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?

FA Cup Final preview: Desperate Arsenal meets Double-seeking Blues

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  • Clubs split PL series
  • Chelsea’s Conte aims for double
  • Chelsea 8W-3D-2L vs. Arsenal since 2012

Arsenal and Chelsea face off with a trophy on the line for the fourth time this century when the London sides hit Wembley Stadium for Saturday’s FA Cup Final.

Arsenal beat Chelsea in the 2015 Community Shield, the first silverware match-up between the two sides since the 2007 League Cup Final in Wales. The Blues won that one, 2-1, while Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-0 in the 2002 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: Conte open to contract extension ]

A win would be Arsenal’s third FA Cup trophy in four seasons, and Arsenal would be thrilled to put something shiny in its trophy case following a season of tumult at the Emirates Stadium which ended without UEFA Champions League qualification for the first time in 20 years.

Conte knows Arsenal is desperate for something good.

What they’re saying

Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on what a win could mean“We wanted to finish higher up in the league, there is no doubting that. We cannot hide from that and we need to own up to that. The FA Cup is a big trophy, one we want to win and which would definitely boost morale going into next season.”

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte on the match: “If you ask me who is the favorite now, I can tell you it is Arsenal because Arsenal now has the possibility to find a good season after a win in the FA Cup. For this reason, we must play with great patience. We must find in ourselves the right motivation, the right anger because the game can be very difficult for all of these reasons.”

Prediction

Could go either way, with many players not just glory-hunting but in the shop window. Will Alexis Sanchez be the difference maker? Mesut Ozil? Maybe, but we think Chelsea ratchets up the intensity one more time and claims a double with a 2-1 win.

Chelsea’s Conte open to extending his contract

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Antonio Conte is readying Chelsea for a bid at a season double, with the Blues meeting Arsenal on Saturday afternoon for an all-London FA Cup Final.

Conte is on a London-high himself, having led the Blues to a Premier League title in his first year in charge. He’s moving his family to the area, scooping up plenty of individual hardware, and has dynastic aims for the Stamford Bridge set.

[ MORE: U-20 World Cup latest

His first deal was for three years, and Conte is thinking beyond that now.

From the BBC:

“If the club give me the possibility to stay and extend my contract, for sure I’m available to. … We have the same idea about the future, the way we have to do together, to improve the squad and the team.”

How they improve the squad will be interesting, as veterans Cesc Fabregas, Willian, and Diego Costa have uncertain futures at the Bridge. But why wouldn’t Conte sign a bumper new deal after wild first year success?

Off to slow start, Morris, Seattle know “things can change quickly”

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Both Jordan Morris and the Seattle Sounders are off to a rough start in defense of their MLS Cup title last Fall, and the USMNT’s star striker admits to recalling last season’s wild turnaround as an inspiration.

“After the game last week we mentioned that we have a lot of the nucleus from last year and we all know that things can change quickly,” Morris said to ProSoccerTalk this week.

Seattle won just seven games before Matchday 22 last season, rebounding with a burst after coach Sigi Schmid was replaced by assistant Brian Schmetzer. The Sounders went 8-2-2 down the stretch en route to an MLS Cup win over Toronto FC.

While he hasn’t scored in five matches and only has two markers in 12 games, he feels success is coming for the 3W-5L-4T Sounders. Morris said the club knows the results aren’t there, but also that they are producing chances.

[ MORE: Monaco star’s Man City medical ]

“It’s been okay,” Morris said. “Definitely not the start I would’ve wanted. It’s not an excuse but we’ve hit a lot of posts and had other near misses.”

Seattle has a huge opportunity to flip the script on its season when Cascadia Cup rivals Portland visit on Saturday. The free-scoring Timbers are dangerous in attack, but have been opened up 20 times this season. Only two teams have conceded more goals than Portland (which has played the most matches in the league, it must be said).

And it may or may not surprise fans that Morris’ focus has been one of his strengths: the final product.

“I’m working on the final third, whether it’s shooting or finding the open guy,” Morris said. “It’s a big deal for us to finish our chances. Scoring or the final pass in that final third.”

Despite his relatively cold start, it would be surprising if Bruce Arena didn’t tab Morris in his crop for next month’s World Cup qualifiers. The 22-year-old also seems relatively certain to be a part of the Gold Cup plans.

“I’m excited and hopefully I get called up,” he said. “These World Cup qualifiers are obviously a very big deal and Bruce has done a really good job of getting us on the same page.”

Morris is also participating in a unique promotional activity with Delta Air Lines for Sounders fans, as he and Cristian Roldan are among Seattle players picking fans for “positions” in a Fan XI. Once assembled, they’ll travel to L.A. for a Sounders road match and even sign one-day contracts. Morris was happy to get on board with it.

“It’s for our fans, who are amazing,” he said. “Delta’s idea to make a Fan XI gives the fansa chance to have the behind the scenes experience of being part of a team put together by having different skills. We love rewarding our fans.”

Day Seven: All the action from the U20 World Cup (video)

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Mexico has automatically qualified for the knockout rounds of the U-20 World Cup despite falling to Venezuela.

[ MORE: U-20 World Cup latest

Germany dropped below Mexico in goal differential after allowing a 3-0 lead to sink to one, though El Tri still likely would’ve advanced to the next phase despite Germany’s result.

Mexico 0-1 Venezuela

Caracas 19-year-old striker Sergio Cordova scored for the third-straight match in what is sure to make him a hot summer commodity as Venezuela clinched Group B with a perfect 3-0 record.

Germany 3-2 Vanuatu

Vanuatu’s potential name of the tournament Bong Kalo scored twice in the second half to sink Germany below Mexico on goal difference.

Guinea 0-5 Argentina

A brace from Lautaro Martínez gives Argentina hope of the knockout rounds with a third-place finish.

England 1-0 South Korea

Everton’s Kieran Dowell scored the lone goal of the match to give England the Group A crown.