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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.

Burnley’s Andre Gray charged by FA over Twitter posts from 2012

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Andre Gray of Burnley during the Premier League match between Burnley and Cardiff City at Turf Moor on  August 13, 2016 in Burnley, England. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images)
Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images
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A Premier League player is set to be punished by English football authorities for discriminatory comments he made on social media more than four years ago.

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The comments made by Burnley striker Andre Gray between Jan. 9 and March 11, 2012 appeared anti-gay. They came to light on Saturday, when they were retweeted by other people after he scored his first Premier League goal for Burnley in the team’s 2-0 win over Liverpool. Gray released a public apology after the match.

Gray was charged with misconduct on Tuesday by the Football Association, which said the alleged comments “were abusive and/or insulting and/or improper and/or brought the game into disrepute.”

Gray said in his apology “the tweets were posted four years ago when I was a completely different person to the man I am now.”

“I have experienced a lot over the past four years and have had to take responsibility for a number of things in my life which has enabled me to mature and grow as a person since that time,” the 25-year-old Gray said.

“I have a lot of regrets regarding a number of things I’ve done in the past and realize I have made some big mistakes, none more so than these tweets, but I would like to stress that I’ve worked incredibly hard to completely transform my life since that time.”

[ MORE: Champions League roundup — Roma self-destruct; Celtic sneak in ]

Gray said he wanted to clarify that he was “absolutely not homophobic” and to “ask for forgiveness to anyone I offended.”

The FA said Gray had until Aug. 31 to respond to the charge.

“He has moved a long way in life,” Burnley manager Sean Dyche said Tuesday. “He’s made that clear with an apology and also to remind the club, `It’s four years ago, I’m a different person.’

“A lot has gone on in his life to get him where he’s got to, I think he made that clear. It was authentic what he said (in the apology).”

Gray was the top scorer in the second-tier League Championship last season, helping Burnley achieve an immediate return to the Premier League.

Arsenal, Stoke target Jones part of Mourinho’s plans, will stay at Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: Wes Hoolahan of Norwich City and Phil Jones of Manchester United compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Norwich City at Old Trafford on December 19, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Other Premier League clubs might be interested in Phil Jones, but Jose Mourinho has no intentions of letting the 24-year-old future England captain Manchester United center back leave anytime soon.

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Mourinho and Man United have received multiple approaches for Jones this summer, but never entertained the idea of selling, according to the Guardian. Arsenal were said to have been interested earlier in the summer, while Stoke City are presently trying to pry the Blackburn Rovers academy product away from Old Trafford, as confirmed by Mark Hughes’ assistant, Mark Bowen, earlier this week.

Jones moved to Man United in the summer of 2011 for a fee believed to be north of $20 million. While he’s endured his share of hard times in his five seasons at the club, Jones would easily be a 30-$35 million player giving fees paid for comparable center backs in recent transfer windows.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup — Roma self-destruct; Celtic sneak in ]

While Jones is yet to see the field early in the 2016-17 season, he remains a viable option, along with Chris Smalling, behind $40-million summer signing Eric Bailly and midfielder-turned-defender Daley Blind. Over the course of a 38-game PL season, the UEFA Champions League Europa League, FA Cup and EFL Cup, a busy schedule and injuries will provide plenty of chances to impress the new manager and reclaim a regular place in the first team.

MLS preview: Galaxy, Sounders, Toronto FC hit the road midweek

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against Colorado Rapids during the first half of the MLS soccer game in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. (Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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Previewing the biggest games across Major League Soccer on Wednesday…

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Orlando City SC vs. Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET (MLS Live)

Quick quiz: Which is the hottest team in MLS right now? Answer: It’s TFC, who are unbeaten in their last six games, a stretch which includes five wins and an aggregate score of 16-4. OK, so how are they doing it? Don’t ask silly questions. In those six games, Sebastian Giovinco, who’s again running away in the MVP race and will become the first back-to-back winner in league history (only Preki has ever been a two-time winner), has scored eight goals and notched four assists. He’s been even better this year than he was in 2015. His 2016 season tally currently stands at 16 and 11. He’ll likely be the first player in MLS history to notch multiple 20-goal seasons, if Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has 15 this season, doesn’t get there first.

It’s not only Giovinco, though, but the return Jozy Altidore which has allowed the Italian superstar the freedom, the space, and the hold-up play to thrive as he’s done. Giovinco has been given a free role by head coach Greg Vanney, and Altidore’s ability to occupy two center backs at once, along with his ability to hold the ball up and draw the opposing defense toward him, has resulted in Giovinco scoring a number of easy chances no player of his quality should ever be allowed to see. It’s amazing what happens when you build a team and system around your best player, rather than try to make that player fit into something predetermined. Three points on Wednesday would vault the Reds into first place in the Eastern Conference having finally pulled level on games played with New York City FC.

[ MORE: NYCFC’s Jack Harrison on meteoric rise — “It can only get better” ]

Chicago Fire vs. LA Galaxy — 8:30 p.m. ET (MLS Live)

After rattling off four straight wins over the majority of July, the Galaxy are suddenly winless winless in their last four, though they’ve managed to salvage three points during that period. During the current four-game stretch, the attacking trio of Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes have combined to contribute just one goal and three assists, all but one assist of which have come from GdS.

No team in the Western Conference has won more points away from home (14) than the Galaxy this season, while no team in MLS has won fewer home points (17 — or points, period, 22) than the Fire. All signs point toward a Galaxy victory, but this is a Fire side that has steadily improved bit by bit in recent weeks, culminating in their first road victory in 25 months last weekend. The Vancouver Whitecaps await the Galaxy on the weekend — can you say, “trap game?”

[ MORE: U.S. teen skipping college, heading to La Liga ]

Houston Dynamo vs. Seattle Sounders — 9 p.m. ET (MLS Live)

If TFC are the hottest team in MLS, the Sounders are the second-hottest and without a doubt the hottest team in the West. Since firing Sigi Schmid four weeks ago, the bunch in Rave Green are unbeaten in four games, now having won three straight. The signing of Nicolas Lodeiro has been the spark that breathed life into a dying season, but one could reasonably argue that Cristian Roldan’s emergence deep in midfield has meant just as much to a Sounders side that, for the first time all season, has found a strong base between the attack and defense.

Osvaldo Alonso is no longer being ask to play the box-to-box role in which he thrived for a half-decade, instead acting as the organizer and director in front of the backline, with Roldan, the 21-year-old with many miles left in his legs, covering large swaths of space in midfield. The biggest difference between Roldan and your typical defensive midfield in MLS? He can see a pass in the final third, and he can hit it when it’s on. Lodeiro creates plenty of space for Jordan Morris and Clint Dempsey with his unbelievable range of passing, and that’s been a huge part of the eight goals the Sounders have scored in those three wins, but Roldan’s presence alongside Alonso has been just as important in allowing just four goals in four games.

EFL Cup roundup: Chelsea, Liverpool advance; Watford, WBA lose to League 1 sides

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23:  Michy Batshuayi of Chelsea celebrates scoring the opening goal during the EFL Cup second round match between Chelsea and Bristol Rovers at Stamford Bridge on August 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images )
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Watford and West Bromwich Albion were beaten by third-tier opposition in the English League Cup on Tuesday, while fellow Premier League sides Liverpool and Everton enjoyed big wins in the second round.

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Chelsea was pushed hard by third-tier Bristol Rovers before also advancing to the third round with a 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge.

Watford lost 2-1 to Gillingham after extra time and West Brom was beaten 4-3 on penalties by Northampton after they finished 2-2 after 120 minutes.

Northampton famously ousted Liverpool in the 2010-11 competition, but the Reds easily avoided a so-called “giant-killing” this time round by thrashing Burton Albion 5-0. Daniel Sturridge came off the bench to score two goals and wrap up victory over the second-tier side managed by former Liverpool forward Nigel Clough.

Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino also scored for a full-strength Liverpool team, and there was an own goal.

“Very serious, very professional performance by my side,” said Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp, who added that second-half injuries to Emre Can and Origi were not serious.

Everton also had a substitute striker scoring a late double, with Arouna Kone’s goals sealing a 4-0 home win over fourth-tier Yeovil.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup — Roma self-destruct; Celtic sneak in ]

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte‘s decision to field a team largely made up of reserve players nearly backfired. Belgium striker BatshuayiMichy Batshuayi scored two first-half goals as Chelsea took a 3-1 lead into halftime, before Rovers scored a 48th-minute penalty and struck the crossbar as they went in search of an equalizer.

Devoid of European football this season, Liverpool and Chelsea will likely take the League Cup seriously. They are two of the most successful clubs in the competition’s history, having won it 13 times between them.

Stoke, Swansea, Hull and Crystal Palace were the other Premier League teams to progress to the third round, when clubs involved in Europe enter the draw that takes place Wednesday.

Peter Crouch scored a hat trick – including one goal from a scissor kick – in Stoke’s 4-0 win at Stevenage, Oliver McBurnie scored twice on his debut for Swansea in a 3-1 win at Peterborough, Hull beat Exeter 3-1 away and Palace was a 2-0 winner at home to Blackpool.

Palace gave a debut to new record-signing Christian Benteke, who played the first half before being substituted.

Derby beat Carlisle 14-13 on penalties to equal the most goals scored in a shootout in the competition’s history.