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.

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.