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

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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.

3 killed during Colombia’s celebration of soccer title

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JULY 06:  The teams of Sao Paulo and Atletico Nacional lines up during semifinal first leg match of Copa Bridgestone Libertadores between Sao Paulo and Atletico Nacional at Morumbi Stadium on July 6, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia’s celebration of victory in the South American club soccer championship has ended in violence, with three fans killed in a night of boisterous revelry.

Authorities say they registered more than 600 street fights after Medellin’s Atletico Nacional defeated Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle 1-0 in Wednesday night’s Copa Libertadores final.

It was Nacional’s second-ever title in the premier South American club tournament and the first by a Colombian team since 2004.

One of those killed was wearing the shirt of a rival Medellin club when he was slashed in the neck with a knife. There were also reports that mobs of Nacional fans attacked adversaries in Bogota.

Police say at least 23 people were injured.

MLS All Stars 1-2 Arsenal: Chuba Akpom provides the late winner for the Gunners

MLS All-Stars midfielder Giovani Dos Santos, front, of Los Angeles Galaxy, takes a shot on goal against Arsenal during the first half of the MLS All-Star soccer game Thursday, July 28, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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It’s a pre-season friendly for the Premier League side, but it never ends up playing out that way. This Thursday night in San Jose turned out to be an entertaining meeting between Arsenal and the MLS All-Star bunch that saw Arsenal youngster Chuba Akpom tap in the winner in the 87th minute after goals from Didier Drogba and Joel Campbell had evened out for much of the match.

The game was wide open early, as Theo Walcott had the game’s first chance, and Giovanni dos Santos had a good look down the other end in the ninth minute, saved by Petr Cech.

Minutes later, the opener came for the Gunners as a lovely touch from Joel Campbell chipped over MLS goalkeeper. Laurent Ciman attempted to box out Campbell as the ball trickled towards the net, but instead brought down the Arsenal striker. The foul by Ciman usually would have drawn a straight red card for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity, but not looking to ruin the event in the 10th minute, the referee pointed to the spot but only showed the Montreal defender yellow. Campbell then slotted the penalty home to give Arsenal the lead.

Elneny had a go on 26 minutes looking to double Arsenal’s lead with a vicious strike from outside the box, but Blake produced a stunning save to tip it over the bar.

With a game to play in less than 48 hours, the two NYCFC players David Villa and Andrea Pirlo departed after just a half-hour, with Sascha Kljestan and Nacho Piatti coming in.

The game seemed to settle in after the opener, although the game was not lacking competitiveness, as evident by a number of heavy challenges. Amid plenty of pre-match talk centered around Didier Drogba facing former Chelsea teammate Petr Cech, the All-Star striker leveled the match just before the halftime break. A great ball from Kljestan to Giovanni dos Santos unlocked the young Arsenal defense, and Drogba was there to finish off the chance on his third attempt, seeing the first two saved and blocked.

Arsenal brought on new signing Granit Xhaka after halftime, while USMNT youngster Gedion Zelalem came on with just over 20 minutes to go. Xhaka ripped off a good long-range shot that forced a solid diving save by substitute goalkeeper David Bingham.

The visitors brought on their youngsters as the second half eased along, with Chuba Akpom and Jeff Reine-Adelaide seeing action. Cyle Larin came on late for the MLS All-Stars, and USMNT veterans Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski made appearances as well.

With the clock winding down, Chris Wondolowski brought back shades of 2014, firing over the bar with a glorious chance to win it for the MLS All-Stars after hard work by Larin down the right. Minutes later down the other end, the Gunners took the game in its grasp. An overlap to perfection between Alex Iwobi and Nacho Monreal opened things up at the near post, and the latter placed it on the doorstep for Akpom to tap home the winner.

The loss is the first for MLS All-Stars since 2013, and it’s the first in six games against a London opponent.

Sounders remain busy, bring back Alvaro Fernandez a day after signing Lodeiro

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 04:  Alvaro Fernandez #4 of the Chicago Fire controls the ball against Toronto FC during an MLS match at Toyota Park on August 4, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire defeated Toronto FC 2-1.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Seattle Sounders have had a busy summer, looking to ease supporters angry with the club burrowed in last place in the Western Conference.

Having brought in Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro on a Designated Player contract on Wednesday, the club announced the return of fellow Uruguayan and former Sounders DP Alvaro Fernandez, who comes back to CenturyLink Field four years since his 2012 departure.

Fernandez spent the last three-and-a-half seasons outside MLS after spending just half a year with the Chicago Fire. He spent loan stints in Qatar, Argentina, and his home country of Uruguay before signing for Argentinian side Gimnasia permanently in 2014.

Fernandez and Lodeiro played together with Uruguayan side Nacional in 2009 when the club made a run deep into the Copa Libertadores. They also played together on the Uruguayan national team during the 2010 World Cup, although neither was a consistent starter. Lodeiro said upon Fernandez’s signing, “We are good friends.”

During his first stint with the Sounders, Fernandez made 81 appearances, scoring 17 goals.

Norwich City striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel signs with former club Vitesse Arnhem

NORWICH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 17:Ricky van Wolfswinkel of Norwich City celebrates after scoring their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Everton at Carrow Road on August 17, 2013 in Norwich, England. (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, Norwich City’s record transfer at the time of his purchase from Sporting CP in 2013, is moving on after a largely unsuccessful four-year stint with the Canaries.

The 27-year-old has returned to his home country, moving to Vitesse Arnhem – the club he went professional with as a 19-year-old. Van Wolfswinkel made his professional debut in April of 2008 with Vitesse, and now returns for an undisclosed fee.

Van Wolfswinkel came to Norwich in 2013 with much fanfare, signing for a reported fee of $11 million – a club record signing at the time.

He proceeded to score just a single goal in 25 appearances during his first season in the Premier League, with Norwich finding itself relegated. He moved to Ligue 1 on loan with Norwich in the Championship, but still managed just five goals in 28 league appearances with St. Etienne. He never made another appearance for the Canaries, instead moving on loan again Real Betis last season, but flopped there too, scoring just once in 16 league appearances.

“I debuted in professional football on behalf of Vitesse and that is something you never forget,” van Wolfswinkel said upon signing. “After several foreign adventures I look forward to returning to the Dutch fields. I hope to find my niche and want to play well and add many goals and assists for Vitesse.”