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.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.