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.

10-man Red Bulls hold off Atlanta United at home

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Atlanta United’s five-game winning streak went up in smoke as the New York Red Bulls pulled off an incredible 1-0 victory.

Playing down a man for around 65 minutes, the Red Bulls shutout Atlanta United’s high powered offense in front of 18,495 fans at Red Bull Arena. Tom Barlow, in just his second appearance with the Red Bulls, scored the game-winning goal in the 65th minute off a header at the far post, one that left U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Brad Guzan rooted to his line.

[READ: Pep: Domestic Treble harder than UCL]

Tim Parker was shown a straight red card in controversial fashion, after grabbing Josef Martinez’s left arm with Martinez in front of him just outside the box. Martinez was clearly pulled back but continued running and eventually got a shot off that Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles parried away.

Referee Robert Sbiga then decided to call the play back and award Atlanta United a free kick outside the box. After what seemed to be consultation with his assistants, Sbiga then showed Parker a straight red card, likely for denial of a clear goal scoring opportunity (DOGSO) while Martinez was through on goal.

The outcome is a massive one for the Red Bulls. It’s been a rough season, with the loss of both Jesse Marsch and Tyler Adams and the poor form of Bradley Wright-Phillips up top. Wright-Phillips was out on Sunday and another attacker Andreas Ivan, went off with an injury in the first half as he was about to be substituted off anyways following the red card.

Alejandro Romero Gamarra, Kaku, has made his feelings known that he wants (or wanted) to leave the club. His form hasn’t been stellar this season either.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s finally found its way back into the win column and is looking more like the juggernaut from last season, especially with five-straight shutout wins. It’s all back to zero today though, with the defeat at the Red Bulls on a perfect grass pitch up a man.

Mbappe hints he could leave PSG

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Kylian Mbappe accepted his award as the Ligue 1 MVP, dedicated it to Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, and then mentioned he could be off soon to another club.

Wait, what?

Yes, following Mbappe accepting his award, the French star and World Cup winner stated he hoped he could continue his career at PSG but left open the possibility of moving to another club that allows him to take the next steps in his career.

[READ: Kompany to join Anderlecht as player-manager]

“This is a very important moment for me, I arrive at a first or second turn of my career,” Mbappe said, via L’equipe. “I’ve discovered a lot of things here, I feel that maybe it’s time to have more responsibility. I hope it may be at Paris Saint-Germain, it would be with great pleasure, or perhaps elsewhere for a new project.”

Mbappe later clarified his comments, stating he was looking for more responsibility. “If it’s at PSG, that’s good. If it is elsewhere, it will be elsewhere for a new challenge.

“For me, it was time to say it. I am someone whole: when I say something, I think it. For me, it was the right time to say it. That’s it, I said it!”

It’s unclear why exactly Mbappe used this moment to put some pressure on PSG. Perhaps its to remind them that the club needs to be successful in its transfer endeavors this summer, so it can compete deep into the UEFA Champions League. With Neymar injured and a central midfield ravaged by injuries, PSG capitulated and somehow fell to Manchester United in the Champions League Round of 16, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.

There’s no reason why PSG can’t dominate the Champions League like it does Ligue 1, especially with the attacking trident of Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani. But of course, against better competition, the inferiority in mentality and in talent along the backline has started to show.

So, where could Mbappe go? There’s very few places that could effectively match both his salary and his competitive goals. It’s the usual suspects, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and perhaps Manchester City, should they be interested in it. More recently, while Man City has spent big, it’s been on signing multiple players on $50 million transfers, as opposed to one player on a $200 million transfer, for example.

It’s unlikely, but an intriguing option would be Liverpool. If the club somehow came up with the funds, imagine Mbappe playing alongside Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, with Roberto Firmino coming in to spell either of the three over the course of the season. Mbappe would likely make up that one-point difference between Liverpool and Man City, and if that’s what it takes for Liverpool to finally win the title, it could be worth the initial massive investment.

Messi finishes season leading La Liga in goals, assists, and more

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Lionel Messi turns 32 this summer, and after more than a dozen years of first team soccer, playing more than 50 games a season, the old man’s still got it.

The Argentine star, playing his first season in almost a decade without direct competition from Cristiano Ronaldo, scored twice as Barcelona tied Eibar, 2-2. The two goals gave him 34 for the season, by far the most by any player in the league, and his 50th in all competitions.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Messi also led La Liga this season with 13 assists, 136 shots, 85 shots on target and 70 through balls. In terms of successful dribbles, Messi’s 132 fell seven short of Celta Vigo’s Sofiane Boufal.

Messi’s 34 goals gave him his sixth Pichichi, the trophy given to the league’s leading scorer. Messi is now tied with legendary Telmo Zarra for the all-time record of most Pichichi’s, and Messi is now three ahead of Ronaldo.

As if Messi wasn’t already a legendary player, the man seems to be showing no signs of slowing down. It may have helped that he skipped matches with Argentina after the 2018 World Cup this past fall, keeping him fresh for Barcelona. Even so, the man looks as good, if not better, with age.

Messi already holds the record for most goals in league history, and at this rate, he’ll set it to a level that will be almost impossible to reach. While he’s going to be remembered for his incredible control on the ball, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been incredibly productive during his career, including in 2018-2019. Barcelona won the league title with ease and the club made the UEFA Champions League semifinal. If for some better defending, Messi could be contesting for another Champions League title.

Nani scores twice as Orlando City thrashes FC Cincinnati

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Nani may not be the star he once was while he played for Manchester United, but he’s still making a powerful impact in MLS.

The Portuguese international scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season as Orlando City ran circles expansion side FC Cincinnati, winning 5-1. Along with Nani, Tesho Akindele scored a brace and Dom Dwyer came off the bench and scored a header in the win.

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Aside from having a chance to record a big win over a struggling side, Orlando City may have been ultra motivated on Sunday. Orlando City manager James O’Connor has history with FC Cincinnati from his time at Louisville City, with intense rivalry matches taking place as well as arguments between O’Connor and former FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch on the sidelines.

FC Cincinnati actually went up early with a Darren Mattocks finish past Brian Rowe, but it didn’t take long for Orlando City to respond. Akindele fired home from 20-yards out in the 37th minute to make it 1-1. Early in the second half, Nani scored on a penalty kick rebound to make it 2-1 to the hosts, and then he added a second off a cross from the right to blast the game wide open.

With the win, Orlando City moved just one point outside of a playoff place, while Cincinnati remains in the basement of the Eastern Conference. However, Orlando City has a difficult road ahead, with matches against the LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact and D.C. United to come.