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.

Biggest omissions from the Ballon d’Or shortlist

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (R) is chased by N'Golo Kante of Chelsea (L)  during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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France Football released the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or award given to the world’s best player.

As expected in a EURO year, there are several Portuguese standouts to go with the usual suspects.

There are also some odd omissions.

[ MLS: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s second-leading scorer as the Gunners finished second in the Premier League, and the South American attacker scored three goals as Chile won its second-straight Copa America, this one on American soil. It’s baffling that he’s not on the list.

N'Golo Kante enjoyed a season as the engine of the best story in Premier League history, manning the midfield for Leicester, and followed it up by helping France reach the EURO 2016 final. Pretty good, right?

Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic were key pieces in Barcelona’s run to the La Liga crown despite being limited by the transfer ban. Mascherano followed it up by captaining Argentina to the Copa America Centenario final, while Rakitic starred alongside Ivan Perisic as Croatia won a tricky EURO 2016 group before falling to eventual winners Portugal.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11: Fernando Torres of Club Atletico de Madrid is surrounded by (L-R) Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on January 11, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Mascherano (far left) and Rakitic (second from right) are among several Barcelona players who didn’t make the cut (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images).

Harry Kane may’ve not been a good choice to take corner for England, but he also was one of the best all-around attackers in the world as Tottenham surged into the Top Four of the Premier League.

With four goalkeepers making the cut, it shows that club success is more important than performance. David De Gea‘s season was certainly on the same plane as Buffon, though the latter won the league with Juventus and edged Spain at EURO 2016.

Marcelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and David Silva were also players who succeeded for both club and country and could’ve found their way onto the 30.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Finally, let’s see how I fared in projecting the 30 men back in mid-September:

— I got 24 on the nose, wrongly guessing that Kante, Kane, Alexis, Mascherano, Rakitic, and Olivier Giroud would make the cut. Giroud led Arsenal and France in scoring, but if Alexis wasn’t going to make it the coiffed Frenchman had no hope.

— Of the six I didn’t get, only one brings me great shame: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should’ve been in the first 15 names on any list, not missing the post entirely. Paulo Dybala is a bit of a shocker from the crew, and Koke is a tricky miss. Luka Modric was our No. 31, while Rui Patricio was our 35. Diego Godin was a bad miss.

— What to learn from this: Atletico Madrid was obviously credited for its return to the UCL final, so Godin and Koke prove that carried a bit more weight than Kante and Giroud making the final with France, and Alexis thriving at the Copa America.

Whose historic hiccup was worse: Portland or Columbus?

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 6: Kei Kamara #23 of Columbus Crew and Liam Ridgewell #24 of Portland Timbers go after a ball during the second half of the game at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Timbers won the match 2-1. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
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It’s been less than a year since we discussed who was best suited to return to the MLS Cup Final following Portland’s 2-1 win over Columbus in the 2015 title match.

Now we’re wondering who’s fall was more shameful, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew each missed the playoffs, just over 11 months after contesting the final. That’s never happened before.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

We asked our staff to take a stand on the matter of who flubbed worse: Gregg Berhalter’s Crew or Caleb Porter’s Timbers.

Andy Edwards

Columbus: 2016 was Gregg Berhalter’s third season in charge in Columbus, and in each of his first two years, Crew SC took a gigantic step forward — from non-playoff side to in the playoffs in 2014; from young, naive playoff team to MLS Cup hosts in 2015 — which meant 2016 was supposed to be the culmination of a truly great revolution in Columbus.

They started the season slow, with no wins in their first five games. But they had done the same thing just 12 months earlier and there they were playing for the Cup in December. The Crew looked to be slowly turning this season’s corner when the Kei Kamara/Federico Higuain thing exploded and effectively ended their season in May.

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The big knock on Crew SC last year, at least for me, was that they never seemed to figure out a Plan B — if “hit it long for Kei, he’ll knock it down, and Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram will run onto it and toss the alley-oop back to him inside the six” wasn’t working, you’d already beaten them.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

2016 exposed Berhalter, perhaps more than any player on the roster, because of the elongated nature of those struggles — literally the entire season. Finlay (6 goals, 9 assists) and Meram (5 goals, 13 assists) put up fine numbers once again, but they rang hollow for a losing team going nowhere all season long.

Wil Trapp’s age-23 season was completely wasted — he’s no longer “a young player” — and I’d take a long, hard look at Europe this winter if I were him. The defense has been an unmitigated disaster the last two season (53 and 58 goals conceded), mostly due to the all-out attacking nature of Berhalter’s game plans — hint: defending 2-on-4 against counter-attacks almost never ends well. The “other” Kamara, Ola, actually panning out was the saving grace that kept them within a mile of the playoff race.

Nick Mendola

Portland: Maybe it’s an odd year thing; Portland won the 2015 MLS Cup after claiming the West’s best record in 2013.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Timbers ran out of luck under newly-extended Caleb Porter in his fourth season on the job. This time, no one bailed them out.

Portland came out of nowhere to claim the West’s No. 1 seed in 2013, as Porter engineered an astounding 15 draws including 10 on the road. The tactics and lineup selection helped, but so did the arrivals of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson (pretty important, no?).

The Timbers missed the playoffs by a point in 2014, a 3W-1D end to the season not enough to make up for a horrible start to the season.

The next season saw the Timbers win it all, but not without needing a three-match winning streak to leap ahead of four teams and claim the third-seed (Seattle, LA, and KC all finished two points back). Six games later, they went from almost out to on top of the MLS world.

So what happened this year, with many falling all over ourselves to praise the long-term prospects of a Timbers dynasty? A giant failure. The Timbers failed to win a single road game, tossing aside their strong home field advantage (Portland was 12W-3L-2T at Providence Park).

SANDY, UT - APRIL 19: Head coach Caleb Porter of the Portland Timbers encourages his team during their game against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium April 19, 2014 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

The Timbers scored the second-most penalties in the league this year, with five, so it’s not like fortune avoided them (The Red Bulls didn’t score one).

But, oh, this was ugly.

Portland took three of its the final 12 points available to it. The Timbers lost big in Vancouver and Houston, two non-playoff destinations. In its last 13 games, Portland lost nine and won four.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

The Timbers completed the fewest passes in Major League Soccer, 400 less than the closest competitor and 4,300 behind the league-leading Revs. Portland couldn’t take the ball away, either, with the second-fewest interceptions in the league.

You could even argue that losing 4-1 in Vancouver on Decision Day — a loss to a knocked-out Cascadia Cup rival — makes it worse than Columbus’ season alone. This was awful stuff, albeit schadenfreude for the anti-Porter brigade.

Oh, and they bombed out of a poor CONCACAF Champions League group without a Liga MX or MLS opponent in it.

Alright, so Andy tabbed Columbus and Nick took Portland. Let’s get a tiebreaker in here.

Matt Reed

Every champion has a target on its back but the Timbers managed to essentially bring back all of its key starters from a season ago, despite losing Maxi Urruti. The Timbers were involved in 22 games separated by one goal or less in 2016, with Caleb Porter’s side winning only seven of those contests. Had one more game gone in their favor the Timbers would likely be back in the postseason. 

The case for (and against) every Eastern Conference playoff team

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: Benoit Cheyrou #8 of Toronto FC defends Andrea Pirlo #21 of New York City FC free kick at Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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Of the six teams remaining in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, you could argue there are three distinct pairings.

You have red-hot traditional sides in DC United and the New York Red Bulls; There are the big-name driven, deep squads from Toronto FC and New York City FC, and finally the two relative unknowns truly deserving of “wildcard” status in the Philadelphia Union Montreal Impact.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

Sure the table tends to tell us who’s who in the pecking order. It’s hard to bet against the Red Bulls seeing they haven’t lost since July 3, and Frank Lampard has somehow quietly been a wrecking ball thanks to dynamite performances from captain David Villa and world-class maestro Andrea Pirlo.

But there are reasons those teams may not be the true favorite to advance to the MLS Cup final, just as there are ways to imagine Philly can punch their way through the East. We’re here to give you both.

Philadelphia Union (6)

Why they’ll win: The young unit might be too green to know it isn’t expected to knock off Toronto in Toronto, or a New York team in New York or New Jersey. Chris Pontius and Tranquillo Barnetta add veteran skill and savvy, while Andre Blake is capable of stealing some of the league’s more terrific strikes.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Why they won’t: Their last win was Aug. 27, and we’re supposed to expect the Union to win on the road at Toronto, RBNY, and then either NYCFC or DC. Nah, dog (though it’d be quite a story and we’d be happy to watch it).

Montreal Impact (5)

Why they’ll win: Didier Drogba may not be mentally in it, but he’s still a fierce competitor who can score with the best of them. By the way, the “best of them” definitely includes Ignacio Piatti. The Argentine has been one of the top players in the league this season, and can take over any game (Yes, even three on the bounce).

Why they won’t: The dysfunction and fall-out from Drogba’s benching permeates the room before match against red-hot DC United, and an average road team fails to meet expectations.

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba heads the ball in front of D.C. United midfielder Marcelo Sarvas during the second half of an MLS soccer match Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

DC United (4)

Why they’ll win: A four-match win streak earned most of DC’s starters a well-deserved rest on Decision Day, and there will be a “Why not us?” cry coming from the DC dressing room. Patrick Nyarko has been a lot of fun to watch. Luciano Acosta is legit as well. Bill Hamid is an excellent shot stopper, and the four-time champion Black-and-Red is overdue for a final, having been absent since beating KC in 2004.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Why they won’t: Let’s be honest, most arguments against DC sound quite political. “Well, they can’t win because of the other guys being so good.” DC doesn’t have the firepower of TFC, NYCFC, and RBNY; Would you bet on them beating two of the above, which they likely would have to? (Actually, kinda).

Toronto FC (3)

Why they’ll win: Frankly, this is the best defensive team in the East, with a minimum of three game attacking breakers in Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore. Imports Drew Moor and Clint Irwin aren’t scared of the spotlight, and Will Johnson will be putting on for his city. And they’re good away from BMO Field. This could be TFC’s season, y’all.

Why they won’t: This is Toronto’s 10th season, and happens to be the first one in which it won more matches than it lost. TFC’s debut home match comes on Wednesday evening, and there’s something to be said for experience. While some of its players have plenty, the club does not possess much at all.

New York City FC (2)

Why they’ll win: One of only two teams (Toronto) to finish their road schedule with a .500 record, Patrick Vieira has been able to get the best out of the superstars and the lesser-known members of NYC’s squad. Tactically, we’re not sure there’s another coach in the East with his acumen.

Why they won’t: It’s also Vieira’s first playoffs as a manager, and the whole franchise hasn’t done that dance, either. They have one win in five combined matches against RBNY and TFC.

New York Red Bulls

Why they’ll win: Frankly, as stated above, because they don’t lose. Jesse Marsch hasn’t overseen a loss in three-and-a-half months, has two legit claimants to MVP honors in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, and have been reinforced by one of the deepest Academy production lines in MLS.

Why they won’t: New York won just three road matches all year, even if it managed 7 draws away from Red Bull Arena. On top of that, this is year No. 20 of MLS, and founding members RBNY have zero titles and one final appearance. Those ghosts could come creeping up to the door.

USMNT’s Yedlin talks Newcastle challenge, EFL Cup quarters

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 26:  DeAndre Yedlin of Tottenham Hotspur controls the ball during the 2016 International Champions Cup match between Juventus FC and Tottenham Hotspur at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 26, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images
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USMNT standout DeAndre Yedlin is gaining valuable experience fighting for promotion with Championship-leading Newcastle United, and will likely get the chance to help the Magpies into the EFL Cup quarterfinals this week.

Newcastle hosts Preston North End on Tuesday at St. James Park, and the 23-year-old Yedlin has been providing plenty to the Magpies under Rafa Benitez.

[ MORE: EFL Cup Tuesday preview ]

Yedlin has appeared four times at right mid and four more at right back as Newcastle sits atop the Championship through 14 matches. He’s been in the 18 for every match since he arrived from Tottenham.

Manager Rafa Benitez has employed a lot of rotation in his squad given the congested schedule, and Yedlin has competed for time at the back with Magpies veteran Vurnon Anita and ex-Atleti back Jesus Gamez. The club’s right-sided attackers include even more options, headlined by the electric Matt Ritchie.

From The Chronicle:

“If you aren’t in form there’s always one guy will step in. They could take your place,” Yedlin said.

“That means every opportunity you get you must take and make the best of it.”

That’s the sort of competition we like to see abroad, and the reason players like Perry Kitchen (Hearts) and Matt Miazga (Vitesse via Chelsea) are lauded for taking steps out of their insta-starter status domestically (and again, I hate having to repoint out that it’s okay to feel this way and love MLS).

As for Tuesday’s match against Preston, here are Yedlin’s thoughts on being in the final 16 of the EFL Cup:

“It’s an important game. We are getting to the final stages of the cup now and obviously we want to win everything we can.

“It’s important to us. Like I’ve said the depth in this team is unbelievable. So I am sure whatever team goes out there will be extremely strong.”