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Top 5 Premier League Storylines: Merseyside Derby, Blues travel to Palace

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As the Premier League season nears its halfway point, it’s time to start separating the real contenders from the pretenders as Chelsea continues its impressive run atop England’s top flight.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Merseyside encounter holds significant weight

Everton vs. Liverpool — Monday, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Entering the weekend, 11 points separate Liverpool and Everton in the PL, making a Toffees victory all the more important at Goodison Park. Fresh off of their 2-1 win against Arsenal, the Toffees could use a string of victories as the holiday season approaches if Everton is to catch the league’s elite once more.

Liverpool sits six points behind Chelsea at the summit, but Jurgen Klopp‘s side continues to fight through injuries to remain firmly in the mix. After stumbling against Bournemouth and West Ham, the Reds got back on track with a dominating win over Middlesbrough.

Which club will halt the Blues?

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea — Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Wednesday’s victory over Sunderland extended Chelsea’s unbeaten run to 10 games in the PL, and now the question remains: which team will be the one to stop Antonio Conte‘s side?

While the club’s wins as of late haven’t been overly-impressive, Chelsea holds a six-point lead atop the PL after Arsenal’s stumble against Everton on Wednesday. Conte’s switch to a three-back system continues to pay dividends for the Blues, who have allowed just two goals in 10 matches.

Meanwhile, Palace has won just once in its last 10 fixtures, as Alan Pardew‘s side have stumbled to 16th place after a hot start. Since the Eagles last won against Southampton, Palace has fallen to Manchester United and settled for a draw at Hull.

Gunners look to rebound against Citizens

Manchester City vs. Arsenal — Sunday, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN

With the gap slowly widening at the top of the table, a loser in this weekend’s contest could be in a world of trouble. The Gunners need to rebound quickly following their defeat against Everton, and their task against Manchester City doesn’t get any easier.

The Citizens came back from their disappointing loss to Leicester with three points against Watford, but Arsene Wenger‘s side will be gunning for the Light Blues as they meet at the Etihad Stadium. City will still be without top scorer Sergio Aguero and midfielder Fernandinho, both of whom are suspended, which makes Pep Guardiola‘s task much more difficult.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (L) of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester United at Selhurst Park on December 14, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Surprise Baggies meet United

West Bromwich vs. Manchester United — Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

The Baggies could become the West Ham of a season ago after their strong first half of the PL season. While aspirations of replicating Leicester’s dream season are likely far-fetched, West Brom will certainly present a challenge for United, who has been up and down in Jose Mourinho’s first season.

Despite United’s struggles, the Red Devils are unbeaten in seven straight PL matches, giving Mourinho’s men a lift in spirits as the critical juncture of the season continues. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic firing once more and Paul Pogba‘s play improving in the central midfield, United can start to make its way back into the title conversation with a victory at The Hawthorns.

Relegation battle heats up

Middlesbrough vs. Swansea — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET available online
Sunderland vs. Watford — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC

With one win in their last six, Middlesbrough has fallen into a rut, while Swansea has struggled mightily in Bob Bradley‘s short tenure in England.

Meanwhile, Sunderland remain at the bottom of the table through 16 rounds of play but a recent upswing in form gives the Black Cats an opportunity to climb out from last place. Despite losses to Swansea and Chelsea as of late, Sunderland faces a tough task against a Watford side that sits mid-table.

 

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr named NWSL league MVP for 2017

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CHICAGO (AP) Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr has been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player for this season.

Kerr, a standout on the Australian national team, had a league-record 17 goals and became the league’s fifth Golden Boot winner to also be named MVP.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

She became the first NWSL player to score four goals in a game on Aug. 19 against the Seattle Reign. Kerr rallied Sky Blue from a 3-goal deficit to beat the Reign 5-4.

Kerr’s award was announced Friday. The league had earlier announced the season’s other award winners: North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year, teammate Ashley Hatch was named Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year and the Thorns’ Mark Parsons was named Coach of the Year.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.