Real Salt Lake v Vancouver Whitecaps

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.

Premier League AT HALF: Arsenal fights back, Hull City on top

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (L) and Francis Coquelin of Arsenal (R) celebrate after Theo Walcott of Arsenal (not pictured) scored Arsenals first goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Stoke City at the Emirates Stadium on December 10, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Goals and controversial penalty decisions are a big part of Saturday morning’s quartet of Premier League matches, all of which are at the break.

[ STREAM: Every PL game on NBC Sports ]

Arsenal 1-1 Stoke City

Joe Allen took an elbow from Granit Xhaka inside the 18, and Lee Mason awarded a PK that Charlie Adam converted to give the visitors an early lead. But Theo Walcott scored his 100th goal as a Gunner off a classy Hector Bellerin cross to make it 1-1 before the break.

Burnley 2-1 Bournemouth

The Cherries will have to dig out of another hole this week, and it all began with Jeff Hendrick‘s phenomenal opener. Fellow Irishman Steven Ward scored an economical to goal to double the lead.

But Ryan Fraser continued his fine December with an assist on Benik Afobe‘s goal before halftime.

Hull City 1-0 Crystal Palace

Robert Snodgrass drew a penalty with a pretty easy grass grab, and the Tigers have a

Swansea City 0-0 Sunderland

Not much cooking at the Liberty Stadium.

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Koeman: “Nervous” Everton has a problem after another loss

WATFORD, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10:  Ronald Koeman manager of Everton arrives prior to the Premier League match between Watford and Everton at Vicarage Road on December 10, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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One win in 10 for Ronald Koeman‘s Everton has the Dutchman on the hot seat.

Koeman seems to be clawing for air after the Toffees’ latest setback, a 3-2 loss at Watford.

The loss puts the Hornets ahead of Everton on the PL table, and — while unlikely — it’s a mathematical possibility that the Toffees could be a bottom half team by the end of the weekend.

[ STREAM: Every PL game on NBC Sports ]

That’s a brutal development for a club expected to challenge for a European place this season.

Here’s Koeman:

“I see a lot of similar problems in the team. The team is too much reactive. Of course it’s maybe a lack of confidence, but if you start the game well, 1-0 up, you need a bigger belief in the team and not going back and defending, and nervous, and not enough ball possession. In my opinion that’s a problem.”

A big problem with that? It can be put down to the manager. Is Koeman in trouble already?

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VIDEO: Hendrick scores incredible volley from distance

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Jeff Hendrick, take a bow.

Burnley’s Republic of Ireland international midfielder pulled off a stunning piece of skill on Saturday to put the Clarets ahead against Bournemouth.

[ STREAM: Every PL game online ] 

A long ball forward was flicked on to Hendrick and he took a stunning first touch to tee himself and then settled himself before spanking a volley into the top corner.

Sensational goal from Burnley’s club-record signing.

Click play on the video above to watch it.

Messi’s latest goal dares you to count the touches (video)

PAMPLONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 10:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the La Liga match between CA Osasuna and FC Barcelona at Sadar stadium on December 10, 2016 in Pamplona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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There’s a danger in observing Lionel Messi on a week-by-week basis, and it has a lot to do with how he makes greatness look routine.

So while it’s easy to dismiss yet another mazy dribble through a defense, one of those “Frogger” style with calm-but-vicious cutbacks, try to consider everything that goes into Messi’s second goal against Osasuna early Saturday.

[ MORE: Watford 3-2 Everton ]

On first look, you might count 9 touches for Messi starting with his right-footed collection of the ball. But move to the slow motion replays, and recognize the truth: Often Messi is letting the ball do the work for him, essentially moving the duo closer to goal while he used his preferred left foot as a must-respect threat.

That he does it in such traffic and at full speed is incredible. It’s literally one of those goals in which a linguistic luminary like Ray Hudson would have trouble over-emphasizing the greatness.

Messi now has 11 La Liga goals in 12 matches, and 22 in 19 overall.

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