MLS preview: Main event comes early as Seattle-RSL kicks off nine-match weekend

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Two more NBCSN games highlight another full slate of Major League Soccer action, with a meeting between two of the league’s top four teams kicking off the weekend in Seattle. 

Here is a quick look at the league’s nine-match slate. All numbers reflect the teams’ current place in our Major League Soccer Power Rankings.

#5 Seattle Sounders vs. #2 Real Salt Lake, Friday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN/NBC Sports Live Extra

Stakes: Games between these two always seem bigger than they actually  are. Both teams are going to make the playoffs, in all likelihood avoiding that four-five play-in game.  Sure, there are Supporters’ Shield implications, but a loss isn’t going to derail either team’s season. Win, lose, or draw, both are going to be contenders to make it out of the West this November.

And yet, it feels like this game is going to tell us something. Maybe it won’t tell us a lot, but consider the team’s two previous meetings. Seattle issued RSL a huge wakeup call at the end of May but never seemed fully in the game during a 2-1 loss at Rio Tinto (August). Neither game seems representative of how the teams would matchup in the playoffs, but given how the series’ first 180 minutes have played out, good luck predicting what will transpire tomorrow.

Key Players: Obafemi Martins seems programmed to give Nat Borchers trouble. Quick, versatile, and relentless, Martins is capable of occupying the attentions of both Borchers and partner Chris Schuler, leaving more space for Clint Dempsey to pick up (and quickly layoff) the ball.

It’s an edge Seattle has against anybody, but if Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda can hold their own against RSL’s four-man middle, it could prove particularly valuable on Friday.

Prediction: Sounders … no, draw … no! Sounders. 2-1.

source: Getty Images#19 Chivas USA vs. #12 Sporting Kansas City, Friday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern

Stakes: Sporting Kansas City’s four-game losing streak goes from unfortunate turn to full blow soccer crisis (mate) with a loss in Carson, Calif. How likely is that? Seems “astronomically unlikely,” but this is a Kansas City team that gave up three goals at home to Houston. They’re making the impossible possible.

Key Players: You have to think focused performances by Graham Zusi (right) and Benny Feilhaber see Sporting dominate the ball. And with Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin’s frustrations growing at the back, the central pair should take pride in shutting down a returning Erick Torres. (Who isn’t returning at all, because he has one game left on his suspension.)

Prediction: The only way Sporting doesn’t win this one is if they don’t care enough to make a stand. And that’s not the Sporting we know. Kansas City, 2-0.

#7 Philadelphia Union vs. #10 New York Red Bulls, Saturday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN/NBC Sports Live Extra

Stakes: Philadelphia has won three out of four and are dead even with Columbus for the East’s last playoff spot. Ahead of that duo is New York, who overcame a lackluster performance on Wednesday night to take full points, vaulting the Red Bulls into fourth place. Winner stays in the top five. Loser risks falling out.

Key Players: Thierry Henry, of course, for New York, but Tim Cahill should be back in the starting lineup after returning from international duty. (He was only available off the bench on Wednesday.) With New York now playing 4-2-3-1, it will be interesting to see where a slots in. If it’s above Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander, New York will go forward with a much more capable midfield.

Regardless, the Red Bull attack will have to break through defender Maurice Edu and midfielder Amobi Okugo while McCarty tries of cut off Philly’s access to Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux.

Prediction: Philadelphia hasn’t lost at home since May, while New York hasn’t won on the road since March. Henry taking advantage of space behind Le Toux, in front of Sheanon Williams, sounds promising, but the prospect is not without drawbacks. Union, 2-1.

source: AP#6 New England Revolution vs. #13 Montreal Impact, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Stakes: As much as we’ve talked up Montreal today, they haven’t been strong away from home, and with a surging New England, the Impact are facing a second straight difficult foe.

Winners of four-in-a-row, the Revs are now within three points of Sporting Kansas City, and while this isn’t the weekend they’re likely to overtake the champs, they’ll look to stay within reach.

Key Players: What Henry is to New York, Lee Nguyen (right) is to New England – the playmaker who may be a little too important to his team’s success. With Jermaine Jones quickly making an impact in the middle, the Revs have a second player who can define games, making it all the more important that Felipe and Calum Mallace do enough to give Ignacio Piatti  a chance to steal a result.

Prediction: Montreal’s scoring goals lately, but they’ve done a very poor job of preventing them. New England, 3-2.

source: AP#16 Chicago Fire vs. #18 Toronto FC, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern

Stakes: By the rankings, this is the weekend’s worst matchup, and unfortunately for viewers, the teams’ entertainment values match their recent results. Even though the sides combined for four goals at BMO Field last month, the game was forgettable.

Key Players: A big game from Michael Bradley (right) likely ends Toronto’s five-game winless streak, but it’s been some time since we saw one of those. Against Chicago’s two-man midfield (Razvan Cocis, Matt Watson), Bradley will have a chance to be the game’s defining player, and with Dominic Oduro, Gilberto, and Luke Moore as scoring threats, Toronto has way to steal this result.

Prediction: Quincy Amarikwa or Robert Earnshaw. One of these guys will pressure a mistake out of that Toronto defense. When Doneil Henry accidentally clotheslines Amarikwa, the Fire will have their 1-0.

source: Getty Images#4 FC Dallas vs. #14 Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern

Stakes: Coming off two straight losses, Dallas needs this one to recapture the moment that carried them unbeaten through most of thesummer. For the Whitecaps, this is a chance to consolidate their new two-point lead for the West’s last playoff spot.

Key Players: After going seven straight games with at least a goal or an assist, Fabian Castillo (right) has been silenced in the last two. Until Mauro Diaz is fully healthy, the Colombian may be Dallas’s only route to success, making it all the more important Matias Laba stay in position to limit the damage from FCD’s counters.

Prediction: Kendall Waston’s virtues on set pieces gives Vancouver a way to steal this game, and with the Whitecaps willing to sit in their own end on the road, you could see this devolving into a one-goal affair. After two straight losses, though, Dallas should be focused on full points, with the Whitecaps’ road approach giving the Toros plenty of chances to convert on dead balls. Dallas, 2-0.

source: Getty Images#11 Houston Dynamo vs. #8 Columbus Crew, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern

Stakes: Given how Columbus tore Houston apart three weeks ago, the Crew should feel confident they’ll improve on May’s 1-0 loss at BBVA Compass. Since then, Houston has plummeted toward the bottom of the East, but thanks to nine points in their last four games, the Dynamo are back in the playoff race. Their only stumble in that time: At Crew Stadium.

Key Players: Surprisingly, Houston was beaten at its own game in Ohio, with early second half goals from Adam Bedell and Aaron Schoenfeld seeing Columbus capitalize on direct play. Add in Justin Meram’s hot streak (five games, five goals) and the presence of Federico Higuain, and the likes of David Horst and Ricardo Clark (right) will have their hands pull.

Prediction: Between Tyler Deric in goal and A.J. Cochran in defense, there’s some unproven talent at key positions for Houston right now. But the Dynamo have been strong at home this season (7-3-3), and although Wil Trapp and Tony Tchiani will be back for Columbus, the quality in that Houston midfield should be able to protect home field. Dynamo, 2-1.

source: AP#18 Colorado Rapids vs. #9 Portland Timbers, Saturday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern

Stakes: Colorado’s a lost cause. Injuries at the back have taken their toll, while the team’s gone 240 minutes without a goal. Seven straight losses have ended their playoff hopes.

Though Portland’s defense was again exposed last week, the team’s attack remains among the most potent in Major League Soccer. And after a home draw against San Jose, Caleb Porter’s team will be looking to reclaim points lost.

Key Players: Diego Valeri (right) is the key for Portland. Though Rodney Wallace’s absence (international duty) means Valeri may start wide right, he’ll be at center of everything Portland goes, giving Colorado left back Marc Burch a chance to be the hero or the fool.

At the other end, Liam Ridgewell needs to play better. While it may be unfair to ask a player to adjust to a new league immediately, this is an All-Star Designated Player. He’s being paid to solidify Portland’s defense.

If he can’t, Deshorn Brown’s scoreless slump (six games, one goal) will come to an end on Saturday. And Colorado may get back into the win column.

Prediction: Irresistible force: The back of Portland’s net. Immovable object: Colorado’s place in the form table. Despite the Timbers’ history of struggles in Commerce City (one point in five games), a team focused after last week’s disappointment gets this result. Portland, 3-1.

source: Getty Images#15 San Jose Earthquakes vs. #1 LA Galaxy, Sunday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, UniMas

Stakes: Wednesday’s loss was a major setback for San Jose, who held faint hopes of making the playoffs. Losing to one of the teams in their way (a slumping one, at that) may stop the Earthquakes from fooling themselves. They’re not making the postseason.

Contrast that with the Galaxy, who are only one point behind Seattle in the Supporters’ Shield race. After LA’s mid-week draw, the Sounders have a game in hand, even if the Galaxy look like the strongest team in Major League Soccer.

Key Players: Landon Donovan’s last six games: four goals, six real assists (no hockey gimmes), and two MLS Player of the Week honors. What’s most impressive about that? He may not be LA’s hottest player. Gyasi Zardes (right) has five goals in his last three games. With 56 goals in 27  games, LA has the best attack in Major League Soccer.

It’s hard to see San Jose getting anything from LA without a huge game from Jon Busch. The veteran goalkeeper made 10 saves in Portland, but he may need an even performance on Sunday. Whereas most of the Timbers’ shots were right at him, Los Angeles may do a better job of missing his gloves.

Prediction: The Galaxy won their last trip to San Jose, 1-0 in June. They’re even better now. LA, 3-0.

Journalist in Ghana who exposed FIFA corruption shot dead

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) An investigative journalist in Ghana who helped expose a high-ranking official at world soccer body FIFA as corrupt was shot dead by gunmen on a motorbike as he drove home alone at night, police said Thursday.

His employers said he was assassinated.

Ahmed Hussein-Suale was killed late Wednesday, shot twice in the chest and once in the neck at close range while driving in the suburb of Accra where he lived. He died immediately, according to police.

Tiger Eye PI, the investigative journalism house Hussein-Suale worked for, said it had the hallmarks of a professional hit.

“We call on the security agencies to unmask the elements behind this assassination and bring them to book,” Tiger Eye PI said.

Police haven’t announced any arrests. Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo condemned the killing and said he expected police to arrest the perpetrators of the “heinous crime” as soon as possible.

Hussein-Suale worked under the leadership of Anas Aremeyaw Anas, a renowned Ghanaian investigative journalist once singled out and praised by former U.S. President Barack Obama as courageous and who has used undercover television documentaries to expose graft and organized crime in Ghana and across Africa.

Anas, who himself has gone undercover to investigate issues like human trafficking and corruption among Ghanaian judges, appears in public wearing elaborate, multicolored veils over his face to protect his identity. The veils allow him to work without being recognized but also help to avoid reprisals.

Anas confirmed Hussein-Suale’s death on Facebook: “Sad news, but we shall not be silenced. Rest in peace.”

The team’s most recent work focused on exposing corruption in African soccer, which they portray as a murky world of backroom meetings where coaches, referees and even the most senior officials can be bribed to fix games or hand out favors.

The team got one of its biggest scoops when it caught Kwesi Nyantakyi, a member of world soccer’s FIFA Council and the second most powerful man in African soccer at the time, taking a bribe of $65,000 from their undercover reporters, who were posing as unethical businessmen. Nyantakyi smiles as he stuffs the wads of cash into a black plastic bag and agrees to use his position as president of the Ghanaian Football Association to help the businessmen – for a cut of their profits.

Nyantakyi resigned from all of his roles and was banned from soccer for life last year for bribery, corruption and conflict of interest as a result of the documentary.

The film also alleged widespread corruption among other officials, referees and coaches, and the entire Ghana Football Association was shut down by Ghana’s president as a result. The Confederation of African Football, the continent’s top soccer body, banned or suspended nearly two dozen referees and officials because of Anas’ team’s work.

Tiger Eye PI said Hussein-Suale’s last project for it was the soccer documentary. It didn’t say what other projects he was involved in for them. The BBC said Hussein-Suale worked with it on various projects, including an investigation into human body parts sold for ritual magic in Malawi.

Some of the methods used by Anas’ team have been questioned and stoked criticism, particularly the tactic of reporters posing as others to trap possibly corrupt figures. The methods have been denounced as illegal by some, including Nyantakyi, who said he will appeal his life ban from soccer.

Hussein-Suale’s killing also brought attention to comments made on television by a Ghanaian politician and businessman after the Nyantakyi scandal broke. Kennedy Agyapong, a member of parliament, appeared on his own television station to single out and denounce Hussein-Suale as “dangerous” and call for members of the public to assault the journalist up if they came across him.

Ranting and shouting into the camera, Agyapong said: “That boy (Ahmed-Hussein) that’s very dangerous, he lives here in Madina. If you meet him somewhere, break his ears. If he ever comes to this premises, I’m telling you, beat him. Whatever happens, I’ll pay because he’s bad, that Ahmed.”

The station also broadcast photographs of Hussein-Suale, apparently revealing his identity. Agyapong, in comments made on Ghanaian radio on Thursday, denied any involvement in the killing.

But in his Facebook message paying tribute to Hussein-Suale, and saying his team will not be silenced, Anas also posted a link to that Agyapong video.

“We … remain unshaken in our resolve to pursue nation-wreckers and make corruption a high-risk activity in the country,” Tiger Eye PI said. “Ahmed was an excellent, experienced investigative journalist.”

Report: Ashley Cole considering offer from Derby, Lampard

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Ashley Cole probably thought that when he joined the LA Galaxy in 2016, it would be the last club he played for before, literally, relaxing on a beach in retirement.

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Considering he was 36 at the time — he is now 38 — it seemed obvious that England’s 107-times-capped left back would play out a final few years in MLS before calling full-time on his decorated career. Three years later, Cole might still do just that.

He might also resume playing after receiving a six-month contract offer from Championship side and promotion chasers Derby County, who are now coached by one of Cole’s longtime teammates and friends at Chelsea and England, Frank Lampard.

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines for Week 23 ]

Cole has been without a club since his option was declined by the Galaxy following the end of the 2018 season.

According to the Guardian, the chance to play alongside a largely young, but promising, squad of players and to help Lampard guide the club to the Premier League in his first season as manager is very appealing to Cole.

Barcelona reach Copa del Rey QF but could be disqualified

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona earned a spot in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey on Thursday, but its continued participation in the tournament remains under threat.

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele led Barcelona to a comfortable 3-0 win over Levante at Camp Nou Stadium, helping it advance 4-2 on aggregate. However, the Catalan club could be disqualified for allegedly using a suspended player in the first leg.

Levante said it will make a formal complaint to the Spanish soccer federation on Friday, ahead of the draw for the quarterfinals.

The four-time defending Copa champion has denied any wrongdoing for using youth player Juan “Chumi” Brandariz in last week’s match in Valencia.

“We don’t have any doubts,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “We believe we will be in the draw tomorrow. We did everything right and we won on the field, which is where we had to win.”

Levante said Chumi should not have played because of an accumulation of yellow cards with Barcelona’s “B” team, arguing that his suspension applied to the senior team as well, including in Copa matches.

“We prefer to win on the field, but the regulations exist and everyone needs to follow them,” Levante coach Paco Lopez said. “Let’s see what happens.”

The Spanish federation is expected to rule on Levante’s complaint before Friday’s draw.

Real Madrid was eliminated in the tournament’s round of 16 in 2015 for using striker Denis Cheryshev while he was suspended.

“We are surprised, we found out about it by the press,” Barcelona spokesman Josep Vives said. “We analyzed the situation and concluded that Chumi’s participation was legal.”

With Messi back in the lineup after being rested in the first leg, Barcelona easily reversed the 2-1 deficit from the first match. The Argentine playmaker set up goals by Dembele in the 30th and 31st minutes, then sealed the victory by scoring in the 54th.

Barcelona has made it at least to the quarterfinals in the Copa in nine straight seasons. It won the title five times in the last seven years.

Earlier Thursday, Espanyol defeated Villarreal 3-1 at home with two goals by striker Borja Iglesias to advance 5-3 on aggregate, while Real Betis salvaged a 2-2 draw at Real Sociedad to reach the last eight on away goals after a 0-0 first-leg draw.

Real Madrid, Girona, Valencia, Getafe and Sevilla also made it to the quarterfinals. Atletico Madrid was eliminated by Girona on Wednesday.

Top Premier League storylines for Week 23

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From the title race, to a four-way battle for top-four, to the relegation dogfight currently unfolding, this weekend’s slate of Premier League fixtures is full with a little bit of everything…

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Top-four battle at the Emirates
Arsenal v. Chelsea, 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC [ STREAM ]

Chelsea occupy fourth place heading into the 23rd round of games this weekend, but Arsenal and Manchester United aren’t a million miles back of the Blues — only six points each, to be exact. Saturday’s showdown at the Emirates Stadium could see a six-point swing either way, or an opening of the door for the resurgent Red Devils to leapfrog Arsenal for fifth and trim the deficit between themselves and the UEFA Champions League places.


Will Liverpool slip up/Can Man City keep up?
Liverpool v. Crystal Palace, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on NBCSN STREAM ]
Huddersfield v. Man City, 8:30 a.m. ET, Sunday, on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Newsflash: the title race is a pretty important storyline and (likely) will continue to be so for the remainder of the season, barring a collapse by one of Liverpool or Manchester City. The defending champions have the easier matchup, on paper, this weekend as they’ll visit last-place and relegation-bound Huddersfield Town on Sunday. It should be a straightforward challenge for the Reds as well, though, with 14th-place Crystal Palace visiting Anfield on Saturday.


Life without Kane (and Son) begins… again
Fulham v. Tottenham Hotspur, 11 a.m. ET, Sunday, on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

No player in the PL has scored a higher percentage of his team’s goal this season than Tottenham’s Harry Kane (30 percent, tied with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang). The trouble with that is that Kane is set to miss the next two months due to his annual mid-to-late-winter ankle injury. Thus, Mauricio Pochettino will be forced to pick between deploying Fernando Llorente as his starting center forward, or playing without a natural forward, thanks to Son Heung-min’s simultaneous call-up to the South Korea squad for the Asian Cup. Statistically speaking, Dele Alli has had a quiet season thus far (four goals, one assist), but Spurs desperately need Alli to show up and show out in a big way the next month or two.


Solskjaer goes for no. 6
Man United v. Brighton, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on CNBC STREAM ]

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t know what it’s like to lose as manager of Man United. Heck, he couldn’t tell you the first thing about dropping points while in charge at Old Trafford. Five PL games in charge (six in all competitions), and whether or not the “interim” tag should be removed from his title is already an earnest topic of discussion. It wasn’t pretty, but United held on for dear life against Spurs last weekend and secured three points in Solskjaer’s biggest challenge to date. Up next is a visit from 13th-place Brighton & Hove Albion, who toppled United in their first meeting earlier this season.


Relegation six-pointer for Newcastle, Cardiff
Newcastle United v. Cardiff City, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC Sports Gold [ STREAM ]

Much like the top of the table, the race at the bottom of the league is heating up. Heading into the weekend, Huddersfield are bringing up the rear, eight points adrift of safety, while Fulham occupy 19th place, five points back of 17th. Newcastle United, who sit 18th and are one point from exiting the relegation zone, will host Cardiff City, the side currently sitting 17th in the table, on Saturday. When you’ve struggled the way these sides have for 22 games, genuine chances at three points don’t come along often. When they do, you absolutely have to take them to have any hopes of surviving the drop.