Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers

MLS Preview: Playoff tensions rise as last teams reach half-way mark

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After this weekend’s matches, every team will have reached its halfway mark, bringing the playoff races into view on the horizon. Starting with NBC’s Friday Night Game, here’s a look at the upcoming weekend in Major League Soccer.

NBC’S FRIDAY NIGHT GAME
Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids, Friday, 11:00 p.m. Eastern NBCSN

WATCH LIVE: NBC Sports Live Extra

Portland’s collapsing quest to return to the postseason wouldn’t look so bad if it wasn’t for Colorado. We knew Seattle, Real Salt Lake, and the LA Galaxy were good bets for the Western Conference playoffs, while the talent accumulated in Vancouver just needs to be pieced together in the right way. If the Whitecaps recapture their spring form, they’ll be there, too.

In theory, Colorado should be the team that comes back to the pack, the one that could leaves room for the Timbers to play into November, but that’s just not happening. The Rapids have moved on from spring’s conservative, penalty-dependent team to become a more resourceful group. Pablo Mastroeni has managed to solidify his team while continuing to put players like Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers, and Vicente Sánchez in positions to define matches.

Perhaps as important: Colorado has six points on the Timbers, as well as a game in hand. The Timbers aren’t their only threat, but with win at Providence Park, the Rapids could deal a big blow to a team that could become its most dangerous.

Notes: Sánchez is serving the last of his two-game suspension on Friday, with Nick LaBrocca (yellow accumulation) and Shane O’Neill (disciplinary committee suspension) joining him on the sidelines; Liam Ridgewell could debut in defense for Portland.

source: Getty Images

GAME OF THE WEEK STUFF
Sporting Kansas City vs. LA Galaxy, Saturday, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2

On 14 goals, Dom Dwyer (right) has been one of MLS’s most prolific goal-scorers, with his production crucial for a Kansas City where no other player has scored more than two goals. It’s a frightening dependency, one that should be corrected with Graham Zusi’s return. Whereas a year ago Dwyer was still establishing his place in Peter Vermes’ starting lineup, now he’s their most indispensible player.

The Galaxy had a similar dependency on Robbie Keane earlier this year, only getting results when their star forward got on the scoresheet. Over the last two months, however, LA’s own emerging talent has alleviated that concern. With six goals, all since May 21, Zardes is establishing himself as a desperately needed second scorer.

It’s strange to say that about a team that also has Landon Donovan, but with Keane scoring and Donovan creating, there just weren’t enough goals. Since Zardes started scoring eight games ago, LA has 17 goals. In the eight games before the 22-year-old’s run, LA’s only scored eight times.

In a way, however, those are mere details in a bigger story. Whenever Sporting and LA meet, we’re talking about two of the best, most talented organizations in Major League Soccer. With Kansas City unbeaten in five, both teams will be carrying significant momentum into Saturday’s early kickoff.

source: Getty Images

THE GAMES YOU SHOULD WIN
New York Red Bulls vs. San Jose Earthquakes, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern
D.C. United vs. Chivas USA, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Univision Deportes

As Erick Torres (right) continues to remind us, even the league’s bottom feeders are capable of greatness in spurts, a lesson an East-leading United has taken to heart during its dramatic turnaround season. At some point, however, there just aren’t enough clichés that can obscure the obvious: Good teams should beat bad teams, particularly at home.

Is D.C. a good team? The standings say yes, but how the team goes about its business makes Chivas USA dangerous. Though they’re in first in the East, United’s walking a fine line by playing so many close games. And lately, unbeaten in its last five, Chivas has been pushing other teams over that line.

New York has been so inconsistent, it’s difficult to say they’re actually good. One day they’re blowing out Columbus. The next they’re practically anonymous during a game in Philadelphia. If consistency’s a hallmark of quality, the Red Bulls have a way to go.

Against a team that’s falling away from the West, New York should win. But San Jose has enough weapons to pull an upset, should short rest bring out the Mr. Hyde in the Red Bulls.

source: Getty ImagesLEAST IN THE EAST
Columbus Crew vs. Montréal Impact, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern
Chicago Fire vs. Philadelphia Union, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern, Univision Deportes

Too bad this isn’t an elimination tournament, right? Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. After all, there’s still a long way to go in the season. Any of these teams could still heat up, though from a neutral’s perspective, there’s no way around it. Four of the seven worst teams in the league (in terms of points-per-game) are in these games.

If you’re looking for a reason to go beyond the records and tune in, might I suggest focusing on the stars? Consider:

  • Columbus’s Federico Higuaín (right) is one of the league’s elite playmakers. The Argentine leads the league in throughballs per game, with only Javier Morales creating more chances for his teammates.
  • Montréal’s Marco Di Vaio is nearing the end, but he still has the talent to be the East’s Erick Torres. If he gets hot, the Impact can make a late run.
  • In Chicago, Mike Magee may be the reigning MVP, but rookie Harry Shipp has been the Fires best player. Destined to be the league’s Rookie of the Year, the 22-year-old leads the team in both goals (six) and assists (four).
  • And with Philadelphia, Maurice Edu has been asked to move back from midfield, where he was an international-caliber player, into defense, a position he’s had dalliances with in the past. His switch could stabilize the Union; or, it could continue the team’s drift.

source: Getty ImagesTOTAL OPPOSITES
FC Dallas vs. New England Revolution, Saturday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern
Houston Dynamo vs. Toronto FC, Saturday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern

Sometimes we (bloggers, writers, et al.) get a bit lazy when using clichés like “going in opposite directions. Other times, you see the wisdom in the crutch.

Consider Dallas and New England. Despite Fabián Castillo’s suspension, Óscar Pareja has his team unbeaten in four, with Mauro Díaz returning just in time to help keep the team in the West’s top five. Contrast that with New England, who’ve gone from the league’s best team in mid-spring to one of its worst. A 5-1, mid-week defeat to Los Angeles gave the Revs six straight losses.

The story’s similar in Houston, where the defense’s collapse has left the Dynamo with one point in seven, sinking Dom Kinnear’s team to ninth in the East. To stop that slide, they’ll have to derail a TFC team that’s lost once since May 3 – a team that beat the Dynamo 4-2 last week at BMO.

source: APQUIETLY, THE WEEKEND’S BEST GAME
Real Salt Lake vs. Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern

Sporting and LA will draw the hype, but given the teams’ tendencies, the game in Kansas could (d)evolve into a very cagey battle. Whichever team scores first is more than capable of holding that lead. The day’s biggest game could turn into one for the true connoisseurs.

Saturday’s late game in Sandy will have just as much quality on the field, but with creators like Javier and Pedro Morales and attacking talents like João Plata and Kakuta Manneh, the day’s finale could prove much more exciting. With Kyle Beckerman (right) and Matías Laba doing battle with a pairs of the league’s elite playmakers, a series of great one-on-one match ups are part of this game’s charm.

Another part of that charm comes from the teams’ flaws. After reaching May 31 undefeated, Real Salt Lake’s only win in its last seven came against New England. And thanks to a similar disappointing run (one win in six), Vancouver has fallen out of the West’s top five.

Perhaps those slides will create a sense of urgency in two of the league’s most talented teams. Regardless, only one team can end its slide at Rio Tinto.

PL Sunday preview: The day Leicester are crowned champions?

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 24:  Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City (top) celebrates with team mates as he scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Swansea City at The King Power Stadium on April 24, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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The race for the 2015-16 Premier League title could be officially over by this time tomorrow. The biggest day in the history of Leicester City Football Club awaits…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Swansea City vs. Liverpool — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Swansea City (40 points – 15th place) are ever so close to guaranteeing their status as a Premier League club for another season, and a win over Liverpool at the Liberty Stadium would do the mathematical trick for the Swans. Three points would also vault them into 13th place with two games remaining on the season, a dream-land finish to the campaign that months ago looked destined to end in a relegation scrap.

As for Liverpool, the’re 10 points back of Manchester City for fourth place and UEFA Champions League qualification, so don’t be surprised if Jurgen rests a handful of key contributors with both eyes focused on Thursday’s UEFA Europa League semifinal second leg against Villarreal (Liverpool trail 1-0 after the first leg). Winning the UEL is the Reds’ last avenue for Champions League qualification next season, and the kind of recruiting tool Klopp will so desperately need to build his own squad in the summer transfer window.

Injuries: Swansea — OUT: Leroy Fer (hamstring), Alberto Paloschi (hamstring) | Liverpool — OUT: Divock Origi (ankle), Emre Can (ankle), Jordan Henderson (knee), Mamadou Sakho (suspension); QUESTIONABLE: Philippe Coutinho (illness)

[ MORE: PL roundup — Newcastle get massive win in relegation fight ]

Manchester United vs. Leicester City — 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

The last nine months have merely been building up to this day, this game, for this team — the soon-to-be Premier League champions, Manchester United Leicester City. Are you prepared to live in a world where, for 12 full months, the tag of “defending Premier League champions” will precede any mention of the Foxes? You better be, because it’s happening, perhaps on Sunday.

Louis Van Gaal has challenged his Man United side to not be the foes against which Leicester win the title, but that’ll be easier said than done against the side with the best points tally from away games (37 points from 17 games) in the league this season, including away triumphs over Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and West Ham United already. When these sides met back in November, it was United who grabbed a second-half equalizer for a 1-1 draw, canceling out Jamie Vardy‘s opener which set a new Premier League record for consecutive games with a game (11). The math is simple: a win for Leicester, and they’re PL champions; a draw for Leicester and a draw or loss for Tottenham at Chelsea on Monday, and Leicester are champions; a loss for Leicester and a loss for Tottenham, and Leicester are champions.

Injuries: Man United — OUT: Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Luke Shaw (leg)| Leicester — OUT: Jamie Vardy (suspension); QUESTIONABLE: Leonardo Ulloa (back)

[ MORE: PHOTOS — Arsenal fans hold another protest of club, Wenger ]

Southampton vs. Manchester City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

West Ham’s thrashing of West Bromwich Albion on Saturday (plus a possible result for Man United on Sunday) at least makes the race for a top-four finish interesting for Man City, inasmuch as they need to win away to Southampton in order to maintain a five point gap between themselves and fifth place (a win would see them go back above Arsenal for third, based on goal differential).

As for Southampton, a win would secure their third straight top-eight finish in the PL, with a decent shot at leapfrogging Liverpool for seventh. When Saints and City met back in November, it was the latter side who took all three points in a 3-1 home victory.

Injuries: Southampton — QUESTIONABLE: Charlie Austin (knee) | Man City — OUT: David Silva (hamstring); QUESTIONABLE: Yaya Toure (thigh), Samir Nasri (hamstring)

Bundesliga wrap: Auba the super sub for BVB; Bayern fails to clinch

Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates after scoring during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and VfL Wolfsburg in Dortmund, Germany, Saturday, April 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Saturday’s results mean we’re not much closer to sorting the mess near both the European places and relegation zone in Germany.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]

Borussia Dortmund 5-1 Wolfsburg

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had one heck of a 21-minute cameo, scoring twice in two minutes to pour misery on the visitors, as Borussia Dortmund already had a heck of an advantage when the big scoring forward hit the pitch. Shinji Kagawa, Adrian Ramos and Marco Reus scored to stake BVB to a 3-0, and Andre Schurrle‘s 86th minute goal only served to spoil the shutout. USMNT 17-year-old Christian Pulisic was an unused sub.

Bayern Munich 1-1 Borussia Monchengladbach

The Allianz Arena faithful had seen 14 wins in 15 matches heading into Saturday’s match, only to watch over its first draw. Thomas Muller’s sixth minute goal looked like Bayern could cruise to a title-clinching win, but ‘Gladbach hung tight in an even affair that saw its final score line courtesy of Andre Hahn’s 72nd minute tally.

Darmstadt 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt

A massive comeback win has put Niko Kovac’s hosts on the verge of avoiding a relegation playoff against the 2.Bundesliga’s third-placed side. Mario Vrancic gave Darmstadt a halftime lead, but Makoto Hasebe equalized in the 56th minute before inspired substitute Stefan Aigner claimed a winner. Eintracht is level on points with 15th place Stuttgart, which places 17th place Werder Bremen on Monday, and is within a win and help of passing the visitors.

Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 Hertha Berlin

Hertha’s dream season has hit a rough patch, and a rough first 16 minutes resulted in it dropping into fifth place. Julian Brandt and Lars Bender scored early to lift Bayer eight points clear of fourth place, while Hertha is now tied with fourth-place Gladbach on points.

Elsewhere
Augsburg 0-0 Koln
Hoffenheim 2-1 Ingolstadt — Hosts now four points clear.
Hannover 1-3 Schalke — Hosts outshoot visitors 21-10, lose.
Mainz 0-0 Hamburger
Werder Bremen vs. Stuttgart — Monday

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 32 26 4 2 75 15 60 14-1-1 12-3-1 82
Borussia Dortmund 32 24 5 3 80 31 49 14-2-0 10-3-3 77
Bayer Leverkusen 32 17 6 9 52 36 16 9-3-4 8-3-5 57
Mönchengladbach 32 15 4 13 63 49 14 12-1-3 3-3-10 49
Hertha BSC Berlin 32 14 7 11 41 40 1 9-5-2 5-2-9 49
FC Schalke 04 32 14 6 12 46 47 -1 8-4-4 6-2-8 48
FSV Mainz 05 32 13 7 12 43 41 2 8-3-5 5-4-7 46
1. FC Köln 32 10 11 11 36 40 -4 5-4-7 5-7-4 41
FC Ingolstadt 04 32 10 10 12 30 37 -7 7-5-4 3-5-8 40
VfL Wolfsburg 32 10 9 13 43 48 -5 8-5-3 2-4-10 39
Hamburger SV 32 10 8 14 37 44 -7 5-4-7 5-4-7 38
FC Augsburg 32 9 10 13 40 48 -8 3-6-7 6-4-6 37
1899 Hoffenheim 32 9 10 13 38 49 -11 6-6-4 3-4-9 37
Darmstadt 32 8 11 13 36 50 -14 2-6-8 6-5-5 35
VfB Stuttgart 31 9 6 16 46 63 -17 6-1-9 3-5-7 33
Eintracht Frankfurt 32 8 9 15 33 51 -18 5-6-5 3-3-10 33
Werder Bremen 31 8 7 16 43 63 -20 3-5-7 5-2-9 31
Hannover 96 32 6 4 22 29 59 -30 3-0-13 3-4-9 22

Premier League roundup: Newcastle shakes up Bottom Three; Arsenal wins

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - APRIL 30:  Jamaal Lascelles of Newcastle United reacts at full time during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Crystal Palace at St James Park on April 30, 2016 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images
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Newcastle United has blown the race to escape the drop zone wide open, while Sunderland still controls its own destiny and Norwich City is angling for a lifeline.

[ MORE: Examining the relegation picture ]

Those are the lessons from a busy day in the Premier League with very little action, let alone movement, in the top half of the table.

Arsenal 1-0 Norwich CityRECAP

There were anti-Arsene Wenger protests before and after the Gunners defeated relegation-threatened Norwich on a Danny Welbeck goal, and Arsenal’s performance did little to quell the embattled manager’s critics. That said, the Gooners’ club remains in the Top Three while Norwich sits 19th place.

Newcastle United 1-0 Crystal PalaceRECAP

Andros Townsend curled home a gorgeous free kick, and Karl Darlow made a tremendous penalty stop on ex-Magpies star Yohan Cabaye as Newcastle rose out of the relegation zone for the first time since Valentine’s Day by defeating former manager Alan Pardew‘s Eagles. Palace continues its Premier League woes in 2016, and sits 7 points clear of the drop.

Stoke City 1-1 SunderlandRECAP

The Black Cats have a right to feel aggrieved after picking up just a single point from the Britannia Stadium. Sunderland did not get a penalty called when Geoff Cameron may’ve handled a cross, and then Peter Crouch picked up a headed assist by boosting himself off Younes Kaboul. But Jermain Defoe earned and converted a penalty kick that was just as suspect, and Sunderland remains a point back of Newcastle.

Watford 3-2 Aston VillaRECAP

WATFORD, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Troy Deeney of Watford celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Aston Villa at Vicarage Road on April 30, 2016 in Watford, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Troy Deeney grew up a Birmingham City fan, and my did he enjoy sticking the knife in the relegated enemy of his younger days. The Watford captain scored twice in stoppage time to avenge a 2-1 deficit and rise above 10-man Villa. Ciaran Clark scored early for Villa, but Almen Abdi scored a free kick for Watford, its first in PL history, to make it 1-1. Jordan Ayew put Villa ahead, but Aly Cissokho drew straight red with 16 minutes to play. That’s when Deeney went to work, and Watford went into the win column.

Everton 2-1 BournemouthRECAP

What began with an emotional tribute to the Hillsborough 96 and their families ended with a much-needed win for Roberto Martinez. Leighton Baines scored his first goal from the run of play since 2013, while Tom Cleverley also scored for the Toffees. Marc Pugh scored for Bournemouth.

West Bromwich Albion 0-3 West Ham UnitedRECAP

Slaven Bilic‘s Hammers aren’t giving up in their quest to reach the Top Four, as industrious Mark Noble grabbed two goals in leading West Ham to a big road win. Tony Pulis‘ dogged defense couldn’t hold serve against the Irons, who pull into fifth pending the result of Manchester United’s Sunday match against Leicester City.

Relegation picture: The situation for Newcastle, Sunderland, Norwich

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This is tight, tense and getting horrible for the three teams battling it out at the bottom.

We know Aston Villa has already been relegated but three teams — Norwich City, Sunderland and Newcastle United — are in a dogfight to avoid relegation.

Three into two doesn’t go.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Just two points separates the three aforementioned teams going into the final two weeks of the season. Plus, Crystal Palace isn’t out of the picture either as they have 39 points but Alan Pardew‘s side should be fine. Just.

Newcastle United is the form team as Rafael Benitez’s side is now unbeaten in four games and grabbed a huge 1-0 win against Palace on Saturday, while Sunderland is solid under Sam Allardyce and have lost just once in eight games but have six draws in that span.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule | standings

Norwich is reeling after three defeats on the spin and Alex Neil‘s side is running out of time as they lost 1-0 at Arsenal on Saturday despite a brave, battling display.

Below is a look at the relegation picture, plus the remaining fixtures for all three teams as Newcastle have just two games left, while both Sunderland and Norwich have three.

Who do you think will survive out of these three teams?


Newcastle United – 17th place, 33 points

May 7 – Aston Villa (A)
May 15 – Tottenham Hotspur (H)

Sunderland – 18th place, 32 points

May 7 – Chelsea (H)
May 11 – Everton (H)
May 15 – Watford (A)

Norwich City – 19th place, 31 points

May 7 – Manchester United (H)
May 11 – Watford (H)
May 15 – Everton (A)


Looking at the schedules above, Newcastle has a great chance of getting at least three points from their remaining two games with an away trip to Aston Villa up next, plus if Tottenham is out of the title race heading into the final game then it may be a great chance to pick up another three points at home.

Sunderland will find it tough going against Chelsea and Everton but home advantage will be key, while the final game away at Watford, a team who has nothing to play for, could be the crucial one. They hold their own destiny in their hands. Win all three and they will stay up.

As for Norwich, they won’t expect much against Manchester United next up but they will fancy their chances of picking up at least four points against Watford and Everton in their final two games. Simply put, nobody knows which of these two teams will go down and it’s likely to stay that way until the final minutes of the season.