MLS Preview: Chicago Fire vs. Sporting Kansas City

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• Chicago Fire will be without head coach Frank Klopas and defender Bakary Soumaré, both sent off in Saturday’s 2-0 loss to the New England Revolution. For Sporting Kansas City, Kei Kamara’s sprained ankle from earlier this month has not healed yet.

• The all-time series heavily favors Chicago, with a record of 23-12-10, but Kansas City won 2-1 at Toyota Park on July 7, and the teams played to a scoreless tie on March 16, way back at the start of the season.

• Sporting has lost three of its last four games for the second time in 2013. Last time, Kansas City followed up that run with a difficult 1-0 win over Eastern Conference rival Houston Dynamo away from home.

When the Chicago Fire hosts Sporting Kansas City on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), both teams could be fielding second-choice players in attacking spots.

Key Kansas City men Graham Zusi and Kei Kamara are questionable for the match, as is Chicago Fire leading scorer Mike Magee and the club’s second- and third-highest scorers, Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko. As a result, neither club scored in its previous game, a 2-0 loss to the New England Revolution for Chicago and a 1-0 setback against the San Jose Earthquakes for Sporting.

Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen (pictured) has shown his worth as one of MLS’s top shot-stoppers in the past couple seasons, and he will have to be on point again for Kansas City to succeed in a tough Chicago environment. The way the wind whips around Toyota Park can confuse goalkeepers in reading aerial balls, and it can even slow down balls on the ground if it is blowing with enough intensity.

Chicago has lost just that one match in its previous five outings, a run that has seen the Fire draw closer to the line in the standings separating the playoff-bound teams from those whose seasons will end after the regular season. The team just above it, New England, was the one that beat it last week.

Kansas City, meanwhile, has a different goal in mind. Despite its loss last week, Sporting is just three points behind Real Salt Lake in the race for the MLS Supporters’ Shield, tied with the New York Red Bulls, Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers with 38 points.

With both teams fighting for their lives in different respects as the MLS calendar nears its playoff run, it won’t matter which set of players ends up on the field — everybody will be desperate for points.

What they’re saying

Sporting Kansas City defender Seth Sinovic on playing the Fire: “It’s always a tough game against Chicago. It seems to be a battle, a low-scoring game. We took one from them last time we were up there in Chicago, and hopefully, we can get another one this weekend.”

Chicago Fire defender Gonzalo Segares on climbing up the table: “We’re definitely searching for points. Now, we’re in the final stretch of the season, with 12 games left. We’re right there. We’re knocking on the door. We’ve just got to keep pushing. It’s very, very important to get a win this Friday.”

Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes on the Eastern Conference standings: “Usually, the table gets sorted out a little more defined than it is right now. Everybody’s still in play. … A lot of teams are still in it. I think that’s the difference right now.”

Prediction

It’s hard to see a makeshift Fire back line stopping Kansas City from getting through, even without Kei Kamara on the field. Sporting has enough firepower in its second string to take down a lot of first-choice MLS teams — and both teams remember how quickly (inside the first 10 minutes) Kansas City jumped out to a 2-0 lead last time they met. A win here will help Sporting keep pace at the top of the league table.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.