Edson Buddle, Nat Borchers

MLS Preview: Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids

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• The Colorado Rapids (12-8-9, 45 points, third place in Western Conference) and Portland Timbers (10-5-14, 43 points, fifth place) are separated by the thinnest of margins in the Major League Soccer standings.

• Both teams explode in the second halves of games, with the Timbers scoring 30 out of 44 (including 14 in the last 15 minutes) and the Rapids putting away 24 out of 37 of their goals in the second period.

• Will Johnson has scored in both meetings between the clubs this year: a 2-2 tie in Denver on March 30 and a 3-0 Timbers win in Portland on June 23.

If the Portland Timbers defeat the Colorado Rapids on Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN), they will vault back into third place in the MLS Western Conference, with a game in hand on the Rapids. With only two wins in its last 10 games, Portland has an opportunity to begin solidifying a playoff spot with less than 10 matches left.

As the Timbers get more players back from injury, they can begin to regain some early-season form that saw them rattle off 15 games without a loss. Will Johnson and Diego Chará are back to marshal the midfield, and Diego Valeri and Jack Jewsbury should be able to play some part on Friday, although head coach Caleb Porter would not say how much after training on Thursday.

Johnson and Chará have been able to rekindle their partnership in the last two games, completing a combined 226 of 255 passes against Chivas USA and Toronto FC.

On the flip side, Colorado has only lost once in its last 12 games, surging up the table after three previous losses in a row left it on the wrong side of the red playoff line in the standings. U.S. 2010 World Cup forward Edson Buddle (pictured) has scored in three of the last four games, taking over some of rookie Deshorn Brown’s burden.

Another rookie, Clint Irwin, has anchored the team in goal, tying the club’s single-season shutout record with 10 after an early injury to Matt Pickens caused a panic in the Mile High City. The Rapids have put together some impressive results during their hot streak, defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy at home and on the road and the Montreal Impact away.

What they’re saying

Timbers midfielder Will Johnson on regaining the team’s form: “We have to be a little more clinical in and around the box — attacking, set pieces. We just don’t seem to have that hunger in front of goal right now, and if you’re going to make mistakes at the back and give up goals, you’re going to lose points.”

Rapids defender Drew Moor on the playoff push: “It’s coming down to the point of the season where we need to show our best because you don’t just want to scrape into the playoffs and not be playing well because the playoffs is a whole different picture. Even in our unbeaten run … I’ve walked off the field thinking we can do more.”

Portland head coach Caleb Porter on climbing the table: “You can be worried so much about what’s beneath you that it starts pulling you down, versus … looking at the teams above you and hunting them. I actually like the position we’re in. I wish we were in a better position, but the fact that we’re in position to make the playoffs — above the red line — and a couple points off the teams that are ahead of us, I think means we’ll be aggressive and hungry.”

Prediction

The MLS season is coming down to the wire, to the point where being in good form actually matters, and Portland and Colorado are heating up — especially the Rapids. Portland is a hostile environment, but if any team in the league right now has a chance to take points at JELD-WEN Field, it’s Oscar Pareja’s men. At the same time, the Timbers are starting to get players back and trying to rebuild its rhythm. However, it’s too soon for Portland to be firing on all cylinders, which Colorado has been doing for the past month.

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.

Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]