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.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images
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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”

Boa Esporte goalkeeper back to prison as murder appeal denied

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The risk clearly wasn’t worth it for Boa Esporte.

The Brazilian club signed Bruno Fernandes de Souza in March, not long after the convicted murderer and goalkeeper was released from prison on appeal.

Fernandes, 32, had been jailed for ordering the murder of a lover, who was fed to dogs by the killer. Boa Esporte lost several big sponsors for signing him, but vocally defended the move.

The owner, Rone Moraes da Costa, said he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to revive his career. Fernandes admitted his mistakes but said he wasn’t “a bad guy”.

According to the Associated Press:

“Brazil’s Supreme Court decided on Tuesday to deny an appeal to Boa Esporte goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes de Souza, who was released in March while appealing a 22-year sentence in the 2010 killing of Eliza Samudio.”

So it’s back to jail for Fernandes, and we’ll be waiting with baited breath to hear from Boa Esporte’s owner.

Conte: Chelsea “ready to fight to the end”

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Following Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Spurs and Tuesday’s blowout of Southampton — the 4-2 score line didn’t tell the story of the second half — Antonio Conte is fired up for Chelsea to complete its Premier League title run.

The manager admits that his side was under pressure after Spurs narrowed the table gap to four points last week, but the wins have eased the Blues’ burden.

Chelsea had lost two of four PL matches before the weekend.

From Football.London:

“I think we passed a big, big psychological step after the defeat to United. We lost three points and had to prepare a semi-final against Tottenham and then another tough game in the league. In that moment we had a really important test and our answer was very good.

“We must think that this race is open, we have reached the final of the FA Cup. The situation in the league is totally open. We are ready to fight to the end. We must be proud for the job we are doing and to fight to the end.”

Spurs can bring the gap back to four with a win at Crystal Palace on Tuesday, but have a tougher run-in with five matches to play. As long as the gap is within six points, anything is possible, but the Blues have certainly answered the bell over the past four days.

Chelsea: Big win “feels like a massive step” to title

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“It feels like a massive step to be honest,” said game-changing goal scorer Gary Cahill of Chelsea’s 4-2 win over Southampton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

Chelsea’s Premier League lead stands at seven points after the win, which saw a dominant second half from the hosts.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Perhaps it was cued up by Cahill’s first half stoppage time header, which boosted the Blues to a 2-1 lead just before the whistle.

Cahill darted in front of Diego Costa‘s scissor kick attempt to power a header past Fraser Forster.

“(Costa) tried to claim it afterward as well,” Cahill said. “When the ball’s just lofted over, it’s dying to be attacked. We went into halftime with our tails up and it was a big boost for us.”

Cesc Fabregas said Southampton surprised the Blues tactically, leading to an entertaining first half that could’ve seen either side ahead before half.

“We needed a little bit of time to adapt to what they did because we prepared for something else,” he said.

Fabregas said the win was big with second-place Spurs watching at home. Tottenham plays at Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

“We needed a good response after the Man United game. We have to keep going with five games to go, to keep it up and make the last push. It would be a big shame if now we relaxed. We just have to push now more than ever,” he said.

“It’s a statement for (Spurs), for us, for everyone, but most of all for us.”
Eden Hazard agreed.
“We scored four beautiful goals,” said the Belgian, who scored the game’s first goal. “It’s good to play before and put pressure on them.”