MLS Week 12 preview: First place on the line for New England, DC

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As teams begin to establish whether they are for real or just pretenders, we take a look around the MLS matchups for this coming weekend and how they could have serious impact not just on standings next week, but give us a glimpse into how serious teams are.

Shockingly powerful
#3 New England Revolution vs #4 DC United
Well, these weren’t words I would have expected to type a few months ago.

New England and DC United will battle for first place in the East tomorrow at Gillette Stadium at 7:30pm.

With the Revs in first place and DC behind by a pair, a win for either club either gives them the lead or extends it.

New England, winners of four in a row and undefeated since April 5, will take on a team that’s played a midweek game for the third straight week.  And for DC United, they will be playing for the third time in eight days.

However, relief is on the way for the visitors, who get Eddie Johnson back from suspension.  He wasn’t needed as they downed Houston on Wednesday 2-0 with goals from Chris Rolfe and Fabian Espindola, who leads DC with five goals and five assists, the latter of which is among the league leaders.

“I was happy I got a chance to play a little higher,” Espindola said after the match.  “I think in a way Eddie and I are similar like that.  Rolfe is a very technical player, highly skilled, so I think we worked well together.”

It will be interesting to see who head coach Ben Olson decides to select up top with so many players in good form.

For New England, they became just the third team in MLS history to score five goals in back-to-back matches last weekend, and are destroying anyone and anything in their path.  The high-powered matchup could either give the hosts plenty of room at the top of the table, or make things that much tighter.

Fulfilling high expectations
#10 New York Red Bulls vs. #18 Portland Timbers
Portland looks to end their draw-happy stretch that has them in last place as they travel across the country to Red Bull Arena in New York.  The Timbers have drawn their last three matches and seven of their eleven total this season, and their failure to hold onto three points is threatening to doom their season.

The hosts have also struggled to live up to last season’s expectations, with the defending Supporter’s Shield winners dropping their last two matches in completely opposite fashion, proving this season’s inconsistencies are a serious issue.  They fell just short in a barn-burning comeback against Chicago 5-4, and followed it up a week later by getting shut out at the hands of Toronto.

In order to follow up last season’s success with more, the Red Bulls are going to need to find ways to beat the top teams, but taking advantage of a struggling Portland side would do just as well.  They’ll hope first to hold off on conceding an early goal, like they have in the last few games, dooming them to come from behind most of the match.

#8 Vancouver Whitecaps vs. #1 Seattle Sounders
The first place Seattle Sounders are headed north of the border to take on the surging Vancouver Whitecaps, in fifth place and climbing after finding themselves undefeated in their last four.

The Sounders have – for now – proven that their demolition at the hands of the Revolution was just a blip, but will have to be up for the match against a team brimming with confidence.

As some added importance to the match, Vancouver has never defeated Seattle since coming to the MLS, with two losses and three draws in the last five.

#19 Montreal Impact vs. #9 Colorado Rapids
Striker Marco di Vaio will return for the Impact as they take on Colorado.  They sure as heck need him, as di Vaio has missed five matches this season, and Montreal has lost four of them.  When he’s in the lineup, they’ve lost just one out of five.

While di Vaio has just one goal, he certainly makes an impact on the game…yea that definitely wasn’t supposed to happen. Sorry.

#11 Columbus Crew vs. #13 Chicago Fire
It’s been yet another season of fighting from behind for Chicago and Columbus, as they look to climb the East despite poor results.

Columbus has yet to win since March, but Chicago has already begun that climb.  After failing to win their first eight, they’ve got six points in two impressive results back-to-back.

Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson said the team appreciates that they “know how to win again,” while Columbus just enjoys knowing how to score again, killing their 335-minute goalless streak, but it will take much more than that to beat a surging Chicago team.

#2 Real Salt Lake vs. #6 FC Dallas
This high-powered matchup takes unbeaten Real Salt Lake and a not-so undefeated FC Dallas.

With five losses and a draw completely scuppering the visitors’ flaming start, it’s essentially back to the drawing board for Oscar Pareja.  Center-back Matt Hedges said it best after their loss last week to LA Galaxy: “We have to figure out what was going on and why he was so open.” The key there is they have no idea what’s going on.

With Dallas spiraling out of control, it’s a perfect opportunity for Real Salt Lake to pounce and jump on any potential Seattle slip-up.

source: AP
Landon Donovan’s back, but he wasn’t supposed to be. He’s not going to go away quietly.

#12 Los Angeles Galaxy vs. #15 Philadelphia Union
A handy little west-coast road trip for Philadelphia begins in Los Angeles, and that would have been great except for one thing: an angry Landon Donovan isn’t going to be a fun Landon Donovan.

The Union will have to contend with the US icon who failed to make Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup roster, and he clearly isn’t too happy about it. He will be involved the match, Bruce Arena confirmed, which isn’t good for Philadelphia.

Between a Donovan with a chip on his shoulder and an in-form Robbie Keane, it will be hard for Philadelphia to swing their penjulum back to the good side. It’s been swinging back and forth all season, and they would like it to come back up after a hammering by New England.

#16 San Jose Earthquakes vs. #7 Houston Dynamo
Speaking of pendulums, Sunday’s late game features a Houston Dynamo squad that has gone win, loss, win, loss in their last four, which in all honesty is an improvement from the beginning of the year.  With a chance to put their dud against DC United behind them, the Earthquakes won’t let it come easy.

San Jose was downed by that goal by Obafemi Martins. You know, THAT goal, that chip goal.  They lost to the first-placed team on that, Mark Watson’s gang certainly won’t be taking Houston lightly, especially in front of the home fans.

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.