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MLS State of Play: Playoff, Supporters’ Shield races go to wire

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In a season which has very much underlined its superstars, Major League Soccer reaches its home stretch with plenty on the line for the teams of those megawatt names.

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Carlos Vela and expansion LAFC are in a race for the West’s top seed, while crosstown rival LA Galaxy are riding Zlatan Ibrahimovic toward the final playoff spot.

In the East, Wayne Rooney and DC United are now in a playoff spot (at the expense of Saphir Taider and Montreal). And Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez are hoping to maintain their pole position straight into a Supporters’ Shield.

With *most* teams on 32 matches played — eight teams have midweek matches before a busy weekend — here’s the state of play in the East and West. Let’s start with the latter, where there’s plenty more to dissect but no Supporters’ Shield implications.

The race for the top of the West could be thrilling

Sporting KC is four points behind leaders FC Dallas and three back of LAFC but has a match-in-hand on both.

That match is against a Vancouver team desperate to keep its playoff dreams alive (more on that later, because a Caps win over KC would further enliven the race for sixth!).

Sporting heads to Dallas before hosting LAFC in the finale. Making the race even more exciting is the fact that all three teams are rarities in MLS in that they are .500 or better away from home.

Dallas is in the best spot of the bunch, with a match against lowly Colorado in addition to the visit from KC. LAFC also faces Vancouver, in LA, in what will still be a desperate affair for the Caps.

A home first round spot is Cascadian; Sixth is anyone’s guess

Portland and Seattle are fourth and fifth in the table, and likely jockeying for a home match against the other in what would be a fantastic first round match.

And the fixtures set us up for a lot of fun. Here are the remaining matches for teams still alive for a playoff spot.

Most notably: The final day could have Real Salt Lake simply watching the scoreboard due to a bye, while a Cascadian derby could decide plenty.

Wednesday
Seattle Sounders at Orlando City SC

Thursday
New England Revolution at Real Salt Lake
Sporting KC at Vancouver Whitecaps

Oct. 21
LA Galaxy at Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers
Seattle Sounders at Houston Dynamo
Vancouver Whitecaps at LAFC

Oct. 28
Houston Dynamo at LA Galaxy
Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps
San Jose Earthquakes at Seattle Sounders

Western
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
FC Dallas* 32 16 9 7 51 39 12 10-5-1 6-4-6 57
Los Angeles FC* 32 16 8 8 65 48 17 9-6-1 7-2-7 56
Sporting KC* 31 15 8 8 56 38 18 9-5-2 6-3-6 53
Portland 32 14 9 9 50 46 4 10-4-2 4-5-7 51
Seattle 31 15 5 11 45 33 12 9-2-5 6-3-6 50
Real Salt Lake 32 13 7 12 51 54 -3 10-4-2 3-3-10 46
Los Angeles 32 12 9 11 61 60 1 8-4-4 4-5-7 45
Vancouver 31 12 7 12 49 60 -11 6-5-4 6-2-8 43
Minnesota – e 32 11 3 18 46 65 -19 10-1-5 1-2-13 36
Houston – e 32 9 8 15 53 53 0 8-3-5 1-5-10 35
Colorado – e 32 7 6 19 34 62 -28 5-3-8 2-3-11 27
San Jose – e 32 4 8 20 48 69 -21 2-5-9 2-3-11 20

The Shield looks Southern but nothing is certain

Atlanta United has been consistent home and away, and Tata Martino’s men simply need to match the Red Bulls results to gain a first Supporters’ Shield. Atlanta is home to Chicago and away to Toronto in what should be close to certain.

The Red Bulls know they’ll be first or second, and head to tricky Philadelphia before hosting Orlando City SC.

DC can lessen the drama at midweek

The Black-and-Red haven’t lost since Aug. 29, a run of seven matches, and the Wayne Rooney-Luciano Acosta show hosts already eliminated and Michael Bradley-less Toronto FC on Wednesday.

If DC wins, it will have a four-point lead on seventh-place Montreal and be eyeing up fourth. DC then hosts NYCFC before traveling to Chicago.

Montreal hosts Toronto in a derby before traveling to New England, and can max out at 49 points. That means they need either DC to struggle or Columbus to turn into a pool of mush. The Crew heads to Orlando before hosting Minnesota and… yeah… it would take mush. More than a puddle or maybe even a pool. Perhaps a Lake of Mush.

Eastern
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Atlanta* 32 20 6 6 67 39 28 10-4-2 10-2-4 66
Red Bulls* 32 20 5 7 60 33 27 13-1-2 7-4-5 65
New York City FC* 32 15 8 9 55 41 14 11-4-1 4-4-8 53
Philadelphia* 32 15 5 12 48 46 2 9-2-5 6-3-7 50
Columbus 32 13 9 10 39 41 -2 10-4-2 3-5-8 48
D.C. 31 12 8 11 56 49 7 11-2-2 1-6-9 44
Montreal 32 13 4 15 45 52 -7 10-2-4 3-2-11 43
New England – e 32 9 11 12 47 51 -4 7-5-4 2-6-8 38
Toronto FC – e 31 9 6 16 55 60 -5 7-2-7 2-4-9 33
Chicago – e 32 8 7 17 47 59 -12 6-3-7 2-4-10 31
Orlando City SC – e 31 7 4 20 40 70 -30 5-4-6 2-0-14 25

Newcastle close to $50 million Joelinton signing

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Newcastle United’s fans are about to have a new hero.

Brazilian forward Joelinton is on Tyneside and is undergoing a medical ahead of a club-record $50 million transfer from Bundesliga side Hoffenheim.

According to our partners Sky Sports, Joelinton, 22, is finalizing his move to St James’ Park and will become Steve Bruce‘s first signings as Magpies boss.

Much-maligned owner Mike Ashley has promised to reinvest the money Newcastle bring in via transfer fees back into the playing squad, and this move would not only prove that but also suggests he could stick around as a potential sale of the club continues to drag on.

Newcastle’s need for a new striker is clear for all to see as they’ve lost top goalscorer from last season, Salomon Rondon, who returned to parent club West Brom after his loan and has since joined former Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez at Dalian Yifang in China.

With Ayoze Perez sold to Leicester City for $40 million, Bruce badly needed attacking reinforcements and Joelinton’s impending arrival is a huge deal, as the previous club-record transfer was the $27 million they paid for Miguel Almiron in January.

Maybe this will lift some of the gloom which has hung over Newcastle this offseason…

Does Joelinton fit the bill? He scored 11 goals in 33 outings for Hoffenheim last season and is a Brazilian youth international. The last Brazilian striker to leave Hoffenheim for the Premier League has had a pretty good impact (sarcasm alert) as Roberto Firmino arrived for $40 million in the summer of 2015.

But Joelinton is a much different striker to Firmino. In many ways he is the perfect replacement for Rondon, as he is strong in the air, a powerful runner on the break and has a calmness in front of goal to finish off mazy runs or speedy counters.

That will be music to the ears of Newcastle’s fans, as the likes of Almiron and Matt Ritchie will whip in plenty of crosses for him to attack next season. His figures in Germany haven’t been prolific but Joelinton is still young and all of his attributes align with the direct style of play Newcastle had under Benitez and that’s how they will likely play under Bruce.

Take a look at the video above to see Joelinton in all his glory for Hoffenheim last season.

We’re not saying he’s going to be the next Alan Shearer, but he has the potential to be exactly what Newcastle need as they aim to cement their place in the Premier League.

Man United next? Deals for Fernandes, Pepe developing

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Manchester United could be looking a lot different by the time the summer transfer window closes on Aug. 8.

After already signing pacy youngsters Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka for a combined $83 million, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be enthused to hear about the latest developments regarding two of his other targets.

With Man United on their preseason tour of Australia and the Far East, Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has remained in England to sort out transfer deals and there have been updates on their pursuit of winger Nicolas Pepe and attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes, with both players consistently linked with a move to Old Trafford this summer.

Pepe, 24, lit up Ligue 1 last season as Lille finished second in the table and qualified for the UEFA Champions League. The Ivory Coast winger has just returned from the Africa Cup of Nations and here’s  what Lille club president Gerard Lopez had to say about his future at the club.

“For Nico, it is almost done and he could have left last summer,” Lopez said. “It is true that there are big offers and big clubs in for him, so I think [he will leave].”

As for Fernandes, he has spoken to the media ahead of Sporting Lisbon’s trip to New York City to play a friendly against Liverpool on Wednesday and admitted he wants to move to the Premier League.

“I don’t care about the market, I’ve talked about this many times. The only thing I can do now is that I need to catch the plane so I don’t miss it,” Fernandes said. “‘Will this be the last match for Sporting?’ I don’t know, it’s the coach who decides. I told you I’d like to play in England, but that’s not what interests me. It may be when the club decides.”

Sporting’s president Frederico Varandas has said earlier this week that Fernandes will not leave for anything less than $65 million, even though Fernandes has a much smaller release clause in his contract.

There is a clause which Sporting have in his contract which says they can pay Fernandes $6 million direct if they reject any offer over his release clause. So, yeah, that deal is a little more complicated.

As for Pepe, it is believed Lille want around $75 million for the clinical winger and although both Bayern Munich and Liverpool have been linked with a move for him, Man United are now the new favorites to sign him.

Even though United should spend more money on their defensive unit, both of these players bring one main thing: Goals. And plenty of them.

Pepe scored 22 in France’s top-flight last season, while Fernandes, 24, scored 31 times for Sporting Lisbon in all competitions as the Portuguese midfielder had a breakout year.

With a $100 million move for Leicester’s Harry Maguire lined up, plus Newcastle’s Sean Longstaff still courted, Solskjaer is focusing on bringing in players 26 years old or younger.

That is the correct approach as United want to match the intensity of the way Liverpool and Man City play to push themselves back into the top four and return to being perennial title challengers.

As for the rest of their squad, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, for now, are still around, while David De Gea is set to sign a new contract with the Red Devils in the coming days. If Lukaku leaves, which looks likely, then Mason Greenwood seems ready to step in and give Solskjaer yet another attacking option.

Taking into account these possible moves and the signings United have already made, here’s what their matchday squad could look like this season.

Not bad, eh?

Possible Man United matchday squad, 2019-20

—– De Gea —–

— Wan-Bissaka — Lindelof — Maguire — Shaw —

—– Matic —– 

— Pepe — Pogba — Fernandes — Martial —

—– Rashford —- 

Bench
Romero (GK)
Bailly
Young
Longstaff
James
Lingard
Greenwood

Pulisic dazzles as Chelsea beat Barcelona

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Christian Pulisic‘s first start for Chelsea saw him put on a show as the Premier League side beat Barcelona 2-1 in Saitama, Japan on Tuesday.

The USMNT star made his first start of preseason for the Blues and his pace off the left flank tore Barca apart on numerous occasions.

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His early shot was parried by Marc Andre ter Stegen and Tammy Abraham should have finished off the rebound but blazed over the bar. Abraham did grab the winner though, as Jorginho intercepted the ball in a key area which led to Abraham showing quick feet to finish in the first half. Ross Barkley then came on in the second and scored a beauty for Chelsea’s second, and although Ivan Rakitic pulled one back in stoppage time, Frank Lampard grabbed his second preseason win as Chelsea’s new boss.

As for Pulisic, he played the first 60 minutes and again wore the No.24 shirt for the Blues. His squad number for this season is yet to be confirmed (USMNT fans everywhere are still waiting with bated breath to buy their Chelsea shirts) but the Pennsylvania native is unlikely to get Eden Hazard‘s No.10 jersey as Willian has confirmed to Brazilian media he will wear that next season.

The 20-year-old impressed Lampard by cutting short his summer break after playing for the U.S. at the Gold Cup. Pulisic is quite fresh after being in and out of the Borussia Dortmund team last season due to injuries and the emergence of Jadon Sancho, but the fact he wanted to hit the ground running with Chelsea as soon as possible certainly starts his Blues career off in the correct manner.

Putting in an impressive display against Barcelona in a preseason friendly will no doubt help his chances of being a key player for Lampard as he battles with Pedro, Willian and other to start in one of the wide positions early in the season.

A fairly strong Barcelona side (missing Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez as they rest after the Copa America) did see Antoine Griezmann play his first game for Blaugrana as they will Vissel Kobe, Arsenal and Napoli in Japan, Spain and the USA as their mammoth preseason tour continues.

Chelsea will now return to England to play against Reading, then travel to Red Bull Salzburg in Austria and Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany before their opening game of the Premier League season against Manchester United on Aug. 11 (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Pulisic is certainly pushing to be in the Blues’ starting lineup at Old Trafford on the opening day.

Zidane says Bale refused to play as saga continues

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Zinedine Zidane has responded to being called a “disgrace” by Gareth Bale’s agent.

And Zizou isn’t standing down in this situation, as he revealed that Bale refused to play in their friendly against Bayern Munich in Houston, Texas on Saturday.

Talk about doubling down…

Real Madrid’s manager said last week that Bale would be leaving the Spanish giants and it would be “best for everyone” if it happened quickly. That prompted an angry response from Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, who believed his client deserved more respect after winning four UEFA Champions League trophies, a La Liga title and Spanish Cup in his six seasons at Real.

Zidane has confirmed that Bale is training with Real in the U.S. and may play against Arsenal in Washington D.C. later today. But the situation is far from resolved.

“The first thing is that I’ve never disrespected anybody – certainly not any player. I’ve always said the same. Players are the most important thing here. If there is a player here, I will be with them. Secondly, I said the club were trying to find a way out for Gareth,” Zidane explained.

“Thirdly, which is the most important, is that the other day he didn’t get changed for the game because he didn’t want to. The club are trying to find a way out for him. For now, Gareth is a Real Madrid player, he’s going to train normally with us and we will see what happens on Tuesday.”

Bale, 30, is reportedly not keen on taking a huge pay cut from his $620,000 per week contract at Real and his family are settled in Madrid. He has another three years left on his monster contract at Real, and this is a huge problem for Zidane to sort out. Bale’s agent has also said that his client will not be leaving on loan, and that really puts Real in a tough position.

After signing the likes of Rodrygo, Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic this summer, Real’s attack has a whole new feel to it with Karim Benzema, Mariano Diaz and Lucas Vazquez all still around too.

Our own Nick Mendola broke the situation down over the weekend as to where Bale could move, with the likes of Bayern Munich, Tottenham and PSG listed as possible destinations, while a move to the Chinese Super League seems increasingly likely.

Reports suggest both Jiangsu Suning and Beijing Guoan will pay Bale over $1.3 million per week to get him to move to China, and if he is to leave Real this seems like the best option right now as many of Europe’s top clubs are balking at his huge wages, let alone stumping up a transfer fee for him.

It isn’t Bale’s fault Real offered him this huge amount of cash. And it isn’t his fault that Zidane doesn’t seem to rate him and Real’s fans boo him. The supporters have latched onto stories that Bale doesn’t speak Spanish after seven years in Madrid, plus the fact he enjoys being out on the golf course a lot and they blame that for many of his injuries.

That said, Bale has scored 102 goals and added 65 assists in 231 appearances for Real, which include star displays in Champions League and Spanish Cup finals. Real and Zidane want to get rid of Bale, but he isn’t going to go anywhere if he doesn’t want to.

Player power will win this battle, as it always does these days.