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U.S./France Olympic preview, or how to combat Les Bleues’ charm offensive

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And so it begins. Momentum is as stake in the U.S.’s first Olympic group stage match tomorrow against an endearingly modish French side.

The U.S. stumbled out of the starting blocks in 2008 when the team dropped its first Olympic match against Norway. Does recent history promise to repeat itself on Wednesday? France likely pose the biggest threat to U.S. chances until the Knockout Round. Les Bleues nearly got the best of the U.S. in the World Cup Semifinals last summer, but failed to contain Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. It’s a match-up between perennial powerhouses vs. potential powerhouses and anything can happen.

Who gets the starting nod in midfield; Lauren Cheney or Carli Lloyd? The USWNT’s previous three friendlies have seen Pia Sundhage do the improbable as Carli Lloyd remained on the bench in favor of Lauren Cheney. While Lloyd is certainly capable of being a productive force (she scored the game-winning goal in the 2008 Gold Medal match, after all), inconsistency and wastefulness have made her a frustrating figure to USWNT devotees. Sundhage rolled the dice by giving Cheney the surprise start in the U.S.’s opening game against  North Korea at the World Cup last summer. Will it be déjà vu in Glasgow?

(MORE: Hope Solo talks about her new autobiography)

Expect France to rack up the style points. It’s been said at least a dozen times before but it bears repeating before special occasions like this. Les Bleues’ meteoric rise on the international scene can be partially attributed to the vast successes amassed by Olympique Lyonnais at club level. Lyon have been lauded for their progressive, possession-oriented style of play; a style France has worked to duplicate. Eleven players on France’s 18-player squad won the Champions League title with Lyon last May. Look for Lyon midfielders Camille Abily and Louisa Necib (she’ll be the one with the eyeliner) to provide France’s attacking thrust. Both are capable of some truly wondrous performances.

How will the U.S.’s defense fare against France’s flair? The United States defense has experienced its share of woes this calendar year. 23-year-old newly-converted defender Kelley O’Hara could be tabbed to start at outside back. France’s speedy wingers are nearly as dangerous as the side’s mercurial attacking midfielders. Lapses in concentration are likely to be punished. The U.S. defense should be prepared to face its stiffest test so far this year.

–  Will Alex Morgan continue to make strides towards history? It seems not even the allure of Alex Morgan can fill seats at Hampden Park (80% of tickets were reportedly distributed to school children in response to sluggish ticket sales). Still, Morgan will have the chance to light up the scoresheet as she’s done so many times this year. She’s merely three goals away from becoming just the fifth player in U.S. WNT history to net 20 goals in a single season. And her premiere World Cup goal came against France, y’know.

(MORE: Comparing the 2008 and 2012 U.S. women’s Olympic sides)  

Final say: Between Morgan, Wambach, and Megan Rapinoe, the U.S.’s frontline looked ferociously potent in the team’s previous three friendlies. Defensive frailties have remained present, however, so it won’t be a shock to see the team cough up a first half goal. Still, one of the U.S.’s three aforementioned attacking players will be eager to make it 2-1. France might need an additional group game before truly hitting form, but a highly competitive duel of contrasting styles will likely be on tap.

The proceedings begin at 12 PM EST on NBC Sports.

Frei leads Sounders to first MLS Cup title in penalty kicks

Seattle Sounders forward Nelson Valdez, left, and Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley challenge for the ball during first-half MLS Cup final soccer action in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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TORONTO — With tackles that matched the bitter temperature, Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders had little trouble providing intensity.

Goals were another story.

In a game only its champion could love, XXXX defeated XXXX in penalty kicks at BMO Field on Saturday after 120 minutes of 0-0 play with precious few threats on goal.

After the teams traded goals to start PKs, Michael Bradley flubbed his shot right to Stefan Frei. But Clint Irwin stopped Alvaro Fernandez’s shot, Seattle’s third attempt, to keep things 2-2.

It went to bonus kicks, and Justin Morrow hit the bar to set the table for Roman Torres. Yes, the big man, and he nailed it.

The first chance belonged to Altidore, who took a classy ball from Giovinco and had his far post shot deflected off Roman Torres for a corner.

Giovinco had trouble with his service in the cold, and a fifth minute offering was returned by Joevin Jones on a long counter which finished in the hands of Clint Irwin.

Seattle gained its footing and held the ball deep in Toronto’s end, but wasn’t able to trouble Irwin. Jonathan Osorio was next to trouble a keeper, though ex-Reds backstop Frei collected his effort.

A scary moment arrived in the 27th minute, as Giovinco ripped a left-footed effort into Roman Torres’ face just inside the 18. The Sounders defender fell hard (and surely the 25 degree weather didn’t help the impact).

Justin Morrow then supplied a lofted cross from the left fringe that Altidore headed down to a sliding Frei. Still 0-0, 30′

Service left a lot to be desired on set pieces, and Giovinco earned a free kick before firing it off the wall in the 39th minute.

Giovinco teed one up right after the break, but hit it off the outside of the net with the outside of his boot and it remained scoreless.

Though the chances remained scarce, the hosts had a few. Bradley picked out Giovinco with a diagonal ball that the Italian slid square for Altidore. The striker was held from getting to the ball, but no call came and Toronto won a corner that came to nothing.

The chippy play continued, and the chances remained few. Seattle called upon Andreas Ivanschitz  and Toronto turned to Will Johnson and ECF hero Benoit Cheyrou. Extra time seemed predestined, and so it came to pass.

Cheyrou won a corner with a left-footed shot just after play resumed. Giovinco teed him up for a similar chance three minutes later, but Frei collected the low offering. That was about it for the first 15 of ET.

Toronto’s third sub was Tosaint Ricketts, and he took a ball out of the air from 15 yards only to miss wide of the right post. Kicks were looming. Ricketts then picked out Altidore in the center of the box, but Frei flew to palm the headed ball off the line.

Seattle nearly went on top via a deep throw-in, as Lodeiro spied Torres at the back post and Beitashour whiffed on his attempted clearance. Irwin grabbed the loose ball first.

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WATCH: Stefan Frei made the most amazing, unbelievable save in ET

Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei reacts as time runs out in the second half of the second leg of an MLS Western Conference soccer finals game Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016, in Commerce City, Colo. Seattle won 1-0 to advance to the MLS championship game. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Words simply fail at at a time like this.

[ FOLLOW: Live score and updates from MLS Cup 2016 ]

Stefan Frei made the best save you’ll see for quite some time, 108 minutes into MLS Cup 2016, to deny Jozy Altidore on the doorstep. The distance covered across the face of goal, the leap, the stretch, the strong hand underneath the ball … it’s all straight out of a Hollywood film which you’d question its legitimacy.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS Cup coverage ]

MLS Cup 2016 will be decided on penalty kicks.

FT — MLS Cup 2016: TFC, Sounders headed to extra time

Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco, left, battles Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan during second-half MLS Cup final soccer action in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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After 90 minutes of knock-down-drag-out soccer, MLS Cup 2016 is headed to extra time.

[ FOLLOW: Live score and updates from MLS Cup 2016 ]

The score, just as it was when proceedings kicked off at BMO Field nearly two hours ago, is 0-0. Toronto FC have had the majority of the game’s chances, but never really threatened Stefan Frei and the Seattle Sounders’ superbly organized defense. Seattle, on the other hand, managed all of three shots in the first and second halves combined, the first of which didn’t come until the 76th minute.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS Cup coverage ]

PST’s very own Nicholas Mendola is reporting live from a frigid, frozen BMO Field (gametime temperatures in the low-20s), so make sure you follow him on Twitter, right here, and check back to PST for live updates, full-match recap, and post-game reaction from every angle.

FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup 2016 — Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders

KANSAS CITY, KS - DECEMBER 07:  The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field before the start of the match between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
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279 days after First Kick, it’s all come down to this: MLS Cup 2016, between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, a pair of first-timers in MLS’s postseason title decider.

[ FOLLOW: Live score and updates from MLS Cup 2016 ]

Fighting out of the red corner, it’s Sebastian Giovinco (4 goals, 4 assists in five playoff games in 2016), Jozy Altidore (5 goals, 4 assists) and Michael Bradley. Fighting out of the blue (and Rave Green) corner, it’s Nicolas Lodeiro (4 goals), Jordan Morris (2 goals, 1 assist) and a suddenly stout Sounders defense (3 goals conceded).

[ MORE: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges for each other ]

PST’s very own Nicholas Mendola will be reporting live from a frigid, frozen BMO Field (gametime temperatures expected to be in the low-20s), so make sure you follow him on Twitter, right here, and check back to PST for live updates, full-match recap, and post-game reaction from every angle.

Who: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders
What: MLS Cup 2016
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
Where: BMO Field, Toronto, Canada
Why: To crown a champion