MLS preview: Earthquakes vs. Galaxy, Sounders vs. Timbers headline Rivalry Week

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Buckle your seat belts, everybody, it’s time once again for Rivalry Week in Major League Soccer. (Yes, branding “rivalry week” is still somewhat annoying, but do you remember how great the actual games were last time around? We’ll all take that 10 times out of 10.)

Predictions record through Week 25: 37-48

There’s an added bonus this time around, too: so much jockeying for playoff position.

So, if you’re to watch just four MLS games this weekend — who am I to tell you to watch only four games? — might I suggest the following three:

San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy (Friday, 11 pm ET, UniMas)

Clear-cut favorites to win the Supporters’ Shield as well as the hottest team in the league right now (Galaxy — four straight wins), versus the other hottest team in the league currently blitzing the Western Conference’s six playoff teams at present (Earthquakes — three straight wins).

Everything is clicking for the Galaxy after the additions of Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos, though the ‘Quakes’ mid-season acquisitions, Anibal Godoy and Quincy Amarikwa, are having just as much of an impact on their new side, at a fraction of the price. The ‘Quakes went on the road last week and beat Sporting Kansas City (3rd, West) and D.C. United (1st, East) on Wednesday and Saturday by a combined score of 7-0.

Prediction: Quakes 2-2 Galaxy

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Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers (Sunday, 4:30 pm ET, ESPN)

Neither the Sounders or Timbers come into MLS’s marquee rivalry in dazzling form (six losses in seven for the Sounders; just two wins in seven for the Timbers), which means both sides are sliding toward the bottom of the West’s playoff places as those above mentioned ‘Quakes catch fire. A Sounders loss and any positive result by the ‘Quakes puts the Rave Green on the wrong side of the playoff cut line.

Diego Chara is suspended for this one, and that’s likely to hurt the visitors a great deal. Whether Will Johnson drops deeper in midfield to shield the backline or George Fochive starts in Chara’s place, it’s a huge drop in athleticism at the defensive midfield spot against a side that relies on Obafemi Martins to make driving runs and combinations through that very area of the field. I’m expecting another big day from Oba, which is just enough to put the Sounders over the top.

Prediction: Sounders 2-1 Timbers

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann struggling to get USMNT players released for Olympic qualifying ]

New York Red Bulls vs. D.C. United (Sunday, 7 pm ET, Fox Sports 1)

The top two teams in the Eastern Conference renew unpleasantries for the final time this season (United won the first meeting, 2-0, and drew the second, 2-2) with so much more than three points and pride on the line this time. United currently hold a five-point advantage over the Red Bulls, but the latter have three games in hand with less than two months to the end of the regular season.

Thus, this sets up as a massive, massive, massive swing game in the race for home-field advantage in the East. A win puts the Red Bulls two points back with three games in hand, whereas a loss necessitates winning all three games in hand to make up an eight-point deficit. I feel pretty confident in saying that the winner of this weekend’s finale will finish top of the East at season’s end.

Prediction: Red Bulls 2-1 United

[ MORE: Week 25 Team of the Week | Player of the Week ]

Toronto FC vs. Montreal Impact (Saturday, 4 pm ET, MLS Live)

Didier Drogba made his Impact debut last weekend in a 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union, and in doing so picked up an injury that sounds all but certain to keep the Ivorian striker out of Saturday’s 401 Derby. An even bigger loss for the Impact than Drogba’s absence? That of Ignacio Piatti.

Without the Argentine playmaker, the Impact are a dire attacking team, capable only of hitting on the counter. Against TFC, they’ll find the center third of the field squeezed into about a 20-yard section where Michael Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou will corral them and cut off the circulation of passing, turning them over again and again, thus springing Sebastian Giovinco into counter-attacking with very little ground to cover. TFC takes this one in a rout.

Prediction: TFC 3-0 Impact

Cruzeiro relegated from Brazilian top flight for first time

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Brazilian side Cruzeiro was relegated from the top flight for the first time in the club’s 98-year history following a 2-0 defeat to Palmeiras on the final day of the season.

Cruzeiro required victory and a loss by Ceara at Botafogo to stay safely in the Brazilian Serie A, but neither came to pass.

Palmeiras midfielder Ze Rafael scored in the 58th minute to send the visitors on their way, with fellow midfielder Dudu finished things off in the 84th minute. Referees ushered the players off the field immediately after the conclusion of the match as Cruzeiro fans rioted in the Mineirao stadium, ripping out seats, setting off smoke bombs, and clashing with police.

Cruzeiro finished 17th in the 20-team table, three points back of Ceara in 16th. In the Brazilian top flight, the bottom four teams are relegated. CSA, Chapecoense, and Avai were also relegated. Cruzeiro had won the Brazilian Serie A as recently as 2013 and 2014, winning four titles in its history. They also have six Copa do Brasil titles, most recently winning the league cup in 2017 and 2018.

Flamengo ran away with the championship, finishing on 90 points, 16 points clear of second-placed Santos and third-placed Palmeiras who both finished level on 74 points. Palmeiras had challenged for the title, but fell off at the end of the season with a five-match winless run through November.

Premier League Preview: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Two struggling London sides meet Monday when West Ham United hosts Arsenal (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The sides might’ve expected they’d be within close proximity at this point on the fixture list, but two wildly disappointing seasons means the three points between the Gunners and Irons comes with the former in 11th and the latter 16th.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

It’s been nine matches since Arsenal beat someone, 11 since it happened in the Premier League. West Ham hasn’t been much better, winning once in its last 10.

Freddie Ljungberg has yet to win as Arsenal interim boss, while West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini could see his current stint in London end without more results like the Nov. 30 win at Chelsea.

Monday versus Arsenal would qualify.


Injuries/suspensions

West Ham United: OUT —  Jack Wilshere, Lukasz Fabianski, Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid. QUESTIONABLE — Michail Antonio.

Arsenal: OUT — Dani Ceballos. QUESTIONABLE — Rob Holding.


Probable lineups

West Ham United: Martin; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Balbuena, Fredericks; Rice, Noble, Yarmolenko, Anderson, Snodgrass, Haller.

Arsenal: Leno; Kolasinac, Sokratis, Luiz, Bellerin, Xhaka, Torreira, Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang, Lacazette.


What they’re saying

West Ham’s Antonio sees an opportunity: “The only three teams that are really performing are Liverpool, Leicester and Man City. Everyone else is getting beaten, and it means we’ve had a missed opportunity so far this season. We started the season off brightly, the best start we’ve had for four years, but then we’ve had a slump. Everyone’s having a slump and this is our slump. Now it’s time for us to start turning up. We’ve been in this situation before and we know how to dig in and pull ourselves up again.”

Arsenal’s Ljungberg on setting targets: “I don’t think we should stop talking about the top four, but for us it’s about concentrating on what we’re doing here now and not look up, down, sideways. We just need to work on our own game and our own confidence.”


Prediction

Really, you wouldn’t want to predict anything from these sides right now besides goals. We’ll give an edge in desperation to the hosts and a 2-2 draw.

La Liga: Sevilla held at Osasuna, Getafe maintains UCL fight

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Sevilla was held to a 1-1 draw at 10-man Osasuna on Sunday, giving both Real Madrid and Barcelona space at the top of the La Liga table.

Munir El Haddadi put the visitors 1-0 up just 11 minutes in, but Ezequiel Avila struck just before halftime to share the points. Sevilla was held to just two total shots through the opening 45 minutes, and despite Osasuna defender Oier Olazabal being shown a second yellow card with 29 minutes to go, Sevilla still managed just 11 total efforts through the 90 minutes, with four on target.

Getafe continued its battle for a top four spot as they won 1-0 on the road at Eibar. Angel Rodriguez bagged his eighth goal of the season to secure the win, cropping up in the 67th minute to finally put Getafe through. They had been turning the screw for some time, forcing Marko Dmitrovic into a pair of big saves just before the opener which came from an absurdly tight angle after Angel had rounded the goalkeeper. The win leaves them fourth, level with Real Sociedad on 27 points.

They were allowed to close the gap after Real Sociedad was held scoreless in a 0-0 draw at 14th placed Real Valladolid. The visitors put just two of their 14 shots on net, and dropped to fifth thanks to Getafe holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Athletic Club also fell back in the race for a top four spot, dropping a 3-2 decision on the road at Real Betis. Joaquin scored a first-half hat-trick, with all three goals coming in the opening 20 minutes to give him five in his last three games. Inaki Williams brought Athletic Bilbao one back before halftime from the spot, and Yuri Berchiche made things interesting with a minute to go, but that was all they could muster as the visitors fell to sixth on 26 points, above Atletico Madrid on goal differential with the two yet to play head-to-head.

Celta Vigo made it interesting as Iago Aspas scored a man-down goal, but Leganes held on for a 3-2 win over the 10-man visitors. Oscar Rodriguez had a first-half brace to help the hosts to a 3-0 lead, but Nestor Araujo and Aspas helped Celta Vigo make things interesting. Still, a 71st minute second yellow card for halftime substitute Gabriel Fernandez hampered the visitors in their efforts for a comeback, leaving Celta Vigo in the relegation zone, a point back of safety, with Leganes is four points behind them in 19th.

Gerrard reacts to Rangers’ Old Firm heartbreak in final

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Steven Gerrard lined his Rangers side up for success, but fate was cruel to the Liverpool legend.

Rangers lost the League Cup Final to their Old Firm rivals on Sunday despite out-shooting the Bhoys by a 16-5 margin, winning a penalty, and playing almost a half-hour up a man.

[ RECAP: Rangers 0-1 Celtic ]

“To a man we were very good … by much the better side,” Gerrard said. “But unfortunately that’s not what gets you a trophy.”

But Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster stopped Alfredo Morelos’ penalty, three minutes after goal scorer Christopher Jullien was offside on the lone goal of the game.

Scotland doesn’t yet use VAR, and Gerrard doesn’t love VAR but he likes it more than he likes Scottish officials.

“There were three Celtic players standing in offside positions but unfortunately we play in a country where there is no VAR,” he said, via the BBC. “I’d be a liar if I said I was 100% in favour of it, but the one thing I do know is that officials up here need support.”

Now he has the task of getting his men to rebound ahead of its biggest non-derby in ages, as Rangers need at least a draw against Young Boys at home on Thursday to advance to the Europa League knockout rounds

“It’s a bit raw right now… It’s up to me to pick the players up. One thing I will say is I’ll stay with these players on the evidence of today because they gave me absolutely everything. We might have to suffer a bit short-term. I need to pick them up a bit physically and mentally for Thursday which is huge but our day will come on the evidence of today.”

Gerrard has done a very good job with Rangers, who are two points back of Celtic in a two-horse race for the Scottish top flight title. Celtic has won eight-straight titles to improve their total to 50, four less than the Rangers.