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MLS preview: Two NBCSN games, showdown in Utah highlight nine-match slate

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Two NBCSN games highlight another full slate of MLS soccer, one that kicks off with Friday night’s broadcast from Los Angeles. With a marquee match also taking place Saturday in Utah and five total games on national TV, here’s a preview of the coming weekend in Major League Soccer.

(Note: All numbers reflect the amended Power Rankings published Thursday afternoon).

#1 Los Angeles Galaxy vs. #17 Colorado Rapids, Friday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN/NBC Sports Live Extra

Stakes: LA has asserted itself as the best team in the league, but after Seattle’s mid-week win over Chivas USA, the Galaxy are staring at a five-point gap between themselves and the top of the conference. For Colorado, six losses in a row mean any result becomes progress, but after giving up a two-goal halftime lead against Los Angeles nine days ago, the Rapids may also be looking for a measure of revenge. If not that, then at least saving face.

Key Players: Deshorn Brown is Colorado’s danger man. Unfortunately, he’s only scored once in the last five games. Using Brown’s speed to test Omar Gonzalez (and partner) should be a priority for head coach Pablo Mastroeni. For Los Angeles, a midfield that’s averaging a West-best 54.7 pct. possession per game could limit the back line’s exposure. Juninho, Marcelo Sarvas and Landon Donovan (above) are the key parts.

Prediction: “We tried to build on last week’s performance in Seattle, but when the Galaxy are playing well, they’re really hard to stop.” — Mastroeni, after his team’s 3-0 loss.

source: AP#18 Toronto FC vs. #6 Philadelphia Union, Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Eastern, Univision Desportes

Stakes: Toronto’s slide is worse in our PRs than in the actual standings, but the Reds are still on the verge of losing their spot in the East’s top five, a situation which got worst with Wednesday’s defeat at PPL Park. With a second straight loss to Philadelphia, they’ll drop behind the Union and into fifth in the East – potentially lower, given the right results from Columbus and New York.

Key Players: Conceding 12 goals in the last five games, goalkeeper Joe Bendik needs help from his key defenders: Doneil Henry and Nick Hagglund in central defense; Michael Bradley and Collen Warner (right) in midfield. For Philadelphia, an attack that hasn’t scored more than one goal away since June 28 will need Sebastien Le Toux to stay hot.

Prediction: “It was better. You like to see that progress. Ultimately, though, we have to find a way to get three points out of these games.” — Toronto head coach Greg Vanney after his team’s 1-1 draw.

#11 New York Red Bulls vs. #10 Sporting Kansas City, Saturday 7:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN/NBC Sports Live Extra

Stakes: New York lingers at the edge of the East’s playoff race, but sitting seventh in the conference, last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners are increasing the level of difficulty. The Red Bulls now have to outplay two teams over their remaining nine games to return to the postseason. Sporting, on the other hand, remain second despite a three-game losing streak that’s seen them leak nine goals. They’ll make the postseason. The question is how much damage they’ll take in the process.

Key Players: Sporting should see Benny Feilhaber, Aurèlien Collin, and Dom Dwyer return to the field. Feilhaber and Dwyer were suspended for Wednesday’s loss at New England, while Collin was held out of the mid-week match on turf. For New York, it all comes down to Thierry Henry, who will be looking for space in front of that struggling Kansas City defense to prolong the defending champions’ woes.

Prediction: “We were missing Tim (Cahill), but that’s no excuse. We know their game. We know they’re strong in the middle. We didn’t do enough to take advantage of what they gave us.” — New York coach Mike Petke after his team’s 2-1 loss

source:  #4 Real Salt Lake vs. #2 FC Dallas, Saturday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern

Stakes: These teams are in danger of settling into those three and four spots in the West, adding importance to Saturday’s night’s showdown. Avoiding that four-five, mid-week, short rest play-in game should be a priority for both sides. Also a priority – at least, for Real Salt Lake: Redeeming the 2-1 loss they suffered two weeks ago against the 10-man Toros.

Key Players: For every Dallas opponent, it’s all about stopping Fabián Castillo (right), who’s proven lethal in transition this summer. For Real Salt Lake, Javi Morales’s return to the lineup puts that midfield spine of him and Kyle Beckerman (also, right) back in focus. Dallas has to address both edges of that middle third.

Prediction: “That’s RSL soccer. We wanted to show the game in Dallas was a fluke, and that’s the type of game we’re known for.” — Real Salt Lake head coach Jeff Cassar after this team’s 1-0 win.

#14 Vancouver Whitecaps vs. #3 D.C. United, Saturday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern

Stakes: Vancouver’s reached a crisis, albeit an existential one. Without points, goals, ideas, or history to fall back on, it feels like the Whitecaps are at the mercy of fate, unable to muster an action that means anything in the bigger picture. D.C. United, on the other hand, rebounded from being shellacked in LA to win the Atlantic Cup. Unfortunately, they now get to deal with that unfamiliar BC Place turf.

Key Players: Perry Kitchen will need to prevent Pablo Morales’s passes from rolling into spaces Darren Mattocks, Kekuta Manneh, and Erik Hurtado. Bobby Boswell will have to need himself out of situations where his foot speed will hurt him, while Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp are going to have to help their central partners.

Prediction: “That’s what can do. That’s what we should do. We played like this against Kansas, then went into a bad spell. This time we have to move forward.” — Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson after his team’s 2-1 win.

source: AP#7 Columbus Crew vs #19 Chivas USA, Sunday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, UniMas

Stakes: After last week’s loss at a revitalized Montréal, Columbus is looking to continue its ascent up the Eastern Conference. The Crew’s guests should prove accommodating. Not only has Chivas USA dropped 23 of their last 24 possible points, but the Goats will be without the suspended Erick Torres.

Key Players: Columbus has been getting most of its recent results without great performances from Federico Higuaín, but as the team’s struggles at Montréal showed, the Argentine start will have chances to push his team over the top. If he can summon his early season form, Higuaín can start turning the team’s nail biters into entries in the win column.

Prediction: “This is the type of performance I was looking for. When you’re in a race like we are, it really helps when you can take these chances at three points. That’s what the guys did.” — Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter after this team’s 3-0 win.

#8 Portland Timbers vs. #13 San Jose Earthquakes, Sunday, 4:45 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2

Stakes: Portland is coming off its biggest win of the season, a 3-0 win at Vancouver that vaulted the Timbers into fifth place. San Jose, on the other hand, were held to a 1-1 at home against Real Salt Lake. While that loss (and, how it happened) was a missed opportunity, it still showed a team that’s capable of playing spoiler into October.

Key Players: Tommy Thompson has been doing a great job of connecting San Jose’s midfield to its attack, something that should be vital as Portland controls most of Sunday’s possession. Between him and Chris Wondolowski, the Earthquakes will be able to generate chances on the counter. It’s just a matter of Liam Ridgewell, potentially Norberto Paparatto, and whomever Caleb Porter starts at fullback preventing San Jose from having Seattle’s success.

Prediction: “You think you’ve got the solutions one week, but there are a lot of tough teams in this league. We can’t afford to keep making the same mistakes, against anyone.” — Portland head coach Caleb Porter after his team’s 2-2 draw.

#9 New England Revolution vs. #15 Chicago Fire, Sunday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Stakes: Chicago, with seven points in its last four games, has climbed to within four of a playoff spot. While that hot streak represents a season best for the Fire, New England is even hotter going into Sunday’s game. With three wins in a row, New England has climbed into third place in the Eastern Conference.

Key Players: This may be the Jermaine Jones derby, with the two teams who drew for the U.S. international’s services facing off, but the game’s key player will be Lee Nguyen, who ran his goal total to 12 in New England’s mid-week win over Kansas City. With a Fire relying on midfield of Razvan Cocis and Matt Watson, Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, and Jones may be too much to stop.

Prediction: “That’s the kind of heart this team has. We didn’t get discouraged. If we played our game, with the guys we had coming off the bench, a breakthrough was going to come. And we got it.” — New England head coach Jay Heaps after his team’s 1-0 win.

Napoli fans wear Koulibaly masks to support defender after racial abuse

NAPLES, ITALY - FEBRUARY 07:  Fans of Napoli  during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and Carpi FC at Stadio San Paolo on February 7, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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Napoli fans showed their support for Kalidou Koulibaly on Sunday after the Senegalese center-back was the subject of racial abuse in a match against Lazio last week.

[ MORE: La Liga & Serie A roundup ]

The Lazio match was temporarily stopped in the second half as Lazio supporters hurled racial insults at Koulibaly.

At Napoli’s match against Carpi on Sunday, fans wore Koulibaly masks and painted signs in his honor to show their support for the 24-year-old defender.

A statement from Napoli’s supporters’ group read: “Everyone in Naples is offended by what happened to our young star. Because of this, we want to show our full support to Koulibaly.”

[ VIDEO: Van Gaal rips journalist who questions his Manchester United future ]

Lazio was fined more than $50,000 and will be forced to close certain sections of their stadium for the next two league matches because of the incident.

Afobe says he scored 15 goals a game with Harry Kane at the Arsenal academy

during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Selhurst Park on February 2, 2016 in London, England.
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Benik Afobe and Harry Kane are Premier League foes, but as kids, they were teammates.

Now Afobe is at Bournemouth and Kane at Tottenham, though both strikers played together with the Arsenal U-9 team as children.

[ RECAP: Bournemouth 0-2 Arsenal ]

While Kane left Arsenal at 10 and eventually settled at crosstown rivals Tottenham, Afobe stayed under contract with the club until 2015 despite never making an appearance for the Gunners.

Afobe went on six loan spells before moving to Wolverhampton last season, then joining Bournemouth in January.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

With three goals in his first five Premier League matches for the Cherries, Afobe is no stranger to scoring, as he said he would combine with Harry Kane for 15 goals a game back in the day.

I’ve got pictures of us from Arsenal.

He was so small at the time, a bit of a late developer, but he’s always loved scoring. The scores used to be 17-15 and stuff – we just knew we’d score in every game.

But it’s weird because he used to play in goal sometimes, and wasn’t bad actually. You wouldn’t think it – remember that goal he let in for Tottenham a couple of years ago (against Asteras Tripolis in the Europa League) when he had to play in goal.

I think Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs’ supporters are happy Harry Kane chose to play striker over goalkeeper…

[ MORE: Deficiencies visible on both sides as Chelsea draw Manchester United ]

Kane has proven that he is an elite goalscorer in the Premier League, and Afobe is off to a fine start himself. With both players just 22-years-old, we’ll likely be seeing many more goals to come from the duo.

Gary Neville under pressure as Valencia without a win in nine

EIBAR, SPAIN - DECEMBER 13:  Head coach Gary Neville of Valencia CF reacts during the La Liga match between SD Eibar and Valencia CF at Ipurua Municipal Stadium on December 13, 2015 in Eibar, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
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Gary Neville was appointed manager at Valencia on December 2. He is still yet to win a La Liga match.

After falling 1-0 to Real Betis on Sunday, Neville is now winless in nine league matches at Valencia as pressure grows on the new boss.

[ MORE: La Liga & Serie A roundup ]

Some have called for Neville to step down from his position, as the club has fallen from 8th to 13th and now sit just four points clear of the drop.

However, the former Manchester United legend has said he has been judged too quickly and will work hard to turn things around.

I said before I came that I would be judged in five months. I have been judged in six weeks.

There’s no doubt that at times like this everyone needs to stay together.

Everyone suffers. It’s just not going for us at the moment. I continue to work, I continue to have belief.

Conversations with the owners are between me and the owners. We have to turn it round quickly, I understand that. It is hard to explain the defeat. It will turn.

Not only has Neville struggled in La Liga play, but he has also seen Valencia bounced from the Champions League and saw his side smashed 7-0 by Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semifinal.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United ]

Valencia’s next league match is on Saturday against Espanyol, who sit three points below Valencia and haven’t won a match since December. If Neville fails to win again, there could be some real trouble at the Mestalla.

PSG down Marseille 2-1 for ninth-straight Le Classique win

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 21:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic #10 of Paris Saint-Germain is congratulated by teamamte Maxwell #17 after Ibrahimovic scored a goal in the second half against AFC Fiorentina during the International Champions Cup at Red Bull Arena on July 21, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.Paris Saint-Germain defeated ACF Fiorentina 4-2.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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France’s biggest rivalry has been quite one-sided, as Paris Saint-Germain defeated Marseille 2-1 on Sunday to take their ninth-straight Le Classique.

Marseille’s last win over PSG in Ligue 1 play was in November of 2011.

[ MORE: Juve win 14th straight ]

PSG got off to a dream start in Sunday’s Classique as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in the opening two minutes to give the Le Parisiens an early lead. It was Zlatan’s league-leading 21st goal of the season.

On loan from Newcastle, Remy Cabella equalized for Marseille in the 25th minute. Cabella scored on a brilliant individual effort, taking the ball from his own half on a solo run to the PSG box before firing a low shot into the bottom corner.

[ RELATED: Lewandowski’s agent confirms contract talks with Bayern Munich ]

However, PSG pushed on and claimed the win thanks to a 71st minute goal from Angel di Maria, who has been impressing in his first season in Paris. With eight goals and ten assists in Ligue 1 play, only Zlatan has been involved in more goals than di Maria.

Through 25 matches, PSG hold a ridiculous 24-point lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table.