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MLS Weekend Preview: Fringe playoff teams get tough tests

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A number of Major League Soccer clubs fighting for playoff position have extremely difficult tasks this weekend as the MLS season reaches the final five or six matches of the year.

In the Eastern Conference, the two teams just above the playoff cut – Montreal and Philadelphia – both meet top-tier sides. Montreal meets NYCFC on Saturday, while Philadelphia hosts Western Conference leaderes Sporting KC on Sunday. With D.C. United off this weekend, the teams have an opportunity to pull away, with Philadelphia able to give itself an 11 point lead, a near certainty to make the postseason.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver Whitecaps sit four games back of Seattle for the final Western Conference playoff spot, and the Whitecaps welcome second-place FC Dallas to BC Place. Just above Seattle is Real Salt Lake, and they travel to Eastern Conference leaders Atlanta United.

So which team in the playoff hunt will fall into danger, and which will pick up key momentum?

Atlanta United vs. Real Salt Lake – Saturday 9/22, 7:00 p.m. ET

Real Salt Lake has lost just one of its last nine, but that will be put to the test with a visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to take on Atlanta United. San Jose did its best to hold on for dear life, but was ultimately unable to hold off the blazing guns of the visitors. The usual suspects were at it again for Atlanta in Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, and RSL will have plenty to think about, especially having kept just one clean sheet since the start of August.

Montreal Impact vs. NYCFC – Saturday 9/22, 7:30 p.m. ET

Montreal took one major step towards securing a playoff spot with a win over Philadelphia, and now a much stiffer test awaits as they welcome NYCFC to town. The Eastern Conference’s third-placed side is coming off a bye week, last playing September 8. While the top of the table is out of reach for NYCFC, a few more points would secure positioning for the postseason. They have faded of late, however, without a win in over a month.

Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting KC – Sunday 9/23, 1:00 p.m. ET

Both teams have suffered just one loss over their last seven games, and while both teams have offensive capabilities, only one has the defensive structure to go with it. Outside of a 3-1 loss at Seattle, Sporting KC has conceded just one single goal in its last six matches. Meanwhile, Philadelphia will be without the suspended Jack Elliott, a major loss for a team that has improved drastically at the back since Elliott’s introduction to the starting lineup in early August.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. FC Dallas – Sunday 9/23, 7:00 p.m. ET

Vancouver sits just one single position out of the playoffs, four points behind sixth-place Seattle, but lost to the Sounders last weekend and must pick up the pieces from that major Cascadia stumble. The first roadblock is a big one, welcoming the Western Conference’s 2nd placed team. Since being shut out by Real Salt Lake in early July, FC Dallas has bagged 19 goals in its last nine games, although they were blanked last time out in a 0-0 draw with Columbus after a forgettable 90 minutes.

LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders – Sunday 9/23, 7:00 p.m. ET

The LA Galaxy are in slightly more peril than the Whitecaps find themselves in, and now they draw the side that beat Vancouver last weekend in the Sounders. Seattle had its winning streak finally come to an end at a relatively inopportune time, but there is still time to recover before the playoffs begin. In fact, they must recover – and fast – because Seattle is just four points above the cut line, sitting in sixth. A critical “six-pointer” at the StubHub Center will see the home side look to become the first team since the start of July to put two goals or more past Seattle.

Other games

LAFC vs. San Jose Earthquakes – Saturday @ 3:30 p.m. ET
NY Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC – Saturday @ 5:00 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew vs. Colorado Rapids – Saturday @ 7:30 p.m. ET
New England Revolution vs. Chicago Fire – Saturday @ 7:30 p.m. ET
Orlando City vs. Houston Dynamo – Saturday @ 7:30 p.m. ET
Minnesota United vs. Portland Timbers – Saturday @ 8:00 p.m. ET

AT HALF: Pogba switches off, Chelsea pounces (video)

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Antonio Rudiger‘s perfectly-timed run and matching header left Paul Pogba looking the fool as Chelsea claim a 1-0 halftime lead over Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

[ STREAM: Watch live online ]

Manchester United was extremely lively, rewarding Mourinho for going attack-first with his lineup, but it was Paul Pogba who let the team down.

The superstar midfielder let Antonio Rudiger use a pick to create some space on a corner kick, and couldn’t catch up to the German. Rudiger powered Willian‘s offering across goal and David De Gea couldn’t get a hand on the header. 1-0.

It’s a big second half for United, who has Alexis Sanchez on the bench.

Watch Live: Chelsea v. Man United

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A huge clash kicks the Premier League action back off after the international break, as Chelsea host Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on Saturday at 7:30 a.m. ET.

[ STREAM: Watch live online ]

Chelsea have lost just one of their last 16 PL home games against United and the Red Devils have lost more times against the Blues than any other PL club.

Throw in the fact that Chelsea are on fire under new manager Maurizio Sarri and Eden Hazard is ripping apart the league, while Jose Mourinho and Man United are struggling after their worst-ever start to a PL season, and this will be an intriguing battle.

In team news Sarri starts Alvaro Morata up top instead of Olivier Giroud, while Ross Barkley is only fit enough to make the bench.

Mourinho has a slightly more attacking lineup than expected as Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial all start.


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The Canadian Premier League is building buzz

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Maybe he’s just new on the job, but a conversation with Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan is like an imperial stout from one of Ontario’s many breweries: It gets you buzzing really quickly.

[ MORE: MLS State of Play ]

Sure, the man who knows how to politick, crediting NBC and EA Sports for the uptick in soccer popularity in North America, but it’s more than salesmanship for the former Tim Horton’s chief operating officer (Tim’s is an inescapable Canadian coffee chain).

But in discussing the construction of Canada’s new league, there’s an unavoidable energy that tracks from the ground up (and there’s little doubt their publicity and communications crew has won its mission). From the league’s very open trials in seven cities — announcing cut lists after Day One of each — to several other notable announcements, there’s an optimism in a new North American soccer league that hasn’t been felt in some time.

“You’d think in sports mad North American it should be easy to do, and many have tried but it hasn’t worked in Canada,” Clanachan says of trying to build a new league. “The bottom line is we took a very different approach. We’re building from the community level in everything we’ve done. You surround yourself with a group of storytellers who really know the game and how it shows that great passion. That’s driven by the movement and passion of the spectators. Soccer supporters are there whether their team is in third-last or first. They are all in.”

And so when the CPL started with teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, Halifax, Langford, Winnipeg, and York, it made sure those fan bases got a different taste of pro sports.

Who had the hardest shot or best agility at the Winnipeg trials? It’s all right there. Who made it to the second day of trials in Quebec? Just look at the list. Why did the league choose one uniform designer for all the teams? They’ll tell you, plainly.

Transparency is a big claim, but one the CPL has so far embraced in a big way.

“I talk about that incessantly with our people,” Clanachan said. “From everything when we announced the league and the league identity, people were blown away with us being very transparent. We believe that to really build it is to take people with you on the journey. It helps people understand who we are and what we want to do. Then it just became about continuing the momentum.”

Clanachan has said he dreams of a 2-3 division league with promotion and relegation one day, but is focused very much on keeping his seven teams strong at the start.

Clanachan (canpl.ca)

He credits club owners’ ownership of the league with helping idea sharing, saying the NBA is a good model for intra-league support.

And he thinks the relative lack of jobs for Canadians, especially in MLS, is only going to help his league start stronger.

“When you look at the entire MLS, there are only four Canadians that are playing meaningful minutes and only 28 total, and that’s the largest pro league close to this country,” Clanachan said.

Four, really?!?

“That’s what our guys are telling me.”

I expected him to be wrong, but there are only four Canadians in the Top 200 for minutes in MLS despite three teams playing North of the U.S. border. The number expands to eight over 300, but point well-taken.

And the open trials reflect that. NCAA college stars, MLS draft picks, and players from smaller European clubs dot the open tryout list, and these are just the names hungry to get on the radar of coaches who clearly have their own lists of players.

“Players from Singapore, Japan, South Korea are all getting attention, and they’ve paid their own way,” Clanachan raves. “Two nights ago Canada played Dominica. Our whole staff went. One of the starting forwards for Dominica was at our York trials last week. Dominica’s a very small country, let’s be honest, but a lot of people want to live in these countries, Canada and the U.S.”

And so, it follows that Canada is going to have fan enthusiasm and a decent level when it begins its way into the North American soccer landscape.

“What I took from Tim Horton’s is we built it community by community,” he said. “When you do it that way, you make a lot of deposits, and they’re with you when the withdrawal comes when you want support. And they are there in spades. Because they see you with them every day.
“When these owners came looking for me, I heard two words ‘legacy’ and ‘Canadians.’ And that to me was not the typical, ‘Well we gotta make money at this.’ Because people who go into sport to make money are going into it for the wrong reasons. They’ve gotta be into it for development of the sport. It rang a true bell. You look at why we’re having success: We’ve haven’t kicked a ball yet and people are over the moon. We’ve sold thousands of season tickets without announcing a roster. And it’s all calculated.”
The league kicks off in April. The league web site is canpl.ca.

Jurgen Klopp has some hot takes on the UEFA Nations League

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Jurgen Klopp loves tepid friendlies.

Of course, we’re kidding, but the Liverpool manager is not happy with the new UEFA Nations League, which has amped up matches during international breaks previously reserved for experimental XIs and low-key affairs.

[ MORE: MLS State of Play ]

With Liverpool losing several players to injury — albeit two during Africa Cup of Nations qualifying — Klopp was asked for his opinion on Friday.

The vociferous German did not disappoint. From The Liverpool Echo:

“They say ‘now we have proper games, real opponents and it’s better than having friendlies’, stuff like that. … Maybe people want to see (boxer Anthony) Joshua fighting every second night but it’s not possible. Nobody asks for it in other sports.

“Do we really want opera every night or every two months? That’s the question. We have to be careful. That’s all I said. I like competition of course but at one point someone has to step back and say ‘wait, they are players, I want to watch it, but if they don’t perform then I am angry’. How can we make sure they perform? That’s all I wanted to say.”

Now I’m all for more personalities like Klopp in sports, but I have to say this is about as poor a take as it gets. Do I want any event I watch, let alone pay to see, to be less intense? Nope. Not at all.

Do I like preseason matches, or dead rubber games late in the season? Only in-as-much as they are examples of sports I like. Sorry that your guys are hurt, Jurgen, but no one short of Liverpool fans and other club managers are giving thumbs up to your talk.

I mean, seriously, have you ever watched a game and thought, “I’m glad these guys or girls aren’t trying as hard as they can!” Doesn’t being less tuned into a game provide more chances for someone to get hurt.

I don’t buy it one bit. Anyone in Jurgen’s camp? I’m happy to argue in the comments section.