Marco Di Vaio (on the right) just completed a rather rare 20-goal season in MLS.

MLS Preview: Philadelphia Union vs. Montréal Impact

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  • Montréal’s regained first place in the Eastern Conference
  • Philadelphia coming off a 5-1 loss; Impact coming off 5-0 win
  • Amobi Okugo suspended; Sheanon Williams to play in the middle

Sporting Kansas City. New York Red Bulls. Philadelphia Union. They’ve all had their chance to take control of the East, and to this point, they’ve all fail. After Saturday’s 5-0 thrashing of Houston, Montréal’s regained the conference’s top spot.

Throughout the summer, as the Impact struggled to keep up their torrid spring pace, the East was there for the taking, yet over the last two weeks — with the conference’s other contenders failing to impress — Marco Schällibaum’s team has regained control. Back-to-back league not only have Montréal two points clear in the East but back on pace for the Supporters’ Shield, the team holding the highest points-per-game mark in MLS.

It’s no coincidence this minor surge has coincided with Argentine midfielder Hernán Bernardello settling into Montréal’s starting XI. As Schällibaum tried a two-striker system through much of the summer, it was unclear why his team had moved away from their effective three-man midfield. Davy Arnaud’s fitness was an excuse, but even after the captain came back, the Impact seemed intent on getting Daniele Paponi to work up top with Marco Di Vaio. In the meantime, the rest of the East caught up and passed Montréal.

Bernardello’s acquisition has moved Montréal back to three in the middle, and although the Impact lost their first match with their new Designated Player in the starting XI (2-1 at Chicago on Aug. 10), they’ve won their last two, with last weekend’s thrashing of the Dynamo portending a possible return to form. Replicating their spring formula, Montréal has lost the possession battle in each of their last two games, relying on a strong defensive shape and opportunistic attacking to reclaim their spot atop the East.

This Jekyll and Hyde, good versus bad Montréal makes the teams’ early meeting that much more instructive. In late May, the Impact scored five times at Stade Saputo, never trailing during their 5-3 win over the Union. That game, however, saw Montréal use their less-effective two-front, starting Andrew Wenger up top with Di Vaio. The Impact handled the Union while using their less effective setup, one they’re unlikely to employ Saturday at PPL Park.

It won’t help the Union that they’re set to be without starting central defender Amobi Okugo, suspended for Saturday’s match. An injured Ray Gaddis may also miss the game, while John Hackworth’s midfield could be without Keon Daniel. Coming off a 5-1 thrashing last week in New England, the Union are destined to have momentum, fitness, and suspensions working against them against Montréal.

With Conor Casey up top and the sometime susceptibility of the Impact’s central defense, Philadelphia have a route to victory. But they are underdogs. Given the state of the conference, the Union should be happy to get a stalemate in lieu of the three points they need to bridge the gap between themselves and Montréal.

What they are saying

Montréal forward Marco Di Vaio: “The next two games won’t be easy, but we have to do more if we want to make the playoffs. We have to pick up points away like we did early this season. It’s very important: it might be the difference between fifth place leading to the wild card game and the top of the table sending us directly into the playoffs.” [source]

Philadelphia head coach John Hackworth, on last week’s result: “It’s tough to move on from that, but we do our video and then our process is that we do move on. So I think from a coaching standpoint and from our staff and from our players, what we’ve all said is that we have to move on, we have to move on.” [source]

Philadelphia right back Sheanon Williams, on playing center back: “I’m comfortable doing it. I’ve done it before and it’s not something that doesn’t come natural. Regardless of where you are on the back four, you should be ready to play all of the positions.”

Prediction

Based on the teams’ first meeting, form, the injury and suspension status of both teams, everything points in Montréal’s favor. Hackworth may have to significantly change things up to protect an already suspect defense from the East’s most prolific attack, potentially slowing the game down to make set pieces decisive. But the pick: Montréal, 3-2.

 

Watford “Behind The Badge” airs third installment; Catch up on Episode 2 here

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Catch up on Watford’s look “Behind The Badge” ahead of Sunday’s third episode of the four-part glimpse into one of the Premier League’s promoted sides.

The Hornets sit 11th, currently 7 points clear of relegation danger, and are giving fans a better idea of what’s been going on at Vicarage Road.

[ MORE: Behind the Badge archive

In an exclusive series, NBC Sports followed around the Hornets in a very similar fashion to HBO’s Hard Knocks which joins the preseason camp of one NFL team each summer.

Below is the schedule for the three remaining episodes on Watford, which you can watch on NBCSN and live online via NBCSports.com in the coming weeks, plus a link to watch episode one in full from last week.


First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Embedded above
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Follow @NicholasMendola

MLS Cup Final preview: Seattle, Toronto battle subzero temps for first Cup

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley walks off the field after a training session, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Toronto, for the MLS Cup soccer championship. Toronto hosts the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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  • First MLS Cup Final for both
  • Sounders all-time 7W-2L-2T
  • TFC joined in 2007, Seattle 2009

It’ll be in the high twenties (-1 Celsius) when Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders kick off the MLS Cup Final on Saturday night in Ontario (Kickoff is Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT).

Combine the visible breath and slight chance of snow with a BMO Field which has been relentlessly loud throughut TFC’s playoff run, and we have the makings of an all-timer.

[ MORE: PST’s MLS Cup roundtable ]

Toronto and Seattle met up at the same venue on July 2, the 1-1 draw perhaps a bit deflated by the absence of Clint Dempsey for Seattle and TFC’s American duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Seattle superstar Nicolas Lodeiro wasn’t there, either, still weeks away from arriving from Boca Juniors.

This is the second MLS Cup Final at BMO Field, after Colorado defeated FC Dallas in 2010. TFC men Drew Moor and Clint Irwin were part of the championship-winning Rapids in that one.

Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris greets fans who gathered to send off the team after MLS soccer training, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Tukwila, Wash. The Sounders were scheduled to travel to Toronto later Wednesday to prepare to face Toronto FC in the MLS Cup Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle’s Jordan Morris (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

[ MORE: PST’s Michael Bradley interview ]

Toronto will bring star power to go with a challenging formation; While accolades rightly go to Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Sebastian Giovinco, the Reds’ 3-5-2 under Greg Vanney features versatile wide men in Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.

Seattle is powered through Nicolas Lodeiro, the ex-Boca Juniors playmaker who has been nearly as effective as Giovinco (albeit with a smaller MLS sample size). Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the ex-TFC man, has been very good at the back, but can the Sounders’ back line handle Altidore and Giovinco?

The metronomes could be the difference. Bradley’s been good for TFC, but Osvaldo Alonso gave an MLS MVP caliber performance this season.

[ MORE: PST talks with Ozzie Alonso ]

What they’re saying

Toronto FC keeper Irwin on the weather: “It’s probably the most difficult part. As a field player, you can move around. You’re warmer, more active. At this point, there’s not much we can do other than bundle up, and I’ll stay moving back there.”

Seattle forward Jordan Morris on Lodeiro“The first thing Lodeiro said to me is, ‘When I get the ball, you just run.’ I think of him like a quarterback.”

Prediction

Look to the engine rooms here. Alonso is a handful and a magnificent passer of the ball. On his day, Bradley is even better. Will it be? Neither player will shirk from pressure. We’re thinking extra time after a 1-1 match. And Toronto’s depth and home field will propel it to a 2-1 win.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester City

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Bacary Sagna of Manchester City clears the ball from Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on December 29, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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  • Man City leads all-time 53W-29D-28L
  • Leicester took 4 of 6 pts last season
  • MCFC won previous four

To cure what ails, Leicester City has to knock off one of the top contenders to its Premier League throne: Manchester City (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. EDT Saturday on NBC and NBCSports.com).

There are some advantages for Leicester, though, as Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero are suspended for their red cards picked up the loss to Chelsea. Pep Guardiola used Pablo Zabaleta next to Fernando in the UCL draw with Celtic, and looks set for the same come Saturday.

Leicester rested the majority of its starters in a 5-0 loss at Porto this week, following up a 2-1 setback at Sunderland that left the champs just two points ahead of the 18th and 19th placed clubs in the PL.

What they’re saying

Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri on the task at hand: “I was waiting for a period like this. Now it’s important to react with a big effort together from the team. That is my focus now. We have to be focused on these matches until Christmas Day. We have to get points. We need points and we have to fight. This part of the season is our key moment. I think every match gives us an opportunity. We have to fight. I repeat, we have to fight.”

Man City’s Pep Guardiola on Zabaleta’s positional change“But I think Pablo Zabaleta can play in the middle – he is very experienced and he can play there as he did very well against Celtic. I think in the last years of his career he’ll play more in the middle and it gives us another option.”

Prediction

As much as the injuries hurt Man City, there’s certain harm in the wounded unit that fell 3-1 to Chelsea. We believe the Foxes will strike, but Kelechi Iheanacho has proven more than a suitable fill-in for Aguero. Man City 2-1.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 15

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Week 15 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 15 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 3-0 West Brom – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 4-1 West Ham – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Leicester City 1-3 Man City – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Swansea City 2-3 Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Watford 0-1 Everton – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Southampton 1-1 Middlesbrough – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Man United 1-2 Tottenham – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Hull City 2-1 Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]