The Final Four MLS always wanted? Sizing up the remaining contestants

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If you got Dan Courtemanche, Don Garber and Sunil Gulati in a room with TV executives and corporate partners, and put them under oath, it’s hard to imagine they’d have picked a different final four teams to duke it out for the right to go the MLS Cup final.

Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and New England represent a cornucopia of reasons to be fired up for the conference semifinals, with USMNT players, foreign-born stars and terrific storylines lining up together for a multi-weekend grouping of tantalizing matches. There are reasons for neutral fans from coast to coast and across either pond to tune in, which is how MLS wants it. Well, it’s the way it gets it.

[PREMIER LEAGUE: Latest standings | Schedule]

It’ll be the Sounders and Galaxy on Nov. 23 and 30, with the Revolution and Red Bulls starting on the same date but completing their legs on Nov. 29. So who’s the favorite? Talk about a question with four reasonable answers, especially considering all four are coming off conference semifinals exits in 2013.

4. New York Red Bulls
source: Getty Images
Record vs. NE: 2-0
Record vs. SEA: 1-0
Record vs. LA: 0-1

Yes, a team with a 3-1 record against the remaining teams that boasts one of the all-time greatest players in the world (Thierry Henry) and a striker who equalled the record for most goals in an MLS season (Bradley Wright-Phillips) is our least likely to win the thing. So the margins are razor-thin here, and New York did dispatch DC United by breaking down the Black-and-Red’s biggest strength: the back line. Plus Eric Alexander and Dax McCarty have quietly — outside of noisy NY — put together performances that have been instrumental to the Red Bulls success. But when it all comes down, can NY shut down Lee Nguyen and New England, then either Oba/Clint or Landon/Robbie/Gyasi? Hardest scenario to see out of the four contenders.

3. New England Revolution
Record vs. NY: 0-2
Record vs. LA: 0-1
Record vs. SEA: 1-0

Since Aug. 23, the Revs have lost just once while seemingly getting better and better as a unit. That loss was to Columbus, a team they essentially rolled over in a two-legged playoff duel that began with 4 goals in Ohio to put the Crew under the knife. Jermaine Jones is a physical force with creativity to spare, while Jose Goncalves and Andrew Farrell are part of a back line that’s quite capable of holding down prolific strikers. And goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth has added consistency to his ability to make highlight-reel saves. Oh, and “MVLee” Nguyen. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see New England in the final and, as you’ll read below, we’re giving Seattle more than a few benefits of the doubt. Watch out for the Revs.

2. Seattle Sounders
source: Getty ImagesRecord vs. LA: 1-1-1
Record vs. NE: 0-1
Record vs. NY: 0-1

“Woah, woah, woah,” with some expletives thrown in, is likely what’s coming from Sounders supporters when they see their name here. After all, they won the U.S. Open Cup, held off L.A. for the Supporters Shield and has, after all, often been the league’s best team when all its weapons have been in the fold. Then you throw in a killer defensive effort to hold off a well-coached FC Dallas and how can they be anything but the top dog?

Well, if it makes you feel better, I had them at three until I wrote the explanation and realized Seattle should be a bit higher than New England. Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins are a match made in soccer heavy, while Brad Evans, Chad Marshall and DeAndre Yedlin both stringent and creative.

1. Los Angeles Galaxy
Record vs. SEA: 1-1-1
Record vs. NE: 1-0
Record vs. NY: 1-0

First off, don’t forget that Robbie Keane did not participate in the final day loss in Seattle and was hampered in the penultimate match of the season. He’s, for our money, the league’s MVP and the hurt L.A. put on Real Salt Lake on Sunday could not be mistaken as anything but a warrior’s call. That was an RSL team that knocked the Galaxy out a season before. Not this time. Not again. With Landon Donovan’s impending retirement and a few other big question marks, L.A. has the weaponry to make a bold statement under Bruce Arena: that they are one of the best attacking teams the country’s ever seen.

Champions League, Europa League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

Champions League odds
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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
Monday, August 10: Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Monday, August 10: Manchester United 3-1 Copenhagen
Tuesday, August 11: Wolves 1-2 Sevilla
Tuesday, August 11: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-2 Basel


Champions League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Manchester City (+220)
Bayern Munich (+325)
Paris Saint-Germain (+500)
Atletico Madrid (+800)
Barcelona (+800)
Atalanta (+1000)
RB Leipzig (+1700)
Lyon (+3500)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+112) Inter Milan v. Bayer Leverkusen (+240). Tie: +250
(-385) Manchester United v. Copenhagen (+1000). Tie: +480
(+235) Wolves v. Sevilla (+120). Tie: +230
(-106) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Basel (+290). Tie: +255

Outright winner
Manchester United (+180)
Inter Milan (+325)
Sevilla (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+650)
Wolves (+700)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+1100)
Basel (+2500)
Copenhagen (+6000)

Barcelona reach 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal

Barcelona - Napoli
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Barcelona – Napoli saw Lionel Messi and Co., book the eighth and final place in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, by way of a 3-1 victory on the night (4-2 on aggregate) on Saturday.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

It was, as it so often tends to be, Messi who shone brightest and stole the spotlight en route to Barca’s 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal appearance.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Barca entered Saturday with the slimmest of advantages, knowing that a scoreless draw would see them through to the quarterfinals after grabbing a vital away goal in the first goal. Lyon knew that no matter what, they needed to score at least once or they would be out. That threat was reinforced, and strengthened, when Clement Lenglet headed the Blaugrana ahead in the 10th minute.

Messi slipped, Messi got back up, Messi slipped again, Messi got back up again, Messi rifled the ball inside the far post to score a(nother) fantastic solo goal and make it 2-0 (3-1) in the 23rd minute. It was only slightly more complicated than that for him (WATCH HERE). Messi put the ball in the back of the net again just a few minutes later, but the goal was taken off the board by way of a somewhat suspect handball decision upon video review.

Nonethless, that was just about that after Luis Suarez converted from the penalty spot early in first-half stoppage time. Messi won the penalty by sneaking around Kalidou Koulibaly and winning the ball in the blink of an eye, forcing the Senegalese center back to foul him on the edge of the box lest Messi walk in on goal for a virtual tap-in.

Lorenzo Insigne converted a penalty kick of his own a couple minutes later before the interval, but the threat level never peaked higher than a 2-out-of-10 for Barca.

Barca will face Bayern Munichin a sensationally mouth-watering, single-leg quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

3 things learned: Bayern Munich v. Chelsea

Bayern Munich - Chelsea
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Bayern Munich – Chelsea, leg no. 2, looked eerily similar to leg no. 1, played back in late February, with the lone exception being the lack of fans inside the Allianz Arena for Thursday’s dead rubber.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

The eight-time Bundesliga champions were simply too good — and too healthy, by comparison — for Frank Lampard and the Blues to put up a reasonable fight from 3-0 down after the first leg. It was an unceremonious end to Lampard’s first season in charge at Chelsea, but a foregone conclusion before they boarded the plane back in London.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

With their 4-1 victory on the night (7-1 on aggregate), Bayern will face Barcelona in a sensationally mouth-watering quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the Allianz Arena, as the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed in Bayern Munich – Chelsea.


NO DRAMA NECESSARY, BAYERN TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS EARLY

Credit to Bayern for their ruthless efficiency and disinterest in letting the tie descend into drama and tension. Robert Lewandowski scored early (10th minute) and Ivan Perisic did the same in the 24th, bringing the aggregate score to 5-0 with 65 minutes left to play. With so many key players out injured, Chelsea had virtually zero chance of pulling off the impossible comeback prior to kickoff, and Hans-Dieter Flick’s side made sure to keep it that way from the opening whistle. Corentin Tolisso put the tie further out of reach late in the second half (76th), and Lewandowski duplicated his side’s three-goal advantage from the first leg not much later.


CHELSEA’S ISSUES STILL AT THE BACK

For all of the development of young players that Frank Lampard was able to realize this season — and for all of the big-money signings either already confirmed or heavily reported to be imminent this summer — Chelsea still have serious questions to answer with regard to their defense. The below highlight is but one small example in a season full of defensive blunders at missed assignments (you’ll find another one below in the next section). Cesar Azpilicueta remains solid, but he’ll turn 31 this month and probably only has another year or two left to function at the UCL level. Reece James and Fikayo Tomori still have some way to go in their development to be UCL-caliber players. The likes of Kurt Zouma, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen have all proven, time and again, they’re simply not at that level and probably never will be. All of that is to say, Chelsea need to execute a full-on rebuild of their defense this summer, or it might not matter how many goals they can score every game next season.


BAYERN’S END-OF-SEASON FORM IS TERRIFYING

Pop quiz: When was the last time Bayern simply didn’t win a game, let alone lost one? The answer: Feb. 9 (19 games ago). And their last defeat? Dec. 7 (28 games). They won all nine of their Bundesliga games following the season’s restart, plus another two in the DFB-Pokal and now the second leg against Chelsea in the UCL. Of course, things will suddenly become far more tricky when 1) the likes of Barcelona and Man City factor into the equation in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, and 2) each round is decided over a single leg rather than the traditional home-and-away format of the Champions League. And still, Bayern have the look of serious Champions League contenders, if not favorites, based on their scintillating form dating back to the start of the calendar year.

VIDEO: Messi shreds Napoli to score fantastic solo goal

Lionel Messi goal video
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Lionel Messi has done, once again, as Lionel Messi is known to do: he has scored another fantastic Lionel Messi goal (video below) in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Andrea Pirlo named Juventus manager | Sarri sacked ]

One, two, three, four, five defenders in his way? So what, says Messi.

One or two decent attempts to tackle the ball away — and perhaps even succeeding on at least one occasion? Again, so what?

He’ll have the ball back, continue on his merry way and tuck the ball just inside the far post, all while falling down, getting back up and falling down again. The goal put Barcelona 2-0 ahead on the night (3-1 on aggregate). Prior to this post being published, he scored again, but the goal was taken away for a perceived handball upon video review.

Surely we’ve discovered a superhuman soccer league we can send him to by now, just to level the playing field a bit more for the actual humans walking planet Earth.

Anyway, here’s the latest head-shaking, smirk-inducing Messi goal video you came to see.