Keane, right, will be LA's go-to man once again this season. But will his age be a factor?

MLS Preview: Donovan, Galaxy kick off weekend with California Clasico

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In the wake of the World Cup, Major League Soccer’s season stops for now one, not even itself. Though the All-Star game was on Wednesday, the league is back in action on Friday, with retiree-to-be Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy welcoming the San Jose Earthquakes to StubHub Center (on NBCSN).

With big matches in Columbus, Dallas, Salt Lake, and Vancouver, here’s a preview of MLS’s nine-match, weekend schedule:

LA Galaxy vs. San Jose Earthquakes, Friday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN

This could have happened, in a former life. Like earlier today, when I woke up, and momentarily misunderstood the day’s biggest news:

Me: I don’t even know what to write.
Friend: Good, but pretending for a moment that I actually care what you do, why do you say that? What happened?
Me: Other than Landon Donovan, nothing, I suppose, but tomorrow’s NBCSN game is still going on, and I need to come up with something. My blurb is going to be surreal.
Friend: Somehow, I doubt it.
Me: It’s not like we haven’t seen LA play without him. It’s that they’re never going to play with him again. Insane …
Friend: Richard.
Me: … I mean, they have Ishizaki, and they can bring Husidic back into the lineup. And I guess if Dunivant is alright, Rogers can move back into the midfield …
Friend: Richard?
Me: But I don’t even remember what the Galaxy were like before Donovan. In-freakin’-sane. Now they really need Zardes …
Friend: RICHARD!
Me: Screw it. I’m just going to embed Kyle Martino’s entire timeline.
Friend: Will you just stop? Landon Donovan did not retire today, okay? He’s playing until the end of the season.
Me: Wait. What? When did this happen?
Friend: It happened below the headline. Did you even read that part?
Me: No. Never. (Long pause.) So LA’s just gonna win, then.
Friend: Yes, LA’s just gonna win then. Now log off, you moron.

Well, they aren’t just going to win, but everything points in that direction. At the moment, LA’s the best team in the league, and while San Jose is coming off two strong wins in a row (5-1 over Chicago; 1-0 over Seattle), visiting the in-form Galaxy could prove one of their most difficult games of the season.

If LA’s for real, it wins this game. Regardless, we’ll get to see how the StubHub crowd reacts to Thursday’s shocking news.

[ RELATED, Donovan: Twitter reacts | Garber, too | Need to move on | LA w/o LD, Becks ]

Philadelphia Union vs. Montréal Impact, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Speaking of games teams should win, say hi to Philadelphia. For most of the year, they’ve been okay, but now they’re on the verge of being good, with a surge up the East’s table since their coaching change leaving Jim Curtain’s team on the edge of the playoffs. With Montréal in town, the Union have a chance to turn up the heat on Columbus and New England – teams straddling the postseason line in the Eastern Conference.

Given how Montréal played last week, there’s no reason to think the Impact will offer much resistance. One day, however, a team with a decent amount of talent will shake their funk. Coming off a mid-week win in Champions League, Saturday may be that day.

source: APColumbus Crew vs. Toronto FC, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Federico Higuaín and Mix Diserkud in the same midfield? Yeah, and I think we’d all be okay with that. Even if Columbus continues to desperately, perhaps hopelessly needs a striker, a three-man middle of Higuaín, Diskerud, and Will Trapp? Woof.

Unfortunately …

Think that will make it a little more bitter when Michael Bradley (right) comes to town? Toronto has their nice, shiny U.S. international, whereas Mix Diskerud’s dad kept the Crew’s at Rosenborg?

Subplots aside, these are two of the teams fighting at the edge of the East’s playoff picture – the tenuous place between the Supporters’ Shield contenders (Sporting, D.C. United) and the teams in pursuit (New England, Philadelphia).  In fifth place, the Crew needs this result more, but the last time the Reds came to Columbus, they left with full points.

source: APFC Dallas vs. Colorado Rapids, Saturday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern

Successful beyond expectations, FC Dallas is this year’s Colorado, the 2013 team that make an unpredicted push into the West’s playoffs. Doubted all season, the Rapids never faded from the top half of the conference, with Óscar Pareja (right) earning Coach of the Year consideration after his team reached the postseason.

In 2014, recent history’s repeating itself, only instead of merely making the playoffs, Dallas is gearing up to have an impact in November. Fabián Castillo has returned from suspension. Mauro Díaz is slowly returning to match fitness, while injuries at the back have revealed some new options, like Zach Loyd in the middle.

Dallas has already beaten Colorado once this season, but with its key players returning to health, the team can start building for something bigger. If its pieces come together, FCD can transcend what Pareja’s Rapids were able to do last season.

Real Salt Lake vs. D.C. United, Saturday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern

So … the last time D.C. visited RSL:

Sorry about that, RSL fans, but unfortunately, D.C. United’s even better this season. Surprises in spring, the black and red have started to assume a frontrunner’s pose this summer, and while Real Salt Lake’s veteran core surely hasn’t forgotten one of last year’s two heartbreakers, a taste for revenge is no guarantee they’ll be able to derail Ben Olsen’s squad.

source: AP

Portland vs. Chivas USA, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern

A terrible defensive record means the Timbers are one of only two Western Conference teams with a negative goal difference, though if things go well over the next three days, they could end the weekend tied for fifth. Get some help from Dallas and Sporting, take care of business at home against Chivas, and Portland will be even with Colorado. Not bad for a team that looked decidedly un-playoff-like on Saturday against the Galaxy.

Taking care of business, however, is the theme that will follow Chivas throughout the rest of the season. Every team they’ll face between now and game 34 will be favored to take three points. Those that don’t will lose ground in another hyper-competitive playoff race.

For a Timbers team that’s struggled to get back in that race, dropping points will be a bitter pill. But if that happens, we’ll get a better idea of which teams are ready for their playoff runs.

source: APChicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Univision Deportes

Over the last two games, New York has played well, even though last week’s trip to RSL had a way of disguising that performance. Both on paper and form, the Red Bulls look like a better team than Chicago, but on the road, with three players called into action in Portland, a draw seems like an acceptable result.

But please, god of whatever has saved MLS over the last 10 years, please don’t let Chicago tie any more. Let them be good, let them be bad – I don’t care. I just don’t want to sit though another Chicago Fire draw, mostly because the sense of inevitability behind every result. Even when they take an early league (like last week against Columbus), you thought “I don’t how they’re give back this one.”

That’s what’s so frustrating. It’s not the draws themselves. We’re used to those. And it’s not a team playing badly. Thanks to Montréal, we’re used to that, too.  It’s the stasis of it all; the empty nothingness.

It’s good enough. It’s bad enough. We just stay … in … this one … place, on pace for 21 draws.

Soccer god, help us.

source: Getty ImagesVancouver Whitecaps vs. Sporting Kansas City, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern

For me, this is the weekend’s best match, one that pits a Sporting side that gets Matt Besler back in the team against one of the deepest attacks in the league. On a unique home pitch Kansas City sees only once every two years, players like Pedro Morales and Matías Laba will have a significant edge, one that usually forces a big change to how opponents approach their game.

But for all that depth, Vancouver has become a team in flux. Darren Mattocks is being worked back into the lineup, with Erik Hurtado’s move wide pushing Kekuta Manneh out of Carl Robinson’s choice XI. Jay DeMerit’s sudden retirement has left the team thingat the back, while the rotation that the Whitecaps have used throughout the season has left the team with short on certainties as the final third approaches.

As we saw when Kansas City visited Toronto, the defending champions know how to exploit the thinnest of margins. If Sunday’s margin is the `Caps latent uncertainty – the unsteadiness that’s kept one of the league’s most talented teams from realizing its potential – Peter Vermes may be able to take a point out of Vancouver.

source: Getty ImagesSeattle Sounders vs. Houston Dynamo, Sunday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2

We’ve been mentioning (read: dwelling on) it for since they lost to the Galaxy, but in the wake of the team’s performance in San Jose, the word is finally starting to come up: Collapse. It happened at the end of last season, and to a smaller extent, it’s happened in previous postseasons, too. Dealing with their first two-game losing streak of the season, the worries of last year are starting to emmerge.

In that way, Sunday’s visit is the perfect test. Houston has added DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido, but there’s nothing about its team or results that suggests they should beat Seattle. If they do — if, for some reason, the Sounders drop points against Houston — it will be time to start worrying about 2013.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.