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.

Sydney FC clinches first place in A-League

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SYDNEY (AP) After clinching first place in Australia’s A-League without taking the field, Sydney FC enhanced its record achievement with a 3-0 win over the Perth Glory on Sunday.

Sydney FC won the Premiers Plate as regular-season champions after the second-place Melbourne Victory lost 1-0 to Brisbane on Saturday, when Sydney had a night off.

The Brisbane win left Sydney with an unassailable 11-point lead in first place with three rounds to play.

[ MORE: An under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The Sydney side also created some history: it became the only team to have remained in outright first position in the standings for an entire season.

In the other match Sunday, the Wellington Phoenix beat Newcastle 5-0 to remain within five points of sixth-place Western Sydney for the final playoff spot.

Walking Dead? Star fittingly sees Exeter’s implausible comeback (video)

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As Rick Grimes, actor Andrew Lincoln regularly battles the undead on his show “The Walking Dead”.

As a friend of Exeter City manager Paul Tisdale, Lincoln was probably pretty happy to watch a team that would not die.

Exeter went down 3-0 when Yeovil Town broke a scoreless drought with a trio of tallies between the 62nd and 78th minutes.

[ MORE: An under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

But Exeter’s David Wheeler scored in the 88th minute, and Troy Brown and Reuben Reid scored a minute apart at the beginning of stoppage time to earn a point for the League Two playoff hopeful.

Couple things on this video, too:

— Check out the shove on the goalkeeper when trying to collect the ball after the first goal of the fight back.

— Watch the man with his baby behind the net after the third goal. Did Mom know how safe her little one was?

An under-the-radar Premier League XI

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The Premier League’s international break invites reflection on both what we’ve seen so far and what’s to come.

For example, what if we left out the superstars?

For whatever reason, this one is recalling the state of mind of 2015-16, when we were digesting that Leicester City very much looked the part of Premier League champions.

[ MORE: Herrera on “intense” Zlatan ]

For a lot of us, that meant delving into statistics and seeing what matched the eye test. Many started Googling the name “N'Golo Kante“, the dynamic disruptor who’d move to Chelsea in August.

He’s a household name now, with some personalities even arguing that he should buck the trend of Ballon d’Or nominees including only major statistic producers (There was a time when names like Fabio Cannavaro and Matthias Sammer claimed the honor, you know).

For our purposes, we’ll use a pair of advanced stats sites and the good ol’ eye test. (Of the sites we’re using, Squawka seems to skew toward high attack scores, while WhoScored tilts a bit toward the back, so life is good if a player hits both sites’ Top 50).

Before getting into our team — we promise no 10-picture, click-to-reveal-next stuff — some stats that stood out.

— Three players have had outstanding “short” seasons for different reasons.

  • Leicester City’s Wilfried Ndidi took a short spell to adjust to the Premier League after arriving in January, but has been the Foxes’ most influential player in their recent turnaround).
  • Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake essentially was the Cherries’ first-half success before heading back to Chelsea where Antonio Conte won’t move him ahead of Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses (and that’s actually understandable as you’ll see below).
  • Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas just doesn’t feature a ton for Conte, but in limited time his per-90 stats on Squawka trail only Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez.

— The following players have risen well above most of their teammates but fall short of the league Top 50 on either site: Ben Gibson (Boro), Michael Keane and Ben Mee (Burnley), Christian Fuchs (Leicester City), Joe Allen (Stoke City), Jose Holebas and Troy Deeney (Watford), Gareth McAuley (West Brom).

— Watford, as a side, is seemingly the choose to a sort of MVP. On WhoScored, not a single player rises above 7, but there are a host in the very high sixes.

— In very different systems, John Stones (91.8) and Adam Forshaw (89.2) are thriving in pass percentage.

Oriol Romeu of Southampton and Victor Wanyama of Tottenham Hotspur (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

— Southampton’s Oriel Romeu and Stoke’s Erik Pieters rank fourth and fifth respectively in tackles per game.

— In a team that has to intervene a ton, Hull City’s Curtis Davies the league with 3.8 interceptions per game.


Honorable mention

Goalkeeper: Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City)

Defenders: Aleksandar Kolarov (Manchester City), Marcos Alonso (Chelsea), Calum Chambers (Boro), Papy Djilobodji (Sunderland), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Ake, Victor Wanyama (Spurs), Willian (Chelsea), Juan Mata (Manchester United), Harry Winks (Spurs), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Jack Wilshere (Bournemouth).

Forwards: Joshua King (Bournemouth), Fernando Llorente (Swansea City), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace)


Goalkeeper

Ben Foster (West Brom) — With the highest performance score in the position on WhoScored, Foster has claimed all 95 balls he’s went up for and has a league-best 76 saves.

Defenders

Nicolas Otamendi (Man City, 7.49, 29.18) — One of few defenders to rate high in interceptions despite being on a team that doesn’t concede loads of chances or possession.

George Friend (Middlesbrough) — Just out of the upper echelon on the advanced stats site, he is in rarefield air in traditional stats interceptions and tackles.

Steve Cook (Bournemouth, 7.16, 22.76) — Jumps out of the advanced stats on a Cherries team which has faced plenty of attacking pressure.

Antonio Valencia (Manchester United, 7.28, 27.45) — There’s a reason Jose Mourinho rewarded him with an extension not long into the manager’s tenure at Old Trafford.

Midfielders

Ander Herrera (Manchester United, 7.44, 36.64) – Long-heralded at Athletic Bilbao, Herrera is finally showing what made him so sought. One odd stat that may be explained by his willingness to run to any situation: he’s very high in average times dribbled past.

Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton, 7.34, 20.57) – The best player in Aston Villa’s awful 2015-16, he’s been arguably as effective as N’Golo Kante. Seriously.

Matt Phillips (West Bromwich Albion) – Once the top player on a relegated QPR, Phillips is fifth in the Premier League in assists despite missing the last four matches with injury.

Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur, 7.41, 31.89) – Second in the PL in key passes, he doesn’t get the plaudits of English teammates Dele Alli and Harry Kane. The relationships are very symbiotic.

 

Forwards

Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace, 7.44) – On an under-achieving team, Zaha’s statistics are wild. He’s the most-fouled player in the league, and attempts/completes the most dribbles in the PL. He gives the ball away a lot, too, but that happens when you’re the focal point of everything your team does in the attacking third.

Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, 30.54) – The Nigerian turns 21 in May, and has four goals and seven assists across all competitions.

Herrera: Ibrahimovic competitive drive insatiable in everything

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Ander Herrera is dishing the goods on his Manchester United teammates while on Spain duty this week, and was asked about Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Swede is a fierce competitor on and off the pitch, which Herrera jokes is an ever-present challenge to personal patience.

[ MORE: Deulofeu laments early Messi talk ]

It almost seems like there’s a bit of envy that Ibrahimovic can charge into public comments the way Herrera goes into tackles.

From Marca:

“[Ibrahimovic] is a genius, he’s very intense because he wants to win everything, even football-tennis,” Herrera said to Radio MARCA.

“He assumes this role of doing or saying what he likes in front of the media because he does not care, he can say that he’ll score 30 goals or is the best because he can afford to.”

There’s certainly something to stature when it comes to saying what you feel (though on the other hand, being egotistical is rarely controversial. It’s not like Ibrahimovic is often railing on controversial soccer or social issues).

We’re sure there are plenty of players across all sports, casual and professional, who don’t understand hyper-competitive teammates, but we love a guy who doesn’t turn it down when it comes to on-the-field activities. Hopefully Ibrahimovic is the Jaromir Jagr of soccer.