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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.

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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

Southgate, England players sound off on racist abuse

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England took care of business in Monday’s 6-0 thrashing of Bulgaria, but the Three Lions had to endure some horrendous racist abuse from the crowd during the game.

The match was paused on two occasions I’m the first half by the match officials after racist chanting could be heard from a section of supporters, and a large group of Bulgarian fans were ejected towards the end of the half. However, racist abuse continued during the match from small pockets of fans in the stadium.

[READ: England v. Bulgaria delayed after racist abuse from stands]

“I have to say that the officials were on to everything very quickly,” England manager Gareth Southgate told ITV after the match. “We reported everything immediately when we heard things, we had constant communication with the fourth official and the referee. I was in contact with the players, all the way through the first half in particular, and then again at halftime.

”We know it’s an unacceptable situation, and I think we’ve managed to make two statements. By winning the game, but also we’re raised the awareness of everybody to the situation. The game was stopped twice, I know for some people that won’t be enough, but we as a group were on board with that process.”

Raheem Sterling, who scored a brace in the win, also sounded off on social media, as did former England and Arsenal star Ian Wright.

Ultimately, UEFA and the match officials followed the protocol, but the sad part about this is that England and the officials had a plan for racist abuse, and it was predictable that it would happen.

In a statement after the game, the FA confirmed they would be asking UEFA to investigate what happened. However, any punishment is too little, too late for the players who endured the abuse.

Kane, Sterling star as England rout Bulgaria

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On a night where racist abuse from the stands in Bulgaria marred the overall spectacle, England’s players produced an incredible result and spectacle for the visiting fans, with all things considered.

Harry Kane scored once and assisted on three others as England rolled over Bulgaria, winning 6-0 on Monday evening in the Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia, Bulgaria. Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley both scored a brace for the Three Lions and Marcus Rashford’s thunderbolt from a tight angle gave England the opening goal it needed.

The blowout result was the perfect response after England had suffered its first loss in qualifying for a decade, losing on Friday, 2-1 at the Czech Republic. The six goals England put past Bulgaria was also the fourth time out of six games that England had scored at least five goals in a match. The only other time, aside from the defeat, was a 4-0 win last month at Wembley Stadium over Bulgaria.

This story will be updated.

 

Racist abuse delays England v. Bulgaria qualifier

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England raced out to an impressive 4-0 lead at Bulgaria by halftime, but the wonderful attacking display was marred by horrendous incidents from the crowd.

The match in the Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia, Bulgaria was stopped on two occasions with announcements being made to ask sections of the crowd to stop their abusive language. This comes with the stadium already serving a partial stadium closure due to racist chanting from the crowd in previous qualifiers.

Below is UEFA’s protocol on how to intervene in these situations, and what transpired from lead writer Joe Prince-Wright.

Tottenham re-signs goalkeeper Vorm

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With Hugo Lloris set to miss at least another two months of action with a broken elbow, Tottenham has turned to a familiar face to provide some cover between the pipes.

Tottenham announced Monday it had re-signed goalkeeper Michel Vorm to a contract through the end of the 2019-2020 Premier League season. Vorm spent five seasons with Tottenham after signing from Swansea City in 2014. However, after playing second-fiddle to Lloris and later serving as the third backup behind current Tottenham No. 2, Paulo Gazzaniga for the past couple of seasons, Vorm was released at the end of last season.

Its certainly a boost for Tottenham that a player with a long history at the club and plenty of experience was available to help in this situation. Similar to Liverpool picking up Adrian after Alisson Becker’s injury, Tottenham know what it’s getting in Vorm and may play him a few times if Gazzaniga needs a night off in the next few months.

According to Vorm, he had been home in his native Netherlands and was watching the game when he saw Lloris get injured.

“Obviously I saw straight away that he had a bad injury and at the time I thought about how bad it was, Vorm told Tottenham’s website. “After the game I spoke with Jan (Vertonghen), he told me what was going on and I spoke also with Toni (Jimenez, our goalkeeping coach) and, yes, during the week I got the phone call to ask if I was open to come back and help out. I’ve kept in contact with a lot of the players and also with Toni. We were speaking quite regularly and on Thursday he called me, we had the conversation and from there on, it went very quickly.”

In his five seasons with Tottenham, Vorm made a total of 47 appearances in all competitions. He saw plenty of time in the League Cup, FA Cup, UEFA Europa League and Champions League during his stay at White Hart Lane.