MLS Preview: Sporting Kansas City vs. Philadelphia Union

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• Sporting Kansas City is three points behind the New York Red Bulls at the top of the East. The Philadelphia Union, meanwhile, has dropped out of playoff positioning but sits just six points underneath the third-placed Montreal Impact.

• Kansas City has won three of its last five matches, while Philadelphia has lost three of its last five and is winless in that time period.

• The Union has not scored a goal in a club record 310 minutes, and forward Jack McInerney has not scored since putting away his team-leading 10th of the season on June 1 against Toronto FC.

Although no teams in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference are safely in the playoffs yet, Sporting Kansas City has one of the most comfortable cushions, sitting nine points above sixth place. When it takes on the Philadelphia Union on Friday (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Kansas City will face a team on the opposite end of the spectrum, desperate for points.

Philadelphia climbed as high as second place on several occasions in 2013, but it currently finds itself in seventh out of the 10-team conference, outside the playoffs. Losing three of its last five and only scoring one goal, four games ago, in that time has seen the Union plummet from third place before that streak to its current position.

Talismanic striker Jack McInerney, who still holds the team lead in goals and the league lead in game-winning goals, has not scored in nearly three months. Strike partner Conor Casey has not scored in six games.

On the other end of the field, Kansas City seems to be clicking at the right time. It has three wins in its last three and four in its last six, despite losing Kei Kamara to Middlesbrough of the English Championship. The team has scored 10 goals in the last six games, coming from six different players.

C.J. Sapong (pictured) has taken up the torch with Kamara’s departure, scoring three goals in the last two games. He scored twice in a 2-1 win over Toronto FC in his team’s last game.

Including two games against Philadelphia, Sporting only takes on one team currently in a playoff position between now and the end of the season. With one game in hand on the first-placed New York Red Bulls, who have a tough test at Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday, the top seed is still within Kansas City’s grasp.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, would likely be happy to play an extra one-off game, if it means the Union qualified for the playoffs.

What they’re saying

Union head coach John Hackworth on the team’s 1-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo last week: “It has been a really bad stretch for us, and this night is going to be a really difficult to accept. There is no question that effort of the group was fantastic, and their competitiveness showed right from the get-go. They put a lot into this game, and it is unfortunate that we are sitting here, talking about this result, but that’s sports, and as I said, it’s cruel sometimes.”

Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes on C.J. Sapong’s recent tear: “He’s physically dominating in the game, and that’s what we need from him because he is that player. And now he’s doing it in training. If he keeps on that, it’s going to make things very strong for us moving forward.”

Philadelphia captain Brian Carroll on what it takes to make the playoffs: “What I remember from the teams I was a part of that managed success is that we believed in ourselves; we didn’t get swept up in outside talk. We can’t afford to do that now. … I feel like a group that we have here can pull that together, can do that in the last five games of the season.”

Prediction

Brian Carroll might believe in his team’s ability to turn things around, but this will be a tough time to do so. Kansas City has been rolling, and Sporting Park is a difficult place to get a result even when the home team plays poorly. It’s hard to see Philadelphia getting any points out of this game.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Fekir negotiations back on; Chelsea waiting on transfer targets; and more

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Could Liverpool get its star attacking midfield target after all?

That’s what seems to be the case, as the agent for Lyon and France midfielder Nabil Fekir told French TV channel LCI Monday evening that negotiations aren’t over between Liverpool and Lyon.

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“He didn’t sign because um… it is not over! This is not the end of the story,” Fekir’s agent, Jean-Pierre Bernes reportedly said.

It was just two weeks ago when Lyon president Jean-Michael Aulas stated that Fekir, Lyon’s captain, would remain with the club for the upcoming season, after negotiations with Liverpool fell through. According to the Liverpool Echo, the Reds wanted a second opinion on a previous knee injury, and had balked at the $70 million price tag.

But now it appears Liverpool and Aulas could still be in conversations to try and find a mutually accepted fee.

At the same time, stirring up transfer drama is in Bernes interest, as it could drive other teams into the race to sign Fekir and raise his transfer fee, meaning more money to him, Fekir (if he gets a cut) and Lyon. Watch this space for more to come during and after the World Cup.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from across the Premier League and Europe:

(more…)

Japan upsets ten-man Colombia in Group H opener

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On paper, the 61st-ranked team in the world beating the 16th-ranked team in the world is a massive upset. But considering the circumstances within the game, perhaps this wasn’t an upset after all.

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Two set pieces were the difference as Japan defeated ten-man Colombia, 2-1 on Tuesday morning in Saransk. Colombia played with ten men for nearly the entire match, after Carlos Sanchez was sent off for a handball in the box and a denial of a goal scoring opportunity.

The game took a massive turn in the third minute, as Colombia centerback Davinson Sanchez failed to control a pass and Yuya Osako found himself free on goal. His shot was parried away by Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina but Kagawa’s rebound shot was clearly blocked by Sanchez’s right arm. The referee, Damir Skomina immediately pointed to the penalty spot and went to the back pocket, sending Sanchez to the showers.

Kagawa stepped up and cooly sent Ospina the wrong way to put Japan on top.

Late in the first half, after both teams had chances on target, Colombia came back and evened the scoreline.

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Juan Fernando Quintero, starting in place of the recovering James Rodriguez, smartly took a free kick and fired it low, under the wall as it jumped. Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima reacted late and although he arrived as the ball was crossing the line, he couldn’t keep it from going over, tying the game in the 39th minute.

Ultimately, despite its efforts, Colombia began to tire and on a corner kick, the Blue Samurai took back the lead and control of their destiny in Group H. A corner kick from Keisuke Honda was re-directed past Ospina by Osako, who jumped well over Santiago Arias, to give Japan a 2-1 lead in the 75th minute.

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Rodriguez was introduced in the 57th minute but try as he did, Colombia was unable to find the final pass in the box, and Japan held on for the unexpected victory.

With the win, Japan top Group H ahead of a meeting with Senegal, while Colombia will have to regroup to face Poland.

In a World Cup full of unexpected results, Tuesday brought yet another memorable win for an underdog.

New Zealand women footballers rebel against national coach

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Wellington, New Zealand (AP) Only weeks after New Zealand Football made headlines by signing a revolutionary equal pay deal with its female players, the organization is facing a mutiny by members of its women’s team against the national coach.

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New Zealand Football confirmed on Tuesday it had received a letter signed by a number of New Zealand players complaining about the methods and tactics employed by Austria-born coach Andreas Heraf.

The complaints follow the New Zealand team’s recent 3-1 loss at home to Japan. Heraf angered his players, and fans of the Football Ferns national team, by taking an entirely defensive game plan into the rare home international.

Heraf then further angered his players with comments defending his approach.

He said there was “a big difference in quality” between the New Zealand and Japanese players and that New Zealand “will never have that quality” to compete with top teams like Japan. He said the scoreline might have been 8-0 if New Zealand had not adopted a defensive approach.

One of New Zealand’s leading players, United States-based Abby Erceg, retired after playing 132 matches for New Zealand, citing Heraf’s approach in previous international matches.

She later told New Zealand media: “I couldn’t stand to wear that (national symbol) on my chest any more when his vision was to cower in a corner and not get beat by too much.”

New Zealand Football defended Heraf against the media and public criticism but admitted his comments were “strange” and “wrong” and did not accurately reflect his views. Heraf later apologized and said he had not expressed himself clearly.

But efforts to dampen the controversy have failed. New Zealand Football said in a statement it had “received a letter from the NZ Professional Footballers Association (NZPFA) last night with a number of complaints from the players of the Football Ferns.”

The mutiny comes only weeks after New Zealand gained international headlines for a deal which gives female pay parity with their male counterparts.

New Zealand Football signed the deal which provided female players with equal match payments, travel arrangements and prize money.

At the time, New Zealand women’s captain Ali Riley said the deal meant New Zealand would “be able to compete against the top teams, to be able to do well at a World Cup and the Olympics – this is what we needed.”

VIDEO: Colombia sees red, Japan takes early lead

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The first red card of the World Cup came just moments after fans took their seats in Saransk.

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After David Ospina blocked a breakaway opportunity from Yuya Osako in the third minute of the match, Japan star and former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa fired the rebound on goal. But his shot was blocked by the arm of Colombia midfielder Carlos Sanchez, which earned him a straight red card from referee Damir Skomina and an early trip to the locker room.

Kagawa then stepped up to the spot and calmly sent Ospina the wrong way to give Japan the shock early lead.

Colombia will play the rest of the match with ten men and no James Rodriguez, who was named to the bench for this match as he recovers from a reported calf injury.