TAMPA, Fla. – I just got back from Raymond James Stadium and the field there in four words:
A big ol’ mess.
There are two ways to look at this:
- The sensationalized view (a.k.a., how they’d write about this in England)
The field really is squishy-level. That is, there’s water standing on certain parts of the field, and it’s pretty much soaked all over – which is why both teams were forced to relocate their day-before practices. The United States moved over to the University of South Florida.
I took the picture you see after one particularly fierce dog-soaker of a downpour. The field will drain, I’m sure, and may even be substantially more playable now, about two hours later. The problem is that more of the same is forecast for tonight and tomorrow, so there’s every possibility that it will look exactly the same at Friday’s kickoff (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
That’s not good for Jurgen Klinsmann and Co.
It’s like this: Antigua and Barbuda is clearly overmatched here. That doesn’t make it a fait accompli; the United States could still lose or draw. It’s just that it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances, a wildly uncommon alignment of universal elements, for the night to end with any outcome beyond U.S. victory. (And probably a lopsided victory, at that.)
But listed under “extraordinary circumstance” is a field that plays more like an Everglades swamp. That’s when some goofy result, some theater of the unimaginable, inches a little closer to fruition.
- The non-sensationalized, come-down-off-the-ledge view
It won’t matter.
Klinsmann’s assembly of talent is so far and above the collection from Antigua and Barbuda, where most of the players compete in the U.S. Soccer structure’s third tier – and aren’t even doing particularly well there.
Honestly, a couple of gators could float out onto the field as torrential downpours pelted the pitifully drenched 22 – and the United States should still be able to bank their three points from the night.
The game in 100 words (or less): There are epic playoff collapses, and there is the MLS Cup Playoffs abomination put forth by D.C. United on Thursday. Playing host to a Montreal Impact side that won just two of its last eight regular-season games and crawled over the finish line, United — winners of four of their last five and one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch — no-showed Thursday’s knockout-round tie, and their season is deservingly finished. Laurent Ciman put the Impact ahead inside the first five minutes, and United never recovered or seemed the least bit urgent with their season on the line. Matteo Mancosu bagged a brace either side of halftime to make it 3-0, and Ignacio Piatti, who was his usual brilliant self — so good, in fact, he made you forget Didier Drogba was unavailable due to injury/dispute over his role as a substitute — added a fourth not long before full-time. Lamar Neagle grabbed a late consolation goal for United, bringing them back to 4-1 before Taylor Kemp fired a laser past Evan Bush for 4-2 late in stoppage time, but that’s as close as they’d get. Up next for the Impact, it’s the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.
[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]
Three moments that mattered
4′ — Ciman slots home from a corner for 1-0 — An absolute dream start for Montreal, as Ciman gets front side of his marker and benefits from a fortunate bounce after he scuffs the shot.
43′ — Mancosu slams home Piatti’s cross for 2-0 — Someone tell DCU that the knockout round is most definitely win-or-go-home. Horrific defending. Ball-watching all over the place. This is not the same team that won four of their last five in order to host this game.
58′ — Mancosu heads home at the near post for 3-0 — Steve Birnbaum has not had the greatest end to the 2016 season. Stay healthy, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron.
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Men of the match: Matteo Mancosu
Goalscorers: Ciman (4′), Mancosu (43′, 58′), Piatti (83′), Neagle (90′), Kemp (90+4′)
The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.
[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]
Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.
[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]
In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).
Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule
D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET
Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.
He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.
According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.
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“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”
During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.
It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.
Juan Mata has appeared in 116 matches for Manchester United since moving to Old Trafford in 2014. In that time, Mata has scored 29 goals and recorded 18 assists.
Despite his performance for the team, some thought Mata would be moved when Jose Mourinho came to town, including former United player and assistant coach Phil Neville.
Neville told Sky Sports, “I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”
Neville praised Mata’s contributions and versatility for United. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals.”
Manchester United has lacked an identity under Mourinho and recently faltered in the Premier League as the team is winless in its last three matches.
[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]
Could Mata be the answer to some of United’s problems?
The Spaniard is a classic No. 10 with the ability to dictate his team’s attack and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Mata can also put the ball in the back of the net as evidenced by his winner against Manchester City in the EFL Cup.
Mourinho has options in the center midfield with the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in addition to Mata on the roster.
However, given the team’s Premier League struggles, it could be worth giving Mata a chance as the team’s No. 10.