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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.

FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup 2016 — Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders

KANSAS CITY, KS - DECEMBER 07:  The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field before the start of the match between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
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279 days after First Kick, it’s all come down to this: MLS Cup 2016, between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, a pair of first-timers in MLS’s postseason title decider.

[ FOLLOW: Live score and updates from MLS Cup 2016 ]

Fighting out of the red corner, it’s Sebastian Giovinco (4 goals, 4 assists in five playoff games in 2016), Jozy Altidore (5 goals, 4 assists) and Michael Bradley. Fighting out of the blue (and Rave Green) corner, it’s Nicolas Lodeiro (4 goals), Jordan Morris (2 goals, 1 assist) and a suddenly stout Sounders defense (3 goals conceded).

[ MORE: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges for each other ]

PST’s very own Nicholas Mendola will be reporting live from a frigid, frozen BMO Field (gametime temperatures expected to be in the low-20s), so make sure you follow him on Twitter, right here, and check back to PST for live updates, full-match recap, and post-game reaction from every angle.

Who: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders
What: MLS Cup 2016
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
Where: BMO Field, Toronto, Canada
Why: To crown a champion

Deadly twin-bomb attack strikes police outside Istanbul stadium

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - DECEMBER 10: Ambulances arrive at the scene after explosions near the Besiktas Vodaphone Arena on December 10, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. According to reports, at least 13 people were killed after explosions believed to have been targeting riot police were set off near to the Besiktas Vodaphone Arena. (Photo by Getty Images)
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ISTANBUL (AP) Two explosions struck Saturday night outside a major soccer stadium in Istanbul after fans had gone home, in an attack that caused fatalities and wounded at least 20 police officers, Turkish authorities said. A private television channel put the wounded at nearly 70.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement saying “unfortunately we have martyrs and wounded” but did not specify the number.

One of the blasts was thought to be a car bomb and the second appeared to have been caused by a suicide bomber.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Police cordoned off the area as smoke rose from behind the newly built Vodafone Arena Stadium, known colloquially as Besiktas Stadium after the local team and neighborhood. Witnesses also heard gunfire after the explosions.

The first and larger explosion took place about 10:30 p.m. after the home team Besiktas beat visitor Bursaspor 2-1 in the Turkish Super League. Erdogan said the timing of the attack aimed to claim as many lives as possible.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who gave the initial casualty toll of 20 police officers, rushed from Ankara to Istanbul.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. This year, Istanbul has witnessed bombings attributed by authorities to the Islamic State group or claimed by Kurdish militants.

“It is thought to be a car bomb at a point where our special forces police were located, right after the match at the exit where Bursaspor fans” had earlier left, Soylu was quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. “We have no information on the number of dead. God willing, we hope there won’t be any.”

[ MORE: La Liga — Real Madrid go 35 games unbeaten, set new club record ]

Speaking later to reporters in Istanbul, he said the first explosion took place on a hill adjacent to and overlooking the stadium. The second explosion struck Macka Park and was believed to be a suicide bomb.

The private NTV channel reported that the target of the first attack was a bus for riot police and said nearly 70 wounded were taken to hospitals.

Television images showed more than a dozen ambulances on a street hugging the stadium and a police helicopter flying overhead with its searchlights on. The window glass of nearby buildings was shattered by the blasts and coated the pavement. Investigators, including Istanbul Police Chief Mustafa Caliskan, were quickly on the scene.

The Besiktas sports club “strongly condemned” terrorism and the attack in a statement posted on its website.

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Bursaspor said none of the wounded were fans and issued a statement saying “we wish a speedy recovery to our wounded citizens.”

Turkey’s radio and television board issued a temporary coverage ban citing national security concerns. It said “to avoid broadcasts that can result in public fear, panic or chaos, or that will serve the aims of terrorist organizations.”

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin were also notified about the attack, Anadolu said.

La Liga: Real Madrid sets club record with 35 games without a loss

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 10:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid scores their 3rd goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 10, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Real Madrid set a new club record after a 35th consecutive match without a loss by beating Deportivo La Coruna 3-2 on another Sergio Ramos stoppage-time winner on Saturday.

Ramos, who scored an injury-time equalizer at Barcelona in the last round, headed in a corner kick after 90 minutes were up to maintain Madrid’s six-point lead over Barcelona atop the Spanish league.

Madrid appeared to have the milestone well in hand after Alvaro Morata gave the hosts the lead with a strike from distance, but former Madrid youth player Joselu Sanmartin went on for Deportivo and scored twice in a three-minute span to force Madrid into fight-back mode.

With Cristiano Ronaldo and several other first-choice players unavailable, Madrid needed little-used Mariano to level at 2-2 in the 84th before Ramos snatched the winner.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Under coach Zinedine Zidane, Madrid hasn’t lost since April 6 when it fell 2-1 at German side Wolfsburg in the Champions League knockout rounds. Madrid recovered from that setback to win its record 11th European Cup.

The previous unbeaten streak for the club founded in 1902 stood at 34 games from 1989, set by a side coached by Leo Beenhakker. Barcelona holds the mark for all Spanish clubs of 39 games in a row without a defeat which Madrid ended last season.

With Madrid set to travel to Japan to play the Club World Cup, Zidane opted to leave Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric off his squad. Gareth Bale was also missing while he recovers from a foot injury.

And if it weren’t for another dose of Ramos’ heroics, the decision to rest so many of his best players would have cost Zidane a setback at the Santiago Bernabeu. Instead, Ramos added to his reputation as Madrid’s stoppage-time savoir just a week after earning a valuable draw at Camp Nou.

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona halted its skid of three consecutive draws in the league.

But first, Messi helped set up Luis Suarez for the 59th-minute opener, when he threaded a pass between four defenders to meet Jordi Alba’s run into the area. The left back squared the ball for Luis Suarez to tap home.

In similar fashion, Alba set up Messi to side-foot in his first goal in the 73rd. Messi got his second goal in stoppage time, when he took on three defenders, picked his spot and rifled home a left-footed strike.

Messi went to the top of the league scoring table with 11. Suarez pulled level with Madrid’s Ronaldo with 10.

“We knew that once we scored the first goal the match would open up for us, and thankfully the goal came soon enough,” Suarez said.

Promoted Osasuna remained bottom and winless at home since its return to the top tier.

In-form Real Sociedad climbed into fourth place and the Champions League positions after striker Willian Jose scored two early headers to take his tally to nine goals on the season.

After Dani Parejo pulled one back for Valencia from the spot in the 36th, Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves saved Carlos Vela’s penalty. The Brazilian goalie has saved 20 of 43 penalties he has faced in league competition.

The only drawback for Sociedad was Willian Jose leaving injured shortly after halftime, but his replacement Juan Jimenez added a third goal in injury time after Valencia lost Joao Cancelo to a second booking.

Valencia substitute Zakari Bakkali scored a solo goal in the final moments.

PL Sunday preview: Man United-Spurs; Chelsea, Liverpool in action

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Christian Eriksen of Tottenham Hotspur reacts after missing a chance during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 8, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Four of the Premier League’s top six sides are in action on Sunday. Chelsea would go top of the PL with a win, while Tottenham Hotspur could climb as high as third, if Liverpool fail to go within a point of Arsenal for second. Manchester United, on the other hand, are falling away from the top-five pack with each passing week.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Chelsea’s eight-game winning streak is on the line when West Brom visit Stamford Bridge. Having won those eight games by a combined score of 22-2, Antonio Conte‘s side has hit its stride since the Italian manager switch to a three-man defense after losing to Arsenal on Sept. 24. Diego Costa is tied for the league lead in goals scored (11, alongisde Alexis Sanchez), and Eden Hazard (8 goals) looks much more like his 2014-15 self than the 2015-16 version on display last season. The last time West Brom won away to Chelsea in league action, the date was Sept. 30, 1978.

INJURIES: Chelsea — OUT: Oscar (illness), John Terry (leg), Kurt Zouma (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: David Luiz (knee) | West Brom — OUT: Saido Berahino (fitness)

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Manchester United vs. Tottenham — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After winning two in a row at Old Trafford, in 2012 and 2014, Tottenham are without a point (or a goal) in their last two trips to the Theater of Dreams — something Mauricio Pochettino‘s side will be looking to rectify and strengthen their case for a top-four finish this season. Spurs bounced back from their first defeat of the season, to Chelsea two weeks ago, with a 5-0 thumping of Swansea City, a game in which Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen each scored twice. As for United, who are three PL games without a win (all 1-1 draws), a return to the UEFA Champions League is quickly slipping away for Jose Mourinho’s side, now six points back of fifth-place Spurs, and nine back of third-and fourth-place Liverpool and Manchester City.

INJURIES: Man United — OUT: Chris Smalling (toe), Luke Shaw (undisclosed), James Wilson (knee surgery) | Tottenham — OUT: Vincent Janssen (ankle), Erik Lamela (hip)

[ MORE: La Liga — Real Madrid go 35 games unbeaten, set new club record ]

Southampton vs. Middlesbrough — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com

With their Europa League campaign put to rest prematurely this week, it’s time for a strong reaction by Southampton with 16th-place Middlesbrough visiting St. Mary’s Stadium. Currently 12th in the PL, Saints have just one win three goals to show for their efforts in their last six games (never scoring multiple goals in a game during that time). On the other side, Boro are four games unbeaten away from home (all draws), against the likes of West Ham United, Arsenal, Man City and Leicester City, though much of Aitor Karanka‘s top attacking talent could be unavailable on Sunday.

INJURIES: Southampton — OUT: Matthew Targett (hamstringe); RETURNING: Dusan Tadic (nose) | Boro — QUESTIONABLE: Alvaro Negredo (hamstring), Gaston Ramirez (foot), Jordan Rhodes (groin), George Friend (knee)

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Liverpool vs. West Ham — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After throwing away a pair of two-goal leads away to Bournemouth last weekend, Liverpool could use a bounce-back of their own, otherwise they could be seven points off the PL’s top spot by weekend’s end. With wins over the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal already in the bag this season, the Reds’ two losses have come at the hands of Bournemouth and Burnley, two sides presently residing in the bottom half of the table. West Ham will visit Anfield as the 18th-place side in the PL with just two points from their last five league games, having dropped into the relegation zone following Swansea City’s victory over Sunderland on Saturday.

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Philippe Coutinho (ankle), Daniel Sturridge (calf), Danny Ings (knee surgery), Sheyi Ojo (fitness), Joe Gomez (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Sadio Mane (knock), Joel Matip (ankle) | West Ham — OUT: