Houston Dynamo v Sporting Kansas City - Eastern Conference Championship - Leg 2

Week 9 Preview: Battle at the top of the East; Red Bulls to be tested by Dallas

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Week nine of Major League Soccer’s season begins on Saturday in Toronto and extends through NBCSN’s Game of the Week, a Sunday clash of Eastern Conference pacesetters at Sporting Park. 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
#2 Sporting Kansas City vs. #8 Columbus Crew (Sunday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN/NBC Live Extra)
Last week: Sporting Kansas City lost in New England, 2-0; Columbus was drawn at home by New York, 1-1

Eight weeks into the season, Columbus has started to wane from its 3-0-0 start, though this week should provide some clue as to the Crew’s staying power. Head coach Gregg Berhalter’s system — releasing fullbacks early, paying more than lip service to dropping a midfielder into a back three — goes up against a three-forward setup that prides itself on pressing, then disrupting. If Dom Dwyer, Sal Zizzo, and Graham Zusi can’t force Michael Parkhurst, Giancarlo Gonzalez, and Will Trapp to give up the ball, Oriol Rosell and Paulo Nagamura will cut any Columbus player that dreams of making Sporting’s pressure pay. Columbus doesn’t rely on its play in transition, so it may not mind the fouls, but dealing with that high pressure is going to be a problem.

So what does Berhalter do? Does he ask fullbacks Waylon Francis and Josh Williams to wait before releasing? Does Tony Tchani or Federico Higuaín come back to help? Or does the Crew coach use this game to test how effective his approach can be?

One loss in a 34-game season can be a learning experience. It doesn’t have to be a problem.


TESTS FOR OUR TOP FOUR
#13 Chicago Fire vs. #3 Real Salt Lake (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Chicago had the week off; Real Salt Lake were drawn by Vancouver, 2-2

What’s wrong with RSL? If anything, it’s a lack of focus. Saturday’s letdown highlight RSL’s inability to close out games, with the defending Western Conference champions having already dropped eight points from winning positions. This week, Jeff Cassar’s team visits a Fire squad that’s had two weeks to consider its winless but draw-ridden start (1-0-6).

While that seems like a recipe for a stalemate, an undefeated RSL seems primed to prove a point. If playing out a full 90 is the problem, a motivated but limited Chicago may not be able to keep the Claret and Cobalt from a solution.

#10 Colorado Rapids vs. #4 LA Galaxy (Saturday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Colorado lost in Seattle, 4-1; LA had another week off.

The glass half-full look at the Rapids: Their only two losses have come to our Power Rankings’ top two teams. The half-empty view: The Rapids haven’t looked that great, regardless: A win in Vancouver against the 10-man Whitecaps; Beating a Michael Bradley-less Toronto; Needing penalty kicks to beat New York and Portland. Pablo Mastroeni has introduced a solidity to this team, but in the process, he may have sacrificed what make last year’s team so potent.

If that’s the case, this test looks similar to what LA faced in Vancouver two weeks ago. This is another team that should compete for the last Western Conference playoff spot, but the Galaxy seem themselves as better than that. Another road draw would be fine, but they need to avoid the mistakes they committed in Vancouver.

source: AP#1 Seattle Sounders vs. #17 Philadelphia Union (Saturday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Seattle beat Colorado, 4-1; Philadelphia lost at Montréal, 1-0

Philadelphia goes from playing the league’s worst team its best. Given the Union lost last week at Stade Saputo, that’s a a path to a blowout, particularly given Seattle’s coming of a rout of Colorado. If Drew Moor and Shane O’Neill couldn’t handle the Clint Dempsey-Obafemi Martins duo, what makes us think Amobi Okugo and Aaron Wheeler will?

Usually when I write a paragraph like that, I’ll immediately offer a contradiction. This time, there’s no turn. Philadelphia’s current form makes it one of the worst teams in Major League Soccer, while Seattle has the league’s best record. While the Maurice Edu-Brian Carroll shield might limit the damage, the Union are big underdogs. If there’s an upset to be had, it’s going to be huge one.


BE AN MLS ULTZY, EMBRACE …
#9 Vancouver Whitecaps vs. #12 San Jose Earthquakes (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Vancouver came back to draw at RSL, 2-2; San Jose won its first of the season, 1-0 over Chivas USA

San Jose is the four-piece tribute band playing metal in your neighbor’s garage. They’re disruptive, playing music you don’t want to hear, and they come together way too late at night.

Vancouver, on the other hand, is that jam band down the street that playing something they call “hip-hop/funk” on Saturday afternoons. You don’t know how many people there are, and you’re not even sure if you like it, but your Saturdays are a little better for it.

Just like with music, there’s no right answer with these teams’ approaches. Vancouver has huge depth in both attack in midfield, with Darren Mattocks leading the slew of talented attackers that have produced back-to-back comebacks against Los Angeles and Salt Lake. San Jose, on the other hand, is starting to become unduly demonized for a blunt, pragmatic, yet generally effective approach.

It’s a stylistic clash that embodies an evolving league. On BC Place’s pool table, however, Vancouver’s depth may run San Jose into the ground.


source: APSURGE PROTECTION REQUIRED
#14 Portland Timbers vs. #15 D.C. United (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Portland drew in Houston, 1-1; D.C. United defeated FC Dallas, 4-1

#5 FC Dallas vs. #8 New York Red Bulls (Sunday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Dallas lost in D.C., 4-1; New York beat Houston, 4-0, before drawing in Columbus, 1-1

At the bottom of the East four weeks ago, D.C. and New York are now surging, both sitting one point behind Columbus in the East. Though each team has taken a recent 1-1 result out of Columbus, they’ve gone about the rest of their rises in different ways. D.C. has used a freakish Jose Gonçalves own goal, a home field smash and grab against bad New York, and an early Dallas red card to claim its three victories. New York has a convincing win over Philadelphia and an even strength rout of Houston.

Fortune should move away from D.C. this weekend, who face a terrible match for its personnel in Portland. The Timbers are winless this season but have generally looked good, if mistake-prone. They’ll have to commit more mistakes than usual to extend D.C.’s unbeaten run.

As for the Red Bulls, they’re catching Dallas at the right time. Mauro Díaz’s injury sidelines FCD’s playmaker. Zach Loyd is suspended and Kelyn Acosta is out for six weeks, leaving the team without a right back. Michel, after his late red card in D.C., is also out. It’s not too much for Óscar Pareja to overcome, but it may be enough to allow New York to stay hot.


STOP THE SLIDE
#6 Toronto FC vs. #12 New England Revolution (Saturday, 1:00 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Toronto had the week off; New England defeated Sporting Kansas City, 2-0

#18 Chivas USA vs. 16 Houston Dynamo (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern)
Last week: Chivas USA lost in San Jose, 1-0; Houston lost at New York, 4-0, before drawing with Portland, 1-1

Toronto went into their bye week with its first losing streak of the season, with loses to Colorado and Dallas leaving Ryan Nelsen’s team in desperate need of some renewed health. After two weeks on the sidelines, that need’s set to be fulfilled. Jermain Defoe is back, Michael Bradley’s had his troublesome foot treated, and Jonathan Osario has returned to training. If they’re anything close to the team that beat Seattle and Columbus, the Reds will halt New England’s three-match unbeaten run.

For Chivas USA and Houston, the droughts are much more severe. Houston hasn’t won since the season’s second week, while Chivas hasn’t claimed three points since opening day. Unfortunately, the way the teams matchup up, those winless runs are likely to continue.

Between Erick Torres and Brad Davis’s return, both sides have a route to a goal, but if recent results are any indication, both teams will have trouble scoring two.

Klopp hopes for speedy solution in club, fans’ ticket-price dispute

Liverpool's fans wave flags during the English League Cup semifinal second leg soccer match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
AP Photo/Jon Super
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From his time at Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp is used to a much more positive, family-like, everyone-pulling-in-the-same-direction atmosphere at his club of employment, so the present goings-on at Liverpool understandably have the Reds’ first-year manager feeling more than a little uneasy.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Saturday’s late 2-2 draw with Sunderland wasn’t the first time Liverpool fans have headed for the exit before the final whistle, leaving Klopp feeling all alone, but it was the first time the fans have departed from Anfield early in a pre-planned, organized manner (Klopp missed the game himself with appendicitis). The Anfield faithful didn’t walk out on 77 minutes due to their team’s poor performance — Liverpool were 2-0 ahead at the time — but in protest of steadily rising ticket prices, which were unveiled at $111 per game to sit in the 132-year-old stadium’s new main stand next season.

Klopp, coming from the Bundesliga, where a season ticket at clubs the size of Bayern Munich and Dortmund doesn’t cost much more than a single-game ticket at many Premier League grounds, understands the fans’ frustration. At the end of the day, though, he works for the club, which is why he just wants the whole thing settled quickly, for the sake of his squad — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s not what we want. What I know is everyone in the club has a big interest in finding a solution for this. We don’t want people to leave the stadium before the game is finished.”

An LFC TV appearance by Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre, in which he was expected to answer fan-submitted questions, was consequently canceled on Monday due to the ongoing dispute.

West Ham want Payet to sign new contract for fear of losing him this summer

Dimitri Payet, West Ham United FC (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Dimitri Payet is going to be a red-hot commodity during this summer’s transfer window, there’s no doubt about it.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Given he’s currently contracted to one of the Premier League’s “smaller” clubs — in comparison to some of the giants which are bound to be interested — West Ham United, there’s a decent-to-good chance he could be wearing a different club’s shirt come August. Especially if the 28-year-old attacker shows up and shows out at this summer’s European Championship in his native France.

If I can foresee the interest in Payet, then so too can the executives at West Ham, which is why manager Slaven Bilic took to the press on Monday to convey his desire for Payet to consider signing a new, increased contract at his earliest convenience — quotes from the Guardian:

“We are moving, the club is moving, with the new stadium, with the revenue and everything. We have to move and the most important move is to keep your best players and to add some new players who are needed and Dimitri Payet is our best player — I have no problem whatsoever to say that. Of course, I would love to have him happy, long term, at the club.”

Of course West Ham want Payet to sign a new deal immediately — doing so would accomplish two things in the club’s eyes: 1) increase the likelihood he remains at the club next season, or 2) insure the club receives a higher transfer fee for the player if he leaves in the summer anyway. The more total money remaining on his West Ham contract, the more they can demand of a prospective buyer.

[ MORE: Ronaldo commits himself to Real Madrid through 2018 ]

From Payet’s side — unless he has absolutely zero desire to move to a club like Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United, where he’d likely be paid close to $200,000 per week — he’d be crazy to sign a new contract at this point. Not only would it make a move this summer more difficult, but a strong showing at EURO 2016 could be worth another $15,000 or $20,000 per week on a new contract with West Ham (his current contract is rumored to be close to $100,000 per week).

With as many as five seasons still remaining on his current contract (a one-year club option can be exercised at any point), and his stock perhaps at an all-time high, the next six months could hold Payet’s last chance to get really, really paid before he hits the downside of his career.

USWNT players’ union responds in USSF lawsuit

FILE - In this Sunday, July 5, 2015 file photo, the United States Women's National Team celebrates with the trophy after they beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The U.S. Soccer Federation’s original lawsuit against the union for its champion women’s national team has been sealed after the governing body realized it had disclosed the home addresses and email accounts of many players, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
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(AP) — The union that represents the Women’s World Cup-winning American national team opposed an expedited schedule in the lawsuit filed against it by the U.S. Soccer Federation last week, insisting no collective bargaining agreement exists.

The federation sued in an attempt to establish it has a contract with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association that runs through this year’s Olympics until Dec. 31. The union maintains the memorandum of understanding agreed to in March 2013 can be terminated at any time.

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The USSF filed a motion Friday in U.S. District Court in Chicago asking for an expedited schedule, and the submitted opposition papers Monday that claim “facts asserted in the motion are nowhere near accurate and are hotly disputed.”

The union also maintains the USSF knew about the disagreement since July but did nothing about it.

An initial status conference is set for April 4.

Lionel Messi to undergo tests for lingering kidney problems

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi holds the ball during a quarterfinal, second leg, Copa del Rey soccer match against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi is to undergo medical tests to assess a recurrence of kidney problems.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup | Barca win on Sunday

Messi missed the Club World Cup semifinal in December due to a renal colic, an abdominal ailment often related to the presence of kidney stones within renal ducts.

Barcelona says in a statement Monday that the tests to be conducted by Tuesday at the latest, are “to assess the evolution of the kidney problem he suffered last December.”

[ MORE: Champions League returns next week — KO round matchups ]

The statement says Messi will resume training with the squad on Wednesday, when Barcelona travels to Valencia for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals in which it carries a 7-0 lead.