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.

Ranieri returns to Leicester to say final goodbyes

SWANSEA, WALES - FEBRUARY 12:  Claudio Ranieri manager of Leicester City looks on prior to the Premier League match between Swansea City and Leicester City at Liberty Stadium on February 12, 2017 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri was at Leicester City’s training ground one final time on Saturday morning as he said goodbye to members of his former staff and his former players.

Let that sink in.

[ MORE: Ranieri – “My dream died”

Ranieri, 65, was sacked by Leicester on Thursday, just nine months after delivering the Premier League title (the first top-flight title in their 132-year history) for the Foxes.

Leicester are currently languishing just two points off the bottom of the PL table, one point and one place above the relegation zone, and have lost five-straight PL games as well as failing to score in six-straight games.

[ MORE: Latest news on Ranieri

It has been widely reported that the players met with the owners to state they were unhappy with Ranieri following the 2-1 defeat in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg at Sevilla on Wednesday. Less than 24 hours he was fired by Leicester’s owners.

Speaking briefly to the media as he left the training ground on Saturday, Ranieri remained classy until the very end.

“I feel good now, because of what we achieved at Leicester,” Ranieri said. “I hope it happens again but it will be very difficult.”

He was then asked by reporters outside the training ground if it was emotional saying goodbye to his former players.

“No it was normal,” Ranieri said, before driving off.

Shortly after he departed the training ground Leicester’s Thai owners then arrived in a helicopter as they flew in for talks with the players and caretaker boss Craig Shakespeare.

His firing has sparked outrage across the soccer world as the beloved Italian manager who led the 5000-1 shots from relegation fodder to title glory last season was ruthlessly cast aside. Yes, Ranieri’s Leicester are in a relegation scrap, but surely he deserved a chance to turn it around in the final 13 games of the season?

Now, the Leicester job is a poisoned chalice with Roberto Mancini, Alan Pardew and even former boss Nigel Pearson being touted as Ranieri’s successor. Nobody seems to want to take the job.

With the players under heavy scrutiny for their role in Ranieri’s sacking they’ll be under more pressure to perform against Liverpool on Monday at the King Power Stadium (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Ranieri’s name is sure to be sung loud and proud by the Leicester fans as they make their feelings known to the players and the owners about what has happened over the past few days.

US advances in qualifying for Under-20 World Cup

LEIGH, GREATER MANCHESTER - OCTOBER 05: Tab Ramos, Head Coach of USA looks on prior to the Under 20s Four Nations Tournament match between Germany and the United States at Leigh Sports Village Stadium on October 5, 2016 in Leigh, Greater Manchester.  (Photo by Mark Robinson/Getty Images)
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The United States advanced to the second round of qualifying for the Under-20 World Cup as Sebastian Saucedo scored twice Friday in a 4-1 win over St. Kitts and Nevis at Tibas, Costa Rica.

Brooks Lennon and Jonathan Lewis also scored for the U.S., which plays Mexico on Monday and El Salvador on March 3 in the second round. The top two teams in each second-round group of the North and Central American and Caribbean region qualify for the Under-20 World Cup, to be played in South Korea from May 20 to June 11.

Lennon, loaned this month from Liverpool to Real Salt Lake, put the Americans ahead in the 16th minute with his fourth goal of the tournament, poking in Jeremy Ebobisse’s cross from 7 yards. Lewis, who is with New York City FC, doubled the lead four minutes later after Lennon’s corner kick to the top of the penalty area was volleyed toward goal by Eryk Williamson. Justen Glad missed an attempted shot from near the penalty spot, and the ball rolled to an unmarked Lewis.

Salt Lake’s Saucedo added goals in the 35th and 41st minute on a 25-yard shot and a 27-yard free kick.

Romario Martin beat U.S. goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski in the 77th after a poor American backpass. Jonathan Klinsmann, the son of former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, started the first two games for the U.S.

The U.S. (2-1) and Group B winner Panama (3-0), which beat the Americans 1-0 last weekend, both advanced.

Bremen beats Wolfsburg to leave Bundesliga relegation zone

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10:  Serge Gnabry of Germany reacts during the Men's First Round Football Group C match between Germany and Fiji at Mineirao Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)
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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Midfielder Serge Gnabry scored twice as Werder Bremen moved away from the Bundesliga’s relegation zone with a 2-1 win at fellow struggler Wolfsburg on Friday.

Bremen and Wolfsburg are level on points and two above Hamburger SV, which is in 18th place and in the relegation zone.

It was a fifth defeat in six games for Wolfsburg coach Valerien Ismael, who won the league and cup double as a player with Bremen in 2004.

Gnabry fired the visitors ahead with a deflected shot in the 10th minute and made it 2-0 eight minutes later, controlling the ball with his chest before prodding home on the volley.

Striker Borja Mayoral, who is on loan from Real Madrid, scored with his chest following a Wolfsburg corner as Wolfsburg hit back moments later.

Midfielder Daniel Didavi struck the post with a free kick as Wolfsburg kept pushing for an equalizer.

Mancini reportedly not interested in Leicester City, De Boer says no

GENOA, ITALY - APRIL 20:  Head Coach of FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini looks during the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and FC Internazionale Milano at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on April 20, 2016 in Genoa, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Two top candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City have reportedly turned down any interest in the job.

Roberto Mancini, the heavy favorite out of the gates after Ranieri’s dismissal, tweeted his support for Ranieri after the news broke. “I am sorry for my friend Ranieri,” Mancini said. “He will be in the history of LCFC, in the hearts of Leicester fans and all football lovers.”

However, the fellow Italian has rebuffed Leicester’s informal advances towards his services. According to Sky Sports, Leicester sent “intermediaries” to “sound out” Mancini’s feelings towards the position, but came back empty-handed. The report states Mancini was turned off to the club after a short and unsuccessful spell there as a player in 2001.

That leaves a host of other names who have been linked to the job, with no clear favorite. One person mentioned was Dutch legend Frank de Boer, who is unemployed after an unusually short stint in charge of Inter Milan. However, De Boer’s agent went public to say he was not ever in the running.

“There is zero possibility that Frank could go to Leicester,” agent Guido Albers told Italian publication Tuttomercatoweb. “I too heard these rumors, but that’s all they are – rumors. I can affirm without doubt that Frank will not become the Leicester City manager. This will 100 per cent not happen.”

Albers explained that De Boer is only interested in joining a club in the offseason, preferring to enter a project with a blank slate rather than joining midseason with particular goals already clearly laid out. With Leicester, it seems De Boer is turned off by the notion of a relegation battle.