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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Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images
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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”

Boa Esporte goalkeeper back to prison as murder appeal denied

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The risk clearly wasn’t worth it for Boa Esporte.

The Brazilian club signed Bruno Fernandes de Souza in March, not long after the convicted murderer and goalkeeper was released from prison on appeal.

Fernandes, 32, had been jailed for ordering the murder of a lover, who was fed to dogs by the killer. Boa Esporte lost several big sponsors for signing him, but vocally defended the move.

The owner, Rone Moraes da Costa, said he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to revive his career. Fernandes admitted his mistakes but said he wasn’t “a bad guy”.

According to the Associated Press:

“Brazil’s Supreme Court decided on Tuesday to deny an appeal to Boa Esporte goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes de Souza, who was released in March while appealing a 22-year sentence in the 2010 killing of Eliza Samudio.”

So it’s back to jail for Fernandes, and we’ll be waiting with baited breath to hear from Boa Esporte’s owner.

Conte: Chelsea “ready to fight to the end”

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Following Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Spurs and Tuesday’s blowout of Southampton — the 4-2 score line didn’t tell the story of the second half — Antonio Conte is fired up for Chelsea to complete its Premier League title run.

The manager admits that his side was under pressure after Spurs narrowed the table gap to four points last week, but the wins have eased the Blues’ burden.

Chelsea had lost two of four PL matches before the weekend.

From Football.London:

“I think we passed a big, big psychological step after the defeat to United. We lost three points and had to prepare a semi-final against Tottenham and then another tough game in the league. In that moment we had a really important test and our answer was very good.

“We must think that this race is open, we have reached the final of the FA Cup. The situation in the league is totally open. We are ready to fight to the end. We must be proud for the job we are doing and to fight to the end.”

Spurs can bring the gap back to four with a win at Crystal Palace on Tuesday, but have a tougher run-in with five matches to play. As long as the gap is within six points, anything is possible, but the Blues have certainly answered the bell over the past four days.

Chelsea: Big win “feels like a massive step” to title

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“It feels like a massive step to be honest,” said game-changing goal scorer Gary Cahill of Chelsea’s 4-2 win over Southampton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

Chelsea’s Premier League lead stands at seven points after the win, which saw a dominant second half from the hosts.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Perhaps it was cued up by Cahill’s first half stoppage time header, which boosted the Blues to a 2-1 lead just before the whistle.

Cahill darted in front of Diego Costa‘s scissor kick attempt to power a header past Fraser Forster.

“(Costa) tried to claim it afterward as well,” Cahill said. “When the ball’s just lofted over, it’s dying to be attacked. We went into halftime with our tails up and it was a big boost for us.”

Cesc Fabregas said Southampton surprised the Blues tactically, leading to an entertaining first half that could’ve seen either side ahead before half.

“We needed a little bit of time to adapt to what they did because we prepared for something else,” he said.

Fabregas said the win was big with second-place Spurs watching at home. Tottenham plays at Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

“We needed a good response after the Man United game. We have to keep going with five games to go, to keep it up and make the last push. It would be a big shame if now we relaxed. We just have to push now more than ever,” he said.

“It’s a statement for (Spurs), for us, for everyone, but most of all for us.”
Eden Hazard agreed.
“We scored four beautiful goals,” said the Belgian, who scored the game’s first goal. “It’s good to play before and put pressure on them.”