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Week 7 Preview: Fire look for first win vs. Revs; Dallas gets its crack at Toronto

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Week seven of Major League Soccer’s season begins on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern in Chicago and Philadelphia, with Saturday’s nine-match slate also featuring a battle of early season upstarts at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Tex. 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
#14 Chicago Fire vs. #11 New England Revolution (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN/NBC Live Extra)
Last week: Chicago drew in Montréal, 1-1; New England beat visiting Houston, 2-0

I don’t know if the Chicago Fire are better than last year, but through six weeks of the season (five of which have ended in draws), they’ve been more interesting to watch. Quincy Amarikwa’s brought some energy to the striker position, rookie Harry Shipp has added skill to the midfield, while a new central defense of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (pictured) and Bakary Soumaré are good for some fun, random mistakes. They seem to be driving drive Frank Yallop nuts, but the miscues also make for some really competitive matches.

Against a struggling Teal Bunbury, the Fire defenders are less likely to get burned, and with 2013 Defender of the Year José Gonçalves potentially sidelined, the Revolution may have trouble keeping track of the hyperactive Amarikwa. Players like Diego Fagundez, Lee Nguyen, and Saer Sene would still test the Chicago defense, but the Fire are favorites. It’s just a matter of converting their underlying play into three points instead of one.


THE OTHER GAME YOU JUST CAN’T MISS
#7 FC Dallas vs. #3 Toronto FC (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Dallas suffered its first loss of the season, 3-2 to Seattle; Toronto lost to Colorado, 1-0

I’ve been cautious about hopping on the Dallas bandwagon (hence that number seven ranking), but the idea of Steven Caldwell and Bradley Orr being turned, left to chase Je-Vaughn Watson and Fabian Castillo as they run onto Mauro Díaz through balls, should give Ryan Nelsen nightmares. Then again, he just looks at the team’s payroll, sees “BRADLEY – $6,500,000,” and says “That’s why we give Mikey that money.”

Bradley’s health still makes him iffy for Saturday’s game, but it seems like Nelsen’s being coy in describing him as a doubt. He also seems lest optimistic about Jermain Defoe, who’s missed two in a row.

Regardless, let’s get tactical: If the Reds have to ask Bradley to watch Díaz, are without Defoe up top, and have to get fullbacks Justin Morrow and Mark Bloom to be more conscious of helping with Dallas’s quick wingers? It could be “stay back and pray,” particularly with Dallas’s two defensive midfielders (Hendry Thomas; Michel) helping destroy Toronto’s counters.


TOO SOON FOR SEQUELS: THIS WEEKEND’S EARLY-SEASON REMATCHES
#10 Vancouver Whitecaps vs. #6 LA Galaxy (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Vancouver lost in Los Angeles, 1-0, while LA defeated the visiting Whitecaps, 1-0.

For the second time this season, LA has a home-and-home, with the four-time champions having opened the season with two games against Real Salt Lake. Last week’s first leg broke their way, with Robbie Keane’s early second half opener holding up, but the Galaxy are unlikely to see such a conservative Vancouver. In Carson, Calif., the Whitecaps sat deep and compact, trying to beat LA on the counter. On the faster track at BC Place, the Whitecaps may try to outrun one of the league’s slower squads.

#4 Columbus Crew vs. #17 D.C. United (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Columbus drew in San Jose, 1-1; D.C. United defeated New York, 1-0

If Columbus doesn’t get cocky and read too much into its 3-0, opening day win at RFK, this will be the team’s easiest game since. D.C. United may be on a two-game winning streak, but they those games were at home against New England and New York. Columbus is on a whole different level. Unless we see a new D.C. United, this one should go the way of the Crew.


source: APBE AN MLS ULTZY, EMBRACE …
#8 Colorado Rapids vs. #13 San Jose Earthquakes (Saturday, 6:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Colorado won in Toronto, 1-0; San Jose drew with the Crew, 1-1

Two decent teams — two teams that should compete at the edge of the Western Conference playoffs — have gotten off to divergent starts. Colorado rides a two-match win streak into their home return, while San Jose is one of the league’s four remaining winless teams.

Despite those records, this should be a relatively even matchup, though the Rapids’ Saturday win gives us a hint as to how things could go down. Toronto and San Jose set up nearly identically, though the styles of the teams’ forward tandems are different. If Shane O’Neill (if he gets another start in the middle) and Drew Moor can handle Alan Gordon and Chris Wondolowski, the Earthquakes will likely remain winless.


THE MAURO ROSALES CUP …
#15 Chivas USA vs. #5 Seattle Sounders (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Chivas USA drew at Portland, 1-1; Seattle won in Dallas, 3-2

Rosales’s three-year run in the Emerald City made him a huge fan favorite, but as Seattle reconfigured its team in the wake of last fall’s disappointment, the Argentine winger was forced to move on. He’s quickly found a home in Carson, where his leadership and constant effort have instilled a belief in the previously wayward squad. The Goats aren’t setting MLS on fire, but as last week’s result at Providence Park showed, they’re far more capable this year under Wilmer Cabrera.

Seattle’s attack, however, threatens to make this one a lopsided result. While teams like Portland and Dallas could keep up, it’s unclear how Chivas USA can do so. Where the Goats have relied on Erick Torres opportunism during their 1-2-3 start, they may need their only scorer to explode if they’re to keep up with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. A defense where only Carlos Bocanegra is playing his natural position will have trouble with Martins’ movement.

… THE “LAST GAME DIDN’T HAPPEN” BOWL …
#9 Philadelphia Union vs. #12 Houston Dynamo (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Philadelphia drew with RSL, 2-2 (but lost at New York on Wednesday); Houston lost at New England, 2-0

Ricardo Clark versus Maurice Edu in the middle? I’m in. Two strong, experienced, potentially destructive players, both of whom can cover acres in midfield? First one to five tackles wins (though Edu, at 3.3 per game, is averaging nearly double Clark’s surprisingly low 1.6).

The better issue, though, is whether either team can bounce back from its last result. Houston failed to put a shot on target in its 2-0 loss in Foxborough, while Philadelphia couldn’t match the Red Bulls’ persistence mid-week in Harrison. Houston is 0-2-0 on the road this season.

… AND TWO GAMES THAT DON’T SEEM FAIR
#1 Sporting Kansas City vs. #18 Montréal Impact (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Sporting had the week off; Montréal drew with visiting Chicago, 1-1

Ike Opara is out (for the year) and Oriol Rosell is suspended, but as long as Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi, and Sal Zizzo are pressing up against that Montréal defense, this one’s going to be tough for the Impact. Maybe Frank Klopas will drop Jack McInerney, rely on Marco Di Vaio alone up top, and add a third midfielder, hoping his team can actually hold the ball a while before punting it. Even then, this looks like reach for the Montréal.

#2 Real Salt Lake vs. #16 Portland Timbers (Saturday, 9:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Salt Lake drew in Philadelphia, 2-2; Portland were held by Chivas USA, 1-1

  • Portland’s all-time record against Real Salt Lake, having joined Major League Soccer in 2011: 1-7-3.
  • Games without a Timbers win vs. RSL: 10.
  • Caleb Porter’s career record against Salt Lake: 0-4-2.
  • Number of videos RSL has posted flaunting its success against Portland: Unknown, but I found this one, advertised as “So intense it will make you to tears”:

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
AP Photo/Raad Adayleh
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)