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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.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group D: Argentina and Chile aim for first place

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after his teammate Gabriel Mercado scored his side's second goal against Chile during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, Thursday, March 24, 2016. (AP Photo/ Luis Hidalgo)
AP Photo/ Luis Hidalgo
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Argentina

Runners-up in three of the last four Copa America tournaments, Argentina would love to break through for a title in the United States. The 1991 and 1993 winners are going on 23 years without a championship.

Star player: Lionel Messi — What else needs to be said for the world’s best player, other than his international record is missing some titles. The Copa America is one of them.

It goes well for them if they play within any reasonable distance of their talent. With Javier Mascherano, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina run through the group stage and cruise to a final.

But what if Messi is just drained, and neither Aguero and Higuain carry over their club form for country. Second place in this group is no waltz through the knockouts, as Uruguay knocks out the Argentines and cue up more questions about Messi in his national team uniform.


Chile

Alexis Sanchez (below) and La Roja look to build on its first ever Copa America crown, won on home soil last summer in somewhat controversial fashion.

Alexis Sanchez
AP Photo/Martin Mejia

Star player: Arturo Vidal — Yes, Alexis Sanchez might deliver shots, but Vidal stirs the drink. The tempestuous midfielder has everything it takes to turn a game on its head.

Deep from top to bottom: Chile powers through Argentina and then lays waste to Bolivia, able to rest many stars against Panama before beating Group C’s runner-up to set itself up for a repeat of its 2015 title run.

A combustible lineup and aging core combine to leave Chile struggling after a big loss to Argentina. Unable to gather itself together, the Chileans stumble to a draw against Bolivia that leaves them Group D’s runner-up and the victim of Uruguay in the knockout rounds.


Panama

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 20:  Carlos Rodriguez #4 of Panama celebrates with teammate Anibal Godoy #20 after Rodriguez's second half goal during the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal game against Cuba at Georgia Dome on July 20, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

This is a sneaky capable unit coming off a third place finish in the Gold Cup.

Star player: We’ll tap Jaime Penedo, perhaps the lynchpin of a veteran squad. The longtime New York Red Bulls keeper now calls Saprissa his home.

Now is the time for Panama’s experienced core to do big things; Blas Perez, Luis Tejeda, Gabriel Gomez and Felipe Baloy are likely on the end of their national team runs, and San Jose’s Panamaniacs connection of Alberto Quintero and Anibal Godoy — at 28 and 26 — are two of the younger parts of the unit.

But age is a factor when it comes to tournament play, and can Panama possibly outlast either Chile or Argentina? It’s unlikely.


Bolivia

HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 6: Goalkeeper Romel Quinonez #1 of Bolivia makes a save on a corner kick as in front of Theofanis Gekas #17 of Greece during the first half of an international friendly match at Red Bull Arena on June 6, 2014 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Surprising quarterfinalists last summer, Bolivia sits second-last in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualification table. Their only wins since late 2014 have come against Venezuela (2) and Ecuador, and there are a total of just 15 international goals in their 23-man squad.

Star player: Romel Quiñónez — The goalkeeper from Bolivar is set to get a lot of work.

This tournament goes well if: Bolivia handles Panama and manages a draw against Argentina or Chile.

But in all honesty: There will be growing pains for La Verde this summer in the U.S.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group D, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Argentina and Chile thrive, Bolivia and Panama battle for third.

Marquee match: Argentina vs. Chile, June 6. No explanation needed.

Top players to watch

1) Lionel Messi
2) Arturo Vidal
3) Sergio Aguero
4) Angel Di Maria
5) Alexis Sanchez

Copa America 2016 preview, Group C: El Tri looks to build; Can Uruguay deal without Suarez?

FBL-CONCACAF-GOLD CUP-MEX-CRC
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Mexico

El Tri hopes to rebound from a difficult 2015 Copa America that saw them fail to win a match. Top Three appearances in the tournament were once the expectation for Mexico, and being closer to home will raise expectations. And rightly so, as this Mexico team is still in the midst of a very good generation of players.

Star player: Andres Guardado — The PSV Eindhoven midfielder can control a game like a wizard, weaving the ball through back lines and seemingly always in the right place on the pitch.

What a run: Mexico hasn’t lost a single match its 2015 Copa America ouster at the hands of Ecuador, a 17-match stretch that includes a sound defeat of the USMNT in the CONCACAF Cup and a draw against Argentina. With Javier Hernandez and Oribe Peralta firing, Mexico has it in them to make a run to the final. Oh, and El Tri hasn’t allowed a goal in six matches.

But are they sheep in wolves’ clothing? Mexico may be on an incredible run of form, but that win over a moribund U.S. isn’t much to love, and those 17 matches include a pretty weak slate of opponents. Are Mexico’s last few Copa Americas (11th and 12th place finishes) more indicative of its 2016 fate?


Uruguay

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Edinson Cavani will be the star man in the group stage as Uruguay attempts to win its second tournament in three tries. La Celeste have won four Copa Americas and been to six finals.

Star player: Diego Godin — With Luis Suarez’ entire tournament in question, defense is a back part of Uruguay’s hopes. Godin will likely earn his 100th cap during the tournament. With the Atletico Madrid back might be coming off a UEFA Champions League final, and confidence could be a key part of Uruguay’s back line.

And here we go… La Celeste leads CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying through six matches, and Uruguay looks primed to succeed despite the potential loss of Suarez through the group stage. They can navigate that problem thanks to Diego Rolan, Abel Hernandez and Edinson Cavani, and shouldn’t have any trouble with a this group.

But Suarez, though: Yes, Uruguay has depth, but replacing a man who scored 59 goals in 53 games for Barcelona this season? Woof. See what happened when Neymar was injured late in the World Cup for Brazil. Star injuries can sap a team’s courage, and that could hurt Uruguay.


Jamaica

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - OCTOBER 13:  Simon Dawkins of Jamaica competes for the ball with Kim Kee-Hee of South Korea during the international friendly match between South Korea and Jamaica at Seoul World Cup stadium on October 13, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Three straight 1-0 losses saw the Reggae Boyz bounced from the 2015 edition of the tournament, their maiden voyage at Copa America.

Star player: Wes Morgan — Talk about momentum: Jamaica’s strong Gold Cup run worked almost seamlessly into his fairytale season in the middle of Leicester City’s back line.

Coming into its own? After several years off the radar, Winfried Schafer has Jamaica looking capable of doing well in a tournament setting. With a good group of backs including Morgan, Adrian Mariappa and Kemar Lawrence, it’ll be tough for anyone to break down the Reggae Boyz.

All a mirage: Jamaica’s surprising Gold Cup run might’ve been a red herring. Jamaica has lost four of seven matches since Mexico bounced them in controversial fashion.


Venezuela

Venezuela's national soccer team pose for a group photo prior a Copa America Group C soccer match against Brazil at the Monumental stadium in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, June 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)
(AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

Los Llaneros have the misfortune of being in the deep, deep confederation on CONMEBOL, but that doesn’t excuse a brutal year. After beating Colombia to kickoff the 2015 Copa America, Venezuela has won exactly one game. That was a 1-0 win over Costa Rica, and the national team has been dealing with controversy and internal strife.

Star player: Salomon Rondon — West Bromwich Albion’s big striker can turn a defense on its heels with powerful turns and good use of his frame.

Underdog story of a lifetime: With wily veterans making what could be their last runs for the national team, Venezuela sneaks through a winnable group by out-muscling Jamaica and Mexico while battening down the hatches against Uruguay. The world takes notice.

But really, though…  We’d be talking about the tournament equivalent of a Leicester City season. Three-and-out.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group C, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Mexico, Uruguay going through; Jamaica and Venezuela going home

Marquee match: There will be no Luis Suarez come the opener against Mexico, and Arizona will be raucous for El Tri. Circle June 5 on your calendar.

Top players to watch

1) Andres Guardado
2) Edinson Cavani
3) Javier Hernandez
4) Salomon Rondon
5) Diego Godin

Klinsmann praises Nagbe: “He knows he has to push the envelope”

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Pedro Larrea #15 of Ecuador reacts as Nagbe Darlington #10 of the United States celebrates with Christian Pulisic #17 of the United States after scoring against Ecuador during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images
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Breaking into a Jurgen Klinsmann side isn’t easy, especially for an attacker.

With the United States men’s national team boss quite happy to trot out Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and — when healthy — Jozy Altidore, becoming a regular isn’t easy.

So making the most of your opportunity is key, and Darlington Nagbe has done that most times he’s hit the pitch for the USMNT.

[ USMNT-ECUADOR: Match recap | Player ratings | 3 things ]

And scoring a 90th minute winner against Ecuador, even in a 1-0 friendly win, is going to help his odds of sticking in the coach’s mind. Klinsmann said Nagbe “knows he has to push the envelope”, and lauded him for doing so while cautioning that he’s never questioned the offensive acumen of Portland Timbers’ man.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“Now you also want to tell him ‘Listen, you’ve got to make an impression. You’ve got to learn to play both ways and grind it out defensively, go into 1v1s and win balls as well,’” Klinsmann said.

“And that’s just going forward. He has tremendous talent with the ball at his feet going forward. That’s what we enjoy in MLS every weekend. But the international side is both ways, and that’s what we’re working on. And he’s getting better and better at doing that.”

Nagbe was among a handful of U.S. players to shine during a dominant second half that saw the Timbers midfielder snare the decisive goal, and it’s not a stretch to say he was the brightest. Let’s hope to see him get a chance to start on Saturday against Bolivia.

Lukaku will listen to Everton but “I have my own ideas in mind

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 11: Romelu Lukaku of Everton arrives for the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Everton at the Stadium of Light on May 11, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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Romelu Lukaku‘s future looks to be away from Goodison Park.

The big Belgian striker authored 25 goals across all competitions this season, including 18 in the Premier League.

[ MORE: Zlatan has “taken a decision” ]

But as he prepares for the Euro 2016 tournament, Lukaku’s comments make it seem likely that even new investments from up high aren’t going to keep him on Merseyside.

From Sky Sports:

“We have a new investor at Everton and out of courtesy I will listen to what he has to say. But I have my own ideas in mind. I want to win titles.

“I have had a very good season, but it is time for me to write myself a CV. That is why I play football. I got that trophy-winning mindset from Chelsea.”

Lukaku would be a big ticket item on the transfer market, and should go for more than the $41 million price tag Everton paid to get him from Chelsea.