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.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.