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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.

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.

Transfer confirmed: Ferran Torres to Man City for $26 million

Ferran Torres to Man City
Photo credit: Man City
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Reports sending Valencia youngster Ferran Torres to Man City have been burning red-hot over the last 24 hours.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

Man City confirmed their capture of the 20-year-old — one of the brightest prospects in all of Europe — on Tuesday.

Torres, who came through the Valencia academy, tallied six goals and seven assists in 43 appearances (all competitions), including two of each in the Champions League, for Valencia this season.

He broke into Valencia’s first team back in November of 2017, at the age of 17, before establishing himself as a regular over the last two seasons.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

Reports out of the UK claim it will reportedly cost just $26 million to bring Ferran Torres to Man City, plus possible add-ons, as he had just one year remaining on his contact with Valencia. Torres reportedly met with City sporting director Txiki Begiristain earlier on Tuesday, adding further fuel to the fire that a move was imminent.

Torres seems an obvious replacement for recently departed winger Leroy Sane. He’ll join Raheem Sterling as one of only two natural wingers in Pep Guardiola’s squad, offering more tactical flexibility — not to mention, width — after City were fairly limited in the wide areas during the 2019-20 season.

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Brentford - Fulham
Photo byJacques Feeney/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Fulham – Brentford: Team news is in with the two West London sides set to do battle for a place in the Premier League in the Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

We can hardly wait to find out who’ll claim the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season in the richest game on earth.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europe ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.

Team news


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+