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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.

CONCACAF Champions League gets reboot; MLS benefits

Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey, right, clears the ball away from Club America midfielder Rubens Sambueza (14) during the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League soccer quarterfinal, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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Changes to the CONCACAF Champions League will benefit Major League Soccer in a big way.

Long requested by MLS, the North American league will only have to send its clubs to the CCL for the final four rounds, which will be home-and-away affairs.

Previously, clubs competed in a group stage from August to October, then joined the knockout rounds in February.

[ MORE: Transfer window names to watch ]

While MLS sides may still be just starting their seasons and have to contend with clubs who have been playing meaningful games, they will also be less likely to draw successful Liga MX sides in the Round of 16.

All of the details are here, but here’s a simplified takeaway:

— The 16 teams that qualify for the CCL, which will begin in February, will include four U.S. teams, one Canadian team, and four Mexican teams.

— The next six sides will be the Caribbean Club Championship winner and the champions of Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama.

— The remaining side will win its spot via a new tournament which includes 13 Central American teams and three from the Caribbean.

For those of us hoping to see an MLS side in the Club World Cup, the odds will become better come the 2018 CCL. As for this year, MLS will again have to deal with the split season.

Ten names to watch in Premier League transfer window

BERGAMO, ITALY - DECEMBER 11:  Franck Kessie of Atalanta BC in action during the Serie A match between Atalanta BC and Udinese Calcio at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on December 11, 2016 in Bergamo, Italy.  (Photo by Dino Panato/Getty Images)
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National team veterans from France, England, and Spain are in a 10-man mix of players we think could have big impacts on the fortunes of teams in the Premier League this January transfer window.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

10) Lassana Diarra, Marseille — Twice in London, the French-born midfielder is said to be interesting Manchester United and Valencia amongst others.

9) Leonardo Ulloa, Leicester City — The pressure doesn’t get to the Foxes’ 30-year-old striker, who has scored plenty of big goals for Leicester City. Might he be the perfect bench piece to push a team into the second half of the season? Spanish side Alaves have reportedly had a $2 million bid rejected by Leicester.

8) Phil Jagielka, Everton — Older, yes, but the English national team veteran could be just what the doctor-ordered for relegation candidates and lower-half sides looking for a PL-experienced CB.

7) Victor Lindelof, Benfica — His arrival at Old Trafford went from Tomorrowland to Lost in recent weeks, but Jose Mourinho could still act to bring in the center back before the summer.

6) Scott Hogan, Brentford — The Championship striker isn’t quite as prominent in the rumor mill as Jordan Rhodes was last season, but the 24-year-old could be a promising buy for a PL side. West Ham is said to have the inside track.

5) Goncalo Guedes, Benfica — As for Lindelof’s teammate, Guedes was tipped to join Manchester United with his center back. Will another side jump into the fray before Guedes joins Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford? Paris Saint-Germain is said to be interested.

4) Franck Kessie, Atalanta — The defensive midfielder has chipped in six goals for his Serie A side, and has been the major reason for Atalanta’s run into the top half.

3) Robert Snodgrass, Hull City — The Scottish wizard has been a big part of what little success has come the Tigers way this season, but West Ham and several other Premier League sides are tempting Hull.

2) Alvaro Morata, Real Madrid — He starred for Juventus last season and triggered a Real Madrid return. Slowed by an Achilles injury for much of this season, he’s been tipped for a summer move to Chelsea. If it can happen then… why not now? The Blues could order the title confetti if they landed the Spanish striker.

1) Dimitri Payet, West Ham United — Yes, we’re tired of his act — and reading about it — but Payet is a game-changer who could inject excitement into any offense in the world. If Marseille wants him, it had better pay up.

Transfer rumor roundup: Man City after two backs; Zelalem to Holland?

NAPLES, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 17: Napolis player Faouzi Ghoulam vies with Bologna FC player Simone Verdi during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and Bologna FC at Stadio San Paolo on September 17, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)
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Here are your transfer rumor headlines on a day when Gerard Deulofeu moves to AC Milan and Lazar Markovic heads to Hull City on loan.

[ MORE: Three players leave USMNT camp ]

Two Premier Leaguers could be heading down to help the Championship leaders. Newcastle United is said to be close to bringing Andros Townsend back from Crystal Palace after just a half-season, while Swansea City’s Mo Barrow is also on Rafa Benitez‘s radar.

An Arsenal blog says USMNT prospect Gedion Zelalem may have found his loan destination. The 19-year-old could be leaving the Emirates Stadium for a loan stint at VVV Venlo, with the Dutch side sitting first in the second tier and in a promotion push.

The Manchester Evening News brings reports of two backs on the radar of Manchester City. Rai Sport is the source for Man City’s interest in Napoli left back Faouzi Ghoulam, who has six assists in 21 appearances for Partenopei between Serie A and the UEFA Champions League. Pep Guardiola may also want to be reunited with Juan Bernat, though that story comes from the wild swings of The Daily Mirror.

Sunderland is going to lose one of its two brightest lights in a dark, dismal season. The Black Cats have taken a lot of calls on Jermain Defoe, but it’s Patrick Van Aanholt who is on the move to rejoin Sam Allardyce at Crystal Palace. The Dutch standout is said to be purchased for $15 million, and would be the equivalent of a transfer six-pointer in the Premier League’s relegation race.

Report: West Ham turns down another Payet bid

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14:  The Dimitri Payet of West Ham United sign is seen outside the stadium prior to the Premier League match between West Ham United and Crystal Palace at London Stadium on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
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West Ham United has rejected a third bid for wantaway midfielder Dimitri Payet, according to Sky Sports.

Marseille upped the ante to $28 million when it comes to the French midfielder, who has said he wants to go back to the club for “family reasons“.

[ MORE: Three players leave USMNT camp ]

Payet was given a $1.2 million loyalty bonus from West Ham earlier this season, but has continually tempted the rumor mill. He’s also winked at Arsenal.

He has 15 goals in parts of two seasons with the Irons, the same figure he boasted in two full years with Marseille. Payet has also played Lille, Saint-Etienne, Nantes, and AS Excelsior.

It’s been a rocky month for Payet, who could be doomed to purgatory at West Ham. Will any Premier League suitors come calling at the Irons’ $38 million asking price.