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.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.