Week 5 Preview: Why Portland-Seattle’s must see TV (and the rest of MLS’s nine-match weekend)

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Week five of Major League Soccer’s season begins on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. Eastern in Portland, Ore., with the latest installment in Timbers and Seattle Sounders’ rivalry kicking off a nine-match slate that concludes Sunday with the Clásico Angelino. 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
#13 Portland Timbers vs. #7 Seattle Sounders (Saturday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN/NBC Live Extra)
Last week: Portland lost at FC Dallas, 2-1; Seattle lost to visiting Columbus, 2-1

Aw, yeah. This game’s supposed to be The Best Rivalry in Major League Soccer®, a label that some fans, particularly on the east coast, are tired of hearing. This Cascadia Rivalry stuff is being shoved down our throats … [insert ‘dog’, ‘bro’, or ‘man’ here]!

But it’s true. Portland and Seattle is the league’s best rivalry, and easily so. There’s a reason why media from beyond MLS regularly fly in for these games. Sure, with ever patronizing BBC piece there’s a hint of “oh, look at what those Americans are doing”, but the reality on the ground remains the same. Saturday’s match at Providence Park will provide an atmosphere unmatched in Major League Soccer:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IITKEKeE74c align=center width=500]

So sorry D.C. United versus New York. There is a reason why people fawn over this game. I know it’s annoying, and yeah, there’s a point where the navel-grazing gets a bit ridiculous, but there is a reason why these game are always on national television. Not only do the two teams play entertaining soccer and legitimately embrace the intensity of the rivalry, but the games themselves are the best products MLS can offer. Portland-Seattle gets forced down your throats for a reason.

As far the game itself is concerned, Portland’s winless in four, and while Caleb Porter is trying to maintain an even keel in the face of a disappointing start, that doesn’t make March any less disappointing. A loss at home to his team’s arch-rivals would put the Timbers’ slow start in an entirely different, slightly more apocalyptic context.

As for Seattle, they’ve lost three in a row to the Timbers, including twice in last year’s Western Conference semifinals. Though Clint Dempsey returns from suspension this week, he brings with him uncertainty as to which formation Seattle should play. With the U.S. captain out, Seattle went to a 4-3-3, something that produced their season’s game-and-a-half of soccer.


source: Getty ImagesTHE OTHER GAME YOU JUST CAN’T MISS
#2 Sporting Kansas City vs. #1 Real Salt Lake (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: RSL beat previous #1 Toronto, 3-0; Sporting won 3-2 at Colorado

A second straight one versus two matchup? Wow. It’s almost as if the nature of Power Rankings lends itself toward this, especially early in the season. You know, I’m starting to wonder if those Power Rankings really mean anything.

Something that’s slightly more meaningful: This year’s only meeting between December’s MLS Cup finalists. Real Salt Lake, having already knocked off Toronto FC and the LA Galaxy, continue a brutal opening schedule, while Sporting Kansas City gets its first big test since their CONCACAF Champions League commitments (and, squad rotation) ended.

Last time these teams met, it took 10 rounds of penalty kicks to crown Sporting the winner, but with a number of key players just returning from U.S. international duty, it will be interesting to see if fatigue plays a part. This early in the season, most people say players should be able to handle it, but will Graham Zusi or Matt Besler show any effects for Kansas City? And what about Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran for Real Salt Lake?

If these teams needed 10 penalty kicks to decide their last matchup, any microscopic edge might could send this game swinging one way or the other. There’ll be no Lovel Palmer to decide this one.

CANCEL YOUR LIFE: THERE’S A THIRD GAME YOU JUST CAN’T MISS
#3 Columbus Crew vs. #4 Toronto FC (Saturday, 6:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Columbus won at Seattle, 2-1; TFC fell at Salt Lake, 3-0

Coming off a win at CenturyLink, the league’s last perfect team hosts the other club that’s won in Seattle, though whereas Columbus needed the Sounders to lose a man before it got on the board, Toronto picked apart Seattle in the first 30 minutes of its 2014 opener.

In that light, it would be unwise to look too deeply into last week’s loss in Salt Lake. Though Toronto looked terrible against the league’s best team, their performance against a common opponent hints they’ll be a good match for Columbus.

Too bad they’ll be without captain Steven Caldwell, suspended for plowing through Ned Grabavoy last week. And again, Ryan Nelsen’s reluctance to change his team’s shape may be a problem. Whereas last week it was Real Salt Lake meticulously picking his 4-4-2 apart — building down its right to find Javier Morales behind TFC’s first line of four — this week Toronto risks being bent out of shape by the movement of Federico Higuain. Even if they don’t bite, there’s still the potential to be overwhelmed by Bernardo Añor and Hector Jimenez creating a four-man middle.


source: Getty ImagesTHIS SECTION IS ABOUT MORE DERBY ARCH RIVALRY NEMESIS-NESS … WEEK
#6 Houston Dynamo vs. #8 FC Dallas (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Houston lost at Vancouver, 2-1; Dallas beat visiting Portland, 2-1

Given their ranking, I’m obviously not sold on FC Dallas (3-0-1). But guess what? They haven’t actually looked that amazing, yet. A one-goal home win over Montréal? Only one shot on target against a hamstrung Sporting KC? The 10-on-10 aberration against Portland? FC Dallas’s 3-1 win over Chivas USA was their most impressive performance, which kind of seems like something an obviously above average team would do. Hence, their obviously above average ranking.

If they win in Houston — heck, if they get a draw in Houston — they’ll climb. Houston may have lost last week, but there was a lot to like about how they played at BC Place. Unless this game plays out totally unexpectedly (which never happens in soccer, right?), this will be a litmus test for Dallas.

In truth, part of me thinks Dallas is ranked too low, but it was impossible to bump them up after a game played 10-on-10. If they perform well in Houston, I can stop feeling so conflicted about their No. 8-ness.

#15 Chivas USA vs. #9 LA Galaxy (Sunday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: The Goats drew last week in New York, 1-1; LA was not playing Real Salt Lake

It’s the L.A. Derby! Or the Derbi Angelino. Maybe it’s the Clásico Angelingo, or better yet: El Derbi con el Nombre Lamentable (author’s note: I  made the last one up). You may know it as the SuperClasico, but I’m going to use this platform to say something controversial: That may be the worst name for this rivalry. With next year’s rebrand, that recycled moniker might die out. May its passing be a celebrated one.

On the field, LA Galaxy continued their pattern of off week-on week with an actual game, one that, for this first time this season, doesn’t seem them matched up against Real Salt Lake. To LA’s credit, it was only -1 on goals (+3 in shots on goal) over 180 minutes against the league’s best team, but they should still be allowed to play the rest of the league. I don’t like the Galaxy’s Supporters’ Shield odds if they have to play RSL each week.

As for the Goats, they return to Carson for a home game that’s no home game at all. An LA team given two weeks to target its first win  will be Wilmer Cabrera’s biggest challenge yet.


BE AN MLS ULTZY AND EMBRACE
#10 Vancouver Whitecaps vs. #11 Colorado Rapids (Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Vancouver beat Houston, 2-1; Colorado fell at home to Sporting, 3-2

While all your friends are watching Michael Bradley in Columbus or getting ready for that MLS Cup rematch, turn to what’s destined to be a track meet in Vancouver. The Whitecaps are 2-0-0 and have scored six goals this season at home, in large part because the league’s deepest (and, probably most talented) attack has been blowing past Eastern Conference foes trying to adjust to B.C. Place. The wonders of LigaTurf are no mystery to Colorado, however. With DeShorn Brown and Gabi Torres, Colorado may actually score its first non-penalty kick goal.


source:  I’M THINKING ONE OF THESE IS YOUR FAVORITE TEAM
#16 Montréal Impact vs. #18 New York Red Bulls (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Montréal got a draw at Philadelphia, 1-1; New York did the same against visiting Chivas USA

Marco Di Vaio will play, but in all likelihood, Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry are out for New York. Henry’s not going to step foot on Olympic Stadium’s turf (does he still get paid for the game?), while Cahill’s hamstring problem leaves the Australia international on the sideline.

So are you ready for that epic Di Vaio vs. Bradley Wright-Phillips shootout? It’s not what the crowd in Montréal was expecting, but it’s what they’re going to get. They may also get their team’s first win of the season.

#17 Chicago Fire vs. #5 Philadelphia Union (Saturday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Chicago drew at D.C. United, 2-2; Philadelphia dropped points at home to Montréal, 1-1

Remember how I said I wasn’t comfortable with FC Dallas’s Power Ranking? (Just pretend you didn’t skip to your team’s section.) I’m not thrilled with Philadelphia’s, either. It seems too high for a team that was pulled back by a 10-man Montréal. At home. I was focused on the Union’s underlying play, I may be over-valuing their potential.

As for this game, Jeff Larentowicz has some heavy lifting to do. Partnered with Alex in midfield, if Chicago destroyer will be expected to stop Maurice Edu, Brian Carroll, and Vincent Nogueira. If that sounds like a mismatch to you, that’s because it is.

#19 D.C. United vs. #12 New England Revolution (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: D.C. United drew with Chicago, 2-2; New England won at San Jose, 2-1

Both teams got off to disastrous starts, going a combined 0-2-0 and -7 (goal difference) in week one. Since then, both sides have experienced week-on-week improvement, and while that leaves New England slightly ahead of United (having played an extra game), it also means something has to give.

There’s no result that sees United go from mediocre to decent that also allows the Revolution to improve on their win in Santa Clara. One of Ben Olsen and Jay Heaps will leave RFK disappointed on Saturday, and for the first time in 15 games, it might not be Ben Olsen.

Might.

How important is Eden Hazard to Chelsea?

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Can Chelsea afford to lose Eden Hazard?

Hazard, 26, continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid this summer for a potential world-record fee of over $125 million.

[ MORE: Conte hails Eden Hazard

This season the Belgian winger has been unplayable at times, particularly in recent months, and he is on the verge of leading Chelsea to a second Premier League title in the last three seasons.

Yet, with rumors of Hazard leaving Stamford Bridge persisting it is worth contemplating just how important he is to Antonio Conte‘s side despite the Italian claiming his star winger is “priceless” in a bid to wave off interest.

From a numbers perspective Hazard’s importance is clear. He has scored 11 PL goals and has four assists, with Diego Costa the only other Chelsea player to be involved in more goals with the Spanish international scoring 17 times and adding five assists. Beyond this season, Hazard has scored and assisted on more goals than any other current Chelsea player since he arrived in 2012-13.

There’s no doubting Hazard’s influence runs deeper than goals and assists.

When he picks up the ball defenders backtrack and even when they get close they have no idea which way Hazard will turn. The only way to try and stop him, as we’ve seen recently in their FA Cup quarterfinal win against Manchester United, is by hacking him down at every opportunity. With so much focus on stopping Hazard, the likes of Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian have been able to flourish and Conte reshaped his Chelsea side to a 3-4-3 with wing backs to get the best out of Hazard.

Hazard is back to his best with confidence flowing through his game just like it did in the 2014-15 campaign as he led Chelsea to the PL title and was crowned as the PFA Player of the Year.

However, there is a lingering sense that if Real Madrid did offer a huge sum of money this summer then perhaps Chelsea would accept the deal. Last season Hazard was way off the pace as Jose Mourinho’s time at Chelsea unraveled quickly and he was lambasted by fans as one of the star players who turned against the manager.

There’s no doubting Hazard is up there with N'Golo Kante and Costa as Chelsea’s top players this season but arguably he would be the most replaceable star. Without Costa’s goals and presence up top, Chelsea would be struggling. Without Kante’s incredible rate of interceptions and tackles in midfield, they’d be less effective in launching devastating counters.

When Hazard was missing through injury in Chelsea’s 2-1 win at Stoke in their last PL outing, Willian came into the team and scored a free kick and alongside Pedro they provided plenty of chances for Costa and others to score. Hazard wasn’t missed but there’s no doubting Chelsea is a better team when he’s in it.

On paper Hazard is entering the prime years of his career and perhaps the pull of Real Madrid could be too great if the Spanish giants do indeed intend to chase him hard in the summer. Of course, Real already have Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up top but if the Zinedine Zidane’s side bought Hazard then he’d obviously start.

The only thing he has left to achieve with Chelsea is win the UEFA Champions League. Apart from that, he’s proven himself as one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League time and again.

It will be intriguing to see what happens with Hazard this summer.

Injuries, suspensions still an issue for busy Man United

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Manchester United have been struggling with suspensions and injuries and the international break hasn’t provided any respite.

[ MORE: United announce US tour dates ]

Both Zlatan Ibrahmovic and Ander Herrera are suspended for Saturday’s clash with West Bromwich Albion (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) at Old Trafford, plus Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Maroune Fellaini are all doubtful.

Jones injured his toe while on international duty as his United teammate Smalling tackled him in training, while Smalling has been spotted in a knee brace after picking up a knock in England’s win against Lithuania on Sunday. Fellaini also suffered a toe injury in Belgium’s draw with Greece on Saturday and has been released from international duty.

Rooney hasn’t played since the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth on Mar. 4 after suffering a training ground injury with Jones and Pogba limped off with a hamstring injury in United’s UEFA Europa League win against Rostov on Mar. 16.

Oh, Jose. When it rains it pours…

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

All of this injury news has been made more concerning given United’s busy month coming up as Mourinho’s men have nine games in April as they push hard to finish in the top four in the PL and reach the UEFA Champions League.

After the game against West Brom they face Everton at home and Sunderland away in a seven day stretch before heading to Anderlecht on Apr. 13 for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal. Sandwiched in-between their two games with Anderlecht they host Premier League leaders Chelsea and then finish off April with trips to Burnley and Manchester City before hosting Swansea City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Mourinho will be hoping the vast majority of these players will be available for the busy stretch ahead as his large squad cope with a season-long struggle of juggling PL, domestic cup and European action.

Defensively he still has Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly to slot in but he could be forced to draft in youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah into midfield with so many games coming up in a short space of time.

United will be stretched to the limit as they aim to finish the season strong.

Lionel Messi suspended after abusing linesman

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Argentina will be without five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi for their next four games.

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On Tuesday FIFA announced that Messi, 29, has been suspended for four international game as the Barcelona forward was found guilty of verbally abusing an assistant referee in the second half of Argentina’s crucial 1-0 win against Chile last Thursday.

Messi, of course, scored the winning penalty kick in that game.

Messi — the captain of Argentina and their leading all-time goalscorer with 58 goals — will miss the game against Bolivia on Tuesday, plus Argentina’s friendly with Brazil this summer in Australia and also two key World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay and Venezuela in August and September.

Argentina currently sit in third-place in CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but are far from locks in their quest to qualify for the World Cup. That task has just got a lot harder after losing their talisman for sending verbal abuse at a linesman.

Look, it would be great to see abuse from players towards officials stamped out but how many times have we all seen players across the game screaming obscenities at officials in an aggressive manner? It seems like Messi may be a little hard done by and that FIFA has used the biggest name on the planet and made an example of him.

Below is the statement in full from FIFA on Messi’s suspension.

The FIFA Disciplinary Committee – in application of articles 77 a) and 108 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (FDC) – has reached a decision in relation to the case of Lionel Messi following an incident that occurred during the match between Argentina and Chile on 23 March 2017 as part of the qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™:

Footballer Lionel Messi has been found guilty of violating art. 57 of the FDC for having directed insulting words at an assistant referee.

As a result, Lionel Messi will be suspended for four official matches and sanctioned with a fine of CHF 10,000. The first match for which the sanction will apply is the next fixture in the preliminary competition of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ between Bolivia and Argentina, which will be played today, 28 March. The remainder of the sanction will be served over Argentina’s subsequent FIFA World Cup qualifying matches.

This decision is in line with the FIFA Disciplinary Committee’s previous rulings in similar cases.

Both the player and the Argentinian Football Association have been informed of the decision today.

After late goals broke Panama’s hearts in 2013, US returns

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PANAMA CITY (AP) With Panama about 90 seconds from reaching a playoff against New Zealand for a World Cup berth, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored in second-half stoppage time four years ago to give the already qualified United States a 3-2 win and eliminate the hosts.

“You felt this place dip,” Jozy Altidore recalled Monday. “You heard people crying.”

The U.S. will be back Tuesday night in a match that matters for both teams. The Americans routed Honduras 6-0 Friday at home and are looking for a second straight win in World Cup qualifying under coach Bruce Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after an 0-2 start in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

Before a light workout at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, American players thought the Panamanians might still have that 2013 match on their minds. Panama needed a win, but the late U.S. goals kept Mexico alive and El Tri went on to reach the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Panama has never advanced to the World Cup.

“If we were smart enough, we wouldn’t have broken their hearts. Pretty stupid, if you ask me,” Arena said humorously. “You think Mexico would have scored a goal at the end of that game?”

Panama opened the hexagonal, as the final round is called, with a 1-0 win at Honduras and a 0-0 tie at home against Mexico, and then lost 1-0 at Trinidad and Tobago. Five players from that 2013 loss to the U.S. were in the starting lineup for Friday’s defeat.

“It was obviously probably pretty devastating for the players,” said American midfielder Sacha Kljestan, also among those on the field that night. “I’m sure it still means a lot to them.”

Mexico leads the hexagonal with seven points, followed by Costa Rica with six, Panama with four and the U.S., Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras with three each. The top three nations qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, and the fourth-place team again goes to a playoff, this time against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“The reality of the situation that we’re in and the reality of the start that we had is we’re not playing with house money,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “We’re not in a situation where we can just say, great, we took our three points at home, whatever we get on the road is extra. No, we have to come here and take points. We want three. We’re going to play in a way that gives us a chance, a big chance to get three.”

LINEUP CHANGES

Arena predicted as many as four or five changes to his starting lineup. There will be at least two.

John Brooks will miss the match because of a sinus infection and Sebastian Lletget is out with a foot injury. The players who replaced them against Honduras could start, Tim Ream for Brooks in central defense and Alejandro Bedoya in place of Lletget in right midfield.

Jermaine Jones, back from a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation, could enter in a central midfield role, which would push Christian Pulisic to the left flank in place of Darlington Nagbe.

APPROACHING A RECORD

After scoring his second international hat trick Friday, Clint Dempsey has 55 goals, two shy of Landon Donovan’s American record.

“Yeah, it’s on your mind,” the 34-year-old Dempsey said. “But if it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t.”

OLD FRIENDS

Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, a holdover from the 2013 game, played for Arena on the LA Galaxy from 2013-15.

“Jaime Pinedo is one of the finest people I’ve ever met in the game,” Arena said. “We enjoyed him very much. Our fans loved him.”

WEATHER-WISE

After playing on a cool, damp night in the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend, the U.S. will deal with far different conditions. The game-time temperature is forecast to be 80 degrees with high humidity.

Panama’s players also may not be used to the heat, given some play in New York, Seattle, Toronto, Switzerland, Romania and other cool climates.