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Soccer on TV: The NWSL crowns its champion and the MLS playoffs start

Plus the English Premier League's return to action after signing a new six-year deal with NBC reportedly worth $2.6 billion, and a trio of big games in Italy's Serie A.

NWSL goalkeeper of the year Aubrey Bledsoe (center) helped the Washington Spirit reach this year's championship game.
NWSL goalkeeper of the year Aubrey Bledsoe (center) helped the Washington Spirit reach this year's championship game.Read moreElaine Thompson / AP

Leicester City vs. Chelsea

Saturday, 7:30 a.m. (NBCSN, Universo)

Fresh off signing a new six-year rights deal with NBC reportedly worth over $2.7 billion, the Premier League resumes its season. Chelsea now has a three-point lead on the field atop the standings, and we’ll see if Christian Pulisic plays after two substitute appearances for the U.S. men in World Cup qualifying. Leicester is surprisingly down in 12th.

By the way, anyone surprised that NBC kept all of the rights instead of the Premier League adding a second U.S. outlet, shouldn’t be. NBC Sports executive Jon Miller said on a conference call Thursday that it helped NBC’s case that the Premier League is the network’s only big domestic soccer deal, which lets NBC lavish all of its marketing hype on one league.

Also, throughout the bidding process there was a belief around the TV industry that the Premier League’s goal was to get NBC to write the check the league wanted. That’s exactly what happened in the end.

» READ MORE: NBC keeps Premier League rights with six-year deal worth over $2.7 billion

Washington Spirit vs. Chicago Red Stars

Saturday, noon (CBS3, Paramount+)

The NWSL playoff final has two teams that on paper, weren’t supposed to be there — at least to outsiders. But the Spirit took down star-studded OL Reign, 2-1, on the road in the semifinals, and Chicago shut out the Thorns in Portland, 2-0, with one of the league’s all-time underdog wins.

But neither result quite cleared the bar of upset. Washington might have hosted that semifinal if not for two COVID-19 protocol-related forfeits, and Chicago is a perennial playoff contender. Now they will meet for the championship, with the Red Stars in a final for the third straight year — the 2019 playoff final and the 2020 Challenge Cup final.

Readers of this space know all about the Spirit’s quartet of talented youngsters: Andi Sullivan, Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch, Trinity Rodman, and Ashley Sanchez. Those who follow the U.S. national team, know that Chicago’s Alyssa Naeher and Julie Ertz have been out with long-term injuries. The Red Stars could also be without Mallory Pugh for the second straight game because of COVID-19 protocols.

So keep an eye on Chicago’s veteran midfielders Morgan Gautrat, Sarah Woldmoe, Danielle Colaprico, and Vanessa DiBernardo — the last of whom has been a Red Star since 2014, a rare feat for a NWSL player. If Chicago can put the clamps on Sullivan and Hatch, it will stand a good chance of finally winning the title.

If the Spirit’s attack gets going, though, they’ll be tough to stop. That’s why they’re favored to bring Washington its first women’s soccer championship since the WUSA’s Freedom in 2003, a team led by Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach.

» READ MORE: U.S. women’s soccer team starts overhaul for new era with roster for this month’s trip to Australia

Lazio vs. Juventus

Saturday, noon (Paramount+)

It’s a huge weekend in Italy, starting with Weston McKennie’s return to Juventus. He’ll face Lazio’s Ciro Immobile, Serie A’s leading scorer this season with 10 goals.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal

Saturday, 12:30 p.m. (NBC10, Peacock)

As with every Premier League game NBC puts on its broadcast network, this clash of traditional powers will be on both big NBC and the Peacock streaming platform. But you might have noticed that games on cable aren’t on Peacock. Unfortunately for fans, Miller said that will continue to be the case in the new deal.

» READ MORE: The rest of this weekend's Premier League schedule

Fiorentina vs. AC Milan

Saturday, 2:45 p.m. (Paramount+)

Zlatan Ibrahimović and Milan face a tough road test against Fiorentina’s Dusan Vlahović, a 21-year-old Serbian rising star who has eight Serie A goals this season.

Barcelona vs. Espanyol

Saturday 3 p.m. (ESPN+)

Barcelona finally landed former star player Xavi to be its manager, a long-held dream of the club’s front office. His first game in charge will be against Barça’s crosstown rival, which would jump over the big boys with a win at the Camp Nou. Espanyol’s Raúl de Tomás is fresh off his first appearances for Spain, in which he helped La Roja qualify for next year’s World Cup.

Sporting Kansas City vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

Saturday, 5 p.m. (UniMás, TUDN,

After the Union and New York Red Bulls kick off the MLS playoffs at Subaru Park, the scene shifts to the Western Conference. Vancouver surged to the No. 6 seed led by new star playmaker Ryan Gauld, while Dániel Sallói and Johnny Russell led Kansas City to third place.

» READ MORE: The Union’s Dániel Gazdag is hitting his stride right in time for the start of the MLS playoffs

Galatasaray vs. Fenerbahçe

Sunday, 11 a.m. (beIN Sports, beIN Sports Español)

Turkey’s biggest rivalry game is so big that it’s called the Intercontinental Derby. Both teams are off the pace in the standings — Galatasaray is in fourth, Fenerbahçe is in sixth — but that won’t diminish the passion in the stands. Viewers will see familiar players in Galatasaray’s Ryan Babel and Fenerbahçe’s Mesut Özil and Diego Rossi, a former Los Angeles FC star.

Inter Milan vs. Napoli

Sunday, noon (CBS Sports Network, Paramount+)

As big as those other Serie A games are this weekend, this is undoubtedly the biggest. Third-place Inter has the most goals scored this season with 29, while Napoli’s defense is stunningly stingy — just four goals conceded.

Club de Foot Montréal vs. Toronto FC

Sunday, 1 p.m. (Fox Soccer Plus)

Canada’s signature club soccer rivalry is renewed in the final of the Canadian Championship, commonly known as the Voyageurs Cup. Both of these teams missed the MLS playoffs, but the cup winner gets a place in next year’s Concacaf Champions League.

New York City FC vs. Atlanta United

Sunday, 3 p.m. (6abc, ESPN Deportes)

Sunday’s MLS playoffs twin bill starts with the first of four games that ABC will air in this postseason. It’s a duel of two of the league’s best strikers, New York’s Golden Boot winner Valentín Castellanos and Atlanta superstar Josef Martínez. The winner will visit the Supporters’ Shield-winning New England Revolution in the second round.

Portland Timbers vs. Minnesota United

Sunday, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)

These teams understandably aren’t thrilled that their playoff opener is Sunday instead of Saturday, since the winner will play again on Thursday at the Colorado Rapids. But they will go for broke because they have to in MLS’ one-game-round format. Portland’s Sebastián Blanco has three goals and an assist in his last two games, and will look to light up the always-lively Providence Park crowd.

» READ MORE: This year's full MLS playoffs TV schedule

Cruz Azul vs. Monterrey

Sunday, 8:15 p.m. (TUDN)

It’s no surprise that these two Mexican heavyweights are in Liga MX’s Torneo Apertura playoffs. But it is a surprise that they’re in the one-game first round as the No. 8 and 9 seeds.