Week 10 Preview: LA returns to Portland; West giants visit East leaders

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The 10th weekend of the season sees Major League Soccer finally embrace this thing we call Sunday, with four games breaking the league’s little known “one, maybe two on that other day” rule. Here is our quick look at the coming, refreshingly balanced MLS weekend.

Note: All rankings reflect PST’s weekly MLS Power Rankings.

YOUR NBCSN GAME OF THE WEEK
#12 Portland Timbers vs. #4 LA Galaxy, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Eastern (NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra)
Last week: Portland claimed its first victory of the season, 3-2 over D.C. United; LA lost at Colorado, 1-0

Bruce Arena has never beat Caleb Porter! Granted, they’ve only faced off three times, but Portland took seven out of nine points from the Galaxy last season, including all six at home. Don’t look at that as a sign of dominance, though. Look at it for what it was: Two close games breaking Portland’s way.

In LA’s first visit to the then-JELD-WEN Field, the now departed Andrew Jean Baptiste headed home a stoppage time winner – not exactly a formula for world domination. In the second, only Maxi Urruti’s mini Zlatan moment separated the sides:

But that was when Portland was good. In 2014, we’ve been treated to the “I can’t tell if they’re good” version of the squad. The soccer’s not that bad, but the record’s pretty gross (1-3-5).  Even after last week’ s break through, it’s impossible to get a read on this year’s Timbers.

Against a Galaxy team that’s also better than its record (2-2-2), last week’s performance won’t be good enough. Robbie Keane’s not going to have a second consecutive off week, and Landon Donovan (right) is coming agonizingly close to his record-setting goal. With Juninho, Stefan Ishizaki, and Baggio Husidic bringing the team’s new midfield together, Bruce Arena has the tools to pick apart another mistake-prone performance.

Matchup to watch: Galaxy DM Juninho vs. Portland number 10 Diego Valeri; or, Rob Friend versus sportsmanship. I can’t decide.


source: Getty Images

EAST VS. WEST CHALLENGE
#7 New England Revolution vs. #1 Seattle Sounders, Sunday, 6:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: New England won in Toronto, 2-1; Seattle came back to beat Philadelphia, then Dallas.

#14 Houston Dynamo vs. #3 Real Salt Lake, Sunday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Houston beat Chivas before knocking off Columbus; Real Salt Lake went goonie on Chicago.

Okay, Western Conference: You really think you’re that much stronger than the East? Prove it. Your best against two of the teams at the top of the East. You’re on the road, but if you’re really that much stronger, you should be able to get results.

For the Sounders, it’s their first trip East since winning at Olympic Stadium earlier this year. Riding a five-match winning streak, the likes of Clint Dempsey (right) and Obafemi Martins will test a defense that’s been without reigning Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves. Get around destroyer Andy Dorman, and the Revs’ central pair can be had.

At BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston will look to extend its second two-match winning streak of the season, but RSL won’t be as susceptible on set pieces as Columbus was on Wednesday. Still undefeated, Salt Lake’s poised to take advantage of their hosts’ quick turnaround.

Matchups to watch: Seattle destroyer Osvaldo Alonso vs. Revolution creator Lee Nguyen; Houston’s suddenly hot Will Bruin against RSL emerging star Chris Schuler.


BE AN MLS ULTZY, EMBRACE

#13 San Jose Earthquakes vs. #5 FC Dallas, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern
Last week: San Jose lost in Vancouver before drawing with Colorado; Dallas lost twice in the last seven days: to New York, then Seattle.

Wednesday in Seattle, a brutally cynical side to Dallas came out, an approach that may have been motivated by a pragmatism that’s set in after Mauro Diaz’s injury. If brutal cynicism’s going to be their thing, though, they’re going to have to take the belt from the champs. This is San Jose’s bread and butter.

Break out the bandannas; we’re going to get ultzy for this one. Over/under on red cards: 1.5.

Matchup to watch: Blas Perez vs. gravity


source: AP

BACON AND SKINNIES AND HORN RIMS ALL IN ONE
#6 Columbus Crew vs. #9 Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Columbus lost at Kansas City and Houston; Vancouver beat San Jose, 3-2.

Two teams that never get much national love are among the league’s most watchable. Even last weekend against Kansas City, Columbus were stubbornly enjoyable, persisting with its possession hungry, Federico Higuain-heavy approach. If that guy does down (or, wears down), whoa are they in trouble.

Vancouver on the other hand are less about style than pure talent. The club has this huge stable of attackers Carl Robinson essentially rolls out in shifts. At the start of a game, Kekuta Manneh (right), Darren Mattocks, and Sebastian Fernandez could be flying around Pedro Morales. By the end you’re chasing Russell Teibert, Nicolas Mezquida, Erik Hurtado. With Matias Laba winning balls in the middle and Morales flinging them all over the park, that’s a lot of talent to throw behind Columbus’s bombarding fullbacks.

After watching the Crew midweek in Houston, I liked them to end their six-match winless streak on Saturday. After taking a second look at how these teams matchup, I’m not so sure.

Regardless, this has the potential to be the weekend’s most entertaining match. If Robinson sticks with his 4-2-3-1 (virtually guaranteeing Manneh will start), skip New York-Chicago for this one.

Matchup to watch: Vancouver vs. the road (3 wins at BC Place; none away from home)


CLIMBING BEANSTALKS

#18 Montreal Impact vs. Sporting Kansas City, Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Montreal is coming off a bye week; Sporting beat Columbus, 2-0

#8 New York Red Bulls vs. #16 Chicago Fire, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: The Red Bulls took three points out of Dallas; Chicago blew a two-goal lead at home against RSL.

While Houston and New England deal with two Western Conference titans, the East’s other leaders face the bottom of the conference. There is, however, some (possibly thin) reason each could slip up.

Two weeks ago in New England, Kansas City gave the type of tepid performance we occasionally see from them on the road. If they allow Montreal to stay as close as the Revolution, another freak red card (penalty, injury, et al.) could be their undoing. It happens, and even once in a while, Kansas City doesn’t do enough to prevent it.

For New York, there’s a problem matching up against the Jeff Larentowicz, Benji Joya, and (coming in from the left) Harry Shipp midfield. Patrick Nyarko can create chances against Roy Miller, and Quincy Amarikwa will be back. The Red Bulls main recourse: Chicago’s error-prone central defenders against a gelling forward tandem.

Matchups to watch: Sporting’s wingers against whomever starts at left back for Montreal; Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Bakary Soumare trying to lock down Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry at Red Bull.


source:  COFFEECOFFEECOFFEE!
#17 Philadelphia Union vs. #15 D.C. United, Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Philadelphia lost at Seattle, 2-1; D.C. United fell in Portland, 3-2

#10 Colorado Rapids vs. #19 Chivas USA, Sunday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Colorado beat Los Angeles before drawing at San Jose; Chivas was blown out by Houston

According to an article from the world-famous Mayo Clinic, 400 milligrams of caffeine per day “appears to be safe for most healthy adults.” That’s four cups of coffee, 10 sodas, or two energy drinks.

All I’m saying is you have options, especially if you’re willing to risk a fast heartbeat, muscle tremors, or a little insomnia. Those are the potential drawbacks to excessive caffeine use, but on rare occasions, the trade-off could be worth it.

Matchups to watch: D.C. defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen against Philadelphia creator Vincent Nogueira; Colorado attacker Deshorn Brown against center backs Bobby Burling and Carlos Bocanegra.

Gold Cup Final preview: USMNT needs a trophy vs. Jamaica

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The major selling point of Bruce Arena’s hire, aside from his being the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, was that the United States men’s national team would not be out-foxed tactically (or at least not be caught without a game plan).

Thirteen games into the tenure, the jury is out on whether the American boss’ second stint is on the path to World Cup success — those assumed goal posts will likely be moved depending on the group draw in Russia — but he has brought stability to the team and engineered a positive change in mentality.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Prince-Wright’s view of the national team, and ProSoccerTalk’s editor wrote today that U.S. Soccer would be proven right in its hiring of Arena if the Yanks won the Gold Cup with a Wednesday win over Jamaica.

But it doesn’t take a devil’s advocate to ask if it is quite that simple?

As much as I’m sure the removal of Klinsmann became necessary due to the morale of the USMNT and its players’ opinions of the German manager, I’m far from certain we’ve learned much about the hiring of Arena. Frankly, I can’t imagine any of the results being much worse under Peter Vermes, or Caleb Porter, or Ben Olsen.

The best win of Arena’s second tenure so far was probably the semifinal defeat of Costa Rica this weekend, and the best moment was the 1-1 draw at Azteca against Mexico. There’s no denying he’s righted the World Cup ship —  and that’s paramount — but it’s hard to imagine just qualifying for Russia should give Arena some sort of status, 0-2 hole or not. Any coach needs to be judged by his tournament, and Arena knows this. He’s helped author the best World Cup performance in modern U.S. men’s history, and he’s also presided over a train wreck (Imagine pulling that performance with that roster into the 2018 supporters’ climate. I’m shuddering on behalf of social media).

Which brings us to the import of Wednesday in Santa Clara. The United States lineup is experienced in big games and superior to Jamaica, which is coming off one day less rest. Yes, Jamaica’s squad features an incredible goalkeeper in Andre Blake and a half-dozen MLS players, but the rest are largely players who ply their trade in the U.S. second tier or Jamaica’s top flight.

Again, against Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, et cetera, et cetera.

The bookmakers say a Jamaica win would pay off 8:1. Just getting to penalty kicks would pay 3:1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The U.S. should win the 9:30 p.m. ET start, and put one foot in the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the side couldn’t sort out its wobbly back line or find its way past Blake. The latter would be more forgivable than the former, but really only in a “Tim Howard vs. Belgium but unblemished” fashion.

And it could be wrong to call Arena’s tournament a failure if the Yanks lose, depending on how it happens, but this is a man who helped a much lesser U.S. side to a 1-0 home friendly win over Jamaica just a few months ago (a Jamaica side who’s only missing player of consequence was Darren Mattocks). Arena trotted out Luis Robles, Graham Zusi, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo. The team he’ll start on Wednesday will be miles better.

Mattocks and his Reggae Boyz are true to their country’s national reputation of electrifying speed, and it’s imperative that Arena sets his backs to handle that. That means true outside backs — sorry, Graham Zusi — and center backs who won’t be forced to foul too often. That is, after all, the only way Jamaica found its way past Mexico via a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Mexico attempted 200 more passes, converting 150 more than Jamaica in the semifinal. It’ll be on Arena’s enterprising attackers to find a way past a stacked defense without opening up the midfield too much to counter attacks. Jamaica also played a borderline perfect game when it did have the ball, missing on just 16 of 143 passes and, again, scoring on a free kick.

Frankly, if the U.S. loses to Jamaica in the same way as Mexico did, it probably wouldn’t be proper to lay it on Arena. It would mean another batch of American players had failed to find a way to goal. But what we’re counting on is a better organized team than the baffled bunch that fell 2-1 to Jamaica under Klinsmann in the 2015 Gold Cup.

In that way, yeah, we can count on Arena being a relative success. But winning this tournament, especially given who Mexico called up, needs to be treated the same way you’d view it under any other manager: expectation. Anything less wouldn’t make Arena a failure, but would certainly qualify as a failure for the U.S. program.

PSG, Barca quizzed on Neymar rumors; Pique blasts Ligue 1

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We don’t have a ton of sympathy for them, but credit to Barcelona stars Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for giving actual answers when put in the awkward position of hearing the media’s Neymar-to-PSG questions on Tuesday night.

PSG boss Unai Emery was far less interested in doing that.

Emery has refused to comment on speculation linking Neymar to big move to the Parc des Princes.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s International Champions Cup match against Juventus, Emery had nothing of substance to say to the idea of Brazil’s captain heading to his stable.

“Our focus is to talk about the game tomorrow and a season to get ready for. I prefer to focus on the present moment and the preparation with the team.”

As for Edinson Cavani?

On the Barca side of things, Mascherano said he thinks Neymar will stay because he’s very important to the team, while Pique backed off a little after causing a stir by posting a photo of the defender with Neymar captioned, “He stays.”

“The post was nothing official, it was a gut thing, it doesn’t depend on me. Only (Neymar) can say what will happen, but I hope he stays. I tried to explain to Neymar, as a team-mate and a friend, the situation he’s in. I would say don’t go to a league which, with all due respect, is not as good.”

Boom, roasted (Though there’s some pot-kettle-black here, as there’s a fairly precipitous drop-off further down La Liga’s table, too).

Spanish report claims Coutinho (not Liverpool) agrees deal with Barca

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According to Sky Sports’ transfer centre, Spanish radio station RAC1 reports that Barcelona has agreed a deal with Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho.

The report comes on the heels of the half-hour delay of Barca’s nightly press conference, though that could be coincidental.

It also states that the agreement is between Barcelona and Coutinho, and that no fee has been agreed between Liverpool and the La Liga giants. That’s a huge obstacle, with Liverpool maintaining that no offer will work this summer, so the idea of a transfer being imminent could be beyond the pale.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

A sale like this risks overturning Jurgen Klopp‘s apple cart, as the Reds boss was quoted this week as saying, “The very important message is that we are not a selling club and that’s how it is.”

Mohamed Salah is good, but he’s no Coutinho. Meanwhile, Coutinho has the potential to be as close to a like-for-like replacement for Neymar — one of the Top Five players in the world — as there is on the market.

The two clubs have done business before, and in more trying circumstances; Barcelona bought Luis Suarez from Liverpool within a month of the Uruguayan striker being banned for a biting incident at the 2014 World Cup.

A spectacular deal, Liverpool would have to make such a move this early in the summer when it can invest what would have to be a wild amount of money given the fees splashed about this transfer window.

Source close to Van Dijk expects Liverpool move within window

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It wasn’t too long ago that Liverpool apologized for its pursuit of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, ending its quest for the big Dutchman.

Is it apology accepted and then some at St. Mary’s? Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol says not much has changed since the big sorry toward Anfield, but that a source close to Van Dijk expects Van Dijk will be a Red “by the end of the window.”

[ MORE: JPW’s take on the Van Dijk saga ]

That said, Sky’s report makes it unclear what’s changed to lead to such a proclamation.

There is no suggestion that Liverpool have done anything wrong since they apologised and ended their interest. Southampton’s position remains that Van Dijk is not for sale but Chelsea and Manchester City are also interested.

So… it’s happening then? Money does talk, and a massive fee from Liverpool could make Southampton’s life easier in explaining the sale to its fans. It would also mean Saints sold Van Dijk and Jose Fonte within a year. For more on the possible transfer, here’s JPW’s take.

Van Dijk averaged 1.9 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 6.8 clearances, and 4.7 aerials won per Premier League matches last season, his second since a Summer 2015 move from Celtic.

[ MORE: Milan talk to Costa, Falcao agent ]