MLS playoff preview: Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders

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Seattle and Real Salt Lake may be playoff fixtures, but each team enters this Major League Soccer postseason with something to prove. Notoriously, Seattle has failed to advance in their three playoff appearances, a record that’s overshadowed the remarkable feat of making the postseason every year of their MLS existence. For RSL, their 2009 title was not only an achievement but a promise. Now, the team is in search of a trophy that will quell the sting of their failed 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League run.

For the second straight season, the teams meet in the Western Conference semifinals, and for the second straight season, a season that began with expectations and promise will end too soon.

Kickoff: 10:00 p.m. Eastern, Friday, CenturyLink Field, NBC Sports Network

Recap of last year’s first leg in Salt Lake | And second in Seattle

On the Seattle Sounders:

  • Memories from last year die hard, which explains why last year’s semifinal has been increasingly pertinent around Seattle. Then, the Sounders opened their postseason with a 3-0 loss at Rio Tinto Stadium, dooming them to another early playoff exit (Real Salt Lake went on to eliminate Seattle, 3-2).
  • Seattle’s made four notable improvements from last year: Goalkeeper of the Year candidate Michael Gspurning is in goal; Swedish international Adam Johannson is at right back; former Bundesliga standout Christian Tiffert augments the midfield; and resurgent U.S. international Eddie Johnson spearheads the attack.
  • Johnson, however, is questionable for Friday’s game, having picked up a hamstring injury Sunday in Los Angeles. If he can’t go, Sammy Ochoa will.

MORE: Still awaiting word on Eddie Johnson

  • With Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales, Seattle’s attack will be potent regardless of Johnson’s health. The defending, however, remains a question. Seattle has the league’s second-best defensive record but is weak defending set pieces, something that will get worse in the absence of Johnson.
  • So if Seattle’s defense is so weak, how are they so good at preventing goals? Much of the credit goes to Gspurning, but don’t under-estimate the contributions of Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans. Whether Evans or Tiffert partner Alonso on Friday, Seattle’s midfield duo to be tested by an RSL diamond that plays notoriously narrow. Whomever gets the call, be prepared for an overload.
  • The bigger concern for Seattle was their inability to win important games. The Sounders went 1-1-1 in their late season Cascadia Cup matches despite the quality of opposition (Vancouver, Portland). A home loss to San Jose knocked them out of the Supporters’ Shield chase, while a defeat in Los Angeles on the season’s last day relegated them to third in the West.

On Real Salt Lake:

  • While Seattle’s made a number of upgrades, Real Salt Lake returns largely the same team that started the first leg of last year’s semifinal. Andy Williams (retirement) and Robbie Russell (D.C. United) have moved on, but with Ned Grabavoy and Tony Beltran, RSL’s no worse off.
  • With Seattle’s trouble on set pieces, Alvaro Saborio could be in for another big series. The Costa Rican international is coming off a 17-goal season and scored the first two against in last year’s semifinal.
  • The key to Real’s attack, however, is Javier Morales. At his best, the Argentine midfielder is the league’s best playmaker. He’ll be Alonso’s number one responsibility.
  • In defense, Real Salt Lake has the league’s best four-some (left-to-right: Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, Beltran), but the central pair has been troubled by Seattle’s tendency to play long and directly at them. Although Fredy Montero isn’t the league’s fastest attacker, the timing of his runs creates problems for RSL’s all-star duo.
  • The last time RSL was in Seattle, they played the Sounders to a 0-0 despite playing an hour up a man. That’d take the same result on Friday, even if this month’s draw was another indication of Real Salt Lake’s troubles playing from the favorite’s perch.

Bottom line:

Seattle’s not only failed to advance in the playoffs, they’ve never scored in a first leg. It’s not a long history (three years), but it’s still symptomatic. Too often, Seattle is passive – more reactive than imposing – an attitude that concedes the initiative despite their superior talent. In the regular season, that approach manifests in disappointing results against Cascadia rivals or letting Ricardo Salazar become something that defines a game. In the playoffs, it leads you to be pacified in the first 90 minutes.

That’s why Seattle finishing third may be a blessing. At home, they’ll come out aggressive, confront their demons, and force RSL onto the back foot. While Real often plays their best under such circumstances, Seattle’s a more talented team this year than last. They have the potential to redeem themselves.

Guardiola lauds Man City after record 15th straight win

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Pep Guardiola is breaking records pretty much every time Manchester City step onto the pitch right now.

[ RECAP – City hammer Swansea ]

On Wednesday they set a new Premier League and English top-flight record for the most consecutive wins in history, with City winning 4-0 away at Swansea to seal their 15th-straight win and stay 11 points clear of the table.

City beat Arsenal’s previous record of 14-straight wins in the Premier League from February to August 2002, and now they remain unbeaten with 17 games of the season gone.

Guardiola now holds the record for most consecutive wins in the top-flight of Spanish, German and English soccer with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Man City respectively. He’s a machine and he’s turned Man City into one.

Speaking to the BBC after beat Swansea, Guardiola was delighted with the win, especially coming so soon after the energy-sapping Manchester derby win at Manchester United on Sunday.

“Considering we have a lot of games in our legs, a demanding game at Old Trafford three days ago, we were solid, we were serious and we made a good performance,” Guardiola said. “You suffer and enjoy, like a manager you see many things. When the team play good we are happy. Our feeling – we understand what we want to do. We play good inside, outside. I’m so happy for David (Silva), we cannot disguise his quality but in the past he didn’t score too much goals. He’s sharp, he’s in an amazing condition.”

Man City’s manager rightly pointed towards David Silva‘s brilliance as the Spanish playmaker scored twice at Swansea and he’s now scored four times in his last three games, including a late winner against West Ham and setting City on their way to a win at United on Sunday.

With the record now in hand and Man City also stretching their club-record unbeaten run in the top-flight to 25 games, is there a risk his side will be complacent as the bookmakers have slashed their PL title odds to 1/25?

“That is not going to happen. We are so demanding for our players. We can lose, we can drop points but complacency, never happened in the past, the present or the future,” Guardiola said. “Winning 15 games in a row gives us a lot of confidence. If people are happy watching us that is the best gift.”

Ahead of the festive season, Man City are the gift which keep on giving and they have to be up their with the best teams English soccer has ever seen.

Less than halfway through the 2017-18 season they show no signs of slowing down and the Premier League title is simply theirs to lose.

More records will fall this season as an imperious, attacking unit has been fine-tuned by Guardiola. We are watching history being made in beautiful fashion.

Tottenham 2-0 Brighton and Hove Albion: Spurs back into Top Four

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  • Spurs outshoot Gulls 25-7
  • Earn 10 corners to Gulls’ 2
  • Aurier, Son score
  • Spurs back into Top Four

Serge Aurier‘s sailing cross and Heung-Min Son‘s late insurance goal led Spurs to a 2-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday.

Tottenham is back in the Top Four with the win on 31 points, while Brighton is 13th. The Gulls are now just three points clear of the drop zone.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Spurs had a pair of early possibilities, and Heung-min Son was blocked by Shane Duffy just after the latter got enough of the ball to avoid a penalty for going to ground.

Harry Kane then had two chances, one cleared off the line and another blocked by the Gulls.

It took a drifting cross to put Spurs on the board, as Aurier’s effort sailed over Mat Ryan and into the upper 90.

The second half didn’t have much pep, though Hugo Lloris was called upon to stop Tomer Hemed.

Kane blasted the bar with a free kick in a bid to make it 2-0 in the 70th, and Spurs found that second goal through Son’s redirection of a Christian Eriksen free kick.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Manchester United 1-0 Bournemouth: Lukaku nets winner

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  • Early Lukaku goal stands up
  • Cherries outshoot hosts 14-9
  • United three clear of Chelsea

Manchester United remains second in the Premier League following a 1-0 win over Bournemouth at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Romelu Lukaku headed home in the 25th minute to move United to 38 points, 11 behind Man City and three ahead of Chelsea.

Bournemouth remains 14th with 16 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

A bit of sloppiness plagued United, who was well in control of the early proceedings apart from the less than ideal passes.

Anthony Martial tried a clever cross from outside the 18 that missed both Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata at the back post.

At the other end, Phil Jones cut out a Callum Wilson left-footed rip for a throw. David De Gea then made two interventions including a stop on Charlie Daniels.

You’d think Lukaku was a former Cherry the way he mildly celebrated his opener, nodding a Mata cross past Asmir Begovic.

De Gea managed typical heroics when he got went low to stop a slippery bounding Wilson should through traffic.

Martial missed a sitter as the second half wore on, with Lukaku’s cut back going for naught.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

West Ham 0-0 Arsenal: Cagey Irons snare point

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
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  • Arnautovic everywhere
  • Wilshere stars in rare start
  • Gunners 70 percent possession
  • Arsenal 22-6 edge in shots

Another dominant Arsenal display was missing the final product, as West Ham held the Gunners to a 0-0 draw at the London Stadium on Wednesday.

The Gunners sit seventh with 30 points ahead of a visit from lowly Newcastle on Saturday, while 19th place West Ham is one of three teams with 14 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

A slow start in London had Arsenal passing the ball around a packed-in West Ham formation.

Yet it was Marko Arnautovic and West Ham who appeared to be going in front only to see a flag raised in offside.

Jack Wilshere made his first Arsenal start in league play since May 2016, and set-up Alexis Sanchez for a decent chance only for the Chilean blazed over the bar.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Arnautovic chopped a leaping volley over Cech, but also the cross bar, as the second half picked up the pace.

Olivier Giroud turned a cross toward the far post which was deflected out for a corner than turned into another.

Cech’s poor punch of a West Ham free kick had Arnautovic shooting toward goal again, but Nacho Monreal cleared the effort off the line.

Wilshere saw a chance go for nothing moments later.

Substitute striker Javier Hernandez cranked a shot off the bar in the 90th minute.