MLS Week 4 Preview: Toronto’s test at Real Salt Lake highlights nine-match weekend

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The fourth week of Major League Soccer’s 2014 season begins at on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern in Washington, D.C., with the week’s NBCSN game kicking off a nine-match slate that concludes Sunday in New York. Previewing a round headlined by feature battles in Utah and Seattle, here is our quick look at the coming weekend of MLS action.

Note: All rankings reflect PST’s weekly MLS Power Rankings.

NBCSN’s GAME OF THE WEEK
#19 D.C. United vs. #15 Chicago Fire (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN/NBC Live Extra)
Last week: D.C. lost at Toronto, 1-0; Chicago drew with New York, 1-1

Oh, D.C. United – where even the steps forward are relative ones. Ben Olsen’s team made strides between weeks one and three, but last week at BMO Field, they still looked a little too much like last year’s unfortunate record setter. But Chicago at home? It’s one of those “if we can’t win this one, we’re in real trouble” games.

While the Fire has a defense pairing (Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Bakary Soumaré) that can handle U.S. international striker Eddie Johnson, is doesn’t have a midfield that’s going to blow through D.C.’s like Toronto’s Michael Bradley-Jonathan Orosio pair did last week. And until 2013 MVP Mike Magee rounds into form, Chicago’s relying on pure opportunism for goals.

In theory, the Fire can be had. Whether D.C. can do it will tell us a lot about their offseason makeover.


THE OTHER GAME YOU JUST CAN’T MISS
#2 Real Salt Lake vs. #1 Toronto FC (Saturday, 9:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: RSL drew with LA, 1-1; Toronto beat D.C. United, 1-0

With apologies to Seattle, here’s Ryan Nelsen’s first big test of the season. We saw the adjustments LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena made going into Rio Tinto, shifting from a flat 4-4-2 to a diamond midfield to go like-for-like against the Western Conference champions. We also know Ryan Nelsen is unlikely to change out his flat 4-4-2, given he used it against D.C.’s diamond last week.

Perhaps is won’t matter. Reds are comfortable playing without the ball and, thanks of Jermain Defoe, incredibly dangerous when breaking on opponents – an approach that could replicate the goal LA used to get a draw on Saturday. But is this team really good enough, drilled enough, to match up with RSL? Given Real Salt Lake will be missing Joao Plata, that may not be as tall a task as it was last week, but where LA’s familiarity was so important to their result in Sandy, Toronto will be making their first trip to Utah under Nelsen.

OKAY, SO THERE ARE THREE YOU CAN’T MISS
#7 Seattle Sounders vs. #3 Columbus Crew (Saturday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Seattle won in Montréal, 2-0; Columbus beat visiting Philadelphia, 2-1

This new look Columbus team on CenturyLink’s turf? This could be fun, but it could also be a problem for Gregg Berhalter if Seattle sticks with their 4-3-3, one which often saw wide attackers Lamar Neagle and Kenny Cooper play relatively narrow. If Seattle persists with that approach on Saturday, they should be able to press the back three the Crew use in possession; at least, they should be able to do so more effectively than the Union.

Seattle’s three-man midfield will also be able to devote somebody like Andy Rose (or, a healthy Brad Evans) to marking Columbus focal point Federico Higuaín as he roams around the middle. If the Sounders can use that and some pressure to can generate transition chances, they may be able to take advantage of a Crew central defense that had an up-and-down day against the Union.


BE AN MLS ULTZY AND EMBRACE
#16 New York Red Bulls vs. #14 Chivas USA (Sunday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, UniMas)
Last week: New York drew at Chicago, 1-1; Chivas USA lost at Dallas, 3-1

New York hasn’t looked good in its first three games yet gets a golden chance to get their first win against the visiting Goats. While Chivas USA showed promise over their first two games, last week’s match in Dallas was a minor wake up call. Though its played better than New York over the season’s first three weeks, Chivas’s cross-country trip to a reigning Supporters’ Shield-winner that needs a victory sounds like a recipe for Red Bull success.


GAMES THAT SHOULD BE TELLING
#11 Colorado Rapids vs. #4 Sporting Kansas City (Saturday, 6:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Colorado beat Portland, 2-0; Sporting down San Jose, 1-0

Two teams that have performed below their 2013 selves meet at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, with neither Colorado nor Sporting having scored from open play this season. The defending champions’ tallies have come from a corner and a penalty conversion, while the Rapids’ three goals have all come from the spot. Whichever team finds last season’s attack first will have the edge in Commerce City.

#12 Vancouver Whitecaps vs. #4 Houston Dynamo (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Vancouver drew at New England, 0-0; Houston had the week off to enjoy its 2-0-0 start

Houston’s slow central defense will be tasked with containing Darron Mattocks, Russell Teibert and (later) Kekuta Manneh. Playing two in the middle, they’ll also need to match up against a trio of Nigel Reo-Coker, Matías Laba, and Pedro Morales. On the strangest surface in the league, one the Dynamo only visit once every two seasons, this looks like another potential home win for the Whitecaps. Houston’s main saving grace: They’ve had two weeks to prepare for this challenge.

#8 FC Dallas vs. #13 Portland Timbers (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Dallas posted a 3-1 win over visiting Chivas USA; Portland lost in Colorado, 2-0

Óscar Pareja saw Adam Moffat and Andrew Jacobson leave last week’s win with injuries, a midfield problem compounded by Hendry Thomas’s stoppage time red card. Against one of the most possession-sensitive teams in the league, FCD may be hamstrung in the middle, making it all the more important Mauro Díaz finds a way to deal with the foul machine that is Diego Chara. Portland will be without Donovan Ricketts, suspended for two games after last week’s red card. Fabian Castillo’s stomach will be thankful for that.


GAMES THAT WILL ALSO HAPPEN
#5 Philadelphia vs. #18 Montréal (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Philadelphia lost in Columbus, 2-1; Montréal fell at home to Seattle, 2-0

Nothing we’ve seen over the first three weeks says Montréal will mount much of a challenge. Then again, we didn’t see the suspended Marco Di Vaio over the first three weeks. Against defenders Amobi Okugo and Aaron Wheeler, Di Vaio’s presence will put pressure on the Union’s midfield to cut off access from Montréal’s Hernan Bernardello and Patrice Bernier. If they don’t limit that supply, the Impact could snare its first points of the season.

#10 San Jose vs. #17 New England Revolution (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: San Jose lost at Sporting, 1-0; New England drew at home with Vancouver, 0-0

A team that hasn’t scored all season flying cross-country to try to beat Víctor Bernárdez and Clarence Goodson? Good luck with that. Sure, it could happen, but given what we’ve seen from San Jose through four tough games — matches against RSL, Toluca (twice), and Sporting in which the team has emerged with only a -1 goal difference — a No. 10 ranking seems low. San Jose, probably better than that evaluation hints, should win this one.

“Injustice.” “Incomprehensible.” Ronaldo again protests suspension

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The five-game suspension Cristiano Ronaldo received for making contact with an official is not sitting well with the forward.

Better put: it’s still not sitting well.

Six days ago, Ronaldo took to Instagram to say he was being persecuted after his red card in the Spanish Super Cup.

[ MORE: EFL Cup Tues. wrap ]

Tuesday afternoon, he kept up the strong words by saying the suspension is “incomprehensible” and “an injustice.”

Roughly translated, Ronaldo posted, “One more incomprehensible decision. From injustice to injustive, they will never overcome me. And as always I will come back stronger. Thank you to all who have supported me.”

We’ll say this: He’s a really good soccer player.

Barca to offer Liverpool $176m for Coutinho

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Barcelona is insane.

Desperate following a rough two-legged loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, the Blaugranas are reportedly ready to offer $176 million to Liverpool for Philippe Coutinho.

Read it again: $176 million for Philippe Coutinho. It’s about $126 million with $12 million more when Barca clinches a UCL spot over the next four seasons (which they have done every year since finishing sixth in 2002-03).

[ MORE: EFL Cup Tues. wrap ]

Even in this transfer market, that’s nuts. Crazy to offer, and maybe even crazier not to accept.

That’s pretty much two-thirds of the Neymar money. Two-thirds (I keep repeating myself with this story)

It’s even a convenient out for Jurgen Klopp, who’s said Liverpool is not a selling club. Here, he can say with a straight face that the club can improve with this money by selling a player who has — and I recognize it’s not all about goals and assists — one double-digit goal season in his career and a career single-season high of seven PL assists (done thrice).

Almost anyone who’s had the audacity to say the Reds should accept the bid has often been shot down by the Anfield faithful online. “It’ll ruin our season” and “How do we replace him this late?” are the common cries.

To the first question: No, it won’t. To the second: Easy?

It’s not like-for-like, but nearly every player in the world is available for $176 million. It’s not like-for-like, but here’s a short list: Antoine Griezmann, Gareth Bale, Paulo Dybala, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Marco Reus… Shoot! Klopp could sign 2-3 of his favorite BVB alums.

With this fee, Coutinho would become the second-highest transfer fee of all-time, behind only Neymar. There are makeweights Barcelona could offer that would make the deal even more intriguing to the Reds: Arda Turan, Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez.

Look at it from a neutral’s eyes — which I know is hard from the number of times I’ve read @ Tweets that say, “The only people who would like this deal are fans of Chelsea or United!” — at some point, it becomes unreasonable to not take advantage of Barcelona’s desperation. Maybe Coutinho is worth the “fit” for Barca, but rejecting this fee is more illogical than the offer itself.

At the risk of inflaming every more Liverpool supporters, Ross Barkley is probably going to cost someone $35 million and he’s a year and a half younger (Coutinho is a superior player right now, but we’re talking about the market here).

And, lastly, at some point you’re telling your entire team room that you’re willing to turn down near record money — it would be the highest non-buyout clause transfer ever — to keep a player from his dream club.

Take the money. Use it. Move on.

EFL Cup Weds preview: East Lancashire Derby highlights slate

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Eighteen teams booked spots Tuesday in the League Cup’s third round, with Watford the lone Premier League side to take a fall.

Six more try their luck on Wednesday, the last day of tournament play before the big boys join up.

[ MORE: EFL Cup Tues. wrap ]

A sleepy big affair is the East Lancashire Derby between Burnley and now League One side Blackburn Rovers, a rivalry which has been staged in three leagues or competitions since the turn of the century. This makes it four, joining the Premier League (2009-10), FA Cup (2004-05) and Championship (six times since 2012-13).

Burnley has three wins and three draws since its last loss to Blackburn, which came via David Dunn penalty at Turf Moor in a Premier League match on March 28, 2010.

Make no mistake, Clarets goalkeeper Tom Heaton thinks it’ll be a fantastic affair (from burnleyfootballclub.com):

“And for the players. Make no mistake, we were all delighted when the draw came in,” said Heaton. “It’s a fantastic match we are all looking forward to. It’s a fantastic night as players, fans and for the club.

“We’ll be going there geared up to win the game and give it everything we’ve got. The new lads coming in will certainly get an eye opener for the atmosphere and how good it is. They’re brilliant games to play in, I’ve enjoyed every minute of them.”

If you’re surprised by the rivalry, you have company in Blackburn boss Tony Mowbray. From Rovers.co.uk:

“I have to say living in the north east of England, Suffolk and Scotland most of my life I never would have grasped that Blackburn and Burnley and the geography of how close they were to be honest,” he said.

“It is not something that has hit me in the face before of a huge rivalry and yet I can feel it from the people around the building who have lived here all their lives how important this game is to them. … We’ll give it our very best shot and leave no stone unturned in trying to get a result.”

Elsewhere…

Southampton, fresh off adding $19 million Dutch center back Wesley Hoedt, will host Wolverhampton Wanderers at St. Mary’s, one of four 2:45 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Also kicking off at that time is Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest at St. James Park, with USMNT fullback Eric Lichaj likely to feature for the visitors, as well as Rotherham United’s visit to Huddersfield Town and Cheltenham Town’s trip to West Ham United.

A quarter-hour later, the final two second round matches kickoff when Burnley hosts Blackburn Rovers and Rochdale heads to Stoke City.

Southampton lands $19 million Dutch CB Hoedt

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Southampton’s added another defender who checks all the boxes, and used its press release to cement its status on the future of want-away center back Virgil Van Dijk.

Saints added Lazio center back Wesley Hoedt on Tuesday, with the reported fee in the neighborhood of $19 million for the 4-times capped Dutch international.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Gooch scores for Sunderland ]

The 6-foot-2 defender is 23 years old, and played 23 matches for i Biancocelesti last season.

Here’s Saints vice chairman Les Reed:

“Finding a naturally left-footed player is even more difficult. We have been tracking central defenders on our target list for the past 12 months and Wesley has always been at the top of that list, so it was important to act when the opportunity came.”

As our own Joe Prince-Wright pointed out, Saints aren’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for Van Dijk’s departure.

Saints also have Maya Yoshida — who won a penalty for Saints this weekend — Jack Stephens, Maya Yoshida, Jan Bednarek and Florin Gardos in their corps.

Will Van Dijk stay? Betting sites have him at 5:6 odds to stay at Southampton, but somehow 1:1 to join Liverpool and 7:1 to head to Chelsea (Man City gets 24:1 odds).

At this point, we’d love to see Van Dijk stay and buck the summer’s (actually much longer than that) gossip as Saints fight for a Top Six place.