MLS Preview: Real Salt Lake, Sporting KC host weekend’s marquee match ups

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NBCSN games on Friday and Saturday highlight MLS’s nine-games weekend, one that features marquee match ups in Salt Lake City and Kansas City. From the opener in Houston to the finale in D.C., here’s our quick look at the coming match ups in Major League Soccer.

(All rankings reflect ProSoccerTalk’s latest PRs.)

MUST WIN-ESQUE
#18 Houston Dynamo vs. #11 Philadelphia Union, Friday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN
Watch Live on NBC Sports Live Extra

I’m trying to figure out what’s one degree short of “must win.” “Really, really need to win?” “So important, we’re willing to delude ourselves?” Friday’s game at BBVA Compass Stadium falls into that category. It’s not a must-win in the mathematical sense, but at home, against a beatable playoff rival, a loss to the Union will say bad things about the Dynamo.

Houston needs this. With DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido integrated, the team has to have a proof of concept, one that isn’t defined by a late D.C. United breakdown in front of goal.

If the Dynamo can’t win this one, there’s no reason to think they can make a run.

source: Getty ImagesSTATEMENTS IN ALL-CAPS
#2 Real Salt Lake vs. #4 Seattle Sounders, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN
Watch Live on NBC Sports Live Extra

Congratulations, Seattle. That was an amazing showing mid-week against Chicago. The way you poured it on at the end? Impressive. It really was. The depth Adrian Hanauer accumulated this offseason is admirable.

Now, get that feeling out of your system, because none of the ease you saw Wednesday at Starfire Stadium will be waiting for you at Rio Tinto. This is the week’s marquee battle, one that gives each team a chance to claim some primacy in the Western Conference, but whereas RSL is riding a five-game unbeaten run, only a visit from Houston in an ugly Sunday night game got the Sounders back in the MLS win column.

Saturday’s NBCSN game gives Sigi Schmid’s team an opportunity to show its title credentials. Whether those shine though, both teams will get 90 minutes to measure itself against a likely obstacle in the Western Conference playoffs.

source:  BEST CHANCE THEY’RE GOING TO GET #19 Montréal Impact vs. #15 Chicago Fire, Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Eastern

If Montréal can’t beat Chicago at Stade Saputo, we might as well put 3-0 across the rest of their schedule. At home, against one of the next worst teams in the league, the Impact get the easiest game of its run-in. If they can’t win this one, the next two-and-a-half months are going to be horrible.

Conversely, Chicago needs these points in order to keep the dream from becoming a nightmare. That dream, one that ends with the Fire in the post season, is still alive despite their embarrassment in Tukwila. But if U.S. Open Cup showed us anything, it’s that Frank Yallop’s team is on the verge of falling apart.

source: Getty ImagesTAKING THE DONOVAN TOUR ON THE ROAD
#13 Columbus Crew vs. #1 LA Galaxy, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Columbus gets first crack at saying goodbye to Landon Donovan, with the Crew set to honor the retiring star before Saturday’s game. Once that’s over, a team coming off a discouraging performance will have to solve the best team in the league, one that’s still trying to make good on its games in hand.

As with any Crew opponent, the key will be managing Federico Higuaín, who will have trouble against the Galaxy duo of Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho. At the other end of the pitch, the Galaxy are creating enough chances to give Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo Gonzalez trouble.

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BUSINESS YOU HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF
#16 New England Revolution vs. #10 Portland Timbers, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Losers of nine out of 10, New England clearly needs a win. But that’s been the case for most of the summer.

The more interesting angle on this game is Portland’s. Winners of three out of four, the Timbers have finally pulled themselves back to edge of the West’s top five, a position Saturday’s game gives them a chance to solidify. Much like their recent trip to Montréal, the long flight shouldn’t prevent the Timbers from claiming full points.

The difference between the two games, though: Whereas Montréal’s is inert, a team with Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez, and Kelyn Rowe inspires suspicion. At some point, New England’s going to wake up. It’s Portland job to make sure it doesn’t happen on Saturday.

source: Getty Images

TEST OF SHORT MEMORIES
#3 Sporting Kansas City vs. Toronto FC, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern

Last week in Vancouver, Sporting fell into a common Eastern Conference trap, having to adapt to the game’s speed at BC Place. The adjustment never truly happened, leaving the East leaders on the wrong end of a 2-0 loss.

Back home, against a team they’ve already earned four points from this year, Sporting should regain their stride, but with Jermain Defoe possibly back from injury, Toronto may have a chance to make up some needed ground.

Take three points in Kansas, and the Reds can look beyond the three seed they seem to be settling into. Within four with two games in hand, TFC would be able to set sights on the top of the conference.

source: Getty Images

FEED THE FLAME
#17 Chivas USA vs. #6 Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern

For Vancouver’s part, last week’s win over Sporting gives the team a chance to pull away from the malaise of four straight draws. With Carl Robinson starting to make some permanent decisions about his starting lineup, the Whitecaps are gaining momentum, part of the reason they’ve displaced a slumping Colorado in the West’s top five.

Like Montréal, Chivas has become an obligatory three points, even if their record is nowhere near as bad. Having fallen off from their early summer surge, the Goats have regressed to their former selves, making it all the more important Vancouver build on last week’s result.

source: Getty Images

COUNTER ON COUNTER
#9 San Jose Earthquakes vs. #5 FC Dallas, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern

Two games, two first half red cards, two 2-1 San Jose wins, with the 180 minutes the teams have played against each other this season providing no insight into what to expect on Saturday. The teams have spent more time playing 11-on-10 than at full strength. With San Jose’s makeover and Mauro Díaz’s return, there’s almost nothing we can glean from the team’s first two meetings.

Right now, both sides are thriving on the counter. Dallas has been strong on set pieces, while San Jose may still be able to revert to their former, direct selves, but with players like Díaz and Matías Pérez García central to each teams’ attacks, San Jose and Dallas willing to wait for their chances in transition.

That matchup typically means an ugly game; at least, until the first goal’s scored. If we’re lucky, that breakthrough will come early at Buck Shaw.

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THIS MIGHT HELP … ONE OF US
#7 D.C. United vs. #14 Colorado Rapids, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Univision Deportes

So strong over the first half of the season, Colorado and D.C. have been playing like two anchors, both sinking to a bottom we couldn’t see before. On the way down, they’re about to collide, stopping one’s fall. For the lucky team, the current will come and carry it upward. The other will keep falling for at least one more week.

Colorado, after spending most of the season in the West’s top five, has lost three in a row, dropping the team into a tie for sixth with Portland. For their part, D.C. United has lost two in a row, with poor showings at Houston and Real Salt Lake seeing Ben Olsen’s team outscored 4-0 over its last 180 minutes.

On the surface, something has to give, but given the way these teams have played over the last two weeks, this game could end in a draw. While three points will be there for the taking, one team will have to rediscover its July form to take advantage of the other.

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

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Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

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Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

[ MORE: USMNT’s 23-man roster questions ]

That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?