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.”

U.S. Open Cup Final preview: Sporting KC vs. New York Red Bulls

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New York Red Bulls and Sporting KC are set to tangle for the 104th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday in Missouri.

[ MORE: League Cup wrap ]

The longtime rivals met more often while Eastern Conference foes — SKC now plies its trade in the West — and KC leads the league series 21W-20L-13T.

Here’s everything you need to know about the most prestigious tournament in American soccer, one that earns a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.

  • Sporting KC is looking to move into a tie with Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders for the most USOC titles amongst active teams with four. Maccabi Los Angeles and Bethlehem Steel won five but are no longer active clubs (The USL side Bethlehem Steel FC is a new entity).
  • The Red Bulls, meanwhile, enter their second final in search of their first Open Cup.
  • New York knocked off New York City FC, Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution, and FC Cincinnati to reach the final.
  • KC topped Minnesota United, Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, and San Jose Earthquakes.
  • The sides met May 3 at the same venue, with Dom Dwyer scoring twice in a KC victory.
  • KC is 3-0 in USOC finals, having won in 2002, 2012, and 2015.

As for Wednesday, the Red Bulls enter the match without an MLS win since Aug. 12. That five-match span includes four-straight ties. KC has two wins and a draw from its last four games.

Dwyer’s not around for KC anymore, but the firepower remains. Home field advantage will likely tilt the field for KC, but this is the sort of match that begs for a Bradley Wright-Phillips moment or two. We’ll call it for the hosts, but just… 2-1.

NASL launches lawsuit against United States Soccer Federation

NASL.com
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Using scathing language, the North American Soccer League announced Tuesday its intention to take its problems with the United States Soccer Federation to court.

A Division II soccer league until recently, the NASL accused the USSF of using unjust means and arbitrary rules to prop up Major League Soccer at the expense of the sport in the United States.

[ MORE: Klopp rages at defending ]

Tuesday’s press release makes clear that the NASL believes MLS’ relationship with the USL is detrimental to soccer in the United States and unfair to competitors. It also notes the tricky relationships between U.S. Soccer, MLS, and Soccer United Marketing.

The NASL isn’t trying to win a big financial judgment, it says, rather get its D-II status back in the face of what it deems destructive practices from the USSF.

From NASL.com:

The complaint alleges that the USSF has selectively applied and waived its divisional criteria to suppress competition from the NASL, both against MLS and against United Soccer League (USL).  For example, under the USSF’s divisional criteria, there are European clubs that have successfully operated for decades that would be considered ineligible for “Division I” or even “Division II” status due to arbitrary requirements like stadium capacity and market size.

The complaint alleges that the USSF sought to limit competition from the NASL to MLS and USL, and now seeks to destroy the NASL by arbitrarily revoking the NASL’s “Division II” status for the upcoming 2018 season. The complaint only seeks injunctive relief against the USSF’s conduct regarding its divisional designations.

NASL board of governors chairman and New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso said the USSF had left the league “no choice” but to file suit.

The NASL and fourth-tier NPSL took the bold step of filing a claim against FIFA, CONCACAF, and the USSF with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, asking that the United States be forced to implement a promotion/relegation structure.

Riccardo Silva, owner of NASL side Miami FC, made waves when a July report showed he presented MLS with a $4 billion TV offer to inject pro/rel into MLS.

Messi scores four (4) as Barcelona hammers Eibar (video)

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Lionel Messi scored four times as Barcelona belted Eibar 6-1 at the Camp Nou on Tuesday.

The 30-year-old now has 522 goals for Barca, including nine in five league matches this season. That includes two hat tricks.

[ MORE: Klopp rages at defending ]

Paulinho and Denis Suarez also scored for Barca, which is yet to lose a point in La Liga play.

Messi scored a penalty to start the scoring, then started a combination play before scooting into the 18 to score low and left.

Watch the movement from the Argentine magician.

Messi added his second when he drew the defenders and keeper to play him straight-on, then used the outside of his boot to flick a deft finish home.

He’d later dash to the doorstep to complete the 6-1 scoreline.

And how often do we see this? Messi starting and finishing a combination. When you’re an elite player who also thirsts for goals every minute on the pitch, you’ll score a few.

League Cup: Foxes oust LFC; Stoke, Burnley upset (video)

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Leicester City turned to its favorite tactics to send Liverpool out of the League Cup, while Bristol City stunned struggling Stoke City as 11 matches dotted the English tournament landscape on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Pulisic up for major award ]


Leicester City 2-0 Liverpool

Both sides were decidedly second-string, and the Reds had plenty of control over the proceedings despite a lack of goals.

But substitute Shinji Okazaki scored in traffic after Vicente Iborra headed a corner kick his way, and the Foxes took a late lead.

And Okazaki cued up Islam Slimani for a wonderful 78th minute marker (see above) to ensure the result.

Bristol City 2-0 Stoke City

The Robins were flying at Ashton Gate, getting an opener in the 50th minute through Famara Diedhiou and a 60th minute insurance tally from Matt Taylor.

Stoke left some starters on the bench in Erik Pieters, Joe Allen, Jack Butland, and Jese, but had plenty of their best in the XI (Kurt Zouma, Eric Choupo-Moting, Darren Fletcher).

Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Barnsley

Spurs had a hefty edge in shots and possession, but the visitors held firm against a decent side including Dele Alli, Son Heung-min, Jan Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele.

Fernando Llorente made his first Spurs start, but it was Dele who broke the Londoners through on the side’s 17th shot of the night.

Burnley 2-2 (3-5 PKs) Leeds United

Sean Dyche‘s Premier Leaguers were dismissed from the tournament by Thomas Christiansen’s high-flying Championship side.

It took penalty kicks, where Leeds GK Andy Lonergan stopped James Tarkowski to send the Clarets out of the Cup.

Hadi Sacko had an eye for the winner, assisted by Pablo Hernandez, but Chris Wood converted an 89th minute penalty to, seemingly, send the match to extra time.

Hernandez then scored a penalty of his own in stoppage time, only for Robbie Brady‘s free kick to equalize and again put the match on pace for extra time.

Elsewhere
Crystal Palace 1-0 Huddersfield Town
Aston Villa 0-2 Middlesbrough
Brentford 1-3 Norwich City
Bournemouth 1-0 (ET) Brighton
West Ham 3-0 Bolton
Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0 (ET) Bristol Rovers
Reading 0-2 Swansea City
Arsenal vs. Doncaster Rovers — Wednesday
Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest — Wednesday
Everton vs. Sunderland — Wednesday
Manchester United vs. Burton Albion — Wednesday
West Bromwich Albion vs. Manchester City — Wednesday