Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers

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

1 Comment

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.

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
Photo credit: U.S. Soccer
Leave a comment

With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Leave a comment

In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”