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MLS Preview: Houston, Red Bulls hope for playoff push, Vancouver and Sporting KC battle for West supremacy

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With just four games left on the docket, teams around the playoff cut line are desperate for points. And yet, the top of the West remains wide open, with plenty of questions to be answered.

Things may look much clearer after this weekend, with lots of games that could provide space, or simply muddy the waters further.

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The marquee matchup sees Vancouver and Sporting KC meet each with a chance to take charge of the Western Conference, separated by just a point at the top. Neither has a realistic shot at the Supporter’s Shield, but a #1 seed could make a world of difference in the playoff picture.

Plenty of teams are simply fighting for a playoff spot, with the New York Red Bulls with a brutal trip to Eastern Conference leaders Toronto. New York is four points clear in the final playoff spot, but with Montreal taking on basement-dwellers Colorado, they’ll want to maintain the distance. On the other end, the Houston Dynamo host Minnesota United while sitting a point back of a playoff position, trailing FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake.

Here’s a look at this weekend’s MLS preview:


Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — Saturday, 9 p.m. ET

Either side has the opportunity to take control of the Western Conference as Sporting K.C. hosts current leaders Vancouver. With just one win in the last three, the Whitecaps have just a single point lead over the trio of Portland, Seattle, and KC all knotted up. Most recently, a 3-0 loss to Seattle has Whitecaps fans on edge.

On the other side, the hosts are rolling, unbeaten in four across all competitions including victory in the US Open Cup final, and with a pair of league wins in a row. They have outscored opponents 8-4 in that span, a relatively poor performance for the league’s best defense that will have to contain Fredy Montero and company.

Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls — Saturday, 7 p.m. ET

The Red Bulls are still safe for a week in a playoff position, but with a daunting task in front of them, a loss and other results elsewhere could leave them clinging to just a single point advantage.

They head to Toronto, where the home side has lost just once all season en route to a seven-point advantage in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the visitors will just want a result of some kind, currently four points above Montreal in the final playoff spot.

New York will feel they have a chance as Sebastian Giovinco will likely sit thanks to quad tightness, and Toronto has lost its last two with the Italian on the sidelines, although Jozy Altidore returns from a three-game absence of his own. He’ll look to take advantage of a recently leaky Red Bulls back line.

Chicago Fire vs. NYCFC — Saturday, 9 p.m. ET

A potential playoff preview sees NYCFC hit the road – where they’ve been vulnerable – to visit Chicago. The Fire have been just as vulnerable at home of late, with just one loss in its last four home games to go along with a pair of losses.

The Fire could see Bastian Schweinsteiger come back, having missed the last four matches with a calf problem, and his return matches that of a number of NYCFC midfield starters.

Both these teams are firmly in the playoff picture, and could meet down the road in the postseason. Now, their view is on a bye. Chicago sits in 4th with 51 points, while NYCFC is in a more advantageous spot with 55 points to put them in second.

Full MLS schedule (All Times E.T.)

Saturday

Orlando City vs. FC Dallas — 4 p.m.
Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls — 7 p.m.
New England Revolution vs. Atlanta United — 7:30 p.m.
Colombus Crew vs. D.C. United — 7:30 p.m.
Houston Dynamo vs. Minnesota United — 8:30 p.m.
Chicago Fire vs. NYCFC — 8:30 p.m.
Colorado Rapids vs. Montreal Impact — 9 p.m.
Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 9 p.m.
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Portland Timbers — 10:30 p.m.
LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake — 10:30 p.m.

Sunday

Philadelphia Union vs. Seattle Sounders — 1 p.m.

Blanc: I turned down USMNT talks

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U.S. Soccer has not been inactive when it comes to the USMNT coaching search, despite its uncertainty with an impending presidential election.

Le Parisien has an interview with Laurent Blanc in which the ex-Bordeaux, France, and Paris Saint-Germain boss says he was approached by the United States Soccer Federation, but was not interested in the gig.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

Blanc said an international job would have to touch his roots, and he’s most certainly not American. The tall 52-year-old had a glittering playing career with Saint-Etienne, Barcelona, Marseille, Inter Milan, and Manchester United amongst other stops.

More important, it shows that Sunil Gulati and his men have to some degree moved forward with keeping their imprint on the national team.

That’s a little worrying on any team: A hierarchy that may not be around much longer may be working to fill a position arguably more important than its own. It’d be nice to have them commit to not hiring anyone until after February’s election.

Premier League Preview: Everton vs. Swansea City

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  • Everton leads all-time 15W-9D-3L
  • BUT Swans unbeaten in 7 vs. Toffees
  • Toffees go ninth with win
  • Swans four back of safety

Everton hopes its up-turn in form can end three seasons of futility against visiting Swansea City when the two sides meet at Goodison Park on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Gylfi Sigurdsson gets a chance to face his former club for the first time, while longtime Swans man Ashley Williams may also feature for Sam Allardyce.

Swansea has no time to focus on the past, as Paul Clement‘s men sit deep in the drop zone. The last place Swans are four points shy of safety.

What they’re saying

Everton’s Ashley Williams on facing his former club (again)“The game is a little bit more important to me, I would be lying I said it wasn’t. You always want to play against your old teams and it’s a fixture you always look for.  I have been looking forward to this one and it will be nice to see old faces and old friends. It is a game we want to win and to keep a clean sheet in, especially at home, in order to keep our momentum going.”

Swansea City’s Roque Mesa on the match“This is a massive game for us. We need to pick up points because we are bottom and we need to improve our position. Everton have a new manager and their players have done very well under him – you can see their confidence has grown since he joined. But we did well against West Brom and picked up three points, which was very important. Then we faced Manchester City and they proved too good for us. They are the best team in the league, and unfortunately, we couldn’t match them on the night.”

Prediction

Swans need to move past that Man City loss and build on a 1-0 win over West Brom a few days previous. That may not be possible at Goodison, and the Welsh side would be thrilled to escape with a draw. It seems unlikely. Everton 2-1.

Report: Man City, Guardiola to discuss new contract this summer

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Manchester City does not want to let Pep Guardiola start the third year with the club without signing on for longer term.

Guardiola enters the third and final year of his deal in August, and the BBC reports that Man City plans to negotiate a new deal with the Catalan wizard this summer.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given City’s outstanding sophomore season under Guardiola.

Unbeaten City has an 11-point lead on the Premier League table after 18 weeks, with one draw and a PL record 16-straight wins. They have 56 goals scored, conceding just 12.

They’ve won five of six UEFA Champions League matches, only losing a match their opposition needed and they did not, 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. City faces Basel next, and visits Leicester City in the League Cup quarterfinals Wednesday.

Lanzini charged by FA for fooling ref with dive

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Manuel Lanzini dove to earn a penalty in West Ham’s 3-0 win over Stoke City on Saturday at the bet365 Stadium, and he may pay for it.

Lanzini, who also posted an assist in an influential performance, drew the penalty converted by Mark Noble when he hit the deck under minimal contact from Erik Pieters.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

He could miss two matches for “successful deception of a match official,” the same penalty given to Everton’s Oumar Niasse for a similar offense.

West Ham pulled out of the drop zone with the win, but has three bottom-half battles coming up over the festive fixtures: Saturday versus Newcastle, Dec. 26 at Bournemouth, and Jan. 2 versus West Brom.