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As MLS season opens with Columbus Crew chasing rare repeat, league must seize chance to take next step forward

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As MLS season opens with Columbus Crew chasing rare repeat, league must seize chance to take next step forward

The teams that won the two biggest trophies in Major League Soccer will open their seasons Sunday evening on national television. This is a big deal to the teams involved. It probably ought to be a bigger deal to the league in general.

The Philadelphia Union won the Supporters’ Shield at the close of the COVID-truncated 2020 season, compiling 47 points from 23 games. It was the first major trophy ever won by the club, but the celebration was shortened by its first-round playoff loss to New England.

The Union had to watch three weeks later as Columbus Crew SC won the league’s most coveted honor, MLS Cup champions, on a cold Saturday night at Crew Stadium.

“We’re not unique in that we want the ultimate prize, which is MLS Cup,” Union coach Jim Curtin told Sporting News. “We’re disappointed that our season ended on our home field against New England last year. … It’s always devastating when the year ends. But I think that also motivates us.

“We were able to lift the Supporters’ Shield, get a taste for our young players and our experienced guys of what that feels like. For some of them it was their very first trophy. And that’s a taste and a feeling that you want to have again and again and again over your career. There’s a lot of great teams in MLS this season. The league continues to get better and better. It’s exciting times for the fans now, as they slowly get back into the stadiums.”

MORE: If all MLS owners were like Matthew McConaughey, everyone would be a fan

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald, this is the first time that the Supporters’ Shield winner and MLS Cup champion opened the subsequent regular season against one another. This is probably something the league would be wise to turn into a tradition. It is important enough that FS1 will show the game.

The 26th MLS season opens Friday with a Houston Dynamo-San Jose Earthquakes game (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) and one matching the Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United (9:30, FS1).

As MLS continues to try to grow among U.S. professional sports leagues, though, and in the broader soccer landscape, it continues to suffer from a sort of identity issue. Not a crisis, but perhaps a conundrum. It is covered less as a sports competition than the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball or the NHL. This is partly the result of too few league teams being covered daily by major media outlets and so much of the conversation about the league being driven at a national level.

As commissioner Don Garber took the time Monday to speak with reporters about the 2021 season, the primary focus was on the introduction of another new team, Austin FC, and the eventual openings of new stadiums in Cincinnati and Columbus. The comment he made that generated the most reaction involved a player who’s currently competing in England, Darryl Dike.

On loan with Barnsley in England’s Championship division, Dike could return to Orlando City FC or be sold during the summer transfer window.

“That’s a $20 million player,” Garber told reporters.

“Really the story of Major League Soccer today is about youth,” he said. “We are now at the youngest we’ve ever been on average, in the history of the league. We’re investing deeply in developing players, with academies in every particular market. And now you have to have programs that could provide opportunities for young players to be able to perform at their highest, develop at their youngest and ultimately build a professional career.”

Those covering MLS generally express the view that it’s positive for the league to produce such players as Dike, Tyler Adams (now with RB Leipzig in German) and Brendan Aaronson (who started 23 games for and scored four goals for the Union last season and then moved to RB Salzburg in Austria).

It probably is best for the U.S. men’s national team to have players developing and competing on multiple fronts. It surely is an advantage to have young players developing in professional academies in the way more established soccer nations have for decades. And that’s part of why there is such a focus on MLS’ advancement as what some would term a “selling league.”

To gain greater traction in the U.S. sports marketplace, though, it needs to be viewed as, foremost, a league. Fans need to care about its race, standings, playoffs and champion as much as about how much one of its young stars might command in transfer fees.

That’s an area where the Crew could be of considerable use to the league this season. With star player Lucas Zelarayan injured for part of last year, they finished third in the East Division. But his return to health allowed them to surge through the playoffs and defeat the favored Seattle Sounders 3-0 in the MLS Cup final. The organization kept most of the lineup intact and deepened the roster by signing forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, who ranks sixth on the league’s career goal scoring list.

Columbus’ pursuit of a second consecutive championship could return the focus of the league to the field. Winning two in a row isn’t easy, as Bruce Arena is the only coach who’s done it twice — 1996 and 1997 with DC United, 2011 and 2012 with the Los Angeles Galaxy. And that’s part of what makes it compelling.

“Last year was an odd year. I give the Crew all the credit for winning the MLS Cup, as I give credit to Philadelphia for winning the Supporters’ Shield. But I think it’s going to be a lot different this year,” Arena said. “Columbus certainly has a good team, and I’m sure they anticipate competing throughout the year for not only Supporters’ Shield but also to return in MLS Cup.

“I think it’s probably more difficult with the more teams. This year, also, the schedule is different now. Now we’re playing conference schedules as opposed to playing everyone in the league. The league is certainly, probably, as competitive as it has been. It certainly will be a challenging year for anyone trying to win the MLS Cup.”

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UFC 262 PPV price: How much does it cost to watch Oliveira vs. Chandler?

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UFC 262 date, start time, odds, PPV schedule & card for Charles Oliveira vs. Michael Chandler

The UFC lightweight title is up for grabs Saturday night.

The belt, which was vacated after the retirement of Khabib Nurmagomedov, is on the line as No. 3-ranked Charles Oliveira and No. 4 ranked Michael Chandler at UFC 262.

MORE: Sign up to watch the UFC 262 PPV, exclusively on ESPN+

Chandler is just in his second bout under the UFC banner after spending the majority of his in-ring career with Bellator. His last bout, a first-round TKO over Dan Hooker at UFC 257 in January, earned him Performance of the Night honors.

Oliveira, the UFC vet, is looking to strap on gold for the first time in his MMA career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time: Oliveira enters this weekend’s fight red hot, riding an eight-fight win streak, whether by knockout or tap-out.

The lightweight belt will find a new waist this Saturday night. Here’s what you need to know.

UFC 262 price: How much does Oliveira vs. Chandler cost?

The main card for UFC 262 is available in the U.S. on the ESPN+ subscription service for $69.99 or $89.99. That portion of the event begins at about 10 p.m. ET.

Earlier fights on the undercard are viewable live on ESPN, ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass.

  • Current yearly subscribers can get UFC for $69.99.
  • Current monthly subscribers can get UFC 262 and an upgraded bundle at a discounted rate of $84.99. They can also purchase the event itself for $69.99.
  • New subscribers can get UFC 262 and a yearly subscription for $89.98, which is a savings of more than 30 percent.

Click here to learn about the different pricing and bundling options with the ESPN+ platform.

What channel is UFC 262 on?

  • Early prelims: UFC Fight Pass
  • Prelims: ESPN/ESPN+
  • Main card: ESPN+ (pay-per-view)

Fans will be able to watch the main card of UFC 262 only on ESPN+ PPV with an ESPN+ subscription.

The night is split into three events, per usual: The early preliminaries on UFC Fight Pass, the prelims on ESPN/ESPN+ and the main card on ESPN+ PPV.

What time does Oliveira vs. Chandler start?

  • Early prelims: 6 p.m. ET
  • Prelims: 8 p.m. ET
  • Main card: 10 p.m. ET

The night gets underway at 6 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass, with the show switching over to ESPN at 8 p.m. ET for the prelims. 

The main card gets underway at 10 p.m. ET, with the fighters expected to make their ring walks around midnight ET, depending on the length of undercard fights.

UFC 262 fight card

Early prelims

  • Gina Mazany vs. Priscila Cachoeira, women’s flyweights
  • Kevin Aguilar vs. Tucker Lutz, featherweights
  • Christos Giagos vs. Sean Soriano, lightweights

Prelims

  • ​Lando Vannata vs. Mike Grundy, featherweights
  • Andrea Lee vs. Antonina Shevchenko, women’s flyweights
  • Jordan Wright vs. Jamie Pickett, middleweight
  • Ronaldo Souza vs. André Muniz, middleweights

Main card

  • Charles Oliveira vs. Michael Chandler for vacant UFC lightweight championship
  • Matt Schnell vs. Rogério Bontorin, bantamweights
  • Tony Ferguson vs. Beneil Dariush, lightweights
  • Katlyn Chookagian vs. Viviane Araújo, women’s flyweights
  • Shane Burgos vs. Edson Barboza, featherweights

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Marlins’ Jesus Aguilar quite literally tries to steal signs from D-backs’ Carson Kelly

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Marlins' Jesus Aguilar quite literally tries to steal signs from D-backs' Carson Kelly

Caught red-handed.

We know that batters can sometimes take a peek at catcher’s signs to try to get as much information as they can. It’s just part of baseball, after all. But Jesús Aguilar took it to the next level Thursday.

With Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly reaching first base, Aguilar decided to take a peak at the catcher’s signs — by lifting up Kelly’s wrist cheat-sheet.

MORE: Padres fan starts brawl after knocking out Rockies fan

Kelly responds with an incredulous, “What are you doing, man?”

Kelly’s disapproval to Aguilar taking a peek results in a hilarious reaction from Aguilar, looking like a kid who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar before breakfast.

Aguilar is one of baseball’s more fun personalities, so there’s nothing to read into here. But it’s not the first time that Aguilar has tried to steal signs. About a month ago, Aguilar stole an index card straight out of Dom Smith’s back pocket during a game against the Mets — presumably a defensive positioning card that players carry with them on the field.

The Marlins would go on to win the game 5-1.

If Aguilar keeps this up, he might be able to score a role in an “Ocean’s 11” reboot. 

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NASCAR lineup at Dover: Starting order, pole for Sunday’s race without qualifying

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NASCAR lineup at Dover: Starting order, pole for Sunday's race without qualifying

The starting lineup for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway was set by applying the statistical formula NASCAR is using for the majority of the series’ races in 2021.

Drivers’ starting positions for the Drydene 400 (2 p.m. ET; FS1, TSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) were based on four factors:

  • Driver’s finishing position from the previous race (25 percent)
  • Car owner’s finishing position from the previous race (25 percent)
  • Team owner points ranking (35 percent)
  • Fastest lap from the previous race (15 percent)

NASCAR is conducting qualifying and practice for just eight Cup Series races in the 2021 season. The next qualifying session will take place prior to the May 23 event at Circuit of the Americas, a road course outside Austin, Texas.

Below is the starting lineup, which was set without qualifying, for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race on Dover’s 1-mile oval.

MORE: Watch Sunday’s NASCAR race live with fuboTV (free 7-day trial)

Who won the pole for the NASCAR race at Dover?

Martin Truex Jr. was tabbed to lead the field to green for the Drydene 400 based on the mathematical formula. Truex is coming off his third win of the season, a dominating performance at Darlington last Sunday. He is the only driver to win more than once in the Cup Series in 2021.

Truex also gained the No. 1 pit stall, which is a valuable piece of real estate at Dover because track position is highly important on the Monster Mile.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is second in the series point standings to teammate Denny Hamlin, who will start in the second position Sunday. William Byron, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Chris Buescher received the other top-10 lineup spots.

NASCAR starting lineup at Dover

NASCAR used a mathematical formula to set the starting lineup for Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway, the Drydene 400, without qualifying.

Start pos. Driver Car No. Team
1 Martin Truex Jr. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing
2 Denny Hamlin 11 Joe Gibbs Racing
3 William Byron 24 Hendrick Motorsports
4 Kyle Larson 5 Hendrick Motorsports
5 Kevin Harvick 4 Stewart-Haas Racing
6 Kyle Busch 18 Joe Gibbs Racing
7 Ryan Blaney 12 Team Penske
8 Chase Elliott 9 Hendrick Motorsports
9 Joey Logano 22 Team Penske
10 Chris Buescher 17 Roush Fenway Racing
11 Christopher Bell 20 Joe Gibbs Racing
12 Tyler Reddick 8 Richard Childress Racing
13 Ryan Newman 6 Roush Fenway Racing
14 Austin Dillon 3 Richard Childress Racing
15 Brad Keselowski 2 Team Penske
16 Alex Bowman 48 Hendrick Motorsports
17 Chase Briscoe 14 Stewart-Haas Racing
18 Matt DiBenedetto 21 Wood Brothers Racing
19 Ross Chastain 42 Chip Ganassi Racing
20 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing
21 Michael McDowell 34 Front Row Motorsports
22 Bubba Wallace 23 23XI Racing
23 Erik Jones 43 Richard Petty Motorsports
24 Daniel Suarez 99 Trackhouse Racing Team
25 Ryan Preece 37 JTG Daugherty Racing
26 Corey LaJoie 7 Spire Motorsports
27 Anthony Alfredo 38 Front Row Motorsports
28 Kurt Busch 1 Chip Ganassi Racing
29 Justin Haley 77 Spire Motorsports
30 Cole Custer 41 Stewart-Haas Racing
31 BJ McLeod 78 Live Fast Motorsports
32 Aric Almirola 10 Stewart-Haas Racing
33 James Davison 15 Rick Ware Racing
34 Cody Ware 51 Petty Ware Racing
35 Quin Houff 00 StarCom Racing
36 Garrett Smithley 53 Rick Ware Racing
37 Josh Bilicki 52 Rick Ware Racing

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