MLS playoff preview: Los Angeles Galaxy at Seattle Sounders

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Ordinarily, concocting a realistic scenario in which the champs would throw away a glistening three-goal margin – especially these champs, the Galaxy, who relish the chance to sit back and look to break hearts on the counter – would read like a real stretch.

And in the end, it certainly may be that a 3-0 lead is just too much to overcome for Seattle in this second leg of Sunday’s Western Conference final, the back end of a total goals series.

But Seattle does have a pocket full of hope, and it’s hardly false hope. There is genuine reason to like Seattle’s chances in this one – just a little bit, at least.

Either way, a spot in the 17th MLS Cup is on the line – and quite possibly host duties, too.

MLS Western Conference finals

Sunday’s Kickoff: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

(Official league preview is here)

On the Seattle Sounders

  • Let’s talk about those Sounders’ reasons for hope: they start at a pair of decisive, confidence-inspiring wins over the Galaxy in 2012, one of the “real butt whuppin” variety. That was the 4-0 margin from Sigi Schmind’s men in August, when Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson both jumped into the scoring pile. Seattle also posted a 2-0 triumph over the Galaxy in Seattle this year, although that one was way back in May when the Galaxy was an absolute mess. (And a mess without center back Omar Gonzalez.)
  • Johnson is expected to play after being held out of the lineup in last week’s 3-0 loss to Los Angeles; Schmid called that choice more precautionary, insisting Johnson could have started had that contest been more do-or-die.
  • The news isn’t as great for right-sided playmaker Mauro Rosales, who is still not back to full training. Left back Leo Gonzalez is closer to a return, but it’s Rosales (with his creativity, veteran problem-solving in the midfield and invaluable crossing) that this game most requires.
  • What Schmid said about Rosales, who did manage his way through an 8-v-8 drill in practice Friday: “It’s like, ‘How close are they to 100 percent? How many minutes do they have to give?’ In a game like it is (Sunday), if you have a five-speed, you’ve got to get it into fifth gear, as well. If all you can get it into is third or fourth, then you have to think a little bit.”
  • It will be so important for holding midfielder Osvaldo Alonso to police his position with discipline. If he gets too far forward, too eager to add another element into the attack, David Beckham could pick the Sounders apart from those deep-lying positions.
  • You could say the same about Seattle’s outside backs. Generally, the order of the day cannot be “attack, attack, attack.” It has to be “Attack, attack … but be smart about it!”
  • Michael Gspurning was great in Seattle goal all year – but did not have a good match last week in Los Angeles. The Sounders will likely need a special save or two from their big Austrian on Sunday.
  • Don’t forget, the Sounders faced this exact deficit last year, falling 3-0 to Real Salt Lake in last year’s conference semifinals. Seattle gave the visitors everything they could handle on the back end but still came up a goal short.

On the L.A. Galaxy

  • The subplot here that few are talking about (because L.A. has that commanding lead and seems more likely to go through) is that this could be the final match for a Galaxy side blessed with both Beckham and Landon Donovan. We’ll visit more about this one in a subsequent post … but just stick that in your back pocket for now.

(MORE: Last time as a dynamic duo for this illustrious pair)

  • In fact, given Donovan’s hamstring injury, who knows? He limped out of last week’s win over Seattle and still sounds pretty iffy for this one.
  • Even without Donovan, European veteran Christian Wilhelmsson and American Mike Magee, who always rises in the playoffs, are fine choices to play on the outside, flanking Beckham and  …
  • Beckham’s central partner remains a mystery given the Achilles injury Juninho is dealing with. Marcelo Sarvas is the other option, and while he doesn’t quite have Juninho’s range or versatility, an appearance would hardly be a worry point for the Galaxy.
  • If L.A. has one, it’s rookie center back Tommy Meyer, although he did just fine alongside Omar Gonzalez a week and a half back as the Galaxy back line dealt professionally with San Jose’s array of front-running threats.
  • Robbie Keane was on my ballot as second choice MVP in the league (behind San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski.) He has four goals so far, and one more inserts him into the Top 10 best playoff scoring seasons in league history.

(MORE: Keane inching closer to playoff scoring records)

  • What Sounders boss Schmid says about Donovan and Keane, who have such a great understanding in their combined movement off the ball:  “When Landon and Keane are on their game, I think they’re probably the best forward pair in the league, in terms of just experience and mobility and speed and quickness,”
  • Galaxy fans, hide your eyes … L.A. was on the wrong side of perhaps the best comeback in MLS playoff history. The 2003 Galaxy carried a 2-0 lead into a second leg decider at San Jose. At one point, L.A went up 4-0 on total goals aggregate. And yet, San Jose bombed all the way back to take the series 5-4.
  • What Donovan said about how the match could devolve if his team sits in and defends too much. “If we don’t do a good job of putting them back on their heels and attacking them then they can have wave after wave of attack against us and when that happens, they have talented players that can make plays and it’ll be a dangerous game. …We don’t want to fall into that, we don’t want a game where we’re giving up 30 shots like Salt Lake did last year and squeaking our way through,” Donovan added. “We want to put them on the back foot a little bit and we think that we have the quality to do that.”

Bottom line:

Given how well Keane is playing, and knowing how good the Galaxy can be on the counter, it would seem the Galaxy have at least one goal in them. If that happens, Seattle needs four just to extend the series into added time.

Four goals can happen, but it probably won’t here. At the very least, we can say that chances are fairly slim.

So for Seattle it’s about this preciously delicate balance: forward-thinking and aggressive enough to go get the goals, but still safe enough in the back to keep the shutout.

Don’t bet on it to work – but look Seattle to keep things interesting.

Money from Wembley replay will “support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years”

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Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as are Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone