Real Salt Lake v Seattle Sounders - Western Conference Semifinals

Drilling down on: at Seattle 0, Real Salt Lake 0

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A playoff series opener for Seattle is a shutout waiting to happen.

Four times now the Sounders have begun a two-leg series without finding goal. The bad news for Sounders’ fans, of course, is that Seattle has yet to rally in the second leg to advance.

So Real Salt Lake has a significant leg up following Friday’s scoreless draw in Seattle, the opener in the teams’ Western Conference semifinal series. They’ll decide a winner Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Man of the Match: The pictures of Nick Rimando at game’s end said it all: the visitor’s outstanding goalkeeper, puffy eyed from a big second-half collision, accepting earnest praise from players on both sides for providing a special performance when his team truly needed one. In addition to a series of stellar stops, the veteran demonstrated steely focus and toughness by remaining on top of things and keeping his wits after the crunching collision left him with a shiner on his right eye, a cut over the nose and who knows what else?

MORE: On Nick Rimando’s spectacular night in Seattle

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Quality stuff from the goalkeepers and beyond: Those elimination matches that launched the MLS playoffs were interesting in their own way, but we could ask some questions about the overall quality.

A slick field help reduce the level of play in Chicago on Wednesday, and then one team wasn’t really quite playoff caliber in California on Thursday, if we’re being honest. So while the games had champagne drama, they were more like table wine in terms of style and ability.

Well, these conference semifinals will be a different can of salmon. We suspected as much and weren’t let down. Even if the visitors were a little cautious in places, there was plenty of action, good chances on both sides and few discernible weak links on either side.

The best work, of course, was in either goal. Rimando’s outstanding work included a big sprint off the line to smother a Brad Evans shot as the Sounders’ midfielder broke free along the right. Rimando’s pair of saves on consecutive corner kicks in the 33rd minute were show-stoppers. The better of the pair was his stop on Sammy Ochoa’s sharp header, which needed a big, strong hand to push the ball high. And Rimando’s 51st-minute stop on Christian Tiffert’s snap header was also a highlight maker.

On the other end, Seattle’s steady Michael Gspurning was doing his part to produce a scoreless draw. His best work came as Ned Grabavoy was in behind the defense and later on a Will Johnson’s blast from in close.

Real Salt Lake was dead-set determined not to make the mistake that did in Seattle in last year’s series between these teams.

Opening the home-and-away tussle in Utah, the Sounders didn’t know when to say when. The Sounders fell behind and then pressed naively for the equalizer as if it weren’t a series to be decided over two legs. Result, they lost 3-0 and then could not make up the large deficit on the back end, at home.

So Jason Kreis’ RSL was not about to do the same. Tactical discipline was the order of the day and it worked to perfection. So the outside backs remained cautious. Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy, the “width” in RSL’s fluid diamond midfield, remained inside and refused to get stretched too wide. Screening man Kyle Beckerman had his usual bounce and bite.

Meanwhile, Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola, supported by carefully managed numbers, still managed to create the occasional chance for RSL.

Seattle tried to press high and it worked – but only to a point. If the point was to prevent RSL from working all the little combinations in dangerous places, to keep Beckerman, Morales, Espindola, etc., working the fancy little stuff in midfield rather than in the central third, then mission accomplished. On the other hand, RSL had enough technical ability to keep the ball adequately and avoid the killer turnovers in bad places.

In a series that will probably be decided by one goal, the Sounders missed injured leading scorer Eddie Johnson.

Nowhere was that more evident (and painful for Seattle fans) than in the 50th minute. Young fill-in Sammy Ochoa punctuated a wonderful Seattle sequence with a blast from eight yards that flew well high. It really was a great chance with Ochoa running at full gallop right onto a perfectly placed ball from the left.

David Estrada replaced Ochoa in the second half and, in the 85th minute, whiffed from point blank range. Couldn’t we all see a quality finisher like Johnson, confident as he is at the moment, saving the Seattle day on one of those?

Otherwise, neither man has Johnson’s sense of timing near goal, nor his leaping ability on balls supplied by Mauro Rosales or others.

Packaged for take-away

  • Espindola left at halftime due to a hamstring issue, which is unfortunate news for RSL.
  • Yellow cards will be an issue for either team that goes through in this series. Jeff Parke, Brad Evans, Beckerman and Morales were all booked and now stand one more yellow card away from missing the following match.

Highlights: Nick Rimando steals the show

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Michael Gspurning talks after his shutout

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MLS Cup Playoffs: NY Red Bulls 1-0 (1-2 agg.) Columbus Crew SC

Tony Tchani, Michael Parkhurst
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The game in 100 words (or less): Columbus Crew SC are headed to their second MLS Cup in club history (champions – 2008) after defeating the New York Red Bulls, 2-0 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (0-0 draw in an extremely chippy second leg on Sunday). Justin Meram and Kei Kamara scored the two-leg tie’s only goals — eight seconds and 85 minutes into the first leg, respectively — and Crew SC confidently managed the second leg by defending with numbers and wisely picking their spots to break out on the counter. RBNY held nearly 60 percent of possession in the second leg, but could muster just six shots on target over the 90 minutes. Crew SC will host the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup 2015 next Sunday (4 p.m. ET) at MAPFRE Stadium.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

38′ — Robles at full stretch to deny Kamara — What’s better: the first touch, second touch, turn and shot by Kei Kamara; or, the sprawled-out save by Luis Robles to swat away a ball clearly headed for the bottom corner? Quality on quality.

90+3′ — Abang heads home to make it nervy late — Anatole Abange rose above the crowd and headed home a recycled ball inside the penalty area after a Sal Zizzo cross was headed high into the air late into stoppage time.

90+5′ — Madness in the penalty area, RBNY hit the post — It was absolute scenes inside the Crew SC penalty area. Ball after ball pumped into the box, headed high into the air and briefly cleared. The final chance of the game fell to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who headed the ball toward the far post with Steve Clark rushing out quickly, only to see his slow dribbler bounce off the front side of the post and back into the field of play.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Abang (90+3′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: FC Dallas 2-2 (3-5 agg.) Portland Timbers

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers FC
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The game in 100 words (or less): The Portland Timbers are headed to their first MLS Cup in club history after defeating FC Dallas, 5-3 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (2-2 draw in the second leg). Fanendo Adi scored in Sunday’s second leg, giving Caleb Porter’s side a 4-1 aggregate lead before Ryan Hollingshead and Blas Perez scored inside the last 25 minutes to give Oscar Pareja’s bunch a late lifeline, but Lucas Melano’s spectacular tap-in sealed the Timbers’ trip to MLS Cup. The third seed heading into the playoffs, Portland bounced Sporting Kansas City in an epic penalty shootout in the knockout round and outlasted the Vancouver Whitecaps in the conference semifinals before knocking off the West’s top seed over two legs to advance to MLS Cup 2015. No matter who advances from the East finals later on Sunday, Portland will play away in MLS Cup, to either the New York Red Bulls or Columbus Crew SC.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

54′ — Adi fires past Gonzalez to make if 4-1 — Oscar Pareja elected to go with Walker Zimmerman at center back on Sunday, dropping regular starter Zach Loyd to the bench. On the game’s opening goal, it was Zimmerman who wound up on the ground as Adi received the ball, turned and fired a massive away goal past Jesse Gonzalez.

68′ — Diaz’s magical ball curled home by Hollingshead — Mauro Diaz is a wonderful magician capable of playing the kill through ball from anywhere on the field — this we’ve known for quite some time. His chipped through ball to set up Hollingshead’s goal was extraordinarily brilliant, even for him.

73′ — Perez heads home the free kick to pull within one — Would you be surprised to hear that it was Diaz who set up FCD’s second goal? His free kick was Perez-finding missile and found the head of the Panamanian striker at the top of the six-yard box, where 34-year-old headed home with ease.

90+5′ — Melano rounds Gonzalez, seals MLS Cup berth — Poor Jesse Gonzalez. Absolutely schooled and posterized by Lucas Melano. What a way to sew up a place in the championship final.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Mauro Diaz

Goalscorers: Adi (54′), Hollingshead (68′), Perez (73′), Melano (90+5′)

La Liga & Serie A: Real Madrid bounce back; Juventus on the charge

Gareth Bale, Real Madrid CF
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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

Eibar 0-2 Real Madrid

Real Madrid bounced back from back-to-back La Liga defeats with a 2-0 victory away to Eibar on Sunday. Gareth Bale (below video) and Cristiano Ronaldo (penalty kick) provided the goals to keep Rafa Benitez‘s bunch (27 points) third in the league, two points behind Atletico Madrid and six behind leaders Barcelona.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Getafe 2-0 Villarreal
Rayo Vallecano 0-3 Athletic Bilbao
Sevilla 1-0 Valencia

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup ]

Roma 0-2 Atalanta

Losing at home to sides currently in a relegation battle — rarely a good idea, especially if you fancy yourselves title challengers, but that didn’t stop Roma from doing just that on Sunday. Alejandro Gomez and German Denis scored the goals to knock off a 10-man Roma side (Maicon – 81st minute) and keep Rudi Garcia’s bunch (27 points) from gaining ground on any of the three teams currently ahead of them — Inter Milan, Napoli and Fiorentina — all of whom play on Monday.

AC Milan 4-1 Sampdoria

M’Baye Niang scored twice, while Giacomo Bonaventura and Luiz Adriano (below video) added single tallies for AC Milan (23 points) to keep pace with the top-five pack in Serie A. After 14 rounds of games, the Rossoneri sit sixth, a point outside fifth (UEFA Europa League) and five points out of third (UEFA Champions League).

Palermo 0-3 Juventus

Don’t look now, but here come Juventus. Sunday’s 3-0 triumph over Palermo makes it four straight wins in the league for Massimiliano Allegri’s side — a run that pushes them all the way up to fifth in the league (24 points), just six points off the pace of leaders Inter, who play on Monday. Mario Mandzukic (below video), Stefano Sturaro and Simone Zaza scored the goals for the world’s most frightening fifth-place team.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Torino 2-0 Bologna
Chievo 2-3 Udinese
Frosinone 3-2 Hellas Verona
Genoa 1-2 Carpi
Empoli 1-0 Lazio

Monday’s Serie A schedule

Sassuolo vs. Fiorentina (1 p.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Inter Milan (3 p.m. ET)

Arsenal’s injury crisis — add Sanchez, Cazorla, Koscielny to the list

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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From title challengers to just hoping to hold on to a top-four place while Arsene Wenger is forced to play reserves and academy players because half of his star players are currently out injured — the annual story of Arsenal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Oct. 27, when Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both went down with injuries in the same game, marked the unofficial start of Arsenal’s 2015-16 injury crisis, but things didn’t really get going full bore until the last seven days, when five more players — four of them full-time starters — picked up injuries that will keep them out of action for anywhere between three weeks and three months.

Added to the list last weekend: Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks)

Added to the list on Sunday: Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – MORE DETAILS), Santi Cazorla (knee), Laurent Koscielny (hip)

Following Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Norwich City, Wenger said Koscielny “could not walk” due to the hip spasm that forced him out of the game after just 11 minutes. He also divulged that Cazorla, who could not be subbed off because Wenger had already used all three subs late on, played the second half “on one leg.” Sanchez came into Sunday injured after picking up a hamstring injury in Arsenal’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Sunday’s PL roundup — Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs all draw ]

Arsenal fans were up in arms during the summer transfer window — let’s be honest, the following is true of every transfer window the last five years — crying out, “We must buy, we must buy.” Have a look at Arsenal’s complete injury list at the moment, and try to say, “They didn’t need to buy in the summer.”

In chronological order: Danny Welbeck (knee – early 2016 return), Tomas Rosicky (knee – Christmas time return), Jack Wilshere (leg – Christmas time return), Theo Walcott (calf – December return), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks), Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Laurent Koscielny (hip – to be assessed), Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – to be assessed), Santi Cazorla (knee – to be assessed)