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.

Messi looking to end El Clasico scoring drought

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during a training session ahead of their La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid on December 2, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) There couldn’t be a better time for Lionel Messi to end his scoring drought than in the clasico against Real Madrid.

With Barcelona struggling and desperately needing a victory to stay close to its rival in the Spanish league, Messi could help turn things around on Saturday if he can find the net again after five scoreless games against Madrid.

Barcelona enters the home game at Camp Nou six points behind Madrid, and another setback could leave it in a difficult position to fight for a third straight league title.

[ MORE: Chapecoense crash survivor could play again ]

Messi hasn’t played badly in recent clasicos, but his last goal against Madrid came almost three years ago when he had a hat trick in a 4-3 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

He hasn’t scored in the four games since, not even in the stunning 4-0 win at the Bernabeu last season, when Messi came off the bench in the second half after a long injury layoff. Barcelona has won two of the last five games against Madrid, but it’s been 400 minutes since Messi last scored.

Since that hat trick in March 2014, Cristiano Ronaldo has attracted most of the headlines in the clasico, having scored three times, including the late game-winner at Camp Nou last season that ended Barcelona’s record 39-game unbeaten streak.

“They’re two exceptional players,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “Cristiano is doing exceptional, incredible things, I hope he carries on like this.”

Messi remains the all-time leading scorer in the clasico with 21 in 32 matches, but at Camp Nou it’s been Ronaldo who has thrived the most.

He has 10 goals in 12 games in Barcelona, including five in the last five matches and eight in the last nine. He failed to find the net only in four of those 12 games. Messi netted only five times in those same 12 encounters in Catalonia.

Ronaldo has scored in each of the last two league games between them at the Camp Nou. He has 16 goals in 25 clasicos, behind only Messi (21) and Alfredo Di Stefano (18).

[ MORE: Birnbaum spurns Europe for DC United ]

Messi has 15 goals in the 25 clasicos in which he and Ronaldo faced each other.

Ronaldo, who recently netted a hat trick in the Madrid derby against Atletico, is the Spanish league leading scorer with 10, one more than Messi. Ronaldo has eight goals in his last four league matches.

Messi also has been playing well recently, having scored five goals in his last four games. He has netted 16 in his last 11 matches.

Barcelona is coming off three consecutive draws, two in the league and one in the Copa del Rey.

Madrid is enjoying a 32-game unbeaten streak under Zidane.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Premier League Preview: West Ham United vs. Arsenal

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09: Francis Coquelin of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at the Boleyn Ground on April 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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  • Arsenal unbeaten at WH since 2006
  • Irons took four of six points last season
  • Arsenal leads all-time 60W-39D-34L

Arsenal continues its chase of a Premier League title with a tricky visit to West Ham United on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. EDT on NBC, and online at NBCSports.com).

Arsene Wenger‘s bunch opens the weekend three points behind first-place Chelsea, two back of Liverpool and Manchester City. A win could push them a space or two up the table with Chelsea hosting Man City.

[ MORE: Guardiola, Conte talk match-up ]

The Olympic Stadium hasn’t been kind to West Ham this year, but perhaps this is just the game to flip the script on both their season and rivalry with Arsenal. The Irons had a good run versus the Gunners last season, but it’s been a while since they trumped Arsenal at home.

There are questions as to who will start up top. Perhaps it’ll be Simone Zaza, with Andy Carroll and Andre Ayew both facing fitness concerns.

Arsenal have injuries, too, with Santi Cazorla now lost for three months and Mathieu Debuchy suffering a setback as well.

What they’re saying

Arsene Wenger on the Olympic Stadium: “Before, we knew exactly what was expected of us at West Ham. I preferred the first version of the West Ham stadium, when it was very tight. When they built a new stand the distances were a bit bigger and that probably made the first one the most intimidating stadium I knew. It’s a bit like when we moved to the Emirates. You feel a bit like you’re playing on neutral ground for a while. After that, the best way to prepare is just to focus on what we do and focus in a very strong way.”

Slaven Bilic on whether West Ham needs to be worried: “It depends how you look at it. We’re in a position we don’t want to be in. OK, it’s not after 26 games but it’s not after two or three. It’s a considerable amount, so it makes us think about it. On the other hand, with three points that are there week in, week out, we can climb up the table a lot. It’s that kind of a league – even a point can help. It’s very, very tight from mid-table to the position that we are. There’s no time to panic. But we can’t be relaxed and say it’s going to come, because it won’t just come like that.”

Prediction

Arsenal hasn’t lost a Premier League match since August, though its weakened lineup did suffer an EFL Cup setback to Southampton at midweek. West Ham’s been improving but went with a strong cast in its EFL Cup loss at Manchester United. The edge goes to the Gunners, especially given West Ham’s home uncertainty. Arsenal, 3-1.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Top 5 Premier League Storylines for a big weekend

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09: Andy Carroll of West Ham United scores his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at the Boleyn Ground on April 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Time flies when you’re having fun. So goes the old maxim, but time may rocket when you’re facing a relegation fight, too.

The Premier League is more than one-third of the way through its season, and this weekend finds its clubs critical match-ups up-and-down the table.

[ MORE: New Spurs deal for Kane ]

Man City and Chelsea jockey for position at the top of the table, while Everton and Manchester United could dash each other’s Top Four hopes.

As for the relegation scraps, one involves last season’s champs. All make our top storylines for this PL weekend.

Pep vs. Conte, Round 1

Manchester City vs. Chelsea — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday, NBCSN and NBCSports.com.

We’ll know before the mid-morning matches kickoff whether there will be a new Premier League leader after this weekend. Chelsea hopes the answer is no, that their boss Antonio Conte will win his first tete-a-tete with fellow tactical wizard Pep Guardiola. City has had a tough go of it, relatively speaking, at home this season. Three wins and three draws give City a lesser share of the points at home than away from the Etihad Stadium.

Can a London rivalry help West Ham’s home woes?

West Ham United vs. Arsenal — 12:30 p.m. EDT Saturday, NBC and NBCSports.com.

Fits and starts was not supposed to be the way for West Ham this season, but the presumed contenders remain just a point ahead of the drop zone. The Irons have just two wins from six home PL matches this season, but could there possibly be a better way to create good vibes at the Olympic Stadium than a triumph over the Gooners? West Ham can’t make its way into the Top Four mix, but it can dent Arsenal’s title hopes.

Separation day for Toffees, Red Devils

Everton vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. EDT Sunday, NBCSN and NBCSports.com.

One point separates Ronald Koeman‘s Toffees and Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, and it’d be fair to say both thought this battle would be higher up the table as recently as one month ago. United has a one point edge on Everton for sixth, and the loser could find itself as far as 7 or 8 points off the Top Five pace.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05: Leighton Baines of Everton competes with Juan Mata of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on October 5, 2014 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Juan Mata and Leighton Baines (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images).

Relegation scrap at the Riverside Stadium

Middlesbrough vs. Hull City — 3 p.m. EDT Monday, NBCSN and NBCSports.com.

The Tigers have managed just 4 of their 11 points away from the KC Stadium, but can guarantee a trip out of the drop zone by managing a win (though a draw could do the trick if Palace falls to Southampton). Aitor Karanka‘s hosts had much higher aims than a relegation battle, perhaps naively, and will be feeling the heat of the drop with anything but three points on Saturday. A large part of their struggles have come at home, which will be music to Hull’s ears; Boro is 1W-1D-4L at home.

Sunderland aims to make relegation fears deeper for champions

Sunderland vs. Leicester City — 10 a.m. EDT Saturday, Premier League Xtra Time and NBCSports.com.

The Premier League champions have one point away from home this season. That’s bad, as is their awful standing in 14th. The Foxes are two points clear of the drop, five points ahead of the last-place Black Cats. David Moyes‘ hosts have been playing much better as of late, beating Hull and Bournemouth before falling to Liverpool. That Hull win is their lone victory at the Stadium of Light this season, but Sunderland can take comfort in the fact that Leicester has four losses and a draw in matches preceding a Champions League fixture.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 14

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Week 14 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 14 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Stoke City 2-0 Burnley – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 3-1 Swansea City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 0-2 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Man City 1-2 Chelsea – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

West Ham 2-3 Arsenal – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

West Brom 1-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-2 Liverpool – (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 1-0 Hull City – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Everton 2-2 Man United – (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Sunderland 2-1 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]