MLS playoff preview: Seattle Sounders at Los Angeles Galaxy

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There is precious little time for the Western Conference finalists to savor and dote on their recent sweet accomplishments.

Late Wednesday evening the Galaxy did what most of us predicted they could not, storming into San Jose to upend the league’s top regular season team. And how!  Bruce Arena’s team found a gear we haven’t seen in a while – just  in the nick of time – to kick San Jose around pretty good.

One night later, Seattle finally delivered that first MLS playoff series win, the one fans have been jonesing for since their club added a festive splash of rave green greatness to the league in 2009.

They meet Sunday outside Los Angeles to kick off the home-and-away, total goals series.

MLS Western Conference finals

Sunday’s Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET, Home Depot Center, ESPN

On the Los Angeles Galaxy

  • For all the L.A. “Galacticos” star power, who has made the moments most consistently in the post-season lately? That would be Mike Magee, who contributed three goals during L.A.’s dash to the MLS Cup run last year, and then provided the series-winner against San Jose.
  • Irish international striker Robbie Keane is putting on a clinic these days of sharp off-the-ball movement. He works the channels between defensive elements brilliantly, dropping in and then dropping out, moving off the markers at just the right time or slashing across a pair of them as he did for L.A.’s second goal against San  Jose.

(MORE: Keane shreds San Jose’s wobbly defense)

  • Meanwhile, Landon Donovan has moved out to the right in the Galaxy’s 4-4-2 (rather than as Keane’s partner along the strike line). He simply looks more comfortable out there. And given Beckham’s natural tendency to drift right, Donovan scoots inside liberally, which gives defenders a lot to think about and deal with.
  • Given all the other potentially defining pieces, it’s hard to settle on one element that will decide this series. But here’s one that sure could go far in revealing a winner: Seattle’s Alonso against Galaxy do-all Juninho in the center of the park.
  • Galaxy rookie Tommy Meyer has earned his MLS playoff cred over three matches so far. What Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said of Meyer after Wednesday’s win in San Jose: “Tommy became a man tonight. We’re going to need that at least two more times, hopefully three more times, out of him. And if he plays like that, we’ve really got a chance.”

On the Seattle Sounders

  • At this time last year we would have spoken about Los Angeles as Seattle’s unbeatable nemesis. No longer; the Sounders’ took two matches from L.A. this year. (The Sounders did lose in L.A. on the regular season’s final match date, a hard-to-define contest that meant absolutely nothing to both clubs.)
  • Seattle doesn’t give up a lot of goals, which usually indicates a rough and tough back line. In this case, the back line isn’t bad, but it’s really more about two things: First, it’s about holding midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, the league’s top midfield ball winner, a man who zooms around all over the field with shin-kicking menace. And it’s about goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, whose calm presence and able shot-stopping has relieved fears around Seattle that Kasey Keller might somehow prove irreplaceable.
  • Seems like we are talking about goalkeeping a lot in the 2012 playoffs, so let’s throw this out there: Gspurning looks like the top netminder remaining in the playoffs. He really does look unbeatable lately.
  • Sigi Schmid’s team managed to cope without top creator Mauro Rosales in Utah on Thursday’s night. But the Sounders’ chances rise if their right-sided midfielder (and top crossing threat) can get back on the field.
  • Either way, on the other side of the field, this is a big chance for Mario Martinez or Steve Zakuani to exploit the Galaxy’s weary legs and to make Landon Donovan (who has played lately on the Galaxy’s right side) work back and defend.
  • Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson have two goals each this year against the Galaxy.
  • Should be interesting to watch the pair vs. Omar Gonzalez and Meyer. The Galaxy center backs tend to be better matched against the bigger bangers at striker, a la San Jose’s top choices. The more mobile Montero could prove slightly more problematic.
  • Sounders thinking-man midfielder Brad Evans on Mario Martinez’s strike, of the sensational and stunning variety, Thursday in Utah that sent Seattle into the conference finals: “It was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. You see those one or twice a year — that’s it. … It came at a perfect time.”

(MORE: Sigi Schmid stretches to find some motivation for his team)

Bottom line:

It’s really about which Galaxy team shows up. Things weren’t looking so swell, and the Galaxy looked a bit labored and long in the tooth over its first 180 minutes of playoff soccer. But what a spirited and energetic effort they delivered to blow San Jose’s boat out of the Bay.

Seattle’s defense was strong against Real Salt Lake, although RSL just has not been scoring goals lately. So, dealing with Beckham, Donovan, Magee and Keane will be a far more difficult job.

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, who won an MLS Cup inside the Home Depot Center four years ago, says his team will be physically prepared, never mind one night’s less rest. They had better be.

UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden

Watch Live: England, Mexico, Spain, France in U-17 World Cup action

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It is a busy day at the U-17 World Cup in India as four Round of 16 games take place.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Red-hot England play Japan, while France and Spain collide and Mexico clash with a very impressive Iran side who won all of their group games. Mali and Iraq complete the Round of 16 games on Tuesday.

The winners of the England v. Japan game will face the U.S. on Saturday after they blew away Paraguay 5-0 on Monday.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s four games, while you can click on the link above to watch all four games live.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Iran vs. Mexico – 7:30 a.m. ET
France vs. Spain – 7:30 a.m. ET
England vs. Japan – 10:30 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Iraq – 10:30 a.m. ET

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.