Drilling down on: at Houston 1, Real Salt Lake 0

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Man of the match: If it weren’t for Tally Hall, Houston would have never had the chance to claim full points in stoppage time. The Houston goalkeeper came up with three big saves, none bigger than his 89th minute stop on Ned Grabavoy. The RSL midfielder was put in alone only to see Hall, reading the play beautifully, cutting off most of the angles. Grabavoy did what he could with a left-footed shot to the right post, but Hall had it covered, preserving the (then) 0-0 scoreline.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • The penalty kick came after Rimando misjudged a ball lofted into the box, coming off his line early to put himself in no man’s land before crashing into Mac Kandji. Colin Clark stepped up and – just like they tell you to do, when you don’t have a better idea – blasted it straight down the middle. Rimando lept left, missed, but if he been a split second slower with his jump, he might have been nailed in the head by Clark’s rocket.
  • RSL’s main complain may about the goal wasn’t the call, it was the timing. The whistle seemed to come slightly after the 93rd minute expired, with three minutes stoppage time being shown on the clock. Of course the play’s not going to stop in the middle of an attack, but when a team’s setting up to pump a ball into the box? Who knows. It all seems like semantics, to me. In one hundred percent fo the soccer games I’ve ever watched, you have to play until the game’s over.
  • “Wait a minute,” you might ask (sorry if I’m misquoting your hypothetical conjecture). “What wasn’t Brad Davis taking the kick?” Davis had already had his chance in the 75th minute, but trying to convert after a dubious call on Chris Schuler, Davis seemed to (perhaps unintentionally) hesitate before putting the ball toward the right post. Not only did the kick end up one yard off the ground (in a relatively easy place to save), but Davis seemed to slow his kick after he’d  already opened his right hip and shoulder. In other words, instead of hesitating then committing, he committed then hesitated, gift wrapping the save for Rimando.
  • Back to the dubious penalty call. It’s not so much Schuler didn’t commit a foul (his shoulder charge on Will Bruin at the edge of the six was completely unnecessary, given Kofie Sarkodie’s cross was going well beyond goal). It’s just that Ismail Elfath had been letting everything go all night. In the first half, there was a somewhat comical moment where Nat Borchers pulled up expecting to be called for a foul outside the RSL penalty area only to see Elfath had let play go on. To go from that approach (to which the players had adjusted) to giving a penalty for essentially an off-the-ball foul was too big of a swing.
  • After that penalty, the match picked up. Rimando was called on to make another great save in the 82nd minute. Hall had already made a miraculous reflex stop in the 80th. The chances were starting to flow after 75 minutes of relatively few opportunities.
  • That’s not to say the match lacked drama. In the first half, Real Salt Lake controlled play, though they were only able to generate one meaningful chance on Hall. Houston was on the front foot in the second, but again, there was a lack of clear scoring chances.
  • Perhaps that should have been expected from two teams missing so many players to international duty. Houston with without Andre Hainault, Jermaine Taylor, and Oscar Boniek Garcia. Real Salt Lake was missing Kyle Beckerman, Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson.
  • Real Salt Lake started Yordany Álvarez in Beckerman’s spot and was able to augment the loss by having Jonny Steele and Ned Grabavoy come back, as needed, to help built play. Up top, however, the Fabian Espindola-Paulo Jr. combination wasn’t getting it done, part of the reason Jason Kreis brought Emiliano Bonfigli on for Paulo at halftime.
  • RSL’s most compelling player may have been Schuler, throw out at left back for the suspended Chris Wingert. If it weren’t for the spurious penalty conceded in the 75th minute, Schuler would have been RSL’s better player. Although Elfath’s call was inconsistent with how he was judging the rest of the night, you can’t help but ask: Why did Schuler do that?
  • For Houston, they seemed to really miss Boniek Garcia in the first half, but in the second, they played much better. What, exactly, did they do? Nothing special. They just seemed to wake up.
  • Interesting tactical note for Houston: They broke away from their 4-3-3 tonight and played more of a 4-2-3-1 shape (if not function), with Calen Carr underneath Will Bruin, Kandji out right, Clark to the left. It wasn’t a very convincing set up, but the players eventually found a way to get three points.
  • With those three points, Houston temporarily jumps third in the East (they’ve played more games than anybody save Montreal). Given the Dynamo were slowly being pulled back into a race that could leave them at home come November, the win is huge.
  • It also continues Houston’s unbeaten run at BBVA as well as RSL’s poor record in Texas. According to the broadcast crew, RSL is now 0-18-3 all-time in the Lonestar state. Yikes.
  • For RSL, they stay two points up on Seattle, but the Sounders now have three games in hand. In the mean time, San Jose stays seven points clear in the West, making live easy on Coach of the Year voters who will look at the Quakes’ huge one-year turnaround.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday