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MLS Eastern Conference in for wild finish

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Saturday feels like a big day for the settlement of the MLS playoff picture in the East.

Several teams have been playing catch-up in terms of matches-in-hand for months, with New York City FC, Atlanta United, and even Toronto FC eyeing up goals higher up the table than their standing.

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And the East looks set for a blockbuster run into the playoffs, which begin their new structure this Fall. Only the No. 1 seeds get a bye, and two-legged affairs are joyfully a thing of the past.

As it stands, the playoffs may hinge on the massive advantage of a postage stamp pitch.

New York City FC

NYCFC has taken advantage of its schedule, winning five-straight matches including Saturday’s defeat of New England to climb into first place in the East.

Domenec Torrent now has a better points-per-match than Patrick Vieira’s strong run in charge, and NYCFC has a two-point lead on Philadelphia with a match-in-hand.

NYCFC has six matches left, and there isn’t a simple one in the bunch. Toronto, San Jose, and Atlanta come to Yankee Stadium, while the side travels to Dallas, New England, and Philly.

(A prolonged New York Yankees playoff run is going to wreak havoc on the grass, by the way, as NYCFC faces possible home games on Oct. 23-24 or Oct. 29-30).

Philadelphia Union

The Union took advantage of the international break to take on Pumas of Liga MX, and their second choice team won 3-0.

Jim Curtin’s rise up the table is one of the best stories in the league, the coach rewarding Philly for its trust in him (and understanding that it hadn’t given him a full deck).

Four of five matches left on the docket are brutal, though. There are visits from LAFC and NYCFC, and trip to the Red Bulls and San Jose. If Philly holds out and finishes first, there’s no doubting their acumen for a postseason run.

Atlanta United

Atlanta is five points back of NYCFC, but is on the same amount of matches. Given their schedule, Frank De Boer‘s men may well take the No. 1 see if they can take three points from NYCFC on Sept. 25.

(Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DC United

The Black-and-Red only have four matches left. Wayne Rooney and Co. visit a desperate Portland next, and they’ve been pretty good about getting results away from home; DC’s nine wins/draws away trail only LAFC and NYCFC.

A Sept. 29 visit to the Red Bulls is DC’s only remaining chance to take points off a positioning rival. Even if they do that, Toronto’s slate means DC may fall out of a first round home playoff spot.

New York Red Bulls

Chris Armas’ team has a brutal road to the postseason. A point back of fourth with a match-in-hand, their standing could take a dive over the next two matches.

RBNY has consecutive matches across the country with Portland and Seattle, then visits from Philly and DC before finishing in Quebec against a Montreal side hopeful of chasing down the pack.

The keys are in their hands, but the Red Bulls have to drive across a mine field. This could end in any number of ways.

Toronto FC

USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter did the Reds a solid by allowing Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Omar Gonzalez to stay for a pivotal two-match stretch. Greg Vanney got a near Man of the Match performance from Bradley and solid day from Gonzalez while Altidore rested up for NYCFC in a 5-1 drubbing of FC Cincinnati.

Both TFC and NYCFC will go into Wednesday’s game one little rest.

The Reds two brutal matches — away to NYCFC and LAFC — and three manageable outings against Colorado, Columbus, and Chicago. Beating NYCFC on Wednesday would seem to ensure a place in the Top Four, and a home game in Round 1.

The rest

New England‘s next game is critical, a visit to Orlando City. A draw or Revs win stings the Lions’ hopes for a late season push for the playoffs.

Montreal is dangerous on its day but tumultuous and faces a two-legged Canadian Championship with TFC for a place in the CONCACAF Champions League. It might be reasonable to prioritize that.

Orlando City has two points from its last four but also drew LAFC 2-2 this weekend. A win over New England on Saturday leads into a run-in of Houston, Cincinnati, and Chicago.

Chicago needs to win out and get help: Visits from Dallas and Toronto make this very difficult, though a finish against Orlando on Oct. 6 could be a show-stopper.

Lyon hires Rudi Garcia as new manager

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Olympique Lyonnais has announced they have hired Rudi Garcia as manager, replacing the fired Sylvinho.

Lyon has struggled mightily to start the Ligue 1 season, winning just two of its first nine league games and sitting 14th in the table with nine points. Sylvinho, who was only hired at the end of May, was let go last week.

Garcia has formerly taken charge of Roma, Lille, and St. Etienne, and most recently managed Lyon rivals Marseille for three seasons before departing this summer. He left with Marseille having failed to claim a Champions League place amid the Ligue 1 top three.

“I chose Rudi Garcia because he is a fighter who, like us, has the ambition to win titles and succeed on the European stage,” said Lyon sporting director Juninho. The Brazilian had chosen his countrymate Sylvinho this summer, but made a change just nine matches into the season with the club winning its first two matches of the season and failing to win since. They have lost three of the last four, with all three defeats coming via a 1-0 scoreline. They have scored just five goals in the seven-match winless run, shutout on four different occasions.

The 55-year-old Frenchman will have plenty of proving to do to Lyon fans. Coming straight over from a direct rival, . Fans were outspoken about their cautious feelings, as the introductory tweet was ratio’d by those expressing a distaste for the hire.

“He is an experienced coach who has already won trophies,” added Juninho.“Wherever he has been, he has had above-average performances and has always managed to make the most of what he had at his disposal.”

Garcia’s first match in charge will be a home league match this weekend against Dijon, followed by a Europa League visit to Benfica.

Barcelona denounces Spanish court decision on Catalan independence

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Barcelona released a statement criticizing a recent Spanish Supreme Court decision that saw 12 political activists jailed for their role in the 2017 push for Catalan independence.

The statement said that “prison is not the solution” and called the decision “condemnatory.” Instead, the club said that “the resolution of the conflict in Catalonia must come exclusively from political dialogue.”

The political activists were punished for pushing through an October 2017 referendum in Catalonia that resulted in over 90% of the population voting for independence. The referendum was declared illegal by Spain and seen within the country’s political hierarchy as an act of treason.

As one of the biggest social institutions of Catalonia, Barcelona’s statement on the matter carries significant weight both within the region and across Spain. Barcelona games often feature flags and banners calling for Catalan independence. Catalonia has also made a recent push for an independent FIFA-recognized squad, unsuccessful to this point. However, they played their first match inside a FIFA-sanctioned international window this March against Venezuela.

As a result of the court decision, the Catalan Football Federation suspended all its matches for Monday in solidarity with the accused. This includes only clubs and leagues that fall under the federation, which does not include Barcelona, La Liga, or the Spanish national team.

“FC Barcelona also expresses all its support and solidarity to the families of those who are deprived of their freedom,” the club said in the statement. Gerard Pique re-tweeted the social media version of the statement, adding the caption “Proud to be part of this Club.” Pique is a Catalan native and has appeared for the Catalonia national team 10 times.

Barcelona reportedly set to sign young Ansu Fati to first-team

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According to a report by Spanish publication Mundo Deportivo, Barcelona is readying a first-team contract for 16-year-old Ansu Fati after a collection of positive performances for the club.

The youngster was promoted to the senior side at the start of the season thanks to an injury crisis that swallowed up Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Ousmane Dembele.

He made his first appearance off the bench in the opening league game, coming on for 12 minutes against Real Betis. He then was handed a 45-minute substitute appearance against Osasuna where he registered his first goal in a 2-2 draw. That saw Fati handed his first start, and he scored again just two minutes into the eventual 5-2 win over Valencia.

With Messi struggling of late with injuries and Suarez also struck down and seeing his minutes carefully watched thanks to his advanced age, Fati’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time for Barcelona. Therefore, the report states the new contract will feature an astronomical release clause of $220 million.

He only just signed a contract with the club back in July that saw him tied to Barcelona through 2022 and put him on a tiered pay scale that would reward him based on appearances for various youth and senior squads. His release clause in that contract was set at $110 million – already a record for a player of his age – but after his recent outburst the club may feel even that is not enough to ward off outside interest. The new contract will also reportedly boost his salary to a fixed $1 million for the season.

Convincing Fati to stick around long-term is of the utmost importance to Barcelona who has been forced to consider the future of the striker position at the club. Suarez’s age is the most pressing concern, but even the potential decline of 32-year-old Messi is a possibility for the near future. With those in mind, Fati’s contributions are critical and could signal a positive future for the Barcelona attack despite the necessary upcoming transitions.

Liverpool, Manchester United set for injury returns

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According to reports, both Manchester United and Liverpool are preparing to welcome back a number of important players from injury for their rivalry meeting at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Most notably, the Reds will reportedly have goalkeeper Alisson ready to take his place between the sticks, having missed nearly the entire season to this point with a calf injury. The Brazilian made it just 39 minutes into the Premier League opener against Norwich City before succumbing to injury, and Adrian has filled in since. While the Spaniard has played exceptionally well in his teammate’s stead, The Guardian reports that Alisson will take back his starting place no questions asked, having rigorously tested his injured leg with intensive training to make sure he is ready.

In addition to the Brazilian goalkeeper, Liverpool is also reportedly set to see Mohamed Salah prove fit to start despite his injury scare against Leicester City just before the international break.

For the hosts, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has received welcome news on a number of players prior to the matchup. Paul Pogba, who has missed three of the last four league matches and five of the last seven overall thanks to an ankle injury, is ready to go and will be available to start. The Mirror reports that Pogba spent much of the international break training in Dubai to aid in his recovery.

Also returning for Manchester United is Aaron Wan-Bissaka who has missed the last two Premier League matches with tonsillitis. It was reported that Wan-Bissaka was ready to return for the Newcastle match prior to the international break, but he missed out nonetheless and was absent from the England national team as well. Also reportedly returning is the oft-injured Luke Shaw who has not played since late August thanks to a hamstring problem.

Finally, Anthony Martial could be ready to return from his own hamstring injury. The report is that Martial would be in contention for a place in the Manchester United18-man squad, suggesting that he may need a match or two to regain full fitness for a starting spot but would be an option off the bench if needed.

Liverpool and Manchester United meet on Sunday for the 203rd time overall and 173rd time in the top flight, kicking off at 11:30 a.m. ET from Old Trafford. The matchup is significant for both sides as Liverpool looks to maintain its perfect record and eight point lead atop the Premier League table, while Manchester United is hoping for a boost from its vastly mediocre record to this point in the season, having recorded just two wins through the first eight matches.