Seattle Sounders v Los Angeles Galaxy - Western Conference Championship - Leg 1

MLS playoffs: Top story lines for the post-season

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Ten quick stories to follow through Major League Soccer’s 18th post-season:

1. Can the Galaxy become the league’s first three-time defending champion?

No team has won three MLS Cups consecutively through 17 previous MLS seasons – and here is LA, standing on two in a row. So much of the Galaxy’s chances will come down to the health of DP center back Omar Gonzalez and DP attacker Landon Donovan, both dealing with injuries. By the way, we’ve heard a lot lately about Mike Magee and about Marco Di Vaio and others … but the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane (pictured) is the best player in the MLS playoffs.

2. Will Landon Donovan’s ankle hold up?

The LA Galaxy star says his ankle, injured back in September, needs about six weeks to completely heal up. But he is soldiering through it. So can the league’s all-time leading scorer make it through the post-season? And what of his effectiveness? Seems like he’s one more ankle knock away from being the “Little Donovan” we saw through parts of 2012 and early 2013, not the “Big Donovan” we saw through so much of the summer.

3. For New York, with Supporters Shield in pocket, a bigger prize awaits

Congrats to the New York Red Bulls, who needed 18 years, 13 managers and hundreds of players to lay hands on the club’s first major trophy (Supporters Shield). While the debate rages about where Supporters Shield compares to MLS Cup on the continuum of league-related accomplishment, perhaps we should also consider this: only six Supporters Shield winners have gone on to win MLS Cup.

4. Red Bull leaders Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill

New York’s first two goals Sunday in an impressive 5-2 win over Chicago said it all: one absolute beauty from the stylish Thierry Henry, and one textbook scrapper via Dax McCarty (that dude should be nicknamed “Scrappy”) and impassioned grinder Tim Cahill. That is the perfect picture of this team’s useful blend under manager Mike Petke of substance and style.

5. Can the Seattle Sounders turn it around?

Seattle’s flailing fall, the team’s stunning late collapse, has been the story of October around MLS. The Sounders will tiptoe quietly into playoffs on the anti-momentum of a seven-game winless streak.

But the phrase most often repeated around MLS through the years is surely this: “You just have to get there; anything can happen in the playoffs.” Sounders manager Sigi Schmid sounded pretty sensitive recently as he defended his team for having arrived safely into the post-season, regardless of having backed in.

Yes, Sigi … you did get in. And credit for that. And now …

source:  6. And can Clint Dempsey contribute to any turnaround?

Clint Dempsey (pictured, left), the league’s highest paid man, a splashy summer addition at CenturyLink Field, was nine games into his second MLS go-round before finally getting a goal last Sunday. Who could have imagined it would take so long? But he did break that doggone seal … so can that be a springboard for more?

7. Are we forgetting about Kansas City?

New York swiped a bunch of the final day headlines, and everyone is all aflutter over the Timbers’ evocative turnaround tale. But can Sporting Kansas City, fronted by U.S. internationals Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, really be so far behind? The team is, after all, 7-1-3 over all competitions since a little dip in mid-August. And lessons have presumably been learned over two close post-season calls of the last two years, right?

8. The compressed playoff schedule

It takes eight months to get into the MLS playoffs. They end for two teams just three or four days later. Within 11 days, six of 10 teams will have been eliminated. That’s too quick! Surely there’s a better way to extend the drama.

9. How will the refereeing hold up?

Refereeing in MLS is a hot topic pretty much every week, so there’s no real reason to expect any difference now. I mean, Pierluigi Collina isn’t coming through the door here, right? MLS officiating keeps slowly improving, but mark this down: There will be a highly controversial moment that helps decide a series. Probably more than one.

10. The dark horse in Utah

How can Real Salt Lake be a dark horse? Jason Kreis team won a league championship not so long back (2009). And they were U.S. Open Cup runner-up this year. Still, RSL has lots of young parts, and they just aren’t as fashionable as a championship favorite. Still, Kreis’ team only finished behind the Timbers (everyone’s favorite now) by a single point.

(MLS Week in Review for Round 35)

(MORE: MLS Eastern Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS Western Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS playoff schedule and TV times)

Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

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?

EFL 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.