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.”

UEFA says Europa League trophy not damaged after being stolen

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
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NYON, Switzerland (AP) UEFA says the Europa League trophy was not damaged after being stolen in Mexico.

The silverware was at a promotional event in the central city of Leon when it was reported by authorities to have been taken from a vehicle.

The theft came ahead of the semifinals of Europe’s second-tier club competition.

UEFA says the “Europa League trophy was in Mexico for a partner event and got briefly stolen. It was quickly recovered and has suffered no damages.”

In the semifinal first legs next week, Arsenal plays Atletico Madrid and Marseille takes on Salzburg.

Serie A: Roma prep for Liverpool by beating SPAL; Benevento win at Milan

Elisabetta Baracchi/ANSA via AP
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Premier League preview ]

SPAL 2013 0-3 Roma

A few hours after a reserves-heavy Liverpool side played last-place West Bromwich Albion to a 2-2 draw in the Premier League, Roma, the Reds’ UEFA Champions League semifinal foes beginning Tuesday, hammered 17th-place SPAL on the back of goals scored by Radja Nainggolan and Patrik Schick.

Roma shocked the world — and Barcelona — to reach the semifinals, but still have a battle on their hands to finish inside Serie A’s top-four and qualify for next season’s Champions League. Following Saturday’s victory, Eusebio Di Francesco’s side is three and four points clear of fourth- and fifth-place Lazio and Inter Milan, respectively, though both of the chasing sides play on Sunday.

AC Milan 0-1 Benevento

The 2017-18 season has treated AC Milan, who spent massively last summer, far worse than Roma. Following Sunday’s home defeat to first-year top-flight (and last-place) side Benevento, Gennaro Gattuso’s side sits sixth (final automatic Europa League place) and lead seventh-place Atalanta, who play on Sunday, by just two points.

Pietro Iemmello scored the game’s only goal in the 29th minute.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sassuolo 1-0 Fiorentina

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Cagliari vs. Bologna — 6:30 a.m. ET
Lazio vs. Sampdoria — 9 a.m. ET
Chievo vs. Inter Milan — 9 a.m. ET
Atalanta vs. Torino — 9 a.m. ET
Udinese vs. Crotone — 9 a.m. ET
Juventus vs. Napoli — 2:45 p.m. ET

Barcelona cruise past Sevilla, lift historic 4th straight Copa del Rey

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona became the first team in 85 years to win four straight Copa del Rey titles after blowing away Sevilla 5-0 in the final on Saturday.

Luis Suarez scored twice, and Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Philippe Coutinho also made the scoresheet for Barcelona’s record-extending 30th Copa triumph, and sixth in the last decade.

Sevilla was trying to win a sixth Copa and save a season which will end without any trophies and maybe not even a place in the Europa League next season.

The final took place at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the capital amid the ongoing political turmoil involving Catalonia’s bid for independence.

There were jeers by part of the Barcelona crowd when the national anthem was played, but the boos were largely subdued by the reaction of the numerous Sevilla fans in the crowd. Spain’s King Felipe VI smiled and saluted the fans after the anthem.

No other team had won four Copa titles in a row since Athletic Bilbao from 1930-33. The only other team to do it was Real Madrid from 1905-08.

Barcelona lost a chance to win the treble when it was eliminated by Roma in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but it is three points away from winning the Spanish league.

PL Sunday preview: Man City’s title trot; Wenger’s farewell tour

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Manchester City will play as the confirmed champions of the Premier League, though they won’t celebrate as such for a couple more weeks, on Sunday. Meanwhile, the only manager Arsenal have known for more than two decades begins saying goodbye

[ MORE: Man United come back to beat Spurs, reach FA Cup final ]

Arsenal vs. West Ham United — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

So begins the Arsene Wenger farewell tour, and with a London derby at that. Wenger announced on Friday that he’ll leave Arsenal at the end of the current season, which has little to no chance of seeing the Gunners finish in the PL’s top-five, let alone the top-four. Sunday’s clash with West Ham will be the first of Wenger’s three remaining games at the Emirates Stadium, including the Europa League semifinal against Atletico Madrid on Thursday. Unfortunately for Wenger, three of his final five PL games (four of seven in all competitions) will be played away from home, where his side has lost five straight in league play.

Speaking of lost and wayward seasons, 14th-place West Ham are almost mathematically clear of relegation (there’s currently three places and six points between themselves and 18th-place Southampton). It’s hardly the future they imagined upon moving to the London Stadium at the start of last season. Andy Carroll scored the late equalizer in the Hammers’ 1-1 draw with Stoke City on Monday, which rescued perhaps a perfectly timed point with all five remaining games to be played against sides currently in the top-nine (Arsenal, Man City, Leicester, Man United and Everton).

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Henrikh Mkhitaryan (knee), Santi Cazorla (achilles); QUESTIONABLE: Jack Wilshere (ankle) | West Ham — OUT: James Collins (hamstring), Sam Byram (ankle), Winston Reid (knee), Michail Antonio (hamstring), Pedro Obiang (knee)


Stoke City vs. Burnley — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Here’s what’s at stake at the bet365 Stadium on Sunday:

Stoke sit two places and five points adrift of safety from relegation, with four games left to play (17th-place Swansea City have a game in hand, to boot). After 10 seasons in the PL, it’s looking more and more likely that Paul Lambert (with a tip of the cap to Mark Hughes earlier in the season) will take the Potters back to the Championship for the first time since they won promotion in 2008.

Burnley trail Arsenal by just two points (though the Clarets have played one more game than the Gunners) in the race for sixth place. A sixth-place finish would be the club’s highest top-flight finish since 1966 (3rd).

INJURIES: Stoke — QUESTIONABLE: Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting (groin) | Burnley — OUT: Steven Defour (knee), Scott Arfield (calf), Robbie Brady (knee), Jonathan Walters (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Ben Mee (knock), Georges-Kevin Nkoudou (hamstring)


Manchester City vs. Swansea City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

While Man City won’t lift the PL trophy until their May 6 clash with Huddersfield Town, Sunday’s visit from Swansea will be Pep Guardiola‘s side’s first outing since clinching the title courtesy of Man United’s defeat to West Bromwich Albion last weekend. Guardiola’s focus has turned to breaking the all-time PL points record (95 — they currently have 87 with five games still to play).

“In the past, I won the league at Bayern and at Barca with five, six or seven games (left) but the next games were not good,” he said this week. “We have to think about how many points we can get, it can be a good argument. What we need to do is already done, the points record is not the most important thing, but maybe it can help us to be focused. It would be uncomfortable to finish in a bad way, there always has to be a target and maybe scoring the most goals and winning the most points will be a good focus.”

INJURIES: Man City — OUT: Sergio Aguero (knee), Benjamin Mendy (knee); QUESTIONABLE: John Stones (thigh) | Swansea — OUT: Wilfried Bony (knee), Leroy Fer (achilles), Renato Sanches (hamstring)