Mario Martinez, Fredy Montero, David Estrada

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.

New St. Louis stadium plan calls for state land contribution

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has made it clear he’s opposed to state funding for stadiums, yet a revised proposal for a $200 million soccer stadium in St. Louis calls for the state to contribute land that’s potentially worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a city aldermanic committee delayed a vote Thursday to advance a measure putting the proposal, which also requires city voters to approve $60 million in funding, on the April ballot.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

The investor group SC STL’s proposal calls for a 22,000-seat stadium near Interstate 64 and Union Station, a key component in the group’s effort to lure a Major League Soccer expansion team. MLS officials have expressed strong interest in St. Louis, but only if a stadium is built.

Time is of the essence: The league is expected to award two new expansion teams in the fall, with play starting in 2020.

St. Louis’ project was on life support after Greitens, a Republican who took office this month, said repeatedly that he opposed taxpayer funding for stadiums, calling it “welfare for millionaires.” SC STL had been seeking $40 million in state tax credits.

But a provision of SC STL’s revised financing plan, presented at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, says the state would contribute the majority of the 24-acre project site, which is currently owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and perform some site clearing and infrastructure work.

The value is still being appraised, but given its location and the amount of land, it likely is worth several million dollars.

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told The Associated Press in a statement that the governor “remains opposed to state funding to build the soccer stadium.” He did not immediately respond to a question about how the potential donation of land doesn’t conflict with Greitens’ hard-line stance.

[ MORE: Jones labels Howard’s comments “dangerous” ]

The first hint of compromise with the governor came in an email from SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock late Wednesday, when he wrote that a “path forward” had been reached after two weeks of meetings.

“Gov. Greitens has made it clear to us that he is very supportive of adding a new professional sports franchise to the State of Missouri, and that’s a sentiment we wholeheartedly share,” the statement said.

The stadium project also requires taxpayer help from the city. The city Ways and Means Committee heard from SC STL officials Thursday, but no vote was taken on whether to ask the full Board of Aldermen to place the issue on the April ballot. The committee is expected to reconsider the measure Monday.

SC STL would be responsible for at least $95 million of the project cost, the entire $150 million expansion fee and all maintenance costs going forward.

Bundesliga returns: Will Bayern hold off competition again?

MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 05: Sebastian Rudy of TSG Hoffenheim is challenged by Douglas Costa of FC Bayern Muenchen during the Bundesliga match between Bayern Muenchen and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at Allianz Arena on November 5, 2016 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)
Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images
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Germany’s top flight returns to action Friday when Bayern Munich travels to Freiburg in an attempt to keep the pressure on new boys RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

For those who haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Bundesliga this season or need a bit of a refresher after several weeks away, here’s what to monitor over the next several months.

Really Big surprise Leipzig looks to keep title race going

Formed in 2009, RB Leipzig is a lot of German fans’ least favorite club after cash infusions caused a rapid rise into the top flight.

The new club is looking down at most of the haters, however. League leaders for much of the first half, Leipzig is three points shy of league leading Bayern Munich.

Bayern waxed Leipzig 3-0 before the holiday break, and the two sides won’t meet again until May 13. How long can the new boys keep up the show?

Historic relegation candidates

What does USMNT strikers Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson share besides a national team? Both are on sides that have been in Germany’s top tier longer than the players have been alive.

Wood’s Hamburg has six national titles and hasn’t seen the second tier in 54 years. That’s the longest stretch in the league, two more seasons than Bayern Munich. Hamburg is a currently third-bottom, which would force them into a relegation-promotion playoff against the third-placed team in 2.Bundesliga.

As for Johannsson, his Werder Bremen side is just three points ahead of Hamburg. Bremen has been in the top flight for 36 seasons.

Chasing the Golden Boot

Robert Lewandowski has scored the most goals in two of the past three seasons, with Alexander Meier of Eintracht Frankfurt seizing the honor in 2014-15.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is leading the pack by three goals, but is with Gabon at the Africa Cup of Nations to help open the door for the rest of the bunch.

Koln’s Anthony Modeste is second with 13, while Lewandowski has 12. Two players, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim), have nine.

Can surprise Europe-chasers hold up?

Hertha Berlin was in 2.Bundesliga a few seasons ago, while Eintracht Frankfurt was there a season prior to that. RB Leipzig, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t even a club until 2009.

Eintracht made a Europa League run one year later, but neither was expected to be competing for a spot in Europe this season. As it stands, all three are in the mix.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 16 12 3 1 38 9 29 7-2-0 5-1-1 39
 RB Leipzig 16 11 3 2 31 15 16 6-1-0 5-2-2 36
 Hertha BSC Berlin 16 9 3 4 24 16 8 7-0-1 2-3-3 30
 Eintracht Frankfurt 16 8 5 3 22 12 10 5-3-0 3-2-3 29
 1899 Hoffenheim 16 6 10 0 28 17 11 4-5-0 2-5-0 28
 Borussia Dortmund 16 7 6 3 35 19 16 5-3-0 2-3-3 27
 1. FC Köln 16 6 7 3 21 15 6 4-4-0 2-3-3 25

Report: El Tri’s Chicharito to LAFC in 2018

Bayer Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, left, and Atletico Mineiro's Mattheus Rolden fight for possession of the ball during the first half of a Florida Cup soccer match, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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It makes a lot of sense, you know?

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will turn 30 in 2018, not a spring chicken for a striker but still plenty productive if healthy.

His national team, Mexico, will likely be revving its engines for the World Cup, and won’t be upset to have the forward playing a bit less soccer and a lot closer to home.

[ MORE: Top 5 Premier League storylines ]

And Los Angeles FC will want to make a massive mark as it seeks to butt its head into a market dominated by the LA Galaxy (and, perhaps still then, Mexico national teamer Giovani Dos Santos).

So, tell us more, Steve Brisendine of MLSSoccer.com:

“[LAFC] are going to do everything possible to sign the current Bayer Leverkusen player, whose contract ends in 2018 and could therefore leave for a reduced fee. That’s what AS.com has confirmed with sources close to the project. LAFC hope to announce their new manager this spring and dream, a little later, to do the same with Javier Hernandez, aka Chicharito.”

Make it happen. Make. It. Happen. We’re already reserving his spot on our MLS fantasy teams.

Transfer rumor roundup: Jagielka, Begovic, Berahino, Zarate

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 13: Saido Berahino of West Brom challenges for the ball with Phil Jagielka of Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Everton at The Hawthorns on September 13, 2014 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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There’s action all over England, from those defending the goal mouth to others striving to conquer it.

[ MORE: More transfer gossip ]

— Bournemouth wants an upgrade on Artur Boruc, according to The Telegraph, and that could come in the form of Chelsea backstop Asmir Begovic.

The Cherries reportedly had a $12.5 million bid turned down by Antonio Conte, who has Thibaut Courtois in the No. 1 seat and Portugal national team backup Eduardo in the ranks (along with three keepers on loan and young goalie Mitchell Beanie).

— Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger shut the door on acquiring West Ham wantaway Dimitri Payet according to Sky Sports’ Transfer Centre:

“We have many players offensively who can play in this position. You are interested by the quality of the player but there needs to be a need as well, and we have no need in this domain.”

— Clubs in need of experienced Premier League backs need look no further than Everton, where manager Ronald Koeman has admitted that England international Phil Jagielka could leave Goodison Park. The 34-year-old center back has 40 caps for England and has made 337 appearances for Everton. He could be a massive upgrade for Sunderland if David Moyes is up for a reunion.

— Stoke City chairman Peter Coates says a purchase of Saido Berahino from West Brom is not contingent on a sale of Bojan Krkic. The latter has been linked to Middlesbrough.

— Mauro Zarate may be returning the Premier League. Watford boss Walter Mazzarri has been largely let down by his strike corps as Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have taken steps back this season. Could $4 be enough to bring the ex-West Ham and QPR man from Fiorentina to Vicarage Road? Zarate has four goals in nine matches for La Viola, and has nine goals in 40 Premier League matches.