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MLS Week 4 Preview: Portland flying, RSL depleted

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We’re just starting to see things take shape in Major League Soccer. The dangerous teams are clear, the middle of the pack is forming, and the struggling teams know it’s not too late to get a things going.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Week 4 is stretched out over this weekend and next thanks to the international break, so there are only three matches to get to on Saturday. Here’s the outlook:

New England Revolution vs. Minnesota United – 2:00 p.m. ET

There is just one point combined for these two teams through the first three match weeks. They are both bottom of their conference. A basement spot awaits the loser, and a revival awaits the winner. If there is one.

A lot is on the line with these two clubs as they meet in Foxboro. It’s early enough in the season where three points can vault a team halfway up the table, completely alleviating any fears of impending doom. However, it’s at the point where should a team lose this match, the alarm bells begin to go off for fans.

Minnesota, already struggling to begin the season, has been ravaged by the international break and will be without Rasmus Schuller, Kevin Molino, Johan Venegas, and Francisco Calvo. That said, if there’s any time to have a number of players missing, it is nice to have it come against a struggling team like New England who has yet to score a goal from open play yet through two matches. Will New England strike against the lack of opposition depth to spark their goalscoring efforts?

New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake – 4:00 p.m. ET

RSL has to get things going, and they need to do it fast. Unfortunately, they visit an Eastern Conference might as New York welcomes the cross-country travelers with six points already in hand to Salt Lake’s one. To make matters worse for the visiting side, they’re ravaged up and down the roster. Nick Rimando and Albert Rusnák are on international duty, Kyle Beckerman is suspended for his silly red card, and Joao Plata is injured along with Jordan Allen. Tack on the questionable tags for Justen Glad, Aaron Maund, and David Horst, and the outlook is bleak for RSL. Oh, and they just fired their coach too.

That leaves interim coach Daryl Shore little to work with, and they’ll take on a strong New York team that presses hard. Sacha Kljestan struggled in last week’s loss to Seattle, but this team is known for its ability to bounce back. Bradley Wright-Phillips could have a field day if he gets the service, or even if he doesn’t.

Columbus Crew vs. Portland Timbers – 7:30 p.m. ET

For me, this is the best game of the three. Portland is considered by some to own the best attack in the league, and they’ve shown it through three games, scoring 10 goals against a relatively soft opening schedule. Columbus, meanwhile, picked up three points from a two-game road trip and is back home looking to prove that last year’s struggles are a thing of the past. We still don’t know exactly what to expect from the Crew, but we sure do know what’s coming to town, and that’s the Timbers’ red-hot attack duo of Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi.

22-year-old rookie Alex Crognale made his debut for Columbus last week and contributed heavily to the Crew’s clean sheet. He will be tested heavily should he earn himself a second start. Jonathan Mensah is back from his red card suspension and will add to the defensive abilities. Still, it will be a tough test for Columbus, one which would provide an enormous boost should earn all three points.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday