MLS Preview: Donovan, Galaxy kick off weekend with California Clasico

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In the wake of the World Cup, Major League Soccer’s season stops for now one, not even itself. Though the All-Star game was on Wednesday, the league is back in action on Friday, with retiree-to-be Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy welcoming the San Jose Earthquakes to StubHub Center (on NBCSN).

With big matches in Columbus, Dallas, Salt Lake, and Vancouver, here’s a preview of MLS’s nine-match, weekend schedule:

LA Galaxy vs. San Jose Earthquakes, Friday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN

This could have happened, in a former life. Like earlier today, when I woke up, and momentarily misunderstood the day’s biggest news:

Me: I don’t even know what to write.
Friend: Good, but pretending for a moment that I actually care what you do, why do you say that? What happened?
Me: Other than Landon Donovan, nothing, I suppose, but tomorrow’s NBCSN game is still going on, and I need to come up with something. My blurb is going to be surreal.
Friend: Somehow, I doubt it.
Me: It’s not like we haven’t seen LA play without him. It’s that they’re never going to play with him again. Insane …
Friend: Richard.
Me: … I mean, they have Ishizaki, and they can bring Husidic back into the lineup. And I guess if Dunivant is alright, Rogers can move back into the midfield …
Friend: Richard?
Me: But I don’t even remember what the Galaxy were like before Donovan. In-freakin’-sane. Now they really need Zardes …
Friend: RICHARD!
Me: Screw it. I’m just going to embed Kyle Martino’s entire timeline.
Friend: Will you just stop? Landon Donovan did not retire today, okay? He’s playing until the end of the season.
Me: Wait. What? When did this happen?
Friend: It happened below the headline. Did you even read that part?
Me: No. Never. (Long pause.) So LA’s just gonna win, then.
Friend: Yes, LA’s just gonna win then. Now log off, you moron.

Well, they aren’t just going to win, but everything points in that direction. At the moment, LA’s the best team in the league, and while San Jose is coming off two strong wins in a row (5-1 over Chicago; 1-0 over Seattle), visiting the in-form Galaxy could prove one of their most difficult games of the season.

If LA’s for real, it wins this game. Regardless, we’ll get to see how the StubHub crowd reacts to Thursday’s shocking news.

[ RELATED, Donovan: Twitter reacts | Garber, too | Need to move on | LA w/o LD, Becks ]

Philadelphia Union vs. Montréal Impact, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Speaking of games teams should win, say hi to Philadelphia. For most of the year, they’ve been okay, but now they’re on the verge of being good, with a surge up the East’s table since their coaching change leaving Jim Curtain’s team on the edge of the playoffs. With Montréal in town, the Union have a chance to turn up the heat on Columbus and New England – teams straddling the postseason line in the Eastern Conference.

Given how Montréal played last week, there’s no reason to think the Impact will offer much resistance. One day, however, a team with a decent amount of talent will shake their funk. Coming off a mid-week win in Champions League, Saturday may be that day.

source: APColumbus Crew vs. Toronto FC, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Federico Higuaín and Mix Diserkud in the same midfield? Yeah, and I think we’d all be okay with that. Even if Columbus continues to desperately, perhaps hopelessly needs a striker, a three-man middle of Higuaín, Diskerud, and Will Trapp? Woof.

Unfortunately …

[tweet https://twitter.com/APrecourt/status/497210550741651456]

Think that will make it a little more bitter when Michael Bradley (right) comes to town? Toronto has their nice, shiny U.S. international, whereas Mix Diskerud’s dad kept the Crew’s at Rosenborg?

Subplots aside, these are two of the teams fighting at the edge of the East’s playoff picture – the tenuous place between the Supporters’ Shield contenders (Sporting, D.C. United) and the teams in pursuit (New England, Philadelphia).  In fifth place, the Crew needs this result more, but the last time the Reds came to Columbus, they left with full points.

source: APFC Dallas vs. Colorado Rapids, Saturday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern

Successful beyond expectations, FC Dallas is this year’s Colorado, the 2013 team that make an unpredicted push into the West’s playoffs. Doubted all season, the Rapids never faded from the top half of the conference, with Óscar Pareja (right) earning Coach of the Year consideration after his team reached the postseason.

In 2014, recent history’s repeating itself, only instead of merely making the playoffs, Dallas is gearing up to have an impact in November. Fabián Castillo has returned from suspension. Mauro Díaz is slowly returning to match fitness, while injuries at the back have revealed some new options, like Zach Loyd in the middle.

Dallas has already beaten Colorado once this season, but with its key players returning to health, the team can start building for something bigger. If its pieces come together, FCD can transcend what Pareja’s Rapids were able to do last season.

Real Salt Lake vs. D.C. United, Saturday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern

So … the last time D.C. visited RSL:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyxUybU6IH0]

Sorry about that, RSL fans, but unfortunately, D.C. United’s even better this season. Surprises in spring, the black and red have started to assume a frontrunner’s pose this summer, and while Real Salt Lake’s veteran core surely hasn’t forgotten one of last year’s two heartbreakers, a taste for revenge is no guarantee they’ll be able to derail Ben Olsen’s squad.

source: AP

Portland vs. Chivas USA, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern

A terrible defensive record means the Timbers are one of only two Western Conference teams with a negative goal difference, though if things go well over the next three days, they could end the weekend tied for fifth. Get some help from Dallas and Sporting, take care of business at home against Chivas, and Portland will be even with Colorado. Not bad for a team that looked decidedly un-playoff-like on Saturday against the Galaxy.

Taking care of business, however, is the theme that will follow Chivas throughout the rest of the season. Every team they’ll face between now and game 34 will be favored to take three points. Those that don’t will lose ground in another hyper-competitive playoff race.

For a Timbers team that’s struggled to get back in that race, dropping points will be a bitter pill. But if that happens, we’ll get a better idea of which teams are ready for their playoff runs.

source: APChicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Univision Deportes

Over the last two games, New York has played well, even though last week’s trip to RSL had a way of disguising that performance. Both on paper and form, the Red Bulls look like a better team than Chicago, but on the road, with three players called into action in Portland, a draw seems like an acceptable result.

But please, god of whatever has saved MLS over the last 10 years, please don’t let Chicago tie any more. Let them be good, let them be bad – I don’t care. I just don’t want to sit though another Chicago Fire draw, mostly because the sense of inevitability behind every result. Even when they take an early league (like last week against Columbus), you thought “I don’t how they’re give back this one.”

That’s what’s so frustrating. It’s not the draws themselves. We’re used to those. And it’s not a team playing badly. Thanks to Montréal, we’re used to that, too.  It’s the stasis of it all; the empty nothingness.

It’s good enough. It’s bad enough. We just stay … in … this one … place, on pace for 21 draws.

Soccer god, help us.

source: Getty ImagesVancouver Whitecaps vs. Sporting Kansas City, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern

For me, this is the weekend’s best match, one that pits a Sporting side that gets Matt Besler back in the team against one of the deepest attacks in the league. On a unique home pitch Kansas City sees only once every two years, players like Pedro Morales and Matías Laba will have a significant edge, one that usually forces a big change to how opponents approach their game.

But for all that depth, Vancouver has become a team in flux. Darren Mattocks is being worked back into the lineup, with Erik Hurtado’s move wide pushing Kekuta Manneh out of Carl Robinson’s choice XI. Jay DeMerit’s sudden retirement has left the team thingat the back, while the rotation that the Whitecaps have used throughout the season has left the team with short on certainties as the final third approaches.

As we saw when Kansas City visited Toronto, the defending champions know how to exploit the thinnest of margins. If Sunday’s margin is the `Caps latent uncertainty – the unsteadiness that’s kept one of the league’s most talented teams from realizing its potential – Peter Vermes may be able to take a point out of Vancouver.

source: Getty ImagesSeattle Sounders vs. Houston Dynamo, Sunday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2

We’ve been mentioning (read: dwelling on) it for since they lost to the Galaxy, but in the wake of the team’s performance in San Jose, the word is finally starting to come up: Collapse. It happened at the end of last season, and to a smaller extent, it’s happened in previous postseasons, too. Dealing with their first two-game losing streak of the season, the worries of last year are starting to emmerge.

In that way, Sunday’s visit is the perfect test. Houston has added DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido, but there’s nothing about its team or results that suggests they should beat Seattle. If they do — if, for some reason, the Sounders drop points against Houston — it will be time to start worrying about 2013.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE