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MLS weekend preview: Conference leaders, surging Galaxy take to NBC, NBCSN

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After a weekend of spreading out the fun, MLS is back to its normal routine: an appetizer, a huge main course, and a little Sunday chaser. And is if to apologize for the neglect, the league’s schedule makers have managed to spread out the Saturday kickoffs.

With three matches across NBC’s networks, here’s a look at the upcoming weekend in Major League Soccer.

NBCSN’S FRIDAY NIGHT GAME
Sporting Kansas City vs. Philadelphia Union, Friday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN

When it happened, it was the most unexpected result of the season, a stumbling Union without Maurice Edu ending its nine-match winless run in Kansas. In hindsight, May’s 2-1 win is only slightly less perplexing. Thanks to a surge over the last two months, a previously dormant Union is in a playoff race. Ce la vie in the East, but after going into Sporting as one of the weakest teams in the East, Philadelphia’s managed to salvage its season.

Sporting, however, are back on top of the conference, defying the team’s absences and injuries to edge ahead of D.C. United in the East. But thanks to Matt Besler’s red card suspension, Friday’s game may force Peter Vermes to go back to improvising in defense.

Despite that intrigue, the battle at the other end of the field may prove more interesting. Philadelphia is using Maurice Edu and Ethan White in central defense, two players who haven’t logged much time in the middle this season, let alone with each other. Against a player with Dom Dwyer’s work rate, the duo will get a number of chances to make mistakes. In the last seven games, Philadelphia’s given up 11 goals.

source: Getty ImagesEARLY KICKOFF … ON NBC
LA Galaxy vs. Portland Timbers, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, NBC

Portland may be on the up, its two-game winning streak bringing them back into the West’s playoff picture, but Monday’s result put LA on a different level. With the Galaxy’s 3-0 win in Seattle, Bruce Arena’s team has shown its first sign of competing for another title. We knew the talent was there, but now, the results are there, too.

With Robbie Keane (right) matched up against a Portland defense that conceded twice to Montréal, those results seems set to continue on Saturday, but under Caleb Porter, the Timbers have done a good job of restraining LA’s stars. In five games against Bruce Arena, Porter’s Portland teams have only conceded four goals.

That may leave the game close enough for Diego Valeri to steal. Two weeks ago, a late Valeri goal from beyond the penalty area delivered a one-goal win over Colorado, and last week, another late tally from distance sunk Montréal. If LA doesn’t put Portland away early, the Timbers’ All-Star may extend his team’s winning run.

source: Getty Images

CANADIAN COMPLAINTS
Montréal Impact vs. Toronto FC, Saturday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern

The dismissal of Nick de Santis sends Montréal into a state of flux, a circumstance that casts the rest of 2014 as a rebuild. On both the administrative and technical sides, the Impact is reworking its front office, meaning any change that will happen between now and season’s end will be up to head coach Frank Klopas. As the Timbers showed last weekend, nobody should be scared about going into Montréal.

If you listened to this week’s news out of Toronto, however, you’d think the Reds were the team in free fall. Despite finishing up a man on Saturday against visiting Kansas City, both Michael Bradley (right) and head coach Ryan Nelsen chose to take the officials to task, sounding bitter, incredulous notes in the process. Had they not given up a late goal to a 10-man Sporting,  the officials may not have been seen as such a problem.

Thanks to the loss, Toronto’s 12 back of first, with a three-way tie for third in the East bringing more urgency to merely making the playoffs. With New York closing in, three points in Quebec’s a near-must.

source: Getty ImagesLEE VS. THIERRY
New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Strong mid-week performances from each team make this one of the weekend’s more compelling, evenly matched games, but it’s still tempting to reduce this to a one-on-one battle, a showdown between two attacking stars who are among the league’s most important players to their teams.

That importance was evident on Wednesday in Foxborough, where Lee Nguyen (right) played a part in all three Revolution goals. And on the same night in Salt Lake, the casual elegance of Thierry Henry allowed New York to earn a point despite putting only one shot on target.

Those stars make each team’s defensive midfield all the more important, with New York seemingly having an advantage thanks to Dax McCarty, but if Kelyn Rowe can recapture his 2013 form, his ability to operate in front of defensive could draw some of McCarty’s attention. It could also pull Tim Cahill away from where he’s best: operating in the opposition’s penalty area.

source: Getty ImagesLIFE ON THE PLAYOFF FRINGE
Chicago Fire vs. Columbus Crew, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern

After nearly two months without a win, Columbus has won two in a row, a streak that nearly matches Chicago’s win total for the entire season. Yet thanks to an increasingly frustrating collection of ties, the Fire are still within reach of the playoffs. Again, ce la vie in the East.

The problem, in terms of aesthetics, comes when you try to answer one question: Is Chicago any good? Their inability to win games says no, but their unwillingness to lose games leaves the door open. At some point (perhaps when Jermaine Jones arrives), they may figure it out and make the small, late push they’ll need to claim a playoff spot.

For now, however, Columbus looks like the slightly better team, particularly with players like Bernardo Anor, Ethan Finlay, and Justin Meram helping Federico Higuaín (right) over the last two weeks. But given Chicago’s only lost five times this season, it would be foolish to suggest they can’t get something out of this one. Particularly at home.

source:  ROCKY MOUNTAIN REBOUND
Colorado Rapids vs. Real Salt Lake, Saturday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern

Colorado’s coming off a disappointing loss, but given the stars that didn’t start in New England, it’s unlikely the 3-0 result is the start of something big. Come Saturday, Dillon Powers (right) will be back, as will Vicente Sánchez. Though it’s unclear when Deshorn Brown will return, signs of life from Gabriel Torres help make up for the loss. Jeff Cassar won’t have Jay Heaps’ luck.

All of which may be secondary if Real Salt Lake play their game. On Wednesday against New York, last year’s Western Conference champions were back to their former selves, showing the type of persistent control that characterized the team under Jason Kreis. Thanks to Thierry Henry, the result wasn’t there, but they held a Red Bull side giving a decent performance to one shot on goal.

If RSL plays like that, the danger Brown can muster will be missed, but if Wednesday can’t be replicated, Colorado should put Foxborough behind them.

source: APTENSION AT THE TOP
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Seattle Sounders, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN

Over the last week, we’ve mentioned San Jose’s need to change its approach, but with Steven Lenhart struggling to return from a knee injury, the transformation has already begun. When Yannick Djaló partners Chris Wondowlowski (right) up top, Mark Watson’s team can’t rely on 2012’s approach, something that will give Seattle (and what’s expected to be a huge crowd at Levi’s Stadium) a different look. Cross and crash may be fading out.

But this game’s intrigue is all about Seattle. After falling apart in Monday’s first half against Los Angeles, the Sounders look like the same team that’s suffered scarring defeats at the end of the last three seasons. At this point, it’s not a question of whether collapses will come. It’s a matter of whether Seattle can overcome them.

While a win won’t quell all doubts, it will at least address the possibility that a collapse like last year’s will define another season.

source: APUNSTOPPABLE FORCE, MOVABLE OBJECT
Houston Dynamo vs. D.C. United, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Univision Deportes

Quietly, and in the face of a lot of incredulity, D.C. United has put up the East’s best goal-per-game rate despite the fact nobody on the team has scored more than seven goals. That player, Fabián Espindola, is still working his way back from injury, but with Eddie Johnson (right) starting to look like his normal self (scoring in three straight games), it’s possible United’s attack has another gear.

Contrast that with the Dynamo, whose most glaring weakness is in defense. The team’s giving up a league-high 40 goals, an inexplicable rate for a Dom Kinnear side. The central defense has been a problem, and some issues with Tally Hall have started to surface, but it’s still not quite unclear why a defense that was above average in 2013 has completely fallen apart this season.

DaMarcus Beasley, expected to debut on Sunday, should help, as will Luis Garrido, though playing in Houston may have Sunday’s biggest effect on D.C.’s surprisingly potent attack.

source:  TOROS STARTING TO BURN
Chivas USA vs. FC Dallas, Sunday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern

At one time July’s darlings, Chivas USA has lost two in a row, a turn that wouldn’t be so disturbing if the team wasn’t also out-scored 6-1. Back at home, and presumably ready to put veterans like Mauro Rosales back in the lineup, Wilmer Cabrera’s team should improve, but the halcyon days of July 2014 will be gone by Sunday’s kickoff.

That should give Óscar Pareja’s team room to continue its charge. Unbeaten in six, FCD has done remarkable job of overcoming injury (Mauro Díaz, right) and suspension (Fabían Castillo) to stay in the West’s top five. Now that the team’s starting to reassemble, Dallas may be ready to take aim at teams farther up the table. Real Salt Lake is only three points away, while Seattle’s threatening to come back to the pack.

That’s what makes games like these so important. A draw on the road in Carson, Calif., isn’t a bad in absolute terms, but considering every other team in the West’s top five has another visit to Chivas USA, Sunday’s result takes on a relative importance. If Dallas doesn’t get three points at StubHub, another team will.

Liverpool announce plans for $62 million training ground

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24:  Players warm up during a Liverpool training session ahead of their UEFA Europa League round of 32 second leg match against FC Augsburg at Melwood Training Ground on February 24, 2016 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Liverpool have announced plans to move away from their famous training ground at Melwood.

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On Wednesday the Premier League side announced details about redeveloping the site of their current academy training center at Kirkby. They hope to spend over $62 million to update the facilities and house the first team and academy all in one venue.

If Liverpool, who are working with the local council in Knowsley on the project, get the green-light for the impressive project then work is expected to finish in 2019.

Chief operating officer at Liverpool, Andy Hughes, is eager to see the first team and academy players all housed in one facility moving forward.

“Our proposed plans to bring the first team and young players together in one location is a really exciting proposition. The scheme includes state-of-the-art facilities which will be used to support the development of our players and provides all-weather training options.”

The project will also see amateur club Kirkby AFC get a complete overhaul of their facilities, while the local community will benefit from improvements to the current pitches on the site. A public consultation will take place next month with more information on the plans expected.

Why move from Melwood?

Anybody who has ever visited the site can tell you about the glaring issues at the historical training ground which has been home to Liverpool’s first team since the 1950s. First of all, many fans or interested onlookers often hop on a trash can or a small ladder to see right over the fence and watching training which is a big privacy issue for Jurgen Klopp and his team.

Also the current Melwood site has a concrete wall surrounding it and is penned in by houses and roads, so it has reached capacity and there is no more room for new pitches.

With the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Manchester City and Southampton developing impressive new training grounds in recent years, Liverpool don’t want to be left behind.

Having the first team and academy together makes sense, especially with the likes of Steven Gerrard taking up a new role in Liverpool’s academy and the fact that Klopp continues to give plenty of youngsters a chance to shine in the first team.

LIVE: Europa League – St. Etienne v Man United headlines

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United 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)
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Manchester United aim to finish off Ligue 1 outfit St. Etienne on Wednesday in the UEFA Europa League.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Jose Mourinho’s men lead 3-0 from the Round of 32 first leg as Zlatan Ibrahimovic continued his stunning recent form by bagging a hat trick last week at Old Trafford. Ahead of their EFL Cup final against Southampton at Wembley on Sunday, United have fielded a strong team with Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Zlatan Ibrahmovic all starting in France.

Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones have not traveled with the team and are in a race against time to be fit for the EFL Cup final.

In the other two Europa League last 32 second leg ties taking place on Wednesday (the other 13 take place on Thursday, the traditional night for UEL action) evening across Europe Schalke also have a healthy 3-0 advantage from their first leg against Greek outfit PAOK, while Turkish giants Fenerbache will be hoping to overcome a 1-0 deficit as Russian side Krasnodar come to Istanbul.

Click on the link above for live scores, updates and stats from the three games on Wednesday, while we will have updates and analysis on all the action right here at Pro Soccer Talk.

Here’s the Europa League schedule below, with the score from the first leg in parenthesis.


Wednesday’s Europa League Round of 32, second legs

St. Etienne vs. Manchester United (0-3) – 12 p.m. ET
Schalke 04 vs. PAOK (3-0) – 12 p.m. ET
Fenerbache vs. Krasnodar (0-1) – 12 p.m. ET

From champs to a relegation battle: Why are Leicester struggling?

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What the heck has happened to Leicester City this season?

That debate has been present in bars across the world as the reigning champions of the Premier League are battling against relegation and are in terrible form in 2017.

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The Foxes are in the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League but are just two points off the bottom of the Premier League after suffering five-straight defeats and not scoring in nay of their last six PL games.

With N'Golo Kante gone, plus Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez struggling to regain their form from last season, everything is stacking up against Claudio Ranieri‘s side.

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Ahead of their big game against Liverpool at the King Power Stadium next Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) they badly need a boost to spark a surge away from the relegation zone.

In the latest PST Extra Jenna Corrado and I discuss what’s gone wrong this season and if Leicester can drag themselves away from trouble.

Click play on the video above for your latest PST Extra fix.

CCL Preview: MLS teams enter quarterfinal stage

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 22:  Bradley Wright-Phillips #99 of New York Red Bulls celebrates a goal against the D.C. United during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 22, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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CONCACAF Champions League action is back.

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Three teams from Major League Soccer remain in the tournament as an all-MLS tie takes place at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday between the Whitecaps and New York Red Bulls.

The first leg of their quarterfinal will provide an intriguing peek as to the offseason work both Carl Robinson and Jesse Marsch have done to crank their teams up a few notches, as both clubs will rely on plenty of young talent once again this season. Marsch has handed the captains armband to U.S. national team midfielder Sacha Kljestan after Dax McCarty’s departure in the offseason, while the Whitecaps have never lost at RBA in three previous visits.

Former Seattle Sounders star Fredy Montero won’t make his debut for the ‘Caps as he continues to work on his fitness but he could play on Mar. 2 in the return game at BC Place, while this tie at least confirms that one MLS team will be in the semifinals of North America’s top club competition.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Reigning MLS Supporters’ Shield champs FC Dallas also kick off the first leg of their CCL quarterfinal against Arabe Unido from Panama on Wednesday as the Texas outfit host the opener before heading down to Central America next week for the second leg. New DP signing Cristian Colman has impressed and given the absence of the injured Mauro Diaz, Oscar Pareja will look at him to make Dallas’ offense tick against a Panamanian outfit who went a perfect 4-0-0 in the CCL group stage.

In the two other CCL quarterfinals not involving MLS clubs, Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa drew 0-0 at home against Liga MX side Pachuca on Tuesday in the first leg of their quarterfinal. El Tri star Hirving Lozano was kept quiet by Saprissa but Pachuca will fancy their chances of advancing with a home game to come in the second leg. On Wednesday two Liga MX teams do battle as Tigres host Pumas in Monterrey as the runners up from last season look to make another charge to the final.

Below is the full schedule for the CCL quarterfinals, while you can stream the games on Facebook Live here.


CCL quarterfinal 1st legs

Deportivo Saprissa 0-0 Pachuca – Played on Tuesday, Feb. 21
New York Red Bulls vs. Vancouver – Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET
Tigres UANL vs. Pumas – Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. Arabe Unido – Thursday, 8 p.m. ET

CCL quarterfinal 2nd legs

Pachuca vs. Deportivo Saprissa – Tuesday, Feb. 28 – 10 p.m. ET
Arabe Unido vs. FC Dallas – Wednesday, Mar. 1 – 8 p.m. ET
Pumas vs. Tigres UANL – Wednesday, Mar. 1 – 10 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. New York Red Bulls – Thursday, Mar. 2 – 10 p.m. ET