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Five things to watch in MLS: Week 3

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While the league’s newest clubs have drawn a lot of the attention thus far in 2017, last year’s final two teams left standing have yet to win in their opening two matches.

[ MORE: MLS Power Rankings — Week 2 ]

PST takes a look at some of the most intriguing storylines as Major League Soccer heads into the second week of the season.

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Champions welcome Red Bulls in home opener

The Seattle Sounders needed two late goals last weekend to earn a draw against the Montreal Impact, and their first home match of the year presents another challenge.

Although the New York Red Bulls haven’t looked their best in the opening two weeks, Jesse Marsch’s side has come away with six points, and are one of only four teams in the league to win their first two matches.

Brian Schmetzer’s side continues to play without Brad Evans at the back, who is battling a calf injury, and Aaron Kovar but otherwise the Sounders are relatively healthy. The good news for the Sounders is that Clint Dempsey has started the season well, and more importantly he’s overcome issues regarding his heart that kept him sidelined throughout the conclusion of 2016.

There’s little doubt that Seattle will get it together and be in contention at the top of the West again this season, but the Red Bulls certainly present a difficult matchup.

Fire look to remain hot against Atlanta

Atlanta had reason to be disappointed after its opening week defeat against the Red Bulls, but Tata Martino’s team showed just how good they can be in Minnesota.

Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez (3 goals this season) each netted two goals against the Loons in Atlanta’s six-goal outburst up north, but now the newcomers take on a revamped Fire side that has started the season unbeaten.

The Fire midfield has shown the most notable improvement so far since the acquisition of Dax McCarty in the center of the park, while Nemanja Nikolic has provided a strong scoring presence up top after his successful career in Europe.

How bad will it get for Minnesota?

Two games. 11 goals allowed. Definitely not the ideal start for Adrian Heath and co.

The transition for expansion sides has never been easy and certainly well-documented, but did anyone think Minnesota United would be this bad through two weeks?

Meeting a hungry Portland Timbers side (one that looks good enough to win the league) in Week 1 surely wasn’t a favorable matchup to kick off the season, but falling 6-1 to Atlanta in the Loons’ home opener last weekend only piled on the negative sentiment towards Minnesota.

Kevin Molino has already proven to be a strong signing for the Loons, notching the team’s lone goal a week ago, but the rest of the squad has yet to catch up, particularly defensively. Minnesota’s 11 goals conceded is the most an expansion side has ever allowed in the opening two weeks of a season.

Earthquakes, Dynamo face difficult road tests

The two non-playoff sides from last season have started off better than anyone could have expected, and it’s good news for the two clubs that play in the congested Western Conference.

Historically both teams have shared plenty of success in MLS, but the last few years have been anything but that. The Earthquakes have not qualified for the postseason since 2012, while the Dynamo have only done their San Jose counterparts one better by last reaching the playoffs in 2013.

Both clubs have put out predominantly young rosters this season, while mixing in experienced talents like Chris Wondolowski and A.J. DeLaGarza to round out each team. The Earthquakes and Dynamo each played nine starters last week under the age of 30, and both squads are having tremendous early success because of this.

The Dynamo have benefitted from strong performances from players like Erick Torres and Romell Quioto, while Americans Nick Lima, Tommy Thompson and Fatai Alashe have put a stronghold on the right side of the field for the Quakes.

D.C., Crew look sluggish to start season

D.C. United was a playoff team in 2016, while the Columbus Crew are just one season removed from appearing in the MLS Cup final.

It’s way too early to make projections, but both sides have underwhelmed so far through two weeks, especially in the back. New York City FC exposed the D.C. back four last Sunday with a four-goal performance, while the Crew allowed a trio of goals to get past Zack Steffen down in Houston.

Meanwhile, the two sides have a combined two goals to show for their efforts, with both coming from the Crew. D.C. could receive a massive lift if Luciano Acosta is deemed fit to play against the Crew. The diminutive Argentine attacker was a prominent figure in the D.C. attack last season, and he’ll be valuable once again in 2017 if Ben Olsen’s side is to find success.

For the Crew, Ola Kamara and Ethan Finlay have found the back of the net this season but Greg Berhalter’s team will need more production out of attacking players like Federico Higuain and Justin Meram.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.

Reports claim Allegri linked with Manchester United, Spurs

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The international break can be a slow time for news, but what to make of multiple reports claiming that Max Allegri is in discussion with a pair of struggling traditional Premier League powers?

Tuttosport claims that Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have interest in hiring the Italian manager, adding that United has had “intensified” contact with him.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Noise out of Old Trafford continues to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while there is no real buzz that Mauricio Pochettino is on the verge of leaving Spurs.

The 52-year-old Allegri has won Serie A once with AC Milan and five times with Juventus, claiming a Serie C title with Sassuolo in 2007-08.

Is there anything to it? He’d be a great hire for either side. In United’s case, he’d be a marked upgrade on their current boss.