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MLS playoff preview: San Jose at Los Angeles

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San Jose’s 2012 success has been so thorough that we forget – they’re not supposed to be here. A few ambitious prognosticators picked Frank Yallop’s team to content for the playoffs, but nobody expected a near start-to-finish run to the Supporters’ Shield. Along the way, the Earthquakes have received individual performances worthy of the league’s best player, defender, and coach awards. It’s been a truly magical season.

So far, at least. One of the harsh realities of a playoff system is the perspective it puts on the regular season. If San Jose goes on a playoff run, it will an ultimate, validating context to the team’s incredible season. If, however, San Jose is derailed, 2012 will live in the polite reminders of weary-hearted supporters. Exiting at the round of eight would be too sooner, even for a team that’s shrugged off modest expectations.

Against that back drop enters the LA Galaxy – defending MLS champions, the league’s best team over the last four years, with a squad that’s narrowed its eyes on the `Quakes after the teams’ most recent, highly volatile encounter.

Among MLS quartet of captivating conference semifinals, a two-legged California Clasico may be the round’s headline matchup.

Kickoff: 9:00 p.m. Eastern, Sunday, Home Depot Center, ESPN

The last time LA took the field | And the last time we saw San Jose

On the LA Galaxy:

  • What to make of LA’s struggles against Vancouver? On one hand, they had unexpected trouble with a team that was among the league’s worst in the second half. But one-off goals can happen to the best of teams. When they come early enough to put a favorite behind, random goals can take-on undo importance. If Matt Watson beat Hector Jimenez after LA had already scored, no alarms would have ever been sound.
  • The main thing to take from Thursday’s match may not be any Galaxy weakness but the potential effect on their fitness. The early goal forced the veteran team to chase a match for near-70 minutes. Now the ywelcome the league’s best team – a notoriously physical one – on only two days’ rest. It’s a bad set of circumstances for a team whose three main players (David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane) are a combined 99 years old.
  • More trouble in LaLa Land: Injuries are mounting. A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin missed Thursday’s game, forcing Jimenez to play right back. Franklin may return. DeLaGarza won’t. Meanwhile, LA’s best midfielder, Juninho, got kicked in an Achilles against Vancouver and, as of Friday, was still feeling pain.
  • Last meeting in San Jose (on Oct. 21) left LA with a bad taste in their mouths, the defending champions giving up two leads en route to a 2-2 draw. The headlines post-match centered on Galaxy criticisms of San Jose’s style of play, with one prominent LA player calling the Earthquakes “a bunch of jokes.”
  • That player was defender Omar Gonzalez, the man who has to deal with the likes of Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon. The 24-year-old defender has been a key part of the Galaxy’s mid-season about face, solidifying the defense after returning mid-season from knee injury. With others’ injuries leaving Bruce Arena’s defense in disrepair, it’s hard to imagine LA advancing without a big series from from the reigning Defender of the Year.

On the San Jose Earthquakes:

  • San Jose finished the regular season with the league’s best record, no small feat considering the depth at the top of the West. You’d expect four title contenders to take points off each other, but the Earthquakes avoided that peril, posting a 8-0-1 record against Real Salt Lake, Seattle, and the LA Galaxy (San Jose did lose in U.S. Open Cup play to a largely second-choice Sounders).
  • The basis of that success was stellar attack, led by new (joint) single-season goal-scoring champion Chris Wondolowski. Wondo’s 27 goals were nine more than the league’s second most-prolific scorer, though the team’s league-leading 72 goals (13 more than the next-best team, LA) were helped by 14 goals from Alan Gordon, 10 from Steven Lenhart, and eight from Simon Dawkins.
  • A big part of that production is San Jose’s late game efficiency, the ‘Goonies’ having developed a flare for the dramatic. Against a LA team that’s being thinned out by accumulated miles and persisting knocks, the Earthquakes could be in for more late match success.
  • In-game attrition will be a factor, also, no matter Gonzalez’s disdain for the tactic. The physicality of Lenhart and Gordon always stresses a defense, as does Frank Yallop’s willingness to play so heavily into a direct tactic. San Jose’s battlers free up Wondolowski, one of the league’s best poachers, and with the service of Martin Chavez, the forwards are sure to be delivered a dangerous ball.
  • Adding to opposition difficulties is San Jose’s depth, a collection of talent that allows the team to assume a completely (but equally effective) look while chasing games. Yallop’s bench will likely feature Shea Salinas, Khari Stephenson, Ramiro Corrales, Ike Opara and Gordon, though the new U.S. international is questionable with an ankle problem.

Ranking toughness of UCL groups for Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City

Kompany and City's defense struggled to contain Messi and Barca in the first half.
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Leicester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City all entered the UEFA Champions League at the group stage and they found out their fate on Thursday following the draw in Monaco.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

Right now Leicester, Arsenal and Spurs will be feeling pretty good about their chances of advancing to the UCL’s Round of 16. As for Man City, boy, it will be a tough route through the group stage once again for them.

[ MORE: Ronaldo wins top award ]

Below is a look at the toughness of the group stage draw for all four PL teams.


GROUP G: Leicester City, FC Porto, Club Brugge, Copenhagen

Their first-ever season in the UCL, the draw could not have gone any better for reigning PL champs Leicester in terms of their dreams of advancing. Claudio Ranieri‘s side have FC Porto, who will be a very tough test, but in Club Brugge and Copenhagen they drew two of the easier teams they could have faced. Overall, this is not a tough group especially when you see the full draw. Looks like the fairytale for the Foxes will go deep in the Champions League this season. Toughness ranking: 3/10


GROUP A: Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, FC Basel, Ludogorets

Arsenal will fancy their chances against PSG and when it comes to FC Basel and Ludrogorets they will expect to take two wins from each of these teams. But this is Arsenal so they’ll probably need a 3-0 win in their last group game to make the knockout rounds… Seriously, though, Arsene Wenger will be a relieved man to avoid the likes of Bayern Munich and Barelona in the group stage but Arsenal’s games against PSG will be pivotal in their chances of getting a good draw in the last 16. Overall, could’ve been a lot tougher. Toughness ranking: 4/10


GROUP C: FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Borussia Monchendgladbach, Celtic

It just had to happen for Pep Guardiola, didn’t it? He will return to the Nou Camp in his debut season at City to face his beloved Barcelona and Man City’s fans will be sick of the sight of Lionel Messi and Co. after they knocked them out of the competition in two of the last three seasons. That said, there will be two magnificent games between the giants with Barca the favorites to win the UCL this season. As for Monchengladbach, they are quietly a very strong team and even Celtic (who famously beat Barca in the group stage in 2012) will provide a tough challenge for City at Celtic Park in the away game. All in all, couldn’t have been tougher for City but they will likely squeeze through with Barca to the Round of 16.

Toughness ranking: 8/10


GROUP E: CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur, Monaco

Maurcio Pochettino’s side will be grinning like a Cheshire cat with this draw. Arguably it is even easier than Leicester’s with CSKA Moscow perennial strugglers in the UCL, plus German side Bayer Leverkusen very beatable and Spurs have done well against Monaco in the Europa League recently. Overall, if Spurs don’t win this group they will be very disappointed. A great draw for the north London club. Toughness ranking: 3/10


Best Player in Europe: Cristiano Ronaldo beats Bale, Griezmann to win award

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal kisses the Henri Delaunay trophy to celebrate after their 1-0 win against France in the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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Cristiano Ronaldo was named the Best Player in Europe by UEFA on Thursday in Monaco, following the group stage draw for the UEFA Champions League.

Ronaldo, 31, beat other finalists teammate and Welsh international Gareth Bale and France and Atletico Madrid striker Antoine Griezmann to the award for the 2015-16 season. Barcelona duo Lionel Messi came fourth and Luis Suarez finished in fifth.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

The Portuguese striker scored 51 goals in 48 games for Real Madrid last season and led Portugal to its first-ever major title as a nation, winning the EURO 2016 trophy.

Ronaldo said on stage that he was “living his dream” by playing football as he won the award for a second time in his career, the list title coming in 2014.

Previous winners of this prestigious award, which takes into account the form of the player both for this club team in Europe and also for his national team, include Messi (the only other player to win the award twice), Andres Iniesta and Franck Ribery.

UEFA Champions League group stage: Premier League teams learn their fate

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  The  UEFA Champions League trophy is displayed prior to the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Premier League teams got off very lightly, overall, in the UEFA Champions League group stage draw.

The draw took place in Monaco on Thursday as reigning Leicester City were handed a very comfy group of opponents in Group G with FC Porto, Club Brugge and Copenhagen, as were Tottenham Hotspur who were placed in Group E with CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco.

Arsenal also got a very decent draw with Paris Saint-Germain, FC Basel and Ludogorets in Group A, but Manchester City once again got a very tough draw at the group stage along with FC Barcelona, Borussia Monchengladbach and Celtic in Group C.

[ MORE: Full UCL schedule

Reigning champs Real Madrid have been drawn in Group F alongside Borussia Dortmund, Sporting Lisbon and Legia Warsaw, with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid drawn together in Group D.

Below is the group stage draw in full with the opening group games to take place on Sept. 13/14 and a further five group games taking place — each team plays one another home and away — between September and December. The knockout stages then begin in February 2017 ahead of the UCL final in Cardiff, Wales on June 3.

You can click on the link above for the full schedule for group games.


GROUP A
Paris Saint-Germain
Arsenal
FC Basel
Ludogorets

GROUP B
Benfica
Napoli
Dynamo Kiev
Besiktas

GROUP C
FC Barcelona
Manchester City
Borussia Monchendgladbach
Celtic

GROUP D
Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid
PSV Eindhoven
Rostov

GROUP E
CSKA Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen
Tottenham Hotspur
Monaco

GROUP F
Real Madrid
Borussia Dortmund
Sporting Lisbon
Legia Warsaw

GROUP G
Leicester City
FC Porto
Club Brugge
Copenhagen

GROUP H
Juventus
Sevilla
Lyon
Dinamo Zagreb

LIVE – Europa League play-offs: West Ham within reach of group stage

STRATFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Reece Oxford of West Ham United and Elvis Bratanovic of NK Domzale in action during the UEFA Europa League Qualification round match between West Ham United and NK Domzale at London Stadium on August 4, 2016 in Stratford, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the UEFA Europa League play-off round takes place on Thursday with the final 22 places in the group stage

West Ham United are drawing 1-1 from their first leg in Romania against Astra Giurgiu, the team who knocked them out in the qualifying rounds last season.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ] 

Slaven Bilic‘s men have a vital away goal and will fancy their chances of getting past Astra this time  as the second leg takes place at their new home at the London Stadium.

Plenty of the 22 ties hang in the balance with Shakhtar Donetsk, Sparta Prague and Olympiakos all with a little work to do to secure their spot in the next stage.

Premier League sides Southampton and Manchester United have already qualified for the Europa League group stage and the draw to decide their opponents will take place in Monaco on Friday.

Below is the full schedule for the second legs which take place on Thursday, while you can click on the link above to follow all the games live.


Europa League schedule 

FK Qarabag vs. IFK Goteborg (0-1)
Brondby vs. Panathinaikos (0-3)
Grashoppers vs. Fenerbache (0-3)
Rosenborg vs. Austria Wien (1-2)
Slovan Liberec vs. AEK Larnaca (1-0)
Partizan Tirana vs. FC Krasnodar (0-4)
PAOK vs. Dinamo Tblisi (3-0)
Genk vs. NK Lokomotiva (2-2)
Osmanlispor vs. Midtjylland (1-0)
Sparta Prague vs. Sonderjyske (0-0)
West Ham United vs. Astra Giurgiu (1-1)
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Istanbul Basaksehir (1-2)
AZ Alkmaar vs. Vojvodina (0-3)
Anderlecht vs. Slavia Prague (3-0)
BATE Borisov vs. Astana (2-0)
FK Shkendija vs. Gent (1-2)
Hajduk Split vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv (1-2)
NK Maribor vs. Gabala (1-3)
Red Star Belgrade vs. Sassuolo (0-3)
St Etienne vs. Beitar Jerusalem (2-1)
Olympiakos vs. Arouca (1-0)
Rapid Wien vs. Trencin (4-0)