Cardiff City v Manchester United - Premier League

Premier League Playback: United’s faltering midfield, ‘Crystal Pulis’ to soar, Boruc’s blunder

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MANCHESTER UNITED’S ENGINE ROOM THE ISSUE

On Sunday in South Wales, Manchester United let in a late goal to Cardiff City as they let another two points slip through their fingers. David Moyes turned away in despair and looked to the ground in disgust.

United didn’t play well, and although it looked like they’d got out of jail with a win until Kim Bo-Kyung’s last-gasp header nicked the Bluebirds a point, the main issue with the reigning champions was in central midfield.

Michael Carrick and Phil Jones, two of United’s more robust and reliable options manning the engine room, were both missing in the fiery cauldron of Wales’ capital city due to injury. And boy, did it show. Marouane Fellaini and Tom Cleverley manned the ship in the center of the park and they were overrun by forever plugging leaks sprung open by newly-promoted Cardiff. Unable to contain, tackle or cajole their team into life from the center of the pitch, Fellaini and Cleverly all too often went for the easy ball and played it safe in possession as the heat maps below show. That stunted United’s attacking impetus and allowed the Bluebirds to garner belief they could fight their way back into the game, Cardiff’s last-gasp equalizer had been coming due to midfield battle being lost.

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Click to enlarge: Marouane Fellaini’s passes vs. Cardiff City. Made no forward passes in the attacking third. (Source: Opta)
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Click to enlarge: Tom Cleverley’s passes vs. Cardiff City. Only one of his 42 passes was a successful forward pass in the opposition half. (Source: Opta)

Even Carrick and Jones have had their critics in recent seasons as United have never fully replaced their illustrious midfield generals of the past. Current players Anderson, Shinji Kagawa and going further back to Owen Hargreaves, they’ve all failed to recreate United’s indestructible machine of Keane, Scholes, Butt and the marauding menaces of Paul Ince and Bryan Robson before them.

Moyes needs to add a midfield enforcer to his squad in January, as United are too often relinquishing the middle third to teams who have hungrier, more tenacious and more committed central midfielders willing to run themselves into the ground for the crest on their shirts. I just don’t see that from any of the current crop of United’s central men, including Fellaini and Cleverley after their lackluster displays against Cardiff.

Fellaini and Cleverley aren’t bad players but they’re both afraid of failure and scared of taking people on. Between them they didn’t even attempt a dribble on Sunday and for so long United have had perfect dovetailing central midfielders, when one attacks, the other sits and vice versa. Anybody who watched Keane and Ince in their prime will tell you how beautiful that is to watch. The duo of Fellaini and Cleverley played together in the middle for the first time at Cardiff and you could tell that, they had no cohesion, no link and were all out sea.

Will they ever get the chance to shine in central midfield together again? After that combined performance, probably not. Back to the drawing board for Moyes.

Premier League Schedule – Week 12

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-0 Southampton Recap and watch here
Cardiff 2-2 Manchester United Recap and watch here
Everton 3-3 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Fulham 1-2 Swansea Recap and watch here
Hull 0-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Man City 6-0 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Newcastle United 2-1 Norwich Recap and watch here
Stoke 2-0 Sunderland Recap and watch here
West Brom 2-2 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
West Ham 0-3 Chelsea Recap and watch here

RED CARD CONTROVERSY

Let’s break down three controversial moments from the weekend, as two red cards were dished out incorrectly and one should have been given in the Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool.

Some of these decisions were incredibly bad, and given the exasperating precedent set by referees chief Mike Riley last week — when he apologized to West Brom manager Steve Clarke for a last gasp penalty handed to Chelsea that cost the Baggies a win — plenty of PL managers will be hoping to receive an apology via the post.

Mr. Riley, get your quill and parchment ready, you’ll have some serious apologizing to do this weekend after three horrendous mistakes. The floodgates have opened, Riley should’ve never apologized as now he’ll never stop apologetically nodding his head in agreement and offering his hand out in reconciliation.

Too many of the big decisions are being called incorrectly as referees come under more criticism in the PL. Here’s my take on three of the worst calls (because, in truth, there were so many more) this weekend.

  • Wes Brown’s red card vs. Stoke City – NO

The phantom tackle of Brown baffles me every time I see it. It isn’t, wasn’t and will never be a red card. Gus Poyet was incensed at the decision as he tore his puffy coat off in frustration, screamed at the officials and stomped his feet in frustration. Brown slid in and made a perfect, yet slightly lunging tackle. He was in control as he disposed Stoke’s Charlie Adam and may have faintly grazed the Scotsman as he slide through. This cost Sunderland any chance of grabbing a point or more at the Britannia.

  • Yannick Bolasie’s red card vs. Hull City – NO

Yes Bolasie does go over the top and lunges into this one, but he’s on the edge of the box and scrapping for every ball as two newly-promoted teams battle for a crucial three points 12 minutes from time. Out of all three, this decisions is the most sane, but it still isn’t right. Bolasie slips before the tackle is made, Jake Livermore is already going to ground and has also raised his foot and at worst it’s a yellow card.

  • Kevin Mirallas’ potential red card vs. Liverpool – YES

This has to be one of the worst tackles I’ve seen in the modern era. Yet Belgian winger Kevin Mirallas somehow stayed on the pitch as he lunged with a high foot and aimed to decapitate Luis Suarez’ right leg at the knee. The ball was bouncing up as the two players clashed by Suarez got to the ball first, knocked it away and was clattered recklessly into by Mirallas wild and dangerous right foot with his studs showing. An instant red card was the only option here. How it wasn’t… I’ll never know. Seems like Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers agrees.

“I thought Mirallas should have been sent off. He caught him [Suarez] on the back of his knee and that can end your career. It was awful jumping in like that.” Mirallas also agreed… wait, what? Straight up, here’s the evidence.

We can’t finish this section without the highlights to the Merseyside derby, I asked if that was “the best Everton vs. Liverpool battle in history?”  Judge for yourself by watching the highlights below.

CRYSTAL PULIS – WILL THE EAGLES SOAR TO SAFETY?

Everyone expects us to get relegated and it will be nice to prove people wrong. I like climbing hills and this will be a tough job but one I will relish – New Crystal Palace manager Tony Pulis

Palace dispatched Hull City 1-0 on Saturday, watch above, as the Eagles lifted themselves off the bottom of the table as their new manager arrives amongst a sea of optimism.

Earlier on Saturday the South London side announced former Stoke City boss Tony Pulis is their new manager. I believe that’s a fantastic decision. Just three points from safety after that huge win, Pulis’ side has given themselves a fighting chance of climbing out of the relegation zone. Expect them to grab it with both hands.

This is a fact: Palace will be a horrendous side to play against for the rest of the season. Think Pulis’ Stoke City on steroids. The Eagles have something to prove, as does Pulis after his seven year spell at the Potters came to an abrupt end last season when he failed to kick them on to the next level. That burning desire to prove everyone wrong will create destruction and distress for every team they come up against in their remaining 26 PL games of the season. The Eagles aren’t ready to land in English soccer’s second-tier, in fact, they’ve yet to even take off in the top flight. You’ve been warned, Pulis’ first game in charge away at Norwich will showcase that.

ROAD WINS SEAL CHAMPIONSHIPS

If Manchester City aim to keep obliterating teams at home, watch above and shield your eyes Spurs fans, but struggle to snatch a point on the road, a second PL title in three years won’t be heading to the Etihad Stadium this season.

On Sunday City smashed Tottenham — I mean, completely knocked them out of the stadium and into the parking lot — 6-0 as they flexed their title credentials impressively. But if they keep losing on the road to basement boys and continue to augment their splendid home displays by hemorrhaging points on their travels, Pellegrini’s dream of delivering a Championship are dumbfounded.

The stats back my slightly snarky statement up as City have started this season with a poor record of W1-D1-L4 on the road. In the last 10 seasons, no PL champion has lost more than five games away from home in their title winning season… City have already lost four matches from six on the road this campaign.

What is the answer I hear you cry?

Plenty of foreign stars feeling intimidated in hostile atmospheres across a plethora of rough and ready English cities could be a reason. Another could simply be that they prefer to score early and settle their nerves in games and away from home the opposition are more likely to have a go at City and score first. The Citizens resilience is then called into question and so far they’ve failed to hit back when they’ve been dealt a blow away from home. If other sides get a foot hold at home against City, they might as well pull their goalkeeper and put the handbrake on because Pellegrini’s men look devoid of ideas when they go behind. When they’re on form Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo’s burgeoning partnership can rip any team apart, we’ve spoken about that before in PL Playback after City demolished United… it seems as though the duo that initially showed promise has now blossomed into a full-blown goal scoring tandem of tricks, flicks and boat loads of goals. Aguero has 10 goals, Negredo has five and City have 34 goals in 12 games.

But this struggling form away from home has to be addressed and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t a Pellegrini-ism. It’s been going on for years. Many have put City’s struggles on the road down to their new Chilean manager being out of his comfort zone in unfamiliar surroundings at the Britannnia Stadium, Villa Park or the Stadium of Light. What a load of old tosh.

In the four seasons before the current campaign, since City became perennial title contenders, their away record reads as follows.

2012-13 – W9-D6-L4 | 2011-12 – 10-4-5 | 2010-11 – 8-4-7 | 2009-10 – 6-9-4

No team has won the Premier League title having lost four of their first 11 games since 1968… the last team to do that and win the league was… Manchester City. If they pick up their away form and continue to blow teams away at the Etihad, they won’t be far off a historic repeat.

City’s manager Pellegrini isn’t worried by those stats and said the following with a cheeky grin on his face: “I don’t believe in statistics in football. I believe football has some relation with mathematics but not always. If you win all the games from now until the end, maybe we will win the Premier League.”

BORUC, LLORIS RED FACED AS ‘KEEPERS PRESSURIZED TO PLAY

During a debate on the BBC following the weekends action, former Newcastle and England goalscoring legend Alan Shearer had this to say about the new task handed to many PL ‘keepers.

“Goalkeepers are more footballers now than at any other time,” Shearer said. “They’re part of the back four.”

I’m not trying to defend Southampton’s goalkeeper Artur Boruc for his embarrassing blunder, watch above, but his problems have come from being a ‘keeper asked to play the ball with his feet and become a part of the defense, when his main job was always to keep the ball out of the net.

In the modern era, ‘keepers have become a fifth defender and are encouraged by many managers to get involved and keep possession of the ball rather than lump it aimlessly up field every time it’s sent back to them.

On Saturday in Saints’ biggest game of the season so far, Boruc tried three ‘Cruyff turns’ in his own box and lost out to Olivier Giroud who easily tapped home and left an embarrassed and livid Boruc cursing on the floor. That goal put his Southampton side on the back foot and cost them any real chance of upsetting the league-leaders at the Emirates and helping the Saints leapfrog them into top spot. But ever-since Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino arrived at the South Coast club, Boruc has been taking more risks with the ball at his feet and he’s encouraged to do so. If that’s what the manager wants, mistakes like this will happen. Southampton keep the ball better than almost any team in the league and that starts with Boruc’s patient, yet dangerous, build up from the back.

(MORE – FULL PREMIER LEAGUE STANDINGS)

Spurs were also the masters of their own downfall with a goalkeeping error after just 13 seconds against Man City in their humiliating defeat. Hugo Lloris’ mistake was a little different to Boruc’s as he miskicked the ball straight to City’s attackers who then capitalized brilliantly on a skewed clearance. But it was almost as if Lloris held back from giving the ball an almighty punt and was hoping his short kick would find a Spurs teammate and keep the ball in Tottenham’s possession. The Frenchman is the best ‘sweeper-keeper’ in the league and regularly launches off his line to become a defender and play the ball out of danger.

Goalkeepers in the PL should get back to doing that.

Keeping it out of their goal and giving it a bloody good whack upfield to make sure the ball is as far away from danger for as long as possible, that’s their job, right? Yet Boruc and Lloris are encouraged to play from the back by their managers, so mistakes like those they made at the weekend will happen. Ultimately they were bad individual errors but if their sides want possession from the back, ‘keepers shouldn’t be lambasted for giving the ball away or getting caught in possession. Look how often it happens to the outfield players they’re expected to emulate… Think about it.

Still at least Boruc saw the funny side of it… Check out the instagram picture he posted a few hours after the game, the caption says it all. Hilarious. Well, except if you’re a Saints fan…

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Premier League Playback comes out every Monday and takes an alternative look at the weekends action.

King Claudio: The subtle transformation of Ranieri, “The Thinkerman”

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“Never could I have imagined this. We work so hard. Everyone does, but only one can win. This year it happened to me! It’s my karma. I’ve fought so hard to achieve so this is special. I want to thank my players, chairman, staff and fans. Our Chairman gives to us calmness and positivity. Never have I seen him nervous. That is important to me.

“To the fans. They were dreaming. I say dilly-ding, dilly-dong, they woke up and the dream was a reality.”

[ MORE: Leicester news after PL win ] 

On Thursday Claudio Ranieri was reflecting on Leicester City’s top-flight title win, the first in their 132-year history, as he sipped champagne with the media after being applauded into the room. He oozed class, composure and humility.

If anybody deserves this kind of respect, admiration and a glorious coronation, it’s Ranieri.

The 64-year-old Italian coach has become the central figure in this remarkable fairy tale and on Saturday he will lift a top-flight trophy for the first time in his journeyman career which has seen him manage 15 clubs and the Greek national team over the past 28 years.

[ MORE: Mahrez to leave?

Slowly and very surely his transformation into a title-winning manager is complete. His persona, off the pitch, hasn’t changed much but there have been tweaks, and after Leicester’s triumph his life will never quite be the same again as calls for him to be Knighted by the Queen of England and many other accolades continue.

A charming, modest, quiet man from the San Saba neighborhood in the heart of Rome, Ranieri grew up close to the Circus Maximus and has never forgotten his roots. The butcher’s son flew home to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother on the day Leicester were crowned champions of the Premier League.

He has stayed true to himself but over time his personality has transformed subtly. Perhaps disappointments along the way have altered his outlook, sharpened his focus and taught him the keys to success. It seems like his entire career has been building to this moment.

[ MORE: What does winning the PL really mean for Leicester? ]

Ranieri’s persona as a loveable grandfather figure is one which slightly contrasts his past image when he was in charge at Chelsea from 2000-04. Those who knew Ranieri during his time in charge at Chelsea speak of him as a gentleman and a humble, quiet man, but one who sometimes seemed confused and easily flustered. It didn’t help that he didn’t speak English when he first arrived in England 16 years ago and the translator Chelsea handed to him hardly gave Ranieri’s comments the character we know now he has.

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Leicester City's manager Claudio Ranieri congratulates Jamie Vardy of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle and Leicester City at St James Park on November 21, 2015 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)

Since 2004 when Ranieri left England there has been this lingering notion that yes, Ranieri was a nice man, but the puzzled look he often had on his face on the sidelines at Stamford Bridge was because he often confused himself. Nicknamed “The Tinkerman” for consistently changing his players and lineups, Ranieri has never shrugged off that tag. Until now.

He chose his first press conference (in front of the media, who he has referred to as “the sharks” all season long) since becoming a title winner to give himself a new nickname.

“I am now the Thinkerman, not Tinkerman!” Ranieri laughed

This incredible season isn’t about redemption, resurrection or re-invigoration for Ranieri. If he wasn’t handed another job after a disastrous spell in charge of the Greek national team which ended in 2014, then he probably would have been just fine.

[ MORE: How will Leicester’s success change the PL? ]

However, when the opportunity arose to return to England it was about returning to a land where he enjoyed being a manager, where he enjoyed the culture and was at ease. We’ve seen that during every press conference this season. Ranieri even refers to himself as “an English player” during his playing days and that he loves the dedication and commitment. He has coached in Italy, Spain, France, Greece and England but it seems as though Ranieri is enamored by the English culture and vice versa, and he always maintained his home in London despite not working in the country for over a decade.

Fans in Leicester have multiple songs in his honor, the local market has named a spicy Italian sausage after him and during games the connection with the supporters has been immense to help drive the Foxes over the line. Often he would raise his arms and gesticulate to the crowd for help to inspire the players in the final minutes of games. The supporters would respond, realizing they were on the edge of greatness.

Ranieri would have picked up tricks like that over the years and was it the difference in Leicester’s 14 one-goal wins this season? It certainly didn’t hurt.

“The fans understood our difficulties and they pushed a lot,” Ranieri told ProSoccerTalk after their 1-0 win over Southampton in April. “They were not nervous, they understood our momentum and they are pushing with us. It is a fantastic link. It is unbelievable. They are very, very close with us. They understand when we need support or when I asked for support… but I didn’t even ask today. They started early to help us.”

Despite all the current euphoria surrounding Ranieri and his team achieving the unthinkable, the initial reactions from Leicester’s fans to his appointment was in stark contrast. Let’s cast our minds back to July 13, 2015…

Leicester legend Gary Lineker wasn’t impressed.

Pretty much everyone believed they were doomed for relegation and in all fairness, it was a strange appointment. Leicester had hired a manager who had never been involved in a PL relegation battle, hadn’t worked in England in over a decade and had just crashed and burned with the Greek national team. Simple logic saw it as a “strange appointment” as one leading Leicester fan told me back in the summer.

What was to come was something Ranieri admitted he didn’t start believing would be a possibility until their win at Manchester City in February.

“I was so satisfied when we won at Manchester City,” Ranieri told the Guardian. “We made a fantastic performance away. Unbelievable. Maybe when we won there 3-1, maybe my players believed in something: ‘Maybe we can win, maybe we can fight until the end’. I never spoke about this to them. I said: ‘OK, clean everything, next match. Start again.’ So when I said to you [the media] we play match by match, it was true.”

Claudio Ranieri, Leicester City FC

That game-by-game battle to achieve the title when everybody thought they would slip up has gripped Leicester, England and most of the soccer, and sporting, world. Ranieri has used every ounce of his experience to ease any pressure on his players, never truly admitting they were in a title battle until the final weeks of the season. He is famous for using sdramatizzare to put his players at ease and team trips to pizza parlors after recording a shutout and waxing lyrical about local rock band Kasabian has helped Ranieri fit in and make the situation seem much more normal.

The media has hung on his every word, laughing along with his jokes and giving him gifts at press conferences. Books have been commissioned and will be written about Ranieri’s journey and released in the opening months of next season. His players also seem encapsulated by the Italian’s seamlessly never-ending stream of charm.

Ranieri has read the situation he came into at Leicester perfectly, keeping plenty of the existing backroom staff, adding a few of his own and not changing an awful lot from their incredible run of seven wins from the final nine games last season to stave off relegation and set themselves up for this magical campaign.

But don’t be fooled by all of these niceties, there is a harsh soccer coach in there. One who is deeply demanding that his players work hard and deliver.

NBC Sports analyst Graeme Le Saux played for Ranieri at Chelsea.

“That’s all veneer, don’t be fooled, that’s part design,” Le Saux said recently regarding Ranieri’s charming demeanor. “He’s a very shrewd operator and he wouldn’t shirk a big decision. Behind the smile there’s a ruthless football manager, a guy who is happy to make big decisions.

“At Leicester he hasn’t had to, the team picks itself. He’s not had to deal with dropping big names and moving people on. Once he’s established his team and his shape, he’s been the polar opposite to what we were calling him, the Tinkerman.”

Even though Leicester will be in the Champions League next season, Ranieri has already said he doesn’t want big name players to arrive and for the Foxes to get away from who they really are.

“I don’t want big names,” Ranieri said. “I don’t want it in my dressing room. My lads are special. Who arrives must have the same spirit.”

It turns out he’s used the “dilly-ding, dilly-dong” tactics throughout his career to keep his players focused and despite his penchant for squad rotation, this season he’s kept a settled team in a solid 4-4-2 formation. He has used just 23 different players this season, fewer than any other PL club, and although it may have been out of necessity rather than design Ranieri didn’t tinker and look what happened. That Tinkerman tag has finally fallen off.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

He’s shaken off another tag as “the nearly man” too. He was a top-flight runner up with Chelsea in 2003, AS Roma in 2010 and AS Monaco in 2014. Any lingering doubts people had about Ranieri’s ability to get the job done and not confuse himself along the way are over. His journey really started with little Cagilari in 1987 who he took from Serie C to the Serie A. He won cups in Spain with Valencia and Fiorentina in Italy as he took La Viola to Serie A where they became a force. He has had some incredible moments during his long, winding managerial career but this is the best. This is the icing on the cake and perhaps a sizable cherry on top too.

His transformation from Tinkerman to Thinkerman is complete and it is rather fitting that on the final day of the season he will return to Chelsea, last seasons champions, and receive a guard of honor onto the pitch, replicating what occurred when he last stood on the turf of Chelsea’s home stadium.

“I am satisfied, of course, but not in terms of ‘it is revenge’. No, no, no. I am not a man who wants revenge,” Ranieri said. “I know my job very well and sometimes maybe the owner wants to change you because you don’t fit in with him. It is good because last time I left the Premier League (in 2004) I went through my players and they made the guard of honor. It was amazing. Now I will come back in the same way. It is unbelievable.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 19: Claudio Ranieri Manager of Leicester City looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Leicester City at Selhurst Park on March 19, 2016 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

What has been unbelievable is this season. Ranieri and his players have become immortal, they’ve sealed their place in soccer folklore forever and even if they crash and burn next season in the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League, they will always have the memories from the 2015-16 campaign when they ruled England.

Stood in his tracksuit by the side of the training pitch, the Roman looked annoyed when asked by one journalist the day after Leicester had won the title if he could quite believe what they’d done. He spoke of his ambition to always win a top league and even now, despite the evolution of his personality into a calm, calculated and humorous individual, there was still a glimpse that he could become a little flustered and slip into his old ways, momentarily.

What could possibly be on the horizon for Ranieri? The charming, humble manager from the Italian capital wants a little more, even if he’s currently savoring the moment.

“This is a moment when you have to leave a little more time and taste slowly, like a good wine, and savor it,” Ranieri said, speaking to the Guardian. “Maybe now is too early to think what we have done. Maybe one or two years could be better to understand but now it is important to stay high in the world.

“I am very happy to win because when you start to make a manager you hope you can win some league. I won the most important league in Europe, I think, not just Europe but the world, the Premier League. It is a fantastic achievement, my career is fantastic but I want to achieve a little more if it is possible.”

Chastain, MacMillan, Garber make Hall of Fame

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Brandi Chastain attends the Annual Charity Day Hosted By Cantor Fitzgerald And BGC at the Cantor Fitzgerald Office on September 11, 2013 in New York, United States.  (Photo by Mike McGregor/Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald)
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CHICAGO (AP) — World Cup champions Brandi Chastain and Shannon MacMillan, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Chastain, who scored the winning goal in the 1999 World Cup final shootout against China, was selected on the player ballot. MacMillan, her teammate on that squad, was voted in on the veteran ballot. Garber was chosen on the builder ballot.

Chastain played 12 seasons of international soccer, scoring 30 goals in 192 matches. She also won a World Cup in 1991, and earned Olympic gold in 1996 and 2004. She was the first U.S. player to score five goals in one match, in 1991 World Cup qualifying as a forward. She later became a mainstay on defense.

“To be inducted into the Hall of Fame and have my name read in the same sentence with our country’s best is truly humbling,” Chastain said Thursday. “The opportunity to play the game was given to me by my parents; my competitiveness and enthusiasm was fostered by every coach who I was blessed to be taught by; and my passion was shared and heightened by all of my teammates over my career. It is not enough to say how grateful I am with words, and therefore, I continue to share the game with anyone and everyone.”

MacMillan also was on the 1996 Olympic team. She scored 60 goals in 12 international seasons and was the 2002 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year.

“Playing for the USA was always an honor and privilege for me, and that could only be topped by being selected for the Hall of Fame,” MacMillan said. “I am incredibly humbled and honored by this selection. I will forever be grateful to the great game of soccer for all of the life lessons it has taught me along the way, and for all the friendships I built along the way. I want to thank U.S. Soccer and my teammates for all of the support throughout the years.”

Garber, in his 17th year as MLS commissioner, was cited for his work growing the sport in the United States.

“Thanks to the commitment and hard work of many people, our sport has grown significantly during the last few decades, and there is no doubt the United States is a true soccer nation,” Garber said. “It is an honor to be inducted alongside Brandi Chastain and Shannon MacMillan, two iconic figures in U.S. Soccer history who have impacted the sport at so many levels.”

MLS Preview: Can anyone separate from the pack? Western leaders get big tests

COMMERCE CITY, COLORADO - APRIL 02:  Shkelzen Gashi #11 of Colorado Rapids controls the ball against the Toronto FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on April 2, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. The Rapids defeated Toronto FC 1-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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With last week’s draw-fest in the past and both conferences still jumbled, all eyes are on the top of the Western Conference with this week’s list of matchups.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Three teams – Colorado, Real Salt Lake, and FC Dallas – are all tied atop the standings on 17 points. The first two respectively play each other. The final one crosses sides to play the 3rd place team in the East. Should this week go differently than last – meaning, fewer than the eight draws we were handed across Week 8 – some teams could find themselves with some valuable separation atop the standings.

So, who has the opportunity to make moves?

Colorado Rapids vs. Real Salt Lake — 9:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Each with 17 points at the top of the West, there’s plenty at stake at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Colorado is four games unbeaten, although it dropped points for the first time in a month last time out. The Rapids feasted upon underachieving teams during its three-game winning streak, but when faced with the leaders of the Eastern Conference last weekend, they needed a pair of comebacks to earn a point. Nonetheless, the Rapids have put their early-season struggles firmly behind them.

The Rapids have struggled against RSL in the recent past, losing the last time out in Salt Lake City, and sporting a 1-4-2 record against RSL in the last seven meetings at DSG Park. Shkëlzen Gashi continues to be the key for Colorado’s attack, having pumped 25 shots on target this season so far. For RSL, last week’s win put the demolition at the hands of Los Angeles firmly in the past, changing the narrative to five wins in their last six, a significant rise in form.

Toronto FC vs. FC Dallas  7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

FC Dallas also has a chance to go atop the West with a result on the road at BMO Field. Dallas’s grip on the West is gone thanks to a pair of flunks against two eighth-placed teams – a bad sign as the Jeckyll and Hyde season continues. They’re in a great place, but have also looked lost at times. All three heavy defeats have come on the road, and wouldn’t you know it, now they’re serving as Toronto’s May home opener.

The East has been a mire thus far, but for Toronto to sit third after three wins in an eight-game road trip, Sebastian Giovinco and company have put themselves in great position. Nonetheless, Greg Vanney said the club still needs to “prove itself” in front of its home fans, and those fans are sure to be up for it after the long wait.

D.C. United vs. New York City FC  7:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Two of the four teams stuck on 10 points in the middle of the Eastern Conference have a critical matchup at RFK Stadium Saturday. D.C. has gutted things out through the softer part of its schedule, but now a meeting with a team in the hunt will test D.C., who will be without the suspended Chris Rolfe after his dangerous challenge on Nick LaBrocca. If anything, the break could give Rolfe a chance to collect his thoughts after a slow start to the season.

They face a NYCFC team that picked up just its second win of the season last time out. Draw-happy early on, NY had lost three of four before the 3-2 win over Vancouver, a gritty win that took overcoming adversity after Vancouver went ahead, then came back to tie things up before Steven Mendoza tied things up with 17 minutes to go. This one’s a big one in the East mix, can anyone come out on top?

Elsewhere

Orlando City FC vs. New York Red Bulls — 7 p.m. ET Friday
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET Saturday
Columbus Crew vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC — 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Seattle Sounders vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 10 p.m. ET Saturday
L.A. Galaxy vs. New England Revolution — 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Men in Blazers podcast: Jurgen Klopp pod special

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog sits down with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp to give you a taste of his new documentary on the eccentric German boss.

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