those three clubs also happen to occupy the Western Conference’s top three spots at the moment. Whether they keep their spots in the deliciously tight race, all three managers have already had outstanding 2013 campaigns.

It will be very difficult to separate these three … especially since someone like Philadelphia’s John Hackworth could make a late run and have something to say about all this before it’s over.

1. Portland’s Caleb Porter

It’s not just the way Porter has remade the team’s style into something far more watchable in 2013. And it’s not just the way Portland’s first-year manager has turned the Timbers’ win-loss ledger on its ears.

It’s also that Porter (pictured) was pretty much the architect of a roster spruce-up around Jeld-Wen Field. So, positioning his team thusly (most likely as a playoff team, still in reach for Supporters Shield) says good things about one of the best young minds in American soccer coaching.

He’s already gone a long way to making people forget about the 2012 U.S. Olympic fiasco. Porter himself says he learned lessons from all that; it’s really showing now.

2. Colorado’s Oscar Pareja

Forget about how a team that failed to make the playoffs in 2012 has positioned itself for a possible Western Conference crown, already having swiped the treasured Rocky Mountain Cup from Real Salt Lake and still in position to yank Supporters Shield positioning from its Mountain Time Zone rivals, too.

Let’s talk about that jaw-dropping litany of injuries around DSG Park earlier this year; literally half the projected starters were out for extended time, and yet Pareja and his men held things together, rallying to produce points steadily in the summer once young reinforcements had steadied themselves.

And the team is so frightfully young. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin, midfielder Dillon Powers and forward Deshorn Brown are all Rookie of the Year candidates. Defenders Chris Klute and Shane O’Neill would be, too, but each played one game in 2012.

3. Real Salt Lake’s Jason Kreis

What’s the deal with all the young guys in the mountain region? Because like Colorado, Kreis has a bunch of good ones at Real Salt Lake.

The club knew lumps were on the way after moving three respected, well-liked veterans and their salaries in the off-season. But in all honesty, the knocks just never arrived in force. While trusted types like Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and others held their level, Kries helped other veterans, like Ned Grabavoy, find the next level.

But the real achievement was in shepherding the young likes of Olmes Garcia, Luis Gil, Joao Plata, Yordany Alvarez, Sebastian Velasquez and Devon Sandoval, who found their feet quickly as regular, contributing parts around Rio Tinto.

(MORE: Tracking MLS MVP race, from last week’s posts)

(MORE: Tracking MLS Rookie of the Year, from last week’s posts)

Pochettino enjoying best spell of career ahead of massive clash at Man City

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23:  Mauricio Pochettino (R) Manager of Tottenham Hotspur is seen on arrival at the stadium prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park on January 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Mauricio Pochettino is getting ready for one of his biggest matches in charge at Tottenham, but he’s not letting the pressure get to him.

The Spurs’ boss talked down the importance of Sunday’s match against Manchester City (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), and went on to say he is currently having the most enjoyable time of his career.

[ WATCH: Full PL match replays ]

Pochettino has Tottenham sitting second on the table, and they travel to the Etihad this weekend for a clash against fourth-placed Manchester City, who sit one point behind Spurs.

When asked if this weekend’s match could be a decisive result in the title race, Pochettino was unwilling to admit it was anything more than three points in a long campaign. However, when asked about the season as a whole, the Argentinian manager said he was having great fun at White Hart Lane, responding “Is it my most enjoyable time of career? Yes, maybe yes if I’m honest.”

[ MORE: Who are the Premier League title favorites? ]

Pochettino’s work at Tottenham has made him one of the most well-respected managers in the Premier League, with some reports tabbing him as the potential future boss of Manchester United.

Spurs have won six on the spin in all competitions, and will be confident facing a City side they smashed 4-1 earlier this season. With leaders Leicester facing Arsenal on Sunday, Tottenham could see themselves just two points off the pace if results go their way.

Chicharito sidelined two weeks with muscle injury

ROME, ITALY - NOVEMBER 04:  Javier Hernandez of Bayer 04 Leverkusen celebrates after scoring the team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between AS Roma and Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Olimpico Stadium on November 4, 2015 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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Bayer Leverkusen must move forward without their top talisman as Javier Hernandez is out with a muscle injury.

The Mexican international was forced off in the second half of Leverkusen’s midweek loss to Werder Bremen in the German Cup.

[ MORE: Arsenal to play MLS All-Stars ]

Hernandez scored in that Werder Bremen match before getting injured, as the striker has now scored a remarkable 20 goals in his last 18 appearances for Leverkusen.

With a torn muscle fiber in his left glute, Leverkusen boss Rogers Schmidt announced Chicharito could be out for two or even three weeks.

[ RELATED: Messi wins his first La Liga Player of the Month award ]

Including this weekend’s match at Darmstadt, Hernandez will likely miss both matches against Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League as well as a huge Bundesliga clash with Borussia Dortmund.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Manchester United

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  • United 6 points outside the top four
  • Sunderland winless in four
  • MUFC has one loss in 27 vs. SAFC (W20, D6, L1)

Manchester United’s uphill battle for a top-four finish continues on Saturday when the Red Devils travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

United won this fixture in September 3-0 behind goals from Memphis, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Sunderland sit 19th on the table four points from safety as the time has come for Sam Allardyce‘s side to start getting results. Without a win in their last four matches, the Black Cats must turn things around if they want to stay up in the Premier League. Jermain Defoe scored last time out in a draw at Liverpool, and he’ll once again be tasked with finding the back of the net if Sunderland are to win.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League Picks for Week 26 ]

For Manchester United, the pressure is still on Louis Van Gaal as rumors and reports circle linking Jose Mourinho to the job. Fifth on the table and six points behind Manchester City, a top-four finish is slipping away from United if they don’t rattle off a few wins. A late goal at Chelsea last weekend cost the Red Devils all three points, but they’ll look at this matchup against Sunderland as a good opportunity to get a positive result.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce: “Providing chances for Jermain Defoe is critical for us. But our first major problem is that we haven’t kept a clean sheet in nine matches. We need to start putting a zero against us in games and if we start doing that we’ll win more matches. If we win more matches, we’ll get out of trouble.”

United manager Louis van Gaal: “We had lost four matches in a row in December and you see us now. You can only say that we are mentally very strong and that we can cope with the pressure. That is not enough as we have to improve our results and consistency to win a lot of matches in a row. We have to minimize the gap to our competitors.”

Prediction

Sunderland need all the points they can get to try and stay up, but United always seem to cause the Black Cats problems. Jermain Defoe is kept off the board as Louis van Gaal takes the win. Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United.

Costa breaks nose, will be fit to play for “Zorro team” vs. Newcastle

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Diego Costa of Chelsea reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea striker Diego Costa broke his nose in training after a clash of heads, but should be fit to play in Saturday’s match against Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Costa has six goals in his past seven Premier League games as Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 11 in all competitions.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

Manager Guus Hiddink spoke about the injury in his press conference on Friday, saying Costa collided with an Academy player in training. Hiddink said he believes Costa will be ready to play this weekend for his “Zorro team” as Costa joins Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, and Cesar Azpilicueta as Chelsea players to wear a mask this season.

It was not a tough duel but he put his nose on the back of the head of one of the youngsters from the Academy that we like to participate in our training games. He was very unlucky.

They are putting a mask on Diego as well, we are the team with a lot of masks, a Zorro team, and he will come back do some light training this afternoon as he must experience how he is dealing with the form and the fitting of the mask.

Costa scored a stoppage-time equalizer against Manchester United last weekend as Chelsea continue to get results under Guus Hiddink. The Blues are up to 13th on the table, just three points outside the top half.

[ RELATED: Frank Lampard urges Chelsea to sign John Terry ]

Chelsea will look to extend their unbeaten run to 12 matches on Saturday against a Newcastle side that is just one point above the drop and in need of a result.