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MLS Cup Playoffs: Atlanta hosts Crew, Whitecaps take on Earthquakes

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34 rounds of MLS action are in the books, and now the real fun is set to begin this week.

The MLS Cup Playoffs have arrived, and 12 teams are firmly in the running to hoist a trophy in December.

[ MORE: PST talks to Justin Meram ahead of the Crew’s playoff run ]

While Toronto FC, New York City FC, the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers will each have the opportunity to watch the first round from their homes, the action all starts on Wednesday and Thursday.

Here’s a look at what to expect when the knockout round begins.

Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls — Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Fire were one of the most intriguing stories for much of the regular season, but Veljko Paunovic’s side enters the postseason limping. Lucky for them, the Red Bulls have been just as inconsistent throughout the course of 2017 — which already saw Jesse Marsch’s club lose in the U.S. Open Cup final.

Paunovic and Co. have lost eight of their last 15 matches, which doesn’t bode well entering the home stretch of the schedule. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls have won just two of their last 10 matches. The Harrison side should be well-rested though for Wednesday’s encounter after starting a mostly second-tier squad in Sunday’s season finale against D.C. United.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. San Jose Earthquakes — Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. ET

The Whitecaps looked to be a sure-fire club destined for a bye in the first round, but things didn’t fall their way on Decision Day. Now, Carl Robinson’s side faces an Earthquakes side that is simply unpredictable.

The Quakes have the second-worst road record in the Western Conference when it comes to acquiring points — holding eight in points 17 matches. However, Chris Leitch has instilled a new-found belief amongst the squad that gives the California side a puncher’s chance.

Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew — Thursday, 7 p.m. ET

These two sides haven’t met since July 1, so all bets are off about these teams knowing one another. Since that point, Atlanta and Columbus have been two of the hottest sides in MLS and the former moved into a new stadium — which has given opposing sides quite the difficult time.

In their last 10 matches combined, the clubs boast just one loss, which Atlanta suffered at home against Minnesota United. There’s no reason not to expect a great one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC — Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET

Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC side enters the playoffs winless in their last five, while their counterparts are unbeaten in six. The MLS postseason is often about which team is in the best form at the right particular moment, and right now, it doesn’t look like Sporting KC has luck on their side.

It’s also hard to not pay attention to the fact that the Dynamo have lost just once at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2017, which came on September 9 against the Colorado Rapids.

Premier League preview: Man United vs. Newcastle United

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  • Red Devils unbeaten in 31 of last 32 home fixtures vs. Newcastle
  • Newcastle winless in its last six PL matches
  • Lukaku hasn’t scored in United’s last seven games

Manchester United hosts Newcastle United on Saturday from Old Trafford (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) as the Red Devils could potentially welcome back several of it biggest stars for the match.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Marcos Rojo could return for Jose Mourinho’s side this weekend, as Man United looks to bounce back from its 1-0 defeat to Chelsea on Nov. 5.

The ex-Sweden international Ibrahimovic hasn’t appeared in a match since April 2017, after being United’s top goalscorer a season ago.

The Red Devils will have to deal with the absence of Phil Jones at the back, though, as the England international misses out on the match with a thigh injury.

Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu and Jamaal Lascelles, which certainly hurts the squad’s attack, while Mikel Merino and Paul Dummett remain sidelined with respective injuries.

What they’re saying

Jose Mourinho, on Paul Pogba’s status:  “I can say now because he’s back – I don’t like to speak while he’s injured – you can clearly see there is a Manchester United this season before Paul’s injury and after Paul’s injury. There are qualities in our football, qualities that influence our approach in matches, with Pogba and without Pogba. Simple as that.”

Rafa Benitez, on growing pains of being a young side“We are a newly-promoted club that has to settle down in the Premier League. We have a young squad, so it’s a learning process for everyone and losing some games is part of the process. Hopefully we can stop that this weekend, but we know it has to be like this. We have to think that the target is to stay in the Premier League, then after try to go as high as we can in the table.”

Prediction

Newcastle has had its share of struggles this season, and running into a Man United side that is gaining full fitness is a dangerous task. The Red Devils are a tough squad to beat at home, so Rafa Benitez and Co. have their hands full. Man United 2-0 Newcastle

Luiz back in Chelsea squad after being dropped by Conte

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David Luiz‘s pair of stints at Chelsea have been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride of emotions — joyous highs and painful lows.

[ MORE: Pogba, Zlatan back form injuries; available this weekend ]

After returning to the club for a second time in the summer of 2016, Luiz instantly slotted into Antonio Conte‘s three-man backline and was a pivotal part of the Blues’ title-winning team last season.

Much like the second half of his first four seasons at Chelsea, Luiz’s second season (the second time around) has started so hotly. After playing eight of the first 10 games during Chelsea’s ongoing title defense, Luiz was unexpectedly dropped from the squad for the victory over Manchester United.

Now, two weeks later, Conte has announced that Luiz has rejoined the squad and is available for selection when his side visits West Brom on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold) — quotes from the Guardian:

“David Luiz is in the squad, yes. [His exclusion] was a technical decision. When it’s a technical decision every player has to react well and accept my decision. It’s normal, this.

“I like to speak about the team and the next game that we have to pay attention to. This is the most important thing, not speaking about a single player. I repeat: I don’t like to speak about a single player.”

Pogba, Zlatan, Rojo return from injuries for Man Utd-Newcastle

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The only saving grace when it comes to injuries is that, eventually (usually), players recover from them and return to the team.

[ MORE: 2018 World Cup Power Rankings — who comes out on top? ]

It’s been a long seven months for the soccer world to be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (torn ACL on April 20), just as it’s been a painfully long 10 weeks for Manchester United fans following Paul Pogba‘s hamstring injury on Sept. 12. Man United have dropped eight points during the latter’s absence and now coincidentally sit eight points behind Manchester City in the Premier League title race.

A bit of good news on this Friday: United manager Jose Mourinho announced today that the dynamic duo, along with defender Marcos Rojo (knee ligament damage on April 20) have returned to full fitness and will be available for selection during Saturday’s home clash with Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) — quotes from ManUtd.com:

“The players that stayed here and [were] recovering from injuries, even the ones that are recovering from big injuries, they are ready to play — Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.”

“[Ibrahimovic] made a full recovery. Now you cannot expect him to be ready to play 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all his career.

“Now he needs time to be back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything. But, from the clinical point of view, to be good and ready is fantastic.”

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 7 months B.W.C.

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209 days — that’s how long the world is still being made to wait for the opening game of the 2018 World Cup. It’s close, in that all 32 berths have been secured, but still so far, in that the draw is still two weeks away.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

Perhaps then, and only then, will it begin to feel really real.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — four clear-cut favorites for the semifinals have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, followed by another six or eight sides with one half of their squad firing on all cylinders but some serious kinks to work out elsewhere.

[ MORE: Round 1 of the WC power rankings | Round 2 ]

Finally, the latest edition of PST’s 2018 World Cup Power Rankings, now featuring all 32 teams qualified for Russia…

Team Points Best Worst
1 (1) Germany 189 1 2
2 (2) Brazil 188 1 3
3 (4) Spain 177 3 5
4 (3) France 176 3 5
5 (8) Argentina 158 4 10
6 (5) Belgium 156 4 10
7 (7) Portugal 153 6 10
8 (11) England 150 5 12
9 (6) Uruguay 141 6 14
10 (9) Colombia 140 7 12
11 (10) Mexico 129 8 14
12 (12) Poland 125 10 14
13 (20) Croatia 118 7 20
14 (17) Switzerland 115 12 16
15 (NR) Sweden 92 16 19
16 (NR) Denmark 86 13 23
17 (NR) Serbia 83 9 28
18 (NR) Peru 80 15 25
19 (15) Iceland 79 15 24
20 (16) Japan 71 16 27
21 (NR) Egypt 66 18 27
22 (NR) South Korea 64 13 32
23 (NR) Senegal 63 17 26
24 (18) Nigeria 58 15 27
25 (19) Costa Rica 57 14 29
26 (NR) Morocco 48 18 29
27 (NR) Australia 45 22 30
28 (NR) Russia 36 20 32
29 (NR) Iran 34 22 31
30 (NR) Tunisia 30 23 31
31 (NR) Panama 19 28 32
32 (NR) Saudi Arabia 9 31 32