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Zlatan takes Portugal, Eastern block dynamism – UEFA Champions League Group A preview

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What’s Zlatan doing this week?

It takes an incredible talent to makes one of the world’s free spending clubs and turn it into his own traveling show, but that’s what Paris Saint-Germain got when they brought in (one of) the world’s greatest center forward(s). Anytime they play, it’s all about what Zlatan Ibrahimovic does, and whenever they’re away from the Parc de Princes, the only question is where’s PSG taken The Zlatan Show this week?

On Wednesday, Cirque de Zlatan is in Portugal to take on Portguese champions Porto. In Group A’s other match, Dyanmo Kyiv hopes a new coach can help them recover from a matchday one thrashing when they host Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb.

Porto (Portugal) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France)
Estádio do Dragão, Porto, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

For a team of PSG’s ambitions, Porto’s a perfect litmus test. The perpetual Portuguese champions have had trouble translating their domestic and Europe League successes into Champions League. Last year was a perfect example. Porto went 2-2-2 in a group that most picked them to win, relegated to Europa after finishing behind APOEL Nicosea and Zenit St. Petersburg. They’re a talented and accomplished team, but ever since taking away the title 2004, Porto’s Champions League success has been elusive.

It’s not hard to imagine Paris Saint-Germain entering a similar state, if only temporarily. When a eam experiences a long a break from the tournament, the first year back in Champions League can be trying. it can be difficult to create a squad and mindset to balance domestic priorities and the tournament’s mid-week intensity. As we saw last year with Borussia Dortmund, Lille and Manchester City, talent can not always offset inexperience. Or, as we’ve seen with Porto (or during Real Madrid’s long spell pre-Mourinho), even experience isn’t enough. The unique demands of Champions League make it hard to predict whether a team will succeed until they do, in fact, succeed.

That’s why Porto is such a great test. They are right at that edge. At some point, it’s going to click. Perhaps it’s continued emergence of Colombian dynamo James Rodríguez. Maybe a year’s experience will help coach Vitor Periera. Or perhaps the difference between Hulk and Jackson Martínez will add a missing dimension. This year, Porto may be able to scare a team in the knockout round, but until they do, they’re the perfect measuring stick. If you can handle this team, you’re probably dangerous. If you can’t, you probably belong in Europa League.

Early returns on PSG’s ability to meet this challenge are good. They opened their Champions League campaign with a 4-1 thumping of Dynamo Kiev. On the domestic front, they’ve rebounded from a goal-starved start to roll off four straight wins, their +9 goal difference best in Ligue 1. The improved results have come as coach Carlo Ancelotti has settled into a 4-3-1-2 formation, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jeremy Ménez on top of a midfield leld by Javier Pastore, anchored by 19-year-old Marco Verratti. Since the switch, PSG’s clicked.

No matter the formation, the key is Ibrahimovic, who is off to an incredible start with his new team. In seven all-competition appearances, Zlatan has eight goals. He’ll likely be too much for center halves Nicolas Otámendi and Maicon, who will need help from midfielders Joao Moutinho and Steven Defour as Ibrahimovic drops into space. That will only open up room for Pastore and Ménez as well as make it more difficult to pick up Blaise Matuidi and Mohamed Sissoko coming up from midfield.

Despite those advantages, it’s still a big task to go to win at the Dragão. The last team to do so in group stage was Chelsea in 2009, another hint that this is the perfect test for PSG. If the Parisians want to be world elites, they have to perform like world elites.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine) vs. Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
Olimpiysky National Sports Complex, Kyiv, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

The must-wins come early in a six-game tournament. By the math, Dynamo Kyiv could lose on Wednesday and still get into the knockout round, but coming off a poor performance in Paris, failing to win at home against the group’s trailing pack would leave them with a lot of ground to make up on Porto, let alone Paris Saint-Germain.

Oleg Blokhin, now former Ukraine national team coach, will be the man tasked with making up that ground. The new coach was thought ready to keep both roles after recently being appointed to the role at Dynamo; however, Blokhin tendered a surprise resignation last Friday, allowing him to focus on getting Dynamo caught up Shakhtar Donestk on the domestic front, into the Champions League knockout rounds in Europe.

His first order of Champions League business: making the team forget about the 4-1 loss in Paris. From the club’s website:

“In the Champions League, Dynamo will fight for a way out of the group.

“The defeat by PSG with a score of 4-1 does not say anything. I remember a couple of years ago, the same happened when Shakhtar Donetsk lost in London, 5-1 to Arsenal.

“They then went into the play-offs with first place in the group.”

It’s a strange world where Dynamo is drawing inspiration from Shakhtar, but that’s the challenge Blokhin’s inherited. His team is a clear step behind their Ukrainian rivals, and advancing in Europe is seen more as a fancy than a goal. It’s Blokin’s job to change that view.

Miss Tuesday’s Champions League coverage?

“Pretty unreal, a fairy tale” — Alonso, Marshall celebrate Sounders title

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Talk about penalty kicks all you want, and definitely talk about that save, but Seattle’s formative heart kept Toronto FC’s vaunted attack off the scoreboard to win its first MLS Cup final.

Veterans Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso, Stefan Frei, and Roman Torres simply got the job done against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the high-flying Reds.

“We knew what a great offensive team they are,” Marshall said. “Giovinco and Jozy are incredible. The amount of goals they put up this postseason is pretty ridiculous, so to keep them off the board for 120 minutes is incredible.”

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

The man in front of him, Alonso, was a prime reason for that. Countless connecting passes and perfect spacing limited TFC’s chances with the ball. After an MVP caliber season, you could argue that Alonso deserved just as much of a shout for MLS Cup MVP as winner Frei.

“In the final you have to give everything you have to win,” Alonso said. “I step on the field to play for my team, play for myself, and play for my family. And I think I did that.”

Both Alonso and Marshall spoke of the moments following Torres’ match-winning PK, as the Sounders crew flew down to pitch to celebrate in front of a rave green and blue visitors section high above BMO Field.

[ MORE: Bradley apologizes to fans ]

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

“I think I threw my back out on the run to Roman, and he flew right by me,” Marshall said. “It was just nuts. I lost my voice in a matter of 20 seconds. It’s just so exciting.”

Alonso was filled with pride for the fans at the game, and the ones back in Seattle who stood by the Sounders after a midseason coaching change.

“They deserved this, the trophy, because they are always there for us,” Alonso said. “Even when we were down at the bottom of the table. This trophy means a lot for me.”

Marshall admitted the words weren’t coming to him, even an hour after the game.

“I don’t know if I can. It’s an incredible feeling, from where we in July, the Kansas City game, to this moment right now, it’s pretty unreal, a fairy tale.”

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Bradley lauds “fearless” teammates after heart-wrenching MLS Cup loss

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Michael Bradley paused to collect himself, several times actually, before apologizing to Toronto FC’s supporters.

The game of football, with its soaring highs and gutting lows, was the latter now. TFC had dominated Seattle over a lackluster 120 minutes, Bradley engineered several big interventions and some delightful balls that didn’t have an end product.

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

Much of that won’t be remembered, though, because Bradley passed his penalty kick right into the path of a waiting Stefan Frei. Surrounded by reporters in the TFC locker room, Bradley chose his words carefully.

“When you put everything you have into something, when you come in every day ready to pour your heart and soul into something, the highs are amazing and emotional and incredible in a positive ways,” Bradley said. “And the setbacks… hit you hard. Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.

“It’s not for the weak, and you see that on nights like tonight.”

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

Bradley was one of the final men to emerge from the showers at BMO Field, and he answered every question with brutal honesty.

“On behalf of the team, we can only thank every person in this city for their support and for the passion and the emotion and the energy that they put into this, together with us,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach that we couldn’t reward them with the biggest trophy tonight.”

In defeat, it was easy to see why TFC’s locker room is drawn to its captain. Bradley shirked nothing, answering the tough questions and humoring those who would lob softballs about his family.

Among the former was this response, one of those quotes that moves a team into formation.

“The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it,” he said. “We talked about having a group of guy who were gonna, on the biggest of nights, be fearless and go after things in an aggressive way. And we did that. We were strong, brave, and went after the game in a really, really hard away from the first minute right up until the 120th minute.”

That Bradley missed a PK will howl to the moon in Toronto to the wee hours of this Sunday morning, and his critics will be happy to join in. But as the 29-year-old prepares for a winter that could see him head across an ocean before returning for World Cup qualifying and another MLS season, Toronto can be happy to put its faith — and its backbone — in No. 4.

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Altidore, Frei react to “that save” after Sounders claim MLS Cup

TORONTO, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 10:  Stefan Frei #24 of the Seattle Sounders stops Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during the penalty kick phase during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field on December 10, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Seattle defeated Toronto in the 6th round of extra time penalty kicks. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images
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When it comes down to it, Jozy Altidore and Toronto FC were inches away from becoming MLS Cup champions.

The man who walked away with MLS Cup MVP was the reason they didn’t.

[ WATCH: Frei’s big save ]

Deep in extra time, Altidore leapt high to loft a header toward the far post. Frei adjusted his body for one dramatic lunge, just slapping the ball toward Roman Torres for a clear.

“(Altidore) does the right thing because he goes against the way that I’m coming from, and that point you just move your feet as quick as you can see what’s possible,” Frei said.

Altidore thought it was in.

“I thought so,” he said. “It was a tough ball to begin with. … It was a hell of a save. At the end of the day you’ve got to pull off something special.”

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Three things we learned from Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup triumph

Seattle Sounders players chase defender Roman Torres (29) after he scored the game-winning shootout goal to defeat the Toronto FC during shoot out MLS Cup soccer final action in Toronto on Saturday, December 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP)
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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MLS Cup 2016 was the most well-played game of soccer all year — far from it, in fact — but the Seattle Sounders are MLS champions for the first time in their eight-year history anyway.

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

Three thoughts on a poorly-played, but thoroughly intense 2016 finale…

A cup final, it most certainly was

The numbers of cup finals which feature brilliant, composed attacking play is hugely outweighed by the number of cup finals featuring a total lack thereof. Whether it was down to nerves, the frigid conditions in which the game was played, or a combination of the two, Saturday’s final at BMO Field was yet another example of the latter.

The telling stats: 40 fouls between the two sides (just three yellow cards shown); zero first-half shots attempted by the Sounders, and just three shots in total over 120 minutes (zero on target).

The only moment of true quality came in the 108th minute, when Stefan Frei made the best save you’ve seen all year to deny Jozy Altidore and keep the Sounders on level terms (WATCH HERE).

Michael Bradley, man of the match (until his PK)

As we’ve come to expect, Bradley was anywhere and everywhere on the field for TFC, at all the right times. With Osvaldo Alonso playing the part of warrior in the Sounders midfield, and Jonathan Osorio’s attacking prowess preferred to the defensive chops of Will Johnson alonside Bradley, it was up to the U.S. national team captain to singlehandedly track and mark Nicolas Lodeiro out of the game. He did just that, and so much more.

Then, came his penalty kick, TFC’s second, which was hit with so little pace and no more than three feet to Frei’s left for the easiest save he’d make all night.

The greatest comeback in MLS history

You’ve heard it all by now, but it doesn’t make what the Sounders did from August to December any less remarkable — from ninth place on the day Sigi Schmid was fired (two days before Lodeiro arrived), to the MLS summit in four and a half months. Clint Dempsey, the Sounders’ highest-paid player, was then lost for the rest of the season a month later (irregular heartbeat). No team in MLS history had ever overcome a points gap that large (10) that late in the season to even qualify for the playoffs, let alone advance in said playoffs, reach MLS Cup, and lift the trophy.

Brian Schmetzer, a Seattle native and member of the Sounders family since his own playing days beginning in 1980, replaced Schmid with (presumably) the idea that he’d see out the lost season as interim head coach before making way for a big-name hire this winter. He won eight of his first 14 games as a head coach instead, led the Sounders to the four-seed in the Western Conference, and delivered to his hometown the ultimate prize on Saturday.

Watching the Portland Timbers lift MLS Cup 2015 was undoubtedly the toughest pill to swallow for anyone in Rave Green, but to end their Cascaida Cup rivals’ reign as defending champions by winning that very piece of silverware themselves … that’s a one-up that’ll last a lifetime.