Portland Timbers v Seattle Sounders

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.

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET