Winners, Losers from MLS conference semifinal openers

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Never mind the spin and the overly spun … here’s who had a good and bad weekend as the MLS conference semifinal first legs played out over four cities over the weekend:

WINNERS

MLS Cup host hopes for Real Salt Lake, Seattle and Los Angeles: San Jose still has the inside track, of course. But when Houston seized control of its home-and-away series against top Eastern seed Sporting Kansas City, hope began to float for these three Western Conference hopefuls. Previously, even if they had gotten past San Jose (the top Western seed), the conventional wisdom said the big 2012 decider date would go to Kansas City. Now…hmmmmm.

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando: I’m not quite sure it was quite what it’s been made out to be. The tendency to make the present more historically significant than it really is will always be a powerful force. Still, he was exceptional against Seattle, doing so much heavy lifting in his team’s 0-0 draw.

Every center back on the field in Houston: Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler was best of all, but central partner Aurelien Collin (who won everything falling his way in the air), along with Houston’s Bobby Boswell and Jermaine Taylor, all had strong matches. Collin did have one bad moment, getting turned on the home team’s second goal. (And Taylor had to leave, injured, so his day was ultimately undone by misfortune.)

RSL center back depth: Speaking of strong performances along the back line, Kwame Watson-Siriboe is RSL’s fourth choice. But you sure couldn’t tell it from the performance he put in Friday against Seattle.

Dominic Kinnear: The Dynamo manager won two playoff games; his spiffy post-season record now stands at 12-7-4.

LOSERS

Anyone who likes scoring: Four matches, five goals. Blek!

Three home teams that couldn’t get it done: Neither D.C. United nor Seattle could exploit their initial home field advantage. The idea is to win at home, which doesn’t just provide the obvious, numerical edge in goals. It also shifts more of the second-leg pressure over to the other guys. Win at home and you just need a draw on the road – and the other fellows know it. Well, D.C. United and Seattle may be sitting pretty next to the Galaxy, who can win by a goal at San Jose and not be assured of advancing. Houston’s win at home meant the hosts were 1-1-2 during the weekend.

Logic: Yes, logic. Because I keep hearing about how a failure to win at home in these first legs wasn’t so bad. No, it’s not grim disaster wrapped in imminent doom, but it’s certainly not ideal, now is it? Bottom line here, three of four home teams failed to score a goal at home (no matter how hot a certain goalkeeper was). That spells “opportunity lost” in my book.

Landon Donovan: He keeps telling us that he feels older than 30. Now he’s starting to look the part, too. Not only in Sunday’s loss to San Jose, but in the win over Vancouver, Donovan seemed to be missing some his old zip and zoom. He needs to deliver big in Wednesday’s return leg in Northern California.

Andy Najar: Whether you believe the young D.C. United right back’s story, that he wasn’t really throwing the ball at referee Jair Marrufo is really beside the point. It was a silly, silly thing to do. It hurt his team, not just Saturday, but in Wednesday’s return leg, too.

AND SOME “TIES”

Goalkeepers: Rimando, Seattle’s Michael Gspurning and New York’s Luis Robles, held up their end, but gaffes by Los Angeles’ Josh Saunders and D.C. United’s Bill Hamid split the decision here. (San Jose’s Jon Busch and Houston’s Tally Hall were fine, even if neither were too busy.)

MLS attendance: We talked about this one here.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.