Drilling down on: Seattle Sounders 1, at Real Salt Lake 0

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The fourth time was a charm for Seattle, who saw Honduran international Mario Martínez – making his first Major League Soccer start – blast the Sounders into the Western Conference final. His left-footed, 15-yard half-volley in the 81st minute beat Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando far post for the series’ only goal, the Sounders winning their first playoff series in franchise history.

After dominating Friday’s first leg, Seattle met an energetic RSL to start Thursday’s match at Rio Tinto Stadium. After setting into the game mid-way through the first, the Sounders saw Real ascend through the second half, slowly gaining control of the match. The home side’s climb halted when Martínez, in the starting lineup for the injured Mauro Rosales, ended their season.

With the win, Seattle moves on to their first Western Conference final, a two-legged series starting Sunday in Los Angeles against the defending champion LA Galaxy.

Seattle advances, 1-0 (aggregate)

Man of the Match: After a poor first half, it looked like Seattle would be better off with Steve Zakuani taking over as a left wing in place of Mario Martínez. But head coach Sigi Schmid persisted with the man who’d played only 40 regular season minute, his loyalty paying off nine minutes from time when Fredy Montero’s chip over RSL’s right side fell perfectly in stride for Martínez. The midfielder strode onto and through a shot that curled toward Nick Rimando’s far post, settling into the side netting to send Seattle through.

The goal, then the analysis (below):

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Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Sigi Schmid made the right call in midfield.

Brad Evans has played for Sigi Schmid since 2007, so it wasn’t surprising the 27-year-old midfielder drew Thursday’s most important assignment. Moved from left midfield into the center, Evans was tasked with disrupting holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman’s control of RSL’s game. Situated above destroyer Osvaldo Alonso in what played as a 4-1-3-2 formation, Evans’ persistence forced RSL to drop right-sided midfielder Will Johnson back to help their build up.

Slowly, Real adjusted to the tactic, but without Johnson to balance their midfield, RSL became predictably left-leaning, making life easier for Osvaldo Alonso. Late in the match, the Sounder linchpin made a number of key tackles, giving his own Man of the Match-caliber performance.

RSL’s central defenders locked down Seattle’s attack.

The absence of Rosales was huge. Not only did it deprive Seattle of their biggest leg one advantage (Rosales versus RSL’s left back), it also took away the man most likely to augment the Sounders’ battle against Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake’s central defenders).

RSL took the chance of leaving their defenders two-on-two against Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero. With those numbers, you’d expect Seattle to generate some chance through their forwards, given enough opportunities. But thanks to strong performances from Olave and Borchers, Seattle’s 27-goal duo had very few opportunities. Olave had the speed and strength to compete with Johnson, while Borchers shadowed Montero’s forays backward to connect with his midfield.

With Olave and Borchers in form, Seattle was going to need a goal like Martínez’s to break through.

Alonso, Gspurning key the defense. Again.

Tonight, Michael Gspurning won the battle, even if he didn’t approach Rimando’s Friday heights. Tonight, Seattle’s goalkeeper lived up to Sigi Schmid’s year-long superlatives, making nine saves while keeping his 180-minute clean sheet.

In front of him, it was again Alonso cleaning everything up. Perhaps he was fortunate not to get called for a first half shoulder charge in the box, but after four years in Major League Soccer, the league’s premier destroyer knows how to walk that line. Late in the match, long after he’d picked up a 51st minute yellow card, Alonso made a number of key tackles deep in Seattle’s end that allowed his team to kill off the game’s final moments.

Packaged for takeaway

  • It was not a series to remember for Chris Wingert. The RSL defender, who was left looking at so many first leg crosses, picked up an injury in warmups. Kenny Mansally got the call at left back.
  • RSL also started without Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio’s normal partner held back with an injured hamstring. The Argentine came on in the second half for Paulo Jr.
  • In the first half, Salt Lake was intent on using Paulo Jr.’s speed, repeatedly feeding balls into space behind Seattle’s defense. Nice reads from Gspurning thwarted the tactic.
  • Seattle and Los Angeles met in the 2010 Western Conference semifinals, the Galaxy getting a 1-0 win in Seattle en route to a 3-1 series victory.
  • For Real Salt Lake, the question is whether they keep this core together. They finished second in the West, but after three-straight playoff disappointments, Garth Lagerway and Jason Kreis may look to shake things up.

Player ratings from USMNT’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica

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The U.S. national team is headed to the final of the 2017 Gold Cup after knocking off Costa Rica 2-0 on Saturday.

Who stood out for all the right — and wrong — reasons, as Bruce Arena’s side prepares to face either Mexico or Jamaica in Wednesday’s final?

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

GK — Tim Howard: 7 — Forced to make two saves, the first of which was a hero’s intervention with Marco Ureña racing in one on one. The second came not long before the opening goal, and he did well to spill it no more than a foot or two in front of him. Howard looks at the top of his game, again.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 6.5 — For the first time all tournament, he got forward with regularity and served the ball into the box. With the entire flank open ahead of him, Villafaña had to fill the void of width. Still, not a ton of quality. Fortunately, he was tested very little in open space.

CB — Matt Besler: 7.5 — Best of the defensive unit, perhaps so much so he’s vaulted himself back into the four-man rotation for the World Cup.

CB — Omar Gonzalez: 6 — Besler stood out as the star, hardly putting a foot wrong all night, thus overshadowing Gonzalez for the most part. Costa Rica opted to build with the ball on the ground, thus negating Gonzalez’s greatest strength, his aerial presence. That said, he wasn’t remotely exposed in the weakest facet of his game, either.

RB — Graham Zusi: 6 — Paul Arriola’s presence ahead of him was immeasurably important. I’m still bullish on Zusi as a right back, with the necessary shading of defensive help. Before you lose your mind, consider the italicized part.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

CM — Michael Bradley: 7 — Not his most influential game, but it didn’t need to be. With Kellyn Acosta doing much of the heavy lifting, in terms of covering acreage, Bradley played the part of disciplined organizer slightly deeper in midfield than we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s a role that suits him well, with the right partner ahead of him. His influence on Acosta will also benefit the USMNT for years to come.

CM — Kellyn Acosta: 7 — The kid is (still) alright, even after a couple subpar games during the group stage. As stated above, the partnership matters. Afforded a bit more time and space by the Ticos, Acosta pushed into the final third all night long and provided the extra man to play with possession high up the field.

LM — Darlington Nagbe: 6.5 — He’ll always shade more toward the center of the field, even when played as an out-and-out wide midfielder, and that’s what he did against Costa Rica. It’s nice having that extra man in the middle, but it turns the left wing into a barren wasteland. Take the good with the bad.

RM — Paul Arriola: 6.5 — You may not get a ton of final product from Arriola, but with Zusi playing an out-of-role right back behind him, it’s vitally important that the wide player on that side of the field offers defensive cover from the front. Arriola does so, and gets into (and wins) more than a winger’s fair share of 50-50 challenges. He’s a net positive in a lot of things that don’t show up in boxscores. There’s always a place for a player like that.

[ MORE: Mexico beat Honduras, book their place in semifinals ]

FW — Jozy Altidore: 6.5 — We’ve known this for a while, but Altidore is far more effective playing with a partner up top. His tendency to drop into midfield helps to link play with someone ahead of him. When he’s all by his lonesome, who/what’s he to link?

FW — Jordan Morris: 7 — Piggybacking on the above point about Altidore, Morris is the perfect complement — quick in short bursts, a burner in the open field, and a smart runner of channels on occasion. He was the best player on the field the opening 30 minutes or so. Faded down the stretch, but the strong first half earns him positive marks.

Sub — Clint Dempsey: 9 — An assist and a goal, all in 24 minutes’ work. More on the hero of the day in a bit.

Sub — Gyasi Zardes: N/A — 7 minutes on the field, with little to no real impact on the game.

Sub — Dax McCarty: N/A — 5 minutes off the bench, but he served his purpose in helping to keep possession and put the game to bed.

Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica, into Gold Cup final

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It took considerably longer than Bruce Arena would have hoped, but the U.S. national team edged its way past Costa Rica, courtesy of Jozy Altidore‘s 72nd-minute goal, in the two sides’ 2017 Gold Cup semifinal in Arlington, Tex., on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

It was Arena’s injection of Clint Dempsey just six minutes earlier which would prove to be the game-changing moment. The soon-to-be all-time leading scorer in USMNT history created Altidore’s goal, the 38th tally of his international career, with a silky smooth turn and through ball that unlocked an otherwise formidable, frustrating Ticos defense. The Nacogdoches, Tex., native pulled level with Landon Donovan on the USMNT’s scoring charts 10 minutes later as he sealed the Yanks’ passage into the final.

The clock read 11 seconds when the USMNT’s first scoring chance arrived. Straight from the kickoff, they worked the ball to a streaking Jordan Morris, who in full stride unleashed a hard, right-footed strike from 10 yards out. Post.

For all the early excitement, and the massive possession advantage (61-39), it was the closest the USMNT would come to beating Patrick Pemberton, as the Yanks failed to put a single shot on target in the opening 45 minutes.

Tim Howard was called into heroic action in the 37th minute, when Bryan Ruiz dribbled through the heart of midfield and played Marco Ureña into the penalty area. The San Jose Earthquakes striker went low and far post with his effort from 12 yards out, but Howard was quick to get down and make the one-on-one save.

[ MORE: Mexico beat Honduras, book their place in semifinals ]

The Americans’ first chance of the second half didn’t come until the 70th minute. Clint Dempsey played a simple square ball to Kellyn Acosta, whose first-time shot forced Pemberton into a tough save to push the ball high into the air.

Two minutes later, the breakthrough. Dempsey slipped Jozy Altidore through with a delicate through ball into space, and the Toronto FC man latched onto it quickly and slotted it past Pemberton despite the ‘keeper getting a hand on it.

Dempsey’s history-making moment seemed innocuous enough from the start — a free kick from all of 25 yards out, at a difficult angle. Whatever, said Dempsey, who went for goal anyway. His bouncing ball evade Pemberton at the near post and gave him 57 international goals.

The winner of Mexico versus Jamaica, the second semifinal which will take place on Sunday, awaits the USMNT in the final on Wednesday.

Mexico block out drama before Gold Cup semifinal vs. Jamaica

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PASADENA, Calif. (AP) After nearly two years as Mexico’s head coach, Juan Carlos Osorio is used to constant criticism of his tactics and lineups. He isn’t surprised by regular calls for his firing from fans, media and former national team players — and that’s just when Mexico is playing well.

“We do our best so that the players cannot feel the criticism,” Osorio said Saturday. “We try not to translate it to the players. We try to maintain the best spirit in the team.”

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

Yet for all of the drama and distraction around El Tri this summer, Osorio is one win from getting a young roster with an ever-changing lineup into the CONCACAF Gold Cup final while he coaches from the stands, thanks to a FIFA suspension.

Mexico faces Jamaica on Sunday night at the Rose Bowl, El Tri‘s home away from home, for a spot in the championship game.

Osorio is already proud of his experimental roster’s Gold Cup success despite a steady drumbeat of criticism from those who don’t like the Colombian coach’s plans or his players’ execution of them. He chose a youthful group for this tournament to build Mexico’s base of experience for next year’s World Cup and the years ahead.

“Our goal is to build a team that can compete at any level,” Osorio said. “We’ve had some losses that have been very difficult, and the scars are there. But at the same time, they show that we’re strong and moving forward, and this team has won much more than it has lost. We are very motivated, and we want to continue building and growing. We want to have more players competing for a spot that can help us. We want to have a present and a future.”

Mexico has won three of the last four Gold Cups, beating Jamaica 3-1 in the 2015 final. These teams also met at the Rose Bowl 13 months ago during the Copa America, when Javier Hernandez scored an early goal in a 2-0 win.

West Ham-bound Chicharito is among several tested veterans not participating in the Gold Cup. Mexico has struggled to replace his offense, scoring half of its six goals in this tournament back in its opener.

“We are all motivated and ready to give our all for the team,” said midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, who got the only goal in Mexico’s 1-0 quarterfinal win over Honduras. “We all want to be part of this.”

Osorio will watch from the crowd while serving the fifth game of his six-match suspension for what FIFA deemed aggressive behavior toward officials during a match against Portugal in the Confederations Cup, where Mexico finished a disappointing fourth.

[ MORE: Mexico beat Honduras, book their place in semifinals ]

Mexico and Jamaica played to a 0-0 draw 10 days ago during Gold Cup group play in Denver. El Tri dominated possession, but Mexico’s fans booed their own team after it failed to find the net behind stalwart Jamaica goalkeeper Andre Blake.

Mexican fans booing their own team is nothing new, but El Tri can also count on wild support from Los Angeles’ vast Latino population.

Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore acknowledges his Reggae Boyz are underdogs, but he believes his players raise their level whenever they get the chance to wreck the plans of the U.S. or Mexico, the pre-tournament favorites.

“I think our confidence is high,” Whitmore said. “We don’t want to be overconfident going into the game. We know the Mexican team has a lot to offer. It is a team that we have to give a lot of respect, based on what they’ve been through over the years.”

Jamaica is also playing without top talent, including Wes Morgan, Giles Barnes and all of its England-based players. Darren Mattocks, the Portland forward who has excelled in the Gold Cup, also could miss the semifinal due to an injury, Whitmore said.

Jamaica showed its offensive potency last Thursday with a pair of beautiful goals in a quarterfinal victory over Canada. Whitmore plans a “totally different approach” from the defensive caution with which Jamaica played El Tri earlier in the month.

“We try to be mean in conceding goals, and that’s been working for us,” Whitmore said. “We want to be still disciplined. We want to be compact in defense, but on the other hand, I think the transition game in defense is important if we want to get past this Mexico team.”

FOLLOW LIVE: USMNT vs. Costa Rica — Gold Cup semifinals

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The last time the U.S. national team faced Costa Rica, the final score was 4-0 in favor of the home side, in San Jose (not the one in California). Six days later, Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena.

On Saturday, it’ll be Arena’s USMNT which takes on Los Ticos with a place in the 2017 Gold Cup final on the line. One of Mexico and Jamaica, who’ll face off in the second semifinal on Sunday, comes next.

When: 10 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

[ LIVE: Gold Cup scoreboard ]

Arena has made five changes to the team that beat El Salvador 2-0 in Wednesday’s quarterfinal. Incoming are Graham Zusi (for Eric Lichaj), Matt Besler (Matt Hedges), Jorge Villafaña (Justin Morrow), Kellyn Acosta (Gyasi Zardes) and Jordan Morris (Clint Dempsey).

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]