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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Steven Gerrard didn’t want any part of Coutinho in training

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Steven Gerrard has issued some fairly hilarious comments regarding former Liverpool teammate Philippe Coutinho.

The Premier League legend admits there were days in training that the sight of the Brazilian wizard on the other side of the pitch made him lash out.

[ MORE: Palace fans must be patient ]

It seems Gerrard wanted nothing to do with marking Coutinho in small-sided games, and the idea of “Stevie G” spouting off in frustration when Brendan Rodgers posted Coutinho across from him is a wonderful mental picture.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“He’s impossible to defend against,” Gerrard told BT Sport after Saturday’s game.

“I mean when I used to train against him, I’d hate it if I was on the opposite five-a-side team. I wouldn’t go near him. And sometimes I’d say to him: ‘Keep away from me! He can embarrass you [as a defender]. He can stand you up, he can both ways, he’s got such a low centre of gravity. He’s sharp, he’s quick and he’s two or three steps ahead of defenders. He’s so, so clever.”

Again, the vision of Gerrard throwing his hands up with a “Nope, not having this today” is amazing. Even if exaggerated, we love it. We picture that old meme with the office worked tossing papers through the air.

Patience with Hodgson required by Palace

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Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson is 0-2 in his new gig and the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t exactly within touching distance.

The latest defeat is a 5-0 blowout at Manchester City, and the immediate road ahead is sobering: at Manchester United and home to Chelsea. Following a trip to Newcastle, who is in form, the Eagles have matches vs. West Ham, at Spurs, and versus Everton.

[ MORE: Premier League Sat. roundup ]

Palace is 0-6 overall and the first team in the history of the Premier League to go goalless through its first six matches.

Palace fired Frank De Boer after four league matches and a summer in which the club failed to add much to its squad.

And Hodgson is feeling his way through the dark. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this is the timing of Palace’s change.

From the BBC:

“I am learning about the team all the time and they are learning,” said Hodgson.

“Our focus has to be in May. By the latter part of the season the players must know what we are looking for. They should feel stronger by then.”

To be shooting for May has to be overwhelming for the Selhurst Park faithful but may indicate their most reasonable promise of life in the Premier League.

Palace fans cannot afford to get caught up in how Sam Allardyce saved them a year ago, because his turnaround coincided with the Eagles’ purchases of Luka MilivojevicMamadou Sakho, and Patrick Van Aanholt. An influx of talent does not save a season alone, but we’re fairly sure Alan Pardew would’ve relished the chance to work with two new backs and a stabilizing center midfielder.

Remember that Allardyce then retired, which says something given his willingness to bask in any light in which he can claim a modicum of credit.

So Hodgson, known for his relentless training methods, needs to be given his time. Palace will likely have at-most one point after the next two PL matches, and they may have not scored yet. History can be daunting, but supporters need to exhale and realize the road ahead is long.

Kenya loses hosting rights to 2018 African Nations Championship

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) Kenya has been stripped of the right to host the 2018 African Nations Championship.

The Confederation of Africa Football cited “accumulated delays” in Kenya’s preparations for the tournament, which is the continental championship for players playing in their home leagues.

[ MORE: Premier League Sat. roundup ]

CAF made the decision to take the tournament away from Kenya at an executive committee meeting in Accra, Ghana, on Saturday and opened the bidding process for a new host on Sunday. CAF says applications must be received by next Sunday and the new host will be announced in just over two weeks.

The African Nations Championship is scheduled to be played from Jan. 12-Feb. 4.

Kenya’s preparations for the 16-team tournament were already troubled before August when its presidential elections were nullified and a re-vote was ordered. That re-vote is scheduled for next month, and the political instability has meant preparations for the soccer tournament have been undermined.

CAF also says it is opening a tender process to recruit an audit firm to examine Cameroon’s preparations for the 2019 African Cup of Nations, Africa’s top soccer event.

Like Kenya, Cameroon’s readiness to host the Cup of Nations has been under scrutiny. CAF says it needs to examine the state of Cameroon’s “infrastructure to host the tournament,” with the 2019 Cup of Nations the first to be expanded from 16 to 24 teams.

MLS Snapshot: Red-hot RSL end Sounders’ unbeaten run at 13

Photo credit: Real Salt Lake / @RealSaltLake
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The game in 100 words (or less): With the Seattle Sounders’ 13-game unbeaten run now a thing of the past (and the final four of those games all draws), Real Salt Lake (two losses in their last two, including wins in four of their last five) might just be the hottest team in MLS not named Atlanta United (just one loss in their last 12, including wins in three of their last four; combined score: 17-3). Furthermore, Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Seattle at Rio Tinto Stadium boosts RSL into fifth place in the Western Conference, two points clear of the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo, as Mike Petke’s side makes this year’s improbable, late charge toward the MLS Cup Playoffs, in much the same fashion Brian Schmetzer’s Sounders did a year ago. Jefferson Savarino, who scored one and assisted one on Saturday, has proven himself a star on the rise in recent weeks, and has RSL playing their best soccer of the year at exactly the right time.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

52′ — Savarino slams home Rusnak’s pass for 1-0 — RSL have themselves an attacking trio (Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Brooks Lennon) that loves to play together, and that joy really shines brightly in moments like this.

66′ — Mulholland slams home from Savarino’s cross for 2-0 — Savarino turned provider just 15 minutes later, getting in behind Joevin Jones, corralling Joao Plata’s through ball, and picking out Mulholland atop the six-yard box.

92′ — Rimando makes a stunning save to deny Dempsey — Clint Dempsey tried to sneak a quick free kick past Nick Rimando, but the all-time greatest goalkeeper in MLS history was over it.

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

Man of the match: Jefferson Savarino

Goalscorers: Savarino (52′), Mulholland (66′)