MLS Preview: Seattle Sounders FC vs. Real Salt Lake

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• Seattle Sounders FC is on a 12-game unbeaten streak at home, which is the longest in club history. However, Real Salt Lake has been the best road team in the league this season and the only club with a positive goal difference away from home.

• Seattle has a 7-0-2 record in games with attendances of 40,000 or larger — and a 5-0 tally in front of more than 55,000. As of Wednesday, 52,000 tickets had been distributed for the match, one of a small number in which all of CenturyLink Field is opened up.

• Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando could all play part in the game after international duty with the United States, while Alvaro Saborío is out with a calf strain suffered with Costa Rica. Brad Evans is still questionable with his calf injury.

It doesn’t get any better than a game in which the winner takes first place. That’s what Seattle Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake will play for on Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Salt Lake has been near the top of the table all season, but Seattle has won seven of its last nine games and joined the Utah club at the forefront of both the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings. RSL seems to have bounced back from its most difficult part of the season, winning the last two games after losing three of five.

At one point, the Sounders had four games in hand on RSL, but they were also in eighth place in the nine-team conference at the time. Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid commonly brushes away mentions of games in hand, saying that they’re not guarantees of anything because the team still needs to win them.

But it can only help if Seattle manages to take all three points against RSL — or even if it doesn’t. It should provide a fairly pressure-free atmosphere for the Sounders, knowing that first place is well within reach even if they lose or tie. Of course, that won’t make anything less than a win feel any better, but it should allow the players to play without fear.

What they’re saying

Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid on the occasion: “It’s a massive game next week from that standpoint — from the standpoint of the standings — and hopefully, we can do what we did against Portland and sell this place out again and fill it up because it’s a game you don’t want to miss.”

Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis on the expected crowd: “This is, I think, a little bit special, if there’s going to be 60 [thousand people] rather than the typical 35. Apart from all of that, it’s still first place versus second place in our conference, so it’s a huge match. Even if there was no crowd, I think our guys would be up for it.

Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning on playing Real Salt Lake: “RSL [games] are always good games. We’ve built up a little rivalry, and it’s fun to play against these guys because it’s a very good team, too, and of course, they want to take the Supporters’ Shield, [and] we want to take the Supporters’ Shield.”

Prediction

If the crowd is as massive as expected, it will be difficult to keep the Sounders from winning their fifth game in a row and extending their home run to 13 undefeated. Regardless of how good RSL is on the road, CenturyLink Field is one of the most difficult atmospheres in the league, and its unique mixture of a raucous crowd and a turf surface that Salt Lake is unaccustomed to point to Seattle’s first regular-season win over RSL since May 28, 2011.

England international Delph expecting child in middle of World Cup

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England international Fabian Delph could face quite the dilemma if England advances past the group stage of the World Cup.

Delph’s wife Natalie is expecting the couple’s third child on June 30, which is two days after their pivotal group stage match against Belgium, and two days before the squad would take the field July 1 for its Round of 16 game should they win Group G. If they finish second in the group, they would play their Round of 16 game on July 3.

When asked what his plans are, Delph joked that his wife would manage on her own. “She’s tough, she’s a Yorkshire lass so she’ll deal with it,” Delph said with a smile.

He then coughed up the truth: they’re not quite sure what the plan is.

“We’re not 100% certain, with a game on the 28th there might be an opportunity to fly back and then get back fast,” he said. “[England manager] Gareth [Southgate] has been fantastic. There’s nothing more important than family to me – family always comes first and always will.”

There’s another dilemma that Southgate must navigate involving Delph. The 28-year-old is a natural winger, but played wing-back in Pep Guardiola‘s title-winning system for much of the year and saw a massive uptick in form in the new role, playing in place of the injured Benjamin Mendy. Southgate must decide where he wants to deploy Delph – if at all – and if he wishes to fit his formation and tactics to mold Delph’s season under Guardiola.

Authorities drop assault charges against Hope Solo

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KIRKLAND, Wash. (AP) — Prosecutors in Washington state have dropped domestic violence charges against former U.S. national team star goalkeeper Hope Solo.

Solo was charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault in 2014 after police said she assaulted two family members at a home in Kirkland, east of Seattle. The case was delayed by appeals.

KING-TV reports that city prosecutors dropped the charges Wednesday, saying the witnesses in the case wanted to move on with their lives and did not want to participate in a trial. An attorney for Kirkland, Melissa Osman, wrote in court documents that the circumstances were unlikely to be repeated.

The longtime national team goalkeeper and two-time Olympic gold medalist recently ran unsuccessfully for president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. She has called for equal pay and equal treatment for the U.S. women’s team.

Mark Hughes signs new long-term contract at Southampton

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Mark Hughes has gone from Stoke City outcast to Southampton savior in little under six months time.

The Welsh boss was let go from Stoke City with the Potters 18th in the table and headed towards eventual relegation, but he was picked up by fellow relegation candidates Southampton after the departure of Mauricio Pellegrino. He steered the club to safety, finishing three points above the drop in 17th.

With the Saints in the top flight for another season, the club has announced the signing of Hughes to a new three-year contract.

“Mark, Eddie and I are thrilled to have signed long-term contracts with the club. It was the only option we considered, having spent the last eight weeks with the club,” Hughes said of himself and his assistant coaches Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki. “Now it is vital that we take the unbelievable support we received from the fans during the last few games into next season. The staff and the players will work hard every day to deliver the success this club deserves, and with everyone pulling together we will achieve our goals.”

Hughes guided Stoke City to three consecutive ninth-placed finishes, the highest the club had ever finished in the English top flight, but they finished 13th last year and regressed even further this campaign. The sale of playmaker Marko Arnautovic was particularly damaging, and the club scored just 35 goals in 38 games as a result.

At Southampton, Hughes took over a club that sat in 17th with just eight matches to go. He lost three Premier League games in a row to start his tenure and only won two league matches with Saints the rest of the way, but managed to keep the club barely afloat.

Reports: Arsenal nearing deal for Lichtsteiner on free transfer

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According to multiple reports in England, including the BBC, Arsenal is looking to sign Juventus right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner on a free transfer this summer, potentially becoming the first signing under new manager Unai Emery.

Lichtsteiner is out of contract at Juventus this summer, having been with the club since 2011. Lichtsteiner has played in Italy since joining Lazio in 2008.

The Swiss international will captain his country at the World Cup this summer in Russia and will earn his 100th cap in his second match at the event.

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Lichtsteiner has been a mainstay in a Juventus squad that has won seven consecutive Serie A titles, but at 34 years old has been slowly phased out. He has made less than 30 Serie A appearances each of the last seasons, despite a nearly spotless bill of health since undergoing heart surgery in October of 2015. Last season, Lichtsteiner completed just nine full 90 minute performances, including just three after November. Lichtsteiner may have had an even smaller role this most recent campaign had Mattia de Sciglio not struggled with injuries for much of the season.

The Gunners have Hector Bellerin as the club’s main right-back, with the Spaniard leading the squad in total minutes played this past season. However, Bellerin’s level of performance has regressed considerably since proving one of the best young Premier League players in his first full season in 2015/16.

Lichtsteiner has also been linked with a move to Borussia Dortmund, where Lukasz Piszczek mans the right-back spot, but talks between the clubs reportedly broke down.