On fire Keane a cruel test for burned Opara, Earthquakes

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – “All I remember is a miscommunication along the back line,” San Jose defender Ike Opara offered Wednesday night, asked to describe what transpired on the second goal of a 3-1 loss. The result saw the defending champions, LA Galaxy, eliminate the Supporters’ Shield-winners 3-2 (aggregate) in the Western Conference semifinals.

“(San Jose right back) Steven (Bietashour) wanted me to follow the runner even though I couldn’t hear him. He thought I could hear him. The miscommunication was there. (Galaxy forward Robbie) Keane floated in behind us and got a goal.”

Given the circumstances that forced Opara into the game, miscommunication was no surprise. The third overall selection in the 2010 draft had only started seven games all year, Victor Bernardez and Jason Hernandez serving as head coach Frank Yallop’s first choice central defenders.

But when Bernardez had to leave with a right knee injury, Opara was pressed into action. Not only was an inexperienced defender (22 career starts) being inserted into an elimination game against Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, he was replacing a Defender of the Year candidate.

“It was very tough losing [Bernardez] early in the match,” Yallop admitted, “… when you lose arguably your best defender, it’s very tough. When you lose someone of that stature, it doesn’t help.”

Early sub. Best defender. One of the league’s elite. Bernardez’s absence was a harsh blow. It only took nine minute to feel its effects.

In the 21st minute, Keane, attacking above LA’s penalty area, cut across the defense onto his right foot, pulling up for a shot near the arc. Opara failed to react. Keane’s shot went off Jon Busch’s right post and in, unstoppable. The series was tied at one.

MORE: Highlights from last night’s semifinal deciders

Thirteen minutes later, Bernardez’s absence was made more apparent. A long ball from LA defender Tommy Meyer found Donovan on the right, near the center line. The Galaxy captain carried the ball toward the penalty area, hesitating as Keane made his run behind Opara from the edge of the area. A perfect pass from left Keane one touch to round Busch and finish into an empty goal.

“We tried to get our shape defensively right because we know they’re good on the counter,” Opara said, asked to recall how the goal developed. “We were actually setup decently, but then they sprung pretty quickly.

“All I remember is a miscommunication along the back line.”

Break down the second goal, and you’ll see little the defenders could have done to stop it. Once Landon Donovan had the ball near the penalty area (with Keane and Edson Buddle drawing defenders’ attention), LA’s execution was going to win out. Likewise, on the first goal, although Opara could have reacted to close down Keane, how many times each game do we see shots like that never test a keeper, let alone beat him?

San Jose’s problems in defense were about more than a substitute, a lost star, their talented opposition, an eliminator’s stakes, an ill-timed bad night or a great game from one of the league’s best players. It was the confluence of all those factors that handed San Jose their first home loss since March.

MORE: Analysis of that rare defeat at Buck Shaw for San Jose

“After Victor went out, Ike comes in, not playing on a regular basis, and is asked to adjust in the biggest game of his career,” Earthquakes captain Chris Wondolowski said, empathetically, after the match. “I can’t even explain how difficult that is to do.”

“Their attacking play is arguably best in the league in terms of how they move off the ball,” Opara offered. “Getting thrown into the fire that way is never easy.”

As the game went on, the magnitude of the task became clear. Whereas Opara’s part on Keane’s first goal raised eyebrows, the rest of Keane’s night made it clear his success was more his doing than San Jose’s failings. Left disappointed in leg one after a potential 86th minute opener found Busch’s crossbar, Keane made up for Wednesday’s lost time with a Man of the Match performance, his two goals complementing relentless effort to pressure San Jose’s defenders.

“Since he has come back (from international duty), he has been the best player in the league,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said, standing outside the Santa Clara Broncos’ locker room the Galaxy had co-opted for the night. “He is a great leader on this team and when the whistle blows he is ready to play.”

Those qualities helped Keane score 16 goals in his first full Major League Soccer season, results that were lost in the shadow of Wondolowski’s record-tying 27 goals. This year, if you were going to talk about goalscorers, Wondolowski was the beginning and end of the conversation, one which also saw great seasons from New York’s Kenny Cooper (18 goals) and Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio (17) overlooked.

That Keane is so much more than a goalscorer makes his place in the shadow particularly unfair. Elite work rate and creativity distinguish Keane from players with similar striker rates, as evidenced by his nine assists. As the MLS playoffs start reducing the number of players vying for the spotlight, Keane’s getting his chance to show he’s one of the league’s best players.

MORE: San Jose not the only number one seed to go home early

“We knew that if we scored a goal that we would have good chances,” Keane said, explaining LA’s three-goal first half. “That was the case, we got that first goal and they sat back a little bit and let us play the game we like to play. That was the difference tonight.”

The sentiment is unnecessarily humble. LA’s first half efficiency was one of the stories of the match, as were the performances of Landon Donovan, Mike Magee, and Josh Saunders. But Wednesday’s difference-maker wasn’t the first goal, the style of play, or San Jose’s inexperienced substitute at the back. The difference was Robbie Keane.

“The guy never stops running,” Opara said, asked to describe the difficulties in dealing with Keane. “He doesn’t necessarily waste [his energy on] runs he won’t get. He’s very smart in how he moves and tactically one the best, probably the best forward in terms of his movement off the ball.”

It was the fourth match in 11 days for the 32-year-old, but in a must-win game – against a team the Galaxy had failed to beat in four meetings this season – Keane’s effort was essential.

“This is when it really matters, when it really counts,” according to Keane. “[It’s] about winning games when it really matters.”

Leicester 1-2 Chelsea: Blues battle to victory

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  • Morata scores first goal of 2018
  • Vardy nets, score 17th of season
  • Pedro scores in extra time

Chelsea beat Leicester City 2-1 after extra time to seal their spot in the FA Cup semifinal.

Alvaro Morata gave Antonio Conte’s men the lead, but Jamie Vardy equalized to take it to extra time.

Pedro then struck to send Chelsea into the semifinal for the second-straight season.

Leicester started well and went close when Marc Albrighton‘s effort from the edge of the box squirmed just wide.

However the longer the first half well, the more dangerous Chelsea looked.

The West London club threatened on the break through Morata with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses having plenty of space out wide.

Morata then made the breakthrough right on half time as Willian nicked the ball, surged forward and released the Spaniard who finished calmly for his first goal in 2018.

After the break Leicester finally came to life as Wilfred Ndidi picked out Vardy with a wonderful pass but the Leicester forward looped his header over the bar.

Albrighton whipped in plenty of inviting crosses as Leicester pushed hard for an equalizerand eventually broke through.

Vicente Iborra got on the end of Riyad Mahrez‘s cross and he was denied twice by heroic blocks but Vardy was on hand to tap home. Game on.

Substitute Shinji Okazaki almost got on the end of a cross soon after and at the other end Morata hit the post with an acrobatic finish… but he was in an offside position.

Morata was then denied twice by Kasper Schmeichel at the end of normal time as the game went to extra time.

Pedro was the hero for Chelsea as he headed home the winner in extra time to send Chelsea to Wembley.

FA Cup semifinals draw: Man United vs. Spurs; Southampton vs. Chelsea

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All four of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Southampton have one final chance to win a trophy this season: the FA Cup.

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

Man United and Tottenham reached the semifinals with wins on Saturday, followed by Chelsea and Saints on Sunday.

[ MORE: Southampton see off Wigan | Chelsea complete the final four ]

The semifinals draw, which was held immediately after Chelsea’s extra-time victory over Leicester City on Sunday, has pitted Man United against Tottenham with Spurs the de facto away side in their temporary home at Wembley Stadium. The two sides are currently separated by just four points (with eight games to go) in the race for second in the Premier League.

In the other semifinal, it’ll be Southampton versus Chelsea. The Blues made it all the way to the final last season before losing out to Arsenal. Similarly, Saints lost last season’s League Cup final, to Man United.

The games will be played on Saturday, April 21, and Sunday, April 22.

FA Cup semifinals schedule

Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Southampton vs. Chelsea

USMNT name squad for friendly v Paraguay

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The U.S. national team have announced their 22-man roster for the friendly against Paraguay in Cary, North Carolina on March 27.

This could be the moment we look back at the old guard passing the baton.

Interim head coach Dave Sarachan has named a young team as Levante’s Shaq Moore and former Sporting KC defender Erik Palmer-Brown (now at Manchester City) received their first call ups.

Per the release, the average of the squad is 23 years, 84 days with 17 players aged 24 or under. Is this the dawn of a new era?

With no sign of a new head coach being appointed until probably after the 2018 World Cup, plus no General Manager (a newly created role by new USSF president Carlos Cordeiro) yet appointed for the USMNT, it’s tough to know how much to read into this team selection as the U.S. rebuild continues to be put on hold after the failure to make the 2018 World Cup.

Christian Pulisic has not been called up due to the U.S. letting him focus on Borussia Dortmund for the time being and, let’s be honest, we all know he is the star of this team and will be for decades to come. Giving him a rest this time could be hugely beneficial in the future.

Antonee Robinson, Marky Delgado, Timothy Weah and Andrija Novakovich are also looking for their first cap after impressing.

Weah has been rewarded after coming off the bench for PSG’s first team in recent weeks as he also starred for the USA at the U-17 World Cup, while Robinson has broken through at Bolton and Novakovich is scoring goals for fun in Holland.

Sarachan has taken charge of two USMNT games as interim boss after being an assistant coach in Bruce Arena’s coaching staff. The U.S. have drawn both of those games against Portugal in November and Bosnia in January.

Below is the squad in full.

U.S. ROSTER BY POSITION (Club; Caps/Goals):
GOALKEEPERS (3): Alex Bono (Toronto FC/CAN; 0/0), Bill Hamid (Midtjylland/DEN; 5/0), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC; 1/0)

DEFENDERS (8): Cameron Carter-Vickers (Ipswich Town/ENG; 1/0), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest/ENG; 14/1), Matt Miazga (Vitesse/NED; 4/1), Shaq Moore (Levante/ESP; 0/0), Erik Palmer-Brown (Kortrijk/BEL; 0/0), Antonee Robinson (Bolton Wanderers/ENG; 0/0), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna/MEX; 15/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United/ENG; 49/0)

MIDFIELDERS (8): Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls; 2/0), Marky Delgado (Toronto FC/CAN; 0/0), Weston McKennie (Schalke/GER; 1/1), Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta United FC; 24/1), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC; 2/0), Kenny Saief (Anderlecht/BEL; 1/0), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC; 3/0), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain/FRA; 0/0)

FORWARDS (3): Andrija Novakovich (Telstar/NED; 0/0), Rubio Rubin (Club Tijuana/MEX; 4/0), Bobby Wood (Hamburg/GER; 36/10)

Podolski goal powers Vissel Kobe to 1st win in J-League

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KOBE, Japan (AP) German striker Lukas Podolski scored late in the second half on Sunday as Vissel Kobe beat Cerezo Osaka 2-0 for its first win of the J-League season.

Naoyuki Fujita gave the hosts a 1-0 lead in the 33rd minute and Podolski secured the win on a left-foot shot with eight minutes remaining in regulation.

It was the first goal of the season for Podolski, who last year moved from Turkish club Galatasaray after signing a deal with Kobe estimated to be worth $5.3 million.

Elsewhere, Thai midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin scored late in stoppage time to lift Consadole Sapporo to a 2-1 win over V-Varen Nagasaki.

Takuma Abe scored midway through the second half to give Vegalta Sendai a share of the points in a 1-1 draw with Shimizu S-Pulse, while Diego Oliveira scored his first goal of the season as FC Tokyo beat Shonan Bellmare 1-0.

Mu Kanazaki scored the only goal as Kashima Antlers beat Sagan Tosu 1-0, Gamba Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol finished 2-2 and Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Jubilo Iwata ended in a goalless draw.