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.
Gabriel Jesus was a revelation for Manchester City before suffering an injury, but even with a spot in the lineup for the time being Sergio Aguero may not be coming back to Manchester City next season.
[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]
According to the Sun, Spanish giants Real Madrid are eyeing up a move for Aguero in the hopes that the Argentine striker will join the club at the conclusion of the Premier League season.
Prior to joining City back in 2011, Aguero played five seasons in La Liga with Atletico Madrid, where he scored 101 goals in all competitions for the Rojiblancos.
While Aguero is likely to hold his starting spot for some time due to Jesus’ injured metatarsal, manager Pep Guardiola had heavily favored the young forward over Aguero since officially joining the club in January.
Tab Ramos’ side completed their first task, but now the U.S. Under-20 national team has its next challenge lying in front of them.
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The U.S. U-20s finished second in Group B at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship after winning two of its three group stage matches.
Now, Mexico and El Salvador await the U-20s in the classification stage with a spot at May’s Under-20 World Cup in South Korea on the line.
During the classification round there will be two groups of three teams, with the top two teams advancing to the World Cup. Each group winner will meet in the CONCACAF Championship final.
Classification stage schedule
Feb. 27 — U.S. U-20s vs. Mexico
Mar. 1 — Mexico vs. El Salvador
Mar. 3 — U.S. U-20s vs. El Salvador
Feb. 27 — Panama vs. Honduras
Mar. 1 — Honduras vs. Costa Rica
Mar. 3 — Panama vs. Costa Rica
Manolo Gabbiadini performed brilliantly in Sunday’s EFL Cup final, but was the Southampton striker unfairly gipped of a hat-trick?
[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]
Saints manager Claude Puel certainly believes so.
[ MORE: Three things from Man United’s win vs. Southampton ]
While the back-and-forth final between Southampton and Manchester United presented a tremendous matchup, the Saints had every right to be furious with the officiating in the early going after Gabbiadini’s 11th minute finish was called off for offsides.
“I would like, of course, video in the future for these situations,” said Puel. “It’s very hard when we see this game to lose. It was cruel.”
Gabbiadini went on to score a pair of goals at the tail end of the first half and early in the second stanza, but Puel was pleased with his side’s resilience after going down 2-0 inside the opening 38 minutes.
“We kept the good attitude and spirit to stay in the game after going 2-0 down,” said the Southampton boss. “We played since the beginning of the season every two or three days. We played to a strong and fantastic level. It’s important now to continue this work, to put away this disappointment and come back in the Premier League with this strength and this quality.”
Video replay has been a common discussion for some time now, but more leagues are beginning to examine the possibility. FIFA is prepared to introduce new experimental trials over the coming months and could present a form of replay at next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
A roundup of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…
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Villareal 2-3 Real Madrid
The Yellow Submarine did everything right to open the second half but Real Madrid proved resilient once again to earn a victory at El Madrigal. Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata each netted after the hour mark to help Los Blancos pick up three points and remain leap over Barcelona at the top of the table. Manu Trigueros and Cédric Bakambu scored within six minutes of one another to give Villareal a 2-0 early in the second half but Real began to press harder after the setback.
Atletico Madrid 1-2 Barcelona
It surely wasn’t the most attractive match at times, particularly for the visitors, but Lionel Messi was up to his old tricks once again and helped lift Barcelona into the top spot in La Liga. The Argentine attacker was persistent inside the Atletico box with the match nearing the end and Messi managed to break the deadlock in the 86th minute. Both sides traded goals earlier in the second stanza, with Rafinha getting Barca on the board before Diego Godin equalized six minutes later.
Elsewhere in La Liga
Espanyol 3-0 Osasuna
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Celta Vigo
Athletic Bilbao 3-1 Granada
Inter Milan 1-3 Roma
Mauro Icardi gave Inter a brief glimmer of hope, but Roma continued its fine form on Sunday against the Milan side. Radja Nainggolan’s incredible double helped provide the Giallorossi with a two-goal advantage in the second half before substitute Diego Perotti sealed Roma’s victory from the penalty spot.
Sassuolo 0-1 AC Milan
Controversy struck at the Mapei Stadium but it didn’t benefit the hosts. Carlos Bacca netted the game’s lone finish just 22 minutes in from the penalty spot but it was the Colombian that came into question for his attempt. Bacca slipped while taking his spot kick and appeared to hit the ball with both feet before it crossed the goal line, leaving Sassuolo players furious. Milan now sits in seventh place in Serie A, just four points outside of the top four.
Elsewhere in Serie A
Palermo 1-1 Sampdoria
Chievo 2-0 Pescara
Crotone 1-2 Cagliari
Genoa 1-1 Bologna
Lazio 1-0 Udinese