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)
PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.
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The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”
His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”
Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.
Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.
In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.
He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.
Arsene Wenger has made it clear about Hector Bellerin representing Spain this summer but the Arsenal defender is prepared to go against his manager’s wishes if he is selected.
[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alexis Sanchez over the weekend ]
The 22-year-old has said he hopes to play for Spain’s Under-21 side this summer during the 2017 European U-21 Championship but Wenger has been weary of Bellerin’s injury status and wants his fullback to maintain a clean bill of health throughout the offseason.
“I really want to play,” Bellerin told IBTimes. “Representing Spain is very important. If [Albert] Celades gives me the chance I’ll be there.
“Those are opinions of the managers. I have to keep working. The truth is that I had a difficult injury but I think that I am at 100% now and I’ll try to prove it when I get the chance.”
Bellerin signed a six-and-a-half year deal with the Gunners in November, where he has resided since coming up in the club’s academy. He has made 102 appearances for Wenger’s team in that span over all competitions.
PESCARA, Italy (AP) Roma boosted its bid for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the Champions League with a 4-1 win at Pescara, which was mathematically relegated on Monday.
[ MORE: Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League ]
Roma moved four points clear of third-placed Napoli, which drew against Sassuolo 2-2 on Sunday. Third place in Serie A receives a Champions League playoff.
Pescara remained 15 points behind Empoli. There are only five matches left and Empoli has the better head-to-head record, which is the deciding factor if two teams finish level on points.
There were 48 goals in total in the 33rd round, matching the record set in October 1992.
Roma took control shortly before halftime, with Kevin Strootman breaking the deadlock after Stephan El Shaarawy unselfishly rolled the ball across the area.
Radja Nainggolan, who earlier hit the bar, doubled Roma’s lead two minutes later.
Mohamed Salah extended Roma’s advantage three minutes after the break and the winger doubled his tally on the hour following a swift counterattack.
Ahmad Benali got a consolation for Pescara and a Cristiano Biraghi free kick also hit the post for the home side.
The timing is a bit sudden and certainly leaves many questions up in the air, but Phoenix Rising will have to look for a new manager.
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On Monday, head coach Frank Yallop resigned from his position with the United Soccer League (USL) club less than one day after former Chelsea legend Didier Drogba joined the organization as a player-owner.
With Phoenix seen as one of several lower-level clubs with ambitions of making the leap to MLS over the coming seasons, Yallop’s departure is surely a shock to many.
According to ESPN FC, Rising lead owner Berke Bakay was quite surprised by Yallop’s decision to step down, as was Drogba.
“Didier was as surprised and disappointed as we were that Frank is unable to continue coaching our Club,” Bakay told ESPN FC. “But, we all respect his decision to put his family first.
“Didier’s focus will remain on improving our team as a player and assisting our MLS expansion team ownership group as a co-owner. Frank will be helping with our international search for a new head coach.”
Rick Schantz, the current Rising assistant coach, will head the team’s managerial duties for the interim while the club completes a full search for a new manager.