Beckham of the L.A. Galaxy celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps with Donovan during their MLS soccer match in Vancouver

MLS playoff preview: Vancouver Whitecaps at L.A. Galaxy

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The Galaxy are in Major League Soccer’s playoff doghouse – Thursday’s 90-minute mid-week eliminator contest before the “real” post-season series begin – based on that limping dog of a spring.

The star-strewn Galaxy was shockingly awful to start its 2012 MLS Cup title defense, a pitiful excuse for a reigning champ that slogged out of May with a frown and a 3-8-2 record (and having been eliminated from U.S. Open Cup play by the … Carolina Red Hawks?). But Bruce Arena and the boys got their stuff together, and now …

This does not look a thing like some fourth-place outfit – and no one will be surprised if the Western Conference’s most high-profile assembly of known names “upsets” its way right into a second consecutive MLS Cup.

Kickoff: 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday, Home Depot Center, NBC Sports Network

(L.A. Galaxy club-created video preview is here)

(Vancouver Whitecaps club-created preview is here)

On the L.A. Galaxy:

  • In one of those cases of the universe spinning on reverse axis, big center back Omar Gonzalez did wonders in establishing his immeasurable value to the Galaxy by missing more than half the season. That came after he had established high value in last year’s MLS Defender of the Year season, although not as high as it would rise. Everybody understood the off-season knee injury would dent the Galaxy defense in 2012 pending his healthy return – but nobody quite figured on 100 percent Galaxy “D” collapse!
  • In 19 games without Gonzalez, the Galaxy conceded 34 goals, or almost two a game. In 14 games with their steady and heady center back the defense allowed just 13 goals, or fewer than one per match.
  • Galaxy captain and U.S. all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan got back on the field for the Galaxy’s season finale after missing almost a month due to a knee injury. He had a team-high 14 assists.

(MORE: Landon Donovan goes all 90 for Los Angeles)

(MORE: Where Donovan landed on the all-time goals, assist chase)

  • David Beckham – Perhaps you’ve heard of him? – remains the league’s top passer over long distance and still has the best free kick strikes in the game. That makes any set piece in the Galaxy’s final third a moment to scoot up on the seat and pay special attention. If Beckham isn’t feeling the shot, he’ll aim for the 6-5 Gonzalez.
  • Mike Magee should make most people’s All-Underrated Best XI. He’ll appear out of the Galaxy midfield, his smart runs helping to create chances, especially when parlayed with Robbie Keane’s sophisticated, active movement in and around the opposition penalty area. Keane, the longtime Irish international, was team MVP with 16 goals and 9 assists.
  • The Galaxy’s weak link? Rookie center back Tommy Meyer, filling in for the injured A.J. De La Garza, will be playing in his biggest match to date.

On the Vancouver Whitecaps:

  • The Whitecaps slid into the playoffs, essentially, because Dallas was too far behind and then failed to pick up points in two late matches over Chivas USA. So, fifth place to the ‘Caps!
  • Martin Rennie’s men beat Real Salt Lake back on Aug. 11 – and pretty much stunk up the place from there. They won once over the last 10 regular season matches, and that came courtesy of the West’s worst side, poor ol’ Chivas USA.  The Whitecaps were shut out in seven of those contests.
  • The club’s pair of pricey Scottish internationals, Barry Robson and Kenny Miller, have largely failed to deliver. Robson, the team’s attacking midfielder, does continue to look threatening, at least, and seems to have something to offer if only in drive through the center of the park and emotion. Miller? Not so much. There’s even a question of whether he will start. (Robson and Miller both spent most of the season finale on the bench.) Rookie dynamo Darren Mattocks and speedy Dane Richards, who is usually stationed out wide, gives Rennie that option.
  • Vancouver’s road form will not do much to inspire confidence. The Whitecaps have just one victory away from BC Place since April, than against Colorado, which finished 7th in the West. The ‘Caps are 1-9-3 away since that early, short burst of road success.
  • Scoring goals has mostly been the issue. In the back, former U.S. international Jay DeMerit has been terrific. So has right back Young-Pyo Lee. Whitecaps fans (they call him “Y.P. Lee”) voted him 2012 Player of the Year.

Bottom line:

The Galaxy is heavy favorite, with good reason. The current champs, holder of a huge edge in big-game experience and comfy at home, would win this contest seven times out of eight.

Of course, there’s always the one. Otherwise, why even bother to play the darn thing?

Mourinho pleased with United’s “attitude” after gritty FA Cup win

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 19:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates with a fans as he runs onto the pitch as he scores their second goal during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United at Ewood Park on February 19, 2017 in Blackburn, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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Danny Graham gave Manchester United some early worries on Sunday at Ewood Park but the Red Devils ultimately responded and booked themselves a place in the FA Cup quarterfinals.

[ MORE: United books place in quarterfinals after Zlatan’s winner ]

Despite the adversity from both the Blackburn Rovers supporters’ roars and the deficit, United fought their way back into the tie after Marcus Rashford equalized on 27 minutes and Zlatan Ibrahimovic completed the comeback with a quarter hour remaining.

[ MORE: Kane hat-trick sends Spurs past Fulham ]

Ibrahimovic entered the match after the hour mark along with Paul Pogba, which gave United the final lift it needed to get past Blackburn.

Jose Mourinho spoke highly of his group following the 2-1 victory, particularly of his squad’s “attitude” after trailing inside the opening 20 minutes.

“I think the attitude of every player was really good,” Mourinho told BT Sport. “With a different attitude, we wouldn’t win. They gave us a really hard match and I am really happy with the players, of course.”

“I have important players on the bench and I can try to make them have an impact, but that doesn’t always work,” he said. “I spoke with Paul and Zlatan and they came with the right attitude.”

While Mourinho was understandably pleased with the result, the Portuguese boss gave Blackburn their credit for the hard-fought bout.

“We deserved to win, but Blackburn also deserve to go to Old Trafford,” he said. “But they can now focus on a very difficult Championship. A second match at Old Trafford would have been a disaster.

“I think the referees had everything under control and were really calm and even the ball boy to my right was really good.”

United will now move on to face Premier League leaders Chelsea in the FA Cup quarterfinals, easily making for the most exciting fixture in the last eight of this season’s competition.

La Liga & Serie A: Messi rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 19: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona shoots on goal next to Martin Maximiliano Mantovani of CD Leganes during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and CD Leganes at Camp Nou stadium on February 19, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Barcelona 2-1 Leganes

The Blaugrana were just minutes away from another disappointing result but Lionel Messi rescued his side on the brink of time with an opportune penalty kick. The Argentine attacker netted a brace on Sunday, which helped keep Barcelona within a point of league leaders Real Madrid at the top of Spain’s top flight. Messi entered his name on the scoresheet in the fourth minute before Unai Lopez equalized for the visitors in the 71st minute. The loss for Leganes keeps the club just two points above the relegation zone through 23 rounds of play.

Real Sociedad 0-1 Villareal

Samu Castillejo’s stoppage time winner kept Villareal in a top six position after the team struggled to find its way in the attacking third for much of the match. The Yellow Submarine currently sit six points out of fourth place Atletico Madrid, while Sociedad holds a slim, two-point margin over Villareal.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Celta Vigo 3-0 Osasuna

 


Roma 4-1 Torino

A pair of goals on both sides of halftime helped propel Roma to its 18th win of the season on Sunday, while keeping the Giallorossi within seven points of Juventus at the top of Serie A. Edin Dzeko continues to pay dividends for Luciano Spalletti’s side after scoring early for Roma, while Mohamed Salah, Leandro Paredes and Radja Nainggolan each booked their place on the scoresheet in the rout. Maxi Lopez provided the visitors with a consolation in the 84th minute, as Torino remain in ninth place.

Chievo 1-3 Napoli

Napoli’s potent attack continues to score goals at an astounding rate, and the third place side is still very much alive in the title race. The visitors jumped out to a 3-0 lead before the hour mark before Chievo finally pulled one back by way of Riccardo Meggiorini. Their three goals on Sunday move Napoli to a total of 60 for the season, which is six more than Roma.

Pescara 5-0 Genoa

The last place side picked up its second win of the season on Sunday after scoring three goals inside of the opening 45 minutes. An own goal from Lucas Orban in the fifth minute kickstarted Genoa’s misfortunes, and Pescara continued to pile it on from that point.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Bologna 0-1 Inter Milan
Sampdoria 1-1 Cagliari
Udinese 1-2 Sassuolo
AC Milan 2-1 Fiorentina

‘Gabigol’ finally starts to pay off transfer in Inter win

BOLOGNA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 19:  Gabriel Barbosa # 96 of FC Internazionale celebrates after scoring a goal during the Serie A match between Bologna FC and FC Internazionale at Stadio Renato Dall'Ara on February 19, 2017 in Bologna, Italy.  (Photo by Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Images)
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ROME (AP) Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa began repaying his 30 million euro ($32 million) transfer fee by scoring his first goal for Inter Milan in a 1-0 win at Bologna on Sunday.

Seven minutes after coming on, Barbosa tapped in a cross from Danilo D’Ambrosio in the 81st minute to secure fourth-placed Inter its ninth win in 10 Serie A matches.

Barbosa had been hailed as the next great Brazil striker when he signed a five-year deal after transferring from Santos in August. But he struggled in his first five months at Inter.

“I’m happy for him. He had a bit of a tough time at the start. But now he’s starting to click,” Inter coach Stefano Pioli said.

Garbosa was preparing to offer his teammates and coaches a Brazilian dinner to celebrate his goal.

“The dinner is more than welcome,” Pioli said.

With captain Mauro Icardi serving the second game of a two-match ban for dissent, Inter labored for long stretches.

Inter forward Rodrigo Palacio wasted a great chance directly in front of the goal 12 minutes in following a cross from Ivan Perisic.

But substitutions proved decisive and Inter has now scored 13 goals in the last 15 minutes of play this season – the most in Serie A.

“It’s always a good sign for a coach when you have a squad that believes until the end,” Pioli said. “We struggled between the lines and were slow maneuvering but we still worked hard. The team believed until the end and that perseverance paid off.”

CHIEVO VERONA 1, NAPOLI 3

Napoli bounced back from its Champions League loss at Real Madrid with a comfortable away win that extended its unbeaten streak in Serie A to 14 matches.

Lorenzo Insigne opened the scoring with an effort that improved on his goal in Madrid. After collecting the ball at the left side of the area, Insigne dribbled in and launched an angled shot around two defenders that flew inside the far post.

Napoli captain Marek Hamsik slotted another into an empty net and Piotr Zielinski made it 3-0 before the hour mark.

Riccardo Meggiorini pulled one back for Chievo midway through the second half.

Napoli moved into second place, one point ahead of Roma, which was facing Torino later.

OTHER MATCHES:

Attack-minded Zdenek Zeman made an immediate impact on last-placed Pescara, which routed Genoa 5-0 in the Czech coach’s first match back in charge since leading the club to the Serie B title five years ago.

Substitute Gregoire Defrel scored twice as Sassuolo came back from a goal down to beat Udinese 2-1 after Seko Fofana’s spectacular volley had put the hosts ahead.

Also, Mauricio Isla gave Cagliari an early lead before Fabio Quagliarella equalized for Sampdoria midway through the first half in a 1-1 draw.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Harkes speaks for first time since FC Cincinnati sacking

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 6:  John Harkes (Former captain, US men's national team) joined Budweiser, the global official beer of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, to celebrate the Final Draw on December 6, 2013 at the Brazilian Ambassador's home in Washington DC.  In partnership with Budweiser, the global official beer of the FIFA World Cup?, Garibaldi created a commemorative work of art representing the 32 countries competing in the tournament next summer and their quest to be crowned the best in the world  (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for Budweiser)
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As far as non-MLS news goes in the U.S., Friday’s announcement that John Harkes would no longer be managing FC Cincinnati came as a great shock to the American soccer community.

[ MORE: David Villa shown red card via MLS’ video replay ]

The former U.S. Men’s National Team player was sacked on Friday without any true warning, however, reports have suggested that a power struggle between Harkes and president/general manager Jeff Berding could have spurred the decision.

Assistant coach Alan Koch has been tabbed as the replacement for Harkes at FC Cincinnati after joining the club from the Vancouver Whitecaps II side.

Harkes had this to say following Friday’s shocking development:

“Although my time here was cut short prematurely, I am extremely proud of this team, the work I put in and all the accomplishments of the players and coaching staff of the inaugural season in the USL. To build something from scratch was special. From the time I signed my contract, a full eight months prior to the first match, the process of building a team, creating a relationship with the fans and the city, drawing on the passion of the city and its soccer community, and creating a major league soccer environment in a major league city was completely gratifying.

I thank God for the life he has given me and all the blessings in it, especially my family and friends. Their unconditional sacrifice, love and support has been incredible. I would like to thank  Carl Lindner III and the entire Lindner family and the owners for believing in me and giving me this opportunity.  I want to recognize the inaugural group of players for taking a leap of faith and congratulate each one of you for creating a special atmosphere for the fans. To the players we worked so hard to bring in this year, I’m disappointed that I didn’t have a chance to work with you but perhaps our paths will cross again. To the soldiers in the front office who worked tirelessly, thank you. And finally, to the incredible fans and supporter groups of FC Cincinnati – you are some of the most passionate and educated supporters that I have been around as a player and coach! Keep supporting and growing the game we all love.

In the words of the great coach John Wooden,
“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming. Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

In Cincinnati’s inaugural season in USL, Harkes helped lead the Eastern Conference side to the playoffs after boasting a 16-6-8 record during the regular season.