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MLS preview: Red Bulls-Toronto FC, Timbers-Crew SC headline First Kick

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It’s here. It’s finally here. Major League Soccer’s First Kick 2016 is here.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Just like last year, in this space we’ll discuss the biggest MLS games each weekend and I’ll hazard a prediction for each and every one of them — last year’s picks were so-so — thus opening myself up to loads of ridicule over the next eight months, beginning on Sunday. C’est la vie.

New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC — Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live

Without a doubt in my mind, this is the game of the weekend, and a worthy curtain raiser for the 2016 season. It’s hard to see past these two teams battling it out for top spot in the Eastern Conference this season — the Red Bulls finished top and won the 2015 Supporters’ Shield; TFC finally made the playoffs, kept the core pieces (Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore) intact for a second season and addressed actual needs in the offseason. As far as ceilings go, there’s nothing higher in the East.

As for Sunday’s matchup, it’ll be a battle of strength versus strength — RBNY’s midfield trio (Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins) vs. TFC’s midfield trio (Bradley, Will Johnson and Benoit Cheyrou). Woo, tasty. A slight advantage has to go to RBNY for the fact that all three players are holdovers from last year, while Johnson only arrived this winter. That said, TFC have the ultimate MLS difference maker (Atomic Ant), and that almost always counted for something in 2015.

Prediction: Red Bulls 2-2 TFC

Portland Timbers vs. Columbus Crew SC — Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Rematch of MLS Cup 2015 on opening day 2016, you say? Blah, I say. Sure, MLS needs to improve its television ratings in a big way, and leading off with a rematch of last year’s title game is one way to do that, I suppose, but doing so gives the game little chance of exuding the kind of quality you’d hope to see on display between two title-contending teams. The first month of the MLS season is very rarely anything close to resembling good soccer, but that’s just my two cents.

Didn’t we just finish discussing the tactical battle between these teams? Oh yeah, so just about everything from MLS Cup remains relevant on Sunday: Darlington Nagbe as a central midfielder is the new engine of the Timbers buzzsaw; Fanendo Adi and Kei Kamara are nightmares both physically and in terms of their off-ball movement, so good luck, center backs; Crew SC’s full backs (Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful) are going to be insanely dangerous up and down the flanks, and even more fun to watch this year; they’re both lethal on set pieces and dreadful at defending them, which shouldn’t have changed much in the offseason.

Prediction: Timbers 1-1 Crew SC

Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City — Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, FS1

Sounders versus Sporting KC is quickly becoming one of the better under-the-radar rivalries in MLS, for two distinct reasons: 1) the games almost always arrive with massive consequences with regard to the standings — they’re both really good every year, and figure to be so again in 2016 — 2) the games are almost always heated and full of tempers flaring up and plenty of controversy. This makes for an entertaining spectacle.

It’ll be tough sledding in early days for the Sounders, who’ll have to adjust to life without Obafemi Martins, but fortunately for them, Clint Dempsey is still around and Jordan Morris is ready to become the greatest American soccer player ever chip in 10 or so goals this season to pick up the slack. Forewarning to the rest of the league: Joevin Jones is going to slay at left back for the Sounders. As for Sporting, they’ll attempt to run it back once more with a squad that’s won two U.S. Open Cups and an MLS Cup over the last four seasons, with the notable loss of would-have-been-superstar Krisztian Nemeth, which is offset by the arrivals of Brad Davis and Justin Mapp. These teams will be very good again in 2016, but it’s going to take a bit of time.

Prediction: Sounders 0-1 Sporting KC

‘But hey this is MLS’: Wayne Rooney slams MLS’ travel arrangements

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Wayne Rooney is not a fan of MLS’ travel arrangements.

D.C. United lost 1-0 to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday in Canada, and had to fly back to the nation’s capital before prepping for a midweek showdown with visiting New York Red Bulls. To the 33-year-old Englishmen the trip should’ve taken six hours, not half a day.

MLS is notoriously known for the lack of charter flights it offers its teams, a mere four per season is the reported amount each team is allocated. Traveling on commercial flights has caused routine delays for a slew of team’s this season, with certain teams arriving only hours before the first whistle in some cases.

Players, however, will reportedly push for better travel in the upcoming CBA negotiations. Not only for Rooney, but for the majority of professional athletes around the world, flying charter is customary.

Upon his arrival to D.C. in 2018, Rooney turned down first-class flights offered by the Black-and-Red, among other fine accommodations. “If you are going to be part of the team, you have to be part of the team,” Rooney said on his decision to reject first-class flights and private hotel rooms. “All in and do the same things. I don’t want special treatment — I wanted to be treated the same as the players. I’m part of this team.”

Rooney, despite being on his way out of D.C. to join Derby County in January, is certainly a part of the team.

He is also now a part of the complex fight for better travel in MLS.

Vela scores 24th, LAFC clinches playoff berth

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SANDY, Utah (AP) – Carlos Vela scored his MLS-leading 24th goal of the season, Tyler Miller had four saves and Los Angeles FC beat Real Salt Lake 2-0 on Saturday night to clinch a playoff berth.

LAFC played a man down after defender Walker Zimmerman, who was shown a yellow card for time wasting in the 17th minute, was given a red for unsporting behavior in the 48th., Real Salt Lake’s Aaron Herrera, who blocked two would-be goals in the first half, was shown a straight red for denial of a goal scoring opportunity on Vela, who then converted from the spot to make it 1-0 in the 64th minute.

Vela, whose 15 assists are tied with Diego Valeri of the Portland Timbers for the league lead, broke the MLS record for combined goals and assists. Sebastian Giovinco’s had 22 goals and 16 assists for Toronto FC in 2015.

Miller has eight shutouts this season for LAFC (18-3-4), who have won four consecutive games and seven of their last eight dating to June 28.

Adama Diomande side-netted a rising right-footer to cap the scoring in the 82nd minute.

Salt Lake (12-10-4) had its six-game unbeaten streak, including three straight wins, snapped and allowed multiple goals for the first time since a 4-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls on June 1.

Lampard: ‘We need more personality’

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Frank Lampard‘s baptism of fire as Chelsea boss continued on Sunday, as the Blue coughed up a 1-0 lead and were lucky to draw at home against Leicester City.

[ MORE: Pulisic watch. How did he do?

After being hammered at Manchester United in their opening PL game last weekend, then losing to Liverpool on penalty kicks in the Super Cup final in Istanbul on Wednesday, Chelsea started superbly against Leicester but only led 1-0 thanks to academy graduate Mason Mount scoring his first goal for the club.

Speaking to our partners Sky Sports after the game, Lampard revealed he was not happy at all with the second half display and urged his young side to show more personality on the pitch.

“It was a really good start, fantastic, and we could’ve been two or three goals up. We were quick, bright, energetic, then we allowed Leicester back in the game and in the second half I was not very happy, we offered them too many chances on the counter attack,” Lampard said. “We can only look at ourselves. In all our matches I have been delighted in big passages of having the ball but we didn’t have enough angles or options to keep the ball moving. We have to have more personality, we saw that in midweek, but today we didn’t have that.”

The most disappointing thing for Lampard will be the way Leicester grabbed hold of the game in the second half.

Brendan Rodgers‘ side launched counter after counter as Jorginho and N’Golo Kante were overrun in midfield by James Maddison and Youri Tielemans, and both Maddison and Jamie Vardy should have won the games for the Foxes.

“You can attack, but still be in positions to not allow the counter-attack,” Lampard added. “I’m not here to play great attacking football and then concede counter-attack goals. We need to show more than we did. I was under no illusions that there would be moments like this. We have to work on the pitch on the things we can improve.”

Lampard is spot on with his assessment, but how does he change things?

The most obvious thing is that he needs his team to be more consistent. They’ve started their last three games fast but failed to make the most of big chances and have been made to pay for that with some sloppy passing in midfield.

It is still early days for Lampard in his first season as a PL boss, while many of his youngsters are also finding their feet in the top-flight. Chelsea’s fans will stay patient but the fact that have yet to grab a win shows there is plenty of work to do but the Blues have shown flashes of brilliance, usually at the start of games.

Having a consistent lineup is one thing, but Lampard now needs his players to be brave, show their personality and stand tall for the cause as he ushers in his new era. Too many of them went missing in the second half against Leicester at Stamford Bridge, which will be more than a little concerning for the Chelsea legend.

Pulisic watch: How did USMNT star perform on home debut?

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Christian Pulisic made his home debut for Chelsea on Sunday, as the USMNT star started for the Blues against Leicester City at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: What did we learn? ]

How did the 20-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania get on during his first start in the Premier League?

The American playmaker played 70 minutes and although he, like Chelsea, started well, it’s safe to say he faded in the second half as the west London club gave up their lead and drew 1-1 against the Foxes.


2nd minute: Pulisic follows up after Schmeichel saved Mount’s effort but the Leicester goalkeper bundles the ball wide.

3rd minute: Gets free at the near post from the resulting corner but can’t flick the ball goalwards.

15th minute: Gives away a free kick for a foul on Ricardo Pereira.

19th minute: Cuts in from the left and plays a nice pass across the pitch to start an attack.

20th minute: Works back well defensively to put Pereira off his cross.

26th minute: Starts a great move which almost sees Kante score. Flicks it out to Emerson who finds Giroud to play in Kante.

27th minute: Pulisic pops up on the right flank and tries to cross into the box but his cross is blocked and goes out for a goal kick.

29th minute: The American switches flanks with Pedro and is now on the right wing.

30th minute: Pulisic races onto a loose ball but Schmeichel slides out and gets there just before him.

34th minute: Back on the left, taken down by Ayoze Perez as he runs towards the halfway line and looks to pass. Wins a free kick.

39th minute: A few nice touches on the ball but then loses the ball on the halfway line.

41st minute: Plays a bit of a strange back pass to Kepa which puts Chelsea under pressure.

45th minute: Pulisic blocks a cross as the ball smashes him in the ankle and he goes down injured.

46th minute: He is back on his feet and sends in a cross which is deflected out for a corner.

53rd minute: Drifts in from the left and plays a nice ball inside, moment laters plays it to Pedro who loses the ball.

63rd minute: Chases down a lost cause but Caglar Soyuncu calmly flicks the ball over his head.

66th minute: Cross comes in and looks like he is winding up for a bicycle kick but is bundled to the floor. No penalty kick.

70th minute: Shortly after Leicester equalize, Pulisic subbed off and replaced by Willian. A ripple of applause from the home fans.