MLS playoff preview: Seattle Sounders at Real Salt Lake

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Who would have thought the most exciting much of this year’s playoffs would be a 0-0? So far, that’s the case, though it’s not a fair question. Not many postseason predictions posts have a place for Scoreline of the playoffs’ most exciting game. Even if somebody spends time thinking about such things, there aren’t many places to go on record.

But since Seattle and Real Salt Lake opened the semifinal round with a goalless thriller last Friday, the rest of Major League Soccer’s round of eight has been unable to replicate the drama. So between the scoreline, Nick Rimando’s heroics, the teams’ history (they also met in last year’s Western Conference semis), and the pure quality of these two MLS Cup contenders, it would be fair to call Thursday’s second leg at Rio Tinto highly anticipated.

And as with all second legs, there’s always on big, underlying question: What should we expect to change from the first leg.

Kickoff: 10:00 p.m. Eastern, Rio Tinto Stadium, NBC Sports Network

Series is tied, 0-0, after leg one

On Real Salt Lake

  • Mission accomplished? On paper, yes. RSL got out of CenturyLink with a draw. What road team wouldn’t take that?
  • But Friday’s outcome was less of a moral victory than a boxer absorbing a 12-round beating only to be bailed out by the judges. Sure, you take it, but in your heart, you know you got worked.
  • That type of analogy completely ignores the fact that goalkeeper Nick Rimando is an RSL player, the team values counts on his performance, and you can’t just dissociate a goalkeeper’s contributions from the rest of the team’s when assessing the product (a mistake which, admittedly, I’ve done too often). Rimando has given other-worldly performances before. Who’s to say he won’t do so again on Thursday?
  • Ideally, Jason Kreis won’t need any incredible performances to get a result, but that requires solving the midfield problem. RSL’s diamond was exploited down its left, an advantage that led to 30 open play crosses for Seattle.
  • The midfield also failed to connect with Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola. Saborio scored twice in last year’s home leg, but on Friday, he didn’t get a good look until very late.
  • Fabian Espindola, who left Friday’s match at halftime with a hamstring injury, is listed as probable. So is Ned Grabavoy (quad) and every RSL central defender: Jamison Olave (hamstring), Nat Borchers (quad), Chris Schuler (quad) and Kwame Watson-Siriboe (ankle). What’s with all the quad strains?

On the Seattle Sounders

  • Seattle has injury concerns of their own, most notably with Mauro Rosales. The man responsible for so much of the work against RSL’s left limped from the field on Friday after tweaking a hamstring. But rest easy, SounderFan. Rosales didn’t even make the injury report.
  • More good news: Eddie Johnson will be back. The U.S. international (and Seattle’s leading goalscorer during the regular season) didn’t even dress on Friday. His presence was sorely missed. It’s hard to believe Seattle doesn’t convert one of their myriad of crosses if one of the league’s greatest aerial threats is in the team. On Friday, Sigi Schmid made sure everybody knew: Eddie will be ready for Utah.
  • Seattle’s only other injury concern is left back Leo Gonzalez, who missed game one with a hamstring strain. Veteran Marc Burch will probably get the call.
  • Though the final score doesn’t show it, Seattle’s coming off one of their best performances of the season (the best game I’ve seen them play all year). One man’s extraordinary performance kept them from a lopsided win, so while a 0-0 result at home would normally lead to some tweaks, Schmid’s task for leg two is to keep his good thing going.
  • That means exploiting the wide areas. Or, area. Seattle’s right side, manned by Rosales, proved a huge advantage on Friday.  If Rosales is less than 100 percent or Kreis finds a solution, it’s not something Seattle’s likely to replicate on their left. There are only so many Mauro Rosaleses in the world.
  • What would Plan B be? Any variety of options centering around Johnson. Or Fredy Montero. Or the play of Christian Tiffert and Osvaldo Alonso. You’d call it am embarrassment of riches, but general manager Adrian Hanauer and staff have no reason to blush about the job they’ve done.
  • One of Hanauer’s more recent acquisitions, goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, received a lot of credit for his overshadowed Friday performance, but in a game where the little things could prove decisive, Gspurning will have to avoid replicating the first half giveaway that gifted RSL a chance at goal.
  • Obligatory Seattle history references: They’ve never won a playoff series (0-for-3). In 2009, their first leg with Houston also ended scoreless, with the second leg requiring extra time after another goalless 90 minutes. Brian Ching scored in the 96th minute to end Seattle’s first MLS season.
  • Seattle’s scored only three goals in 660 playoff minutes: 0.41 goals per game. That’s not bad. It’s terrible.

Bottom line:

If Seattle plays like they did on Friday, they win most of the time. “Most” actually understates how good they were. The Sounders win nine out of 10 games playing at that level, which is why their history of playoff frustrations should matter little on Thursday. Keep doing what they’re doing, and Seattle moves on.

The ball is in Kreis’s court. His team is as predictable as they come in terms of set up and tactics. He always uses that narrow, diamond in midfield, and the team likes its short, controlled passing game – a plan that didn’t work on Friday. It failed miserably, but thanks to Nick Rimando, RSL’s was given a lifeline.

The extent to which they take advantage of that lifeline depends on Kreis’s changes.

Report: Fellaini eyes MLS, China after shooting down Man United terms

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Marouane Fellaini‘s time in Manchester looks to be numbered, and a move abroad could have the Belgian in line for one last payday during his career.

The Manchester United midfielder has rejected multiple offers to stay on at Old Trafford ahead of his contract expiring this summer, which would allow Fellaini to pursue other opportunities come June.

Fellaini is being linked to moves to Major League Soccer and the Chinese Super League, as the veteran aims to secure a sizable contract upon leaving the Red Devils after over five-and-a-half years with the club.

The Daily Mail is also reporting that Fellaini would be open to hearing options that could keep him in the Premier League, although it is unclear if there is any serious interest from English sides at this time.

Since the arrivals of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, Fellaini has struggled to find playing time under manager Jose Mourinho.

This season, the Belgium international has appeared in just 14 PL matches and 19 in all competitions. Fellaini has scored four goals in that span.

Chicago Fire venue to be renamed SeatGeek Stadium

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The Chicago Fire won’t be moving into a new stadium 2019, however, their venue will have a new name donned on the side of it.

For years, the Eastern Conference side has played its home matches at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, but starting next season the Fire’s home turf will be called SeatGeek Stadium as part of a rebrand.

SeatGeek is one of the largest online after-market ticket distributors, and was created back in 2009.

Toyota Park will undergo its transformation at the conclusion of the 2018 MLS season.

The venue is also home to the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars.

MLS at Week 8: Galaxy host Atlanta, NYCFC aims to stay unbeaten out west

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A full weekend of MLS action kicks off on Friday night with two of the Western Conference’s elite, while Saturday and Sunday feature a number of quality matchups.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy have been quite the attraction since the Swede made his move to MLS a few weeks ago, but Sigi Schmid’s side will be in for another early-season test on Saturday when they take on a red-hot Atlanta United.

[ MORE: Sweden not keen on Zlatan’s World Cup return ]

Both sides currently sit in second place in their respective conferences, while Atlanta boasts the second-highest goalscoring total in the league to this point, with 15 goals in six games.

Western Conference leaders Sporting KC have gone unbeaten in their last six matches since their opening day defeat to New York City FC, and Matt Besler and Co. will have another opportunity to put their stamp on the conference with a crucial match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, who sit third in the West.

NYCFC and FC Dallas remain on the only two unbeaten clubs left in 2018, although the latter has been far less convincing in its first five matches.

Patrick Vieira and NYCFC are coming off of a hard-fought 2-2 draw against Atlanta last weekend, and now head west to take on the Portland Timbers.

Meanwhile, Dallas plays host to the Philadelphia Union, who have taken just one win out of their first five games.

Here’s a look at the full slate of matches around MLS in Week 8.

Friday

Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 9 p.m. ET

Saturday

Montreal Impact vs. Los Angeles FC — 1 p.m. ET
Houston Dynamo vs. Toronto FC — 3 p.m. ET
New York Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire — 3:30 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew vs. New England Revolution — 7:30 p.m. ET
Orlando City vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 7:30 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado Rapids — 9 p.m. ET
LA Galaxy vs. Atlanta United — 10:30 p.m. ET

Sunday

Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United — 4 p.m. ET
Portland Timbers vs. New York City FC — 6 p.m. ET

Atletico defeat leaves Barcelona 1 win from title

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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid lost 3-0 at Real Sociedad on Thursday, leaving Barcelona one victory away from clinching the Spanish league title.

Barcelona, which drew 2-2 at Celta Vigo on Tuesday without most of its regular starters, can secure its 25th crown at Deportivo La Coruna on April 29.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Burnley, trails Spurs by five points in UCL race ]

The Catalan club faces Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday.

Barcelona has a 12-point lead over Atletico, with five matches left, and is 15 in front of third-place Real Madrid, which needed a late goal by Cristiano Ronaldo to draw 1-1 with Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday.

Another loss for Atletico on Sunday against Real Betis would leave Diego Simeone’s team out of contention for the title because Barcelona holds the head-to-head advantage between the clubs.

Willian Jose shot Sociedad ahead in the 27th minute at the Anoeta Stadium. Juanmi Jimenez made it 2-0 in the 80th after a perfect backheel from Jose before Jimenez scored again with an injury-time header.

It was a third straight win for Sociedad, which stayed 11th in the standings. Atletico hadn’t lost in three consecutive league matches.

GIRONA WINS

Girona ended a four-match winless streak with a 2-1 victory at Alaves, staying in contention for a Europa League spot next season.

Aleix Garcia opened the scoring for Girona in the 59th minute and Cristhian Stuani added a penalty in the 86th, moving the team within one point of seventh-place Sevilla.

Tomas Pina struck in the 90th minute for Alaves, which is 15th.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni