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.

Barcelona defends Messi over “unfair” suspension

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi’s four-match international suspension for insulting a linesman was “unfair and totally disproportionate.”

[ MORE: Messi handed ban by FIFA ]

Barcelona released a statement Wednesday expressing “its surprise and indignation” with FIFA’s decision to sideline the playmaker for so long following the incident in Argentina’s win over Chile in World Cup qualifying last week.

The punishment was announced before Argentina lost at Bolivia 2-0 Tuesday, a result that left the two-time champions at risk of not qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

Barcelona says it “wishes to reiterate its support for Leo Messi, an exemplary player in terms of conduct both on and off the field.”

Pending an appeal, Messi will only be available to play in Argentina’s final qualifier, on Oct. 10 against Ecuador.

World Cup hopes back on track: What next for USMNT?

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After a four-point haul over the past week in their two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. national team is back on track and heading in the right direction.

[ MORE: Latest USMNT news ]

Bruce Arena led the USMNT to a thumping 6-0 win over Honduras last Friday and then a gutsy 1-1 draw in Panama on Tuesday in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, as the Hexagonal standings will now look a lot better to U.S. fans who saw their team sitting bottom of the pile for the past four months following defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica which cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

So, the “Road to Russia” is looking a little less daunting for the U.S. but there are still tough tests ahead in the months to come in World Cup qualifying as well as a Gold Cup campaign on home soil in July.

First let’s look at the standings in the Hex. Ah, that’s better but things are now very tight aside from Mexico running away with things.

With six games to go the U.S. currently occupies the play-off spot as the top three teams in the Hex standings will qualify automatically for the World Cup and the fourth-place team has to play against the fifth-place team from qualifying in the Asian Football Confederation region.


Mexico — 10 points (+4 GD)
Costa Rica — 7 points (+4)
Panama — 5 points (0)
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USA — 4 points (+1)
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Honduras — 4 points (-5)
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points (-4)


And these are the USA’s six remaining qualifiers as they aim to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

June 8: vs. Trinidad and Tobago
June 11: at Mexico
September 1: vs. Costa Rica
September 5: at Honduras
October 6: vs. Panama
October 10: at Trinidad and Tobago

The first three games at crucial. If the U.S. manages to get seven points from those three matches, that’s magical. Even six points by beating T&T and Costa Rica on home soil would be superb. Yet, if the U.S. drops points to one or both of T&T and Costa Rica, that puts so much pressure on themselves to pick up wins on the road at Honduras and T&T in two of their final three qualifiers. That would not be an ideal scenario.

Still, heading into the past week the aim for the U.S. was to get back on track in qualifying and give themselves a chance of making the 2018 World Cup. They’ve done that. Now, the hard work begins.

Chelsea chase Alexis Sanchez; Man United want Dier

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The summer transfer rumors are heating up long before the heat of summer arrives…

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

On Wednesday it is being claimed by the Guardian that Alexis Sanchez has become Chelsea’s “No.1 target this summer” as the Arsenal and Chile forward has yet to sign a new deal with the Gunners.

Per the report, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has drafted up a shortlist of the players he wants to sign this summer and Sanchez is at the top of the Italian managers wishlist as he is also close to signing a new deal at Stamford Bridge.

Sanchez, 28, has a deal at Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but if the north London club fails to agree a new deal with him this summer (as well as Mesut Ozil and Arsene Wenger, but that’s another story…) then they’ll have to sell him on or risk losing him for nothing as a free agent next season.

The striker scored twice for Chile in their 2018 World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela on Tuesday and has been essential all season long to Arsenal, scoring 18 goals and adding nine assists after playing through the middle on his own for much of the campaign.

Would Arsenal really sell Sanchez to a PL rival? It wouldn’t be ideal but it’s not like they haven’t done that in the past. Think of Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy.

The thought of Sanchez on one wing with Diego Costa up top and Eden Hazard on the other wing at Chelsea should be enough to get Arsenal to offer their star man whatever cash he wants — the report states he wants $310,000 a week which would almost double his current $160,000 a week salary — when they sit down to discuss the new deal at the end of this season.


Elsewhere in north London, Tottenham Hotspur’s versatile defender Eric Dier has been linked with a $50 million move to Manchester United this summer.

According to Neil Ashton of the Sun, Dier, 23, is being lined up to replace Michael Carrick in the holding midfield role at United.

Now, Tottenham are notoriously tough to do business with and chairman Daniel Levy will not want to lose one of his top prospects and an England international to a direct rival in the Premier League.

That said, Dier has been used in multiple positions by Spurs this season and Mauricio Pochettino appears to prefer Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele as the holding midfielders and the emergence of Harry Winks has seen Dier’s importance questioned by some.

The fact that Dier can play in holding midfield or anywhere across the back line will also suit Moruinho who likes to have a smaller squad to work with and per the report the Portuguese boss has been a long-time admirer of Dier. His power to break up the play and also use he ball safely could work very well alongside Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera.

PHOTOS: Bizarre Cristiano Ronaldo statue unveiled

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Hang on, is that really meant to be Cristiano Ronaldo?

On Wednesday the Portugal and Real Madrid legend had Madeira Airport named after him just outside his hometown of Funchal and during the ceremony a bust of his head was put on show.

Except, it looked horrendous…

Take a look for yourself in the photos below. See.