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.

Top 15 new signings in the Premier League, so far

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Do you remember back in the summer when Premier League clubs were splashing the cash, new players were flooding in and fans of every single team believed they’d just signed either the “next big thing” or a “superstar” for the 2017-18 season?

Yeah, about that…

[ VIDEO: PL Saturday roundup ]

Regardless of how many new boys have so far been duds after arriving at their new team in the summer transfer window, plenty of players have made very impressive starts to life at their new clubs.

With that in mind, below is a look at the top 15 new guys in the PL after they arrived at their new PL clubs in the summer.


  1. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 14 goals in 18 games for Liverpool in all comps. has surpassed all expectations. A bargain at $45 million. Superb start.
  2. Ederson (Manchester City) – The missing piece of the jigsaw for Man City. Confident goalkeeper capable with his feet and eager to rush off his line.
  3. Richarlison (Watford) – Brazilian was an unknown before the season but youngster has five goals and two assists so far and has been a revelation.
  4. Kyle Walker (Manchester City) – $70 million for a right back? $70 million for a right back. Walker’s pace and power has added proper balance to City’s defense along with left back Benjamin Mendy before his unfortunate injury.
  5. Alvaro Morata (Chelsea) – Spaniard has scored 8 goals and added 4 assists and is the main man at Stamford Bridge. $90 million well spent.
  6. Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United) – 12 goals in all comps, 8 goals in 12 in the PL, yeah, Lukaku’s doing well. His recent drought a little worrying.
  7. Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) – Six goals and 1 assist, Lacazette has settled in very well at Arsenal. His runs open up space for Ozil, Sanchez.
  8. Pascal Gross (Brighton) – 5 assists and three goals this season for the German playmaker make him an absolute bargain for the new boys.
  9. Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham) – Colombian arrived with a big reputation but the 21-year-old is exceeding it. Calm, powerful center back.
  10. Harry Maguire (Leicester City) – Towering defender is an elegant ballerina on the ball. Now an England international and key for the Foxes after leaving Hull for $22 million.
  11. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town) – Australian makes Huddersfield tick after making his loan move from Man City permanent. Smooth on the ball.
  12. Mario Lemina (Southampton) – Stunning start to life at Saints curtailed by injury. Combative midfielder looks like a $20 million bargain from Juventus.
  13. Jack Cork (Burnley) – Shrewd pickup by Dyche with Cork’s early season form earning him an England call-up. Tidy, direct player with vast experience.
  14. Mikel Merino (Newcastle United) – His loan move from Dortmund was quickly made permanent and he has class as well as guile in midfield.
  15. Erik Maxim Choupo-Moting (Stoke City) – Has provided extra quality up top for Stoke with 3 goals and 3 assists. Superb free transfer.

Notable mentions: Chris Wood (Burnley), Jonas Lossl (Huddersfield), Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City), Tiemoue Bakayoko (Chelsea), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Kurt Zouma (Stoke City, on loan from Chelsea), Tammy Abraham (Swansea City, on loan from Chelsea)

Report: Mesut Ozil to return to Schalke

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Is Mesut Ozil heading home?

The German playmaker from Gelsenkirchen is said to be contemplating a return to his hometown club Schalke 04 next summer.

[ MORE: 3 things from Arsenal, Spurs ]

Ozil, 29, has just over six months left to run on his current Arsenal contract and is a free to talk to non-English clubs on January 1 about a free transfer on July 1, 2018.

After coming through Schalke’s youth system, Ozil helped the Bundesliga side challenge for the title in 2006-07 and reach the UEFA Champions League before moving on to first Werder Bremen after a contract dispute with Schalke, then Real Madrid following his star displays at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Perhaps Ozil feels like there is unfinished business at Schalke? Their president Clemens Tonnies wants Ozil to return home but admits it may be difficult financially.

“I still have a great relationship with Mesut,” Tonnies told German outlet Kicker. “We would definitely consider it [a return]. If it fits for both sides, it would be nice. The player could say that he returns to his roots, and that he plays football in this stadium and for those fans and the region once again. But it will certainly not happen next season.”

Schalke are enjoying somewhat of a resurgence this season with the club currently in second-place in the German top-flight and a young, talented squad impressing (shoutout to USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie!) ahead of their Revierderby clash with bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund this weekend.

Would this be a good move for Ozil?

Several of Europe’s biggest clubs have been linked with a move for the mercurial midfielder, while the likes of Arsenal’s Premier League rivals Manchester United are also said to be monitoring his situation closely, but it would seem he is closer than Alexis Sanchez to remaining at Arsenal beyond this season.

At the weekend Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger sung the praises of Ozil and fellow Arsenal contract rebel Alexis Sanchez, with Ozil having an assist on Arsenal’s opening goal and putting in a superb display in their 2-0 North London derby win against Tottenham Hotspur.

“The quality of the contract of the contract has to be good and enough for them as well, you know. I am convinced they love the club, they love the team but all the rest will be decided, when? I don’t really know,” Wenger said. “I’m not alone to master that. [Quality of the contract] is part of it. The whole thing has to be right, they have to be happy. I believe they love the club and they want to stay but there are other top clubs out there who offer good contracts as well.”

It is clear that Ozil and Sanchez have enjoyed being at Arsenal, for the most part, but perhaps Ozil’s love for another club, his boyhood team Schalke, will see him head back to the Veltins-Arena to finish up his playing days?

So often lambasted for not caring enough or working hard enough, you can’t argue with Ozil’s stats in the attacking third since he arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2013. He has earned the right to decide where he goes next as he prepares to sign the biggest, and perhaps last, contract of his career.

That could be the sticking point for Schalke (especially with their president saying a move for Ozil is unlikely this summer) but if they don’t have to pay a transfer fee to bring home a local hero, surely it would be smart business to do it now rather than wait few years after he joins another club.

The myth that Schalke is some small Bundesliga club remains out there, even though they have one of the largest fanbases in Europe and are able to compete financially with the Bundesliga’s best.

Ozil heading home makes sense on many levels but we all know the deciding factor: $$$.

Louis van Gaal to take over at Everton?

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Bookmakers have slashed the odds of Louis Van Gaal becoming Everton’s new manager.

Van Gaal, 66, is now the second favorite to be the next permanent Toffees boss with Watford manager Marco Silva still the favorite to take charge at Goodison Park despite Everton having two bids for the Portuguese manager knocked back.

David Unsworth continues to lead Everton on an interim basis but with unimpressive results and performances, the jury is out on him being handed the job on a permanent basis.

LVG has been out of work since being fired by Manchester United in the summer of 2016, a few days after he won the FA Cup. The Dutchman and his unconventional methods led United to fourth and fifth place Premier League finishes in his two season at Old Trafford but he was often criticized by fans for their slow, predictable style of play.

Would van Gaal be a good fit for Everton?

His “name” would perhaps suit owner Farhad Moshiri who is looking to push Everton onto the next level and LVG’s penchant for developing young talent throughout his managerial career certainly aligns with Everton’s philosophy. Given the large number of talented youngsters they currently have (Ademola Lookman, Tom Davies, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Mason Holgate to name a few) this may not be the worst appointment in the world.

Is van Gaal a bit odd? Yes, he’s pretty nuts. Would he be hungry to prove everyone in England wrong? Yes, he would be. Are Everton a team which has hit rock bottom and can easily improve in the coming months? Yes, that’s true. The lack of current candidates for the job do suggest that Everton’s expectations are perhaps a lot higher than their currently playing squad (assembled by LVG’s nemesis Ronald Koeman) can achieve.

Given his experience at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Man United, plus leading AZ Alkmaar, who had similar expectations to Everton, to a Dutch league title, perhaps the Toffees could do a lot worse than appointing LVG. That may be an unpopular opinion but if Everton can’t get Silva, can they really keep caretaker boss Unsworth in charge for much longer?

Plus, he’s always good value in press conferences and there would be plenty of added intrigue at Everton.

Niasse first-ever PL player to be charged with “deception”

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Oumar Niasse will go down in the history books. Not for a good reason.

[ RECAP: Palace 2-2 Everton

On Tuesday the English Football Association announced that Everton’s striker had succeeded in “successful deception of a match official” when winning a penalty kick for the Toffees at Crystal Palace on Saturday during their 2-2 draw.

In charging Niasse with simulation, he becomes the first-ever Premier League player to be sanctioned under new rules introduced in May.

Players in the lower-tiers of English soccer have already been banned for two games during this season for simulation and Niasse can either accept his automatic two-match ban or appeal the decision.

Niasse went down under minimal contact from Palace’s Scott Dann in the box and won a sixth-minute penalty kick which Leighton Baines scored. Niasse, who came close to joining Palace in the transfer deadline day in the summer, later scored an equalizer to make it 2-2.

The FA had the following to say about the decision to charge Niasse.

 “Incidents which suggest a match official has been deceived by an act of simulation are referred to a panel consisting of one ex-match official, one ex-manager and one ex-player. Each panel member will be asked to review all available video footage independently of one another to determine whether they consider it was an offence of ‘Successful Deception of a Match Official.’ Only in circumstances where the panel are unanimous would the FA issue a charge.”

Niasse did go down very easily and was looking straight towards referee Anthony Taylor for a penalty kick, which he received. If he appeals, it’s unlikely he will win it.

There is no place in the game for simulation and although it won’t get two points back for Crystal Palace, hopefully these bans will stamp it out of the game.

I’m all for more of these bans being dished out to stamp out the problem of simulation.