MLS: MLS Cup-Houston Dynamo at Los Angeles Galaxy

ProSoccerTalk’s MLS playoff picks and predictions

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Major League Soccer’s 18th playoff season begins Wednesday. ProSoccerTalk’s writers have a few thoughts on how they might play out:

Who will come out of the East?

Liviu Bird: The New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls have proven that they are actual contenders this year. They have only briefly relinquished first place and deserved to win the Supporters’ Shield.

Kyle Bonn: Sporting KC

With the Red Bulls getting all the attention, Sporting KC quietly won six of their last eight matches, conceding just four goals. For all the goals NY is scoring, KC have it in them to be the team that stops the NY hot streak.

Steve Davis: Sporting Kansas City

I know New York is the hot pick, but SKC has the better defense and better goalkeeper. Plus, lessons learned over the last two years – when good Sporting KC teams got so close – will pay off now.

source:  Richard Farley: New York Red Bulls

As much as I want to pick Kansas City, I think New York has enough to defend that number one spot.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York Red Bulls

Expect Sporting KC and New York to battle it out for the Eastern Conference, but New York gets it done.

Mike Prindiville: New York Red Bulls

I love to watch Sporting KC play and think a potential matchup against NYRB in the Conference Semifinals will be an absolute blockbuster. But as long as the Red Bull’s play up to their potential, they are the superior team.

Who will come out of the West?

Liviu Bird: Portland Timbers

My pick is based on their strong season from start to finish. The turnaround Caleb Porter has engineered is nothing short of sensational, and they are the most consistent team in the league.

Kyle Bonn: LA Galaxy

LA did just enough to get in, and I’ll take experience over youth in crunch time any day of the week.

Steve Davis: L.A. Galaxy

The asterisk here is whether Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez are healthy. If they are, the Galaxy and all that collective playoff knowledge will be hard to beat. Plus, Robbie Keane is the best player in the MLS post-season.

Richard Farley: LA Galaxy

As hard-to-call as the West looks, I’ll take the proven commodity.

Joe Prince-Wright: Portland

I think the Timbers will get it done. Of course they’ve tailed off a bit, but I think they’ll come up big when it matters.

Mike Prindiville: Real Salt Lake

In a wide open and unpredictable West, those who grind the hardest, prevail.

Where we would PREFER to see MLS Cup (based on “best atmosphere,” or “not LA again,” or whatever):

Liviu Bird: Somewhere in Cascadia

Not just because it’s the shortest trip for me — the atmosphere here is the best in the country, and if you want to advertise MLS to the rest of the world, the Timbers Army is probably the best conduit.

Kyle Bonn: New York

What better way to complete the redemption story than in your own house? New York proved this weekend the stadium and atmosphere have what it takes.

source:  Steve Davis: New York

The Big Apple? As Christmas approaches? I mean, it’s so darned romantic! Plus, the Red Bulls were Supporters Shield winners, so there is a beautiful symmetry to it … in addition to all those pretty lights!

Richard Farley: Seattle

It’s all about the numbers. Also, Seattle’s not a bad place to throw a party.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York

It’s about time the Red Bulls won MLS Cup, and I think a sold out RBA would be a great advert for MLS.

Mike Prindiville: New York

A number of other stadiums are considered better atmospheres but to have Red Bull Arena finally filled to capacity and rocking-out for a final would be a thing of beauty.

Where are the dark horse favorites?

Liviu Bird: Seattle

It’s hard to call them dark horses because of the star power on the team, but Seattle could still make a run at the Cup. The Sounders have proven they can beat teams 5-0, be beaten 5-0, and everything in between. Anything can happen in the MLS playoffs.

Kyle Bonn: Portland

It’s not often first-place teams fall under the “dark horse” category, but with everyone off the bandwagon thanks to their poor(er) form down the stretch, they qualify. First order of business in playoffs: don’t lose. They don’t.

Steve Davis: Real Salt Lake

Alvaro Saborio’s scoring rate (52 goals in 97 MLS matches) is prodigious. Nick Rimando is tops in goal. Kyle Beckerman commands that strong midfield and some of those “kids” are going to be something else.  So remind me again why we aren’t talking about this team a little more?

Richard Farley: Portland

Only five losses all year.

Joe Prince-Wright: Colorado Rapids

On their day they can beat anyone in the league. So many good young players, and having come up against Dillon Powers and Tony Cascio in their college days, I know how good those guys are.

Mike Prindiville: Colorado Rapids

Probably the darkest of all dark horses but with Seattle’s poor form, Portland’s playoff inexperience and a little bit of luck, it could happen.

The 18th MLS Cup champion will be …

Liviu Bird: Portland

It’s Portland, for all the reasons I listed above. One final nugget: on only five occasions in 2013 have the Timbers failed to get at least one point on the road and all three at home — and that’s a formula for playoff success if I’ve ever heard one.

Kyle Bonn: LA Galaxy

It’s that experience thing again. So hard to pick against. I know, I know. I hate myself for going here too, but with having put New York out in the semifinals, the Galaxy get it done.

source:  Steve Davis: Sporting Kansas City

The league’s best road team (8-5-4 away in 2013) won’t mind playing in New York, so they’ll get through to the final … and they’ll host MLS Cup in KC.

Richard Farley: LA Galaxy

In the absence of a truly convincing alternative, I’m picking three-peat.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York Red Bulls

I just don’t think the big boys out West, Seattle, LA, and RSL, are in top form heading into the playoffs and the Red Bulls are flying.

Mike Prindiville: New York Red Bulls

The time has come. Mike Petke’s passion and dedication is what this squad has been in dire need of for a long time. Most importantly, this is a team that’s peaking at the right time. The stars have aligned in New York.

(MORE: Are there too many playoff teams?)

(MORE: MLS playoff schedule and TV times)

(MORE: Top story lines for the MLS playoffs)

(MORE: MLS Week in Review for Round 35)

(MORE: MLS Eastern Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS Western Conference playoffs are set)

Copa America trip helped convince Lodeiro of Sounders move

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 22: Nicolas Lodeiro #10 of the Seattle Sounders gets control of the ball during a match against the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of the Western Conference Finals at CenturyLink Field on November 22, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Sounders won the match 2-1. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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Nicolas Loderio is getting set to play in the MLS Cup finals, something that only came to pass with a team visit to the United States, and the assistance of Luis Suarez.

According to Seattle Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey, he spoke with Lodeiro often in his attempts to bring the 27-year-old from Boca Juniors to Major League Soccer. The moment that swayed him was a trip to the US. A business trip.

With Uruguay competing in the Copa America Centenario, it allowed the two to speak more frequently, but when the Uruguayan became frustrated with his own handle of the native language, a friend stepped in to help. He asked national teammate Suarez to help translate, and thus the transfer came to pass.

“You don’t have body language, it’s harder than it is straight to the face and so he just got frustrated that he couldn’t understand everything that I’m saying,” Lagerwey told MLSSoccer.com’s radio show. “And so he says, ‘Hold on, speak to my friend,’ and I said, ‘OK,’ and I have no idea what’s happening. And Luis Suarez gets on and says, ‘Hi, this is Luis Suarez, how are you?’ And I’m like, ‘Morning, Mr. Suarez, how are you?’ And he was our translator.”

Lodiero has been a revelation for the Sounders since joining in the summer. A creative force all season, the Uruguayan has scored four goals in five playoff matches, bursting onto the national scene on the biggest stage.

“It was just funny. Nico and I, we talked fairly regularly during the process, in part because it took four months for the thing to play out,”  “And he was in the US for the Copa America with Uruguay, obviously, and in hindsight that ended up being a big deciding factor for him, because he brought his wife and his little son and they got to see America and I think liked it and developed a comfort level with it. And I think that’s what ultimately pushed them to make the leap, but I was talking and Nico’s English is actually pretty, pretty good, but he isn’t always so comfortable on the phone.”

With over 50 caps for the national team, Lodeiro is a well-known presence with the Barcelona striker and his other national teammates. The two have hooked up on the field as well, with Suarez assisting Lodeiro’s fourth national team goal back in October.

Zidane’s Madrid on cusp of setting new unbeaten record

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03: Zinedine Zidane, Manager of Real Madrid looks on during the La Liga  match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Zinedine Zidane is one match away from coaching Real Madrid to a new unbeaten record.

When Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez midway through last season, the inexperienced former midfield standout got off to an auspicious start with a 5-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna.

Eleven months and one Champions League title later, Madrid faces Deportivo again at home on Saturday with the chance of surpassing its longest unbeaten run since the club was founded in 1902.

On Wednesday, Madrid equaled a club record of 34 games without a loss set in 1989 under coach Leo Beenhakker when it drew 2-2 with Borussia Dortmund.

“It’s important to continue to make history and continue our good run,” Zidane said after the match. “I don’t think it’s very important for me to leave my mark. What interests me the most is to continue with this great run that we’re on.”

Last season, when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez tapped Zidane to take over a struggling team, the decision smelled of desperation.

A fan favorite from his playing days as part of Madrid’s “galaticos” bunch, Zidane was promoted from coaching the reserve team to take over a side that was lurching from one embarrassing episode to the next.

Madrid’s 2015-16 campaign had started with Perez flubbing his play to sign away Manchester United goalie David De Gea. The team was then disqualified from the Copa de Rey for fielding an illegible player, and it endured a 4-0 defeat from Barcelona at home as it failed to click with Benitez.

Perez needed to make an impact move. But instead of searching for a veteran manager, he charged the unproven Zidane with turning around Madrid’s group of talented underachievers.

At first, the team remained erratic, and even looked set to bow out of the Champions League after a shocking 2-0 loss at German side Wolfsburg.

But that defeat on April 6 proved to be a catalyst. The team hasn’t lost since, recovering to claim its 11th European Cup and almost nip Barcelona for the Spanish league crown, before roaring out to lead la Liga this season.

Zidane, whose top-tier coaching experience had been limited to his stint as an assistant under Carlo Ancelotti, has now reached the half-century mark as head manager. During that 50-match period, he has overseen 37 wins, 11 draws and only two losses. That other loss came at Atletico Madrid in February.

“The players have to be congratulated. They’re the ones out on the pitch, it’s them who run, fight and dig in,” Zidane said. “We also have to thank the fans, who always get behind the team and support us. They’ve got to take some credit for what the team is achieving”.

Gifted with world-class stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, Zidane focused on getting more from Madrid’s supporting cast. He put a new emphasis on defense in his midfield by favoring Mateo Kovacic and Casemiro over flashier playmakers James Rodriguez and Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, and he has helped the little-known Lucas Vazquez blossom into an important piece of its attack.

“(Zidane) has gotten us to work hard and for things to go well for us, and that is paying off with this run of 34 unbeaten games,” defender Dani Carvajal said. “Everyone on the team has words of praise for him.”

Whereas the draw with Dortmund was disappointing because it cost Madrid a first-place finish in its Champions League group, its 1-1 stalemate earned last weekend at Barcelona tasted of victory. The “clasico” draw kept Madrid six points clear of Barcelona at the top of the Spanish table.

After it plays Deportivo, Madrid heads to Japan for the Club World Cup.

If Zidane sets the new club mark, his next goal would be the milestone held by Barcelona under counterpart Luis Enrique, whose 39-game unbeaten run was ended by Madrid last April.

Top 5 Premier League storylines for Week 15: Chelsea top, Leicester tested

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at London Stadium on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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This weekend is absolutely critical for the Premier League. Last time out, the top of the table kept pace and little changed. This time around, there is danger lurking for much of the top. Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs all have difficult tests, but can Tony Pulis be the one to pin Chelsea back?

Spurs and Manchester United 9:15 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com) meet with both teams clawing for scraps from those above them. These two teams very well could be battling it out for a final Champions League place at the end of the season, meaning this matchup could go a long way in building a true gap in the table.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho failing to adapt at Manchester United ]

The bottom of the table is fascinating as well. Bob Bradley has his biggest chance yet to pull the Swans off the bottom against Sunderland amid the noise, while Hull City and Crystal Palace have a key meeting.

1. Moving day for Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Brom — 7:00 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

Chelsea is in the best form of any Premier League team in years. Their clean sheet streak predictably ended two games ago, but it hasn’t stopped the Blues’ fine run. They’ve won eight in a row and look impossible to stop. Can Pulis-ball keep the Blues at bay? They’re three points on top of the table, and another win would likely give them even more space considering tough matches for the other top teams.

2. Any magic left in the tank for Leicester City?

Leicester City vs. Manchester City — 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

The Foxes topped their Champions League group, but things continue to look more and more bleak in league play. Claudio Raneiri admitted they’re in a relegation battle with the Foxes just two points above the drop. But we’ve learned not to count this team out already, and a win against Pep Guardiola‘s stumbling team could be more than just three points.

Speaking of Manchester City, Pep was pipped by fellow first-time Premier League manager Antonio Conte last weekend, and then held to a 1-1 draw with Celtic in midweek Champions League action. However, City has taken care of business so far this season against weaker opponents, and the Foxes certainly seem to be just that at this point.

Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

3. Will Arsenal stumble against Stoke?

Arsenal vs. Stoke City — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

For all the heat the Gunners have (unfairly?) taken this season, Alexis Sanchez has them just three points off the top. For Arsenal to still be one game off Chelsea despite the Blues’ fabulous run is somewhat remarkable, and for them to have thus far weathered the storm, it would be truly something to see them capitalize on a slip-up from Conte.

[ MORE: Sanchez among Premier League’s best 5 players ]

However, Stoke has been here before. The Potters have conceded just three goals in their last seven matches, including a pair with clean sheets; if anyone can stop Sanchez’s amazing form, it’s the Mark Hughes and the defensively stout Potters. A win for Stoke could potentially see them jump as high as sixth, could they go on the road and halt the Gunners? It’s possible, but a 315-minute shutout streak vs. Stoke for Arsenal puts things squarely in Arsene Wenger‘s favor before kickoff.

4. Bob Bradley’s golden opportunity

Swansea City vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

Bob Bradley has taken plenty of flak at Swansea City, and rightly so. Since his anointment as the first American manager in England’s top flight, the Swans have picked up just five points and still sit bottom of the table, two points back of anyone else. But to be fair, the competition has been tough. The four losses since his appointment have come against Arsenal, Stoke City, Manchester United, and Tottenham, and he picked up a pair of points against 8th placed Everton and 11th placed Watford. Now is his chance to pick the Swans off the bottom with a win against those directly above him.

[ RELATED: Swansea issues vote of confidence for Bob Bradley ]

Sunderland visits Wales sitting in 18th, and should Swansea win, they would jump above the Black Cats. The task is no given, however, with Sunderland owning three wins in its last four, meaning they’ve picked up nine of their 11 total points in the last month. Bradley fended off much criticism the past week, and if he’s going to silence those calls for his job after just two months, this is a must-win.

5. West Ham finishes gauntlet stretch

Liverpool vs. West Ham United — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

The Hammers are in the midst of a brutal run of matches where they have just two points, putting them a single point above the relegation zone. The teams they’ve played? Everton, Stoke City, Spurs, Manchester United, Arsenal. Yikes. And yet, if West Ham aspire to the heights they reached last season, Slaven Bilic will expect better. Can the Hammers get a result against the high-flying Reds? Liverpool sits four points off the top, but goalkeeper Loris Karius was exposed last week in the stunning Bournemouth comeback, and it’s possible that disappointment leaves a lasting impact. Who will prevail?

FA bans Leeds owner Massimo Cellino 18 months

LEEDS, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Massimo Cellino President and Director of Leeds United during the Sky Bet Championship match between Leeds United and Fulham at Elland Road on December 13, 2014 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)
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Leeds United may be making a push to return to the Premier League, but they’ll have to do so without their owner.

Massimo Cellino, who took over Leeds in February of 2014, has been banned for 18 months by the English FA for his involvement in the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham later that summer. He was also fined $315,000 and required to complete a course outlining the duties and restrictions for owners in the English league.

During McCormack’s sale, a significant payment was apparently paid to unlicensed agent Barry Hughes, facilitated by McCormack’s official licensed agent Derek Day, who was also banned for 18 months, although 11 of those are suspended, leaving him sidelined for seven months should no other infractions arise.

This likely will only serve to accelerate the current potential sale of Leeds to Andrea Radrizzani, with both sides having publicly acknowledged discussions are ongoing.

Leeds is currently in fourth in the Championship table, having won five of their last six matches. McCormack, meanwhile, scoring a whopping 42 goals in 100 appearances over two years before making a big-money move to Aston Villa this past summer, where he has slumped at Villa Park, owning just two goals over 13 Championship appearances this season and losing his place in the team. To be fair, he struggled in his early days at Fulham as well, scoring just twice in his first 15 matches before exploding in his second season at Craven Cottage with 21 league goals.