In search of second title, Beckham providing glimpse of Bryant’s future

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Hopefully the coincidence wasn’t lost on David Beckham, in attendance with Robbie Keane Tuesday night at Staples Center. The LA Galaxy duo was on hand for the Lakers’ season opener against the Dallas Mavericks – what was supposed to be the beginning of LA’s romp through the NBA’s Western Conference. After the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the hype’s been incredible.

So have the expectations. When the Lakers lost to Dallas on Tuesday, one media outlet noted the team wouldn’t go 82-0. There was a tinge of irony in the caption, an irony that played to the jaws that have remained dropped after Los Angeles acquired Howard.

Eight months ago, the Galaxy were in a similar situation. Major League Soccer media openly debated whether the Galaxy would be the best team of all-time. After capping a championship season in November, the Galaxy added Edson Buddle, Marcelo Sarvas, and extended Juninho’s loan from Sao Paulo. How many trophies? was the question before LA crashed out of the Champions League. If wasn’t a word until Torsten Frings and Toronto FC brought LA back down to earth. The defending champs would win only three of their first 13 games.

With their loss to the Mavs, the Lakers did their part to preserve the parallel, reinforcing the coincidence by stumbling badly in Portland Wednesday night. But as their 0-2 start sees the front page pundits baiting their egos, the Lakers can look west to Staples Center and draw inspiration from the LA Galaxy, who recovered to make the MLS playoffs. Winning nine out of 12 during a mid-season surge, were as good as anybody before locking up their playoff spot. You don’t have to look long to find somebody picking the defending champions to upset Supporters’ Shield-winning San Jose in the semifinals (should they beat Vancouver on Thursday).

MORE: Previewing Thursday’s Galaxy-Whitecap elimination match | Will Steve Nash be there?

If the Lakers manage a similar turnaround, it will only add to a list of parallels between the two teams. Like their NBA counterparts, the Galaxy have become the marquee team in their league. It’s a stature that’s fueled by their success, media affinity, and their ability to spend more than their competition, ensuring the roster always features recognizable names. On the basketball side, there’s Nash, Howard and Pau Gasol, while Home Depot Center has Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.

And of course, then there’s Kobe and Becks, the franchises’ figureheads. While nobody approaches Kobe Bryant’s stature in Los Angeles, the one Galaxy player oblivious Angelinos are likely to know is soccer’s global icon. Even if most of Los Angeles doesn’t know what makes him so great, they know that the great David Beckham plays in their city.

But to continue to call Beckham great could be an exaggeration. While he put in his best Major League Soccer season in 2011 (earning many media members’ votes for MVP of the MLS Cup final), this year age has make up time on the 37-year-old. For years people asked how Beckham could maintain himself at such an advanced age. You don’t hear those questions anymore. In the first year of his new, two-year contract, David Beckham finally looks like he’s inching toward retirement.

Now, after making his name on the right, Beckham’s fully converted to a central midfielder’s role, where he continues to be a fulcrum in LA’s attack. But if his range of passing has not suffered, his range of movement has. The fitness that helped define his ability to patrol the right now only appears in spurts. The circle of influence you can draw around Beckham’s central position is much smaller this year than last, part of the reason he was omitted from Team Great Britian’s Olympic team this summer. Dependent on the work of Juninho and Sarvas, Beckham’s effectiveness is limited to the middle-third, where his ability to read the game often provides Los Angeles’s main creative spark.

MORE: Beckham discusses his future … kinda

On rare occassions, Beckham can transcend those limitations. This year’s best example came in mid-July, when Beckham turned back the clock in Portland. He struck early from just inside the final-third, scoring from distance as opponents paused, as if watching a highlight from a YouTube clip. Five minutes later, it was too easy to give the league its second goal-of-the-week nominee, finding the tiny fault in the Timbers’ wall that gave him an early double.

But like Bryant, the moments of true dominance are becoming rare. Although the 34-year-old Laker is still among the best in his sport, Beckham’s mid-30s regression may foreshadow what’s to come for LA’s other sports icon. As the world saw at this summer’s Olympics, Bryant now has to pace himself. He can’t be brilliant every minute, every night. Like Michael Jordan before him, the last part of his career has forced him to swap drives for fallaways. As much as Bryant’s lucky to have Nash, Howard, and Gasol, he needs that caliber of player if the Lakers are going to maintain their title hopes.

Three years older than Bryant, Beckham’s dependence on his teammates isn’t so surprising. He’s always depended on others. It’s the nature of his position. As much as he’s made his name for his ability over a dead ball, more often than not, he’s needed people on the other end of those crosses. For LA, he needs Donovan’s speed to run into passes. He needs Keane’s movement to open up space. He needs Sarvas and Juninho to provide outlets when the Hollywood ball isn’t there.

MORE: Landon Donovan acknowledges damage to USMNT relationships

With both Bryant and Beckham, we have to wait to see if they can still raise their game on the biggest stage. With Kobe, we’ll have to wait until spring, though if the Olympics are any indication, he’ll be there when it counts.

With Beckham, the time is now. The playoffs start tonight with a must-win against Vancouver, and although LA can beat the Whitecaps without Beckham at his best, it would be a mistake to assume he can’t get there anymore. It was just one year ago that he was one of the best players in the field as his team won a title.

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