Chris Wondolowski

MLS Preview: East leaders visit Bay Arena; West’s welcome Cascadia rivals

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Major League Soccer is two weeks removed from its World Cup break, but with almost all of its temporarily departed stars expected to return this weekend, the league is finally, fully back. Here’s a quick look at this weekend’s nine-match docket.

NBC’S FRIDAY NIGHT GAME
San Jose Earthquakes vs. D.C. United, Friday, 11:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN
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Consider this level of desperation: San Jose, a team that came into the season with playoff ambitions — one that had to be eliminated from CONCACAF Champions League on penalty kicks — is currently in last place in the Western Conference. They’re behind Chivas USA! And that’s not just about games played, though they have two in hand on Chivas. Even by points-per-game, San Jose (1.07) is behind the Goats (1.18). Losers of three straight, carrying a three-game losing streak into Friday’s game, San Jose has reached the now-or-never point of its season.

The return U.S. international Chris Wondolowski should help. With Víctor Bernárdez likely to start in central defense, San Jose will be close to full strength, too, though the bigger issue will be the men in white. After last week’s win in Toronto, D.C. United comes in two points clear at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Despite that success, there’s still an air of uncertainty around last year’s record-setters. It’s still unclear why D.C. United’s in first. Granted, “they have more points than the other teams” works, but how they have those points is a mystery.

Take last week’s game. Toronto out-possessed D.C. and created more chances, as evidenced by their huge edge in shots on goal (7-2). But those two D.C. shots? They both went in. One came after a Toronto giveaway in their own defensive third. The other came from busted coverage from a corner kick. D.C had two openings. They took them.

In a crude way, that sums up what D.C. does so well. They may not create a lot of opportunities, but they sure seem to take advantage of the ones you give them. At the back, it’s the opposite. They force you to earn their goals.

Perhaps it’s an indictment of the league that that formula’s produced so much success, but half-way through the season, it’s time to stop arguing with it. It may be simple, but it’s well-executed, and it also gives San Jose a few clear goals: Don’t screw up at the back; Do something beyond the norm going forward.

Do that, and you’ll probably beat D.C. United. Thus far, however, MLS teams are having trouble executing that formula.

source:  ALL AT ONCE NOW
Philadelphia Union vs. Colorado Rapids, Saturday, 7:00 pm. Eastern
New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern
Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern
Montréal Impact vs. Sporting Kansas City, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern
New England Revolution vs. Chicago Fire, Saturday,7:30 pm. Eastern

Major League Soccer’s crazy scheduling is one of my favorite topics, but I can’t write “Why are so many games crammed onto Saturdays” every week (unless you follow me on Twitter; in which case, I’m so sorry). Thankfully, MLS picked at another of my pet peeves this week by cramming five games onto one start time … Because who wants to actually wants to watch more than one of these games live, right?

Technically, there are two start times here, but if you want to watch a 7:30 p.m. ET stream, you’re not going to get to fully watch a 7:00 p.m. kickoff. Rather than give fans that option, MLS has stacked five of their nine weekend kickoffs into this window, even though there are some obvious options.

The most obvious is afternoon kickoffs. Some argue that will hurt attendance, but I don’t buy it. At this point, your typical MLS fans have created a certain level of inelasticity with their demand. The difference between 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. would be killer on a weekday; not so on a Saturday. The awesome thing about MLS fans: They will show up.

And, of course, there’s Friday and Sunday. Particularly when the NFL is dormant, why isn’t the league taking advantage of Sunday? Plus, as we saw last Friday, it’s kind of nice when you have a prime-time games for both the east and west coasts.

When somebody at MLS’s offices reads this, laughs it off, then drops a “you think you could do better” on me at the All-Star Game, I’m going to go full Herman Cain and sell my “2-5-2” plan: two games on Friday; five on Saturday; two on Sunday:

Day Kickoff Games
Friday 7:00 p.m. ET 1
Friday 10:00 p.m. ET 1
Saturday 4:00 p.m. ET 1
Saturday 7:00 p.m. ET 2
Saturday 10:00 p.m. ET 2
Sunday 7:00 p.m. ET 1
Sunday 10:00 p.m. ET 1

Not every weekend would allow a pure 2-5-2, but just like any good coach, we’d switch the formation as needed. The 2-5-2, however, will become the MLS default once I’m made MLS’s Executive Director of Scheduling and Deciding When We Do Stuff At Times That Make Sense.

As for the games, here’s what to look for:

  • In Chester, a Union team in flux could debut its new signing, Jamaican Brian Brown. The bigger question, however, surrounds the Rapids: Are they for real? Early problems scoring from open play goals have been alleviated as Pablo Mastroeni has settled his formation and depth chart. But is this team really capable of competing for the second see in the West?
  • In Harrison, the Costa Ricans should be back. For New York, that means left back Roy Miller, who will alleviate Mike Petke’s shortage at fullback. For the Crew, that means left back Waylon Francis as well as Ticos standout Giancarlo Gonzalez, whose performance in Brazil has sparked speculation about a move abroad. With these two teams straddling the five-six line in the East, the returns of the Costa Ricans could be the difference.
  • In Toronto, Houston snapped a five-game losing streak last Friday against New York but still has the worst goal difference in the league, by far: -16 (Montréal’s next at -11). Saturday at BMO should produce a tight, conservative game Dom Kinnear used to steal. With Ryan Nelsen’s Reds continuing to improve at that game, Houston may be left hoping the returns of David Horst, Jermain Taylor, and Corey Ashe will solidify the league’s worst defense in the face of Jermain Defoe.
  • In Montréal, a Sporting team that’s weathered the World Cup (and injury) storm returns to Stade Saputo two points back of D.C. United. During their last visit, an early red card for the now-departed Collen Warner produced a KC rout. Emboldened by the league’s best defense, Sporting will be looking for a similar result in Quebec.
  • In Foxborough, a New England team that’s lost four in a row finds itself in danger of reversing all the good it did during spring’s perfect five-game run. Chicago’s in a similar boat. After winning its first two games of the season in mid-May, the Fire are winless in six. On the surface, this looks like a “something’s got to give scenario,” but, soccer. This could end in a draw.

ERICK TORRES WORLD TOUR!!!
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Chivas USA, Saturday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern

Normally having too much talent is a luxury that doesn’t draw sympathy, but Carl Robinson is in actually in a precarious position. What’s the difference between Gershon Koffie and Russell Teibert? Or, Erik Hurtado and Darren Mattocks? Does Nicolás Mezquida need more time? Is Sebastian Fernández the right choice in the starting XI? They’re problems most coaches would love to have, but in a deep Western Conference, making the right choice could mean the difference between making the playoffs and taking November off.

Contrast that with Chivas USA, who lately have only had one, obvious question: How do we get Erick Torres the ball? Three straight games …

 

… three 1-0 wins …

 

… three Erick Torres goals.

 

See you in Portland, Cubo.

GAME OF THE WEEK, NUMBER ONE
LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern

Six games unbeaten, LA continues to fly under the radar – as much as a team led by Bruce Arena, featuring Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan can fly under the radar. There are various numbers you can look at — goals allowed rate, shots per game, shots allowed per game, possession, goal difference — that hint this is one of the league’s better teams. Sitting in sixth place, however, LA continues to be the subject of doubts, doubts that overlook the games played column is the primary reason for their low place in the standings.

Contrast that with Real Salt Lake, a team that’s been among the West’s top two all season. They’re allowing more goals than you’d expect, based on their recent years’ performance (23 in 17 games). They’re also scoring fewer, based on the attack Jason Kreis assembled last year (27). Their possession number is down, the shots per game numbers are ominous. In the same ways LA may be underrated, we may be overrating RSL.

None of the matters unless it manifests on the field, and with Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando back, Real Salt Lake has a chance to render those poor indicators meaningless. At the same time, LA can close its season series against the Western Conference champions by redeeming its opening night loss, moving closer to the West’s top five in the process.

source: Getty ImagesGAME OF THE WEEK, NUMBER TWO
Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers, Sunday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2

The league’s best rivalry would get Game of the Week status regardless of where the teams sat in the table. Unfortunately for Portland, we’re testing the extremes. While Seattle in on pace for 70 points (59 won last year’s Supporters’ Shield), the Timbers have the second-worst points-per-game rate in the West. Only San Jose has had more trouble claiming points.

The problem for the Timbers is the same one Caleb Porter’s been talking about all season: Goal prevention. With 30 goals allowed, the Timbers are tied for the worst defense in the league, a stat that looms large with the returns of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. Though Portland took their rivals to extra-time mid-week in Open Cup play, Seattle was playing without their two best attackers. At home, in front of a crowd that could approach 60,000, Seattle should end its four-game winless run (in MLS) against their Cascadian rivals.

Zlatan after Manchester United win: “I expect much more from the team”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29:  Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrate following their sides 1-0 victory during the UEFA Europa League group A match between Manchester United FC and FC Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on September 29, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Manchester United has gone from a three-match losing streak to a three-match winning streak after Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s second half goal led the Red Devils to a 1-0 win over Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on Thursday.

The UEFA Europa League match was heavily titled in United’s favor, as Jose Mourinho’s men controlled the ball but didn’t find a finish outside of their big Swedish striker.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

Ibrahimovic was happy to pick up all three points after losing the group stage opener to Feyenoord, but expects better moving forward.

From the BBC:

“It was not an easy game, we played well, created chances but this is a typical game. When you don’t score in the beginning, the spaces get smaller and smaller. After the goal, we had more space but it was a decent game. We won and that is what counts after losing against Feyenoord.

“If you want to go through, you need to win the game, we did that. We could have done much more though and I expect much more from the team. We did not score as we did against Leicester but it is good for confidence. If we continue this and step it up, we will do good.”

United didn’t look like they’d concede a goal during the match aside from a very brief stretch early in the second half. Next up is an Oct. 20 trip to Fenerbahce.

Europa League: Zlatan leads Manchester United; Dundalk, Zenit win

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29:  Mikhail Sivakov of Zorya Luhansk and Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United battle for the ball during the UEFA Europa League group A match between Manchester United FC and FC Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on September 29, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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  • Rooney assists Zlatan winner
  • Roma, Zenit win big
  • Irish history for Dundalk

A 68th minute Zlatan Ibrahimovic header spurred Manchester United past visiting Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk X-0 at Old Trafford on Thursday in UEFA Europa League play.

United is a point behind Fenerbahce in Group A, level on points with Feyenoord but would sit behind them on head-to-head tiebreakers.

[ MORE: Early match roundup ]

Marcus Rashford hammered a Paul Pogba flick off the goal post moments after Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed a chance of his own, and Manchester United was rampant.

United was in control all half long, and even strings of passes were rare for Zorya. But the match remained 0-0.

[ MORE: Europa League standings ]

[ MORE: Europa League schedule ]

Funny thing, though, as Zorya really started to find some chances by crossing from wide positions as the second half got moving at Old Trafford.

The Red Devils got back on track with about 35 minutes to go, and it began to feel like the first half, that a goal was inevitable. Timothy Fosu-Mensah cut back for Wayne Rooney, who mishit a side volley directly to the back post. There, Ibrahimovic leapt to take advantage of baffled Zorya keeper Oleksiy Shevchenko, heading it over the line.

The Red Devils gave away a dangerous free kick with 12 minutes to play, but Jaba Lipartia hit his left-footed attempt over the bar.

Dundalk 1–0 Maccabi Tel-Aviv

Semi-pro side Dundalk became the first Irish team to claim a point in European play on the last match day, so it stands to reason the defeat of visiting Maccabi Tel-Aviv is the first win in Irish history. Big striker Ciaran Kilduff scored the goal that kept Dundalk second in Group D, two points behind Zenit Saint Petersburg. Dundalk is off to Zenit on Oct. 20.

Zenit Saint Petersburg 5-0 AZ Alkmaar

Speaking of Zenit, they didn’t just beat AZ, the Russians cruised past their Dutch visitors with five different goal scorers netting in the win.

Elsewhere
Saint-Etienne 1–1 Anderlecht
Genk 3–1 Sassuolo
Olympiacos 0–1 Apoel Nicosia
Fenerbahce 1–0 Feyenoord
Athletic Bilbao 1–0 Rapid Wien
Austria Wien 0–0 Viktoria Plzen
Zenit Saint-Petersburg 5–0 AZ Alkmaar
AS Roma 4–0 Astra Giurgiu

Giovani Dos Santos returns to Mexico team for Panama, New Zealand matches

CARSON, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 10: Jack Jewsbury #13 and Ned Grabavoy #10 of Portland Timbers battle Giovani dos Santos #10 of Los Angeles Galaxy for a loose ball during the first half of their MLS match at StubHub Center on April 10, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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Mexico’s friendly matches against New Zealand and Panama next week will see a return to the fold for in-form LA Galaxy striker Giovani Dos Santos.

The 100-times capped 27-year-old is having an MVP caliber season in MLS, and is one of only three non-Mexico based call-ups for head coach Juan Carlos Osorio.

The other two? Eintracht Frankfurt’s Marco Fabian, who is red-hot in the Bundesliga, and Giovani’s younger brother: Villarreal’s Jonathan Dos Santos.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

Mexico plays New Zealand on Saturday in Nashville before heading to Chicago for Tuesday’s match against Panama.

Here’s Mexico’s full list of call-ups:

Moises Munoz – America
Jesus Corona – Cruz Azul
Rodolfo Cota – Guadalajara
Hugo Ayala – Tigres
Hedgardo Marín -Guadalajara
Oswaldo Alanis – Guadalajara
Silva Jordan – Toluca
Jesus Duenas – Tigres
Jorge Torres Nilo – Tigres
Adrian Aldrete – Cruz Azul
Luis Robles – Atlas
Jesus Molina – Santos
Jonathan Dos Santos – Villarreal
Orbelin Pineda – Guadalajara
Erick Gutierrez – Pachuca
Elias Hernandez – Leon
Angel Sepulveda – Querétaro
Hirving Lozano – Pachuca
Isaac Brizuela – Guadalajara
Giovani Dos Santos – LA Galaxy
Marco Fabian – Eintracht Frankfurt
Oribe Peralta – America
Alan Pulido – Guadalajara

Europa League: Saints draw in Israel; Schalke, Fiorentina roll; Inter 0-2

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 25:  Fraser Forster of Southampton catches the ball ahead of Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham United during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Southampton at London Stadium on September 25, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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An update on the early matches of Europa League play, with Manchester United amongst 20 European teams dealing with 3:05 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Southampton traveled a long way and is coming home with a point.

A shorthanded Saints side without Jose Fonte and Charlie Austin amongst others played Hapoel Be’er Sheva to a 0-0 draw in Israel on Thursday in Europa League play.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

“It’s a good result,” said Saints boss Claude Puel. “We played a very good team. When you cannot win a game it’s important to take one point and it’s an important point for the future.”

The Premier League side won its first group stage match, and remains level with Hapoel Be’er Sheva for the Group K lead. Sparta Prague beat Inter Milan 3-1 in the Czech Republic to move into third place, while Inter is dead last at 0-2.

Mario Balotelli scored to open Nice‘s match at Krasnodar, but that was one of the only bright spots in a 5-2 win for the Russian side.

Schalke put aside its poor Bundesliga form to batter Red Bull Salzburg 3-1. Benedikt Howedes’ 58th minute goal gave the Germans a three-goal lead.

Full Europa League scoreboard

Qabala 2-3 Mainz
Astana 0-0 Young Boys
Zurich 2-1 Osmanlispor
Schalke 3-1 Red Bull Salzburg
Slovan Liberec 1-2 PAOK Salonika
Fiorentina 5-1 Qarabag
Steaua Bucuresti 1-1 Villarreal
Krasnodar 5-2 Nice
Ajax 1-0 Standard Liege
Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 Braga
Celta Vigo 2-0 Panathinaikos
Sparta Prague 3-1 Inter Milan
Gent 2-0 Konyaspor

3:05 p.m. ET kickoffs
Manchester United – Zorya
Saint-Etienne – Anderlecht
Genk – Sassuolo
Olympiacos – Apoel Nicosia
Dundalk – Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Fenerbahce – Feyenoord
Athletic Bilbao – Rapid Wien
Austria Wien – Viktoria Plzen
Zenit Saint-Petersburg – AZ Alkmaar
AS Roma – Astra Giurgiu