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MLS Decision Day Preview: Quakes, Timbers battle it out; Vela, Zlatan go for Golden Boot

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In the Western Conference, four teams fight one last time for two playoff spots, while Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – two goals apart from one another – go toe-to-toe for the league’s Golden Boot. Now, that’s a Decision Day that will keep everyone on the edge of their seats.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Portland Timbers vs. San Jose Earthquakes: Unlike the Portland Timbers, the San Jose Earthquakes were hit with a major distraction midweek ahead of their most important game of the year: Matias Almeyda’s rumored move to Monterrey. After the rumors made its rounds in Mexico and then stateside, the Northern Californian club decided to release a statement, which denied any contact from the Liga MX club and San Jose.

Amidst all of the disturbance, Almeyda and company assured that they’re going for the win in what is a win-and-your-are-in scenario.

“We put ourselves in a huge opportunity, a good opportunity, and I think that it’s a phenomenal environment and we’re going to go get the job done and how this group knows how to,” Quakes’ fullback Nick Lima said midweek. “It’s exciting.”

The Timbers, who can still clinch with a loss if Dallas losses to draws, is approaching Sunday’s game at Providence Park with the same, winning mindset.

“It’s a must win. That’s all it is,” said Portland defender Zarek Valentin. “The focus starts now because we know that we control our own destiny in terms of winning and getting in and that’s all you can ask for at the end of the year. Obviously, we wish we could be a little bit higher, but we believe in ourselves and luckily it’s in our hands. We’ve just got to get out there, get some points and get in the playoffs.”

This year’s Decision Day – with the Eastern Conference playoff bracket set – may lack playoff implications, but the Quakes and Timbers matchup makes up for it.

FC Dallas vs. Sporting Kansas City:  Following a bumpy season, FC Dallas controls its own destiny heading into Sunday in what has been its first year under coach Luchi Gonzalez. Their scenario, too, is pretty simple: win and you’re in.

A home game against a surprise playoff absentee Sporting Kansas City stands in their way, but like many other teams in the league at this stage of the competition, Dallas are already in playoff mode.

“The way we’re looking at it from here on out is there’s five games to win an MLS Cup – something that the club doesn’t have on the shelf yet,” first-year head coach Gonzalez said this week. “And we’re really excited to play this first game of five to try to take the next step in the pursuit of an MLS Cup. That’s our focus.”

LAFC vs. Colorado Rapids: The Colorado Rapids, who have been on a hot streak since the takeover of Robin Fraser, are, mathematically, still in the playoff hunt. The likelihood of them clinching, however, stand at less than one percent, according to FIveThirtyEight.

What is a real possibility is Carlos Vela being presented with the league’s Golden Boot. LAFC’s captains goal count is at 31 – one shy of breaking Josef Martinez’s single-season record and two ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 29 goals.

That said, it wasn’t Vela leading the headlines ahead of Sunday, but Zlatan, who claimed the only reason he’s behind the Mexican’s count is because he’s featured in less games this season.

“I have 29 goals in 28 games,” the 38-year-old Swedish striker said. “If I would have the same amount (of) games like the other ones, it would be different.”

“But now I’m chasing someone that has more games than me,” he added ahead of LA Galaxy’s game against the Houston Dynamo. “But if we score we score, we’ll have to see what the end number will be. We’ll see. If there still is a possibility, we’ll try.”

Decision Day’s full schedule

FC Dalla v. Sporting Kansas City — 4 p.m. ET

LAFC  v. Colorado Rapids — 4 p.m. ET

Portland Timbers v. San Jose Earthquakes — 4 p.m. ET

Orlando City v. Chicago Fire — 4 p.m. ET

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Real Salt Lake — 4 p.m. ET

D.C. United v. FC Cincinatti — 4 p.m. ET

Montreal Impact v. NY Red Bulls — 4 p.m. ET

Toronto FC v. Columbus Crew — 4 p.m. ET

Seattle Sounders v. Minnesota United — 4 p.m. ET

Houston Dynamo v. LA Galaxy — 4 p.m. ET

Philadelphia Union v. NYCFC — 4 p.m. ET

Atlanta United v. New England Revolution — 4 p.m. ET

USWNT opens Olympic qualifying with win over Haiti

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The USWNT was rusty, that much was clear. Vlatko Andonovski still made sure they took care of business.

Four different goalscorers delivered a 4-0 victory over Haiti to begin CONCACAF Olympic qualification, putting the United States in front of Group A early. Lynn Williams picked up a goal and assist, proving useful on an otherwise sputtery evening for Vlatko Andonovski’s attack.

Just 78 seconds into the game, Williams charged down the right flank and crossed to Christen Press at the far post for the opening goal. Williams’ assist came without the use of her left shoe which she lost while holding off a defender for the bobbling ball.

Despite the early lead, the United States seemed somewhat sluggish as Haiti built themselves into the match. There were few chances on net after the opening goal through the half-hour mark.

Haiti nearly caught the U.S. napping on a corner as the ball found the back of the net on 20 minutes, but the goal was somehow ruled out. It appeared to be for offside, but since it’s impossible to be offside from a corner, there must have been another reason for the official ruling. Nonetheless, it was a clear sign for the USWNT that they needed to pick up the level of play.

The U.S. continued to struggle after halftime, creating very little in front of net. There was a half-chance for Lloyd near the penalty spot but a quality tackle by Kethna Louis put that to bed. Then finally they put the game to bed on a corner, not coincidentally coming just five minutes after Megan Rapinoe entered the fray. Rapinoe delivered a corner to the doorstep where Williams headed in well under pressure, moving her upper body away from goal against the motion of her lower body to reach the delivery.

Another Andonovski substitute paid dividends however as Lindsey Horan scored, again coming off a corner. They played it short and Horan headed from a significant distance out, the ball squirting past the goalkeeper Kerly Theus and Louis who tried to clear off the line. It was clear that Haiti had begun to tire and the USWNT was taking advantage. Up front, Carli Lloyd had a poor game, unable to get involved in attacking play, but she found the scoresheet in stoppage time, bagging a header off a Rapinoe cross in the 93rd minute to finish out the scoring.

Emily Sonnett replaced Kelley O’Hara with 10 minutes to go for Andonovski’s final change, and the USWNT saw the rest of the match out. They have two matches remaining before the knockout stage, set to take on Panama on Friday before the group stage finale against Costa Rica on February 3. The top two teams in the group reach the knockout phase with the semifinals to begin on February 7.

Report: Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through injury

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Chelsea has so far come up empty in its search for a striker, so desperate times may call for desperate measures.

Tammy Abraham, who has been a revelation this season with 13 Premier League goals, went down with an ankle injury late in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal last weekend. The club has tried desperately to find a striker before the Friday transfer window closes, and while the Blues have been linked with Edinson Cavani and Krzysztof Piatek they so far have not had any success in finding a replacement.

Therefore, according to Matt Law of The Telegraph, Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through his injury against Leicester City this weekend. The match is a vital one as Chelsea, sitting fourth in the Premier League table, looks to put separation between themselves and Manchester United while also chasing the third-placed Foxes who sit eight points clear.

The thinking appears to be that Chelsea has a 16-day break between the Leicester City match and their subsequent game against Manchester United in mid-February thanks to the Premier League’s two-week break at the start of the month.

Earlier this month, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted regret for not resting a banged up Marcus Rashford, choosing instead to bring him off the bench in an FA Cup match against Wolves. Reports after the match confirmed that Rashford was carrying a single stress fracture in his back at the time of the appearance, and he was hauled off 16 minutes later with scans after the match showing his appearance against Wolves worsened the injury. He now he faces two to three months on the sidelines.

Abraham has also slowed of late after being so heavily used this season. The 22-year-old has logged a massive 2,359 minutes across all competitions this season, including 1,843 out of a possible 2,160 in Premier League play. Abraham scored his first 11 Premier League goals in his first 14 matches of the season, but has just three goals in the last 10 games.

Chelsea has Michy Batshuayi as a natural replacement for Abraham up top, but Frank Lampard has used him as solely a bench option the entirety of this season. Batshuayi has made 14 Premier League appearances this season, but has logged just 138 minutes across those matches. When used as a starter in cup action, Batshuayi has four goals in four domestic cup starts. Olivier Giroud is also on the roster, having made just five Premier League appearances this season.

Ed Woodward’s house attacked by Man United fans with flares

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Manchester United has been unable to reclaim the glory of the Sir Alex Ferguson days, and that has Red Devils fans up in arms. CEO Ed Woodward has taken much of the heat, with the executive unable to prevent the squad from degrading in quality and the team consequently has been unable to consistenly challenge for a top-four place, with his financial background not exactly a fit for his player recruitment position.

Some fans seem to have taken their frustration way too far.

A video emerged on social media claiming to show fans shooting flares at Woodward’s private residence, and reports from Sky Sports and The Daily Mirror corroborated that claim. The club then issued a statement condemning the incident.

“Manchester United Football Club have tonight been made aware of the incident outside the home of one of our employees.”We know that the football world will unite behind us as we work with Greater Manchester Police to identify the perpetrators of this unwarranted attack. Anybody found guilty of a criminal offense, or found to be trespassing on this property, will be banned for life by the club and may face prosecution. Fans expressing opinion is one thing, criminal damage and intent to endanger life is another. There is simply no excuse for this.”

The Sky Sports report claims that neither Woodward nor any of his family – particularly his wife and two children – were present in the home at the time of the attack. The Daily Mirror claims upwards of 20 or 30 fans were part of the attack on the house, with the caption “Ed Woodward’s gonna die” with three red circle emojis all in a Snapchat banner. Sky Sports also reports that red paint was sprayed on the gates of the home.

There are also reports of sickening chants during the recent FA Cup win over Tranmere Rovers, with fans singing about burning Woodward and the club owner Malcom Glazer in a bonfire.

Manchester United has reportedly looked to hire a Director of Football in recent months, but has so far stuck with Woodward as the head of recruitment. The squad has

PL Preview: West Ham v. Liverpool

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  • Liverpool has won 30 of its last 31 Premier League fixtures
  • West Ham is winless in its last 6 PL games against Liverpool
  • The Hammers have just 11 points at home this season, joint-low in the PL

Liverpool can go an obscene 19 points clear at the top of the Premier League table with a win over West Ham on Wednesday, with kickoff from London Stadium at 2:45 p.m. ET live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Reds will be without Sadio Mane who pulled up in the first half of the win over Wolves. The news was positive, but still the argument could easily be made that Mane is the most important player in the Liverpool lineup, and replacing him will give Jurgen Klopp a headache. He could start Divock Origi on the wing in a direct replacement, but Origi is a striker by nature and would make things narrow on the left flank. He could also move Salah to the left and insert Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, but there’s no guarantee that the Swiss international will be fit enough to play.

Still, Liverpool will be massive favorites to build on its winning streak against a West Ham side limping into the match. The Hammers are vulnerable with a long injury list of their own, with just one win since the festive period. Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Jack Wilshere are the most significant of the injured West Ham army, but certainly not the only ones. By the most recent reports, five players will miss the match with another two to be assessed before the match.

The Hammers are only out of the relegation zone thanks to goal differential, and with a brutal upcoming fixture slate that includes another against Liverpool plus games against Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Wolves, and Chelsea through the end of March, West Ham will have to scrap for every point available.

Injuries/suspensions

West Ham: OUT – Ryan Fredericks (hamstring), Felipe Anderson (back), Andriy Yarmolenko (thigh), Arthur Masuaku (knee), Jack Wilshere (groin). QUESTIONABLE – Robert Snodgrass (knee), Lukasz Fabianski (thigh).

Liverpool: OUT – Sadio Mane (thigh muscle), James Milner (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (ACL). QUESTIONABLE – Xherdan Shaqiri (calf).


Probable lineups

West Ham: Randolph; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Diop, Zabaleta; Snodgrass, Noble, Rice, Antonio; Lanzini, Haller.

Liverpool: Alisson; Robertson, Gomez, van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Origi, Firmino, Salah.


What they’re saying

West Ham manager on being huge underdogs: “Everybody gets the chance to throw a punch at some point along the line, and sometimes you can get a lucky one. I’ve never gone into any game not expecting to win. Quite often, you don’t always win, but I really do expect the players to go out there, put a show on, and try and win. If that’s won by a set-piece, a flukey goal, I wouldn’t be bothered. That’s been my attitude throughout my whole career: I want to win. We’ll do everything we can to get points where we can.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on how West Ham will play: “It will be a rather defensive line-up [from West Ham]. If it’s four in the back or five in the back, I don’t know, but we have to be ready for a big fight. They want to strike back, they have a tough program coming up, everybody knows that. They have no points to waste, no time to waste.”


Prediction:

Liverpool is without Sadio Mane, and that’s notable in any Premier League match, but against West Ham it shouldn’t matter. The Reds have been utterly unbeatable defensively, and against a West Ham side missing Felipe Anderson, Jack Wilshere, and Arthur Masuaku plus a banged up Robert Snodgrass, an eighth clean sheet in the last nine matches is likely. The Reds put on a clinic in a comprehensive 3-0 victory.