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.

French league responds after Mario Balotelli racially abused

FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's Mario Balotelli controls the ball during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, at the Nice stadium, southeastern France. Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura says he will talk to forward Mario Balotelli before the Azzurri's next set of matches in March. Balotelli has revived his career in France, scoring eight goals in as many matches for Nice, but has not played for Italy since the 2014 World Cup. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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PARIS (AP) The French league will open an investigation after Nice striker Mario Balotelli spoke out against Bastia fans he said made monkey noises during a match on Friday night.

[ MORE: City, Spurs draw, Reds fall to Swansea in Saturday’s PL action ]

In a brief statement Saturday afternoon, the French League said it “deplored all of the incidents” that happened on Friday. Before the match, Nice’s team bus had been pelted by stones as it arrived at the stadium.

[ MORE: Saturday’s results from around the Bundesliga ]

The LFP’s disciplinary committee will start looking into the matters when it convenes on Thursday and once it has received further information from officials and both clubs.

Balotelli wrote a message on his Instagram and Twitter pages earlier on Saturday, describing the abuse he heard during the 1-1 draw at the 20,000-capacity Armand Cesari stadium in Corsica and complaining that the French league had not acted swiftly enough.

“Is it normal that Bastia supporters make monkey noise (and) `uh’ `uh’ for the whole game and no one of the `commissions discipline’ say nothing?” Balotelli wrote, referencing the French league’s disciplinary committee. “So is racism legal in France? Or only in Bastia? Football is an amazing sport. Those people like Bastia supporters make it horrible!”

Balotelli, 26, the son of Ghanaian immigrants to Italy, concluded his post by writing in French that what happened was “une vrai honte,” or a total disgrace.

Nice’s official Twitter account shared Balotelli’s message. On its website, the French Riviera club threw its support behind Balotelli.

“Nice, which already had stones thrown at its bus before the game, is outraged by what happened to its players on Friday night, and in particular to Mario Balotelli,” a statement read.

Bastia did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking a response to Balotelli’s claim.

Balotelli joined from Liverpool on a free transfer in August and has scored eight league goals in 10 games to help Nice challenge for the title.

He did not say in his message whether or not he had informed referee Clement Turpin, who had the authority to stop the game, of the crowd’s actions. Commentators from broadcaster Canal Plus, which covered the game, made no mention of any racist abuse during the match.

In May 2013, when playing for Italian side AC Milan, Balotelli was subject to racist abuse from visiting Roma fans, causing the Serie A game to be briefly halted by the referee during the second half after warnings to stop the abuse were made throughout the stadium. Massimiliano Allegri, Milan’s coach at the time, made stinging comments against those who had racially abused Balotelli.

Bastia was docked two points by the LFP in the 2007-08 season after its fans racially abused Burkina Faso forward Boubacar Kebe by holding up a banner during a second-division home game against Libourne. The kickoff was delayed by a few minutes until the banner aimed at Kebe was removed.

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea looks to extend lead, Gunners host Burnley

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea (2L) celebrates with Filipe Luis (L) and Cesc Fabregas (2R) as he scores their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea received everything they wished for on Saturday after several of the Premier League’s big boys all dropped points in crushing fashion.

Now, the Blues have the opportunity to extend their gap at the top of England on Sunday while two other matches are slated on the day.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Southampton vs. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Saints will have to make do without one of its most important defensive figures following the sale of Jose Fonte, however, Claude Puel‘s men won’t have to deal with several of Leicester’s attacking threats as the African Cup of Nations rolls on. Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani and Daniel Amartey will each be absent for the Foxes as they play for their respective sides at the tournament.

Southampton has taken points against Leicester in four straight PL fixtures (1 W, 3 D), however both sides have been vastly inconsistent in form throughout the campaign. Leicester striker Jamie Vardy and his side continue to struggle, with the Englishman having posted just five goals this season after netting 24 in league play a season ago.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man City, Spurs finish level ]


Arsenal vs. Burnley — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Gunners are unbeaten in five straight matches against Burnley, and Sunday presents the chance for Arsene Wenger‘s side to win its fifth consecutive fixture against the Clarets. Wenger’s men currently sit eight points behind league leaders Chelsea, and after the rest of the the PL’s title contenders slipped up on Saturday the Gunners will be looking to avoid any stumble at the Emirates Stadium.

Olivier Giroud is expected to be back for Arsenal, while Hector Bellerin, Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin are also healthy once more. Meanwhile, the Clarets are said to be expecting Dean Marney, Ashley Barnes and Johann Berg Gudmundsson back in the squad after missing the team’s FA Cup victory during the midweek.

[ MORE: WATCH — Wayne Rooney’s top Man United goals ]


Chelsea vs. Hull City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Blues will be expected to take advantage of this match but all eyes will be on Antonio Conte’s team sheet, particularly with close attention on Diego Costa. The Spaniard was said to have missed the team’s last PL match due to a back injury, although reports have also suggested interest from China. Chelsea has yet to lose to Hull in nine PL fixtures, having won seven encounters and drawn the other two matches.

Meanwhile, Hull could have some of its reinforcements available on Sunday, including Olympiakos defender Omar Elabdellaoui. The Tigers will have a massive task at hand against the Blues, who have won 14 of their last 15 league matches. Marco Silva’s side currently sits in the relegation zone, however, a victory could propel the team above both Crystal Palace and Swansea City.

Watch: USMNT midfielder Hyndman provides assist in Rangers debut win

United States midfielder Emerson Hyndman (8) gets past Cuba defender Adrian Arturo Diz Pe during the first half of a CONCACAF men's Olympic qualifying soccer match Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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Well, it didn’t take long for Emerson Hyndman to make an impression at his new club.

[ MORE: Man City, Spurs finish level in Saturday’s PL action ]

The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder provided the game-winning assist for Scottish side Rangers in Saturday’s 2-1 Scottish Cup win over Motherwell after picking out Kenny Miller for his second goal of the match.

[ MORE: Ghana books place in AFCON quarterfinals, Egypt edges Uganda ]

Hyndman, 20, joined the Scottish giants in January after coming over on loan from Premier League side Bournemouth. The rising USMNT attacker only made three appearances for the Cherries prior to completing the loan move to Rangers.

The former FC Dallas academy product has risen through the USMNT set up over recent years, appearing for the Under-17, U-20 and U-23 sides before Hyndman earning his first cap with the senior team in 2014.

Check out Hyndman’s game-winning assist below.

La Liga & Serie A: Valencia stuns Villareal, Napoli defeats AC Milan

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 10: Santi Mina of Valencia runs with the ball during the Copa del Rey Semi Final, second leg match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Estadio Mestalla on February 10, 2016 in Valencia, Spain. (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Villareal 0-2 Valencia

In a dramatic and purely unexpected result, Salvador González Marco’s side picked up a massive win over the sixth place Villareal in order to give Valencia some space above the bottom three. Valencia has now won two straight matches in league play, after goals from Carlos Soler and Santi Mina lifted the bottom half side.

Real Madrid 2-1 Malaga

Sergio Ramos scored twice in the first half for the hosts, and it turned out to be enough for Real to end its recent losing streak. The Madridistas got back on track Saturday with its victory over Malaga, opening up a four-point lead in La Liga over second place Sevilla. Malaga made the match interesting just beyond the hour mark when Juanpi pulled a goal back for the visitors, however, the 13th place side couldn’t muster up a second tally.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Espanyol 3-1 Granada
Alaves 2-2 Leganes

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Sevilla (6 a.m. ET)
Athletic Bilbao vs. Atletico Madrid (10 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Sporting Gijon (12:30 a.m. ET)
Real Sociedad vs. Celta Vigo (12:30 a.m. ET)
Eibar vs. Barcelona (2:45 p.m. ET)


 

AC Milan 1-2 Napoli

A lousy start from the hosts couldn’t be overcome on Saturday. Early goals from Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon inside of the opening 10 minutes helped give Napoli the lead, while Juraj Kucka scored the lone goal for AC Milan. The Rossoneri have fallen to fifth place in Serie A following Saturday’s defeat, leaving Milan eight points behind Juventus. Meanwhile, Napoli has ascended to within a single point of the league leaders.

Chievo 0-3 Fiorentina

The Viola were in firm control against their bottom half opposition, and Chievo simply couldn’t come up with an answer at the Stadio Marc`Antonio Bentegodi. Cristian Tello gave the visitors a 1-0 lead heading into the half before Khouma Babacar and Federico Chiesa tacked on two more finishes in the second stanza. Fiorentina currently sits eighth in Italy’s top flight while Chievo trails the Viola by eight points.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Bologna vs. Cagliari (6:30 a.m. ET)
Chievo vs. Lazio (9 a.m. ET)
Genoa vs. Fiorentina (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Torino (9 a.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (9 a.m. ET)
Pescara vs. Inter Milan (2:45 p.m. ET)