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MLS Week 8: Litmus tests across the board

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Week 8 in MLS action could teach fans a lot about clubs with plenty to prove.

With questions still abound regarding teams like NYCFC, New England, Seattle, Portland, and New York Red Bulls, all those teams have a chance to make statements regarding their potential strength this season.

[ MORE: Week 8 MLS Power Rankings ]

In addition, struggling teams such as Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Montreal all have opportunities for much-needed points against arguably weaker opposition.

Let’s take a look at the weekend slate chronologically:

Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo
7:30 p.m. ET Friday

Toronto got a pair from Giovinco last time out, and sitting near the bottom of the crowded East mid-tier, they need points fast to avoid finding themselves in a hole behind the top of the table. There’s goals in this one, with Houston defensively challenged and Cubo Torres on fire to start the year.

Montreal Impact vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
3:00 p.m. ET Saturday

An all-Canadian clash actually serves as a vitally important match for both clubs. With each side near the bottom of their conference standings, they both need a result badly to jump-start the campaign. A draw does nobody any good here moving forward.

Orlando City vs. Colorado Rapids
4:00 p.m. ET Saturday

The Lions are one of 2017’s surprises, and Cyle Larin is on an absolute tear. Unfortunately, so far, anyone who shuts down Larin shuts down Orlando City. That said, good luck to Colorado shutting down an early MLS Golden Boot challenger.

Cyle Larin has 6 goals in 6 games this season (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images).

NY Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

New York has seen bumps on the early-season road, but overall remains a strong Supporter’s Shield contender. They face a big test against another strong Eastern Conference side, and a win here would make it three straight, all over good competition. Chicago is reeling after its defeat to Toronto, out-shot 9-1, but has another chance to pick up a road win before heading back home.

Columbus Crew vs. NYCFC
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Columbus has been poor on the road, but they return home to Mapfre Stadium to take on a strong NYCFC side. This game could potentially teach us a lot about whoever comes out on top, as both look to build separation from the rest of the pack in the East. Both have lost two of three, but both still appear strong up front, and three points in this game could prove to be a marquee win to point to later in the season.

Minnesota United vs. San Jose Earthquakes
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Minnesota United, owners of one of the worst starts to the season, has shown signs of life. Can they keep it going against another team struggling for points?

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

This is a marquee matchup, and with FC Dallas unbeaten so far, represents a huge test but also a huge opportunity for Portland to announce itself as a true top contender in the West. They’re top of the table, but have played at least one more game than most teams just below them. Can the Timbers find a way through the strong Dallas D?

Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake
8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

A big rivalry game with big table implications, Sporting KC has the unfortunate luck of catching RSL after hiring Mike Petke and not before. This should be a fun one.

Seattle Sounders vs. New England Revolution
10:00 p.m. ET Saturday

We still don’t know exactly what New England is. For every step forward they’ve taken one back, and for every setback they’ve had they’ve found a way through. This is a fantastic test. There are plenty of excuses for a potential loss with the team going cross-country to face one of the league’s best attacks, but a result could be a true statement.

LA Galaxy vs. Philadelphia Union
10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

With Philadelphia struggling and now traveling a long way, this should be a chance for the Galaxy to turn things around. Should be.

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United
3:00 p.m. ET Sunday

Atlanta is back home for the first time in over a month. They have slipped a bit since the torrid start, but still appear a dangerous club. D.C. will have its work cut out.

Mourinho hits out at reporters, defends Chelsea coach

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Jose Mourinho’s season continues to be weird.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Ahead of Manchester United’s huge UEFA Champions League group stage clash with Juventus on Tuesday the Portuguese coach spoke to the media and refused to talk about individual players, with many of the questions asked about Paul Pogba.

“I don’t like this press conference,” Mourinho said. I think the press conference is going in other directions. If the press conference is going in other directions then I want to go in another direction. I don’t want to speak about individuals or Spanish journalists. I want to speak about one of the biggest candidates of winning the competition. That is what motivates me, that’s what brings me here. If the press conference is going in other directions, I want to go in another direction.”

[ MORE: 4 things we learned, Chelsea v Man United

So, Mourinho took it in another direction. He instead spoke about the incident regarding Marco Ianni, Chelsea’s assistant coach who celebrated in front of Mourinho’s bench at the weekend and sparked ugly scenes in the technical area after Chelsea’s 96th minute equalizer at Stamford Bridge.

“I want to thank Maurizio Sarri and Chelsea for their honesty. But I’m not happy that it is going too far with the young boy [Chelsea coach Marco Ianni]. I don’t think he deserved more than what he got,” Mourinho said. “He apologized to me. He deserves a second chance. I don’t think he deserves to be sacked. He recognizes he was wrong. He is probably the young coach with great potential. For me it was the end of the story when he apologized to me.”

Asked about the form of his team and Anthony Martial, who scored twice in that largely encouraging 2-2 draw at Chelsea, Mourinho hardly lavished praised on the French forward.

“I think Martial is like the team,” Mourinho said. “The team is playing fine, Martial is playing fine. It’s easier for individuals to play well when the team is playing well. He has been involved when the team played well and he played well too… There were contradictory feelings after the Chelsea match. I told the players we have to keep that happiness, pride and confidence of the way we played. But on the other side, use the anger to motivate ourselves to play a big match.”

That big match sees Cristiano Ronaldo return to Old Trafford to play against his former club and his former manager and United know that their back-to-back UCL games against Juve will determine whether or not they reach the knockout round of the competition.

If they reach the latter stages of the Champions League and finish in the top four of the Premier League this season, then talk of Mourinho losing his job will surely fade away. At least for a few months.

“They have a lot to offer and an extra year with the same coach and structure. They have won seven titles on the trot and a really special player who makes a real difference. They are more than a contender for the Champions League,” Mourinho said.

When it came to talk about his future at United, which was in jeopardy two weeks ago according to a report, Mourinho was adamant he will remain at Old Trafford, despite suggestions he could head back to Real Madrid for a second spell.

“No. My future is here – I have a contract and until the final of my contract I only think about Manchester United. I am happy to stay here longer than that,” Mourinho said.

With Messi out, Coutinho, Dembele must step up for Barcelona

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) With Lionel Messi out with a broken arm, the two most expensive signings in Barcelona’s history have a perfect opportunity to step up and show their value.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule

Barcelona spent more than 300 million euros ($350 million) to sign Brazil midfielder Philippe Coutinho and France forward Ousmane Dembele last season as it reinvested the money – and then some – from Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain.

While both Coutinho and Dembele have shown several flashes of their world-class talent, neither has fully met the huge expectations that inevitably accompanied their price tags.

Messi set up Coutinho to net the opener and then added a second goal in a 4-2 win over Sevilla on Saturday in the Spanish league before he awkwardly fell on his right arm, which bent back and snapped a bone. The costly victory lifted Barcelona past Sevilla and to the top of the standings.

Now, while Barcelona’s all-time top scorer recovers, Coutinho and Dembele will be under pressure to lead the team in important games this week.

Barcelona hosts Inter Milan on Wednesday seeking a third victory in as many Champions League games. That will be followed by the always demanding “clasico” against Real Madrid at home on Sunday. Team doctors expect Messi to also be unavailable for three other games, including a visit to Inter next month.

“When (Messi) is with us he gives us a sense of security,” Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said. “He is the best in the world. You notice when he is not there, but whether he is with us or not, we have to keep going. We have a good team. We are playing well in time for the big week ahead.”

To acquire Dembele from Borussia Dortmund in 2017, Barcelona agreed to a transfer deal that could reach 147 million euros ($169 million).

After a first campaign in Spain limited by injuries, Dembele returned from helping France to win the World Cup and made a strong start to the season by scoring five goals in nine consecutive starts.

But when Barcelona faced a challenging Champions League match at Tottenham, coach Ernesto Valverde left the 21-year-old Dembele on the bench in favor of Arthur in midfield. Barcelona won 4-2, with Messi scoring twice and Coutinho once.

Valverde replied “I don’t know” when asked if he thought Dembele had lost confidence.

“He participated in the start of the season,” Valverde said. “He hasn’t been a starter in the last three matches, but we are counting on him . He is very talented. We expect a lot from him and we think that he has the capacity to improve.”

Coutinho arrived from Liverpool in January for 160 million euros ($184 million) as part of the rebuild following Neymar’s departure. But despite regular goals, he needs to be more of a playmaker for Barcelona following the departure of Andres Iniesta.

Valverde can now deploy the pair, along with Arthur, with Messi out.

REAL MESS

Julen Lopetegui’s job as Real Madrid coach is in question following a club record scoring drought and a winless run of five consecutive matches.

But some of the problems that threaten to ruin Lopetegui actually began under predecessor Zinedine Zidane.

Even though the team won an unprecedented third Champions League in a row, Madrid played poorly in the other competitions during Zidane’s final season in charge.

Madrid had practically given up defending its 2016 league title after only three wins in nine matches from October to January. That came just before its stunning home loss to Leganes that eliminated it from the Copa del Rey.

Instead of significantly reinforcing a flawed team that also lost top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo in the offseason, Madrid signed a pair of backups and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

Lopetegui needs his team to rebound immediately with a winning streak, starting against Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday and at Barcelona.

Madrid defender Marcelo said the players were behind Lopetegui. He compared the situation of the first-year coach to that of Rafa Benitez, who was fired after seven months on the job and replaced by Zidane in 2016.

“We are completely behind our coach,” Marcelo said. “(The media criticism) is unfair. It is like what happened to Benitez. I don’t like it when coaches aren’t allowed to work.”

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

A-League team do not seem keen on Usain Bolt

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Comments from Usain Bolt’s agent claimed that the Central Coast Mariners had offered the former sprinter a professional contract to play in the A-League.

However the Mariners’ manager has pretty much quashed the idea of Bolt signing permanently, while the club have refused to comment and the Australian federation believe there is an offer on the table.

Yep. This is a bit of a mess.

Bolt, 32, has been on trial with the Mariners over the past few weeks and scored twice in his first start in a friendly 10 days ago.

But the head coach of the Mariners, Mike Mulvey, has said that any contract offer is news to him.

“I do appreciate how important this story is to the rest of the world. I do appreciate that,” Mulvey told reporters. “But you have a look at our front line today and you wonder whether he will get in any of those positions, wouldn’t you?”

Asked about where that leaves Bolt’s future, Mulvey issued a sharp response on the “speculation” and said he “didn’t know anything” about a contract offer.

With talk of Bolt being offered a deal to play in Malta on the back of this trial stint with the Mariners, it appears the Jamaican sprinting legend will now have to head elsewhere to fulfil his dream of being a professional player.

After training stints with Borussia Dortmund and Stromsgodset, which were basically publicity stunts, his time with the Mariners has been a serious attempt at earning a pro deal. The lifelong Manchester United fan wanted to switch sports and prove he could score goals as well as terrify defenses with his pace.

Where will he end up next? Will he stay in Australia? Is this the end of his soccer dream?

This is all getting a little bit confusing.

Ligue 1: Marseille and Montpellier win to reach top four

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PSG may be well in front of the Ligue 1 table, but behind them is a fierce battle.

Marseille scored just before the break and held on for a 1-0 win over Nice, holding Mario Balotelli scoreless in his first return to club action in a month. It was a gritty win, with Nice holding 58% possession and Marseille owning just a single shot on target, which translated to a 42nd minute goal by Morgan Sanson.

Balotelli had a big chance to open the scoring in the 15th minute but saw his effort from a tight angle saved by Walter Benitez. Marseille took the lead three minutes before the break as Sanson received a cutback from Bouna Sarr and after a nice first touch, finished low for the lead. Neither team had much after the break, and the match finished with just four total shots on target.

Montpellier won as well, a 2-0 result over Bordeaux at home. They scored early in both halves, while holding Bordeaux to just three shots on target through the match. Gaetan Laborde grabbed the opener in the 17th minute, rising higher than Bordeaux goalkeeper Benoit Costil on a popped up ball and heading into the open net.

Costil made a fantastic save on a shot from Laborde in the 39th minute, pushing the effort from long range off the post. It wouldn’t matter thought, as Montpellier would double its lead in the 53rd minute on a penalty from Andy Delort after Pablo handled a cross near the end line.

The two victories pushed the clubs up to third and fourth, as Montpellier sits three points back of second-placed LOSC with 19, while Marseille is right there with 19 points as well, but with a goal differential just one behind.

Finally, Stade Rennais and St. Etienne drew 1-1 on a pair of first-half goals. Wahib Kazri deopsited a penalty for Etienne just four points in, while Rennais found the back of the net just after the half-hour mark through Senegalese youngster Ismaila Sarr who poked home on a corner.