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Picks and previews: Looking ahead to the weekend in MLS

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Do you feel like you’re starting to get a feel for the 2014 edition of your favorite MLS team? Good for you, because frankly I’m having a whale of a time figuring out who might be for real, let alone who’s going to make a run at things.

There are several teams I’m very comfortable saying will be making playoff appearances provided World Cup rosters don’t sap their strength: Toronto and Real Salt Lake. Then there’s a muddled middle of teams that have looked great and defied expectations (Dallas and Columbus) or left us scratching our heads at their slow starts (Portland and New York).

So where are we? Besides Tiesville, where winners and losers are ostracized. Seriously, there have been 3-4 deadlocks in every weekend excepting opening weekend.

As for the picks, I’m not allowing myself to pick ties. If they tie, I tie.

All records W-L-T

Real Salt Lake (2-0-3) at Philadelphia Union (1-1-3), 4pm ET Saturday
Series: RSL, 2-0-4
Record at Philadelphia: 0-0-3
Outlook: Tough matchup for a Union team trying to learn their game without Philly mainstay Jack McInerney. Long trip out East, but RSL is up for it. RSL, 2-1.

Colorado (2-1-1) at Toronto FC (3-1-0), 4pm ET Saturday
Series: Toronto, 7-4-1
Record at Toronto: Toronto, 6-0-0
Outlook: For a club that hasn’t been a power, how about that unblemished mark against the Rapids in Toronto? Colorado has won an MLS Cup in the building, though. I like the Reds to build off the Columbus win and move to 4-1 with a 2-0 win.

Chicago (0-1-4) at Montreal (0-3-2), 4pm ET Saturday
Series: Chicago, 2-2-1
Record at Montreal: Montreal, 1-0-1
Outlook: Since we’re not picking ties, someone’s gotta get their first win this weekend. I like the McInerney/Di Vaio combination to find some instant chemistry, but can the Impact defend? Quincy Amarikwa has been a revelation for Chicago, but will he — or a jacked-up new-contracted Mike Magee — be enough for a W? Montreal, 3-2.

Houston (2-2-0) at New England (1-3-1), 5pm ET Saturday
Series: New England, 7-4-6
Record at NE: New England, 2-2-5
Outlook: Forecast calls for a chance of rain and 68 in New England, and it’ll take inclement weather and bad travel for Houston to be slowed by the Revs. Both teams are coming off bad losses against longtime rivals. I like Houston’s chances to rebound on the road, 2-0, on Will Bruin’s boots.

New York Red Bulls (0-1-4) at DC United (1-2-1), 7pm ET Saturday
Series: DC, 31-22-9
Record at DC: DC, 18-10-4
Outlook: Surely this rivalry match is where New York gets off the mat after a miserable, miserable start, correct? The only thing that could work for DC United is some more good vibes from Chris Rolfe and NY’s impending Wednesday date with the Union. NYRB, 3-1.

Seattle (2-2-1) at Dallas (4-0-1), 8:30pm ET Saturday
Series: Seattle, 6-2-4
Record at Dallas: Seattle, 2-1-3
Outlook: Which Sounders team will we get? That inconsistency alone is enough to pick a Dallas squad that is humming under Oscar Pareja, who has picked up big wins over Houston and Portland in recent weeks. Can it continue? I think so, though here’s where I’d call a 2-2 tie if allowed (that’s called “hedging”). Dallas, 2-1.

Chivas USA (1-2-2) at Portland (0-2-3), 10:30pm ET Saturday
Series: Chivas USA, 4-3-1
Record at Portland: 2-2
Outlook: I felt like the Timbers were a little over-appreciated coming into the season, but this is a spot that screams Portland. Wilmer Cabrera was frustrated by his club’s attitude in a 3-0 loss to L.A. last week, and I’m not sure they build up quick enough to perform well here. Portland, 4-1.

Vancouver (2-1-2) at Los Angeles (1-1-1), 10:30pm ET Saturday
Series: Galaxy, 5-2-1
Record at LA: Galaxy, 4-0
Outlook: Carl Robinson brings the Caps on the road to try and do something they’ve done at LA… win. The Galaxy looked dangerous against Chivas USA last week for nearly 90 minutes and form says… L.A. 2-1.

Columbus (3-1-0) at San Jose (0-2-1), 3pm ET Sunday
Series leader: Crew, 18-13-7
Record at SJ: Quakes, 10-6-3
Outlook: Is it an upset special given Columbus is coming off a loss, wasn’t expected to be a stronger team than San Jose and the Quakes are weeks free from CONCACAF Champions League schedule congestion? Chris Wondolowski keeps his US form rolling. SJ, 2-1.

MLS Cup Playoffs: NY Red Bulls 1-0 (1-2 agg.) Columbus Crew SC

Tony Tchani, Michael Parkhurst

The game in 100 words (or less): Columbus Crew SC are headed to their second MLS Cup in club history (champions – 2008) after defeating the New York Red Bulls, 2-0 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (0-0 draw in an extremely chippy second leg on Sunday). Justin Meram and Kei Kamara scored the two-leg tie’s only goals — eight seconds and 85 minutes into the first leg, respectively — and Crew SC confidently managed the second leg by defending with numbers and wisely picking their spots to break out on the counter. RBNY held nearly 60 percent of possession in the second leg, but could muster just six shots on target over the 90 minutes. Crew SC will host the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup 2015 next Sunday (4 p.m. ET) at MAPFRE Stadium.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

38′ — Robles at full stretch to deny Kamara — What’s better: the first touch, second touch, turn and shot by Kei Kamara; or, the sprawled-out save by Luis Robles to swat away a ball clearly headed for the bottom corner? Quality on quality.

90+3′ — Abang heads home to make it nervy late — Anatole Abange rose above the crowd and headed home a recycled ball inside the penalty area after a Sal Zizzo cross was headed high into the air late into stoppage time.

90+5′ — Madness in the penalty area, RBNY hit the post — It was absolute scenes inside the Crew SC penalty area. Ball after ball pumped into the box, headed high into the air and briefly cleared. The final chance of the game fell to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who headed the ball toward the far post with Steve Clark rushing out quickly, only to see his slow dribbler bounce off the front side of the post and back into the field of play.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Abang (90+3′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: FC Dallas 2-2 (3-5 agg.) Portland Timbers

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers FC
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The game in 100 words (or less): The Portland Timbers are headed to their first MLS Cup in club history after defeating FC Dallas, 5-3 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (2-2 draw in the second leg). Fanendo Adi scored in Sunday’s second leg, giving Caleb Porter’s side a 4-1 aggregate lead before Ryan Hollingshead and Blas Perez scored inside the last 25 minutes to give Oscar Pareja’s bunch a late lifeline, but Lucas Melano’s spectacular tap-in sealed the Timbers’ trip to MLS Cup. The third seed heading into the playoffs, Portland bounced Sporting Kansas City in an epic penalty shootout in the knockout round and outlasted the Vancouver Whitecaps in the conference semifinals before knocking off the West’s top seed over two legs to advance to MLS Cup 2015. No matter who advances from the East finals later on Sunday, Portland will play away in MLS Cup, to either the New York Red Bulls or Columbus Crew SC.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

54′ — Adi fires past Gonzalez to make if 4-1 — Oscar Pareja elected to go with Walker Zimmerman at center back on Sunday, dropping regular starter Zach Loyd to the bench. On the game’s opening goal, it was Zimmerman who wound up on the ground as Adi received the ball, turned and fired a massive away goal past Jesse Gonzalez.

68′ — Diaz’s magical ball curled home by Hollingshead — Mauro Diaz is a wonderful magician capable of playing the kill through ball from anywhere on the field — this we’ve known for quite some time. His chipped through ball to set up Hollingshead’s goal was extraordinarily brilliant, even for him.

73′ — Perez heads home the free kick to pull within one — Would you be surprised to hear that it was Diaz who set up FCD’s second goal? His free kick was Perez-finding missile and found the head of the Panamanian striker at the top of the six-yard box, where 34-year-old headed home with ease.

90+5′ — Melano rounds Gonzalez, seals MLS Cup berth — Poor Jesse Gonzalez. Absolutely schooled and posterized by Lucas Melano. What a way to sew up a place in the championship final.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Mauro Diaz

Goalscorers: Adi (54′), Hollingshead (68′), Perez (73′), Melano (90+5′)

La Liga & Serie A: Real Madrid bounce back; Juventus on the charge

Gareth Bale, Real Madrid CF
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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

Eibar 0-2 Real Madrid

Real Madrid bounced back from back-to-back La Liga defeats with a 2-0 victory away to Eibar on Sunday. Gareth Bale (below video) and Cristiano Ronaldo (penalty kick) provided the goals to keep Rafa Benitez‘s bunch (27 points) third in the league, two points behind Atletico Madrid and six behind leaders Barcelona.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Getafe 2-0 Villarreal
Rayo Vallecano 0-3 Athletic Bilbao
Sevilla 1-0 Valencia

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup ]

Roma 0-2 Atalanta

Losing at home to sides currently in a relegation battle — rarely a good idea, especially if you fancy yourselves title challengers, but that didn’t stop Roma from doing just that on Sunday. Alejandro Gomez and German Denis scored the goals to knock off a 10-man Roma side (Maicon – 81st minute) and keep Rudi Garcia’s bunch (27 points) from gaining ground on any of the three teams currently ahead of them — Inter Milan, Napoli and Fiorentina — all of whom play on Monday.

AC Milan 4-1 Sampdoria

M’Baye Niang scored twice, while Giacomo Bonaventura and Luiz Adriano (below video) added single tallies for AC Milan (23 points) to keep pace with the top-five pack in Serie A. After 14 rounds of games, the Rossoneri sit sixth, a point outside fifth (UEFA Europa League) and five points out of third (UEFA Champions League).

Palermo 0-3 Juventus

Don’t look now, but here come Juventus. Sunday’s 3-0 triumph over Palermo makes it four straight wins in the league for Massimiliano Allegri’s side — a run that pushes them all the way up to fifth in the league (24 points), just six points off the pace of leaders Inter, who play on Monday. Mario Mandzukic (below video), Stefano Sturaro and Simone Zaza scored the goals for the world’s most frightening fifth-place team.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Torino 2-0 Bologna
Chievo 2-3 Udinese
Frosinone 3-2 Hellas Verona
Genoa 1-2 Carpi
Empoli 1-0 Lazio

Monday’s Serie A schedule

Sassuolo vs. Fiorentina (1 p.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Inter Milan (3 p.m. ET)

Arsenal’s injury crisis — add Sanchez, Cazorla, Koscielny to the list

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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From title challengers to just hoping to hold on to a top-four place while Arsene Wenger is forced to play reserves and academy players because half of his star players are currently out injured — the annual story of Arsenal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Oct. 27, when Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both went down with injuries in the same game, marked the unofficial start of Arsenal’s 2015-16 injury crisis, but things didn’t really get going full bore until the last seven days, when five more players — four of them full-time starters — picked up injuries that will keep them out of action for anywhere between three weeks and three months.

Added to the list last weekend: Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks)

Added to the list on Sunday: Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – MORE DETAILS), Santi Cazorla (knee), Laurent Koscielny (hip)

Following Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Norwich City, Wenger said Koscielny “could not walk” due to the hip spasm that forced him out of the game after just 11 minutes. He also divulged that Cazorla, who could not be subbed off because Wenger had already used all three subs late on, played the second half “on one leg.” Sanchez came into Sunday injured after picking up a hamstring injury in Arsenal’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Sunday’s PL roundup — Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs all draw ]

Arsenal fans were up in arms during the summer transfer window — let’s be honest, the following is true of every transfer window the last five years — crying out, “We must buy, we must buy.” Have a look at Arsenal’s complete injury list at the moment, and try to say, “They didn’t need to buy in the summer.”

In chronological order: Danny Welbeck (knee – early 2016 return), Tomas Rosicky (knee – Christmas time return), Jack Wilshere (leg – Christmas time return), Theo Walcott (calf – December return), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks), Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Laurent Koscielny (hip – to be assessed), Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – to be assessed), Santi Cazorla (knee – to be assessed)