Thursday May 5th, 2011

From a national perspective the next two Saturdays are big for MLS and ESPN television, which are pinning high expectations on a pair of marquee rivalry games: this Saturday's Los Angeles-New York showdown (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes) and the following Saturday's first MLS edition of the Seattle-Portland Flannel Hatefest (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).

Simply put, if ESPN can't improve on the 0.2 average rating that its MLS broadcasts have worn like an albatross, then it's going to be a long, hard slog for the league on the TV front.

But if we focus on the soccer, these two games could be a lot of fun. I'll save the Seattle-Portland talk for next week, but suffice it to say that I think it instantly becomes one of the best rivalries in American sports. Los Angeles-New York isn't as organic, at least not in MLS terms, but there are plenty of reasons to look forward to Saturday's game.

For starters, it should be the first time we see all five of the teams' Designated Players on the field at the same time: Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Juan Pablo Ángel for L.A., and Thierry Henry and Rafael Márquez for New York. Throw in one of the top players in MLS history (N.Y.'s Dwayne De Rosario) and some good U.S. national team prospects (Juan Agudelo, Tim Ream, Omar González), and the star power quotient should be plenty high for an MLS game. There's a reason these two teams had the highest salary budgets in MLS as of last August, with New York at $15.7 million and Los Angeles at $11.0 million.

The big names help, of course, but this game figures to have a better balance of sizzle and good soccer now that Henry and Márquez have settled into the league in their second season. In my mind, L.A. and New York (along with Salt Lake) are the top contenders for MLS Cup, although the Galaxy has more pressure to win on Saturday. L.A. (4-2-3) has already lost to Salt Lake and Dallas on the road and needs to send a message against a top side. Meanwhile, home teams are 11-0-9 in MLS this season when playing a road foe who's three time zones from home (as noted by Elias's Peter Hirdt).

After a slow start, Donovan has scored three goals in the last two weeks, which is important considering Ángel (one goal in seven games) hasn't come close to providing the finishing that was expected when he moved from New York to L.A. this season. I'm in the camp that thinks Donovan should be scoring goals for the Galaxy to be in top gear. That may not mean the 20 goals he had in 2008, but it should be more than the seven he had last season. Defensively, some concerns remain for L.A.: How much will it hurt to lose center back Leonardo to injury for the season? And should there be any worries about goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts after he got lobbed twice for goals against Dallas?

As for New York (4-1-2), it comes in having won three straight with an 8-0 goal differential. Henry has started producing (three goals in those games), and Luke Rodgers has won the starting job from Agudelo (for now) with three of his own. Last week De Rosario had his best game since joining the team, while the back line has been steady ever since Ream gifted Philadelphia the winning goal in New York's last defeat on April 9. Why, even goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul has turned into a consistent shot-stopper without any of the occasional slip-ups that used to define his game.

Long story short: There are plenty of good storylines for Los Angeles-New York, and I've barely mentioned David Beckham. I'll be curious to see whether it gets a higher rating than Seattle-Portland next week.

Can we expect any surprises on the U.S. Gold Cup roster this summer? Is Juan Agudelo the No. 1 striker?

-- @NickJames21

We may see some surprises when Bob Bradley's roster is released later this month, but I'm not expecting too many. Bradley isn't a big surprise guy, after all. But questions do surround the forwards. If I had to guess, we'll see a starting tandem up front (not a lone striker), and the most likely pairing is Jozy Altidore and Agudelo. But Teal Bunbury is also a possibility in place of Agudelo, and who knows? Possible call-ups include Herculez Gómez (who finished the season in good form for Pachuca), Edson Buddle and even Charlie Davies. Three of Davies' MLS-leading six goals have come from the penalty spot, and while it might be too soon for a call-up, he has at least entered the conversation again.

Any predictions for Manchester United-Chelsea on Sunday? How about early thoughts on the Champions League final?

-- @BGPowelll

I like United against Chelsea on Sunday. The Blues deserve a ton of credit for their late run just to make this game matter, but United was able to rest its big guns on Wednesday against Schalke, and Sir Alex Ferguson's group has been impressive all year in its ability to get the result it needs when it matters most. I know Chelsea won at Old Trafford last year, but I can't see it this time. To have a realistic chance, I think Chelsea needs to start with Didier Drogba up front and Fernando Torres on the bench, but I don't see that happening.

As for the Barcelona-Manchester United Champions League final, what more could you ask for? These are the two teams that most neutrals wanted to see in the final, and playing this game at Wembley should only make it even more competitive. We won't see anything close to the rancor heading into it that we dealt with in the Real Madrid-Barça Clásicos, and that's a good thing. Keep in mind, too, that while Barça will be favored, Pep Guardiola's team isn't playing its best soccer of the year right now. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see United spring the upset.

What's your take on the Brian Mullan suspension?

-- Jon-Claud Nix, Elmira, N.Y.

As you may know, Colorado's Mullan received a total punishment of a 10-game suspension and $5,000 fine from the MLS Disciplinary Committee for his leg-breaking tackle on Seattle's Steve Zakuani, which received a red card. It was the largest suspension in MLS history for a tackle, and you had better believe MLS was intending for the severity to be a defining moment in league history. The 10 games didn't surprise me at all after commissioner Don Garber had announced before the season that there would be a point of emphasis on protecting the league's skill players. It's hard to find fault with the punishment considering that Mullan himself didn't appeal the suspension and fine. Whether it will have much impact on the field in the future is another matter, though.

Where's the best place for my 8-year-old daughter to find women's soccer? She watches the men but wants to see the women also.

-- @Auburn_fan1

The WPS has an official website (womensprosoccer.com) and teams in six cities this season. The TV schedule is here. The U.S. women's team has pre-World Cup friendlies against Japan on May 14 (6:30 p.m. ET, FSC) and May 18 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and against Mexico on June 5 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Finally, ESPN channels will show every game of the Women's World Cup live from June 26 to July 17.

Do you think Fox Soccer Channel's re-branded "Soccer Night in America" is a positive step forward to making MLS a bigger piece of their channel? Or it is just a move to placate MLS officials in New York?

-- Jeff York

The name may not be all that original (then again, NBC copied "Hockey Night in Canada" for its NFL broadcasts), but the only thing that really matters is the upgrades in presentation by FSC. That includes the pre- and postgame shows, the sets and the overall quality of the broadcasts. We'll see how different it really is starting with Friday's broadcast of Portland-Philadelphia, but it's nice to see Fox putting more money and effort into making its MLS broadcasts look more professional. FSC made an important move already this season by hiring the veteran broadcaster J.P. DellaCamera, who has been putting in some big travel miles by doubling up with FSC and the local TV broadcasts of the Union. His FSC partner Kyle Martino has a good future too.

• CONCACAF president Jack Warner was re-elected this week without a challenger at the group's congress in Miami. But I'm still wondering how Warner can promise that CONCACAF will vote as a bloc in the FIFA presidential election on June 1. It's a secret ballot with more than 200 voters. How can Warner know who's voting for whom? And how does the U.S. Soccer Federation feel about being told by Warner that it can't make up its own mind who to vote for?

• The best English-language piece I have read so far on the developing story of French federation quotas against dual-nation players (first reported by Mediapart) is by James Horncastle for FourFourTwo's website.

• What happened to Brazilian teams on Wednesday night in the Copa Libertadores? Four of the five Brazilian teams in the final 16 went out: Cruzeiro, Fluminense, Grêmio and defending champ Internacional. That leaves Santos as the only Brazilian team in the quarterfinals. Amazing.

• With Manchester United meeting Barcelona in the Champions League final, it seems like a good time to steer you to my recent piece on Barça's Gerard Piqué, one of the few players who has been a member of both teams: Piqué had an intriguing response when I asked him to compare and contrast Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola:

"I think they are similar in how they motivate players, to show them how important are the games and titles, and we have to fight for them. But they are different in maybe how they explain what they want. For example, Pep Guardiola always explains to you not only that you have do this, he explains why you have to do it. He gives you a reason. And maybe you can understand better what soccer is about and how it works. For example, if you pass the ball to Xavi then you have to move, but he explains why you have to move so that Xavi can give you another pass. That's better for you to understand soccer.

Ferguson is more about motivating people. I remember when we were at the training ground, he was more like a manager. It was a little different. [Ferguson's assistant] Carlos Queiroz was the one who gave us the training sessions, and Ferguson had the speech for the game. It was really motivating."

See you next week!

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