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MLS preview: Contenders clash in NY derby, SKC-ATL, POR-LA

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Previewing the three biggest games (all on Sunday) this weekend, the first with video-assistant referee (VAR), in MLS…

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New York City FC vs. New York Red Bulls — Sunday, 6 p.m. ET

After ending up on opposite ends of separate 4-0 drubbings last weekend, the Red Bulls enter Sunday’s showdown at Yankee Stadium winners of four straight (and five out of six), far and away their best run of form this season after a torrid time in April and May. NYCFC, meanwhile, find themselves in the midst of indifferent form (just one win from their last four, conceding 10 goals during that stretch) the likes of which they’ve rarely seen this year.

The last time these sides met, a month and a half ago at Red Bull Arena, it was the visitors who ran rampant en route to a 2-0 victory. Since that defeat, the lone loss in five games, Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch altered his tactical approach, opting to go with three in the back, a loaded midfield with five bodies surrounding playmaker Sacha Kljestan, and Bradley Wright-Phillips the spearhead beneficiary (three goals in four games) of last year’s assist king (20) having his defensive duties drastically reduced. Wright-Phillips has an unbelievable scoring record in this Hudson River derby, bagging eight goals in seven games against the blue side of New York.

[ MORE: VAR to make its debut this weekend — what can we expect? ]

Sporting Kansas City vs. Atlanta United — Sunday, 8 p.m. ET

The post-Dom Dwyer era got off to a roaring start in KC last week, as Sporting knocked off the red-hot Chicago Fire thanks to an unexpected offensive explosion. With Dwyer no longer in the fold, Peter Vermes’ side is now able to play the expansive, possession-dominant soccer he’s coveted since the arrival of Ilie Sanchez last winter. The foundation remains the league’s best defense, though, (17 goals conceded in 22 games) now that Ike Opara is back from injury (concussion), as are Matt Besler and Graham Zusi following the Gold Cup. The month of August has proven Sporting’s undoing each of the last three years, as injuries and fatigue finally caught up to a hard-worked bunch. Contrary to popular demand, the rationing of minutes remains very heavily weighted toward the squad’s top 14 players.

As for Atlanta, they’ll attack with the same tempo and openness that ultimately proved Chicago’s undoing last week — it’s the only way they know to play, and it’s the reason their tied for most goals this season (41, level with Supporters’ Shield-leading Toronto FC). Unbeaten in five (four wins), Tata Martino’s can push the tempo beyond any opponent’s comfort level, even a control-crazed side like Sporting. In terms of entertaining soccer, this is the game of the weekend.

[ MORE: Miami (finally) close to stadium deal, expansion team ]

Portland Timbers vs. LA Galaxy — Sunday, 2 p.m. ET

Finally, let’s talk about two teams in need of a victory in the worst possible ways. Portland, winners of one of their last eight (four draws), host LA, winners of zero of their last six (five losses). Caleb Porter’s Timbers, by virtue of little more than their strong start to the season, currently occupy the fourth spot in a very weak Western Conference. By the time kickoff rolls around on Sunday, it’ll be nearly two months to the day since their last clean sheet.

With the clearly stated objective to get the Galaxy into the playoffs, Sigi Schmid has his work cut out after taking over for Curt Onalfo last week, as his new side currently sits seven points adrift of the sixth and final playoff place. The streak of eight straight seasons competing in the playoffs is in serious danger. Jonathan Dos Santos is highly unlikely to be available as he awaits his U.S. visa, which means another week of Jermaine Jones patrolling central midfield for the Galaxy. LA have won just nine points in the 11 games Jones has played this season (14 from 10 games without him).

Full MLS schedule

Saturday

D.C. United vs. Toronto FC — 7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Union vs. FC Dallas — 7 p.m. ET
Montreal Impact vs. Orlando City SC — 7:30 p.m. ET
Minnesota United vs. Seattle Sounders — 8 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution — 8:30 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Houston Dynamo — 10 p.m. ET
Colorado Rapids vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 10 p.m. ET
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Columbus Crew SC — 10:30 p.m. ET

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Saturday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.

Heynckes squashes Lewandowski rumors after Premier League rumors

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The English media – mainly the tabloids – has had a field day over the last 24 hours with rumors of a Robert Lewandowski move to the Premier League claiming, but the Bayern Munich manager is having none of it.

Jupp Heynckes told the German press during his pre-match press conference on Friday ahead of the club’s Saturday match against Hertha Berlin, “I can’t imagine there is a chance [the club executives] will sell Lewandowski.”

“Bayern is not a selling club,” Heynckes went on to proclaim. “They want to, and always will want to, keep their top players.”

The reports stated that Lewandowski was “flirting” with a move to the Premier League, and that while Manchester City and Chelsea were the more logical destination, Liverpool was actually the preferred landing spot as the Polish international was open to a reunification with former boss Jurgen Klopp, whom he worked with at Borussia Dortmund before his switch to Allianz Arena. Lewandowski’s contract at Bayern Munich currently runs through 2021, leaving the player with little say over his future.

While the rumors seem like a long shot, what does make sense is that, at 29 years old, Lewandowski doesn’t a ton of time left to convince a Premier League club he’s worth a heavy investment for the next couple of years. Many top teams – most notably Arsenal – are hesitant to sign players over 30 years old, and would be even less inclined to pay a hefty transfer fee for a player without a long future ahead of them. Manchester United just paid a cut-rate price for Alexis Sanchez, and while that was largely due to Arsenal’s position of weakness regarding the expiry of Sanchez’s contract, Sanchez’s age also partially contributed to that knocked down transfer rate.

Nonetheless, Bayern’s sale history is minimal, having only offloaded surplus players, such as defender Medhi Benatia this past summer, Mario Gotze back to Borussia Dortmund the summer before, and Xherdan Shaqiri to Stoke City in 2015.

Recently retired Ryan Mason receives standing ovation at Hull match

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Midfielder Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after suffering a fractured skull over a year ago, received a warm ovation at KCOM Stadium before Hull City’s match on Friday against Sheffield United.

Mason, just 26 years old, announced his retirement last week on the advice of medical professionals after over a year of rehabilitation from his injury in an attempt to return to playing. The Tottenham youth product was injured in an aerial clash with Chelsea defender Gary Cahill in January of 2017, and did not return to action.

“Ryan has sought the guidance of numerous world-renowned neurologists and neuro surgeons who have all advised that a return to competitive football is not advised,” Hull City said in a release after Mason’s retirement was announced. “Ryan would like to put on record his thanks to all at the club who have aided his recovery to this point and he his is indebted to them for their support and compassion over the past 12 months.”

Before Hull City’s match against Sheffield, an important one with Hull battling relegation, Mason was brought out on the pitch and received a warm reception from the patchy crowd.

As the club did after his injury, they put a message on the screen with the Twitter hashtag #OneRyanMason.

Mason picked up his first job since retirement over the weekend, commentating on Sky Sports in studio for a Championship match between Aston Villa and Preston North End, which ended in a 1-1 draw. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind – it’s been crazy. I’ve had a lot of messages and it’s been a lot to take in,” Mason said on the broadcast. “I’ve been quite positive throughout and I’m looking to the next chapter now.”It’s difficult [to accept]. For the last year I’ve been working as hard as I can to get back on a football pitch. But when you’re long-term health comes into it then it’s a lot easier. There is more to life than football.