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MLS All-Star Preview: Game vs. Bayern the culmination of league’s marquee event

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Wednesday night is part of a progression for Major League Soccer, though one of the virtues of this journey is not knowing where you are. The league may have reached the pinnacle of its current format, with German champions Bayern Munich presenting a standard few other teams could eclipse. More likely, however, we’re seeing the maturation of an idea, one which, when first tried over a decade ago, represented the last, long reach for relevance. On Wednesday (9:30 p.m. Eastern), MLS will present a distinct, marquee event. The All-Star Game has become the biggest showcase in Major League Soccer.

Increasingly, however, the game itself is being dwarfed by the buildup, with an onslaught of events that began monopolizing Portland’s Pioneer Square and Waterfront Park creating an experience that would make the NBA proud. From the interactivity of the events in the downtown plaza to the popularity of The Flaming Lips’ set on the shore of the Willamette, the All-Star Game has hit its stride, with MLS having figured out how to invade a city, dominate a small part, and depart having left a lasting impression in one of its markets.

Strangely, because of that dynamic, the opponent almost becomes secondary. Whereas teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, or this year’s adversary, Bayern Munich, should add to the uniqueness of the event, now they’re part of the scenery – a differentiating factor for only that team’s hardcore fans. The streets of Portland aren’t overrun with Bayern fans. Instead it’s Timbers’ gear, All-Star game apparel, or the various branding MLS has pushed out during what’s become a high leverage event for sponsors.

Since the league went away from a neutral site MLS Cup final three years ago, this has become the league’s standout event, one that’s able to leverage its place between European seasons to generate worldwide appeal. It’s the party they have a year to plan, one that sees foreign media who’d otherwise never come to the States get a chance to experience the league’s culture in the beautiful American summer. Pull it off, and MLS gets the type of marketing value it can’t generate through any other source – a message that can attest to the league’s prolonged growth.

Unfortunately, little of that will matter on the field, where a league that’s been able to bring back likely All-Star starters Micheal Bradley and Clint Dempsey will be outclassed by the German champions, whose squad features six players who lifted the World Cup last month (Jérome Bôateng, Mario Götze, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer). With world-class attackers like Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben, and Franck Ribéry augmenting that core, Bayern’s team may be better than the national team it helps support, leaving an MLS squad assembled on the fly hard-pressed to keep things close.

On the FieldTurf of Providence Park, München will be able to best the Nationalmannschaft’s tempo. A style of play that averaged 755 passes per game (and 71% possession) in last year’s Bundesliga will be going against MLS’s attack-heavy group with no established system, one that’s missing two of its best center backs (Omar Gonzalez and Chad Marshall). Unaccustomed to facing Bayern’s this style or talent, MLS’s best should struggle to keep up. Imagine the United States versus Germany with more talented Germans and fewer U.S. national team stars.

Bradley, Dempsey, Matt Besler, and DeAndre Yedlin will be there, as will Landon Donovan, who didn’t get a chance to face his former team in Brazil. Thierry Henry, potentially in his final All-Star Game, will also be in the squad, as will his Red Bulls teammate, Tim Cahill. Add in stars like Graham Zusi, Diego Valeri, and Obafemi Martins, and MLS has one of the more talented teams it’s ever put on the field, albeit one that’s unlikely to notch the league’s third win in 11 games against foreign opposition.

Then again, Wednesday isn’t about the result. These All-Star Games never are. They’re about the spectacle. They’re about the event, from buildup to final whistle. They’re about MLS’s part in a broader, global game. They’re about putting on a show.

If anything, the actual game is just the culmination of a much broader performance. By the time MLS and Bayern kick-off on Wednesday, most of the show will already be done.

MLS’s All-Star week has already been a success. Now, it’s time to see if Caleb Porter can engineer a result.

Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks: Big boys to turn up

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Week 26 of the Premier League season is here. This will be a lot of fun with massive games at both ends of the table.

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live online ]

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out.

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.

BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Arsenal 3-2 Leicester City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Norwich City 0-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, USA) –  [STREAM]

Man City 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur – (Sunday 11:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United – (Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Everton 2-1 West Brom  – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Swansea 1-1 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM] 

Crystal Palace 2-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Chelsea 3-2 Newcastle – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Bournemouth 2-1 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Aston Villa 2-1 Liverpool – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Ranieri on Leicester City’s dream season: “Nobody wake us up please!”

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.
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There’s plenty to like about Leicester City’s run to the top of the Premier League, but perhaps nothing is more enjoyable that its manager’s musings.

Claudio Ranieri, the Tinkerman himself, has provided some of the best quips of the season.

[ MORE: Top 5 storylines to look for in PL ]

From “I want to be the crazy man in the Premier League” to “It’s like nobody wants to win the league“, the 64-year-old Italian has offered plenty of beauties.

Make way for some more gems, from LCFC.com:

“I think we work so hard to achieve this level. We want to stay at this level. It’s no pressure for us. The pressure was at the beginning to start well, to carry on and maintain the standard of our performance.
“Now we are safe and we want to fight with respect with all our opponents. Face to face, we play with our strength and they play with theirs. If we win, fantastic. If we lose, next match.
“I think the pressure is on the other teams. We have pressure for our little gap. We continue to dream with our fans and we want to continue to dream. Nobody wake us up please!”
We love this man. To go from a short-lived run in Euro qualifying with Greece to this remarkable roll with Leicester has to be a bit dream-like. We get it. And we love that he’s going with it.