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MLS Preview: Atlanta United hosts last season’s MLS champion, and more

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Coming off an exciting All-Star week, week 23 of MLS action resumes with 11 matches, 10 of them taking place on Saturday. Here are some storylines to keep an eye on this weekend…

[READ: Premier League season previews]

Atlanta hosts defending champions

Since Toronto FC fell in the CONCACAF Champions League final at the end of April, the team has been spiraling out of control. Long-term injuries have kept Victor Vasquez, Jozy Altidore, Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga and Eriq Zavalata among others off the field, and the team’s fortunes have suffered. Now, Toronto FC heads into the lion’s den to face the current Supporters Shield leaders.

Josef Martinez is coming off four goals in a week, including one against Juventus in the MLS All-Star game. While Toronto FC has won two-straight games, Atlanta United has four wins in its last five and has one loss in it’s last 11 as the incredible firepower has overcome any defensive liabilities. With Drew Moor still out, can Martinez continue his incredible goal-scoring form?

Can the Loons keep winning?

It appears we need to split the history of Minnesota United in MLS as pre-Darwin Quintero and post the day Quintero signed for the club.

Since joining, Minnesota United has been arguably the hottest team in MLS. with three wins in their last four that including three goals in that same span from Quintero. In fact, when Quintero and Christian Ramirez play together, they average an impressive 1.8 goals per 90 minutes. The duo were shut down though last week against Vancouver, and that’s a tactic the Sounders are likely to try this Saturday when they visit Minnesota.

Seattle meanwhile is beginning to play much better and has won three-straight games, including a six-game unbeaten run. Nico Lodeiro has played a big role, with three goals and four assists in the Sounders’ last 11 games.

Battle of the stars

Bradley Wright-Phillips and the New York Red Bulls host Carlos Vela and LAFC in Sunday’s national TV matchup.

It’s a first matchup between Red Bulls coach Chris Armas and his former coach, Bob Bradley, where the two teamed up for the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double in Chicago. Meanwhile, both teams have been successful in the attack this year. The Red Bulls and LAFC are two of just five teams averaging 1.9 expected goals per game or more, per Opta.

One of the big battles to keep an eye on is Adama Diomande against Aaron Long. The young centerback is returning from a confidence-boosting All-Star game appearance but Diomande has been one of the best strikers in MLS since joining.

Forster stars as 10-man Celtic beat Rangers, claim 10th-straight trophy

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At some point, Rangers supporters will be forgiven for thinking Celtic doesn’t have all the luck in Scotland.

The Bhoys, second best for most of the day, scored a 60th minute goal and then overcame a red card three minutes later to claim their 10th successive piece of Scottish silverware with a 1-0 win the Scottish League Cup.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Celtic’s Chris Jullien prodded home a free kick before 18-year-old Jeremie Frimpong was sent off, and Rangers had already controlled the proceedings before seeing a 16-5 edge in shot attempts at the final whistle.

Goalkeeper Fraser Forster, the former Saints and Newcastle man, was outstanding in the win, even stopping an Alfredo Morelos penalty as the Rangers star failed to deliver.

From the BBC:

“It was just one of them days, it went my way today. I’m buzzing. There’s been days when it’s not gone my way, today it has. I can’t say how much it means to me. I didn’t really think about the penalty to be honest. I picked the way it went. I’ll take it.

“That’s why I came back; to play in games like this, to win silverware, to play European football.”

Rodgers: “Historic day” as Leicester City extends win streak

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Of course it’s early, but it looks like Leicester City is the Premier League’s lone bright hope of challenging Liverpool for the title.

And yeah, that’s a big deal, even after the Foxes claimed the most inexplicable title in top flight history just four seasons ago.

[ RECAP: Villa 1-4 Leicester City ]

But the Foxes remain leery about embracing their title credentials, even after setting a club record by winning their eight-straight via a 4-1 victory over Aston Villa at Villa Park on Sunday.

“I thought they were amazing,” said Brendan Rodgers. “It is a historical day for the club and the performance warranted that. It really does mean something special, it puts the team in the history books of Leicester City.”

Okay, but… just a little bit about the title fight, Brendan? No?

Perhaps goal scoring defender Jonny Evans would take the bait.

“We are up there and it shows we are playing well. Our performance was good, against one of the best Villa teams I faced in years. It shows we are capable of coming away and getting results. It is nice people are talking about us, we’re enjoying it and there’s great spirit in the club.”

Leicester is eight points back of first, the only team within 10 points of Liverpool. Man City is 14 back and Chelsea 17.

The Foxes host Norwich City before its next stretch of proving ground arrives via a League Cup quarterfinal at Everton prefaces league matches versus Man City and Liverpool.

Scrappy Sheffield United comes back to win again

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George Baldock had a goal and an assist as Sheffield United came back to beat poor Norwich City at Carrow Road on Sunday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Enda Stevens also scored for the Blades, who got back in the win column after a loss to Newcastle at midweek. United is eighth, the top of three teams on 22 points.

Alex Tettey scored Norwich’s lone goal, the Canaries locked in 19th and four points back of safety.


Three things we learned

1. Baldock’s banner day: The Blades dangerous right back loves to whip in a cross, and it’s no surprise he got his assist that way. He’s been quite lively around the box this year, and his turn and fire to make it 2-1 was a fitting finish given the 26-year-old’s day.

2. Basham gets VAR reprieve: Sometimes it’s not black and white, and you go to VAR, and VAR decides the shades of gray. Chris Basham was sent off for a vicious tackle on Kenny McLean, but the Sheffield United man saw VAR decide it wasn’t quite so dastardly and Blades continued with 10 men. A tough one if you’re a Norwich supporter.

3. Buendia stays bright: Norwich playmaker Emiliano Buendia is keeping the Canaries in games, the proverbial don’t write it, don’t write it, don’t write it canary in a coal mine. Five more key passes for Buendia to accompany more fine dribbling and a surprisingly good battle for a player as skillful as the 22-year-old Argentine.

Man of the Match: Baldock.


The Canaries went in front through Tettey inside a half-hour of kickoff, a corner dealt with poorly from the Blades that the Norwegian struck well for 1-0.

Norwich was good money for its halftime lead, with an 8-4 edge in shots, 53 percent of the ball, and six corners to the Blades’ zero.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

The Blades leveled things through Stevens, who headed in a Baldock cross before the assister became the scorer. The goal was no small ask, Baldock navigating the 18 to get off his shot.

Vardy, Iheanacho power 4-star Foxes past Villa

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Kelechi Iheanacho again collected a goal and an assist and Jamie Vardy scored twice as Leicester City punished Aston Villa in an entertaining 4-1 at Villa Park on Sunday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Jonny Evans also scored for the Foxes, who maintain their place eight points behind leaders Liverpool.

Jack Grealish scored for Aston Villa, which stays ahead of 18th place on Southampton on goal differential.

Leicester City hosts Liverpool on Boxing Day, a date to circle on the calendar.


Three things we learned

1. Iheanacho emergence a new wrinkle: Nigerian striker Kelechi Iheanacho was always lurking as a possible star during his time at Man City, but couldn’t break through and transferred to the King Power Stadium. Life hadn’t been easy at his new home, but a goal and an assist in consecutive Premier League fixtures can make a difference as Leicester hopes to challenge Liverpool. Resting Jamie Vardy on occasion without a big drop-off would be a potentially monumental development.

2. Vardy’s party a record bash: The 15th and 16th goals of Vardy’s PL run put him on pace for 38. That would be six better than Mohamed Salah‘s 38-game record and four better than the 42-game mark shared by Alan Shearer and Andy Cole. Even when he makes mistakes, he finishes.

3. Hobbled Mings a big worry: Villa star center back Tyrone Mings pulled up with an injury but attempted to fight through it. Full credit to him, as he’s been the easy star of the newly-promoted side’s start to life in the Premier League, but an absence or step back from the block and clearance machine will be a major blow to Dean Smith‘s side.

Man of the Match: It’s between Vardy and Iheanacho — James Maddison was also good — and we’ll choose Vardy because we gave it to Iheanacho at midweek.


Kelechi Iheanacho slipped Vardy through on goal, and the Foxes striker nearly blew his chance despite dribbling the keeper.

Ezri Konsa would’ve liked to challenge Vardy following the unusual mis-touch, but the defender was felled by his own sliding keeper.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

After Anwar El Ghazi just missed a promising bid to equalize, Villa’s Bjorn Engels slid to break up a Vardy pass to a wide open Iheanacho.

The Nigerian got his goal in the 41st, a James Maddison cross deflected goal ward and off his leg for 2-0.

Grealish bounced a shot through traffic and inside the far post after Vardy couldn’t clear a corner kick.

Leicester needed less than four second half minutes to restore its two-goal advantage, the unmarked Evans perfectly placing a back post header across goal off a corner kick.