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After Argentina miracle, Messi leads Barcelona at Atletico

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi has willed Argentina into the World Cup.

Now he can exhale and get back to what he does best: Keeping Barcelona atop the Spanish league.

Just when the stakes couldn’t have been higher, Messi struck three goals to bring Argentina back for a 3-1 win at Ecuador on Tuesday and seize a last-minute ticket to Russia.

The star forward will have little chance to rest, however, with Barcelona counting on him to lead the team in its visit to Atletico Madrid on Saturday in the Spanish capital.

THE SAVIOR

Messi has won a combined 17 trophies for Barcelona in the Champions League, Spanish league and Copa del Rey.

But his success with Barcelona has only increased the pressure on him to deliver silverware for Argentina. So far, he has lifted Argentina to only finals in the World Cup and Copa America.

Argentina struggled to produce goals throughout South American qualifying for the World Cup heading into the must-win match in Quito. And its chances looked grim when Ecuador scored in the first minute.

“It would’ve been crazy if Argentina didn’t play the World Cup,” Messi said after his hat trick.

FORGET NEYMAR

When Neymar bolted for Paris Saint-Germain in August, Barcelona entered into panic mode and scrambled to buy players to fill the gap left by the Brazil striker.

It had to break a club record for spending on a transfer to pry Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund, only for the France forward to tear a tendon in his left leg in just his third appearance.

But throughout the turmoil and turnover, Messi has responded by playing one of his best periods of football.

The 30-year-old Messi has 11 goals in seven league matches, including one four-goal outing and a treble. That has helped Barcelona outscore opponents 23-2 in the league.

He has also netted twice in the Champions League in wins over Juventus and Sporting Lisbon.

NEXT UP

Atletico is the most serious test yet for Barcelona in the league.

Yet, despite its reputation as one of the toughest defensive sides in Spain, Atletico is one of Messi’s favorite victims.

Messi has scored against Atletico 27 times in 34 matches across all competitions, including 12 at its former stadium.

Atletico hosts Barcelona for the first time at its new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.

Atletico is unbeaten in the league, although it lost to Chelsea 2-1 at home in the Champions League.

Barcelona leads second-place Sevilla by five points. Atletico is fourth and trails the pacesetter by six points.

Real Madrid is seven points adrift before visiting Getafe on Saturday.

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.