MLS Cup Playoffs: Field to be cut from 8 to 4 in leg 2 of conf. semis

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Sunday afternoon is drawing closer and closer, which can mean only one thing: another quadrupleheader of 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs action, this time to send four teams through to the conference finals and four more teams home for another winter of wondering “what if?”

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The conference semifinals, which will see four second legs played from Sunday afternoon to late in the evening, set up as follows…

New York Red Bulls 1-0 D.C. United — Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Red Bulls are the only remaining side to hold an advantage before kicking off the second leg at home. As such, they’ve got to be considered massive favorites to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, though it won’t as straightforward as that without center back Damien Perrinelle, who was lost for the rest of the playoffs after he suffered a left knee injury in the first leg.

That is, of course, dependent upon United venturing into the Red Bulls’ final third every now and then to put a shot on target — something they have thus far failed to do even once through 90 minutes. A mass exodus and complete reshuffling of the United roster presumably looms this winter, so it’s last chance saloon time for Ben Olsen’s current edition of the Black and Red.

Prediction: Red Bulls 2-1 (3-1 agg.) United

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Columbus Crew SC 1-2 Montreal Impact —Sunday,  5 p.m. ET, ESPN

No second leg presents itself with the excitement and vast array of possibilities of Columbus versus Montreal. An early Crew SC goal makes this one all the better, considering Montreal will have to chase an away goal, thus opening themselves up tot he devastating counter-attacking ways of the Black and Gold. Crew SC were largely reined in during the first leg, unable to counter into the open field so regularly as the regular season.

For the Impact, their season almost entirely comes down to their midfield three — Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker and Patrice — taking care of the ball in the middle third of the field, not allowing Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara to start counters inside their attacking half, and quickly snuffing out those chances in the (hopefully, for their sake) rare event. Oh yeah, then there’s Didier Drogba, who has 12 goals in 13 games (playoffs included) since signing for the Impact, biding his time for a chance to play hero.

Prediction: Crew SC 1-1 (2-3 agg.) Impact

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FC Dallas 1-2 Seattle Sounders — Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

To put it simply, FC Dallas blew a golden opportunity to put their semifinal tie with the Sounders away in leg no. 1 last Sunday. After 18 minutes, Oscar Pareja’s side held a 1-0 lead at CenturyLink Field and had the Sounders on the ropes, shaking at the knees and ready to be knocked down. Instead, FCD took their foot of the gas, dropped deeper defensively, conceded more than 56 percent of possession the rest of the way and watch the Sounders scored two deserved late goals to undo a brilliant opening half-hour from FCD.

That said, FCD are still in a great position to go through, especially if midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and/or defender Brad Evans (injuries) are unable to go in Sunday’s second leg. In Alonso, the Sounders lose one of MLS’s strongest engines and ball-winners, without whom the red carpet is rolled out for Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo to stroll through the middle of the park. In Evans, they lose a mobile center back partner to Chad Marshall’s aerial dominance and cement-block feet, without whom Marshall, 31, and Zach Scott, 35, will be playing catch-up to Castillo, Tesho Akindele and David Texeira all game long. Spoiler alert: the Sounders will lose that battle.

Prediction: FCD 3-1 AET (4-3 agg.) Sounders

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Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 Portland Timbers — Sunday, 10 p.m. ET, FS1

If you think you have any idea which way the second leg of Vancouver versus Portland is going to go, you’re flat out lying. 0-0 in the first leg had a lot to do with the Timbers playing 120 minutes and needing 11 rounds of penalty kicks 72 hours earlier in the knockout round. If not for goalkeeper David Ousted coming up big on two occasions, the Timbers still would have taken an advantage into leg no. 2. Darlington Nagbe has put together the best month of his professional career after moving to the center of midfield, so he’ll (as always) be the X-factor on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Whitecaps continue to fly under the radar as the side who concedes very few goals and takes very few chances going forward — a far cry from the wide open, run-and-gun side of March and April. Pedro Morales is still working his way back into fitness after a hamstring injury robbed him of the final month of the regular season, which means it’s entirely possible we see the workman trio of Gershon Koffie, Matias Laba and Russell Teibert in the center of midfield once again. If Diego Chara (foot) is unable to go for the Timbers once again, that’s a battle the ‘Caps will win — and exploit — all night long, right into the Western Conference finals.

Prediction: Whitecaps 2-2 (2-2* agg. – away goals) Timbers

Manuel Pellegrini hired by Real Betis

Manuel Pellegrini hired
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Manuel Pellegrini is back in a Spanish manager’s chair.

The ex-Man City and West Ham man has been hired by Real Betis, returning to La Liga for the first time since 2013 when he left Malaga.

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Pellegrini, 66, has won silverware in five countries including England with a Premier League title with Man City in 2013-14 as well as two League Cups.

The Chilean has also won the Copa Chile with Universidad Catolica, Ecuador’s Serie A with LDU Quito, two trophies with Argentina’s San Lorenzo and another with River Plate, plus the Intertoto Cup with La Liga’s Villarreal.

Pellegrini has also led Real Madrid, where he won 75 percent of his matches, and Chinese Super League side Hebei China Fortune.

His last stint, with West Ham, did not prove fruitful but the side has not been much better under David Moyes.

The veteran manager will again be tasked with an underachieving side in Betis. Sitting 13th this season after a 10th place season in 2018-19, Betis expects a top-half side after gaining promotion back to the top flight for the 2015-16 season.

Betis has two matches left this season, home to Alaves and away to Real Valladolid. Those lower-half sides give Pellegrini a chance to start his stint in style.

We’ll be pulling for Pellegrini, a class act who had very little luck with a clearly murky West Ham atmosphere.

Arsenal – Liverpool preview: How to watch, team news, start time, stream

Arsenal - Liverpool preview
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Arsenal – Liverpool preview: Arsenal’s European desperation is high as it prepares to welcome history-chasing Liverpool to the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday (Watch live at 3:15pm ET for FREE on Peacock).

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The Gunners now know that eighth place will not be good enough for the Europa League, making it imperative that Arsenal wins its last three Premier League outings or wins the FA Cup to avoid missing out on European football for the first time since 1996.

Liverpool would love to take its next steps toward the best single-season in Premier League history by denying their rivals a shot at Europe.

ACCESS ARSENAL – LIVERPOOL ON PEACOCK FOR FREE


Team news

Jordan Henderson and Joel Gomez remain out for Liverpool, and James Milner seems likely to miss out as well.

Arsenal will not have suspended Eddie Nketiah or injured Calum Chambers, Bernd Leno, and Gabriel Martinelli.


What they’re saying

Arsenal keeper Emiliano Martinez on post-derby reaction: “Every season we try to finish above them,” said Martinez. “We need to make sure we finish above them. Our target is Europe, that is the reality. We are going to try and give our best against Liverpool and reach the FA Cup Final. We didn’t start like the manager wanted, we were giving the ball away for no reason. As time was going on we started playing well, we controlled the midfield and we outplayed them. I feel sorry for the supporters because we know what it means for them.”

Jurgen Klopp on Liverpool’s draw with Burnley“If you find a way in the game which causes the opponents massive problems, come on, stick to it, do it, and we did it to a specific extent. But then we were not clear enough anymore, so that’s how it is. How I said, we left the door open for them and they used the situation, which is a special skill of that team.”


Odds and ends (Full matchweek odds)

Arsenal’s a home dog against Liverpool to the tune of +285, according to DraftKings, the Premier League champions a minus-114 favorite.

Liverpool’s depth outlasted Arsenal in a League Cup classic earlier this season, and Mohamed Salah led a 3-1 defeat of Arsenal in Premier League play back in August.


Prediction

Goals? Neither side has been as sharp as it would like but the firepower in both squads is immense. Our lead writer Joe Prince-Wright predicts 2-2 and we’ll ride with that because it would make for a delightful Wednesday.


How to watch Arsenal – Liverpool stream, start time

Kickoff: 3:15 pm ET Wednesday
Online: ACCESS PEACOCK FOR FREE

Manchester United – Southampton stream: How to watch, team news, odds

Manchester United - Southampton preview
Photo by Ian Hodgson/PA Images via Getty Images
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The door to third place is wide open for Manchester United when Southampton visits Old Trafford on Saturday (Watch live at pm ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Chelsea’s weekend loss and Leicester City’s place on United’s docket means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s in-form men control their own destiny when it comes to finishing as high as third on the table.

STREAM MANCHESTER UNITED – SOUTHAMPTON LIVE

Southampton, for its part, can harbor outside hopes of a Europa League place, currently six points back of eighth place before Arsenal and Spurs play Sunday.


Team news

Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe remain the only absences for Manchester United.

Moussa Djenepo, Sofiane Boufal and Yan Valery are out for Saints and may not return this season, while Jannik Vestergaard is hoping to come off the bench to score a second goal against the Red Devils.

 


What they’re saying

Paul Pogba about what’s changed at Old Trafford: “We play more as a team than we did before, we enjoy it even more, we defend together, we attack together, and this team is stronger as well. The players who are on the bench or who don’t play every time, when they come on they help the team so the mentality is good and is right. All this together has put us where we are today.”

Ralph Hasenhuttl on improving Saints: “We want to be braver, but that can sometimes cause you problems, like against Arsenal when we make some mistakes. We need this decision making, because then we learn. If you don’t demand this, you cannot improve in this way. …In every regard you must get better. In this moment it looks like we can make this step, and the players are open-minded to go this way. This is important, otherwise you will always stay on the same level.”


Odds and ends (Full matchweek odds)

Saints are tied with Burnley as the biggest underdog of the weekend at +1050, but you see how that turned out for Nick Pope and the Clarets. United is a minus-375 favorite.

Jannik Vestergaard and Daniel James traded goals at St. Mary’s on Aug. 31 when 10-man Saints drew United.


Prediction

Can anyone slow United? Saints have already claimed a big win against a Mancunian power… and this would be a big moment for Hasenhuttl’s project. The teams are on the same amount of rest and all things equal you’d like the hosts to boot. United 2-1.


How to watch Manchester United – Southampton stream, start time

Kickoff: 3:15 pm ET Monday
TV Channel: NBCSN
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com

Transfer news: Chilwell to Man United; Kante to Inter Milan

Ben Chilwell to Manchester United
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In the latest transfer news Ben Chilwell has been linked with a move to Manchester United, while N’Golo Kante could be heading to Inter Milan.

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Starting in Manchester, it appears that Ben Chilwell is wanted by both Manchester City and now Manchester United, with Chelsea still in the hunt too.

The Leicester City and England left back, 23, is reportedly a target for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as The Sun says that he is valued at $75 million and that Man United are now in pole position to sign him.

Do Man United really need a new left back? Luke Shaw is finally fit and has been very good this season, while Brandon Williams is an emerging talent at left back. Chilwell is a very, very good left back but Man City and Chelsea have a greater need to upgrade in that area. If Leicester do not make the Champions League, they will probably cash in on Chilwell.

Man United need a new center back and holding midfielder before they sign a left back but Solskjaer must think differently.

Kante to Inter Milan
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Moving down to west London, it appears that N’Golo Kante could be linking up with Antonio Conte once again at Inter Milan.

Kante, 29, has been riddled with injuries this season but when he has played it’s clear to see the stability he brings to the entire Chelsea side.

According to Gazzetto dello Sport in Italy, Chelsea are willing to listen to offers for the French World Cup winner as Frank Lampard continues his expensive overhaul of the Blues.

Kante has a contract with Chelsea until the summer of 2023 but now is probably to cash in on him, if they want to. If they can move on Kante, then bringing in Kai Havertz and several defensive players would be more possible this summer.

This is a tough one. On paper, Kante is one of the few players at Chelsea who should be guaranteed starters. However, there’s no doubting his level has dropped a little this season due to injuries and the style of play under Lampard.

Inter Milan are building something under Conte and Kante would be a huge part of their project.