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.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”