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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Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

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MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.

Europa League: Arsenal, Marseille host semifinal 1st legs

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Arsenal’s Champions League dreams could be in for a rude awakening against tournament-tested Atletico Madrid.

The Premier League vs. La Liga match-up is one of two Europa League semifinal first legs set to be served up Sunday, with Marseille and Red Bull Salzburg meeting in the other.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

There’s something romantic about Arsene Wenger closing out his time at Arsenal against French opposition in Lyon, but Atleti and Salzburg won’t step aside for poetics.

Both matches kickoff ay 3:05 p.m. ET

Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid

It’s a bit stunning that this tie has no history considering both club’s statures in their leagues and Europe, but that’s what we’ll se when Arsenal welcomes Atleti for the first leg.

Arsenal boasts two of the top 10 performers in the UEL this season — it would be three had the Gunners not sold Theo Walcott — and are paced by Aaron Ramsey, who has four goals and an assist. Mesut Ozil, who’s ready to return to the pitch, has the reverse with a goal and four helpers.

The Gunners have outscored UEL opposition 29-10 this season.

It’s no surprise that Antoine Griezmann has been Atleti’s best attacker since the Madrid side dropped out of the UCL to run rampant through the UEL knockout rounds. Atleti beat Copenhagen 5-1, Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1, and Sporting Lisbon 2-1 for an aggregate score line of 15-3.

Marseille vs. Red Bull Salzburg

Don’t expect this to be a simple case of Ligue 1 bossing inferior opposition: This pair met in the group stage, with the Austrian side winning at home and drawing 0-0 in France.

Salzburg has shown its mettle in various ways during the UEL. After allowing just one goal in an unbeaten group stage, they’ve won 4-3 over Real Sociedad, 2-1 against Borussia Dortmund, and 6-5 versus Lazio. That’s no easy road, and Marseille represents another big challenge.

Marseille is bidding to make its first European final since 2004, and has been led by Dimitri Payet‘s three goals and four assists, and Lucas Ocampos’ four goals and one assist. Marseille has knocked off RB Leipzig, Athletic Bilbao, and Braga after the group stage.

Names you’ll need to know from Salzburg: defenders Stefan Lainer and Paulo Miranda have been spectacular, and Munas Dabbur and Valon Berisha have each scored five times in the tournament.

Mourinho on longtime nemesis Wenger: ‘We can be friends in future’

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Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have had a poor relationship, but the former thinks he’s soon to get along with the latter.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Manchester United boss Mourinho, 55, heaped praise on the departing Arsenal manager ahead of the two sides’ Sunday meeting at Old Trafford (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), saying the Frenchman has earned much respect.

Branding Wenger “iconic,” Mourinho says his fiery rivalry with Wenger stemmed from Arsenal’s stature in the Premier League when the Portuguese took over Chelsea.

“If he respects me even 50 percent of what I respect him we can even be friends in the future,” Mourinho told Sky Sports News. “I have lots of respect for him. But the reality is that he was at Arsenal, he was the champion and I came to the country in 2004 and wanted to steal his title. That’s football.”

Mourinho said he’s tried to show his respect for Wenger, 68, over the past few seasons. It may become a passable relationship, but we find it hard to believe the pair will be dining together on a regular basis as the sun sets on their managerial careers (Mou has a while to go, we think).

Real’s Modric on Bayern feeling unlucky: “That’s their problem”

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Bayern Munich produced far more chances than visiting Real Madrid in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg in Germany, but lost 2-1 at the Allianz Arena.

Franck Ribery butchered an open shot at goal, Robert Lewandowski beat Keylor Navas but didn’t score late, and Thomas Mueller missed getting contact on a shot inside the six.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

It was that kind of day, and Mueller is baffled that his team did not finish more than Joshua Kimmich’s opener.

“Everybody is wondering why this game is 1-2 for Madrid,” Mueller reportedly said. “We still cannot believe it.”

The quote comes from BeIN Sport’s Tancredi Palmeri, who has a stinging rebuke from Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric.

Real wasn’t great on Wednesday, but also limited their big mistakes to one: Marcelo’s lapse of judgment which helped Kimmich to open the scoring for Bayern Munich.

The hosts had a huge giveaway from Rafinha on the match-winner, and backup backstop Sven Ulreich didn’t have a phenomenal day on either goal. Throw in Arjen Robben’s injury requiring an 8th minute substitution, and Bayern did not have much good fortune on the day.

This one, though, doesn’t seem over, even with the tie moving to the Bernabeu.