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MLS Weekend Preview: Trio of marquee matches begins Friday in Frisco

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Saturday’s schedule contains another disappointing MLS cluster — four games kicking off within 30 minutes of each other* — but considering how the weekend’s biggest games are spaced out, the next three days couldn’t have worked out much better for those who don’t overdose on Major League Soccer. If you’re a league looking to highlight the playoff push, you couldn’t ask for more than the West’s best (right now) on Friday, the East’s on Saturday, and the league’s premier rivalry to end the show.

* – Other leagues around the world do this. Maybe they should think about changing things up, too.

The first of those games kicks off tonight on NBCSN (and NBC Sports Live Extra), where John Strong, Russ Thaler, and Stu Holden are on hand to ring in the MLS Weekend. Here’s your preview:

(All rankings reflect the team’s current place in PST’s Major League Soccer PRs.)

GAME OF THE WEEK #1: THE START OF THE FRANCHISE
#3 FC Dallas vs. #1 Real Salt Lake, Friday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN (NBC Sports Live Extra)

The hottest team the league versus the best? The latter title is debatable. The former is not.

FC Dallas, undefeated since May 31, has changed the conversation. Instead of people asking whether they can make the playoffs, they’re debating how far Dallas can rise. Perhaps the Toros don’t have the same slew of proven talents they’ll face Friday night, but they have Fabián Castillo (right), arguably the most dangerous player in the league, right now. They have Mauro Díaz, one of the most dangerous players in the league this spring. And perhaps most importantly, they have confidence, coming off a 5-0 dubbing of San Jose.

Looking at Real Salt Lake’s defense, there’s no clear answer. Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler are the league’s best central tandem, but heaven help them if they’re in the open field against Castillo. Tony Beltran’s good, but seeing him get turned by Kenny Cooper last week doesn’t inspire confidence one-on-one. Without traditional wide midfielders to help, RSL’s fullbacks seem destined to be isolated against Castillo.

Jeff Cassar will have to come up with something, or perhaps this is a time where the team’s characteristic, sometimes stifling control can take over. For much of Saturday’s match against Seattle, RSL held over 60 percent of the ball (the number settled at 58). Tomorrow in Dallas, possession may be the visitors’ best defense.

TEED UP FOR SUCCESSsource: Getty Images
#11 New York Red Bulls vs. #18 Montréal Impact, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Some much needed rest for Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and Bradley Wright-Phillips (right) ends with a visit from one of the league’s weakest teams – a match that should serve as a transition back into the weekly routine. With Columbus, Philadelphia, and Houston looking more spry in the East’s playoff race, a postseason return is destined to be hard fought. New York needs to make the most of this easy spell.

Montréal is coming off a slump-busting win, but the performance wasn’t a convincing one. They did the bare minimum needed to beat one of the worst teams in MLS, earning a 1-0 home win that felt more like an obligation than an accomplishment.

This is a game New York has to win. Not because the math says so, and not because there’s any finality to the result. But if you can’t beat Montréal at home, there’s no reason to think you can do anything else.

source: AP

THE KANSAS CITY CURE
#8 Toronto FC vs. #19 Chicago Fire, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Much like New York, Toronto gets a great transition game on Saturday, only instead of moving on from a week off, they’re trying to put last Saturday’s result behind them. The 4-1 scoreline at Kansas City may have exaggerated the divide between the teams, but it was still a three-goal loss.

Jermain Defoe should be back. Michael Bradley (right) has shaken off his World Cup phase. Steve Caldwell and Mark Bloom are returning to a defense that gave its kids valuable minutes in their absence. Even in the wake of last week’s set back, Toronto is primed to solidify its hold on third.

As for Chicago’s part, some version of this might work:

This is a game New York Toronto has to win. Not because the math says so, and not because there’s any finality to the result. But if you can’t beat Montréal Chicago at home, there’s no reason to think you can do anything else.

Granted, a Toronto loss will feel more like a slip than an indictment of the team’s chances (that’s New York’s world). Regardless, there’s no reason to lose a home game to Chicago.

SOCRATIC METHOD
#9 Columbus Crew vs. #14 Houston Dynamo, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

There’s a way of looking at each game that boils the matchup down to series of questions: How will Real stop Castillo? Can Toronto shake off last week’s loss? How quickly will New York click after its time off?

The questions for Columbus and Houston are clear. For the Crew, it’s a matter of harnessing whatever they did against Los Angeles and bringing it back to the field.  Twelve shots on target (a season high), and four goals past Jaime Penedo (the most LA’s conceded this year). Is that the real Columbus Crew?

For Houston, it’s a matter of showing constant improvement – building on the progress they showed last Friday against Philadelphia, and taking the show on the road. With a stiffer challenge against a fully rested squad, is Houston a viable playoff contender? If so, they’ll at least keep it close.

EAST COAST BIAS
#16 New England Revolution vs. #15 Chivas USA, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Despite its slump, New England has four points from its last two home games, both against Western Conference foes. In gallup the Goats, another transcontinental guest, to give the Revolution hope. With a win (one they really should get), the Revs could finish the weekend in the East’s top five. Remarkable.

For Chivas USA, the concern is Mauro Rosales; or, rather, what his departure means for the team. One of the team’s two best players — one whose experience and work commands respect — has been shipped to a playoff contender for a spare part. Even if the locker room knew this was coming, it’s not exactly a move that inspires confidence.

source: Getty Images

GAME OF THE WEEK #2: CEMENTING THE FRANCHISE
#2 Sporting Kansas City vs. #6 D.C. United, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern

Between Friday’s game in Dallas and Sunday’s Cascadia Derby, this battle at the top of the East is in danger of being overlooked, though the real reason may have more to due with United than what’s happening around this match.

Out of respect for what they’ve done, nobody’s talking about it, but it’s clear very few people think D.C. United’s a real Cup contender. The team’s record, goals for, and goals allowed all say this team’s for real, but the names on the team sheet leave room for doubt. There are no game-breaking stars, while the team’s secondary numbers (like being out-shot on the season) suggest there’s room for regression. Ultimately, people look at D.C. United and see a team playing over its head.

Saturday presents and opportunity to prove those people wrong. Whatever’s happened to this point in the season will see a whole new life if Ben Olsen’s team can win at Sporting Park.

Do so, and United jumps to first in the East, their game-in-hand providing the team an extra edge during their surprising resurgence. Fall, and Kansas City crafts the gap most critics expect to develop.

source: AP

THE TOUGHER HALF OF STUBHUB
#4 LA Galaxy vs. #7 Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern

For the second time in eight days, Vancouver visits StubHub Center, only instead of facing a forgiving Chivas USA, Saturday’s opponent is a Galaxy team looking to recapture its groove.

Going into last weekend’s game in Columbus, LA was the best team in the league. Then came a 4-1 loss, after which they fell behind 3-1 at Colorado on Wednesday. The team roared back in the second half, leaving Commerce City with a  4-3 result, but a new air of vulnerability accompanies the team back to Carson.

Vancouver received their own wake up call of sorts last weekend. At least, let’s hope the Whitecaps’ 0-0 creates a sense of urgency. Carl Robinson’s team is too talented to be dropping needed points at Chivas USA, and while the Goats again showed they can be troublesome, it’s the type of troublesome a young, growing, improving team should be able to navigate at this point of the season. That Vancouver couldn’t makes you wonder if they’re destined to be passed by Portland.

source: AP

GAME OF THE WEEK #3: THE BIG BUDGET BLOCKBUSTER
#10 Portland Timbers vs. #5 Seattle Sounders, Sunday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2

Speaking of Portland, people are already camping out at the gates of Providence Park for what could be a turning point in the Timbers’ season. After a slow start, Caleb Porter’s team has clawed itself to the edge of the West’s top five, but the signature win that would proclaim the team true playoff threats has been elusive.

Three points on Sunday would give them that win, one that would simultaneously send Seattle into a tailspin. Over five games (or, seven, depending on how you see it), the Sounders have done their best to rekindle 2013’s woe. Looking decidedly second best against Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake, Seattle’s on the verge of a minor identity crisis, one that would see the one-time MLS Cup favorites transform into consumed by its doubts.

Given how Seattle’s season ended last season (eliminated by its rivals), a win by the Timbers would deal some major damage. At a minimum, it would become the latest, most relevant reminder the 2013 is not so far in the distance.

A loss at Portland, and things get real.

PLEASE, SOMEBODY SHOOT
#12 Philadelphia Union vs. #13 San Jose Earthquakes, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Univision Deportes

Last week’s battle of counterattacking sides was blown open by Fabián Castillo’s first half goal, one that gave FC Dallas room to complete their Santa Clara romp. Unfortunately, this week’s battle of the possession adverse doesn’t feature a Castillo, or anything close to a player with that kind of explosive talent. On Sunday in Chester, two teams who are fine playing without the ball may try to wait each other out.

Just like last week’s game in the South Bay, the key all be an early goal. If that happens, we’ll get a watchable game, one where one club will look to exploit the opportunities provided by an pursuing opponent.

Without that early goal, a good over-under for shots on target would be 3.5. Particularly if Philadelphia reverts to their possession-ready, goal-deprived ways, this could be … a subtle one.

Sturridge complains about playing out wide; Klopp responds

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06:  Substitute Daniel Sturridge of Liverpool walks to the bench past Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Liverpool at St James' Park on December 6, 2015 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Daniel Sturridge isn’t too happy to be playing out wide.

[ MORE: Bravo signs for Man City ]

He’s said it many times in the past (most noticeably during his time at Chelsea) and the Liverpool forward said it again following their 5-0 win over Burton Albion in the EFL Cup in midweek.

Sturridge, 26, came on as a second half sub for Jurgen Klopp‘s side and scored twice.

[ MORE: Boufal to Saints ]

However, speaking to reporters after the game the man who usually plays as a central striker had the following to say about playing in a wide position.

“Of course it is more difficult for me to play wide,” Sturridge said. “I’m a center-forward. I have to do a job for the team. That’s not saying I am happy to do it. That’s saying I have got to do a job for the team. It’s a team game. If I am put in that position, I have to play there.”

Tell us how you really feel, Daniel.

Yet Klopp, speaking on Thursday in his press conference ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports) effortlessly diffused what could’ve been a sticky situation for Sturridge.

“It wasn’t a fixed position. Daniel is a very smart player,” said Klopp. “He’s good at getting himself into positions where it’s not easy to defend. There is absolutely no problem.”

Okay, so everyone is cool. Fair enough.

You do get the lingering feeling that Klopp may have a quiet word with Sturridge behind closed doors in the next day or so as these kind of complaints from a star player should really go to the manager first before he speaks publicly about them.

Sturridge is a passionate player who can often be seen showing his frustration on the pitch as his winning desire sometimes gets the better of him.

That’s obviously the case for certain media interviews too.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Zaha to Spurs, Lucas to Arsenal

West Bromwich Albion v Crystal Palace - Premier League
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Sky Sports is reporting that Tottenham Hotspur have made a $21 million bid for Wilfried Zaha and are in talks with Crystal Palace.

Zaha, 23, is in his second spell with the Eagles after returning to Selhurst Park in 2015 following his $13 million move to Manchester United not working out.

[ MORE: Bravo signs for City ]

The pacey winger has reportedly told Alan Pardew he wants to leave Palace and is obviously keen on being part of Spurs’ squad which will take part in the UEFA Champions League group stages this season.

Productivity is the main issue with Zaha but he did score five goals and addes seven assists across 43 games in all competitions last season as Palace reached the FA Cup final and started brightly in the Premier League but then faded badly to just stave off relegation.

With Christian Benteke arriving for a club-record $41.5 million last week, Palace may be interested in getting some of that money back but Pardew has already sold Yannick Bolasie to Everton for $37.5 million this summer and although he has Andros Townsend around, he is unlikely to be happy about losing another pacey and direct winger who can provide crossed for Benteke to finish.

As for Spurs, Zaha would provide some much-needed pace out wide. In the current system Mauricio Pochettino has Harry Kane and Vincent Janssen in a two-man forward line with Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen breaking forward from midfield to support them. However talented those players are, Pochettino may be looking for extra pace on the break, especially late in games, and Zaha has that in abundance.


A battle is brewing for Deportivo La Coruna forward Lucas Perez Martinez.

The Spanish forward, 27, is reportedly subject to two bids from both Everton and Arsenal. The latter are said to be closing in on $22.5 million transfer, with the BBC reporting that Arsenal are deemed the favorites for his signature.

[ MORE: Solo ban about more than comments ]

Known simply as Lucas, the striker scored 17 goals in 36 La Liga appearances last season and could be the answer to Arsene Wenger‘s problems up top. Wenger has pursued Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette all summer long but the French club are demanding over $55 million from the Gunners. Lucas would be a much cheaper option and the journeyman (he’s spent time in Greece, Ukraine and Spain with five different teams) was prolific in a Deportivo team which finished in 15th place in Spain’s top-flight. Given service by Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, he could be deadly.


Joe Hart, 29, will not be moving to Everton according to Ronald Koeman.

Everton’s manager was asked about Hart’s availability on Thursday and the Dutchman emphatically denied reports linking the Manchester City goalkeeper with a loan move to Goodison Park.

“No interest,” was the blunt response from Koeman and after Hart played, captained and kept a clean sheet for City in their 1-0 win over Steaua Bucharest in their UCL second leg play-off game on Wednesday, it looks like he is now in an awkward situation.

Hart was lauded by City’s fans throughout the game but with Claudio Bravo arriving from Barcelona on Thursday it seems like England’s first-choice goalkeeper could now be third-choice at Man City after Pep Guardiola preferred veteran Willy Caballero to him.

With Everton no interested, plus reports of loan moves to Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund going quiet, it appears Hart’s options are limited. If he wants to stay in the PL, perhaps Liverpool is his only option among the clubs who are expected to be challenging for the top four and beyond.

Manchester City confirm $22.5 million signing of Claudio Bravo

FOXBORO, MA - JUNE 10:  Claudio Bravo #1 of Chile passes the ball during a 2016 Copa America Centenario Group D match between Chile and Bolivia in the first half at Gillette Stadium on June 10, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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It’s done.

Claudio Bravo, 33, has signed a four-year contract at Manchester City as the club announced his $22.5 million transfer from Barcelona on Thursday.

[ MORE: Saints close to Boufal deal ]

Bravo flew in to Manchester earlier this week and Pep Guardiola finally has the goalkeeper he’s been craving as he revealed the Chilean international is someone “he’s admired for a number of years.”

With Joe Hart given the cold shoulder and veteran Willy Caballero handed the starting spot in goal for City’s first two Premier League games of the season, it always seemed likely that a goalkeeper was lined up.

[ MORE: Solo ban about much more ]

Speaking to the club website about his move to City after spending the last two seasons at Barcelona, Bravo is looking forward to the challenge ahead.

“I’m very proud to be joining Manchester City. I know the Club is building something very special and I hope I can be part of many successes in the coming years,” Bravo said. “I have followed City’s progress in recent years and obviously know some of my new team-mates from the Copa America.

“It is not easy to leave a club like Barcelona where I had two fantastic years, but the opportunity to work with Pep Guardiola was too good to refuse. Now I will challenge the other great goalkeepers the Club has and together I hope we can win many trophies.”

So, now the picture is even clearer for Hart as despite Bravo claiming he is at the Etihad Stadium to “challenge the other great goalkeepers” they have, we all know he is the new numero uno. Hart will have to find a move elsewhere if he wants to play regularly but his options are running out with Everton’s manager Ronald Koeman saying they are no interested in signing Hart.

Over the last two seasons Bravo has split time with Marc-Andre ter Stegen at Barca but the man who has already made 100 appearances for Chile and has won back-to-back Copa America titles is now ready to be a bonafide star as he enters the prime of his career.

Comfortable with the ball at his feet and a sublime shot-stopper, Bravo’s acquisition is another key moment in Guardiola’s masterplan at City.

The Spanish coach has now spent $260 million on John Stones, Leroy Sane, Ilkay Gundogan, Nolito, Marlos Moreno, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bravo this summer.

Four games into Pep’s tenure as City’s boss the Citizens are perfect with four wins as they’ve qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stages.

Drinkwater stays at champion Leicester, signs 5-year deal

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Danny Drinkwater of Leicester City is closed down by Bertrand Traore of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Leicester City at Stamford Bridge on May 15, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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LEICESTER, England (AP) Danny Drinkwater has become the latest Leicester player to commit his future to the English champions.

[ MORE: Solo ban about much more ]

Leicester said Thursday the midfielder has signed a new five-year contract. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have also penned new deals this summer.

Drinkwater, a former Manchester United player, was a regular for Leicester in its run to the Premier League title last season, helping him earn a call-up to the England squad.