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.

Defoe reveals vegan diet key to comeback

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If you want to score goals, be a vegan.

[ MORE: PL teams release tour dates

That’s pretty much the message from Jermain Defoe as the 34-year-old striker rolled back the years on Sunday and scored in England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania in a 2018 World Cup qualifier at Wembley.

The Sunderland striker was recalled to the England squad for the first time since 2013 by Gareth Southgate and Defoe, like he has done all season, looked sharp and in the zone. Despite playing for struggling Sunderland who sit bottom of the Premier League table, Defoe has scored 14 goals in the league.

The only Englishman who has scored more times in the PL this season is Harry Kane.

Via the Guardian, Defoe has revealed the lengths he has gone to, off the pitch, in order to sustain his goalscoring prowess.

“Everyone wants to feel fresh in the game – there’s no better feeling – so I just make sure I’m doing the right things and trying to tick every box: cryotherapy, massage, eating the right things … I’m trying to turn vegan,” Defoe said. “That’s a funny one because, when I go to my mum’s, she’s got every kind of meat you can imagine out on the table.

“I think I’ve managed [to adopt veganism] successfully. My girlfriend suggested I gave it a go. Well, she said to me: ‘You’ve got to do it’ and she’s always showing me documentaries on it. It’s always nice to have someone around you who helps you and drives you on and wants you to do well. I don’t find anything hard to give up, as such, because I know the feeling scoring goals gives me. So, while getting in an ice bath isn’t nice, I just think: ‘You know what? I’m going to do this and be rewarded.’ It’s hard but in another way it’s easy because all I want to do is play well and score goals.”

Defoe is definitely doing the latter as he scored his 20th goal for England to join an elite list and is making the most of his opportunity back in the Three Lions’ setup.

As well as turning vegan, Defoe cut out alcohol many years ago and has also got rid of chocolate as well as limiting caffeine. All of this is obviously working. Defoe has scored 33 goals in 78 PL appearances for Sunderland since arriving in 2015 after many believed his England career was over following his move to Toronto FC for the 2014 Major League Soccer season.

How wrong they were. Southgate has said Defoe could play a part in Russia in two years time of England qualify and he’s still scoring goals in the PL. The chances of that seem pretty decent given Defoe’s incredible dedication to prolonging his career.

His body is a temple and one which keeps scoring goals.

CONMEBOL WCQ: Venezuela, Bolivia teetering on elimination

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CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying is always a challenge, and this World Cup cycle is no different.

With six teams currently separated by a mere five points under leaders Brazil, everything is left to play for as Round 14 hits South America.

[ MORE: Messi could face suspension from CONMEBOL ]

Here’s a look at what’s on the docket for Tuesday:

Bolivia vs. Argentina — 4 p.m. EDT

It wasn’t pretty at all, but La Albiceleste picked up a crucial three points against Chile, which could produce a morale lift for Argentina given their past struggles against the reigning Copa America holders.

Lionel Messi’s actions from the match could harm the Albiceleste though, with the Barcelona man reportedly facing sanctions from CONMEBOL for verbally abusing a linesman.

Meanwhile, Bolivia is in desperate need of a win in La Paz, and anything but three points could potentially end La Verde’s hopes of reaching Russia 2018.

Ecuador vs. Colombia — 5 p.m. EDT

It took a long time for Colombia to crack the Bolivia backline on Thursday but a late run from Juan Cuadrado helped set up the eventual winner from James Rodriguez, and kept Los Cafeteros in the top four.

Ecuador didn’t have the same fortunes though four days ago after falling to a very game Paraguay side. La Tricolor have gone winless in three of its last four World Cup qualifiers, leaving Gustavo Quinteros side with little margin of error against the Colombians.

Chile vs. Venezuela — 6 p.m. EDT

Chile’s qualifying struggles continued on Thursday after falling to La Albiceleste in a closely-contested match. Arturo Vidal’s six goals leave the Bayern Munich midfielder third in all of CONMEBOL this campaign, but the Chileans still sit on the outside looking in at the moment and in sixth place.

Venezuela is teetering on the edge of elimination, and a loss against Chile would all but seal their fate of missing out the World Cup. After reaching the quarterfinals at last summer’s Copa America Centenario, La Vinotinto have failed to replicate that form this qualifying campaign with just one win to show.

Top scorer Josef Martinez is no longer with Venezuela after suffering an injury in Thursday’s 2-2 draw against Peru, creating a major void in the side’s attack.

Brazil vs. Paraguay — 8:45 p.m. EDT

The Selecao continue to score at a lightning pace this qualifying campaign with 32 goals in the first 13 rounds of play. Despite conceding early to Uruguay on Thursday, Brazil responded emphatically with four goals, and most notably Paulinho‘s hat-trick.

Elsewhere, Paraguay kept itself within striking distance of the top five after its 2-1 win over Ecuador. The side is just two points behind fifth place Ecuador.

Peru vs. Uruguay — 10:15 p.m. EDT

Los Incas have not reached a World Cup since 1982, and although the team is just five points behind fifth, they need to pick up victories. Ricardo Gareca will be pleased with his side’s resiliency against Venezuela on Thursday, but more draws simply won’t do with only four rounds remaining after Tuesday.

Uruguay still sits in a solid second position after Thursday’s slip up against Brazil but another defeat could be potentially disastrous for La Celeste, who are just three points above sixth place Chile. However, Edinson Cavani’s nine goals leads all of CONMEBOL and Peru has allowed the third-most goals this campaign (22).

Ugly scene forces Ivory Coast-Senegal match to be abandoned

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Monday’s international friendly between Ivory Coast and Senegal turned out to be anything but that when the match was interrupted towards the tail end.

Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The fixture was abandoned with two minutes remaining in regulation after pitch invaders disrupted the the match by getting past security guards and began chasing after players from both sides.

The score was level at 1-1 in the 88th minute when the disruptions occurred, causing the referee to halt play at the Stade Sebastien Charlety in Paris.

One of the intruders even managed to tackle Senegalese defender Lamine Gassama (as shown in the picture to the right).

Liverpool’s Sadio Mane gave Senegal the lead minutes into the second stanza after he converted from the penalty spot, while Cyriac Gohi Bi leveled the score at one apiece just minutes later.

Messi could face CONMEBOL suspension for verbally abusing official

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Already facing some uncertainty with a depleted roster, Argentina could face a significantly greater challenge.

[ MORE: Aguero left out of Argentina starting XI vs. Bolivia ]

Barcelona star Lionel Messi could face suspension after reportedly verbally abusing linesman Marcelo Van Gasse during the second half of Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile.

UPDATED: Fox Sports Argentina is reporting that Messi will receive a two to four match suspension and will be effective for tomorrow’s match against Bolivia.

Messi was reported to CONMEBOL for yelling, “F*** off, your mother’s c***” at Van Gasse and refused to shake the official’s hand at the end of the match.

The officiating crew from the match didn’t initially include Messi’s rant in the post-match report, however, it was added on Monday and submitted to CONMEBOL.

The South American federation must now decide if and when it will punish Messi for his reported actions, and there is the potential that the world-class attacker could be suspended for Tuesday’s clash against Bolivia if the federation acts quickly.

There are several other scenarios though for CONMEBOL to action, including disregarding Messi’s verbal assault.

La Albiceleste currently sit third in World Cup qualifying on 22 points.