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Rapids name Robin Fraser as head coach

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — The Colorado Rapids have named former Major League Soccer player and longtime assistant Robin Fraser as their head coach.

Fraser steps in for Conor Casey, who’s been the interim coach since the team fired Anthony Hudson in May. Colorado is 7-14-6 and at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Fraser’s first match in charge will be Saturday at the New York Red Bulls.

The 52-year-old Fraser has served as an assistant coach at Toronto FC since 2015.

Fraser was the fourth overall pick in the 1996 MLS player draft by the Los Angeles Galaxy. Over his career, Fraser suited up for the Galaxy, the Rapids and the Columbus Crew. He said in a statement Sunday he considers Colorado home because he’s so familiar with the soccer community.

Rapids general manager Padraig Smith said Fraser has a “deep knowledge of what it takes to be successful in MLS.”

Przybylko stars again as Union hammer dire DCU (video)

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CHESTER, Pa. — Kacper Przybylko had a goal and two assists in a dominant first half and the Philadelphia Union defeated D.C. United 3-1 on Saturday night.

[ MORE: NYCFC erase early deficit to beat Red Bulls (video) ]

Przybylko scored his 12th goal from point-blank range off a cross from Kail Wagner five minutes in and the Union (14-8-6) were never challenged as they moved within a point of first-place Atlanta.

Brenden Aaronson, who helped set up Przybylko’s goal, had the favor returned in the 16th minute. Przybylko slipped the ball down the middle, Aaronson made the turn and then fired from the top of the box for his second goal.

Przybylko made a similar set up for Ilsinho’s fifth goal in the 36th minute. Ilsinho took the pass at the top of the box, worked his way through the defense before finding room to score.

DC United (10-10-9) didn’t have a shot in the first half. Luciano Acosta bulled his way through the defense for his sixth goal in the 56th minute. United turned the pressure up in the second half with four shots on target but remained in fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

Messi to miss Barcelona’s next game; Suarez, Dembele also out

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi has been left out of Barcelona’s squad to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

[ MORE: Liverpool bests wobbly Arsenal at Anfield | Player ratings ]

Messi returned to training this week after recovering from a right calf injury picked up in preseason, but the Argentina star was not included in the list of players available for the team’s home opener at Camp Nou Stadium.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener last weekend.

Coach Ernesto Valverde is also without forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele because of injuries.

Galaxy-LAFC rivalry captures Los Angeles’ passion for soccer

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Although the wordless billboards went up quietly this week on the streets around Los Angeles FC’s Banc of California Stadium, their message to the city is loud and clear.

Some of the huge signs show imperious LA Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic running into LAFC’s Latif Blessing, sending the smaller man flying. In others, Zlatan is making a saucy gesture toward LAFC’s Carlos Vela, or perhaps celebrating in his fellow superstar’s face.

Each of the photos captured a triumphant moment for Zlatan and the Galaxy during the first four editions of El Trafico, the increasingly outstanding rivalry series between Major League Soccer’s two Los Angeles clubs. LAFC’s fans have the best team in the league this season, but it has never beaten the Galaxy – and those fans will have to walk past these trolling provocations around their home ground before the latest edition of the LA derby Sunday night.

“I thought it was funny,” Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget said after he saw the billboards on social media. “That stuff gets us going. It’s just good for the city, man. Even though they’re probably a little bitter about it.”

A rivalry that didn’t exist 18 months ago has grown into one of the highest-profile matchups in the league, drawing rowdy crowds and attracting international attention for the intensity and quality of the first four games.

The Galaxy are the only five-time champions in MLS history, while their crosstown foes are a model expansion franchise with a lavish new stadium near downtown LA. Multicultural Los Angeles has loved and embraced soccer for decades, but having two successful professional franchises has amplified that passion, turning each of these rivalry games into something special.

“Ever since the first game, this rivalry has grown so organically,” Lletget said. “You’ll see on Sunday, the intensity is as if you’re in a derby in Europe. It’s pretty crazy.”

Although the Galaxy (13-11-2) are in third place in the Western Conference, they’re a whopping 20 points behind LAFC (19-3-4), which is running away with MLS’ best record during a spectacular second season.

But LAFC is 0-2-2 against its biggest rivals, making this final regular-season meeting even more urgent for the newcomers in black and gold.

“It’s the derby,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “It means more. So far, with all the things we’ve done, we haven’t beat them.”

Thrilling finishes, spectacular goals and bad-tempered play have been in abundance ever since this rivalry began with Zlatan’s electrifying two-goal MLS debut during the Galaxy’s comeback victory in March 2018.

Ibrahimovic and Vela have scored a whopping six goals apiece in the four El Trafico games, doing everything that’s expected from arguably the league’s two best players. Their last meeting was dominated by the superstars, with Ibrahimovic’s hat trick besting Vela’s brace in a 3-2 victory for the Galaxy on July 19.

“When you play against the other team of the city, you always want to do your best,” said Vela, who already has 26 goals and 15 assists in a historically prolific season. “You want to win. You want to show you are better than the other team of the city, and it’s a good chance to show how good we are this season. I hope we can finally get the three points.”

The rivalry is new, but the fan bases’ animus is older.

Galaxy supporters look down at LAFC for its brief history and an empty trophy case, but also because LAFC’s fan base includes many hard-core supporters who switched allegiances from Chivas USA, which dissolved in 2014 after a dismal decade sharing the Galaxy’s stadium.

But LAFC fans love to point out the Galaxy technically aren’t from Los Angeles, and never have been. They’ve been based in Carson, a suburb due south of downtown LA, since 2003 after spending their first nine years of existence at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

“The intensity comes by itself, because it’s two teams from the same city,” Ibrahimovic said. “Rivals. I think it comes automatic, the intensity of this game.”

Banc of California Stadium will be intense from the moment LAFC’s 3252 supporters union starts rocking the North End a couple of hours before kickoff. Ticket prices on the secondary market for Sunday’s game skyrocketed in recent days, with few single seats under $200 and the high-end tickets topping $1,500.

Along with a national television broadcast, fans at home can watch a streaming comedic commentary program synced to the match by Funny or Die, the comedy website co-founded by LAFC minority owner Will Ferrell.

What’s more, both sides of this derby are getting serious reinforcements before this edition.

Sunday’s game will be the first El Trafico for Cristian Pavon, the speedy Argentine forward who arrived earlier this month and immediately took a major role in the Galaxy’s attack. It could also mark the LAFC debut of Brian Rodriguez, the promising Uruguayan designated player whose paperwork cleared just in time to make him available to Bradley this weekend.

“Games with the Galaxy take on an extra dimension,” Bradley said. “We know that. We’ve had really good moments against them, but we haven’t won yet, and so that’s something that doesn’t need discussing inside our team. Everybody knows.”

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NWSL players say investment key to sustaining World Cup bump

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While record crowds at National Women’s Soccer League games are evidence of a World Cup bump, players want the momentum to extend beyond the ticket office.

Portland drew a league-record 25,218 fans to a game against the defending champion North Carolina Courage earlier this month, and last weekend Sky Blue staged its first game at Red Bull Arena before a club-high 9,415 fans. The Chicago Red Stars had to open the upper-deck section at SeatGeek Stadium when they drew more than 17,000 to a post-World Cup game.

Across the league, attendance is up about 15% overall this year, with the most dramatic swings coming after the United States’ victory this summer at the Women’s World Cup in France. That’s the bump: Both the NWSL and its male counterpart, Major League Soccer, traditionally see increased interest during a World Cup year.

In the NWSL, the bump is likely to be larger once the entire season plays out. In 2015, following the national team’s World Cup victory in Canada, the league drew an average of 5,046 fans per game, up from the league’s all-time low average attendance (4,137) in 2014. Following last weekend’s games, average attendance across the league was 6,917.

But players aren’t satisfied. In addition to bringing in new fans, they want sustained growth and stability.

The key is investment.

“We’ve won two World Cups back-to-back. We’ve done everything on the field to encourage and inspire players and kids and parents and coaches, boys and girls to come to the games,” said Carli Lloyd, who plays for Sky Blue and is a member of the U.S. team. “Now again it’s up to the people with money to market it, to buy into this, to invest in it, and to promote it.”

While the NWSL has been incrementally drawing bigger crowds since its inception in 2013, there have been recent questions about the league’s health.

The league and A&E Networks terminated their broadcast agreement in February, leaving the NWSL with no TV partner. Last season, a game aired each week on the Lifetime channel. A&E surrendered its stake in the league, but Lifetime remains a jersey sponsor.

The NWSL has also been operating without a commissioner since 2017, and there’s been no new teams coming on board despite persistent rumors to the contrary. The league contracted to nine teams before the start of the 2018 season when the Boston Breakers folded.

But there have been recent positive developments beyond attendance. Budweiser announced a multi-year sponsorship deal with the league this summer. The NWSL also reached an agreement to air 14 games this season on ESPNews and ESPN2, including the playoff semifinals and the final. ESPN recently signed an agreement for worldwide rights to the league.

“I think that it’s going to take a lot of investment from owners. We want it to grow, we want big companies to come on as sponsors, like the Budweiser thing is huge. We want more teams, we want a longer season,” said North Carolina’s Sam Mewis, echoing Lloyd.

It’s a sentiment that players amplified in France.

“Hopefully it grows, hopefully we get more teams, and more people buy into us and realize how important it is for the women’s game – and that our NWSL gets better and better so we can get better for our national team,” Lindsey Horan said before the World Cup final.

One club that has provided something of a blueprint for NWSL success is the Thorns. The team drew an average of 16,959 fans per game last season, and that’s risen to 20,072 this year. For perspective, that’s better than the average attendance for seven Major League Baseball teams.

The Thorns have been able to capitalize on the game’s roots in the city. The University of Portland’s women’s team won NCAA titles in 2002 and 2005. Current U.S. team star Megan Rapinoe and Canadian star Christine Sinclair both played for the Pilots.

“They’ve been the same from the get go. I mean we lost the championship last year against this team and they stayed at least 30 minutes to continue to chant. So you know if anything the Thorns fans are the ones that have started the hype in this county,” Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch said.

Some have suggested that Portland’s model – it is affiliated with Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers – is one key to sustained growth. Four teams, the Thorns, the Houston Dash, the Utah Royals and the Orlando Pride are connected to MLS teams. At least two other MLS teams, LAFC and Atlanta United, have expressed interest in adding a women’s team.

At the end of this year, U.S. Soccer’s management agreement with the NWSL will come to an end, which could potentially give greater control to the league’s owners and a more hands-on approach to growth. The federation currently pays the salaries of the national team players and has also invested considerably in the league, and that support is not expected to end.

Players say they’re hopeful for the league’s future – even beyond the bump.

“I think that we’re taking steps in the right direction,” Mewis said. “I feel like it’s stable. I don’t know like how tuned in I am to what goes on behind the scenes, but I’m relying on it and I’m counting on playing here for a long time.”