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MLS Preview: Houston, Red Bulls hope for playoff push, Vancouver and Sporting KC battle for West supremacy

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With just four games left on the docket, teams around the playoff cut line are desperate for points. And yet, the top of the West remains wide open, with plenty of questions to be answered.

Things may look much clearer after this weekend, with lots of games that could provide space, or simply muddy the waters further.

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The marquee matchup sees Vancouver and Sporting KC meet each with a chance to take charge of the Western Conference, separated by just a point at the top. Neither has a realistic shot at the Supporter’s Shield, but a #1 seed could make a world of difference in the playoff picture.

Plenty of teams are simply fighting for a playoff spot, with the New York Red Bulls with a brutal trip to Eastern Conference leaders Toronto. New York is four points clear in the final playoff spot, but with Montreal taking on basement-dwellers Colorado, they’ll want to maintain the distance. On the other end, the Houston Dynamo host Minnesota United while sitting a point back of a playoff position, trailing FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake.

Here’s a look at this weekend’s MLS preview:


Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — Saturday, 9 p.m. ET

Either side has the opportunity to take control of the Western Conference as Sporting K.C. hosts current leaders Vancouver. With just one win in the last three, the Whitecaps have just a single point lead over the trio of Portland, Seattle, and KC all knotted up. Most recently, a 3-0 loss to Seattle has Whitecaps fans on edge.

On the other side, the hosts are rolling, unbeaten in four across all competitions including victory in the US Open Cup final, and with a pair of league wins in a row. They have outscored opponents 8-4 in that span, a relatively poor performance for the league’s best defense that will have to contain Fredy Montero and company.

Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls — Saturday, 7 p.m. ET

The Red Bulls are still safe for a week in a playoff position, but with a daunting task in front of them, a loss and other results elsewhere could leave them clinging to just a single point advantage.

They head to Toronto, where the home side has lost just once all season en route to a seven-point advantage in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the visitors will just want a result of some kind, currently four points above Montreal in the final playoff spot.

New York will feel they have a chance as Sebastian Giovinco will likely sit thanks to quad tightness, and Toronto has lost its last two with the Italian on the sidelines, although Jozy Altidore returns from a three-game absence of his own. He’ll look to take advantage of a recently leaky Red Bulls back line.

Chicago Fire vs. NYCFC — Saturday, 9 p.m. ET

A potential playoff preview sees NYCFC hit the road – where they’ve been vulnerable – to visit Chicago. The Fire have been just as vulnerable at home of late, with just one loss in its last four home games to go along with a pair of losses.

The Fire could see Bastian Schweinsteiger come back, having missed the last four matches with a calf problem, and his return matches that of a number of NYCFC midfield starters.

Both these teams are firmly in the playoff picture, and could meet down the road in the postseason. Now, their view is on a bye. Chicago sits in 4th with 51 points, while NYCFC is in a more advantageous spot with 55 points to put them in second.

Full MLS schedule (All Times E.T.)

Saturday

Orlando City vs. FC Dallas — 4 p.m.
Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls — 7 p.m.
New England Revolution vs. Atlanta United — 7:30 p.m.
Colombus Crew vs. D.C. United — 7:30 p.m.
Houston Dynamo vs. Minnesota United — 8:30 p.m.
Chicago Fire vs. NYCFC — 8:30 p.m.
Colorado Rapids vs. Montreal Impact — 9 p.m.
Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 9 p.m.
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Portland Timbers — 10:30 p.m.
LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake — 10:30 p.m.

Sunday

Philadelphia Union vs. Seattle Sounders — 1 p.m.

MLS 3 Things: Resurgent Zardes, Toronto up, New England down

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A busy Saturday in Major League Soccer sees three interesting results bolstering the story lines of the final few months of the season.

[ MORE: Unstoppable Josef | Zlatan, too ]

1) Imagine a world with the reigning champs as your reward for finishing first.

With 14 matches to play, Toronto FC has Jozy Altidore back in the fold and has pulled to within eight points of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot after a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday.

Sebastian Giovinco looks like Sebastian Giovinco in scoring another outstanding goal, just his fifth of the season, while Jonathan Osorio also scored in the win.

Before you watch Seba’s goal, picture you’ve won the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Now picture TFC as your semifinal reward.

2) New England is well and truly slumping

Brad Friedel‘s Revs are slipping after losing a third-straight league match, and New England has gained a solitary point since the calendar turned to July following a 2-0 loss at Red Bull Arena.

Fourth through ninth in the East are separated by nine points, and New England is very much in that mix now. Friedel is certainly at the most trying time of his tenure.

Second half goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer did the trick for RBNY, who have claimed 15 of the last 18 points available to them (The lone blemish is the Hudson River Derby).

The Red Bulls are now 8-1-1 at home this season, while New England is 1-4-4 away from Foxboro.

3) Gyasi Zardes’ return to form is surprising and wonderful

Columbus has its second win since May 19, and will be feeling much better about itself following a 3-2 comeback win over Orlando City which included a pair of equalizers.

One of those came in the 88th minute, as Gyasi Zardes completed his brace by converting a penalty won by new arrival Patrick Mullins.

The Crew won late via a rare Wil Trapp goal — the USMNT midfielder has just two in 161 matches — but let’s focus on Zardes.

Zardes’ 13th goal of the season continues an amazing turnaround under striker whisperer Gregg Berhalter. It’s Zardes’ second double-digit season, and his first since 2014. He is firmly in frame for another USMNT look, this time as a center forward, but first there’s plenty to like about the big man.

Surging Galaxy ride Ibrahimovic magic to 3-1 win (video)

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a man on fire, and the LA Galaxy are rounding into form.

The Galaxy overcame an early deficit in Chester to clobber the Philadelphia Union 3-1 on Saturday behind a goal and an assist from their world-class striker.

[ MORE: Neymar on diving ]

Romain Alessandrini had two assists, while Michael Ciani and Ola Kamara also scored for LA. CJ Sapong scored for Philly, assisted by Borek Dockal.

Unbeaten-in-seven LA moves into fourth in the West with the win, while Philadelphia remains three points back of sixth in the East.

Ibrahimovic has now scored in six of his last seven matches, and has 12 goals and two assists in 21 matches overall.

Let’s start with the assist, which we must’ve seen two dozen times when the big Swede was with Paris Saint-Germain.

Ibrahimovic takes a difficult pass out of the air with absurd touch, then waits for the right time to send an impeccable through ball into the path of Kamara.

As for the goal, you almost feel for Mark McKenzie.

The Union’s Homegrown defender has to choose between Alessandrini darting into his box and allowing Ibrahimovic a lick of space.

He gives it, understandably, then rushes to close down Ibrahimovic.

It wasn’t fast enough. Boom.

Americans on both sides, Weah scores as PSG fall to Bayern (video)

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Two hopes of the USMNT’s future — one more immediate than the other — squared off in the International Champions Cup on Saturday.

Paris Saint-Germain teenager Timothy Weah, 18, went 90 minutes and scored his side’s only goal in the 3-1 loss in Austria.

[ MORE: Neymar on diving ]

On the other side of the field was 62nd minute substitute Chris Richards, far less known to the American supporter.

Richards is on loan from FC Dallas, where he’s a Homegrown Player. The 18-year-old center back is going to play for Bayern’s U-19 side following a successful trial in April.

Both Bayern and PSG were without key pieces, as Weah went up against a decent Bayern back line of Juan Bernat, Javi Martinez, Josip Stanisic, and Rafinha.

Arjen Robben, Sandro Wagner, and Franck Ribery were the biggest names in Bayern’s XI, while David Alaba, Kingsley Coman, and Serge Gnabry came off the bench.

For PSG, Gianluigi Buffon started as did Adrien Rabiot.

Weah’s goal is below, and here’s what he had to say about it:

“It’s an amazing feeling and getting a well-done job. Me scoring goals, I was really happy to get my first goal for PSG and first goal in this competition. We’re going to Singapore with our head on our shoulders. We’re going to be really humble and keep playing.”

Klopp talks Pulisic, Liverpool’s spending

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Jurgen Klopp admits he’d love to work with Christian Pulisic again, but isn’t going to butt his nose into Borussia Dortmund’s business.

Speaking ahead of Liverpool’s International Champions Cup match against BVB, Klopp was asked about his interest in the American teenager.

[ MORE: Josef Martinez bags 3 more ]

Klopp was quick to point out that Pulisic is under contract to Dortmund and not for sale, as much as he’s aware.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“He had not his best season last year but he was still a decisive player but it’s important in that age group that there’s no rush. He still has 14 or 15 years to play in his career and that’s good and he wants to be the best Pulisic he can be. For this, there is still space for development.

“If – at one point – he will join us, I don’t know. I like him, it’s not that that could be the problem, but we respect contracts still and there’s no market I know about at the moment. We did our business and Dortmund are doing theirs. All good.”

Also all good? Klopp’s evolution on spending after blasting other Premier League clubs for big money buys in the past.

Klopp said he would quit football if transfer fees like Paul Pogba‘s became the norm. Well, they have, and no club has spent as much money as the Reds this summer.

“That’s the problem these days, hey? Whatever b.s. you say, nobody will forget it. On the other side, it’s still kind of true. I couldn’t have imagined since then that the world would change like it has. Two years ago £100million was a crazy number. Since then the world has changed completely.”

He said he’s going to do whatever it takes to make Liverpool successful, and Klopp now has the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and most expensive defender in his squad.