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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.

Premier League Playback: Ranking the chance of relegation

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With 12 games to go in the Premier League season, the bottom seven teams are starting to get cut off from the rest of the league.

Just like at the top of the table, this is the “business end” of the campaign and strange things start to happen.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Team who looked dead and buried start to rise (see: Hull and Swansea, already) and others start to sink from midtable and towards the abyss with Bournemouth and particularly Leicester City struggling.

[ MORE: Premier League standings | Schedule

Below is a look at the seven main contenders for the three relegation spots, focusing on the toughest games they have remaining, their reasons for optimism and a percentage chance of relegation.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive ]

Even if you have points on the board right now, momentum means everything at this time of the season…


Bournemouth

Points: 26
Reason for optimism: The quality Eddie Howe‘s side possess on the ball will see them create chances, so there’s that. However, they have to score two or three goals a game recently to get a win. They have four of the the current top six coming up, then finish the season with four of their last five games against relegation rivals. That will test the nerve of this talented yet inexperienced team.
Toughest games remaining: at Man United (Mar. 4), at Liverpool (Apr. 5), vs. Chelsea (Apr. 8), at Tottenham (Apr. 15)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Swansea City

Points: 24
Reason for optimism: Things are looking much more solid in defense since Paul Clement arrived. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente continue to score and assist, plus the Swans look dangerous on the break. Plenty of reasons to believe they’ll continue to pull away from the bottom three. Will complacency set in though? Swans next four games are against Burnley, Hull, Bournemouth and Boro. Huge few weeks ahead and then an easier finish to the season, on paper.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Tottenham (Apr. 4), at Man United (Apr. 29), vs. Everton (May 6)
Relegation percentage: 20%

Middlesbrough
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: They’ve got the fifth defensive record in the PL, so they can hang in there. That’s a good trait to have when the pressure is on. They just need a goalscorer to pop up with the goods. A run of three games against relegation rivals at the beginning of April is likely to decide their fate with four very tough games to finish the season.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man United (Mar. 19), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 15), vs. Man City (Apr. 29), at Chelsea (May 6), at Liverpool (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Crystal Palace
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: Big Sam has never been relegated as a Premier League manager. Simple. That said, this task is tougher than he thought. The 1-0 win against Boro proved they can grind out a victory when they need to. Still, they have five of the current top six left to play in their final 12 games of the season. It will be a flip of the coin for the Eagles.
Toughest games remaining: At Chelsea (Apr. 1), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 8), at Liverpool (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 6), at Man United (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Leicester City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Scrapping the barrel here… Their incredible runs to safety in 2015 and then for the PL title in 2016 (that did happen, right!?) gives them experience in high-pressure situation. One big marquee win can help get momentum going again, either in the PL or by getting past Sevilla in the return leg. Claudio Ranieri‘s sacking could give the Foxes the jolt they badly need but it must happen soon.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Liverpool (Feb. 27), at Everton (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 13),
Relegation percentage: 50%

Hull City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Marco Silva’s side are much improved and have just two games remaining against the big boys. So many relegation scraps coming up. They look tough to break down and dangerous on the break. That’s a great combo at this point in the season. They have momentum among the teams at the bottom.
Toughest games remaining: at Everton (Mar. 18), at Man City (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (May 21),
Relegation percentage: 30%

Sunderland

Points: 19
Reason for optimism: Well, just look at pretty much the last four seasons. Down and out time and time again, somehow Sunderland survive. That’s the only reason for optimism. Oh, and Jermain Defoe‘s goals. David Moyes needs a miracle, especially what those remaining games…
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man City (Mar. 5), vs. Man United (Apr. 8), at Arsenal (Apr. 22), at Chelsea (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 70%


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.

VIDEO: Remembering Jamie Vardy’s magic vs. Liverpool

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Just over 12 months ago Leicester City beat Liverpool on a raucous evening at the King Power Stadium to ignite real belief into their Premier League title charge.

We all know how that turned out…

[ PREVIEW: Leicester host Liverpool

A year on and boy, Leicester could use some magic from Vardy as they host Liverpool on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Foxes fired Claudio Ranieri last Thursday and the reigning champions have slipped into the relegation zone over the weekend as they’re in freefall with five defeats on the spin and they’ve failed to score in their last six PL games.

Click play on the video above to see Vardy’s wonderful volley from distance as the England international was in full flow on his way to 24 goals for the season. He has just five in the PL this season, three of which came in the 4-2 win against Manchester City at the KP back in December.

Again, caretaker Craig Shakespeare needs some magic from somewhere on Monday if the Foxes are going to gain momentum in their battle against relegation.

Report: Jordan Henderson out with foot injury

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 27:  Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool embraces Jordan Henderson of Liverpool after the Premier League match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield on December 27, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Liverpool will be without captain Jordan Henderson for the clash at Leicester City on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) according to multiple reports.

[ PREVIEW: Leicester host Liverpool ]

Sky Sports are reporting that Henderson suffered a “badly bruised foot” injury in training over the weekend and will not be available to lead Jurgen Klopp‘s side against a Leicester side in freefall.

Henderson has struggled with injuries recently, missing two weeks in January with a heel injury.

The 26-year-old has become the main holding player in Klopp’s fluid 4-3-3 system and has built up a formidable partnership alongside Georginio Wijnaldum. Henderson provides energy and a wide-range of passing and he would’ve been key against a Leicester which will be fired up following the departure of manager Claudio Ranieri last week and having slipped into the relegation zone over the weekend.

In his absence either Emre Can or Lucas Leiva will seamlessly slot in to the lineup, both can play Henderson’s more defensive role admirably and provide balance to Klopp’s somewhat top-heavy time when you think of Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino ahead of them.

Klopp has options but it’s still far from ideal to lose your captain after two weeks off and following a break to Spain for training.

Why Mourinho needs Zlatan to stay at Man United

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United congratulates Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester United at Selhurst Park on December 14, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Following Manchester United’s EFL Cup Final victory on Sunday, Jose Mourinho laughed off a question about Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s future at Old Trafford beyond this season.

He shouldn’t be laughing. He should be taking this situation very seriously. United need Zlatan. End of.

[ MORE: United, Mourinho get lucky

Ibrahimovic, 35, scored twice in the 3-2 win against Southampton at Wembley, including the game-winner with a late header, to hand Mourinho his first piece of major silverware as United’s boss. The veteran Swedish striker has now scored 26 goals in 38 games in all competitions this season, including six in his last four games.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

The incredible stats aside, his impact and influence on this team is clear for all to see. That’s why Zlatan needs to remain at United for at least one more season, and he could probably go on for longer. That said, he isn’t giving anything away about where he will be next season.

“We have another two months of the season to go,” Ibrahimovic said. “Let’s see how I feel, the situation. Somebody made up a story that if we don’t qualify for the Champions League I will not extend. It has nothing to do with that.”

Mourinho thinks otherwise.

“One day, Zlatan decided to [leave me and Inter Milan to join] Barcelona, I was very sad, but I did nothing to try to stop him to go, so I don’t beg for players,” Mourinho said. “But, if needed, maybe United fans can go to the door of his house, and stay there all night, if needed. We all want, and believe, that he is going to stay another season.”

It simply has to happen.

Zlatan has a contract until this summer with United with an option to extend it for another year. Mourinho has suggested in the past Zlatan will stay but we’ve never had too much of a definitive answer from the player himself.

Right now, aside from his play on the pitch, Zlatan is having a massive impact on the confidence and belief levels of his teammates. He has scored the game-winner on eight occasions this season and comparisons are being made about Eric Cantona and the impact he had.

Zlatan’s aura is helping United win games at the moment and even at the age of 35 he has played more Premier League minutes than any other United outfield player, plus he’s played in more games this season, in all competitions, than any other PL player.

He can play until he is 40. Mourinho said it last week and he’s right. Zlatan doesn’t rely on pace to play the game. He has always had power, panache and predatory instincts in abundance.

With United’s creative talents and other pacey forwards, not to mention the potential arrival of Antoine Griezmann in the summer, he not only brings the best out of them on the pitch but off it too. Mourinho clerly needs to rebuild parts of his defense to take United from top four hopefuls to title contenders next season and beyond, but without Zlatan’s goals this season they’d be in midtable.

United and Mourinho need Zlatan to stay next season, even if Griezmann arrives. Ibra knows it. He’s playing the game.

It would be a huge shock to see him anywhere other than Old Trafford next season. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see him score the winner for United in the FA Cup and Europa League final this season, and then lead them to even greater glories next season and beyond. After his latest trophy, the 22nd of his playing career, Zlatan revealed he keeps all of his medals in one of his houses. He was also asked if United are building something special under Mourinho?

“I came. That’s special,” Ibrahimovic said.

Anyone who doubted Zlatan’s ability (something he has never done) last summer ahead of his move to the Premier League will be scratching their heads. Like United right now, he seems to always find a way to score goals and get the job done. In that sense, Mourinho needs him to be the focal point of United’s attack for as long as Zlatan can play.

And also, well, he’s Zlatan. In this mammoth rebuild of a roster and self-belief, he’s the X-Factor Mourinho can’t do without.