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.

Swansea 1-0 Liverpool: Last-place Swans shock Reds

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  • Swansea shock Liverpool in game of few chances
  • Mawson sweeps home the winner — 40′
  • Reds’ 14-game PL unbeaten run ends
  • Swans now 2W-1D-1L under Carvalhal

From the high of snapping Manchester City’s unbeaten run (30 games dating back to last season) and bid for an unbeaten 2017-18 Premier League season, to being beaten by last-place Swansea City… in back-to-back games… all in the span of eight days.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

On Monday, Swansea topped Liverpool, 1-0 at the Liberty Stadium, to claim just their fifth PL victory all season; two of the five have come in the first three weeks of new manager Carlos Carvalhal’s tenure (four games).

Virgil Van Dijk cost Liverpool $100 million, but he’s yet to arrest the Reds’ woeful set-piece defending. It was the big Dutchman who failed to head the ball clear from the Swans’ 40th-minute corner kick. After an unfortunate bounce in the box, the ball fell to Mawson just 10 yards out. The young Welshman swept his right foot through the ball and Loris Karius could do nothing about it.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Liverpool’s first surefire chance of the second half came in the 60th minute, when Mohamed Salah delicately lifted just over the wall a free kick from 22 yards out. The ball quickly fell as it neared goal, but Lukasz Fabianski reacted quicker and pushed it over the crossbar at full-stretch to preserve the lead at 1-0.

Right on 94 minutes, with the referee staring at his watch, Roberto Firmino headed off Fabianski’s right-hand post and Adam Lallana missed an open-net follow-up, somehow booting the ball well over the bar from three yards out.

Despite holding over 70 percent of possession on the night, Liverpool put on target just four of their 21 total shots.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

With the defeat, Liverpool (47 points) fail to capitalize on Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday. Having ultimately gained a point in Round 24, Tottenham now trail Liverpool by just two points in the race for fourth. The two sides meet in two weeks’ time, on Sunday, Feb. 4, at Anfield.

Swansea (20 points), meanwhile, have done nearly enough to climb out of the PL cellar, but remain 20th out of 20 teams on goal differential. Three points stand between them and safety.

FIFA seeking sponsors for video replays at World Cup

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LONDON (AP) Video replays will be used at the World Cup for the first time and talks are underway with potential sponsor branding to appear when the technology is used, a FIFA executive said on Monday.

Soccer’s rule-making panel met Monday to assess recent trials ahead of video assistant referees (VAR) being officially approved by FIFA later this season for use in Russia in June and July.

“Definitely VAR will happen,” FIFA chief commercial officer Philippe Le Floc’h told The Associated Press. “It’s great to have technology in football because this is also a fair(ness) thing.”

Referees were assisted for the first time by high-tech aids at a World Cup in 2014 when goal-line technology was used. That system sees a message instantly flash on referees’ watches saying only whether the ball crossed the line.

Video review is used when there is a “clear and obvious error” involving goals, penalty awards, red cards, and mistaken identity.

Replays could lead to delays in games in Russia as different angles are reviewed, presenting an opportunity for FIFA to brand up the segment on the global broadcast feed.

“We are talking to various technological companies who are very interested with what we are doing on the technology side of things,” Floc’h said on board the World Cup trophy tour plane during a stop at London Stansted Airport.

The final decision on allowing replays to become part of the rules of the game falls to the International Football Association Board on March 3 when its annual meeting is held at FIFA.

Video review has been expected at the World Cup because FIFA controls half the votes in IFAB’s decision. The other voters are the four British soccer federations.

Monday’s meeting brought together IFAB technical experts, FIFA refereeing officials, and researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium, who have studied use of video review in 804 games across more than 20 competitions.

“The discussions we had today do not indicate that further experiments need to be conducted,” said Johannes Holzmueller, FIFA’s lead official for technological innovation.

Watch Live: Swansea City vs. Liverpool

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Swansea City’s bid to slow down steamrolling Liverpool begins at 3 p.m. ET Monday at the Liberty Stadium (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The rampaging Reds are coming off a 4-3 win that ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League season, and will hope to avoid a let down against desperate Swans.

The Welsh hosts are six points adrift in the race for Premier League safety, and look set for a 5-4-1 with Jordan Ayew the only forward. Wilfried Bony and Oliver McBurnie are on the bench along with attack-minded Luciano Narsingh.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski, Naughton, Van der Hoorn, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Ki, Fer, Clucas, Dyer, Ayew. Subs: Nordfeldt, Bartley, Roque Mesa, Carroll, Narsingh, McBurnie, Bony.

Liverpool: Karius, Gomez, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson, Can, Wijnaldum, Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mane, Firmino. Subs: Mignolet, Milner, Klavan, Lallana, Ings, Solanke, Alexander-Arnold.

Kevin De Bruyne commits to Man City through 2022-23

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Kevin De Bruyne is one of the best players in the world, and he’s committing his prime to the club which has taken him to the next level.

[ MORE: How will Arsenal, Man Utd line up? ]

Manchester City announced a new deal for the Belgian wizard, keeping him at the Etihad Stadium through 2023.

De Bruyne, 26, has posted 31 goals and 38 assists for Pep Guardiola‘s men since returning to England from the Bundesliga, and appreciates being given a lot more money. From ManCity.com:

“As I’ve said previously, my intention has always been to stay here at City, where I’ve felt at home from day one. Not only are we winning – we are playing great football. It’s a pleasure to be a part of and I’m really excited about what we can achieve in the coming years.”

De Bruyne is in the discussion for a Ballon d’Or finalist spot this year, along with Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and others (Hot take: This does seem to be year Ronaldo possibly knocked off, barring a remarkable run in the Champions League or World Cup).