Now that the one-game elimination round is done – the 4th – vs. 5th-place finishers clashing in those 90-minute knockout contests – the eight survivors are paired neatly for conference semifinals. And there isn’t a dog of a series among them.
Storylines look strong in each matchup. Remember, these are home-and-away, total goals series. The lower seeds generally host first, which means the 30-minute extra time in the event of a tie after 180 minutes plays out at the higher seed’s venue.
Each matchup is stocking stuffed with viewing appeal and ample “wow” factor. A quick glance at each. (The complete playoff schedule is here.)
Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo
- Sporting Kansas City is the league’s top team in terms of applying high pressure, immediate and ferocious – and the extra rest afforded to SKC can only help as the Eastern Conference winners bomb and bounce around.
- The Dynamo is unbeaten at BBVA Compass Stadium, although the “weakness,” if you will, has been in a few too many draw at their amply orange downtown ground. Houston is 11-0-6 there.
- Sporting Kansas City will be favored overall, but might be a little nervous after what happened last year; Houston prevailed as these teams (with many of the same players) met in last year’s Eastern Conference final at Livestrong Sporting Park outside Kansas City.
- Two of the league’s top assist men are in this one, Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi (pictured) and Houston’s Brad Davis.
(MORE: Analysis of Houston’s Wednesday win over Chicago)
(MORE: Houston manager Dominic Kinnear is good at this playoff thing)
D.C. United vs. New York Red Bulls
- D.C. United did the right thing in agreeing to swap spots here. Some things are bigger than soccer, clearly. Set to begin in Harrison, N.J., the series will now launch at RFK Stadium, a switch driven by logistical concerns surrounding the hard-hit areas of New Jersey. It creates a slight competitive disadvantage for D.C. United.
- The consensus says New York has more talent, but D.C. United finished stronger and more confidently, 5-0-2 down the stretch.
- United is 12-1-4 at home; New York was 5-7-5 on the road, so Ben Olsen’s side has a chance to grab a good result and add pressure on a New York side that surely already feels some, with all that ballyhooed talent and a manager whose place seems anything but certain.
(MORE: Looking the venue swap)
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
- The teams, as they say, do not like each other. The latest, greatest is example is here. Simply delicious.
- The Galaxy regulars have injury concerns and cannot feel as well-rested as they would ideally like to be. L.A. played a close one last night (a 2-1 win over Vancouver) while San Jose benefits from the additional R&R.
- One of the injury concerns is to David Beckham, who is slowed by an ongoing ankle injury.
- You’ll hear a lot about Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski, and for darn good reason. “Wonder Wondo” just matched a 17-year-old league record for most goals in a season with 27.
- Earthquakes teammate Steven Lenhart may be the most polarizing figure in MLS. He’s either an effective striker who rightly exploits the league’s lenient refereeing ways, or he’s more battering ram than soccer player and fouls or flops on almost every sequence in which he is involved. All dependd on your point of view.
- The league’s top pair of center backs will stand and be counted in this one: San Jose’s Victor Bernardez and the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez.
(MORE: Analysis of L.A.’s win over Vancouver)
(MORE: Landon Donovan and some very impressive numbers)
Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders
- Real Salt Lake put together a wonderful, core group four years ago. It helped the Utah side win an MLS Cup and establish itself as one of the more consistent, reliable sides in league and regional competitions. But it seems this particular group’s time is up. Changes are ahead … so this looks like a last hurrah kind of thing.
- Seattle has been on the cusp of “more” for approximately the same amount of time. Are all the elements finally in place, all the holes plugged?
- Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero were the West’s top strike duo down the stretch, but Johnson’s hamstring strain in Seattle’s regular season finale may have left him in doubt.
(MORE: ProSoccerTalk’s preview of tonight’s Seattle-RSL meeting)
Chelsea hosts Newcastle United this weekend, its first game since the season-ending injury to young defender Kurt Zouma.
The 21-year-old Frenchman has arguably been Chelsea’s best center back when it comes to marking and defending this season, and manager Guus Hiddink has to find an alternative for the big man.
[ MORE: Klopp updates Sturridge, Coutinho fitness; Backs owners ]
While Gary Cahill and John Terry have the familiar names of the bunch, Hiddink won’t limit himself to veteran replacements. Certainly he could slide Cesar Azpilicueta inside, though that would sacrifice about a half-foot, and Newcastle likes to use big striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.
He also has 20-year-old USMNT back Matt Miazga — who’s been given squad No. 20 — and said the following in Friday’s pre-match press conference:
“We have no fear of bringing youngsters in.”
Could we see Miazga in the fold on Saturday? Hiddink’s comments sure sound like he’d rather not, but all it takes is an injury or an inkling.
Miazga gave an interview to Chelsea’s web site last weekend where he described his play.
“I really like it, it is a higher level, the ball moves much faster but yeah, it is good. All the guys are very welcoming and I am really enjoying it.
“My game is definitely built on winning aerial challenges and tackles. As a centre-back you have to have an aerial presence and win a lot of headers, and my job is to win duels and not let opponents score, so every time I try to get a good tackle in and make my opponent know that I am there and it is not going to be an easy time trying to go by me.”
The ball moves much faster, and we’re hoping to see Miazga move with it sooner rather than later. Will it be this weekend.
Fans protested their ticket prices, and Liverpool’s owners listened.
Reds manager Jurgen Klopp isn’t surprised by this, and the German backed his bosses and gave an injury update as part of his prematch press conference on Friday.
[ MORE: Arsenal to play MLS All Stars in San Jose ]
Liverpool heads to Aston Villa on Sunday, and Klopp is cautiously optimistic about his stars after Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and Philippe Coutinho played big roles in the Reds’ midweek FA Cup loss to West Ham.
Klopp says Origi and Coutinho need their minutes managed, but said Sturridge feels good after normal recovery from his 70-minute return against the Irons. The English striker was Liverpool’s star in the match, and looked a cut above the Reds’ recent strike options.
As for the ticket price issue, Klopp beamed with pride over the Liverpool decision.
From the BBC:
“I think the world of football it is not easy when you are the owner of a club to prove you are interested in the club,” said Klopp.
“I have been here four-and-a-half months and I know the owners as people. They really care about the club and the interests of supporters. Hopefully it is understood for what it is: proof of their real interest in this club and all the things around this club.”
No surprise that Klopp backed the men who pay his deal, but it’d be easy enough for him to ignore the issue (though that’s hardly in his DNA).
As for Sturridge, Liverpool’s in for some goals if Tuesday is any indication.
Play until you hear the referee’s whistle. In theory, so simple. In practice, it only takes a single second of concentration lapse to become an internet sensation for all the wrong reasons.
[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USWNT coverage ]
Such is life for Karyn Forbes, member of the Trinidad and Tobago women’s national soccer team. In the above video, you’ll observe Forbes, a 24-year-old midfielder, giving away perhaps the most bizarre penalty kick you’ll ever see. You’ll have to watch for yourself to believe it.
[ MORE: USWNT opens Olympic qualifying with 5-0 victory ]
Unfortunately for Forbes, though the whole of the ball might have crossed the whole of the end line, the referee did not blow her whistle… not until Forbes picked the ball up with her hands and carried it to her goalkeeper.
BERLIN (AP) The German Football League (DFL) has given the go-ahead for the possible testing of video replays in the Bundesliga over a two-year pilot phase.
[ FOLLOW: PST’s Bundesliga coverage ]
The DFL says it will be lodging an application with FIFA to take part if the pilot phase is approved by the International Football Association Board at its next annual general meeting on March 5.
The DFL says video replays could be used by a “team of impartial match officials for the purpose of avoiding any evidently incorrect decisions” and that the pilot phase would be preceded by “intensive preparations.”
[ MORE: 17-year-old American MF Pulisic gets Bundesliga debut for Dortmund ]
These would include the settlement of costs among FIFA, the IFAB, the DFL and German football federation, as well as training for the candidates.