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Western or Eastern Conference final: Which series will showcase MLS best?

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Okay, so after all the craziness of the last few nights, it’s safe to say that this seasons MLS Cup playoffs have been the most dramatic in recent history.

Extra-time goals, comebacks galore and intense rivalries have all played out so far during the play-in games and the Conference semis. Now we’re down to four.

The Eastern Conference finals will be played out between Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo, while the Western crown will go to either the Portland Timbers or Real Salt Lake.

But the question I’m asking you guys, yeah you, which game will best show what MLS is all about?

(MORE: Portland beat Seattle 3-2, make Conference final after dominant display)

Well for starters, I’m slightly glad these four teams made it to the final four because it proves that with draft parity, salary caps and strong management you can succeed in this league. Portland, SKC, RSL and Houston all have fantastic soccer-specific stadiums that are fairly new, they have strong owners who lead from the front and put their fans first and they also haven’t got any massive DPs who draw the crowds.

source:
RSL beat LA Galaxy’s superstars to make the Western Conference final.

They’re proper MLS teams, more about the collective unit than individuals. Look, I love Seattle, LA and the New York Red Bulls and all the razzmatazz and glamor they bring to the league. But that’s not really what MLS is about. The league is about being sustainable, being smart with cash, using what you have and growing the fanbase in the cities and markets you’re in. All four conference finalists do that fantastically well.

When I think of MLS, I think back to discussions I’ve had with many journalists who say, “it’s so hard to predict this league, harder than any other league in the world.” This seasons playoffs has already proven that. The three biggest spending franchise have been knocked off in the Conference semis and teams like Portland and RSL, who’ve had complete rebuilds and rely on a mix of youth, smart draft picks and inspired signings, are prevailing.

But back to that question… which Conference final showcases what MLS is all about?

I could argue many reasons for both, but given the large number of USMNT players on SKC and Houston’s squads and the fact that they’ve met at this stage in the playoffs many times before, I’m going to plump for the Western Conference.

What Jason Kreis has done at RSL has been miraculous. The vision, leadership and cohesive bond he’s fostered at all levels of the club is fantastic. When they shipped out the likes of Fabian Espindola, Jameson Olave, Jonny Steele and Will Johnson last season, many were thinking “what the heck is going on?” But the main man knew what was going on. The clear out worked a treat as Kreis made room for talented youngsters like Luis Gil, Sebastian Velazquez, Joao Plata, Devon Sandoval and many others to break into the team and show just how good the club is at fostering young talent. That’s a true MLS hallmark and shows how sustainable Real Salt Lake are, not only this season but for many years. Kreis has done that, but the players, management and ownership have bought into it massively. The approach is paying off.

(MORE: RSL down LA Galaxy in extra-time, make Conference finals)

Then we have Portland, who like RSL underwent a huge transformation on the field over the last offseason. In came former U.S. Olympic men’s soccer head coach and Akron University pioneer Caleb Porter, and well, as they say the rest is history. The Timbers already won the regular-season crown for the Western Conference by playing attractive attacking soccer that pins the opposition into their own half, and now look like the favorites to make their first-ever MLS Cup appearance in just their third season in MLS. Young players like Darlington Nagbe, Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Kalif Alhassan have flourished under Porter and the opportunity to give a college coach the chance to shine on the big-stage, then seeing him do so, must give Timbers owner Merritt Paulsson a huge smile.

source: AP
Portland’s players salute their fanatical support as they defeat big spending Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders.

Both sides haven’t spent much on transfer fees and have passionate fanbases that have been staunch supporters of the USMNT, having hosted internationals both at JELD-WEN Field and the Rio Tinto. Portland and RSL have made it to the Conference final the hard way. When everyone was talking about LA Galaxy’s three DPs and the millions of dollars Seattle were spending, many dismissed that the Timbers and RSL could stick with the big boys out West. But they have… and they’ve surpassed them.

RSL were at the forefront when Portland finally changed their ways of bringing in expensive veteran foreign imports, as former head coach John Spencer lost his job following a 3-0 defeat to Real Salt Lake in July 2012. The penny had dropped as to how an MLS club should be run. Over a year later, can the Timbers go full circle and announce themselves as the model all MLS clubs should follow when they face RSL in the Western Conference final?

All four teams left in the MLS playoffs epitomize exactly what the league is all about. But Portland and RSL take the biscuit.

San Jose Earthquakes release Clarence Goodson, eight others

San Jose Earthquakes forward Quincy Amarikwa (25) is mobbed by teammates after scoring against the Portland Timbers during the first half of an MLS soccer match Sunday, March 13, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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While the battle for MLS Cup 2016 has been dwindled down to two sides, the rest of the league continues to make roster transactions in preparation for next season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The San Jose Earthquakes announced on Friday that the club has exercised options on six players, including goalkeeper David Bingham, Fatai Alashe, Kip Colvey and Victor Bernardez.

Additionally, the Earthquakes have released nine players, including U.S. Men’s National Team defender Clarence Goodson, Marc Pelosi and Tommy Thompson, however, the latter two are reportedly in talks to return to the club in 2017.

Napoli beats Inter 3-0 in Serie A after lightning start

NAPLES, ITALY - DECEMBER 02:  Players of Napoli celebrate the opening goal during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and FC Internazionale at Stadio San Paolo on December 2, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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NAPLES, Italy (AP) Napoli eased to a 3-0 win over Inter Milan in Serie A on Friday, with two goals in the opening five minutes.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines heading into weekend ]

The home side got off to a lightning start as, following a wonderful team move, Jose Callejon headed back Marek Hamsik’s chipped pass for Piotr Zielinski to volley into the bottom left corner.

[ MORE: Ronaldo, Mourinho involved in massive tax evasion system ]

Zielinski turned provider moments later as Hamsik beat the offside trap to run onto his pass and fire into the bottom right corner.

It was Hamsik’s 104th goal for Napoli, moving him level with Edinson Cavani in third in the clubs’ goalscoring charts. The Slovakia forward needs 11 more to equal Diego Maradona’s record.

Inter started the second half aggressively but hopes of getting back into the match were scuppered six minutes after the restart when Lorenzo Insigne netted his fourth goal in three league matches after visiting goalkeeper Samir Handanovic only flapped at a corner.

Napoli moved level on points with Atalanta, which visits league leader Juventus on Saturday, and fourth-placed Lazio, which hosts Roma in the capital derby on Sunday.

Inter, which beat Fiorentina 4-2 on Monday for its first win under coach Stefano Pioli, remained eighth ahead of the rest of the weekend’s fixtures.

Report: Paraguayan midfielder Almiron to join Atlanta United for $13 million

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 11:  Miguel Almiron #17 of Paraguay tries to keep the ball as John Brooks #6 of United States slides in the first half during the Copa America Centenario Group C match at Lincoln Financial Field on June 11, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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On a day where Atlanta United added another young talent, the 2017 MLS expansion side could be preparing to make a major splash for a South American playmaker.

According to numerous Argentine media outlets, Atlanta is closing in on signing Paraguay international Miguel Almiron for an MLS-record fee of $13 million from Lanus at the end of 2016.

Almiron, 22, has scored three goals in 34 appearances for Lanus since joining the Argentine club in 2015. The young winger began his professional career back in 2013 with Cerro Porteno, where Almiron also played for the club’s youth academy.

On the international stage, Almiron has already earned seven caps for Paraguay after previously representing the nation’s Under-17 and U-20 national teams.

El Clasico Preview: Barcelona looks to break Real Madrid’s hold on La Liga

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 02:  Casemiro of Real Madrid CF battles for the ball with Neymar of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on April 2, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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It could very well be the greatest rivalry in all of sports, and Saturday will see another installment of El Clasico in Spain’s top flight.

[ MORE: Messi looking to end El Clasico scoring drought ]

Barcelona will host Real Madrid on Saturday at the Camp Nou (10 a.m. ET on beIN Sport) as the Blaugrana look to hand the Madridistas their first loss of the La Liga season.

[ MORE: Griezmann joins Ronaldo, Messi for FIFA’s Best Player award ]

Through 13 rounds of play, Real remains the only unbeaten side in La Liga, sitting on 33 points atop the first division. Barca finds itself six points back, however, a victory would go a long way in cutting down Real’s advantage.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s 10 goals in league play thus far has paced Real to its hot start, which includes a 20-match unbeaten streak in all competitions dating back to the start of the La Liga calendar.

The Portuguese attacker will need to continue his brilliance this weekend, though, as Real is forced to cope without Welsh star Gareth Bale. The winger is expected to miss four months after undergoing an ankle operation recently.

Meanwhile, Barcelona enters the Clasico in less-than-ideal form for a club with massive expectations. Luis Enrique’s side has gone unbeaten in its last five matches across all competitions, but the Blaugrana have looked less than convincing in that span.

“It’s a special game and we want to make the team and fans happy. I expect 100,000 people cheering us on,” said Enrique. “The game tomorrow is a chance to beat Real Madrid and to get closer to the top of the table, nothing more.

“Controlling your emotions is basic. In a game like this one, what happens on the field has little to do with the league table.”

Temperament will surely be key for both sides in the contentious matchup, particularly with the meeting being historically one of great physicality. Red cards have been shown in the last two meetings, with Real players both being the recipients of the ejections (Sergio Ramos & Isco).

Lionel Messi and his 21 previous Clasico goals will prove to be crucial for Barcelona as they look to put the first blemish on Real’s record in 2016. The Argentine has 19 goals in all tournaments, making his presence an absolute must if Barca is to snatch a victory.

Real earned a victory in their most recent encounter with Barca, a 2-1 result in April 2016, where Ronaldo netted the game-winner inside the final five minutes of play.