Mike Magee-Chicago 4

ProSoccerTalk’s weekly MLS rankings

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Our weekly re-ordering of current quality following 34 rounds of league play. Remember, this is an index that combines where these teams are currently in form, along with considerations of the cumulative season results. (Thus, you might see a team like San Jose, which won’t make the playoffs, ahead of some clubs that probably will be a post-season participant.)

19. D.C. United – It comes to this: beat Houston at RFK Stadium this weekend or United will set a record for fewest wins in a season ever in Major League Soccer.

18. Chivas USA – The Goats can still say a little something about how the playoff race looks; another bad season for the StubHub Center’s second tenant finishes with a visit by Western Conference leading Portland.

17. Toronto FC – Ryan Nelsen’s team got a tough break in a penalty kick decision that was harsh at best, just plain wrong at worst. That was the decider in a 1-0 loss at Chicago.

16. FC Dallas – Good: Schellas Hyndman won his last home game, helping heap misery on the beleaguered Sounders in a 2-0 win in North Texas. Bad: two players nearly came to blows as they left the field at halftime.  Locker room accord? Not around there, apparently.

15. Columbus – The Crew hopes were realistically busted two weeks back, but a close loss at New England officially extinguished the hopes for post-season soccer. Does interim manager Brian Bliss stay around, or will the new ownership look for something more flashy?

14. Philadelphia Union – The Union’s ability to grind out results has not been as fierce over the season’s second half. Prime example: losing a lead at Montreal on Saturday, a result that kept John Hackworth’s team below the playoff red line.

13. Chicago Fire – Mike Magee’s 20th came from the penalty spot, but it was calmly converted by the league MVP candidate (pictured above) and put Chicago closer to the playoffs in a 1-0 win over Toronto FC. Chicago is in (playoff position) at the moment, but the footing is quite dodgy; they may need a result at New York to stay there.

12. Vancouver Whitecaps – Will manager Martin Rennie stay, or does he need to go? And will a season finale at home against the Colorado Rapids have anything to say about it? The Whitecaps, now eliminated, can finish with a winning record, at least. Rennie’s team is 12-12-9 going into the finale.

11. Montreal Impact – Marco Di Vaio’s 20th goal was the equalizer in a comeback win over Philadelphia. Marco Schallibaum’s club can probably sneak into the post-season with a draw Saturday at Canadian rival Toronto, but a win will definitely clinch a berth in the “second season.”

(MORE: MLS Round 34 week in review)

10. Seattle Sounders – The Sounders are in the playoffs, officially clinching late Sunday night. But the moment feels so small because Sigi Schmid and his Sounders backed in (qualifying because San Jose could manage just a draw in Los Angeles.) The Sounders are beat up and reeling, losers of four in a row and winless in six.

9. New England Revolution – Another week, another gutsy result keeps Jay Heaps’ team in the post-season hunt. And whatever we are all saying about 18-year-old Diego Fagundez, whose 12th goal was the huge game-winner Saturday over Columbus, it’s probably not enough.

8. Houston Dynamo – The Dynamo will probably need a victory at D.C. United, or Dominic Kinnear’s team will miss playoff soccer for just the second time in his eight years in Houston. Even a win will not guarantee a spot; Sunday’s 3-0 setback at home (where the Dynamo finished 9-4-4 at their previously impenetrable ground) was a huge blow.

7. San Jose Earthquakes – Alas for the Earthquakes, one of the best teams of MLS over the summer and early fall will not be in the playoffs. Sunday’s 0-0 draw in Los Angeles sealed the bummer deal. Left to sort out now is whether interim manager Mark Watson did enough to retain the position.

6. Colorado Rapids – When the Rapids beat Vancouver on Saturday night (eliminating the Whitecaps from post-season contention), they took a huge step toward securing a playoff spot. When San Jose could do no better than a draw late Sunday in Los Angeles, playoff soccer for the Rapids became a virtual certainty. Deshorn Brown scored again, continuing to solidify his Rookie of the Year case.

5. Real Salt Lake – Jason Kreis’ team has responded fairly admirably to that crushing U.S. Open Cup final loss in Utah. They followed a draw against Dallas (when playing most of the match with 10 men) with Saturday’s scoreless draw at Portland. Interestingly, Kyle Beckerman played along the right, rather than in his usual spot in the middle.

4. LA Galaxy – Bruce Arena had his best team available (at least for the start) of a big match against San Jose. Considering how badly the Earthquakes needed this one, and considering how good San Jose has been in gathering up points over the summer and fall, a 0-0 draw wasn’t bad for the Galaxy. L.A. will miss Juninho (suspended for yellow cards) in this week’s big regular season finales at Seattle, a match that could decide which of those teams finishes third and which finishes in the far less desireable fourth spot.

source: Getty Images3. Sporting Kansas City – Kansas City needs help for a Supporters Shield shot, but Peter Vermes’ team is in the second-best position, at least. If New York hiccups at home against Chicago – not impossible, considering the Fire will feel like post-season elimination is on the line – then SKC can grab the Week 35 Supporters Shield win. It won’t be easy for Vermes (pictured at left) and Co., however; Sporting is at Philadelphia, which will also be desperate for a result.

2. Portland Timbers – A scoreless draw at home means it was “mission accomplished,” for Portland, even if it didn’t feel that way. That single, earned point kept Caleb Porter’s team in the driver’s seat. A win this week at last-place Chivas would give his Timbers a Western Conference title and the conference’s best shot of bringing MLS Cup 2013 to the Rose City.

1. New York Red Bulls – Compared to some other, former Supporters Shield chasers, New York is barreling into the playoffs on a serious upswing. With an impressive 3-0 win (impressive in the result, if not exactly in the method), New York seized the opportunity to grab Supporters Shield with final-day win in New Jersey over Chicago. A draw or even a loss could possibly be enough, but Mike Petke’s team will surely want to keep the momentum going.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

FA Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.

The leading names to take over for Claudio Ranieri

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 07:  FC Internazionale Milano head coach Roberto Mancini looks on during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Empoli FC  at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 7, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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The wounds of Claudio Ranieri‘s firing are still healing, but it’s now up to Leicester City to move on without him. Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell will take over on an interim basis, but they need a permanent replacement.

So who are the early frontrunners?

The early favorite is former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini. The Italian won the league in 2011/12 with City, but was harshly sacked the following season with the club in second place in the Premier League and reaching the FA Cup final. He since has been in charge of Turkish side Galatasaray and also returned to Internazionale where he managed before moving to England. The 50-year-old has been out of a job since departing Inter in August.

After Mancini, the names start to seriously thin out. Alan Pardew is the second-favorite, having been fired in late December with Crystal Palace in a freefall. Frank de Boer is also high on the list, with the Dutchman finding himself on the unemployment list after just 85 days at Inter, sacked after a run of four defeats in five. Former Birmingham City manager Gary Rowett is also mentioned, after he was unexpectedly let go in December with the club 7th in the Championship table.

Even further down the list is Avram Grant, an Israeli who last spent three years in charge of the Ghanan national team and has prior Premier League experience during short stints with Chelsea and West Ham. Mark Warburton has been mentioned, without a job since his hotly contested departure from Rangers earlier this calendar year, with the club saying he resigned after falling well behind Celtic in the title race, but Warburton claiming that was not the case.

While the names mentioned aren’t exactly inspired given Leicester City’s recent history at the top of the Premier League table, the immediate goal is to avoid relegation. Whoever comes in will have the difficult job of following in Ranieri’s footsteps, given his aptitude for charisma and appreciation by fans and the media. If they can do the job, however, they’ll not only write their own names into the Leicester City history books, but also validate the decision by ownership to part ways with the beloved Italian who brought them a title. The board has to get this one right.

17-year-old Donnarumma in contract dispute at AC Milan

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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AC Milan has developed a teenage sensation, but they might not be able to keep him.

Young goalkeeping sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma could find himself on the open market this summer after reports that his agent Mino Raiola has balked at AC Milan’s contract offer.

Donnarumma is just 17 years old and has been hailed as the successor to Gianluigi Buffon’s goalkeeping throne, earning the first-place job at one of Europe’s biggest clubs this season. However, according to Italian publication Calcio Mercato, Milan offered Donnarumma just $2.6 million a year, while Raiola is reportedly seeking twice that.

Milan’s caution is understandable given Donnarumma’s extreme youth at a position that usually sees players rise and fall at a later age, but the teenager has already become a sensation in Italy, and Raiola is looking to capitalize on his popularity.

However, it’s not just sensationalism that Raiola is hoping to pounce on. According to Squawka Statistics’ Performance Index, Donnarumma has performed as the second-best goalkeeper in Serie A this season behind Wojciech Szczesny. If AC Milan doesn’t wish to pay its young star, it’s likely that someone out there will – rather handsomely.

Premier League money could be enticing for both the player and his agent who has already made a fortune negotiating big-money deals for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Mario Balotelli, and plenty others. Manchester City could be after a young goalkeeper to challenge the struggling Claudio Bravo, while the Manchester United sticks could be left vacant if David De Gea ever makes his way to Spain as is annually rumored.

Either way, Donnarumma deserves to be paid, based both on his fantastic performances this season at the San Siro and the subsequent popularity he has gained as the successor to one of the games great goalkeepers.