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.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.