Author: Richard Farley

Matt Hedges, Olmes Garcia

WATCH LIVE: FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake kick off MLS weekend

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In our weekend preview, we billed this as the league’s hottest team against its best. One of those titles has to give tonight. Either FC Dallas stumbles and offsets the momentum it’s build over three undefeated months, or Real Salt Lake shows we’ve been too generous in donning them Major League Soccer’s best.

If that seems like such a negative way to look at tonight’s match (9:00 p.m. Eastern, NBC/Live Extra), consider it from the other, more positive point of view. Imagine Dallas, picked by so few to push for a playoff spot, takes three points tonight. Óscar Pareja’s will have a signature win, one that would advertise them as more than playoff contenders. Beat RSL, and you can beat anyone.

With the star power FC Dallas has at its disposal, you can see Pareja’s team pulling it off. Fabián Castillo, our reigning Player of the Week, is unplayable, right now. Mauro Díaz is one of the league’s most creative midfielders, while rookie Tesho Akindele has started to emerge up top. With new captain Matt Hedges (pictured) in control at the back and Michel’s near-unmatched ability on set pieces, the Toros have a collection of enviable talents, ones that make them legitimate threats come November.

And what about the defending Western Conference champions? Now even on points atop the conference, Real Salt Lake are rounding into form, overcoming their uncertain summer months to recapture their former selves. Get a result in Frisco, and RSL starts to look like favorites to reach a third MLS Cup final in six years.

Credit goalkeeper Nick Rimando for that longevity. Add the names of defender Nat Borchers, midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Javi Morales to the list, too. They’ve been there throughout the run, as have Tony Beltran, Chris Wingert, Ned Grabavoy, and general manager Garth Lagerwey. Along the way, the team has picked up talents like Chris Schuler and João Plata, both making claims for Best XI spots this season. When Álvaro Saborío returns from his foot injury, RSL may be the team to beat in Major League Soccer.

Those are the real stakes tonight: Which team can seize this moment? Though nearly a third of the season is left to play, tonight’s win could give either side a boost.

For Dallas, that boost would come in the form confidence – knowing they can compete at the top of the standings.

For RSL, the win would be further validation: The team is ready to defend its conference title.

Lineups, one that see neither Díaz nor Morales make the game day squad:

FC Dallas: Raul Fernández; Je-Vaughn Watson, Zach Loyd, Matt Hedges, Jair Benítez; Fabián Castillo, Adam Moffat, Victor Ulloa, Andres Escobar; Blas Pérez, Tesho Akindele

Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert; Luke Mulholland, Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy; Luis Gil; João Plata, Robbie Findley

MLS Weekend Preview: Trio of marquee matches begins Friday in Frisco

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Saturday’s schedule contains another disappointing MLS cluster — four games kicking off within 30 minutes of each other* — but considering how the weekend’s biggest games are spaced out, the next three days couldn’t have worked out much better for those who don’t overdose on Major League Soccer. If you’re a league looking to highlight the playoff push, you couldn’t ask for more than the West’s best (right now) on Friday, the East’s on Saturday, and the league’s premier rivalry to end the show.

* – Other leagues around the world do this. Maybe they should think about changing things up, too.

The first of those games kicks off tonight on NBCSN (and NBC Sports Live Extra), where John Strong, Russ Thaler, and Stu Holden are on hand to ring in the MLS Weekend. Here’s your preview:

(All rankings reflect the team’s current place in PST’s Major League Soccer PRs.)

#3 FC Dallas vs. #1 Real Salt Lake, Friday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN (NBC Sports Live Extra)

The hottest team the league versus the best? The latter title is debatable. The former is not.

FC Dallas, undefeated since May 31, has changed the conversation. Instead of people asking whether they can make the playoffs, they’re debating how far Dallas can rise. Perhaps the Toros don’t have the same slew of proven talents they’ll face Friday night, but they have Fabián Castillo (right), arguably the most dangerous player in the league, right now. They have Mauro Díaz, one of the most dangerous players in the league this spring. And perhaps most importantly, they have confidence, coming off a 5-0 dubbing of San Jose.

Looking at Real Salt Lake’s defense, there’s no clear answer. Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler are the league’s best central tandem, but heaven help them if they’re in the open field against Castillo. Tony Beltran’s good, but seeing him get turned by Kenny Cooper last week doesn’t inspire confidence one-on-one. Without traditional wide midfielders to help, RSL’s fullbacks seem destined to be isolated against Castillo.

Jeff Cassar will have to come up with something, or perhaps this is a time where the team’s characteristic, sometimes stifling control can take over. For much of Saturday’s match against Seattle, RSL held over 60 percent of the ball (the number settled at 58). Tomorrow in Dallas, possession may be the visitors’ best defense.

TEED UP FOR SUCCESSsource: Getty Images
#11 New York Red Bulls vs. #18 Montréal Impact, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Some much needed rest for Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and Bradley Wright-Phillips (right) ends with a visit from one of the league’s weakest teams – a match that should serve as a transition back into the weekly routine. With Columbus, Philadelphia, and Houston looking more spry in the East’s playoff race, a postseason return is destined to be hard fought. New York needs to make the most of this easy spell.

Montréal is coming off a slump-busting win, but the performance wasn’t a convincing one. They did the bare minimum needed to beat one of the worst teams in MLS, earning a 1-0 home win that felt more like an obligation than an accomplishment.

This is a game New York has to win. Not because the math says so, and not because there’s any finality to the result. But if you can’t beat Montréal at home, there’s no reason to think you can do anything else.

source: AP

#8 Toronto FC vs. #19 Chicago Fire, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Much like New York, Toronto gets a great transition game on Saturday, only instead of moving on from a week off, they’re trying to put last Saturday’s result behind them. The 4-1 scoreline at Kansas City may have exaggerated the divide between the teams, but it was still a three-goal loss.

Jermain Defoe should be back. Michael Bradley (right) has shaken off his World Cup phase. Steve Caldwell and Mark Bloom are returning to a defense that gave its kids valuable minutes in their absence. Even in the wake of last week’s set back, Toronto is primed to solidify its hold on third.

As for Chicago’s part, some version of this might work:

This is a game New York Toronto has to win. Not because the math says so, and not because there’s any finality to the result. But if you can’t beat Montréal Chicago at home, there’s no reason to think you can do anything else.

Granted, a Toronto loss will feel more like a slip than an indictment of the team’s chances (that’s New York’s world). Regardless, there’s no reason to lose a home game to Chicago.

#9 Columbus Crew vs. #14 Houston Dynamo, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

There’s a way of looking at each game that boils the matchup down to series of questions: How will Real stop Castillo? Can Toronto shake off last week’s loss? How quickly will New York click after its time off?

The questions for Columbus and Houston are clear. For the Crew, it’s a matter of harnessing whatever they did against Los Angeles and bringing it back to the field.  Twelve shots on target (a season high), and four goals past Jaime Penedo (the most LA’s conceded this year). Is that the real Columbus Crew?

For Houston, it’s a matter of showing constant improvement – building on the progress they showed last Friday against Philadelphia, and taking the show on the road. With a stiffer challenge against a fully rested squad, is Houston a viable playoff contender? If so, they’ll at least keep it close.

#16 New England Revolution vs. #15 Chivas USA, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Despite its slump, New England has four points from its last two home games, both against Western Conference foes. In gallup the Goats, another transcontinental guest, to give the Revolution hope. With a win (one they really should get), the Revs could finish the weekend in the East’s top five. Remarkable.

For Chivas USA, the concern is Mauro Rosales; or, rather, what his departure means for the team. One of the team’s two best players — one whose experience and work commands respect — has been shipped to a playoff contender for a spare part. Even if the locker room knew this was coming, it’s not exactly a move that inspires confidence.

source: Getty Images

#2 Sporting Kansas City vs. #6 D.C. United, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern

Between Friday’s game in Dallas and Sunday’s Cascadia Derby, this battle at the top of the East is in danger of being overlooked, though the real reason may have more to due with United than what’s happening around this match.

Out of respect for what they’ve done, nobody’s talking about it, but it’s clear very few people think D.C. United’s a real Cup contender. The team’s record, goals for, and goals allowed all say this team’s for real, but the names on the team sheet leave room for doubt. There are no game-breaking stars, while the team’s secondary numbers (like being out-shot on the season) suggest there’s room for regression. Ultimately, people look at D.C. United and see a team playing over its head.

Saturday presents and opportunity to prove those people wrong. Whatever’s happened to this point in the season will see a whole new life if Ben Olsen’s team can win at Sporting Park.

Do so, and United jumps to first in the East, their game-in-hand providing the team an extra edge during their surprising resurgence. Fall, and Kansas City crafts the gap most critics expect to develop.

source: AP

#4 LA Galaxy vs. #7 Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern

For the second time in eight days, Vancouver visits StubHub Center, only instead of facing a forgiving Chivas USA, Saturday’s opponent is a Galaxy team looking to recapture its groove.

Going into last weekend’s game in Columbus, LA was the best team in the league. Then came a 4-1 loss, after which they fell behind 3-1 at Colorado on Wednesday. The team roared back in the second half, leaving Commerce City with a  4-3 result, but a new air of vulnerability accompanies the team back to Carson.

Vancouver received their own wake up call of sorts last weekend. At least, let’s hope the Whitecaps’ 0-0 creates a sense of urgency. Carl Robinson’s team is too talented to be dropping needed points at Chivas USA, and while the Goats again showed they can be troublesome, it’s the type of troublesome a young, growing, improving team should be able to navigate at this point of the season. That Vancouver couldn’t makes you wonder if they’re destined to be passed by Portland.

source: AP

#10 Portland Timbers vs. #5 Seattle Sounders, Sunday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2

Speaking of Portland, people are already camping out at the gates of Providence Park for what could be a turning point in the Timbers’ season. After a slow start, Caleb Porter’s team has clawed itself to the edge of the West’s top five, but the signature win that would proclaim the team true playoff threats has been elusive.

Three points on Sunday would give them that win, one that would simultaneously send Seattle into a tailspin. Over five games (or, seven, depending on how you see it), the Sounders have done their best to rekindle 2013’s woe. Looking decidedly second best against Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake, Seattle’s on the verge of a minor identity crisis, one that would see the one-time MLS Cup favorites transform into consumed by its doubts.

Given how Seattle’s season ended last season (eliminated by its rivals), a win by the Timbers would deal some major damage. At a minimum, it would become the latest, most relevant reminder the 2013 is not so far in the distance.

A loss at Portland, and things get real.

#12 Philadelphia Union vs. #13 San Jose Earthquakes, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Univision Deportes

Last week’s battle of counterattacking sides was blown open by Fabián Castillo’s first half goal, one that gave FC Dallas room to complete their Santa Clara romp. Unfortunately, this week’s battle of the possession adverse doesn’t feature a Castillo, or anything close to a player with that kind of explosive talent. On Sunday in Chester, two teams who are fine playing without the ball may try to wait each other out.

Just like last week’s game in the South Bay, the key all be an early goal. If that happens, we’ll get a watchable game, one where one club will look to exploit the opportunities provided by an pursuing opponent.

Without that early goal, a good over-under for shots on target would be 3.5. Particularly if Philadelphia reverts to their possession-ready, goal-deprived ways, this could be … a subtle one.

Early Mandzukic goal sees Atlético defeat Real Madrid, claim Spanish Super Cup

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Atlético Madrid has collected its second honor in four months, with today’s win at the Vicente Calderón providing further proof that last year’s upstart La Liga champions intend to provide a staunch defense of their title. Carrying a 1-1 scoreline into today’s second leg of the Supercopa de EspañaAtleti successfully defended a second minute goal from Mario Mandzukic, holding Real Madrid to two shots on target during their 1-0 (2-1, agg.) victory.

The result gave Atlético its second Super Cup, it’s first win since 1985, and its fifth honor under Diego Simeone. Hired by Atlético in Dec. 2011, the Argentine boss has pushed the club to the top of the Spanish game, a status affirmed by today’s win over the European champions.

The game’s only goal came after a pair of Atlético long balls sought to challenge Real Madrid’s defense in the opening minutes. The first led to a shot for Raúl García, missed wide, while the second produced a shock opener.

On ball from goalkeeper Miguel Moya, Mandzukic elevated into a challenge with Rafael Varane at the edge of Atlético’s attacking third. The subsequent ball, played forward by Antoine Griezmann, set up Mandzukic for an open chance just inside the penalty area, with the quick transition from end-to-end leaving Iker Casillas helpless in goal. The finish into the lower left hand corner gave the home side the game’s only lead.

That lead allowed Atlético to leverage its organization at the back, a trait that kept Real Madrid without a shot on target for the game’s first 25 minutes. The Merengues final attempt on Moya came from Cristiano Ronaldo just past the hour, though even the introduction of the Portuguese star, held out until halftime, couldn’t turn the match. Real Madrid, contained throughout, seemed as likely to concede as equalize.

The likelihood almost played out in the 49th minute ,when a Koke restart from the left found García in front of goal. His close range shot nailed the bottom of the crossbar before bouncing just in front of Casillas’s goal line. A quick recovery by the Real Madrid keeper allowed him to palm the ball away, keeping the Spanish Cup winners within one.

As the drama played out, Simeone was looking on from the stands, having been ordered from Atlético’s bench near the mid-point of the first half. After confronting the fourth official regarding a delay in allowing an injured player’s return, referee David Fernández sent Simeone to the dressing room, with the Atleti boss emerging in the stands behind the bench for the second half.

After Atlético’s early chance, the rest of the second half was characterized by the conflict more than the potential. At one point, Xabi Alonso was left clutching the back of his head, having felt the bottom of an Atlético player’s boot. A hard challenge from Sergio Ramos nearly ended Raúl García’s night late, while commentators spent part of the game’s final moments debating whether Cristiano Ronaldo had punched a player while attempting to play a corner kick. When Luka Modric picked up a second yellow card in stoppage time, the half had it’s signature moment – a player who’s yet to see red in league play for either Tottenham or El Real given his marching orders amid the passion of this preseason competition.

That passion was again felt at the final whistle, with the Calderón reacting as if the team had made it through a Champions League knockout round. Given the opponent, the stakes felt similar. Though the Supercopa is just a preseason trophy, it’s one that has recently become a chance to claim an advantage, if only a mental one.

With today’s win, Atlético have some justification in thinking they, not their more affluent rivals, are the team to beat this year. Not only are they defending Spanish champions, but they’ve taken the first honor of the season.