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.

Bremen beats Wolfsburg to leave Bundesliga relegation zone

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10:  Serge Gnabry of Germany reacts during the Men's First Round Football Group C match between Germany and Fiji at Mineirao Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)
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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Midfielder Serge Gnabry scored twice as Werder Bremen moved away from the Bundesliga’s relegation zone with a 2-1 win at fellow struggler Wolfsburg on Friday.

Bremen and Wolfsburg are level on points and two above Hamburger SV, which is in 18th place and in the relegation zone.

It was a fifth defeat in six games for Wolfsburg coach Valerien Ismael, who won the league and cup double as a player with Bremen in 2004.

Gnabry fired the visitors ahead with a deflected shot in the 10th minute and made it 2-0 eight minutes later, controlling the ball with his chest before prodding home on the volley.

Striker Borja Mayoral, who is on loan from Real Madrid, scored with his chest following a Wolfsburg corner as Wolfsburg hit back moments later.

Midfielder Daniel Didavi struck the post with a free kick as Wolfsburg kept pushing for an equalizer.

Mancini reportedly not interested in Leicester City, De Boer says no

GENOA, ITALY - APRIL 20:  Head Coach of FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini looks during the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and FC Internazionale Milano at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on April 20, 2016 in Genoa, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Two top candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City have reportedly turned down any interest in the job.

Roberto Mancini, the heavy favorite out of the gates after Ranieri’s dismissal, tweeted his support for Ranieri after the news broke. “I am sorry for my friend Ranieri,” Mancini said. “He will be in the history of LCFC, in the hearts of Leicester fans and all football lovers.”

However, the fellow Italian has rebuffed Leicester’s informal advances towards his services. According to Sky Sports, Leicester sent “intermediaries” to “sound out” Mancini’s feelings towards the position, but came back empty-handed. The report states Mancini was turned off to the club after a short and unsuccessful spell there as a player in 2001.

That leaves a host of other names who have been linked to the job, with no clear favorite. One person mentioned was Dutch legend Frank de Boer, who is unemployed after an unusually short stint in charge of Inter Milan. However, De Boer’s agent went public to say he was not ever in the running.

“There is zero possibility that Frank could go to Leicester,” agent Guido Albers told Italian publication Tuttomercatoweb. “I too heard these rumors, but that’s all they are – rumors. I can affirm without doubt that Frank will not become the Leicester City manager. This will 100 per cent not happen.”

Albers explained that De Boer is only interested in joining a club in the offseason, preferring to enter a project with a blank slate rather than joining midseason with particular goals already clearly laid out. With Leicester, it seems De Boer is turned off by the notion of a relegation battle.

Win over Las Palmas again has La Real on edge of CL spot

GETAFE, SPAIN - DECEMBER 11:  Xavi Prieto of Real Sociedad in action during the La Liga match between Getafe CF and Real Sociedad de Futbol at Coliseum Alfonso Perez stadium on December 11, 2015 in Getafe, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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All it took was one mistake. Real Sociedad’s Xabi Prieto capitalized, and has La Real once again on the verge of next year’s Champions League.

La Real finished 7th in 2013/14, and 9th in 2015/16, and this year, they’re closer than ever. Preito’s goal on the mistake by Las Palmas goalkeeper Javi Varas gave Real Sociedad the 1-0 road win and has them just a point off a Champions League place.

[ MORE: Antonio Conte pulling from experience to keep Chelsea on top ]

That could be even closer next week, as fourth-placed Atletico Madrid has to welcome Barcelona to the Calderon tomorrow, leaving the door open for La Real to make another move next weekend.

The goal down the stretch is not just to win the games they should, but make the teams above them work. La Real has won seven of their last ten matches, but the three losses came to Real Madrid, Villareal, and Sevilla, all teams fighting at the top of the table. They still have chances down the stretch, with matches against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Eibar coming up, with the latter on the docket next weekend.

Conte pulling from prior experience as title race pushes on

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux on February 18, 2017 in Wolverhampton, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte has recalled some painful memories to push himself and his players forward despite their commanding lead at the top of the Premier League table.

Chelsea sits eight points clear of Manchester City, and has the chance to go even further in front with many of the top teams off this weekend, but that won’t give the Italian any better sleep at night.

In the 1999/2000 season, Conte was nearing the end of his 13-year Juventus tenure. He’d won three league titles already, plus two league cup trophies and a Champions League title with the Serie A giants. With a comfortable nine point lead after 26 matches, the club became complacent. They would lose four of their final eight matches, collapsing on the final day in the pouring rain, allowing Lazio to come roaring back to win the title.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks for Week 26 ]

“I was captain of the team,” Conte said. “I remember after this game I must go to the European Championships with the national team. I didn’t sleep for six days because it was a shock for me to lose the title.”

Clearly, that still haunts him. “I have experienced this,” Conte continued. “When I continue to repeat that there are 13 games, there are 39 points… there is a long time before we can say we won the title. We must be focused, we must go step by step.”

The Blues host Swansea City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday before a trip to West Ham next weekend. If anyone believes the Chelsea players are complacent holding such a significant lead with 13 matches to go, it’s clear that’s not nearly the case. Anything can happen in three months.