MLS Preview: Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids

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• The Colorado Rapids (12-8-9, 45 points, third place in Western Conference) and Portland Timbers (10-5-14, 43 points, fifth place) are separated by the thinnest of margins in the Major League Soccer standings.

• Both teams explode in the second halves of games, with the Timbers scoring 30 out of 44 (including 14 in the last 15 minutes) and the Rapids putting away 24 out of 37 of their goals in the second period.

• Will Johnson has scored in both meetings between the clubs this year: a 2-2 tie in Denver on March 30 and a 3-0 Timbers win in Portland on June 23.

If the Portland Timbers defeat the Colorado Rapids on Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN), they will vault back into third place in the MLS Western Conference, with a game in hand on the Rapids. With only two wins in its last 10 games, Portland has an opportunity to begin solidifying a playoff spot with less than 10 matches left.

As the Timbers get more players back from injury, they can begin to regain some early-season form that saw them rattle off 15 games without a loss. Will Johnson and Diego Chará are back to marshal the midfield, and Diego Valeri and Jack Jewsbury should be able to play some part on Friday, although head coach Caleb Porter would not say how much after training on Thursday.

Johnson and Chará have been able to rekindle their partnership in the last two games, completing a combined 226 of 255 passes against Chivas USA and Toronto FC.

On the flip side, Colorado has only lost once in its last 12 games, surging up the table after three previous losses in a row left it on the wrong side of the red playoff line in the standings. U.S. 2010 World Cup forward Edson Buddle (pictured) has scored in three of the last four games, taking over some of rookie Deshorn Brown’s burden.

Another rookie, Clint Irwin, has anchored the team in goal, tying the club’s single-season shutout record with 10 after an early injury to Matt Pickens caused a panic in the Mile High City. The Rapids have put together some impressive results during their hot streak, defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy at home and on the road and the Montreal Impact away.

What they’re saying

Timbers midfielder Will Johnson on regaining the team’s form: “We have to be a little more clinical in and around the box — attacking, set pieces. We just don’t seem to have that hunger in front of goal right now, and if you’re going to make mistakes at the back and give up goals, you’re going to lose points.”

Rapids defender Drew Moor on the playoff push: “It’s coming down to the point of the season where we need to show our best because you don’t just want to scrape into the playoffs and not be playing well because the playoffs is a whole different picture. Even in our unbeaten run … I’ve walked off the field thinking we can do more.”

Portland head coach Caleb Porter on climbing the table: “You can be worried so much about what’s beneath you that it starts pulling you down, versus … looking at the teams above you and hunting them. I actually like the position we’re in. I wish we were in a better position, but the fact that we’re in position to make the playoffs — above the red line — and a couple points off the teams that are ahead of us, I think means we’ll be aggressive and hungry.”

Prediction

The MLS season is coming down to the wire, to the point where being in good form actually matters, and Portland and Colorado are heating up — especially the Rapids. Portland is a hostile environment, but if any team in the league right now has a chance to take points at JELD-WEN Field, it’s Oscar Pareja’s men. At the same time, the Timbers are starting to get players back and trying to rebuild its rhythm. However, it’s too soon for Portland to be firing on all cylinders, which Colorado has been doing for the past month.

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 seven matches to go. He lost three Premier League games in a row to start his tenure and only won one league match 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.

[ MORE: Tottenham target trio ]

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.

Report: Lampard leading candidate to succeed Rowett as Derby County boss

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According to John Cross of the Daily Mirror, former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard is in the pole position to win the Derby County managerial position left vacant after Gary Rowett left to take charge of Stoke City.

Lampard has been linked to a host of lower-league managerial jobs over the past six months, but has either resisted those offers or been passed over for other candidates. In January, Lampard confirmed he had interest from League One side Oxford United, but said he did not feel ready to begin his managerial career.

“I don’t know what the route will be – there are plenty of different routes to become a top manager and I am working there [at Chelsea with the U18s] now to get towards that,” Lampard said in January. “You can’t just step out of something and think you can become a manager, you have to practice a lot. Thankfully Chelsea and the academy are helping me get my hours in and I am watching training at certain Premier League clubs and studying as much as I can so down the line, I hope so [to become a manager one day].”

Just four days ago, Lampard was also mentioned in connection with the open Ipswich Town position, interviewing with the club twice according to Sky Sports.

Now, The Mirror says that Derby County is in the mix for Lampard, and that he is at the top of the club’s shortlist. Lampard, who sits as Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer, has been working as a TV analyst since retiring in 2016 following a short move to Manchester City and a stint with MLS club NYCFC.

Derby has been competitive in the Championship for a number of seasons now, but the Rams have just missed out on Premier League promotion on numerous occasions. They finished sixth this past season but blew a 1-0 semifinal lead to Fulham after the first leg. They also lost in the playoff semifinals to Hull City back in 2016, and lost in the playoff final to QPR back in 2014 after a third-place finish in the table.

Championship Playoff Final preview: Fulham vs. Aston Villa

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Imagine playing in a single game where your performance over 90 minutes means the difference between over $300 million for your club or at least another year in the lower leagues.

That’s what is estimated to be on the line as Fulham and Aston Villa meet at Wembley on Saturday in the Championship playoff final at 12 p.m. ET hoping to earn the final spot in next year’s Premier League campaign.

Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce will be searching for an unprecedented fifth Championship promotion after previously guiding Birmingham City and Hull City to the top flight on multiple occasions. He is 2-0 in the playoff final, having won it previously once with each former club, taking Birmingham City to the Premier League in 2002 after defeating Norwich City in a penalty shootout, and earning the victory with Hull City in 2016 via a 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. Players Sam Johnstone and Robert Snodgrass have both won playoff finals before as well.

Fulham, meanwhile, has experience of its own on the touchline, as boss Slavisa Jokanovic has taken Watford to the top flight previously, finishing second in the Championship in 2015, but he has never experienced a playoff final before.

The Whites appear to be in the better form, having nearly ended the season in historic form with 24 straight unbeaten, but lost on the final day of the campaign, missing out on automatic promotion by just two points. They play a possession-based style under Jokanovic, and while it’s taken a while for the team to grasp the tactics, they look as deadly as ever. However, the last few games have exposed the team yet again, with the loss to lowly Birmingham on the final day before a 1-0 loss to Derby County in the first leg of their playoff semifinal, a scoreline which they turned around in the second leg at home.

The Fulham midfield duo of Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen has a claim to be the best pairing in the Championship over the past two seasons, and they anchor Jokanovic’s setup behind playmaker Tom Cairney. The club brought embattled Newcastle striker Aleksandr Mitrovic to London in January, and he’s brought a cutting edge to an attack that was just missing a target man up front. Young winger Ryan Sessegnon, who just turned 18 years old on Friday, has been the club’s most heralded player, and could move to a top Premier League side this summer, especially if the Whites fall at Wembley this weekend. Finally, USMNT defender Tim Ream has led the defensive improvement of a club that conceded 83 goals three seasons ago to halve that this campaign.

They’ll take that attacking prowess up against one of the league’s most pragmatic opponents, as Villa finished the regular season with the third-fewest goals allowed and shut out Middlesbrough across both legs in the semifinals. They feature former Chelsea defender John Terry anchoring the back line, and he partners with experienced 29-year-old James Chester who has played under Bruce before at Hull. Terry himself has won five separate trophies at Wembley Stadium, experience he will surely share with the squad.

Villa’s most dangerous player this season has been Albert Adomah whose blistering pace down the right has been something for opponents to deal with. However, he’s hit a cold streak, without a goal since scoring in a 4-1 win over champions Wolves back on March 10th.

Villa is looking to go back to the Premier League after relegation two years ago, while Fulham has spent four years in the second tier after being sent down back in 2014.