Drilling down on: at L.A. Galaxy 2 , Vancouver 1

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Four mad minutes turned this game – and prevented the Western Conference playoffs from being turned on its head.

Vancouver’s Darren Mattocks stunned the home crowd with an early goal and the Galaxy chase was on.

But Mike Magee’s 69th minute equalizer set off a wild, rapid series of events. Vancouver’s heroic center back Jay DeMerit soon hobbled off, his replacement tripped up Landon Donovan and the ensuing penalty kick sent the heavily favored Galaxy through to a California clash with San Jose.

Final score from the Home Depot Center on Thursday: 2-1.

Man of the Match: It was looking like one of those matches, with the huffing and puffing of dominant possession, plus many crosses and shots – but ultimately no goals for the Galaxy. Then Mike Magee happened. His late, smartly timed runs into the penalty area have always been difficult for defenses to deal with. So it was in the 68th minute Thursday as Magee’s equalizer turned the match for the heavily favored home team.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

The Galaxy advanced, but let’s call this one “something less than convincing.”

Mattocks’ early goal was perfect for Vancouver, which came to defend and really never bothered with attacking. (Designated Player striker Kenny Miller was on the bench to start this one.)

Content to defend after the early goal – perhaps not the right choice, but probably the only hope for Vancouver – the visitors dropped so deep that that it did effectively remove the Galaxy’s top creative element. David Beckham’s ability to play-make from those deep areas in midfield was stripped away. Minus someone to create chances with defense-opening stuff near goal – L.A. just doesn’t have that guy – the Galaxy created a series of half-chances but way too few really good ones.

The Galaxy was thusly reduced to a series of crosses, which Whitecaps center backs DeMerit and Andy O’Brien gobbled up like hungry young pups.

Part of the issue was top talent not at its best. Edson Buddle wasn’t effective, generally no match for DeMerit and O’Brien. Landon Donovan was muted, although he did create the spot shot and then finish it with the usual cool aplomb we see from Donovan at 12 yards. And Beckham, still dealing with an ankle injury, was less mobile than he needed to be.

Can we talk about about last Sunday …

Galaxy coach Bruce Arena is surely ruing the choice to deploy his starters (and keep some important ones, like the recovering Donovan, out there for all 90 minutes) in Sunday’s meaningless regular season finale against Seattle.

Because it’s not just a performance on Thursday that asked more questions than it answered; beating Vancouver in the opening, elimination match was never the Galaxy’s ultimate ambition.

For the champs, it’s obviously about doing more in the MLS playoffs. And that starts in Sunday’s first leg of a home-and-away death struggle against Supporters Shield winners San Jose. Just two full days of rest now before that one.

Was it hubris? As in, did Arena figure his team wouldn’t need to push itself to trot past Vancouver in a laugher? Or was it just a bad choice? Either way, the Galaxy missed some pop in the attack. A little extra rest for Donovan, Beckham, Keane, Buddle and others sure would not have hurt.

The Whitecaps have so much to do in the offseason. It starts with some serious soul searching on Miller and whatever chain of decisions brought him to BC Place. And probably Barry Robson, too.

DeMerit is the team’s top player; it’s no shock that L.A.’s game-winner came just after he left, injured. Meanwhile, the midfield isn’t good enough and the money men simply are not delivering.

Mattocks, the rookie, started over Miller. So, that’s already a “loss” for the franchise in the big picture. Vancouver tore down the team’s attack to bring in Robson and Miller – and one of them doesn’t even start in the franchise’s biggest MLS match yet? Unthinkable.

Here was the Whitecaps’ season in miniature:

Just before Magee’s 68th minute leveler, Matt Watson hit a shot that was saved but spilled by Galaxy ‘keeper Josh Saunders. Miller, just on for Mattocks, badly flubbed his effort at the rebound. Robson got hold of the wobbly shot and, from a tantalizing 10 yards … somehow didn’t even get off a shot.

That was pretty much it for the Whitecaps’ chances. And their season.

MORE: On the five minutes that defined Vancouver’s season

Packaged for take-away

  • Watson badly burned L.A. right back Hector Jimenez along the flank to create the early goal. San Jose was watching.
  • Sean Franklin or A.J. DeLaGarza would be L.A.’s preferred right back, but both are injured.
  • Houston nearly beat the Galaxy out in Los Angeles in 2009 playoffs – the infamous “power outage” outcome. Dallas upended the Galaxy in 2010 at the Home Depot Center. So an upset wouldn’t exactly have been unprecedented.
  • Donovan’s penalty kick? He did have position on Martin Bonjour (DeMerit’s just-into-the-game replacement), but it wasn’t a vicious foul. Frankly, you have to be amazed that referee Silviu Petruscu, who hates to call fouls, makes that call.

 

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.

Netherlands manager Danny Blind fired after Bulgaria loss

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The Netherlands are in real trouble, and the manager has paid the price.

The Dutch national team has parted ways with Danny Blind the day after a 2-0 loss to Bulgaria left the Dutch fourth in their World Cup qualification group halfway through.

The move garnering all the headlines from Saturday’s loss was Blind’s decision to start 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt. The Ajax youth product, who has just two Eredivisie starts to his credit, made two crucial errors and yanked at halftime, but the damage had been done. Spas Delev scored twice in the opening 20 minutes for Bulgaria, and that was all the home side needed as the Dutch offered little in front of goal.

Blind was also criticized for not getting Memphis Depay on the field as they chased the game. The Netherlands held 74% possession, but could only manage 3 shots on target. Depay has been in good form since his January move to Lyon, with five goals in his 10 Ligue 1 appearances.

This decision was something Blind saw coming. He told national broadcaster NOS immediately after the Bulgaria loss, “I blame myself. It can’t go on like this. Things have to change.”

“I need to think about [my future]. I do not throw the towel in here. I’m incredibly disappointed, especially since I had a good feeling about this match. It makes sense that I put myself in front of the mirror.”

However, the problems for the Dutch go far deeper than Danny Blind. They missed out on Euro 2016 largely thanks to the failed 2nd tenure for Guus Hiddink. His assistant Blind took over, but the results have been equally as poor. The Netherlands sit fourth in UEFA World Cup qualification Group A, with losses to Bulgaria and France plus a draw with Sweden. It’s not over for them though, as they sit three points back of a second place spot with five matches to go, and three of those five at home.

With the Netherlands still yet to play their friendly against Italy this coming week, former goalkeeper Fred Grim takes over on an interim basis. Grim collected 101 caps for the Netherlands, and has served as the Netherlands U-21 manager for the last two years. Before that, he took charge of his first full managerial job as head man of Dutch 2nd-tier club Almere City.

Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery, scores in England win

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Jermain Defoe’s friendship with terminally-ill Bradley Lowery has been special to watch unfold, and the Sunderland striker brought his little buddy to Wembley today.

Then he notched a match-winner.

Lowery walked Defoe out onto the field in a replica England kit before Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, and then Defoe scored his 20th goal for country.

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It was his first since 2013, the last year Defoe was called up for the Three Lions.

Here’s the goal, which was followed by a second-half Jamie Vardy tally as England stayed atop Group F with a 2-0 win over Lithuania.

Two Russian soccer fans stabbed in Serbia

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Two Russian fans have been hospitalized with serious injuries after being stabbed following a friendly soccer match between Red Star Belgrade and Lokomotiv Moscow.

Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said Sunday police were looking for the knife-wielding perpetrators who attacked a group of Lokomotiv fans in downtown Belgrade late Saturday.

Serbian media reports said the Russian fans were attacked by supporters of Red Star’s rival Partizan Belgrade.

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The match, which Red Star won 2-1, was meant to promote Serbia’s traditional friendship with Russia.

Stefanovic says “nobody should think they could hurt the Serbian-Russian friendship” with such attacks.

Serbia has seen a surge of fan violence inside and outside stadiums. In 2009, a French football fan was fatally beaten in Belgrade.