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.

Juninho hoping Willian breaks his Champions League free-kick record

xxxx during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Southampton at Stamford Bridge on October 3, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.
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Willian has scored six goals for Chelsea this season, with all six coming from free kicks.

Four of those have been scored in the Champions League, as the Brazilian has tied the record for the most free-kick goals in a single UCL campaign.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]

Willian is tied with his fellow Brazilian Juninho, known as one of the deadliest set-piece takers of all-time, who scored four times for Lyon during the 2005-06 campaign.

When asked about the possibility of his record being broken, Juninho was glad it would be by another Brazilian player, and said Willian will likely surpass him in the coming matches.

It’s good it’s a Brazilian, and from this new generation of good players we have.

It is very gratifying for me because when I scored these four goals, no one said anything.

I’m being remembered by what Willian has achieved, and I think he has everything to beat the record. The Champions League has barely reached half way and Chelsea still have a few more games to play.

Willian has converted 6 of 12 free kicks this season, scoring at an unheard-of 50-percent clip. All of his goals have come from almost the exact same spot on the pitch, about 20-25 yards out at the corner of the box to the keepers right.

[ WATCH: Jamie Vardy scores in record 11th straight Premier League match ]

Chelsea’s next Champions League match is on December 9 at Stamford Bridge against Porto. The Blues need a draw to advance into the knockout round.

West Brom’s Jonas Olsson backs Zlatan for Premier League move

SOLNA, SWEDEN - NOVEMBER 14: Sweden 10 Zlatan Ibrahimovic durring a European Qualifier Play-Off between Sweden and Denmark on November 14, 2015 in Solna, Sweden.  (Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images)
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With his contract at Paris Saint-Germain expiring in the summer, where Zlatan will go next is one of the biggest mysteries in football.

Having already played in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France, the Premier League would be a logical next step in Zlatan’s career.

[ MORE: Aguero injury update ]

However, at 34-years-old, Zlatan himself has said it is “too late” for him to play in England, adding more mystery to where he will end up.

Despite what Zlatan says, his teammate on the Sweden national team Jonas Olsson believes the PSG striker is more than capable of playing in the Premier League.

Olsson, who has made nearly 400 appearances for West Bromwich Albion over the past eight seasons, said Zlatan’s elite talent would be fit for England’s top flight.

He’s still at the top of his game. He is the strongest player I have faced. I really hope he comes.

Zlatan on his day is the most talented footballer in the game. He has played under Mourinho before and the only place where he’s not 100% appreciated is in the UK.

I think he can play for any team in this league – he is still that good.

Even at 34, Zlatan has proven he is still one of the best strikers in the world. He recently became Paris Saint-Germain’s all-time leading scorer, and has scored at least 30 goals in each of the past four seasons.

[ VIDEO: Jamie Vardy speaks after scoring in 11 straight Premier League matches ]

The Premier League certainly has the money to entice Zlatan, and it is the biggest league in the world that he hasn’t conquered yet. Expect his name to be linked with a move to every major club in Europe for the rest of the year, as we’ll just have to wait until June and see what he decides.

Three questions ahead of Sunday’s MLS Conference Finals

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 22: Goal keeper Adam Kwarasey #12 of Portland Timbers slides in on Michael Barrios #21 of FC Dallas during the second half of the match at Providence Park on November 22, 2015 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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There are only two matches remaining before MLS Cup, with both conference’s top seeds in need of a big result.

FC Dallas lost to the Portland Timbers 3-1 in the first leg out West, while the New York Red Bulls fell 2-0 to Columbus Crew SC in the East.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Leg 2 of the Conference Finals will both be played on Sunday, as we will know the MLS Cup finalists by the end of the night.

WEST: FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET
EAST: New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew SC — 7:30 p.m. ET

With each home-side needing to overcome a two-goal deficit, here’s what to look out for in the Conference Finals.

Will FC Dallas capitalize on home-field advantage?

Despite being down 3-1 on aggregate, FC Dallas will be looking forward to Sunday’s second leg. Dallas finished the season 13-2-2 at Toyota Stadium, the best home record in MLS. After scoring a crucial away goal in Portland, a 2-0 win for Dallas will see the side advance to the final. Their 33 goals scored at home was the second-best mark in the Western Conference, as Oscar Pareja’s men will feel confident despite the aggregate.

[ VIDEO: USMNT’s Fabian Johnson scores twice for Monchengladbach ]

Is Norberto Paparatto ready to replace Liam Ridgewell?

Norberto Paparatto has played just six matches for Portland this season, but it looks like he’ll be starting on Sunday. Liam Ridgewell, who started all 32 matches at center-back, injured his calf in the first leg and manager Caleb Porter said Paparatto will “most likely” be starting, as Ridgewell was seen warming up separately from the rest of the team in training. With FC Dallas in need of goals, Paparatto will have his hands full on defense, especially with the likes of Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz bombing forward.

Can Luis Robles keep a clean sheet for RBNY?

The Red Bulls’ Luis Robles was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year this season, and he’s going to need to play like that on Sunday. After losing 2-0 in the first leg without scoring an away goal, New York needs a 2-0 win themselves just to force extra-time. If Columbus scores at Red Bull Arena, New York needs to score four goals to advance. While it will have to be a collective team effort to keep the Crew off the scoresheet, Robles will have to make some big saves in goal to keep his side in it.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona win big in another dominant performance

<> at Camp Nou on November 28, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.
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Catch up on all of Saturday’s La Liga action, as the trio of Messi-Suarez-Neymar continues to terrorize defenses.

Barcelona 4-0 Real Sociedad

In case you haven’t heard, Barcelona is scary good. Coming off of brilliant 4-0 and 6-1 wins over Real Madrid and Roma respectively, the Catalans trounced Real Sociedad at Camp Nou. It was the usual suspects once again, as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar (x2) scored the goals in another masterful performance. The M-S-N trio has accounted for 30 of Barcelona’s 33 goals in La Liga this season.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Espanyol

While the boys from Barcelona may be getting all the headlines, Antoine Griezmann has been having a great season for Atletico Madrid. The French international scored the game-winner in Atletico’s 1-0 win over Espanyol, his tenth in all competitions this season. The good news is that Atleti sit second on the table with a five-point lead over Real Madrid in third, while the bad news is that midfielder Tiago broke his leg in the match.

[ WATCH: Everton, Bournemouth trade late goals in stoppage-time thriller ]

Malaga 2-2 Granada

In a battle of teams fighting for La Liga survival, Granada came from behind to steal a draw at Malaga. The home-side was leading 2-0 until Granada tallied twice in the final ten minutes to take a huge point for the club. Malaga remains glued to the bottom of the table, while Granada is currently out of the drop zone on goal differential.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Levante 0-1 Real Betis
Las Palmas 0-2 Deportivo
Celta Vigo 2-1 Sporting Gijon
Getafe vs. Villarreal (Sunday, 6 a.m. ET)
Eibar vs. Real Madrid (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET)
Rayo vs. Athletic Bilbao (Sunday, 12:15 p.m. ET)
Sevilla vs. Valencia (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET)