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.

Frank Yallop resigns as Phoenix Rising coach shortly after Drogba arrival

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The timing is a bit sudden and certainly leaves many questions up in the air, but Phoenix Rising will have to look for a new manager.

[ MORE: Chicharito talks heating up with LA FC ]

On Monday, head coach Frank Yallop resigned from his position with the United Soccer League (USL) club less than one day after former Chelsea legend Didier Drogba joined the organization as a player-owner.

With Phoenix seen as one of several lower-level clubs with ambitions of making the leap to MLS over the coming seasons, Yallop’s departure is surely a shock to many.

According to ESPN FC, Rising lead owner Berke Bakay was quite surprised by Yallop’s decision to step down, as was Drogba.

“Didier was as surprised and disappointed as we were that Frank is unable to continue coaching our Club,” Bakay told ESPN FC. “But, we all respect his decision to put his family first.

“Didier’s focus will remain on improving our team as a player and assisting our MLS expansion team ownership group as a co-owner. Frank will be helping with our international search for a new head coach.”

Rick Schantz, the current Rising assistant coach, will head the team’s managerial duties for the interim while the club completes a full search for a new manager.

Conte praises Hazard’s style, wouldn’t want him to be “more selfish”

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Antonio Conte made two bold decisions on Saturday afternoon as his Chelsea side prepared to take on Tottenham in their FA Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Oriol Romeu shines with Saints as he prepares for Chelsea return ]

The Italian manager has been known for his innovation and risk-taking in the past, but many were critical of the 47-year-old when his team sheet came out ahead of the match.

Conte left key attacking duo Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench, allowing out-of-favor striker Michy Batshuayi and Pedro to get the starting nod.

Although Hazard nor Costa saw the field for the opening hour, the former made his presence known when he was summoned by Conte in the second half.

Often times Hazard has been known as a facilitator, someone that can pick apart defenses with his tremendous foot skills and clever passing. But the Belgian international has also shown his capabilities of scoring on a regular basis as well, which has prompted great interest from other giant clubs around Europe.

When Conte was asked about Hazard and if his attacker should be more selfish, the Italian gave an emphatic “NO” as his response.

“No, no, no, absolutely not,” Conte said. “I don’t think that a player like Messi is a selfish player. The first target for every great champion is to play for the team and to put your talent into the team. If you do this, the team [increases] your talent.

“The best players in the world don’t exist without a team. For me, it’s sad to listen to this, that a player must ‘be more selfish’ to reach the top level. That’s very sad. It’s not my idea of football and I will never understand this. Never, never. In my team, I don’t want selfish players.

“I prefer to lose a game than to have a selfish player. For me, I don’t want this and I can’t accept this. I don’t want my club to buy me a selfish player one day. Never. No.”

Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League

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Two sides have now booked their trips to England’s top flight after Newcastle United rattled off its 27th win of the season.

[ MORE: Oriol Romeu — The perfectly poised destroyer ]

The Magpies earned a decisive 4-1 victory over Preston North End on Monday afternoon at St. James’ Park as the second-place side ensured its finish inside the top two in the English Championship.

Newcastle joins already-promoted club Brighton & Hove Albion, who currently sit atop the Championship on 92 points.

Ayoze Perez paced the hosts with goals on both sides of halftime, while Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie also converted for Newcastle.

U.S. Men’s National Team defender DeAndre Yedlin was on the bench for the Magpies but didn’t feature in Monday’s match.

The third and final team to be promoted from the Championship will be decided by the league’s annual promotion playoff, which is held at the end of the season and contested by four sides that finish third through sixth position.

As it stands, Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town and Fulham occupy the four playoff positions.

Marseille making Olivier Giroud top transfer target this summer

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Marseille did well to bring in one star this season but could the French side have another trick up its sleeve this summer?

Sky Sports is reporting that the Ligue 1 club is preparing to sign Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud over the summer and the sixth-place side is “willing to pay up to £20m (roughly $25 million).

Marseille made a splash this season when the club re-signed Dimitri Payet, who was playing with Premier League side West Ham at the time.

The team does boast several quality attacking options such as Payet and Bafetimbi Gomis, but Giroud could serve as an ideal target man in the Marseille attack.

Prior to joining the Gunners in 2012, Giroud starred for Montpellier and with a potential link-up in the attack with a creator like Payet, it could present a dangerous attacking threat to the rest of Ligue 1.

Giroud, 30, has scored 95 goals in all competitions since arriving in London with Arsenal.